Hagen Engler. Picture: Supplied
Of course, Port St Johns is a contemporary place. You can travel there. It’s a mere 100-odd kilometres from the regional centre of Mthatha. If you’re making a road trip of it, you’ll probably arrive there at night, narrowly avoiding a collision with a horse in the dark, just before reaching the magical Mzimvubu River.
You will then discover Port St Johns in the morning, squinting through the reeds from your riverside hotel. Then gingerly venturing into the crumbling town itself. There you will find the ghosts of the town’s former glory, such as it was, jostling with recent arrivals. The ruins of the Cape Hermes hotel, the old magistrate’s house, the golf course, the new backpackers at Second Beach, possibly the most gorgeous beach in South Africa.
But you will not sense as many ghosts as I will, for this is the town of my family, where my mother, my grandfather and his father all lived.
I visited as a child, late enough in my life to form some first-hand memories of my own, but much of my knowledge of Port St Johns comes second-hand, via inherited tales of my mother, aunts and uncles.
It blends and blurs, in the way mythology and history sometimes become indistinguishable. The tellers of it themselves seem uncertain of the true facts, if there is such a thing. So who am I to weigh the authenticity of these stories? Today, they live, whether history happened any differently or not.
Here, my family lived, at Undercliff on the Mzimvubu, with the Eagle’s Nest mountain towering above. Here my grandfather ran a garage and petrol station. There they slaughtered a cow at the opening of the bridge to Lusikisiki.
On that same river, my great-grandfather – or perhaps a great uncle or a remote cousin – worked as a trader, or was he a pirate? There my grandmother and my uncle must have sat to compose the paintings of the majestic river mouth, the ones that have come down to us.
There, my mother pumped petrol to earn her holiday pocket money, and there, somewhere in the Undercliff back yard is a concrete bath, cast by Tommy, the patriarch.
In the forest beyond, adventures of every stripe were embarked upon over the decades, by both children and adults, according to their own predilections.
Port St Johns is where the ghosts of my particular family history reside. There live the stories I cling to, my personal mythology upon which I pin so much of my South African identity. They are fundamental to my understanding of myself.
We all have these, handed down like heirlooms, kept alive by oral history, embellished, paraphrased, essentialised. They sustain us, as much with their concrete realities as with their mystical, half-forgotten mystery, inviting us to fill in the blanks.
For some of us, this heritage is clearer, more sharply defined, kept alive through generations of retelling, iziduko and the like. For others it is fading, elusive.
But this is us. Our past – and our understanding of it – has shaped us till here, made us what we are, and it may yet shape us further. It lives somewhere here, alongside the present. We may also remember that we have a role among all of that too – shaping the past on behalf of the future, so that it might be part of who they are.
One day we will be ghosts too!
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