A Good Home, Friendship, South Africa

South Africa Comes to Visit

South Africa. One of my most favourite countries in the world.

Having worked there, repeatedly, I’d planned to return as a tourist one day.

It hasn’t happened.

But every so often, South Africa comes to me.


Late April, 2015.

I come across a small book in our home library.

“South Africa Stories” is the simple title.

Memories fill my mind.

Blog Photo - South Africa Stories 001


Early 1991.

My CBC boss, Les Lawrence, heeds the call from South African Bishop Tutu and Canadian Archbishop Ted Scott –– eminent persons in the fight against apartheid — and agrees to an important project: to help South African broadcast journalists prepare for the end of apartheid. He and I are the project leaders.

Eleven journalists are in the first group, carefully selected by our partner, the Southern Africa Education Trust Fund. They’re here in Toronto at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to strengthen their skills in radio and television journalism.

Of various races, some are exiles.


Their intelligence, educational achievements and resourcefulness impress us. Their stories alternately shock and inspire us.

Blog Photo - South Africa Stories The Women


We cry when they leave.

But mostly, we rejoice, knowing they are going back stronger than they’d arrived, knowing they have also made us stronger. We have bound some of their written stories into a simple book. Something for them to take home, along with their new-found skills.

They write thank-you notes in my copy. I rediscover it in April 2015.

South Africa Stories.

Blog Photo - South Africa Stories Note from Libby


Late April, 2015

Sylvia Vollenhoven, one of Nelson Mandela’s favourite journalists, arrives at our old farmhouse north of Toronto with our mutual friend Dale. It’s been years since Sylvia was here and we hug her warmly. A woman of stunning achievement and deep commitment to South Africa,  journalism and freedom, she’s in Toronto for the Hot Docs festival.

Blog Photo - Three Wimmen

She tells us about her current project, The Keeper of the Kumm, which will be produced as a play, a book and a documentary. We listen in fascinated silence. She’s one of the most eloquent people we know and Hamlin, Dale and I devour her words like manna from heaven.


And we laugh.

Sylvia is very witty, but her mistake appears to be an honest one.

Blog Photo - Sylvia and Willows

“What are these things called again?” she asks in that beautiful accent of hers. She points to stalks of pussy willows in a container. “Willy’s Pussies, right?”

Blog Photo - Pussy willows

Willy’s pussies. Oh, dear. 

I gasp for air between bouts of loud laughter.


We tell Sylvia we hope she will come back a year from now – with her book and her documentary. She tells us she hopes we can come to South Africa to see the play. We eagerly say Yes.

Blog Photo - Sylvia and Keeper of the Kum 002

Of course, it’s most unlikely that I will be able to travel that far. But as I sit on the verandah with three dear friends who love South Africa, it is such a warm thought.

I  remember.

And imagine.

And am happy.

Blog Photo - Sylvia here at lunch


Dedicated to Sylvia and the journalists of South Africa… especially “the first eleven”.

 Photos by Hamlin Grange

39 thoughts on “South Africa Comes to Visit”

    1. Ah, Sylvia. Special beyond words to have this connection and to have been privileged to work together at such an important time.

      It changed us forever, you know. It also taught us a lot about humanity, conflict, culture and how easy it is for humans to abuse their power and oppress others. No country is immune.

      My colleague in our work in your country, Marie Wilson, became one of three commissioners for Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission which just wrapped up its report this week. The commissioners heard thousands of gut-wrenching testimonies from Aboriginal survivors of Canada’s residential schools which, over decades, tore First Nations families apart and abused their children horribly.

      It’s now up to us as a nation to develop a new relationship with Aboriginal peoples and we’ve done a bad job of it so far. But I think some healing and great education has come out of the TRC’s work and I hope for better things going forward. I also feel proud of Marie. As in S. Africa, she gave this recent work her all.

    1. Can’t tell you how thankful I am to have had the opportunity, and to see S. Africans’ progress since then. So much left to do, but a good start after all those years of bondage.

    1. For me it was a privilege, Brad. A great one.
      So much sacrifice has been made by so many in South Africa that we have felt honoured to help them in some small way.

  1. I have friends who live between Sweden and South Africa and they keep reminding me I must plan to visit. Thank you for sharing this visit … I must ink SA as a future travel destination!

    1. Indeed. Such a blessing to be able to laugh with good friends. I used to travel for work in several different countries. Now, occasionally, my friends from those countries come to visit me and we always seem to end up on the verandah, which welcomes them warmly.

    1. It will indeed. I can hardly wait. Last year, I wrote a post about the bushmen paintings I was privileged to see on a friends’ farm, but I know little otherwise about them. Through Sylvia, I now know that there was a deep mysticism to the way they lived.

      1. ‘Tis! Last time friends visited we sent them to bed up a ladder as we were sans stairs! But living in far flung lands nothing fazed them! You just pick up where you left off… 🍰🍩☕️

      2. And that’s how you know they are close friends – you can send them to bed up a ladder. We had little furniture at our second home and that forced us to think who we would want to invite over: the ones who loved us enough to sit on cushions on the floor, of course!

    1. Yes, indeed! You played such a great role in all of this, Les. Marie, Dale, Sylvia, Tim, Erica, Hamlin and the others – our lives would have been much poorer had you not bravely said YES to the request to help South Africa in this way.

  2. How wonderful that you got a visit from your old friend, and what an amazing person she sounds like. I have heard that South Africa is an incredibly beautiful country, with incredibly diverse flora – especially around Cape Town.

    1. Yes, indeed. This is why I wanted to return as a tourist: to gawk at the gardens, to tour a vineyard or two, taste lots of great wine and pretend to be sober.

  3. Lovely post Cynthia – joyful and sobering. I remember during the terrible troubles in the seventies Bishop Tutu sent both his daughters to my school in Bromley, for safety. I was a very dreamy unaware teenager at the time and had no idea what was going on in South Africa until they arrived. I suddenly was made aware of things happening outside my head and my family. The older girl, who was a couple of years older than me spoke to us about what she had seen and it was a shocking thing to hear from such a young girl. We all prayed for the people of South Africa and for Bishop Tutu and his wife especially. For a time there was no news of them and we were all so worried. Naomi the younger sister, was the spitting image of her father and was such a joyful and even naughty little girl!

  4. What a remarkable story, Clare! I wasn’t expecting this. It’s like we all have these truly amazing stories that only surface once in a while when the topic comes up. I’m glad Bishop Tutu’s daughters found safety and support at your school. Bishop Tutu would come to our church whenever he visited Toronto and he always was so kind to our daughters, but it never occurred to me that he would have had to send his own daughters to England for safety. THANK YOU for sharing this story.

  5. Lovely story about strong women!! And as an ESL speaker, I sympathize with Sylvia…the number of times I made people laugh with my Dunglish ( Dutch English)..oh well, as long as I do not offend them ;0) Thank you for this post and have a lovely weekend! Johanna

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