A Good Home

Days off in South Africa – Part 1

Reposting this.  It still gives me chills…

While training TV journalists at the South African Broadcasting Corporation in Johannesburg, my colleague Marie and I were offered a weekend loan of a friend’s cottage a few hours drive away.

We could hardly wait.

While there, we planned to visit another friend at his farm.

There, we’d see something extraordinary.


Just before leaving work that Friday, I ran into a journalist I knew.

“Don’t go, Cynthia” she warned.  “A lot of hardcore racists live in that area.”

I shivered.

It was the mid-1990’s and Mandela’s ANC had recently won the election, putting a public end to apartheid. But Marie and I were Canadians who didn’t know the country well.

And now, someone who did was urging me to cancel the trip.

Not Marie. Just me.


The difference in our skin colour had never been an issue between us. Not in Canada and not in South Africa.

Marie and I shared a small apartment near the SABC building in Johannesburg.  We shopped, cooked, ate supper, laughed, missed our families,  planned the next day’s work together. Though I was the leader on this project, Marie and I were friends and equals, colleagues at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation where we both held prominent leadership roles.


Of course we were aware of race – we were in South Africa, after all.

“I was so proud of you today,” Marie had told me after our first day at work at the SABC.

I’d been thinking the same thing — about her. About how privileged I was to have this wise, thoughtful, brilliant woman as my partner on this ground-breaking project.

“It was great to be there and to see the impact you had on everyone,” she said.



A senior South African journalist, Sylvia Vollenhoven, had explained it on a phone call to my home in Canada one night.

“We’re glad you’re sending your team, Cynthia. But you also need to come here yourself. It’s important to us.” 

She paused.

“You’re a woman. And you’re Black. And you’re in charge of all this.” 



Not wanting South Africa’s racial divisions to hang between Marie and me, I did a very foolish thing that weekend.

In a place where race was everything, I said nothing about the warning.

I did not want it to disrupt this trip.


Driving along lonely roads, we consulted our map occasionally, but I was too quiet, lost in fearful thoughts that I didn’t share.

I should have, of course.

My silence was an elephant sitting in the car between us.

The trip was already disrupted.


 Dedicated to my friend and former training partner Marie Wilson.  Working with you and our S. African colleagues at a crucial time in the country’s history ranks as one of the great privileges of my life.


13 thoughts on “Days off in South Africa – Part 1”

  1. The warning well meant but also part of perpetuating racism. It made you frightened and separated you from your colleague. Rather than “don’t go” maybe “be aware” would be better, with some specific ideas of what you might be looking out for and hire you might deal with it. I’m curious, was your “warner” white or black? Had they had experience of the area?

    1. A Black journalist who knew the area told me. She likely assumed that, because she had warned me so starkly, I would not have gone. And I was so stunned that I didn’t ask follow-up questions. I should have, and I should have told my partner. We should have made the decision together, both fully informed.

  2. How did it turn out. A bit of personal history. My Bert and I had South Africa on our bucket list of places to visit. We held off for a long time precisely because as a Black and White couple we would not be able to stay in the same room in the hotel. We have been there three times but not until Mandela was President. We would still be waiting if that momentous event had not occurred.
    Looking forward to part 2.

    1. I agree with Lavinia. Our emotions are often intertwined with the events such that we change the experience with our anticipation. I suspect that this is the core of anxiety and racial bias. Hmmmm. There is a theme to explore. – Oscar

      1. Interesting observations. I mentioned the snakes and leopard and how we avoided them but I had no weapons against an invisible human enemy.

      2. We use the strategies we have available. That is one reason that I do not advocate owning a gun. Once someone believes that having something to kill someone else is the way to go, inevitably it becomes the go-to strategy. The Wildwest is only exciting in movies and Louis Lamour novels.

  3. It can be a challenge traveling with someone – whatever the relationship might be – where one or the other may not be welcome, or worse. Your friendship rose above it all, but you were also fortunate that your journey was so blessedly calm. You were smiled on.

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