Purity and Danger

Minh Bui Jones

Robert Mckenzie Carmichael. Photograph: John Vink

Robert Mckenzie Carmichael, author of When Clouds Fell from the Sky, was born on the day Ho Hi Minh died, forty-six years ago. He grew up in Cape Town, in Rondebosch, which he describes as a “well-off suburb.” His family of six lived in a “pleasant house with a garden,” complete with two oaks and a mulberry tree, a pool, and a view of the Table Mountain. On the mountain slope he could see his university, and nearby was a common, formerly a British army encampment dating back to the Boer War, where he would “sun around.” And it was a whites-only area.

Carmichael ran the velvet gauntlets of middle-class life: all-boy private school, university, and a promising career in his chosen profession (accountancy). But this being South Africa in the 1970s, the shadow of apartheid lengthened across the plain. As a teenager, he remembered the army on the street, the protests, the forced removals, the school boycotts. The violence got “worse and worse.” He imbibed the politics of the time through Cape Times, the liberal morning daily that he started reading at the age of ten. He recalled the appearance of blank spaces in the paper where the controversial stories had been censored by the government. In time this symbolic act of dissent by the paper’s editors was made illegal. In the eighties, his country became ungovernable. Businesses started to grumble and leave. That completed the white minority government’s isolation. There was only one way out for the National Party: talk to their Black counterpart, the African National Congress (ANC).

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