SWIMMING WITH COBRAS Rosemary Smith Modjaji REVIEW: Eva Hunter ARRIVING in Grahamstown in 1966 as the bride of a progressive Afrikaner, Rosemary Smith realised that "as a woman making a new life in an alien land" she would have a story to tell. She began keeping a record of her life with her husband and their four children, and her activism with the Black Sash. She writes that her part was "a small one", but it was played in the Eastern Cape, "a seething microcosm of the larger South Africa", where her work took her "in and out of the beleaguered townships".
Her title suggests an early .impression of her new country: swimming with friends in the Kariega River, she was startled by a cobra swimming in the water. In the "green storybook hills of the English countryside" she had enjoyed a sheltered childhood, but here, "in the most peaceful moments, danger was never far away". Danger will take predominantly human shape: marvelling, during the TRC hearings nearly three decades later, on the "innocuous" appearance of Eugene de Kock and Dirk Coetzee, she says, "(t)orturers bear no mark of Cain".
The first pages of Smith's memoir focus on the Sash's work, especially the crucial role it played in the TRC hearings: researchers "meticulously perused (the Sash's) records of apartheid abuses in the period from March 1960 to May 1997", 37 years. The "emotional cost" gives the Sash's researchers "empathy for the commissioners''. Sash members also held preliminary interviews and prepared interviewees for the hearings; they explained to them the painful fact that reparation - as has proved to be the case - was more likely to be symbolic than concrete, as well as the implications of amnesty being granted to perpetrators. Smith's openness invites the reader's trust and respect: she does not shine at school, except in English.
Malvern van Wyk Smith, her future husband and a Rhodes Scholar whom she met in Oxford, was deeply anxious, not only about returning home to his Afrikaner family with an English bride but also about whether she would be able to "make her life" in his country With an outsider's eye she describes 1960s Grahamstown, its streets and buildings, and the "moral dilemmas" she confronts there, Of the early British settlers she says "attracted by promises of land", they were also "pawns in a colonial conflict" on the eastern frontier. They encountered "dreadful shocks", yet "it seemed strange and unacceptable to me that they were still held in such veneration in the Eastern Cape". She "balked at their ... story of colonial dominance and oppression".
Later chapters tell of a lively household - of children, lodgers, visiting progressive politicians and activists, and then, after the cultural boycott of South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s, well-known scholars. It also tells of the postapartheid activities of the Sash which was reformed in 1995 as a non-racial women's humanitarian organisation. This is a fluent, intelligent account of a time already fading from memory Smith's voice, incisive and compassionate, is enriched by frequent mention of writers whose words form part of her thought processes. Hunter is an extraordinary associate professor in the English Department of the University of the Western Cape.