Under the Wattle Bush by Mary Pacifico Curtis

Heaven and Earth

Off the coast of the continent stars pinprick a black sky—tiny and plentiful, a cloud of a luminous multitude—announcement of lives, flows of history that date to creation and reach to uncertain futures through shifts of current day. Bright around the cloud of light: the planets, big stars proclaiming the universe and the lands below.

I decided to come here instantly after the announcement that the next global gathering of our public relations agency network would take place in Cape Town. Although my heart was no longer in my competitive career, the three days of meetings and networking would be informative. Our group had committed to a day of humanitarian work. I would continue on for another week of safari with a friend who traveled with me. Somehow, I had felt inexorably drawn to this place where life as we know it began.

Mountains over water
Milford Sound at Table Mountain by Paul Bica. CC license.

Now, as our plane hangs between lighted heavens and a dark earth, I think to myself: just below this grand mystery, the lands hold the Cradle of Humankind in Maropeng—“the place where we once lived” in Setswana, the caves at Sterkfontein “strong spirit” in Afrikaans, that held fossilized Homo habilis, Homo erectus and Mrs. Pies. And modern day humanity in the grip of abject extremes.

The sun arrives in an orange blaze. Another plane and landing deposits us to the southernmost tip of the continent.

A billboard for pork invites “sticky and sexy.”

Sprawls of wooden and metal-sided shacks border both sides of the superhighway traveled by whisper soft limousines and rattle-trap junkers alike.

Human shadows lurch into the path of cars.

Another billboard supertitled “Famous last words” announces in bold letters, “We Were Drunk,” subtitled “Use a Condom.”

Corner suites in classic waterfront luxury hotels offer 180° views of the harbor.

Tourists pose for photos against the background of sunset and silhouetted ships—easily settling into their prosperity in this land of abundant minerals and rampant poverty.

It all plays out day after day in the terrestrial circumference of benign majesty—Table Mountain—a mesa often topped in the fog that the locals call the tablecloth.

Robben Island is a short ferry ride in penguin dotted waters.

There, a stroke of a pen, glancing note of skin color or dialect incarcerated political prisoners for decades.

The heels of current day tourists ring through history’s halls bringing to life Nelson Mandela’s 19 years in a 10×10 cell, where he laid his head and limbs on a coarse blanket, and buried his Long Walk to Freedom in a garden corner of the exercise yard.

A mosque (Kramat). Leper graveyard. Guard towers. Expansive governors guest mansion.

Communal cells. Diets determined according to race. Rations for up to twenty prisoners.

Solitary confinement cells.

Dog kennels rival the cells for humans.

The African sun scalds into the bones of visitors to the limestone quarry where Mandela and fellow prisoners labored, sheltered in a cave to consider teachings of Gandhi and Martin Luther King before authoring what lives on as a good portion of the current South African constitution.

Former political prisoners narrate Robben Island’s legacy pointing to photos, records, sometimes mention their own time here and their own road to freedom.

A large peace sign hangs on the low harbor office building. Side panels on a bus parked dockside advertise The Journey’s Never Long When Freedom’s the Destination.

The ferry pulls away from its moorings taking passengers back to the mainland to consider a country still in formation after decades of colonialism and apartheid.


Touching Ground

Our group wears identical t-shirts and loads into a hired bus that will take us to Witsand for a day of building—albeit a small effort in the large scheme of what is needed. We arrive at a supply yard contained within a chain link fence topped by cyclone wound barbed wire. African women regard us from their post under a metal lean to. During the day we will haul cinder blocks from the sand outside waiting slab foundations. Local workers will teach us to mix cement, trowel it along the outer perimeter of the house, and cement one end of each block. They lift each block onto the wet cement tapping the corners with a critical eye and a trowel, also scraping off excess that oozes out as the blocks settle into alignment. Soon we will be trained in troweling wet cement on the inner and outer edges of the top blocks of the wall in preparation for the next layer.

People building a house
Building Houses in Kathylitsu by Trevor Samson from World Bank Photos.

We work side by side with seven bony South Africans in baggy clothes, all of us wearing kitchen gloves that cause our hands to sweat and stick to the rubber. We work with a smiling young guy in the overlarge blue helmet, and an older man with deep circles under his eyes, a sun hat over his helmet and a t-shirt that says ‘Bottle’ across the back. We work with a guy in a yellow helmet and bright turquoise t-shirt who seems to like the job of stirring cement, sand and gravel in the middle of the foundation as the grinning younger one arcs water from the hose he holds into the center of the forming mound. We work with the one who wears the orange t-shirt that reads “Tested for HIV, Screened for TB” with a box checked for each. We learn their names Bogani (be thankful), Kutlwano (mutual understanding), S’bu (blessing), Thabisco (joy bringer), Alu (be prosperous), Tshediso (consolation), and Zithembe (trust yourself). It takes the better part of the day to learn these names, their meanings and their Basotho, Zulu, Xhose and Tshivenda origins. The dream is that one day the shantytown where they live will be entirely replaced by these tiny cinderblock homes that they build day in and day out—that they will have real homes.

Nine foundations disappear behind four block walls where our group began its work. We are a profusion of languages from around the globe hauling cinderblocks, spreading mortar, pouring sand and cement, stirring, stacking, troweling as we disappear from view behind the walls we are building. We are a community united in the single purpose, voiced throughout the day in the cacophony of our languages punctuating Afrikaans, Xhosa and Tsonga.

At the far edge of the slab community we are visited by groups of teens, mothers with young children and old folks supporting and pacing each other. They gaze in our direction making a pretense of having someplace to go before turning back in the direction of what looks like a first world garbage dump—the homes of the adjacent shantytown.

Two children at a water pump
Water for My Family by Chris Robinson. CC license.

We are invited for a tour. The sun is high. We kick up a light red dust on the dirt roads we walk, passing houses like the ones we are building, already inhabited and personalized by laundry on lines, dogs that wag and retreat from our group. We cross a road like every other we have crossed and enter a neighborhood of garbage bag shelters, metal and wood siding shacks, sideways leaning hovels, hammered together scrap wood structures all with large numbers painted on or next to the doors—addresses.

Overhead, electrical lines sag from a scattering of makeshift poles in what seems to be the shantytown collectively bootlegging power to its shacks. We stop at the home of a young couple that just learned that they have a new home in the slab community. They live in a decorated tinderbox, proud people who rake dirt, and fashion colorful wallpaper out of what appears to be commercial printing overruns. We snap photos on expensive cameras capturing images we can, in reality, never understand.

We are told that a fire started in any of these homes decorated with paraffin-coated paper easily spreads throughout large sections of the settlement. It has happened recently—four thousand homes destroyed. There is no mention of how many people died in their sleep. We are told of newborns who die every year in the summer heat.

Another day we visit the Imizamo Yethu—“our combined effort” in Xhosa—a township that sprawls across many urban acres, stretching up the hillside across from elegant homes of the wealthy. Inside a semi-sized TUTU Truck stationed at the entrance, health care workers examine and test town’s residents for HIV—and monitor the status of the afflicted.

As we walk into the town, a van passes slowly. Inside, preschoolers with large black eyes wave and smile. We read the note on the rear of the van, “Dedicated to children affected by HIV.” That language casts a big net. Children afflicted. Children who lost parents afflicted. Or both. There are two orphanages in this settlement of an estimated 20,000 people.

Our guide, a middle-aged resident of this town tells us that unemployment is at 73% and the rate of HIV infection approaches 40% according to statistics that are years out of date.

Here the streets are narrower, lined with doorstop sitters, pre-schoolers playing in packs, mothers toting infants on their backs, teenagers rushing as if to urgent matters, uniformed school children and overfull junkers on wheels.

Hand lettered signs call out “craft shop–beeds,” “Red House – Fish & Chips,” “electronic repair,” “New York Shop you need it we’ve got it,” “Coca-Cola,” “phone card,” and “Izoko Lobom Centre of Life”—a church made of two cargo containers under an aluminum siding roof.

Our tour loops past life on these streets returning us to the rainbow-decorated TUTU truck at the entrance to board a double decker bus that muscles to the curb.


District Six

so named in 1867
to former slaves, merchants, artisans
Malay, mixed and coloured
Khoi, Africaans, and immigrants
a veritable rainbow of races orchestra of origins

60,000 lived there
until the government declared
“a white group area”
by the authority of
the Group Areas Act
a land grab one day in 1966
60,000 homeless
to aeolian sand overlying bedrock
of Malmesbury shale and Cape granite
east of the center of town
to the distant Cape Flats “the Flats”

and the same Apartheid architects of legal
plunder theft destruction of lives
that construction of new structures
(not for the 60,000)
would be fast tracked

but it was not to be
because humans of all colors
have souls and voices
that cry out as one
cry out the darkness
cry out wrongdoing injustice
cry out in claims court action solidarity
cry out through swiftly passing days and years
as District Six becomes
a scar on freedom’s landscape with
audacious markings of churches and kramats.


Rounding the Cape of Good Hope

Our guide’s genteel South African accent narrates the landscape over the microphone.

Milkwoods hunched inland and Norfolk Pines angled over the coastal road toward the Atlantic give evidence of the Cape Doctor Wind “die Kaapse dokter.” The Twelve Apostles rise above Camps Bay as we enter the Oudekraal nature reserve where voraciously thirsty Australian gum trees have steadily replaced Yellowwood, Blackwood and Stinkwood trees, depleted as the Dutch settled and built on the Cape.

We pause at Hout Bay guarded by the rhino shaped Sentinel rising over Seal Island at its tip, and then wind along Chapman’s Peak Drive under sheer limestone so notorious for rock-falls that the road is protected by a system of metal nets and concrete canopies designed to deflect rocks onto slopes below. At Chapman’s Peak across the bay, we pause for photos, mingle with busloads of Japanese tourists in matching shirts and totebags, re-board and push on to the wide white beaches of Noordhoek.

This is the land of the Cape Floral Kingdom, home to the fynbos biome with species many of which are found nowhere else in the world, species with swashbuckling names like Blacktips (Bruniaceae), Guyalone (Geissolomaceae), Sillyberry (Grubbiaceae), Brickleaf (Penaeaceae), Buttbush (Retziaceae), Dewstick (Roridulaceae) and Candlestick (Stilbaceae). The King Protea is South Africa’s national flower, the Red Disa symbolizes the Cape Province, and the region is the birthplace of the pelagonium which has proliferated worldwide as the geranium. 40% of the peninsula is ‘under the wattle bush’ referring to abundant alien brush overtaking the indigenous vegetation that make this one of the world’s biodiversity hot spots—in both its abundance and extreme fragility.

We learn that traffic lights are robots, a jerky-like cured meat is biltong, that bakkies are pickup trucks, location can be slang reference to townships and bergies are vagrants in Cape Town who originally sheltered in the forests of Table Mountain.

Baboon sitting on a tree
Baboon by Shelly Prevost. CC license.

Baboons saunter along the road tempting the unwise driver to roll down a window only to find the car assaulted by the beasts inside and out. Ostriches in the distance look like an odd form of vegetation. Egyptian geese pass overhead more suited to this landscape than the city high rises where they roost, famously deciding to stop traffic at crossings of their choosing. An ibis screeches, nowhere to be seen.

We travel the quiet collision course that pits first world lifestyles against the reality staring us squarely in the face when we visit a country with extremes—on one hand we are lulled by sparkling shorelines, seduced by flora and fauna dating to the beginnings of life, intrigued by the discovery of fossilized microorganisms sandwiched between layers of rock putting the earliest life here between 2.6 and 2.7 billion years ago. On the other hand there is the disease, squalor, joblessness, hopelessness of millions in this and other countries. If District Six was the world’s wake-up call to apartheid, travel is a call to conscience and activism.



I began writing this as I sat on the veranda of a tent on stilts, sipping tea and glancing up to catch the chatter of Vervut monkeys scampering through the trees. I ruminate on the distance I have traveled to be here, my personal terrain of running a business, raising a family, losing a spouse to cancer, finding equilibrium and constructing a new life. Even in moments of greatest hardship, I have always known I was fortunate.

Our safari camp opulence is another sharp contrast to the incredible poverty that we witnessed in the shantytowns. Twice a day, we leave camp for three hours with a guide and tracker driving the bush in an open Jeep. I return home with hundreds of photos of elephants and elephant trees, shy rhinos, giraffe gracefully stepping onto the road, wildebeest shaking their heads at our approach before loping into the brush, cape buffalo chewing their cud, cheetahs rolling in gravel to shake loose ticks, a male and female lion nodding off—majestic even in boredom, thorn bushes, rain rutted roads, scorched gravelly sand and dry pebble riverbeds. In the same collection of images, my camera holds hundreds more of shantytown life, our day of building, the prison at Robben Island, and the obligatory tourist snaps in and around Cape Town.

Also sealed within me are the smiles and the eyes of the shantytown dwellers. Something about this place has gotten under my colonial skin. I am a little haunted by the stark contrasts of this country, sensing that there is more to come and much more to take in. Somehow, the story is incomplete—beneath the gloss and grit, I have glimpsed a darkness still threatening to choke humanity in these lands.


Common Purpose

I’d been home four months when the news broke. Photos showed black faces under hot sun in an arid field, the familiar colors, textures and dust of shantytown dwellings rimming the perimeter. Armed with spears and pangas, a group of miners gathered ‘sitting-in’ on a low hillside where the police fenced them in, fired tear gas and then shot at close range. Live news footage showed bodies littering the ground following the shooting that killed 34 and injured another 78 mineworkers.

The location: a platinum mine in Marikana. At issue was the miners’ request for salary increases to $1,500 a month, up from the current $300-500 monthly range. Lonmin, the world’s third largest platinum producer, denied both salary increases and any involvement in the violence. Local reports blamed rivalry between the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union and the incumbent National Union of Mineworkers affiliated with the African National Congress.

Local police commissioner Riah Phiyega said police, “…were forced to utilize maximum force to defend themselves.”

South African President Jacob Zuma announced the opening of an inquiry while saying, “This is not a day to apportion blame.”

“African lives as cheap as ever,” announced a Soweto newspaper headline.

Group of young coal miners
Young coal miners in South Africa 1/Jan/1988. UN Photo/P Mugabane. www.unmultimedia.org/photo/

Two weeks later, the National Prosecuting Authority charged the 270 miners arrested following the shooting with murder under tenets of the common purpose law.

Expelled African National Congress Youth leader Julius Malema said through a spokesman, “The decisions of the NPA to charge mine workers reveals that the South African government and all its state apparatuses do not regret the murders and massacre of the mine workers. How on earth can the South African police, with the approval of its most senior leaders, kill workers and then turn to lay charges of murder on those who could not be killed, and survived death in the hands of the state?”

Days later, the country’s acting national director of public prosecutions, Nomgcobo Jiba, announced that she was overturning a regional prosecutor’s decision to charge the miners with murder over the deaths of 34 striking colleagues—whom most believe were shot by police.

“The murder charge against the current 270 suspects, which was provisional anyway, will be formally withdrawn provisionally in court on their next court appearance. Other provisional charges will remain,” Jiba said.

Lawyers for the miners called the decision to charge the arrested protesters with murder “bizarre in the extreme,” and the country’s justice minister called it shocking and confusing. Jiba said the law in question was sound but that more evidence was required.

The Roman-Dutch common purpose law, often invoked under apartheid and still in force, holds that a crowd gathered when a violent act is committed is considered to have the violent purpose in common. Under common purpose precepts you don’t have to commit the act.

Common purpose in the police action was not considered.


The Wattle Bush

There is a stubborn tension over the land where life began: the relentless spread of wattles challenges tenacious plant life that has engineered its survival over 65 million years. These plants started despite nutrient-poor soils in erosion-resistant sandstone mountains that sheltered and retained moisture for the fledgling forbearers of the fynbos biome.

Today, wattles in varieties including black, silver, green, and golden, long-leaved, Bailey’s, screw-pod, and pepper tree stretch across lands rich in precious minerals below the ground, and abundant with rare and ancient forms of vegetation above. The invaders sprawl in elliptical pestilence from Louis Truchardt in the north 2500 kilometers down the eastern seaboard to the Cape, from Port Nolloth 2,000 km to East London, from Saldanha Bay to the Kei River. There are thirty-six or more –alien acacias overtaking renosterveld, succulent karoo, subtropical thicket forest and fynbos biomes of the Cape Floral Kingdom. They are destroyers of the delicate fynbos, plundering in giant footprints, propagating in treacherous partnership with Rooikrans and Port Jackson, kangaroo thorn, lebbeck and camel thorn bush, Montpelier broom from the Mediterranean, and Mysore thorn from India.

Beneath this infestation, the fynbos biome holds 8,000 plant species of which 5,000 are found nowhere else in the world, as many as 1700 threatened with extinction.

Yellow flowers on wattle bush
Wattle by Jules Hawk. CC license.

They survived through climate change 35 million years ago that brought cold, drier conditions ideal for woodland. 15 million years later the emergence of the cold cicum-Antarctic current caused complete glaciations of Antarctica over the next ten million years eventually forming the cold Benguela current along the southwestern coast of Africa. Summer rainfall disappeared; winter rain hastened the extinction of tropical flora of the day leaving only mountainous heat vegetation. Yet the ancestral lineages asserted themselves, producing a new generational species. The region became yet dryer and fire newly played a role in fynbos diversification.

The spread of the wattle bush matters both environmentally and symbolically. It overruns that which is indigenous, unique in the region and the world, that which gives rise to new species, that which is endangered. The wattle’s dominion brings with it destruction, a chokehold of uniformity, conformity, and ultimately, a natural higher order that defines survival. The spread of the wattle bush becomes an icon for the tension in this country, with human parallels that are unmistakable. A higher order canopy moves—relentless invader—promoting the sameness of its species over the endemic diversity that has evolved and asserted its right to this difficult land through geological eons.

 Mary Pacifico Curtis
Mary Pacifico Curtis writes poetry, memoir and literary criticism, and is an avid photographer. Her first chapbook, Between Rooms, was published in 2016 and a second, The White Tree Quartet, is forthcoming in February of 2018—both from Word Tech’s Turning Point imprint. Devoting time to creative writing fulfills a dream following her career as founder and CEO of a leading Silicon Valley PR and strategic communications firm—for which she received the American Advertising Federation’s Silver Medal Award recognizing industry excellence and social responsibility. She received her undergraduate degree from Northwestern University and MFA from Goddard College.

Follow us!
Share this post with your friends.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.