Out of Africa

I wonder if anyone has ever said anything to you of such force that the instant you heard it you knew you would remember it forever.

I suppose there are people who make a living doing that - the wordsmiths, the phrasemakers of the day. Or phrasemakers of the century in the case of my favourite poet W.H Auden, of whom it was said: ‘Old men will die with the first lines of Auden’s poems on their lips’ - so famous were his openings. For instance:

Look stranger, on this island now, the leaping light for your delight discovers...

Control of the passes was he saw, the key to this new district - but who would get it?

Lay your sleeping head, my love, human on my faithless arm.

But I am not really talking about public phrasemaking, I am talking about times when someone has said something personal to you and it rattles into your mind and you know it has landed in a place from which it will never be dislodged.

The day I left South Africa I said goodbye to Paulina. She was the maid in the house in South Africa - 43 years old, black, poor - and, in fact, she had worked as the BBC housekeeper for nearly 20 years. She was a workaholic - living in a little cottage in the driveway, up at 7.30 every morning, washing the car, feeding the dog - and over time, not least because of the strangeness of having someone always in the house with you, we became very close friends.

Paulina had a boyfriend called Henry, who worked as the assistant to a watch repairer; he also lived in the cottage in the driveway. But most of all she was very proud of her son Mattheas. He was her sister’s child in fact. Paulina had brought Mattheas up after her sister died of cancer 17 years earlier. Mattheas was now 27, and she had spent everything on trying to get him some education and he had repaid her confidence by turning out to be a very bright lad. Inspired by meeting the various producers in the BBC bureau, and the correspondents Paulina worked for, he got a career for himself as a reporter on a radio station two hours north of Johannesburg. I met him once; he came round.

But life is tough when you are a black South African, and one day Paulina rang me in the bureau and said, ‘Hello, Jeremy how are you?’ and I said ‘I’m fine how are you?’ and she said ‘Not good, Mattheas is dead’, and she started crying. He had been killed in a car crash - typical in modern South Africa. Black youngsters do not get killed in political violence any more, they die on the roads or they die of Aids. Paulina was grief-stricken. Henry did his best to comfort her. Paulina set about trying to arrange the funeral, and asked me if she could dictate a brief message to all the mourners, a tribute to Mattheas, which I would type out on my computer.

The other day, my computer crashed and I had to use a zip disc to rescue my files. I saw the Paulina document there on the c:drive and I thought I would briefly read it to you.

Mattheas Maropeng Betha
In loving memory
From Paulina
Dear friends and family

Thank you so much for coming today. It’s a very sad event for all of us. I am so grateful that you have come to share in this ceremony.

Mattheas was born in 1972, he was only 27 when he died. I will miss him so much, and I have been missing him so much already. I was very proud of him because, despite all the difficulties of getting started in the world that young people face, he managed to build a wonderful life for himself. I was very proud that he found a job at Thobela FM.

I would like to say thank you to the BBC people who helped him and encouraged him. He became a journalist because of Milton Nkosi. He was always telling me that he wished to be like Milton.

We can be thankful for Mattheas’s life because he did so much with it. He was always full of energy and full of ideas. He has two children, a girl and a boy. We must all think of them, and of Machigo, his girlfriend, because this will be a very hard day for her.

To her I would like to say I will help her through her life for as long as I am alive. I will always be here for the children. I would like to thank all the people of Thobela FM because they have said such nice things about Mattheas on the air since his death. I have heard them, and it makes me realise how special he was.

Thank you again for coming today to remember Mattheas, who I always called my son. I will miss him because he was always calling me ‘mum’, and no one is going to call me that anymore.

I was sitting at my computer, she was dictating, and I thought, I am never going to forget this moment as long as I live.

And when I mentioned at the start that there are times in life when someone says something, or uses a phrase that has permanence about it, I was thinking of Paulina - who had an amazing ability to say things that stuck. She once said, ‘I want to believe in God, but I do not think he loves me’. On my last day in South Africa, when my friend and colleague Milton Nkosi was picking me up to take me to the airport, Paulina and I said an emotional goodbye. And just as I was turning to go she told me - ‘You have become my father and my son’.

What is it that makes a phrase like that go deeper than all the newspapers headlines on this morning’s billboards, which we have already forgotten? Why can’t advertisers harness the power in Paulina’s phrasemaking? Why can’t the politicians? The answer surely is that she spoke the truth with simplicity, and the reason we are here remembering Tyndale is that he did too - and in this complicated world there is precious little of that about.

It is said that the poet, Robert Burns, caused his parents endless anxiety because he did not say a word until the age of 7. Finally one morning at breakfast he spoke for the first time, with the comment ‘This porridge is cold’. His parents were by turns, relieved, angry, hysterical, mystified - and they said to Robert, ‘Why did ye nae say a word until this moment?’ To which he replied, ‘Everything was alright until now’.

There is a lot to be said for not saying a lot. The Lord’s Prayer is 56 words long; the Ten Commandments 297; the US Declaration of Independence 300; and the EU Directive on the export of duck eggs 29,911. Similarly the phrases:

   Am I my brother’s keeper?
   Ask and it shall be given you, seek and ye shall find
   Let there be light
   Fight the good fight
   Signs of the times
   The powers that be

— all Tyndale, all perfectly formed and memorable, from a translation where, to quote WH Auden again: ‘A phrase goes packed with meaning like a van’.

In fact, Tyndale reaches so powerfully into the present day that his phrase ‘the fat of the land’ was used as the title of the 1997 album by a rock band called The Prodigy.

Looking at the title of the talk I see that it is Out of Africa. I am reminded that when David Daniell and I spoke about this event I said that I would like to talk about Tyndale with reference to some of my experiences as Africa correspondent - and given that Tyndale never went to Africa, I am aware I have some way to go to make the connection. Let us dwell for a moment on Tyndale. Reading David’s brilliant biography of him took me back to 1494 but also to New Year’s Eve 1999 - the moment the new Millennium began. I was sent to Cape Town and told to watch the Millennium break on Table Mountain - and I would, I was promised, ‘come up live in the BBC’s Millennium night coverage’. In accepting this task, of commenting on the African New Year, I neglected one crucial factor - which is that midnight in Cape Town strikes at the same moment as midnight in Bethlehem.

Nonetheless, I travelled to Cape Town with Glenn the cameraman and Milton the producer. And we went through the nightmare of getting up Table Mountain on December 31st 1999 with a camera, spotlights, a satellite dish, a TV monitor, a diesel generator and a man called Jeff, who was in charge of the electronics. It took forever to get to midnight. It was freezing, and we were all underdressed; and the top of Table Mountain was full of increasingly rowdy and bad-tempered people. Then at quarter to midnight I took my position on the edge of the mountain; we were right near the edge and the spotlights made it look like I was floating in the middle of a cloud. I stood waiting for the signal from London. Time ticked by. In the immediate run-up to midnight I heard increasing chaos in London. At one point someone shouted down my ear ‘If you hear the word go, start talking about Nelson Mandela’ which I thought afterwards could well be the title of anyone’s autobiography. Things went quiet for a while; then there was pandemonium and as the clock struck midnight I heard a voice in London shouting down my ear ‘We’ve lost Bethlehem!’ I thought, ‘Isn’t that the most telling way to starting the new Millennium? - a voice yelling ‘We’ve lost Bethlehem!’ 2000 years after Bethlehem was at the centre of the universe, we have lost it.

Tyndale was obsessed with preventing his countrymen ‘losing Bethlehem’. As the first person to translate the Bible into English from its original Greek and Hebrew, and the first to print the Bible in English, he seemed to be guided in his mission by the thought famously expressed to a guest at Little Sodbury before he left England: ‘If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of scripture than thou dost’.

We now take for granted access to massive amounts of knowledge, with the Internet, DVD, CD-ROM and ISP. The first prison sentence for a man who knocked someone down with his truck while sending a text message has just been handed down - but, of course, with the current surfeit of knowledge and information, with enough web pages in existence to confound the mind, a man who spent his life translating is regarded merely as a secretary to history. And so when I told the deputy editor of Newsnight I was coming to speak to the Tyndale Society, he looked up, blinked, and asked ‘What?’ and then ‘Who?’

Yet there are many, many millions of people in the world today for whom the idea of having and reading a book is impossibly exotic - despite the information revolution. To quote the latest email to go round 10million computers in three days flat, if the world was reduced proportionally to 100 people then 80 would be in substandard housing, 70 would be unable to read, and only 1 would own a computer. If I may say so, my time in Africa, when I visited Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mali, Congo, Sudan, Djibouti, Eritrea, Angola, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Algeria, Kenya, Namibia, Guinea, Mauritius, Uganda and travelled all over South Africa - that time spent moving around and looking has made what Tyndale did exciting and relevant all over again, and more bang up to date than even the latest DVD or bubblejet printer.

To give an example, I was in Zimbabwe, covering the first signs of trouble as Robert Mugabe’s economic policies went down the drain. I went to a township outside Bulawayo to speak to ordinary people about how they were being affected and I interviewed this large, forty-something woman in a shack with no electricity or running water; she was finding it increasingly difficult to buy food, and had a son of 15 who was obviously clever. He had three books - a chemistry textbook, a guidebook of his country and a Dickens. They were dog-eared and falling apart because he had evidently read them again and again. He said, ‘Please buy me books’. Usually there is so much need among the people you meet you cannot afford to respond to any of it or you are suddenly engulfed but - for whatever reason - this was different. I had a day off the next day and I bought him some books and then brought them back for him. In fact there is a much better way to tell this story. While I was in Africa I wrote a poem in every country I was in. I wrote one called the Professional about this incident and, given that the Tyndale Society has poetic leanings, which is clear from your Newsletter, I wonder if I could burden you with it very briefly now.

            The Professional
            We go into these places with hearts like toughened glass,
            But someone always throws a hammer, and they break -
            The warranty mislaid down the back of a chair, of course;
            Shattered, we work on for work’s sake.
            So it was, on the edge of Bulawayo, when a township boy
            With loveless folks thought me an angel just walked through his door
            And begged, ‘Please buy me books’. Imagining his face lit up with joy -
            Him the cherub now, not me - I found a store
            And there loaded into a red bucket every sort of simple read:
            The big John Grishams, Archers and Macleans, as well as maths,
            Which he wanted to study triangles from. He did not need
            The biography of Churchill, and the Plaths
            Would be incomprehensible - the same for Ishiguro -
            But I piled them in. Glimpsing Fleming, guessing James Bond
            Might cap them all, I added Thunderball and Doctor No.
            Smattered magazines: Le Monde.
            Thrilled, that lot in hand, I sought the lad among the hovels
            But then from staring mother heard the news: a truck - oil on track -
            Her son close and wicked turn. And so I dropped my precious novels
            In the mud, wept, and then went back.

The dramatic ending thankfully is not an accurate account. In reality when I arrived back at his house - taking a hotel taxi on a quick circular trip - and gave him my bag of books with as little ceremony as possible, he was thrilled. There was thankfully no truck. There was some caution in his face, as if he mistrusted the gift, but I said, ‘Happy reading’; he stood there with the bags of books and waved the cab goodbye. I would bet any money he has read them all several times and may even be reading them again tonight: surely a fantastic little vignette of life in Africa - of a contact - for in that 15 year old, we have the modern definition of Tyndale’s ploughboy. It is a living argument for fresh recognition of why Tyndale did what he did - and whom he did it for - so that our deputy editor no longer has to say ‘who?’ and ‘what?’

One of the most striking things about the Tyndale story is the extraordinary climate in England at the time. In particular the repressive way, the authorities, including the church, behaved. Repression has a tendency to beget greatness. For people taking a first look at Tyndale’s history there is an unnerving moment, when in 1529, as David Daniell says in his book, the scene suddenly darkened.

It is shocking that a man called Thomas Hitton was seized in Kent for preaching heresy when all he had done was to smuggle a New Testament in from abroad. He was imprisoned, condemned by Archbishop Warham, and then burned alive in Maidstone. We learn, afterwards, he was merely a small time thief who stole linen from a hedge. It is shocking that, in 1530, John and Cecily Eaton were persecuted for being noticed by some in the parish to be holding their heads down in church, and for saying in a butcher’s house ‘what a clampering of bells is there!’ when the bells sounded. The Bishop of London in 1530 was a certain John Stokesley who would have been very much at home in the Third Reich. It was he who ensured that a rather pleasant-sounding lawyer, James Bainham, had to apologise for his beliefs. Bainham, we learn from Foxe, was later ‘troubled in his conscience’ - ‘he went to Saint Austins with the New Testament in his hand in English, and stood there before the people in his pew, there declaring openly, with weeping tears, that he had denied God’. Bainham was burnt, as was Thomas Bilney, on the 19th of August 1531, for, of all things, field preaching in Norfolk.

Repressors do not seem to learn from their history or anyone else’s. And when I say repression begets greatness I am thinking that only someone of Tyndale’s stature can break through when the lid is so firmly screwed down; - the mediocre, the ‘scribblers and wafflers’ as someone once called them, crumble and fall away. It was something I reflected on a lot in South Africa - where the presence of Mandela made me wonder whether one can actually see a formula there - the greater the repression, the greater the figure who breaks through.

As shocking as it is that Bainham, Bilney and Hitton and so many others were burnt at the stake in Tyndale’s day, it is surely mind-boggling that, as recently as 15 years ago, the white minority government in South Africa was indulging in, or, at least, permitting and facilitating, an orgy of human rights abuses. Sure, the situation there was not biblical, it was political. The lines may be hazier, but there was a moral line, all the same; something Desmond Tutu has spent his ministry pointing out. One side was right and one side was wrong, and the side that was wrong had the power.

I thought I might say a few words about South Africa now, and in particular the South Africa I found in 1997 because a lot of people have made the mistake of assuming that Nelson Mandela’s election in 1994 was a fairytale ending. Mandela was released from prison in 1990, after 27 years; elected in 1994; and in 1999 in the second democratic election, the ANC won again, and Mandela stepped aside for an elliptical Thabo Mbeki. I was there, in front of the Pretoria Union Buildings, as Mr Mbeki was inaugurated.

So what of South Africa now? Well I wish the optimism of Mandela’s and Mbeki’s elections had been borne out. It is true that there is nothing quite like the vote to give people the feeling that they belong, that they have rights, and above all that they are human - I was in Soweto when they voted in 1999, and you have never seen a queue as long as one that formed when the sun was coming up. Democracy is a precious thing. Tyndale’s Bible was an empowering force in just the same way.

South Africa is 85% black, and the Mandela government made it a priority to build thousands of new homes and to get tap water to within easy reach of every shack. Given that most women in Africa spend vast amounts of time carrying buckets of water backwards and forwards, the fact that the promise on drinking water has been largely fulfilled, and that new homes have been built by the thousand, is no mean feat. However, most black South Africans are poor and have got poorer since democracy. Whites have most of the wealth, and they are antagonistic towards the government. Someone once said ‘They gave Mandela the crown, but not the jewels’. The perception in the townships that there is still a racial divide - combined with the fact that the behaviour of the police in the past has destroyed the authority of the law, they are creating a crime wave which goes beyond anything most of us can imagine. To give you a comparison, in 1999, Britain, a country of 60 million people, had just over 700 murders; South Africa, with a population of 43 million had 25,000 murders. Last year in Pretoria alone, there were 5,500 armed robberies. Officially there is one rape every 12 minutes, but police say the real figure is nine times higher. Rape is so common that one insurance company has started offering rape insurance, with the payout buying the victims anti-Aids drugs.

While I was there I lived behind an electrified fence, with a beam across the front door, all the windows barred, panic buttons in every room, and an alarm in the loft because there had been a spate of break-ins where the perpetrators dropped through the bedroom ceiling.

And - if only South Africa did not have Aids. There are 4.3 million HIV positive people in the country - one in ten - and if you’re a 15 year-old South African today the chance of Aids eventually killing you is 50%.

However, it is a country where things are moving in the right direction. It has an infrastructure, a legal system, a banking system, and a financial centre that outstrips all the other countries in Africa put together. The government is shrewd enough to realise change will be incremental, and it has not forced the levers. The right kind of change may take 100 years to complete. Above all, it has the people. Wonderful people, who are exceptionally gracious to whites given the history.

I went to Mandela’s birthplace - at Umtata, in the south east of the country, when he was campaigning in the election. His ex-wife Winnie was due to be campaigning in the same place. The ANC, being astute, not wanting them to meet, had scheduled a ‘rally’ for Winnie on a remote hilltop called Kwakwa great place. She obviously realised she was being sidelined, and did not turn up. When I went there was just this desolate hilltop, with a vegetable patch on it, and hoeing the vegetable patch was a smiling middle-aged man who, I was told, was ‘the village chief’. So I got my tape recorder, and I said, ‘Look here’s the schedule, Winnie was supposed to be holding a rally here, did you know anything about it?’ And he said, ‘No I think something has gone wrong because I have not been informed’. And I said, ‘Are you offended, chief?’ To which he replied: ‘I cannot be offended, because nothing has happened’. This I thought was a moment of eternal truth. As well as being one of those comments that lodges permanently when you hear it.

Tyndale’s heart would have been moved by the plight of modern South Africa. I used to go to a literacy class in Randburg halfway between Johannesburg and Pretoria and spent time reading with people who had chosen to come to learn to read. There was a man called Aaron, 40-something, a truck driver who could not read road signs - an intelligent man - and it is not just that he could not read, he did not know that the blue parts on a map were the ocean or that America was bigger than Britain. Gradually he groped his way into the text, which was actually a general knowledge magazine, and it was exciting to see. And reading the Tyndale story you realise that his fight, to bring God’s word to those who are without it, is still there to be fought today.

Jeremy Vine, February 2001


Jeremy Vine was a Radio 4 Today presenter, then the hugely admired BBC Africa correspondent and is now co-presenter of BBC2’s flagship Newsnight. This is the edited and slightly abridged text of the lecture he gave to the Tyndale Society at the British Academy, London, on Tuesday 27 February 2001.

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