Archive for May, 2013


‘…hardly any Jews!’, The Matabele Campaign 1896, Colonel R.S.S. Baden-Powell, Methuen, London, 1897.


The British in Africa seem always

to have verged on the comical. There was

BP chasing a Matabele girl

through bush. He was ahorse, she on foot.

In tranquillity, he sketched the scene – the girl

bare-footed and -breasted, himself at a

gallop – for publication. She escaped –

but Rhodesia was made safe for Cecil,

the continent for Aids and exploitation.

Jingoist, philistine, racist and snob,

was BP conditioned or conditioning?

The darkness at the heart of Africa

is white man’s metaphor.



Note: first published on the site in October 2010.




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Elijah is our guide, Michael our mentor –

Mandla and Mbuzeni – old enough

to have needed ‘white’ names.


“They are not tourists”, Mbuzeni explains,

as we meet healers, dancers, wedding guests.

He is politely disbelieved.

The expensive camera appears to betray us.

‘‘They are big people,” begins Mandla –

an old woman interrupts, speaking to me:

“Hey, Mister Man, what do you want?”

I explain, try to reassure. “I have worked

in the gold mines, Mister Man. I know you.”


Legend has it renegades from Shaka Zulu

hid in the valley, became cannibal.

In the not so long ago past,

male children had their cheeks scored,

as infants, to drain the bad blood.

Mandla stops a friend on horseback,

who willingly shows us the three

horizontal scars on each cheek.


We stay at Mbuzeni’s house. Through the night

there is distant drumming. We wake early

to a loudspeaker moving through the valley,

electioneering. This is Inkhata country.


We can see from his house a thick belt of alien

poplar trees far beyond the high grass

at the foot of a slope – a screen for an alpine-type resort.

We eat there – Mbuzeni, Mandla, the only black guests.

A friend and neighbour from the valley serves us.

The other guests stare. We become angry.

“What is now law is not yet lore!” says Mandla, laughing.

“We are where we are, guys,” says Mbuzeni, softly.




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At Tatton Park, Cheshire – where herds of red and fallow deer

graze studiously beneath the take-off path

of Manchester Airport and are seemingly deaf

to climbing Airbuses and 737s – the so called Tenants’ Hall

was previously the last Lord Egerton’s private museum,

its four walls adorned with mounted heads of,

for example, wildebeest, giraffe, black rhinos, lions –

all killed by Maurice himself.


In the ‘20s, with the Tatton rents keeping the jackals,

as it were, from the door, he settled permanently

in Kenya’s Central Highlands.


He settled for the game, the social life, the deferential servants

and the perfect climate for agriculture,

with its plentiful rain, clement days, cool nights –

something the unsurprisingly resentful Kikuyu had known

for the many generations they had been settled there.


He founded the Egerton Farm School – for white youths keen

to till and own the African earth – now Egerton University

for black, mostly affluent, students.


He was a natural member of the Happy Valley Set –

that well-bred, well-heeled, history-free and somewhat

unhinged club of cocktail racists, profoundly deaf to irony.


He built a six bedroomed house and invited his – to this day,

seemingly unknown – English fiancée. She decried the place as

‘small as a chicken coop or a dog’s kennel’.


Over the next sixteen years – 1938 to 1954 –

he built the fifty three roomed Egerton Castle

with imported stone, oak panelling and tradesmen

and invited her (apparently the same one) again.

And still she spurned him – ‘a museum.’


He was eighty. From then, all women, chicken and dogs

were forbidden, literally on pain of death, irrespective

of class or ethnicity. Notices were posted, on appropriate trees,

to that effect.  He dined alone – and continued to play tunes

by Vivian Ellis and Ivor Novello on the Steinway grand

in the castle’s unpeopled hall for his remaining four years.


Heirless, he left the castle and the school to the Colonial Office

and his Cheshire estates to the National Trust and the county council.

Perhaps he realised the game, as it were, was up – despite

the brutally illegal suppression of the Mau Mau  –

and saw the empire and all its varied works as finished.

As usual, he would not have been wholly wrong or entirely right.


Egerton Castle is now a wedding venue – like Tatton, where,

for all such events, floor-to-ceiling net curtains

are drawn across the stuffed, severed heads.




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Thunder wakes me, rolling over the townships,

then the suburbs south of the city, and eastward over the veldt.


Heavy rain falls suddenly, bouncing off the vehicles

in the secured, hotel car park.


The Klipspruit, which flows passed the vast,

abandoned gold reefs, will have risen, inundating

the shacklands, their improvised shanties,

dirt streets and hard won gardens –

and I think of the rain falling on the newly paved

Walter Sisulu (erstwhile Freedom) Square,

the other side of the railway tracks.


Standing on the footbridge yesterday,

I could hear the distant call to prayer from Lenasia

on the higher ground beyond the river.

A flock of Brown Ibis flew over –

their rasping cries, loud, unsettling.


A long, yellow commuter train left the station,

moving slowly under the bridge. After it,

two people crossed the rails from the old street market

to the ‘informal settlement’ – a middle aged woman

in traditional township dress and a teenage girl

pristine in her Jozi school uniform.


Thunder wakes me – a low, loud, prolonged

concatenation, explosions like blastings,

the clangour of wagons shunted,





Note: first published in ‘A Jar of Sticklebacks’ –




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Rhodes Memorial, Cape Town, © Sylvia Selzer 2009


‘Equal rights for all civilized men south of the Zambesi!’

Cecil Rhodes




Apparently, he loved the view from this spot –

the north east slopes of Table Mountain – indeed,

owned much of the foreground. The sycophants

of Cape Town built, with granite quarried

from the mountain itself, this monument –

with Doric columns and arcades (which he

so revered, apparently), bronze lions à la

Trafalgar Square and a pensive, almost

wistful, bust of Cecil, clergyman’s son,

diamond broker, chancer.





The wooden bench from which he so enjoyed

the view survives below the monument

and on which he might have preferred a brass plaque

but perhaps not. He bequeathed the mountainside

to the nation and so ensured its slopes

preserved. We brunched at the restaurant

among the pines. At the next table,

a Coloured waiter served an Asian man

and a Black woman Italian Tomato

Soup and Quiche of the Day.


The air was pellucid, alpine. Oddly,

a Marsh Harrier circled above us –

yet this was beautiful. The restaurant

suggested his wish had been achieved

though not, of course, quite as he intended!

Below were the airport, disused cooling towers,

the Guguletsu township and, out of sight,

beyond the mountains that bound the horizon,

his unrealised, longed for, imperial road

from the Cape  to Cairo.





When we returned to our rented villa

in Newlands, Precious, our maid, was leaving

to catch her train for Guguletsu.

This was her first time at the villa

so she was nervous. She would be home before

nightfall but she must walk through the dark

in the morning, evading the tsotsis.

Her daughter had stayed on at school, planned

to go to Rhodes University, planned

to leave South Africa.


We could not assuage Precious’ fear. We thanked her

for looking after us. We became used

to the gratings on all of the windows.

We felt safe behind the garden’s high walls.

From the verandah, we watched the mist

pour down Table Mountain like dry ice –

and listened to a pair of  Sugarbirds sing

in the Jacaranda. So nothing had changed

yet everything had changed.





Someone in black spray paint had, as it were,

crossed out Rudyard Kipling’s words on the plinth

beneath the bust: THE IMMENSE AND BROODING



SHALL BE HER SOUL. The same hand probably

had sprayed the plinth, at the foot of the steps,

with: ‘reject racist heroes’. It supports,

on a rearing bronze horse, a bronze horseman

looking for the future.



Note: first published on the site in January 2012 and subsequently published at


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