‘Scouting Your Identity in Africa’ by Isaac Ndlovu

By Isaac Ndlovu, 15 Dec 2011

Justin Fox’s The Marginal Safari: Scouting the Edge of South Africa is a travelogue that takes the entire SA borderline as its setting. The book relates a six-week one-man trip around South Africa’s border which Fox embarks on during the winter of 2004. Starting from Cape Town where he lives, Fox heads north-east. He stays very close to the coast and avoids the well-trodden national and regional roads as much as he can.

Reaching Kosi Bay, where SA shares a border with Mozambique, he grudgingly heads inland as the coast ends. However, he sticks to the borderline as much as roads will allow. Musina and Beit Bridge, where SA meets Zimbabwe, mark Fox’s south-west journey. He travels along the SA-Botswana and the SA-Namibian borders until he reaches the Atlantic coast at Alexander Bay. Filled with trepidation of meeting his ailing father, he sticks to the coastline as he heads back to Cape Town.

Fox’s travelogue is one man’s search for identity along SA’s margins. He calls his circumnavigation a “record of an evolving relationship with the land” (49). Shorelines for him are “permeable zones where inter-tidal critters, animals, plants and birds of both realms reside” (27).

In this light, a large part of his “journey was along that confusing strip where South Africa surrendered to the biological Other and became ocean” (27). The transfrontier national parks and the border posts also fascinate Fox. They belong to this realm of permeable zones “where different national identities meet and mix” (128) and SA surrenders to the Other and becomes either Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana or Namibia. Fox’s identity and relationship with the land is mirrored in these frontiers. For, observes Fox, frontiers “are seldom distinct boundary lines but rather territories, often in flux and contested” (69).

A large part of Fox’s narrative explores SA’s turbulent maritime history, which opened her up for trade and eventually colonisation. His obsession with the stories of the salvaging of wrecked ships is a metaphor for his quest for what it means to be white in the post-apartheid state. He spends the first night of his trip at Gansbaai, where he meets André Hardman – “shark-cage operator and diver extraordinaire” (18) – who regales him with stories of the many wrecked ships that he has salvaged.

The complexity of one’s search for identity is dramatised by two incidents in André’s stories. In the salvage of the Johanna in 1982, a ship that sank in 1682, André and his mates find a lot of treasure. However, the government’s insistence on getting half the loot represents some of the obstacles that impinge on the individual’s quest for identity.

The fact that André subsequently spends most of his Johanna fortune in search of other wrecks (22), a project that proves financially disastrous, dramatises the elusiveness of Fox’s own search for identity.

Foreshadowing the nagging dissatisfaction that overwhelms Fox as his journey nears its completion, André says, “I’ve dived… (Brederode) there is everything… so tempting just sitting there… can’t take it out, can’t touch it” (23).

Although Fox reports much of the historical “treasures” of the “marginal” South Africa, he experiences despair similar to that of André’s as he reflects upon the still racialised South African social relations and the unequal economic opportunities that his trip enables him to witness.

For example, at uMtentweni, near Port Shepstone, he meets a group of people that he characterises as “the most comfortable, settled, satisfied South Africans” (105) he had met up to that point.

He then contemplatively observes: “But the problem with this gang of complacent hedonists was that they were practically all white. How did the world they’d fashioned fit into a future South Africa?” (105).

The imminent death of his architect father, who has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer, casts a long shadow on the expedition, but also provides Fox with a theme which he expertly threads into the other main concerns of the book. In The Marginal Safari, Fox grapples with questions of belonging and alienation that afflict him as a white South African.

About being finally on his circumnavigation, he writes: “I felt free to properly take the road. Then out of nowhere there was my father… I saw the me I was supposed to release suddenly recoil” (28).

Fox’s simultaneous desire to be both free of and connected to his father represents his ambivalent feelings of loyalty and disloyalty to the post-apartheid state.

He says he sits “outside patriotism… although (his) dissidence is… loyal” (70). His reservation about displaying passionate patriotism is also registered by the fact that he alternately calls South Africa his “fatherland” and “father’s land”.

Fox’s The Marginal Safari is a thoroughly researched book and his use of language sometimes soars to the sublime.

I recommend this book without reservation, for it demonstrates that white or black, poor or rich, every South African, is, in a sense, a “marginal” scouting the edge of/for his or her identity. – Sunday Independent

This review was published on http://www.litnet.co.za

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