File image: IOL
DURBAN - It is early Sunday morning, April14, I am sitting in my study on this beautiful day in California, having just returned from a three-week visit to South Africa.

I have been on previous visits during the past 25 years, spaced at lengthy intervals - making it easy to sense changes over time - but none has affected me so powerfully as this most recent visit.

I am not one to share my thoughts, but in the quiet early morning light, feeling a little alone with my regrets and recollections, and recovering from jet lag, I put pen to paper.

I was outside a shopping centre in Ballito doing what most men do, waiting patiently while the wife and family were inside shopping, watching the world go by.

It was late afternoon and the workers (retail and domestic) were on their way home. Surrounded by a multitude of taxis, buzzing and weaving. Elbows out the windows. Waiting for passengers.

People just going home after a day’s work, carrying shopping bags with the evening meal. Sharing loud stories with a typical African camaraderie like I remembered from so long ago. I felt home like I had never left. There was a lightness in the air. A new sense of being.

I stood in the evening, enjoying, remembering. Standing there with the air still and warm on me, I saw a black man standing forlorn and tattered amid it all. Supported by worn and repeatedly repaired crutches. A dirty overall was all he had on barefoot. Hessian rag bandages wrapped around his lower extremities. Smelling of woodsmoke. No shopping bag, no possessions.

But it was the look on his face and the expression in his eyes that made me stop.

I could not help it, in that millisecond, so much flooded through me, I could hardly breath.

My childhood, my life, my regrets, my comfort, my world - of America and Africa. And his world. Of lost hope and absolute dejection. Of being neglected and forgotten. Left behind.

The thousand-yard stare of empty forgotten dreams and unobtainable opportunities.

I walked over to him and said “sawubona”. It was all that I could muster. He just stared back.

I said: “How are you my friend, are you sick?” Pointing at the bandages. He looked wary and confused - a middle-aged well-fed white man, with a strange accent had come to speak with him.

“Ja” he says. “My legs are swollen and I have open wounds, but I cannot get any help,” he pleads.

“What will you do?” I ask. He quietly lets his head drop, his chin on his chest and does not reply. I give him some money. For some reason, emotions so powerful start welling up in me, I don’t know what to do or say.

With a “laat dit goed gaan” (Hope it goes well) I quickly walk away. He is probably still wondering what that was all about.

At this point I am in trouble. In public I feel a pressure in my chest. With my lips quivering and my vision clouded I look for shelter. I find a little space and shade under a nearby tree, with a little protection from passing pedestrians - and I stand there quietly with tears running down my face.

THE MERCURY