We were headed for Vergelegen, a Cape Dutch wine estate in the Stellenbosch region outside Cape Town. My friend David had been there before. Earlier in the morning, he had told me how the clouds there had a delightful habit of resting on the peaks and then gliding down, creating the illusion of a waterfall.
As we left that evening for Vergelegen, I kept looking out of our bus. The foothills of the surrounding mountains were filled with colourful flowers, the grass green. A river ran through it, like a painting come alive.
The house is at the end of a vast lawn and, inside, there is a library, rooms with large portraits of white men and women, and deep sofas and solid carpets. Vergelegen means “lying far away”, and by the standards of the late 17th century, Vergelegen was indeed far from Cape Town, with the Cape Flats separating the two. The bay lay beyond; the mountains sheltered the area from the idea of “Africa”. Beyond those mountains lay the African flatland, stretching forever, with no clear indicators in sight, of what began here, and what was there.
The Dutch liked order and precision; they made rules. Here they had space, which they lacked in Europe. Their homes became grander versions of what they had in Europe.
They had come from elsewhere but, arguably, so had the blacks. The khoisan were here first, from the beginning of time. They were cattle herders and farmers, and they moved across the land, looking for pastures. That upset the rules, so the Dutch created boundaries. You can still see the first such marker at the Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden in Cape Town—a hedge built to keep people apart, creating separateness, or aparthood, or apartheid.
Bottled history: ANC leaders Aziz Pahad, Thabo Mbeki and Nelson Mandela met at the Vergelegen estate. Vergelegen Wine Estate
Three hundred years later, who was the original inhabitant and who was the outsider? In White Tribe Dreaming, Marq de Villiers’ haunting memoir of eight generations of Afrikaners (as white South Africans of Dutch origin came to be known), he asks an Afrikaner in the Veld about his birthplace. “I am from here,” he says, underlining the confusion about who is local and who isn’t. The Afrikaner felt rooted; he considered this land his, just as the Zulu did, the Xhosa did. The Afrikaner didn’t mind the African on his farm, so long as he worked for him, followed the rules, and lived in his quarters, his family miles away. He could make Africa’s presence felt unobtrusively: There were bells in these houses, to call the slave when necessary.
Each estate had a troubled, complicated history, and Vergelegen’s story was no different: except that it took a remarkably pleasant turn.
The sun was setting when we reached the estate, and the mountain in front of us turned red, as if it was blushing. Sunlight rested on the hard contours of the mountain, and the moon was already out, beaming. We saw two large trees with trunks that looked like the feet of a giant, prehistoric elephant. Inside, we were told, there was a garden where there was an even bigger camphor tree, 300 years old, which was the favourite tree of Nelson Mandela.
It was an odd moment and an odd place to think about Mandela. He would not have been allowed into an estate like this a quarter-century ago. Such a system had to collapse, and it did. But as Whoopi Goldberg asked in that marvellous film, Sarafina!, Nelson Mandela is free. Now what?
How was a new nation to be created, which respected all ethnic groups, language and cultures? While there was an African National Congress (ANC), it needed to think through policies to assure markets, assure the whites who were staying behind, and assure their own constituents of all races, that they had to think of a creative way to build a just society. There were many views within the movement: Some believed in violence—“one settler one bullet”, the graffiti Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) would scrawl on the walls of South African cities carried a certain resonance; some knew how to agitate, but not build—they had organized the boycotts in townships; some had lived in exile, and knew how to sabotage the state; and some had been in jail for decades. How would these individuals, united by a common goal, but divided by tactics, who had not been able to meet openly and legally during the apartheid era, come together?
This is where Vergelegen estate played a modest role. Its new owners, the mining company Anglo American, which took over the estate in 1987, opened its doors to the ANC, and Joe Slovo, Aziz Pahad, Thabo Mbeki, and Mandela himself, met there, away from the limelight, to think of the country’s future. It is easy to picture them there: sitting in the garden, talking of matters of great importance, while seagulls flew towards False Bay, their animated conversations interrupted by the shrill sounds of the Hadeda ibis, the brown bird which insists on having the last word in every conversation.
As I walked in the garden, reflecting on an estate designed as an enclave of exclusivity, I thought of the gentle irony, of how the ANC leaders met here, angry about the injustice they had faced, and yet thinking of ways to bring a sick and dysfunctional nation back to its feet, by healing its wounds, by showing the kind of magnanimity that would shame their erstwhile oppressors. And of the quiet beauty, the calming twilight, and the shade of the trees that soothed them. By the time I went in for dinner, the moon was shining bright.
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