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Swimming with Cobras

| November 15, 2012 | 0 Comments

Author: Rosemary Smith
Published by: Modjaji Books
ISBN: 978-1-920397-37-1
Reviewed by: Fiona de Villiers

In 1854, John Armstrong, founder of one of our finest independent schools, St Andrew’s College, and Lord Bishopto- be of the town in which the school is situated, Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape, made a seminal entry in his diary.

“The moon was up when the good ship ‘Natal’, on the 11th of October, steamed into Algoa Bay,” he wrote. “As I hurried upon deck… I felt the reality of having found another country, henceforth to be adopted as one’s own. In the morning… a group of half-naked Fingos – strong, lusty fellows – dashed through the surf… I had to sit on the shoulders of a strong Fingo, grasping his woolly hair… at last he pounced me down from his dusky shoulders amid a group… who had kindly come to the beach to welcome me.”1

Fast-forward to a much more modern memory, recounted in the memoir Swimming with Cobras by Rosemary Smith, newly published by Modjaji Books. In 1966, this young Englishwoman arrived in the same bay, with similar hopes and apprehensions to Armstrong, accompanied by her South African husband and two young children. She was met by a customs official with a heavy Afrikaans accent, who announced that her British heritage meant she “was not a person in this country”. Driving from Port Elizabeth to Grahamstown, where she would make her new life, she observed “low hills, thorn bushes, aloes and gashes of ochre soil”, and realised that “[n]o, this was not my country”.

A stranger in a strange land This sense of strangeness punctuated much of Smith’s early life in Grahamstown, recalling as she did the English countryside far across the sea, where “it seemed always to be early summer, trees laden with blossoms and hedgerows full of Queen Anne lace”. In contrast, in Africa, she found “[t]he climate alien, the light too bright, the flowers too vivid in colour… the vastness of the landscape frightened me”. One hundred and twelve years earlier, Armstrong, equally homesick, recollected: “I was sitting outside my waggon, on the lonely and silent and barren African waste, with a bright, calm moon above… England, with all its old cheerful homes, its familiar faces, its friends and kindred, its well-loved scenes, all rushed upon me, and I was overcome.”

History teachers can make good use of this text

Both accounts are extracts from memoirs, which provide a host of opportunities for teachers and students across a range of learning areas. For example, the updated Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS) requires that all history students in South Africa between Grade 10 and 12 study, among other things, the events that led to the control of the Cape by the British in the 19th century, and the coming of democracy to the country in the latter part of the 20th century, through “extracting and interpreting information from a number of sources”.2

These sources should include, as any history teacher worth her salt knows, ‘primary source documents’ – the most common examples of which are memoirs, letters and diaries, all invaluable in recreating a vivid picture of bygone events for students; of drawing the past into the present. As an American history teacher puts it, “Primary sources fascinate students because they are real and they are personal; history is humanised through them.”3

Smith’s life story, much of it played out against the backdrop of the struggle for democratic freedom in one of the country’s hotbeds of black resistance to apartheid, will appeal to those teachers keen to unveil more than a dull series of facts, dates and events usually packaged into textbooks. Swimming with Cobras is the sort of book that teachers should always be on the lookout for, but may overlook, mistakenly relegating it to an adult audience only.

The primary reason that it should catch the eye of librarians and educators is that it provides them with an opportunity to revisit, with their pupils, an extraordinary period in our history, and to discuss it from a range of challenging vantage points. Setting Smith’s impressions against those of Armstrong, for example, is a way to create a wider historical context for students, and to remind them that any written history reflects a particular author’s personal interpretation of past events.

A persistent frontier

Both Armstrong and Smith found themselves at the tip of Africa in unsettling times, yet viewed their circumstances and surroundings from widely different perspectives. For the former, it was the age of bitter frontier wars against the indigenous Xhosa people. Says researcher Helen Dampier: “The Eastern frontier was a literal and metaphorical divide between colonised and colonisers, civilised and uncivilised, lazy and hardworking, ignorant and educated, clean and dirty, and a host of other imagined dichotomies that underpinned the colonial endeavour.”4

By the time Smith arrived, the frontier had assumed the facade of bustling civilisation. “Grahamstown,” she remembered, “seemed like a small English market town straight out of a novel.” Yet, the dichotomies remained, and she balked at “the undeniable story” of the region’s history of “colonial dominance and oppression”, noticing “three racially distinct parts” in the town. Early jobs exposed her still further to pervasive racial inequality and colonial mentalities and she found herself participating increasingly in the political and human rights activities undertaken by the Black Sash organisation that had formed in 1955. Her growing sociopolitical understanding led to other experiences too: for 12 years she was a social worker in the advice section at the Grahamstown Area Distress Relief Association (GADRA). “It was a kind of war we were waging,” she writes, “not just against callous government policy but most often against an obstructive and vindictive bureaucracy.” Yet, she continues, “We increasingly sensed that dynamite was smouldering all around us. The relentless poverty and deepening discontent, together with the escalating conflict between the forces of oppression and resistance, would surely soon explode.”

Smith recounts 1980s civil unrest And indeed, war flamed through the dusty streets of small towns in South Africa in the 1980s. Teachers will find Smith’s account of the birth of the United Democratic Front (UDM), the increasingly draconian response of the state to this perceived threat, and the consequent involvement of young people in radicalised and militant political resistance a compelling antidote for those pupils who complain that “learning about apartheid is boring”. As a Black Sash volunteer, a wife and mother, Smith was, after all, at the centre of it all; situated in the birthplace of both the ANC and some of our country’s most influential political leaders – Biko, Mandela, Mbeki, to name but three.

In the central section of her memoir (based on “scraps of paper or scribbles in notebooks” she hid in her deep freeze lest they be discovered by agents of the apartheid state), she deftly details how successive states of emergency “sanctioned the use of military force to coerce and control the townships through curfews, surveillance and house-to-house searches”. Capturing the atmosphere of heightened tension prevalent at the time, Smith describes how the increase of detentions of both black and white activists in the area led the Black Sash to “intensify its role of witnessing, monitoring and recording” human rights atrocities inflicted by the apartheid state. Later, the organisation was instrumental in organising a support programme for political prisoners and their families, and became involved with the debriefing of ex-detainees. Particularly moving are Smith’s accounts of a ‘political’ funeral of activists shot dead by police, and her description of the Grahamstown townships at the time, scarred by the presence of searchlights and security vehicles – “buffels, hippos, and the bilious, sickly coloured mellow yellows”. Extracts like these, presented to pupils in conjunction with examples of the resistance art and poetry of the time and films like The Bang Bang Club,5 will enable them to touch the lives of people from the past and better understand their personal, social, political or economic points of view.

Changing times, changing roles

Likewise, by engaging with the latter portion of Swimming with Cobras, through Smith, teachers and students can learn about the years leading up to ‘The Year of the Great Storm’,6 the unbanning of the ANC and other organisations, the release of Mandela from prison, and the historic first democratic election of 1994. Some young historians will never have heard of the Black Sash, and may be interested to learn that despite being popularly regarded as a white, middle-class organisation, it was also a “bold and respected voice… and never lost an opportunity to speak out, whether in high profile campaigns or in the dissemination of suppressed information”.

By 1987, Smith (already the chairperson of the Grahamstown Sash branch) was elected one of the organisation’s national vice presidents. By 1995, it had changed into a professional non-governmental organisation administered by the Black Sash Trust. Smith, like many of her colleagues, helped to “transform a volunteer-driven organisation into an employee-based one” as the Sash undertook to play a role in South Africa’s transition, which began with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings (her account of a hearing early in the book is well worth sharing with students). By 1999, she retired from her position as manager of the Grahamstown Sash office, but continues to this day to lend her experience and expertise to the Black Sash Trust and to Grahamstown organisations.

A rich illustration of writing skills

I’ve made a case in this review for history teachers to use Swimming with Cobras to encourage students to debate the interpretation of sources, to challenge others’ conclusions and seek out evidence to support their own.

Language (and for that matter, drama) teachers can use it too, to illustrate the power, the art and importance of memoir writing, a genre through which students can participate in the process of history, interrogate the notion of identity, and investigate the complex relationship between the personal and the political.

They can learn about editing, too: the chronological scope of Smith’s book is determined by the work’s context, and her crisp descriptions are indicative of a memory undimmed by time and untarnished by sentiment. Moreover, her retelling of “momentous events” is cleverly intertwined with the development of her own personality, and her rich family life. Her sense of being “a stranger in a strange land” never dulled her acceptance of the obligation to speak truth to power and, touchingly, she notes, that “[b]y the time of the TRC I had lived more than 30 years in South Africa. Looking back… I was sometimes astonished at the experiences I had had, and I was in no doubt that it was through becoming engaged that I too had become a person in this place. It was in sharing the experiences of others that I had found a foothold for myself, and so a country I had first found alien became the place I would… call home.”


1. Carter, T.T. (1857) A Memoir of John Armstrong, D.D. Oxford and London: John Henry and James Parker.

2. See, for example, abid=420&mid=1216.

3. See, for example,

4. Dampier, H. (2000) Settler Women’s Experiences of Fear, Illness and Isolation, with Particular Reference to the Eastern Cape Frontier, 1820-1890. Thesis, Rhodes University.

5. ‘The Bang Bang Club’ was a label primarily associated with four photographers active within the townships of South Africa between 1990 and 1994. This period saw much black-on-black factional violence, particularly fighting between ANC and Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), after the lifting of the bans on both political parties. Kevin Carter, Greg Marinovich, Ken Oosterbroek and João Silva were the four associated with the name. A movie about the group, directed by Steven Silver and starring Taylor Kitsch, Ryan Phillippe and Malin Åkerman, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2010. (Source:

6. The Azanian People’s Liberation Army (APLA) declared 1993 as the ‘Year of the Great Storm’, meaning it would make the country ungovernable in an effort to force political change. (Source:

Category: Summer 2012

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