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South Africa then and now

A year before Beverley Naidoo started writing her internationally acclaimed, award-winning children's book Journey to Jo'burg, I spent a month in the mountain kingdom of Lesotho, a tiny state surrounded on all sides by the Republic of South Africa.

It was 1980 and I spent many hours doing women's things: winnowing sorghum in the fields, shucking corn off the cobs until my knuckles bled, trudging to and from the village's one water tap and, by far the best part, sitting in neighbours' thatched, dung-walled huts, pretending to sip the porridgy gloop that everyone said would be good for the baby I was expecting, and listening to their life stories.

Few of the villagers escaped the fate of having to work in the mines or as domestic servants hundreds of miles away from their families. Like Mma in Journey to Jo'burg, the women had been forced under apartheid to earn a living by leaving their own children with relatives and going to look after white people's children in the suburbs of Pretoria, Johannesburg and Cape Town.

Their real mothering was done during "holidays", the few weeks once or twice a year when they went home. In their absence, their children learned to walk and talk, went to school, thanks to their mother's paycheques, and grew up. Or, as in the case of Mma Sebate, the black servant who looked after Beverley Naidoo as a child, they died. Mma lost her two children and three others she had fostered, all within the space of a week, to a diphtheria outbreak. This disease never ventured into the inoculated white neighbourhoods.

Journey to Jo'burg is dedicated to Mma Sebate - or "Mary", as her white employers called her - and to her children's memory. The book is the other side of the story that I heard from the village women in Lesotho.

While they told me of being transplanted into an alien world that attempted to negate their individuality, and of the grief and loneliness of being separated from their families day after day, year after year, Beverley Naidoo told a story about the children, o Naledi and Tiro, who travel hundreds of miles from their grandmother's village home to find their mother and bring her back to save their dying baby sister. For the first time in their lives, they confront the racism on which their country was founded.

Naidoo came to Britain after a period of anti-government activity as a student that at one point resulted in imprisonment for eight weeks. Her idea for the book developed years later after a series of meetings of the British Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa's education group.

By then, she was teaching children with literacy difficulties and was the mother of two young children, married to a fellow South African exile. First published in 1985, the book is now in a new Collins Modern Classic edition. As always, its royalties are being shared with the Canon Collins Educational Trust for Southern Africa, the successor to British Defence and Aid. Which is how it came to pass that last week, a group of middle-aged women, all thorns in the side of the former apartheid regime, joined Beverley Naidoo at South Africa House, once the focal point of anti-apartheid vigils and demonstrations, to celebrate with a workshop on the book involving a group of Year 7 pupils from Tower Hamlets, in the heart of London's East End.

Being welcomed into the embassy to celebrate the once banned book's good fortunes by a once exiled black anti-government activist - now deputy high commissioner - required a few reality-checks.

For the mainly Asian group of children from St Paul's Way comprehensive, Bow, it was a stimulating hour, delving into themes and issues raised by the book: racism, of course, but also social responsibility, identity and the intricacies of communication.

For the pupils, apartheid was an evil that Nelson Mandela helped wipe off the face of his beloved country. For Naidoo, the echoes and shadows of those times and their legacies of inequality and violence that are so ingrained in the country have a long way to go before becoming history.

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