John Carneson, The John and Ntombi Story: A Memoir of Their Love and Times (Johannesburg: Grasped Image, 2022)

AT first sight John Carneson and Ntombi Lukhele might seem an unlikely couple in terms of character and personal background. But the liberation struggle brought together people through exile and an ambition to see the end of apartheid. For John and Ntombi similar experiences and a shared historical context have proved sufficient. Ntombi defines herself as a peasant from a Zulu rural background; John as middle class and metropolitan.

Ntombi, born in 1957, grew up at Kwamteyi near Ladysmith. Her father, Shoti, an ANC member, abandoned the family and moved to Eswatini where he married into the royal family. Ntombi moved there in 1969 and caught up with her fractured education at a Catholic boarding school. Estranged from her father and involved in ANC activity as a courier, she was evacuated in 1977 to Maputo and spent the next few years moving from Tanzania to Zambia, Cuba and Sierra Leone. In Zambia she trained in catering and was assigned to Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College at Mazimbu back in Tanzania.

John, born in 1951 with Portuguese, Irish Catholic and Jewish ancestry, was the son of well-known anti-apartheid activists in Cape Town and as a child witnessed police raids and other events that left a lifetime mark of anxiety and feelings of abandonment. His father Fred, a World War II serviceman, went to jail and on release into British exile in 1972. His mother, a trade union organiser was detained and preceded Fred into exile in 1968. In Cape Town they had run a guest house called Mount Pleasant and as banned persons needed special permission to communicate.

John had earlier joined a sister in London where he finished his schooling, going on to the London School of Economics, and then training as a teacher. After a spell teaching in Mozambique, he too ended up at SOMAFCO from 1979 to 1985. His description of the community suggests that it might have become a model for a South Africa that has failed to materialise. Here in 1983, he met Ntombi and they were married in London after moving there in 1984 for further training.

This book makes an interesting, but brief allusion to parallel Jewish and African experience, another point of contact between John and Ntombi. While in exile, the latter heard about the forced removal of her mother’s family. John describes himself as ill-at-ease with many working-class people living ‘outside books’, a cerebral person and sometimes dreamy and unfocused. This self-deprecation may be exaggerated and part of a defensive persona. (Now over 70 he suffers from deafness, arthritis and gout.) Ntombi is highly focused, disciplined, organised and practical in multiple ways that derive from her rural upbringing. It was she who adapted more readily to life in London and then in Sunderland where John had a university post and they bought a house. Ntombi’s catering prowess earned the title the ‘dark chef’.

Back in South Africa from 1993 the family of four, now joined by Ntombi’s mother Nomvula Mbele (Gogo), moved from place to place while John pursued a career in education before settling at the Department of Home Affairs in Pretoria in a senior post. This family trek was exacerbated by John’s workaholic tendencies and addiction to stress. But at the point of the move to Pretoria, Ntombi launched her efforts to enlist in the post-apartheid army and, despite many obstacles, she became part of the permanent force, retiring as a lieutenant-colonel. Relentless in her pursuit of order and efficiency she valued and made friends with conservative whites whom she describes as practical, skilful and direct.

Some of this idiosyncratic book describes Covid-19 lockdown and its impact on Ntombi, John and Gogo’s three-way relationship. Much of this adaptation will resonate with readers who went through similar experiences in that strange time of the pandemic. John has a well-developed sense of humour, for instance wondering about his father Fred and his comrade Bram Fischer in ‘whatever place in Communist heaven some committee has sent them to’ (p. 166). But when he suggests that the apartheid regime’s policy towards the African population amounted to genocide, he is on shaky historical ground. Exploitation not planned extermination was the government’s aim, although it did indeed cause many preventable deaths.

After lifetimes of struggle against apartheid, John describes the ANC as ‘beyond any kind of salvation’ (p. 4); while Ntombi sees it ‘leeching off the state’ and thoroughly corrupt (pp. 112‒13). Their joint retirement project involves building a second rural home and they have assisted Ntombi’s uncle Abel Mdluli, an inyanga. They provided shelves for his hundreds of bottles, but John’s plan to link him with the Medical Research Council hit unexpected obstacles.

Given the challenges that face the world as a whole, and South Africa in particular, it is Ntombi’s approach to life that lingers with the reader. Her frugality is apt at a time of power and water shortages, and maybe food crises in the future. Her belief in learning by doing and not relying on technology is worth emulating as is her networking skill, presumably derived from growing up in a close deep-rooted community.