Even though Greeks have not been in South Africa long they have played an important role in the freedom struggle.
The horror of facing the onetime beauty Medusa with a million snakes writhing from her head. On the trail of the Golden Fleece. Medea, killing her children. A King falling from Sounion in despair that his son was dead, while in reality the son had merely forgotten his father, in his joy to have defeated the Minotaur. Soaring with Pegasus the winged-horse. Powerful goddesses that could hunt, fight or tame a wild owl. A mother’s committed searching for a daughter snatched by Hades. The stories and characters that prepared me for conflict, pain and also joy. These are the stories that as a Greek child I grew up with and that shaped who I am today and why I cannot turn down a challenge or a good cause.
Being a Greek person in South Africa is not always easy. It’s not just about “kleftiko” roasting in the oven with the rosemary permeating the house. Oily hands from making “kourambiedes” with “yiayia”, placing the cloves neatly in the middle of the moon-shaped biscuit or about dancing to the gay bouzouki and breaking plates. It’s about always being different and proudly so. It’s about a close knit family that intensely tackles life and follows established traditions. Perhaps it was that closeness and inflexibility that resulted in Dimitri Tsafendas, the illegitimate child of a Cretan father and a coloured Mozambican woman ending his days in a mental asylum. Our greatest desire is to belong to a family and to a community and in those days Tsafendas a child of mixed race was probably not very well accepted by either parent’s family. At school he was ridiculed for his complexion and called “blackie”. Perhaps a loving supportive mother, an aunt or father could have advised and kept his temperament under control and helped him to have a happier life. Nevertheless, he ended up stabbing and killing, the architect of apartheid, Hendrik Verwoerd and shaping South Africa’s history. Did this Greek hero like so many others offend the gods of Olympus? Was his fault narcissism or greed for riches or fame? How horrifying to have the Midas touch and to turn your dear child to a statue of gold. It seems Greek myths were more than fanciful stories but rather a psychological analysis of how brilliance can fall or be twisted.
The Judge, Andries Beyer’s summarised his abhorrence for Tsafendas with his comment: “I can as little try a man who has not at least the makings of a rational mind as I could try a dog or an inert implement. He is a meaningless creature!” Thus with this comment Tsafendas was spared the death penalty but condemned to a life time imprisonment and abuse by prison warders. Dimitri Tsafendas lived to the ripe old age of 81 surrounded by psychiatry patients rather than a brood of grandchildren. He seemed to have extraordinary intelligence and could speak eight languages but was incapable of giving and receiving love.
Another Greek South African icon George Bizos, is a far more happy and content life to emulate. Here is a man who as a young teenager, started off leaving his family village with his father to help stranded allied soldiers reach safety. Like the hero Odysseus he did not see his family for many years and went through many struggles and challenges in life which he overcame with cunning and maintaining the moral high ground. Bizos’ life course seemed set for mediocrity till a wise lady recognised him from a newspaper article and gave him the encouragement he needed to complete his education and become a well-respected lawyer. He was not afraid of standing up for his beliefs even when they were not popular amongst his community and friends. He waited many years before his support and friendship of Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki and Walter Sisulu gave him the recognition of a hero and a creator of a democratic South Africa.
Within each South African Greek dwells an afro-euro contest of the heart. The Hellenic culture, religion and history, versus the land of birth with its sights and smells of Africa. Greek melodies and traditions pull this way and the wild African bush the other. Life is just a “tsamiko” a backwards and forwards, controlled and stately dance of negotiation, betrayal, heartache, love, despair and passion. The smells of frankincense and myrrh and the mystery of the Greek Orthodox Church. A reminder of sweet joy and the sadness of mourning. Even though Greeks have not been in South Africa long we have tasted both and our history and emotions are part of Africa.