JOHANNESBURG - It is an imaginary line in the sand. You can see it on the map, and as you move towards it, you keep looking out for its physical manifestation, as a fence, or some other mark in the landscape.
At one point you could take a few steps off the road and the map tells you, you’d be at the line. On the other side of the line would be another country.
This, of course, is the story of neighbours, of people divided from one another by fences. On this side of the line the signs are in English and Siswati with occasional bits of Xitsonga. On the other side, Portuguese.
This is the road to the Samora Machel Monument at Mbuzini, skirting along the border between South Africa and Mozambique.
In the landscape itself the bush remains the same: it rolls on and on over the hillsides, such that it becomes difficult to tell, consistently, where South Africa ends and where Mozambique begins.
Of course, it takes little reflection to realise it was not always thus. Surely, before the carving up of Africa by colonial conquistadores, the relations between people in this part of the world would have been organised differently, both peacefully and in conflict.
But, here we are, just over a few centuries of human time, and the evidence of thirty years reminds us of the power of the relatively new schisms, the relatively new lines.
And in this monument at Mbuzini, we remind ourselves of old wounds unhealed, old questions unanswered, perhaps unanswerable, such that it becomes the mark of difference and similarity between us, between one country and another, and between the people, Mozambicans and South Africans.
The remains of the Tupolev Tu-134 are neither really scattered, nor carefully arranged, but something in-between, around the memorial site. Maputo is a mere 65km away, just a bit more than the distance between Pretoria and Johannesburg. The border is within walking distance.
And still … we have travelled a long road together, our two countries and before these countries existed, the ancestors of the people who now live here.
The location of the 1986 crash in which Samora Machel, freedom fighter and President of Mozambique, perished along with 33 other human beings, is now a national heritage site. There are Portuguese and English books in a local library, we are told, and the museum itself uses both languages in its installations.
In other ways, the links between Mozambique and South Africa reveal our closeness.
The connections between the two countries could be symbolised by the fact that Machel’s widow, and the Minister of Education of the Marxist Republic of Mozambique from 1975 to 1989, is also the widow of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the President of the Republic of South Africa from 1994 until 1999.
Mozambicans live among us now; they have lived among us for a long time and some of us have sought and been given refuge there, also for a long time. We have buried our dead there and they have buried their dead here. Our fates, it would seem, remain intertwined. We have not always agreed, but like neigbours the world over, we have had to work out how to live together. We have not finished working that out.
Still, that line in the sand is no accidental marker, nor is it negligible. Despite the proximity, despite the close and embodied interpersonal connections, some of those now deeply buried in the soil on either side of the line, we remain separate, and separated.
South Africa is the wealthier, more powerful neighbour. Mozambique is the poorer neighbour. And we in South Africa have a long history of being the bad neighbour. We are better neighbours now, we tell ourselves, though much work remains to improve our ways of being together.
Standing at this memorial, one is confronted with more questions than answers.
One is moved, but also, one is compelled to work towards empathy, listening to the stories of the people here, thirty years on. Their memories and mis-memories, of what happened, to whom, and in what time frame and the unanswered questions of the descendants of those who perished in this terrible event on that October day in 1986, must not be dismissed.
The rain begins to fall. Mduduzi, a guide who lives in the village needs to go home. He has been patient in his explanation, answering our shy questions. He was here when it happened; he was eight years old.
It is late-afternoon, he reverts to Siswati, and is suddenly much more voluble, clearer in his explanations, which I follow with my tragically hesitant, inadequate isiZulu. There are lines between us, marked audibly, though we are supposedly on the same side of that line separating South Africa from Mozambique.
His facial expression is markedly different speaking in his mother tongue, more alive, more focused on what he is telling us, no longer halting or stumbling in his speech, as he had when guiding us in English. The transition from memory and thought to speech smoother, much more engaging, the story suddenly more intimate, more textured. Even as I work towards understanding across three languages, and precisely because of this, the experience is richer, for me, and visibly, for him.
It is a suitable end to a difficult visit here, to this borderland, this territory where three countries meet in multiple tongues. I watched a man trapped inside the invisible lines of one language step into the domain of his mother tongue. I watched him step from the confines of a rigid script delivered by an employed professional into the looser-fitting and more comfortable lines of a language I did not speak and could only grasp at third-hand.
Beyond the hills covered in bush to the east, there was another language, another tongue, another country. What did we have in common?
Mourning, loss, and the profound sense of the wound we shared, the wound of the past, of what we did to one another, what we did for one another. The rain, not quite forgiveness, a reminder of reprieve, to allow for new ways ahead. We have not always been the best of neighbours.
Perhaps, like Mduduzi, we must all learn to step across lines. After all, for the moment, we can still step back. One day, by continuously stepping back and forth like that, the lines may be erased altogether. After all, they were not always there.
Perhaps our wounds may heal, even as our scars will not disappear. Lines are also scars, after all.