UKZN alumnus Professor John Nieuwenhuysen has published a book, Ngoanyana – A South African Story which is about his life growing up in apartheid South Africa and the anguish he experienced moving to Australia more than 60 years ago.

Born in the Free State, Nieuwenhuysen studied at the then University of Natal from 1954 to 1960, majoring in Economics and African Government. ‘Studying at Natal opened my mind to the realities of the iniquities of apartheid,’ said Nieuwenhuysen. ‘Lecturers such as Violaine Junod and the contact I enjoyed with Liberal Party leaders including Alan Paton changed my perspective on South African politics and I became strongly opposed to racism. Such was my dissatisfaction that I felt obliged to leave South Africa, migrating to Australia in 1963 where I maintained an active anti-apartheid position.’

Nieuwenhuysen, who holds a Master’s degree in Economics from the University of Natal, says he wrote the book to detail his time in South Africa. ‘At the age of 80 on the near horizon of my life with all its accumulated recollections, I was overcome by a strong impulse to record the story of Ngoanyana – the name of our family farm in the Free State – and my departure from the country of my birth. Why should I do this? Perhaps the best answer is the boy’s question at the end of J M Coetzee’s wonderful book, Boyhood: “If I do not remember all the stories, who will”?’

Rhodes scholar and Emeritus Professor at Monash University in Australia Graeme Davison describes the book in the foreword as follows: ‘In his poignant memoir, John remembers his South African birthplace. Ngoanyana is the family farm in the Orange Free State, purchased by his Irish grandfather where, he explains, ‘my deepest belonging lies.’ He evokes the welcoming spaces of the house, its lush perimeters of gardens, the ever present sound of birdsong, the clatter of rain on tin roofs, and the vast starlit sky of the veld. More ruefully, he relives the ‘ostensibly happy’ friendships with the children of the African workers, living close by but a world away from his privileged life.

‘Some sixty years after he left Ngoanyana, John remains captive to its memory. It is a place now irrevocably lost, to which it is no longer possible to return, but nevertheless remains a lodestone in his life. In the diverse and distinguished contributions he has made to Australian life, as an economist, academic and public administrator, and in promoting immigration, multiculturalism, and global understanding, he has continued to draw inspiration from the lessons of his South African childhood and his painful leaving of it. His book is at once an evocative portrait of a lost life, and a moving testament to a life regained.’

Nieuwenhuysen, who holds an Honorary Fellowship Award from Monash University in Australia, has returned to South Africa numerous times since democracy in 1994. ‘I have loved returning to SA following the new democracy and do so most years. Monash University has a beautiful campus outside Johannesburg and it has been great to visit post-apartheid South Africa,’ he said.

Highlights from his illustrious career include receiving an Order of Australia award in 2003 ‘for contribution to independent public and private sector research on multicultural, immigration, equity, indigenous, taxation, labour and industry issues, and for the reform of the liquor laws of Victoria’. The thesis for his PhD at the London School of Economics was titled: The Development of the African Reserves in South Africa.

Speaking about his roots and his family’s origins, Nieuwenhuysen said: ‘My father Johan’s family came to South Africa from Holland in 1895 and settled in Leydenberg. My mother’s McPherson family were from Ireland. My grandfather Daniel McPherson arrived in SA as a soldier in the Irish Fusiliers in 1899 to fight in the Boer War.

Reviews of the book include:

Professor Joe Isaac, Monash University:

‘A moving confession of guilt, remorse, controlled anger and a rejection of a privileged upbringing under apartheid in South Africa, combined with enduring love for that land… a remarkable and inspiring work.’

Professor Bhadra Ranchod, former South African High Commissioner to Australia: ‘This is a beautifully written story, and a compelling read. In a way I have not encountered before, it recalls with great candour the meaning of growing up in apartheid’s world of White privilege.’

Professor David Welsh, University of Cape Town: ‘The Beloved Country, as Alan Paton described South Africa, exerts a strong and enduring hold on its people. But for many of the idealistic young in the days of apartheid, the repellent effect of entrenched racial discrimination was even stronger. John grew up in the hauntingly beautiful eastern OFS in a highly racist society. As a student, he was associated with Alan Paton’s Liberal Party. Sensing that the quest for a non-racial society might not be attained without a bloodbath, he chose to emigrate. But nostalgia for the country of his birth remains strong. This book is a moving account of his life and the difficult decisions he has had to make.’

Ngoanyana – A South African Story is available from a variety of online booksellers.

Words: Raylene Captain-Hasthibeer