Gordon Bruce was born in 1922 in Bath, in the west of England, about twelve miles from Bristol. In those days, as he puts it, 'cars were never even thought of in my family'. His father was a schoolmaster, and he recalls the 'picture in my mind of him walking home with the headmaster, walking side by side - I've never forgotten this, I don't know why - and they were deep in serious conversation, and for the whole of their lives the idea of getting into a car, and doing this by car, would never have entered their minds.'
By the end of the Second World War, Gordon had joined an organisation called Federal Union 'which was trying to create a world federal government, during and after the war. All this was very interesting, but suddenly I realised that world government wasn't something you could just fish out of your hat, by working hard for it and all that sort of thing. There were certain obstacles in the way and one was of course racism, and one or two black people pointed out to me that I might see world government as a thing oriented on the Western, predominantly white, countries - America and the European countries.' And this is what brought him to South Africa.
'I thought the best opportunity to study racism, and to become familiar with it in practical terms, was to come to South Africa. My original intention was only to stay here a few years, but when I returned from London in 1958 I met my wife and we married.'
His late wife Ursula and her family were refugees from Nazi Germany. The Bruces settled in the Yeoville area, where 85-year-old Gordon still lives, at the Larmenier Village at Nazareth House. Though run by the Catholic Church, the residence is nondenominational. 'I, for one, am, a rather inadequate term, but we'll call it an agnostic,' he explains. 'My wife was Jewish, and many people here don't have any religious observances, but they enjoy the benefits of the building and eat in the dining room and so on.' Alongside the retirement village, Nazareth House runs a home for HIV-positive orphaned and abandoned babies, a hospice, and an outpatient antiretroviral clinic. Many of their patients are 'non-citizens', whom government hospitals and clinics turn away. So, while to many eyes Yeoville appears to have changed beyond recognition over the past decade, in one respect it hasn't changed at all: it remains a haven for immigrants and refugees. Though now, for the most part, they are from the African continent.
Yeoville has always been an accessible area for him and his family to live in, says Gordon. 'I've always found it quite easy to get around on buses. My outdoor excursions normally take me particularly to Rosebank. I go to Hillbrow police station, and I get off the bus there, cross the road, and get on the other one. I have used minibus taxis. I find it very convenient to get a taxi to go into town, but coming back I find it much easier to get on a bus.'
And Yeoville has always been a pedestrian-friendly suburb. 'I think that walking gives you a different experience of your environment,' he reflects, 'because if you're car-borne the whole time you almost have a blind eye to certain social realities. If you walk you have decidedly closer contact with others, if only because you're moving at a much slower rate than you would do in a car, and you absorb the atmosphere around you.'
His observation about having a blind eye is unexpected, since his wife Ursula, with whom he enjoyed many walks, was blind. 'Going over rough ground was a problem, of course, so I tried to avoid that kind of walk with her. But she wasn't a person who cowered within her living quarters.' And he adds, almost in answer to my unspoken question: 'You don't have to be blind to do that, some people seem to do it psychologically.'
Strangely, though his son David is also a dedicated walker, they have not done much walking together. Gordon recalls one of his favourite walks, showing me on a map: 'If you walk right up Webb Street' - the street in which he lives - 'to the end... at the very top, as far as you can go, there is a green place on the top of Bezuidenhout Ridge. You walk two to three kilometres and eventually you get back onto the main road, through Rockey Street and up to Observatory. David and I did it once about six months after he came out of jail.' David, who had spent two years in jail for refusing to do military service during the worst days of apartheid, had commented at his trial on his decision to go to jail rather than leave the country. He said that he did not want to flee from racism in the way that his mother had been forced to.
I suggest to Gordon that some would argue that the streets of Yeoville are no longer safe, but he disagrees. 'Yes, well you see this is a creation of people's minds. Shall we say in 33 per cent. It's how you view yourself and how you feel about things around you. My conviction of walking through Yeoville is that 99 per cent of the people walking past, apart from the colour of their skins, they're just like me, just going about their daily business. And the odd number of people who are gangsters, or what I would like to call make-believe gangsters, don't bother about an old man with a walking stick! I'm always a bit mystified by people who talk about "Ooh, Yeoville, it's such a dangerous place."' He agrees, though, that it's inadvisable to walk at night.
His only negative walking experience was not in Yeoville but about twenty years ago in the upmarket shopping haven in Rosebank. And 'this wasn't a violent experience,' he says. 'Two or three men... I used a little narrow path with bushes on either side to get from the back end of the Mall down to a lower street, because I had to visit a doctor in the street below after I'd done some shopping. As I went down, I was about halfway down, two men approached me from behind, and they were amazingly courteous about it. I didn't have any violence in the strict sense at all. He just said: "I've got a knife here. Don't do anything, and you'll be all right. I want to go through your pockets." Luckily I didn't have much money on me. What I did lose was my watch, and that was all. There was nothing else they could take.'
For the most part, walking is what has kept him healthy. 'I was a very sick person as a child,' he says, 'and consequently I virtually never played games, sports, or anything of that kind. But I was fit enough to join the Air Force at the age of nineteen, and that was in a way what made my life for me because I'd been living a very protected life until then. It was quite a shaking experience for the first few weeks, as you can imagine, but I managed it, and I went through all the normal drill that you have to do for the first four weeks in any armed force, and the physical exercise.
'I survived all that and worked on a bomber station on the Eastern side of Lincolnshire. I joined up on the 31st of December 1941. I had volunteered for flying before, at least twice, but I was rejected. The first medical they said my eyesight wasn't good enough. So I wasn't accepted for flying. I probably wouldn't be talking to you today if I had been because they had a fantastic death rate, about eighty or ninety thousand Air Force personnel who were involved in flying during the Second World War. But I did a lot of other work, checking on intelligence reports brought back by bomber pilots on their return from flying over Germany, collating this information. Then I was sent to Burma. We got to Rangoon about two or three weeks after the Japanese had walked out. They were evacuating Burma, and British Services came in behind them.'
There was a time when Gordon attempted to get a driver's licence. 'It's a rather doleful topic, really,' he says. 'I took driving lessons here, and during the period that I went overseas I continued them in London, and finally returning here I carried on again. I'd taken the test many times, and I was with the test official. Finally he said, "You know, until we came to that last robot I was just about to give you your licence, but then unfortunately you made a mistake, so I can't give it to you today, but I'm sure you'll get it next time." I became so disillusioned with this that I just gave up at that point. It was very stupid of me actually, I'm sure I would have got it the next time.' It makes me wonder how his life, and his attitudes, would have been different if he'd become a driver.
'It's been quite exciting living through transformation in South Africa,' he tells me. 'White people here had got into a way of thinking racism was a natural part of life, having a group of people who you more or less regarded as your inferiors, at least those who did all the work, and who occupied a place that was convenient for the working of the industrial nation.
'It's a triumph for all the people of South Africa. Perhaps not an unmitigated triumph, but it's still a triumph all the same. There is an element of disillusionment in it. It seemed before that we only had to have a black government and we would be on top, as it were. People are beginning to realise now, painfully I think in some cases, that having a black government is not the only thing. You need education. You need training and industrial skills, and those things cannot be done in five or ten years, they take a much longer period, perhaps twenty, thirty, forty, even half a century. You quantify the growth of freedom with being able to be a skilled worker, for one thing, and not just doing all the unskilled jobs. Being able to share in the education that you've seen white children having in the past.' Until his retirement, Gordon worked as a clerk for Afrox, African Oxygen Limited.
I wonder what he imagines for the future of South Africa. 'I often give this some thought,' he says. 'One of the things that will happen is that there'll be tremendous integration between the countries on the African continent; shall we say southern Africa, I think. And by integration I'm not thinking merely of black and white people living in the same suburb, but more in the sphere of what you do, in life, you know. I think these things will change dramatically.
'I mean we already have a black president, but he isn't really representative of what I'm thinking of. Because what has happened at the present moment is you have empowered a certain group of people, and they are predominantly middle-class black people. And those are the people who are really beginning to wield power here. But there's still another group, the unskilled worker for example, the person who is virtually a slum-dweller, if you ask those people to express what they really feel they would probably tell you something along the lines that we haven't really got what we were looking for. But that can only come with education. It's not an easy thing to do.'
In June 2007 the government reported that 43 per cent of South Africans live on less than R250 a month; and 14 million South Africans don't know where their next meal is coming from. As of 2007, South Africa is also 'the planet's fourth most efficient producer of dollar millionaires'.
When I ask Gordon what he thinks historians will make of the time we're living through, he returns to his earlier thoughts. 'It's a period of adjustment to what is virtually a kind of world citizenship. It's quite clear that not even the United States has the power to control the world, in totality, in the way that Hitler visualised controlling Europe. All that is passé as far as I'm concerned. We're living in a period now where we're all adjusting to being citizens of a single society really. It'll take a long time, but there's no going back.
'It's the end of the old system in Russia. We've come to the end of that historical period, and we're now embarking on a period of integration, some form or another. Spiritual integration perhaps is almost a more realistic way of looking at it, because technology and the material unification can only be achieved over a long period. But I think we're at the moment coming into an era of envisaging that in some way or other the world belongs to everybody, in a spiritual sense. We move all around all over the world. The only limit to moving around the world is your bank balance. It's possible to move right around the world in a few days. A week, ten days perhaps. So all this is something which we're beginning to come to terms with.'
And his personal future? 'I'm reasonably fit, and I hope to be so for some years ahead because, if I don't crumble, I hope to do some writing on the subject of people who emigrate to a satellite of another sun in our galaxy.
'I started being interested in science fiction many years ago, and then of course I realised that we have already embarked on the early stages of something that seemed almost fictional twenty, thirty, forty years ago. Now there's no reason why we shouldn't accomplish the rest. But it will be very hard, because the bulk of the colonists will never return home.'
I comment on the parallel with his own environment, in Yeoville, surrounded by exiles who for one reason and another might never be able to return home. 'Yes, indeed,' he says soberly, and recalls that he and his wife returned to Europe only three times throughout their lives. Though his younger son Eric now lives in Bristol.
Returning his attention to beyond the borders of our planet, he says: 'You see all these institutions, and space ships, are primarily now in the hands of the United States, but that won't last forever. So I rather think that before too much time has passed there will be a new kind of exploration. This would be with the purpose of finding suitable places for us to live in our galaxy.' And the consequences of man's desire to colonise other spaces is never far from his mind. 'What happens if we meet intelligent beings? What is going to happen to them, to us? Are we going to be able to forge any kind of good relationship, or is it going to involve further war? If there are other beings, are they already watching us, wondering what we're going to do with our newfound power, preparing to defend themselves, perhaps?'
archive - issue 14