On 26th January 2007, South Africa lost one of its greatest fans, one its greatest heroes and one if its greatest ambassadors, all wrapped in the one form of that splendidly spellbinding storyteller David Rattray. The tale of the crime has already covered enough newspaper inches so now we can allow ourselves to go beyond that and to look more thoughtfully at what he represented for tourism in our country and how his legacy is to be preserved and perpetuated.
After David’s death, we South Africans spent weeks obsessing over crime statistics. We were quoted in the British press making absurd claims about the lethal risks associated with travelling the R33 from Greytown to Dundee while, in the meantime, the British were putting us to shame. Adopting full-on stiff upper lip mode and regardless of erroneous advice against it, they poured into Fugitives’ Drift, David’s lodge, to show support for the family and to hear the story they had booked to hear.
Battlefield guides continue to expound David’s stories on the historical sites of Natal and Zululand. Indeed his voice can still be heard ringing out across the hills from the CDs he made as his contribution to the maintaining of the Zulu oral tradition. His new book and final work, A Soldier-Artist in Zululand, tells his story in writing, using as its backdrop the remarkable watercolours of William Whitelocke Lloyd, painted during the Anglo-Zulu War.
A highly capable team of lecturers tells the story as taught by the master storyteller but now they add their own explanations as to how David himself became a part of his own story in the heart of Zululand. One of David’s last expressed wishes was that a Zulu should be able to deliver the lectures, indeed he maintained that if that were to be possible, he would have completed his life’s work, and Joseph Ndima, a highly sensitive and polished lecturer, is the embodiment of that wish. Rob Caskie is an exceptionally accomplished lecturer and was deeply involved with David in his ongoing study of the Anglo-Zulu War. He also assisted with the research for the book. Rob and Joseph have recently been joined by Ian Boyd, another tourism stalwart and history enthusiast who also now relates the story with great skill.
Fugitives’ Drift has moved on and is now incorporating David’s work and beliefs into the lectures. They discuss the impact of his work and influence on leaders from around the world. Guests are now encouraged to share ideas, to learn more about the modern-day South Africa and to explore its hopes and fears. With the over-ridingly positive attitudes that have always emanated from David’s talks and from the close relationship that the Lodge has maintained with the surrounding community, guests are now treated to an even broader insight into what makes South Africa such a complicated and intriguing country.
David Rattray believed in the future and Fugitives’ Drift is firmly putting out his message of reconciliation. His influence first kicked in during the run-up to the 1994 elections when we were still in the days of meaningful political negotiation. Power bases were being established as much as they were being whittled away and everything was in the balance. The battle was on for the soul of South Africa and the Zulus were at the heart of it. Fugitive’s Drift was right in the middle of it all and David spoke the local language and counted many high-ranking Zulus among his personal friends long before he began to mix, with equal influence later in his life, with high-powered industrialists, the aristocracy and the British royal family.
He was consulted by politicians and academics, journalists and commentators alike, all keen to talk to someone who could make sense of it all but also someone without any axe to grind. This was South African hospitality in its finest hour, offering what the visitor needed at that watershed moment. Offering insight. No longer was Natal to be the sole preserve of South African families on budget holidays to The Berg and The Beach. Jobs were created and a new concept in South Africa ‘the Battlefields Experience’ emerged.
In fact, it not only emerged but it flourished. It is a genre all of its own. I don’t think there are 100 tourists per day weeping at the feet of storytellers at the site of The Little Bighorn or at Agincourt or at Bannockburn. Not even at Delville Wood, where the trees make weeping crosses, are such moving tales told that turn a visit from a moment of curiosity into an ongoing pilgrimage. But it happens every day at Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift and with David gone, a visit to the Lodge has a special poignancy.
Audiences now increasingly learn to understand our country from a new perspective. David used to explain South African history, not from the viewpoint of this side or that side, but from all sides. He talked of the pendulum of history swinging according to whose version was acceptable at the time. His listeners, like members of a club or bearers of a secret, came back again and again to share more deeply. They sent their friends and the concept grew to benefit more and more people.
Living in a far-flung rural community has its responsibilities and David saw this very clearly. The more well-heeled the tourists who appeared at his lodge, the more the contrasts were thrown up with the way the local people lived. He and his wife Nicky understood that the answer was not to throw money, or handouts, at the situation but rather to structure how the donations were spent and to educate as a part of a process.
It started as a milk fund for the local school and grew into substantial support, including computerisation, for several schools in the Rorke’s Drift and Isandlwana areas and then into the funding of loans for the further education of local matriculants. Thus it became a full education for those who truly valued one. To David this kind of community support made sense and was further evidence of what he perceived to be the special relationship that had always existed between the Zulus and people of British descent, in which the war of 1879 was just an unfortunate blip. He also believed that this kind of relationship was the key to the future of South Africa. He built on it by visibly demonstrating his growing admiration for the culture which surrounded him and which, in many ways, he adopted as a model for the hlonipha-style of respect that he showed for all whom he met and for his increasingly high-powered guests.
The newly formed David Rattray Foundation has been set up to continue this work and to extend it. The significant sums raised since David’s death are already making a difference in the community and this lasting legacy will be funded by membership fees, fund-raising and ongoing lectures by prominent South Africans, in Johannesburg and in London, with a theme of reconciliation between the peoples of South Africa. Schools will be built and good relations will be forged, alleviating poverty and building social capital. A number of prominent South Africans have agreed to serve on the board of the Foundation.
David’s death is a loss to all of South Africa. With his going, we have lost an icon. An icon, in the same way that Table Mountain, Cape Point and the Kruger National Park are all icons, and an integral part of our country that will never be replaced and without which it will never be quite the same.
But we have also kept a concept and a hope. British people, and people of British descent, you can be quite sure, will continue to visit Fugitives’ Drift to hear David’s story told by his successors, they way he taught them to tell it. It takes more than a pointless random murder to put them all off and in coming they will now hear a new story whilst furthering David’s work in rural communities of KwaZulu-Natal.
Both the Lodge and the Foundation are setting out to spread the word as to the potential that exists, partly as a result of David Rattray’s positive view of the future; namely that South Africa is the sum of all its people and, with the right leadership, with mutual respect and with constant reference back to our history, total reconciliation is possible and the future is bright.
And tourism, both local and international, can, and should, help to unlock that future.
For more information on Fugitives’ Drift Lodge and the David Rattray Foundation, or to order a copy of David Rattray’s set of CDs ‘The Day of the Dead Moon’ or his book ‘A Soldier-Artist in Zululand’, telephone 034 642 1843 or email email@example.com.
The fee for this article has been donated to the David Rattray Foundation.