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Updated: Mar 28, 2022

Brian Pottinger, author of the recently released personal memoir, I Em Smiling*, talks about his family and its links to this part of the world.

D H Lawrence famously said one should never return to an old love affair. I did. It is called the KwaZulu Natal North Coast.

After a thirty- year absence, my wife and I returned five years ago to these verdant hills and golden shores for what was to be a temporary visit. We are still here. Both my paternal and maternal grandfathers arrived in Durban in 1906: the former escaping an affair of the heart and the latter poverty in his native Mauritius. Frederick Pottinger died tragically young but Joseph Marot lived to a ripe old age, founding a family farming enterprise that at various stages encompassed what is now West Simbithi, Mount Richmore and Dunkirk Estate...

It sadly fell to me to dismantle it as chair of the family business. By then the numerous shareholders were spread over four generations and four continents and the smaller farming units were proving intractably unprofitable.

I spent much of my youthful summers on Tongaat Beach (now Westbrook), went to school and University in Durban, served with the infantry in Ladysmith and began my first journalistic job on The Daily News. That is about as local as one can get.

The spur to writing my family memoir, I Em Smiling, was the oldest conceit of all: that future generations should not completely forget what went before. All of us have rich family histories and all deserve to be preserved for posterity, even if only scribblings on a sheaf of A4 paper.

My traceable heritage in the maternal line dates to the French Revolution when numbers of royalists fled to Mauritius. My grandfather was born to a wealthy island estate but it suffered, it was whispered, “a catastrophic loss of family fortune”. It drove him here in a barque so low in the water one could reach out one’s hand and touch the ocean. With only the five pounds required for disembarkation at Durban port, he started as an electrician at the Maidstone Mill and ended up mill manager before becoming a successful independent planter.

I still seem to hear his French-accented voice as I load another pile of lawn dressing on my garden, land he once farmed: “Quelle blague….seeez land is only worthless sand.” Yet he farmed, loved and preserved every hectare of his farms.

I first remember this coast as cane lands, unpoliced beaches, small hotels where one sneaked under-age beers and clusters of shops at Umhlali, Salt Rock and Old Ballito. My mother’s memories were of three- month summer holidays at Tongaat Beach, the family and retainers brought thence by mule cart, of Deepavali in Tongaat and the colourfully dressed cane cutters thronging the station on their way back to Pondoland at season’s end.

My grandfather’s first impressions were certainly of open and unseeded land, tracked with dirt roads and set in a colony still recovering from one war and engaged in another in the form of the brutal suppression of a local rebellion. Researching these lives, one indeed understands the saying: the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. Should future generations ever read my story of a carefree, sun-blasted youth, border wars, a career in journalism and writing, Harvard, business operations throughout Africa, a restaurant in a quaint Cornish fishing village and a return home as the Prodigal Son, they might also say that the past is indeed a foreign country.

*The title refers to the occasion the forbidding former Prime Minister John Vorster was asked by a photographer to smile. “I Em Smiling, demmit”, he replied. It is one of the many anecdotes from the author’s experience as Editor and political journalist. The work is available on Amazon and Smashwords in print, Kindle and ebook formats

Brian Pottinger was born in Durban of English-Mauritian extraction. He was educated at the University of KwaZulu Natal and Harvard where he was a fellow of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism. He spent over 30 years in media and entertainment businesses in South Africa and Anglophone Africa, first as journalist, Editor and Publisher of the Sunday Times and later as a media management specialist. He and his wife Sue owner-ran a Cornish bistro-restaurant for five years before returning to South Africa in 2016 where they now live on the North Coast. He was chair of the family-owned Tara Sugar Estates for many years and is author of eight books.


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