At a time when few Americans had any consciousness of Africa, Donanne Ralston was living the life of an American diplomat’s daughter in South Africa. Here’s her account of what that was like.
We were living in Port Elizabeth in the Union of South Africa, a busy Indian Ocean port on Algoa Bay. My dad Don Ralston was the American Consul. We had been in P.E. for almost two years, my mom Tommyanne (Tom) helping him succeed.
Now it seemed that everything was about to change. There was talk that my dad would be transferred, possibly to Johannesburg, possibly to the Foreign Service Inspection Corps in Washington. The Nationalist Party government was about to take the country out of the British Commonwealth and proclaim it a republic. The armed opposition to apartheid was just getting organized.
And I was about to be eighteen.
Before that happened, our family of three would travel the length of the continent, from Cape to Cairo and into Europe beyond. We would go on the embassy’s military attaché plane as it flew to Europe for its periodic overhaul. The aircraft was a C-47 (or DC-3 in civilian lingo) that sat on runways with its nose in the air and its tail close to the ground. You entered near the back and walked uphill towards the cockpit. We three and the captain’s wife were to be the only civilians on board
Naturally, we were looking forward to this month-long adventure. For a short while my dad would escape his official duties; in his absence the Vice Consul would mind the store. My mom would have a change of pace from constant hostessing and helping good causes in the community. And for a time I would leave the between-studies social whirl in which I found myself. These sacrifices we were all willing to make!
The trip was to be a last vacation together before something momentous happened in my life. In a few short months I would leave for college in the States. The trip was a reward of sorts to each of us for doing our jobs well.
The consulate had various responsibilities. It compiled reports on the local economy to aid US businesses in evaluating investment opportunities. It acted as a resource for Americans abroad: issued passports and visas, registered births, witnessed marriages and even made itself available to settle disputes between US seamen and masters. It tracked the coming and going of US ships. As the “official American presence,” my dad represented America: attended local functions, gave talks to businessmen’s organizations in towns throughout the Eastern Cape, did occasional reporting on local politics and reached out to resident Americans, of whom about 200 were locally employed by such companies as Ford, General Motors and Coca Cola.
The fifth largest city in the Union, Port Elizabeth welcomed almost 200,000 visitors a year. Half arrived by land, half by sea. They came to enjoy the wide white sand beaches or visit the Snake Park and that favorite of mine, Addo Elephant Park. (There at sunset you could watch pygmy elephants come down the hill to eat oranges. One of them had lost most of its trunk but managed deftly to lift the oranges by holding them between snout and foot.) Other attractions included yachting, surfing, camping, game fishing and golfing at one of the numerous courses, complete with watching out for puff adders in the rough. When the visitors were Americans – and there were about 500 a year – my dad’s job was to help them out of whatever difficulties in which they managed to entangle themselves.
My mother’s jobs, unofficial, but quite extensive, are the subject of the next post.
Besides helping out at parties (which I loved!) and subbing at my dad’s office (a good experience) when secretaries were away, I also had a job – though it was never presented to me in that way. My job was to represent the family well and to be unofficially the town’s “official American teenager” (and the only full-time one). A little unexpectedly I found myself a minor personality, occasionally mentioned in the papers.
When the headmistress admitted me as the first American to attend The Collegiate School for Girls, she warned that “politics and religion” were not discussed on campus. This was fine with me. I did not yet have political opinions. We purchased the uniform: hat, clunky shoes, blazer, shirt, jumper (three inches above the knee when kneeling). As I was getting on my bike one day after school my first week, the science teacher hollered at me. And so I learned that hat-wearing was not optional. When she realized I was “the American,” she softened. We had a get-acquainted chat while I donned the hat and prepared to cycle off.
The Collegiate girls were very welcoming and I quickly made friends. We began each day in the meeting room/gym. There the headmistress spoke and led responsive readings in our psalm books followed by the Lord’s Prayer. We passed quietly through the halls monitored by upper class prefects, sat at “old fashion” lidded desks with inkwells, stood quietly when the teachers entered, did a lot of memorizing and of course looked forward to holidays. The boarders went home and the day students enjoyed lovely parties where there were BOYS from Grey, our brother school: beach parties and dances, braivleis barbecues and dances, house parties, garden parties and dances. One favorite dance was the compelling “kwela” with its captivating pennywhistle accompaniment. One wonderful night the African maids came out of the kitchen and danced with us!
For finishing touches after a year at Collegiate, I enrolled in a technical school, studying bookkeeping, shorthand and poetry. Tom arranged for me to take “real” sewing lessons from an American friend and gave me opportunities to do some cooking.
That had been our life in South Africa. Now it was May. I had passed the Scholastic Aptitude Test sent from the States and after anxious waiting had been accepted to Principia, the college of my choice. The Cape to Cairo trip would be a time for the three of us to be together before I left home.
Next post: How Tommyanne Ralston, American Consul’s wife, served US interests in Port Elizabeth – and without pay.
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