By Peter Fraenkel

There were no lynch mobs in Northern Rhodesia. Our racism took different forms. In the 1950s many shops did not admit Africans but served them through side hatches. Queues at the post office were segregated and Africans were served after Europeans had been. Public toilets were not only labelled male” and “female” but also “European”, “Asian” or “African”. One did not meet Africans in European households – except as servants. Whites reiterated repeatedly “A thousand years! That’s what it will for them to reach our level of civilisation.”

One of the few whites who defied the mores of that society was a young New Zealander, Merran. She was the administrative secretary of the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute for Social Research. She encouraged Africans to use the institutes’ library and usually offered readers a cup of tea. If they needed to use a toilet she directed them to her “European” toilet.

Despite this eccentricity she was invited of European households, at least in the beginning. There was a shortage of white women, especially of attractive ones.

However, at one of these household there was an incident which will have caused some gossip in the community. An African “houseboy”, serving at table, brought the dish from the “wrong side” – or what the hostess considered the wrong side. She got up, seized a table napkin and whipped the man to the “right” side.

Merran simply got up from table without a word and walked out of the house.

She found it difficult to cope with the constant abuse of Africans as stupid, unteachable, probably dirty. However, if she dissented this would lead to lengthy, boring arguments. “You’re new here,” they would tell her, “you’ll soon learn better.”

But after a while she found a quick way of ending these pointless discussions.

“Of course,” she would say, “you can’t expect me to see it quite your way – having a Maori grandmother. She wasn’t dirty. She didn’t smell. She didn’t steal either.”

That grandmother was a creative fiction. Perhaps it was fortunate that in those days, in that place, few knew what a Maori looked like – nor a Maori’s granddaughter.

Years later this incident had reactions which still puzzle me over 50 years later. I published memoirs “No fixed abode”. It mentioned Merran – who had become my wife many years earlier. The book attracted many reviews in Southern Africa, still white-dominated at that period. That short paragraph about the fictitious grandmother received more criticism than anything else in a book of some 250 pages. It was an “outrageous lie!” said several critics.

If she had laid claim to aristocratic titles to which she had no right, I doubt that it would have attracted so much abuse.

I still wonder: Why?