At home with South African professor Chris Butler

by Caitlin Butler

The Oxford University professor came to the UK in the early 1990s with his wife Judith, who is from The Netherlands. Photography by Caitlin Butler.

The Oxford University professor came to the UK in the early 1990s with his wife Judith, who is from The Netherlands. Photography by Caitlin Butler.

Afrikaans music and the smell of frying onions fills the kitchen. A chap wearing a hat with the continent of Africa embroidered on it mixes mince, apricots and raisins in a frying pan. The weather is balmy and warm, even though it’s February. This isn’t South Africa, although it feels like it. The weather is unseasonable, and the mince is Quorn. This is my home in Cardiff, where my South African dad is cooking a bobotie for his family.

Bobotie is a favourite dish of South Africa, consisting of curried meat topped with an eggy custard. It is predominantly Afrikaans, made with minced beef or lamb. Dried fruit, almonds and chutney are often added. Although it sounds an unusual combination, the dish itself is delicious.

My dad, Chris Butler, inherited the recipe from his mother Jean, who had Afrikaans heritage herself. He was born in Makhanda in the Eastern Cape. He, and my mother Judith, first came to the UK in 1992, but he left South Africa in 1989 to avoid military conscription. Since then, he has built up a successful career as an academic, researcher and GP. He is a professor at Trinity College, Oxford and is Clinical Director of the Clinical Trials Unit there. His research focuses on common infections, including antibiotics and antibiotic resistance. I am so proud of him and the work he does.

I’m also proud of his delicious meal. It is a pleasure to connect a little more with my heritage, as we rarely go to South Africa. For my dad, it brings back fond memories. “I have a warm memory of eating bobotie in the house we lived in, in the deep, dark days of apartheid in the 1960s,” he tells me. “The world outside, a bit like now, was crazy, with stupid governments doing insane things. But for us, there was this little haven of love, normality and reason. We ate this dish with the family all around; it was a moment of happiness. Doing the same here with our family around the table tonight, and our two dogs, was a similar happy feeling for me.”

what is bobotie?

The origins of the dish, although claimed by the Afrikaners, are actually with Malay slaves brought when South Africa was first colonised. This is where the curry and the fruit element of the dish come from. Bobotie’s mixing of different flavours evokes the vibrancy and multiculturalism of the Rainbow Nation. South Africa is a melting pot of cultures; bobotie is too, incorporating rich, savoury meat, fruity apricots and silky egg. We eat ours with another South African staple; tangy Mrs. Balls chutney. It’s hard to compare such diversity of flavours with the simple English roast.

As well as fruity chutney, bobotie is often traditionally accompanied by walnuts or bananas. Photography by Caitlin Butler.

As well as fruity chutney, bobotie is often traditionally accompanied by walnuts or bananas. Photography by Caitlin Butler.

Although not necessarily homesick for his home country, my dad is nostalgic for its warm weather and high skies. “I don’t long back to be living under a fascist regime, but I do miss some of the values that were current among our family and our family’s circle.” My dad’s immediate contact was with liberals who opposed the regime. “We appreciated the interpersonal contact with like-minded people and the debate we were able to have, although in the private domain.” Privacy was essential when discussing politics during the days of apartheid.

For my dad, difficult choices had to be made. He fled to avoid National Service, or military conscription, but it was a difficult decision to do so instead of attempting to try and change his country from within. He also faced danger to his personal safety. “When we were students, going on protest marches, the police would quite readily shoot us, or attack us with whips and dogs. Protest marches here, the police are there to protect you. In deciding to join a march, you knew this was going to be at some personal risk. It was a society in which I was confronted with contradictions, bad laws, poverty and prejudice every day. It was a brutal dictatorship.”

There was also difficulty with knowing who to trust. He describes how, occasionally, he would be shocked to discover friends were actually spies, or secret government supporters. “It is vaguely analogous to finding a person you were friendly with is a Brexiteer,” he says, a fervent Remainer. “It is a different order of magnitude. But you chose who you were associated with and what you did. It affected human relationships, as politics does wherever you are.”

nations divided

Politics, in a way, reminds my father of his first home. Although Brexit is clearly on a much smaller scale to apartheid, he considers it deeply troubling and worries about the rise of right-wing views here. “When right-wing regimes start to take over, they don't arrive in full scale force. Nazism didn't arrive with jack boots, salutes and concentration camps”, he says. “It arrived with promises of a better life for people. It suggested other nations were taking over, robbing people of their birthright. Apartheid in South Africa evolved. That is why I get so scared when people in this country right don't recognise early warning signs of an extremely troubling set of norms.”

There is no side-stepping the issue of Brexit for either of my parents. My mother, Judith, is an immigrant too; she is from the Netherlands. They are passionate in their support for remaining part of the EU. “We are sleepwalking into Brexit, turning our back on the greatest scientific and peaceful collaboration the world has ever seen,” he says. “What is under-considered in my view is the jettisoning of the values of collaboration and open society. That I find very scary. In South Africa, when I was eating bobotie with my mother, we used to think of Britain as the archetypal democratic country, where freedom of speech reigned supreme. Those values seem to be diminishing, now I’m living here and cooking bobotie today. It's like going around in a circle.”

We used to think of Britain as the archetypal democratic country, where freedom of speech reigned supreme. Those values seem to be diminishing.

Although he has been a British citizen since 2008, he has an accent, he is still an immigrant in some way. Yet the hypocrisy and contradiction of many people’s attitudes towards immigration is concerning. “I hear people talking about immigrants and say, excuse me, I'm an immigrant. They look at me and say, but I didn't mean you. Why? Because I'm a white doctor who pays tax and is interested in rugby and cricket? I still am an immigrant. Although I personally have never had bad comments, it worries me I'm having a different experience to somebody from Poland.”

staying put

For all this, however, he does love Britain. Although he and my mum have thought about leaving, they are unlikely to, having lived here for over 20 years. My siblings and myself are very British, and uprooting to emigrate again isn’t on the agenda. Neither of my parents would, I think, want to be on a different continent to us. For my dad, family trumps the things he misses most; the high skies and warm weather, the languages, music and culture of South Africa.

Yet the UK can learn a lot from those things. “In South Africa, there are 11 official languages and many more. They're all embraced; one of the greatest assets the country has its multiculturalism. That generates music, literature, culture. We could learn from them; in the UK, we should celebrate our diversity rather than being scared of it.”

Everyday life is different there too. My dad misses the easy spontaneity of conversation, the warm friendliness. “People are always talking to each other. They might not stop talking to each other until they can't see each other anymore. They will carry on chatting till the person has disappeared, maybe many meters away. Whereas here, people avoid eye contact, they won't look at each other on a crowded, jam packed tube; no-one might say a word. If you put 200 people together in a small space in South Africa, it's going to be… something. There's going to be a song, or an argument, or a debate, and lots of conversations. There's going to be a buzz. I suppose that background buzz is something we don't get here. I miss it.”

Acknowledging its diversity, South Africa was coined the ‘Rainbow Nation’ by Archbishop Desmond Tutu after the end of the apartheid in 1994.

Acknowledging its diversity, South Africa was coined the ‘Rainbow Nation’ by Archbishop Desmond Tutu after the end of the apartheid in 1994.

Yet it would be wrong to overly romanticise a country which certainly has its problems. There are, according to the government, 57 murders every day, which makes South Africa the fifth highest murder rate in the world. There were over 40,000 rapes reported in the year 2017/18. Public transport and services are poor, and family members who live there have said they do not feel safe walking the streets at night. Everyone has walls, fences and security guards around their homes. Personal safety is a fundamental issue within the country and pervades everyday life there.

In addition, the political state of affairs is shaky. Cyril Ramaphosa, the current President of South Africa, is less corrupt than his predecessor, Jacob Zuma, but the ruling African National Congress is riddled with corruption and incompetency. It is a democracy, in that roughly the votes cast are the number declared, but there is limited free press and the state owns the national broadcasting media.

It’s a difficult heritage to shoulder for me. Apartheid was one of the worst regimes in modern history, and it only ended in the 1990s. I’m proud of the resistance my dad put up to that racist, vile system, but racism is still endemic there. I consider myself Welsh, but undoubtedly South African and Dutch too; a mutt, I suppose. Eating bobotie with my dad and talking about his history made me prouder to call myself partially South African, even if it is dangerous, violent, corrupt, and still really quite racist on both sides. As Dad says, “In South Africa, although God knows why, there's an optimism which pervades a lot of society and there is a lot of progress. I think we could learn from South Africa to be more optimistic.” I am optimistic, about my home and my ancestry too.