Now that the lockdown allows inter-provincial travel and family visits, Gertruida was happy to hear that a distant niece, Mathilda Grove, wanted to pay a visit.
‘Mathilda is the epitome of the classic Old Maid Syndrome. Last time I heard, she was working at an old-age home in Paarl, where she took care of some old and infirm patients. A heart of gold, she has. A real gem.’ When Gertruida told the group in Boggel’s Place about the upcoming visit, old Servaas brightened a bit. It’s been years since Siena died and the dearth of possible replacements contributed to his constant grumpy state. Gertruida says old men get that way due to a chronic psychological massaging deficiency. She says PMD is far worse than PMS.
Rolbos shares some realities with other towns. One of these is the fact that nothing ever turns out exactly the way one anticipates it would be. When the large 4X4 bakkie (in America they call it a ‘truck’) slowed down to a stop in front of Boggel’s Place, the Rolbossers crowded the small window.
‘Look at that caravan,’ Vetfaan whispered.
‘Shees – look at that bakkie, man! And those tyres!’ Kleinpiet lets out a low whistle.
‘Who, in heaven’s name, is that?’ Gertruida points at the gentleman who scoots around the vehicle to open the passenger side door.
The gentleman turns out to be Albertus Visser, a one-time inhabitant of Sunset House in Paarl.
‘He used to sit beneath the old tree in the corner of the lawn. All by himself, see?’ Mathilda smiles as she strokes Albertus’s back. After all the introductions have been done, they are enjoying a cold beer on Gertruida’s tab. ‘Every day he sat there, morning till night, reading the Bible. We all thought he was a bit strange, you know? But in an old-age home you get all sorts of people and we nursing staff just let them be.’
‘Harrumph!’ Albertus clears his throat. In a voice that is strangely high-pitched, he continues: ‘An old-age home is the last stop. That’s where it all ends. So it makes sense to do a bit of reading in the Book, see? You know where you’ve been; but do you know where you’re going? So I was just familiarising myself…’
‘Yes he was afraid he’d never get through all the books in the Bible, poor man.’ Mathilda interrupts with a wink at her beau. ‘And I didn’t know his problem until he called me Mithald.’ Mathilda lets out a shriek of laughter. ‘Mithald! At first I thought he was stupid.’
‘Most people did. You weren’t the only one,’ Albertus smiled. ‘As far back as I can remember it’s been like that. And oh! The experiences I’ve had with teachers! Can’t even remember how many hidings I got.’
‘You see, Albertus tried to go to church in his younger days, but it just didn’t work out, did it, dear?’ The way she looks at Albertus makes him blush.
‘Thise little pamphlets were horrible. You had to fill in stuff on some of them. Others apparently told you what to expect in the next week. And then the dominee would tell you where to read in the Bible and finally, which songs to look up to sing. I nearly died.’
‘Now, now, dear, don’t get worked up all over again.’ Mathilda pats the old man’s arm. ‘It’s okay now.’
‘The problem was that that dominee once preached about going to heaven. He said nobody can make it without reading the Bible from cover to cover. So I was deep into Matthew when Mithald, er, Ma-thil-da, got involved.’
‘Ja, shame, the poor thing. When he looked at my name tag and called me Mithald, I realised what his problem was. Can you imagine how hard it is to progress right through the Good Book if you’ve got dyslexia? That’s why he struggled all those years – figuring out one word at a time.
‘Well, I took pity on the poor man. So I started doing the reading for him. Every day a few chapters. Took us four months, it did, but we got through it all in the end. It was our own lockdown blessing! By the time we finished Revelations, we got to know each other rather well..’
Gertruida says Mathilda is no longer the epitome of an old maid. Once Albertus made it to the end of Revelations (with Mathilda’s help), he didn’t have to isolate himself every day to try to make sense of the words. In fact, he realised that living love was better than reading about it. That, Gertruida says (because she knows so much) is the biggest revelation of all.
Old Servaas is still grumpy. He says Mathilda isn’t his type at all. He’s read the Bible already all by himself, so what’s the point?
Gertruida gets up to look at the sunset. It’s been a long day and the telling of the story has left her feeling drained, empty. She must finish it now – she owes that much to the group waiting to hear the end. Hopefully, she thinks, they’ll understand why – when she’s done.
Returning to her seat, she accepts a fresh beer from a pensive Boggel. The bent little barman has a sensitive ear for the unsaid word – he must have known she was not only telling a random story. She must have had a reason…
‘You see, Servaas, Geel specified certain things in his last will and testament. He was very specific about it.’ She opens her large handbag to take out a document. Boggel can see the heading: Last Will and Testament. ‘Amongst others, he left his – that is CJ’s house – to me. He said it was for the help I rendered in repatriating his people, and he did it on condition that I use the place to promote harmony; not only in the Riemvasmaak community, but also in the greater South Africa.’
Of course this statement causes quite a lot of talk – congratulations, excitement, curiosity and more. Only once the hubbub died down, can grumpy old Servaas repeat his question.
‘And the wind, Gertruida? The so-called Happy Wind? What about that? You never even breathed a word about that?’
He gets a sympathetic smile from the wise woman. ‘On the contrary, Servaas. The whole story has to do with that wind. Think about it….’ Gertruida punctuates the points she make by folding her stretched fingers into her palm as a way of numbering them. ‘First there was Loser, who accidentally found a priceless diamond. That led him to the Randlords…and Molly. Then she died and the poor man ended up as a true reflection of his name. His son had to start running errands, which eventually became a business which supported many people. Geel became a kingpin in the business. CJ Snr met Francina, loses a leg and hides from society in Riemvasmaak. Later, Susan was born. Then Susan meets Herman because of Francina’s illness. Later still, when CJ Snr required assistance, Susan and Herman starts taking serious notice of each other. And then politics enter the arena and the two of them set off to Namibia with the Riemvasmakers. Eventually they return to their ancestral ground and I get involved with their repatriation. And guess what? Geel features again…
‘Don’t you see? It’s the Wind of Fate, the Wind of Chance, the Wind of Providence! It is, quite frankly, the Happy Wind of Love and Life. It plays with us, steers us, pushes us along. Without this wind, we would not have been here, let alone talk about the Bothmas. It’s the Happy Wind which blows through everybody’s life, bringing them to opportunities, dumping them in problems and serving them love. We call these events coincidences or happenings by chance or random; but meanwhile it is the Happy Wind of Life that blows us this way and that – until we get to where we have to be.’
Later, when everybody has gone home, Boggel shares a nightcap with Gertruida. Barmen, throughout the whole world, have to master the art of understanding – not only of people, but of stories as well.
‘You told the story very well, Gerty, well done! I’m surprised nobody asked you about CJ’s house?’
‘That would have spoiled it, Boggel, you know that.’
Boggel nods. He allows his eyes to travel through the room the townsfolk call Boggel’s Place. ‘CJ really planned it very well, didn’t he, Gerty?’ He points at the hearth. ‘Especially when you consider the cold winter evenings in the Kalahari.’
(How did the story get to this point? The start is here!)
‘When Mandela became aware of the plight of the Riemvasmakers in faraway Namibia, he gathered a small task force to investigate the issue.’ Gerttruida has just told them about Namibia’s independence. In Winhoek and Pretoria new bonds were formed. The National Party was a spent force and Sam Nujoma, the SWAPO president was keen to enhance the relationship with his southern neighbour. After all, the two countries had common goals … and problems. One such problem involved the displaced people in Damaraland.
Even back then, Gertruida (through her involvement with the secret services) had the reputation of knowing everything. She was co-opted into a think-tank (politicians call it a committee) to not only investigate the situation, but also to find a solution for the problem.
It was her suggestion to involve Geel, the man who had done so much to help the Riemvasmakers in exile. Geel Kruiper was, at that stage, a man deep into his eighties; a dignified figure and a respected businessman. He had, however, never forgotten his Riemvasmaak roots.
The solution was an easy one. Bring back the displaced community and resettle them on their ancestral grounds. Geel not only chaired the bilateral talks between South Africa and Namibia, he also involved the elders of the community in Damaraland.
‘And so, the Riemvasmakers finally resettled in Riemvasmaak in 1995 and ’96. The older generation rejoiced and the younger group hoped for a better life. Each family was allocated the ground they had vacated, and, in a unanimous vote, Geel was awarded the house that CJ had built after WW II. It was, as the elders put it, a gesture of gratitude for the many years Geel had supported them all.’ Gertruida sits back with a satisfied smile, ordering another beer.
‘Ag, come on, Gertruida! You never told us that before! Did you really, really help the Riemvsamakers get back to the Northern Cape?’ Vetfaan can’t believe his ears. After all these years, and this is the first time he’s heard this?
‘Well, the hard work was done by Geel. I merely acted in an advisory capacity, because I knew the facts better than the politicians, understand? And anyway, South Africa had bigger problems to solve in the early 90’s. The negotiations leading up to the first democratic election is 1994 involved many, many days of talks and promises, undertakings and guarantees – most of which seem to have fallen through holes in the fragile fabric of our current dispensation. Once, we all believed in our special Rainbow Nation. Now we recognise that illusion as a dashed and desperate dream used to hoodwink an entire country.’
‘Okay, okay.’ Sevaas knits his bushy eyebrows together. ‘So you saved them all. Well done.’ Servaas has the ability to prick the most colourful social balloon with the icy needle of his sarcasm. ‘I have three questions. You must finish the story, Gertruida, and not leave us dangling in thin air.’
Gertruida smiles slyly. Jup, old Servaas has taken the bait. ‘Okay, Vasie, shoot.’
‘What about Geel? what happened to him?’
‘Oh he lived a full and happy life. He never married and retired near the Riemvasmaak settlement – just around the corner from the hot water spring. He died at the age of ninety-three, leaving all his possessions to a variety of beneficiaries. In his later years he spent a lot of time advising the elders and raising funds for university bursaries for the Riemvasmaak children.’
‘Oh.’ Servaas seems disappointed. Did he hope for something more…spectacular? ‘And what about Herman and Susan. Did they simply disappear?’
‘On the contrary, Servaas. By the time the Riemvasmakers returned to South Africa, Herman Viljee had built up not only a busy practice, but his hospital serviced communities from Ovamboland in the North, right down the Marienthal in the south. He faced a harrowing decision, but had to make a choice. He and Susan stayed behind in Namibia. Unfortunately, they never had children, so the Bothma dynasty died with them, The good news is that the medical faculty in Windhoek took over the hospital, which now acts as a training facility for young doctors and aspirant nurses. Herman is revered as a pioneer of medical training in Namibia, where his name still commands respect. Susan, especially, was a staunch fighter for women’s rights – they even erected a small monument for her in Khorixas.’
Servaas remains silent for a second. ‘Well, boo-de-hoo. So this whole story fizzles out into…nothing? What’s the point, Gerttruida? Why even bother to tell it at all? Where’s the so-called Happy Wind? What you told has absolutely bugger-all to do with any sort of wind, let alone a happy one.’
Gertruida has to concentrate to keep a straight face. Hook, line and sinker, Servaas! She takes a deep breath. ‘Oh, Servaas, ye of small faith and such limited insight. Please allow me to enlighten you….’
To be continued,,,
‘While the whole Riemvasmaak community was forced to comply with the defense force’s demands to move, Geel escaped back to civilisation. He was an articulate, educated man in his sixties, respected for his entrepreneurial skills and the easy way he had with strangers. Mr Gibson, the manager CJ had appointed many years before, welcomed his friend from the Kalahari with open arms. Together they set about expanding BCS – Bothma Courtier Services – to satisfy the international demand for the secure transfer of documents, packages and even money.’ Gertruida brightens at the thought. ‘The two of them were really a remarkable team.’
It took many months for the Riemvasmakers to settle in remote Damaraland; in the area they were supposed to stay there was no real infrastructure. Susan insisted that she and Herman remain with the people she loved and very soon it became abundantly clear that Herman would have his hands full, taking care of everybody. Babies were born, stomach and lung problems were common and malnutrition took its toll.
Soon, however, Herman’s services were in demand on a far greater scale. There were no doctors for many hundreds of miles around the new settlement. Farmers and their families, their workers, policemen, missionaries and travelling salesmen soon queued up in front of the tent they stayed in. Within six months Herman had to build a small building to house a clinic. Medicines were brought in (later via BCS!) from Windhoek. And before he could build a house for them, the first of several rooms were added to the clinic, to house much needed beds for the sick and infirm.
‘Yes,’ Gertruida says, ‘they did get married. Right there, in front of their tent, by one of the German missionaries who had come for treatment of his gout. It was a simple service, but the entire community turned out to witness the start of an amazing marriage. Their meal on the day? A barbecued chicken, donated by the ululating crowd around their tent. At least, the missionary paid for his treatment with some sherry. As far as honeymoon nights go, it must rank as one of the most strange, ever. True to their nature, the newly-weds smiled and took it in their stride.
‘Some time later Herman suggested that they hand over the reins of their businesses to Geel and Mr Gibson. Susan had been the only heir to CJ’s estate and it was impossible to manage the growing little empire from the wilderness of Damaraland. Susan immediately agreed and so Geel became the owner/CEO of CJ’s legacy. He did send a portion of their profit to the people in exile every month, and it did a lot to make their lives easier.
‘Susan, in the meantime, studied Herman’s books and became a rather efficient pharmacist and assistant in the busy practice. She also assumed the role of mother to the Riemvasmakers, listening to complaints and helping out where she could.
‘Griet Loper springs to mind when I tell you about that time in Damaraland. The Riemvasmakers were a determined, hard-headed bunch. No government was going to force them into being second-rate citizens. Griet was a restless soul and eventually made off with a small bundle of clothing. Just took to the road and kept on walking. Eventually, she came to a little cluster of buildings next to the dusty road with the name of Solitaire. The kindly owner, a Scot by the name of Moose McGregor took pity on her and employed her in the kitchen. In those days Moose sold petrol along this long and corrugated road to the coast and he thought it a good idea to make an extra buck by selling refreshments.’
Much to Moose’s surprise, Griet produced a real German apfelstrudel one day, using some left-over apples a broke traveler had exchanged for a cold Coke. Griet used a recipe handed down by her great-grandmother, who had been a cook to a German garrison stationed at Numatoni, in the Etosha region. Of course, that was before the horror of the war against the Herero’s, which almost wiped out that entire nation. Incidentally, that war was the reason why Griet’s family fled South West Africa to settle in Riemvasmaak, in the beginning of the 1900’s .
‘Well, that apple pie was something else! Moose McGregor became famous for his delicious apfelstrudel, a reputation that is alive and well today, even after his death. Needless to say, Griet’s future turned out to be a happy and content one in the many years she spent at Solitaire.
‘Oh,and there’s Lena, Mama Namibia herself. Came from Riemvasmaak as a young girl, but, wow, did she turn out to be a gem! Today she runs Wilderness Safari’s luxury Damara Camp in the remote Damara desert landscape, a woman of importance! And what about Petros Sand, the man who started farming with vegetables in the fertile Swakop River bed, near Swakopmund?
‘But I digress,’ Gertruida sighs, ‘the most important part is still to come. And it involves all of us…’
To be continued…
‘The move of the Riemvasmakers was a heartless, harsh, horrible affair. The defense force simply moved in and herded the people together. Some were made to watch as the authorities burnt down their dwellings, others were spared that inhuman scene.’ Gertruida tries to avoid thinking about the emotions the people must have experienced on the day. Yes, everybody knew she had been involved in the policies of the Apartheid government. And yes, she had, from a very young age, been painfully aware of the injustices which had become just as part of that regime as corruption has in the present dispensation. Although her career in the secret service had given her insight into the workings of the Nationalist government, she remained a staunch individualist and an independent thinker – a true realist – which explains her state of mind when telling the sad story of the Riemvasmakers.
‘And before you judge me, let me remind everybody that no history is snowy white and cuddly cute. Scratch deep enough and you find a festering sore of lies, self-interest, deceit, crooked dealings and downright theft, even murder … be it direct or indirect. The leaders of today all have something to hide; some major, some minor – but not a single one of them can trace the journey of their lives back to birth, without hanging their heads in shame.
‘I didn’t move the Riemvasmakers. My previous government did. And that, my friends, is a bitter pill to swallow.’
Back in 1973 and ’74, the forced movement of the people of Riemvasmaak was a brutal affair. The army wanted a buffer zone between South Africa and South West Africa. They also required a training area for troops to prepare them for the arid world of Northern South West Africa. But mostly they required a testing ground for vehicles, systems and ammunition. Canon, rifles, rockets and bombs were to be the future of this once-peaceful area.
Some Riemvasmakers were moved to the Ciskei, on the eastern seaboard of South Africa. These people had never seen the sea, the green hills, or the lush veld of the Transkei. One might be tempted to think of them as more fortunate, for the rest of the Riemvasmakers were sent to Khorixas, in the desert of what is Northern Namibia today. They had no money, their livestock were lost and they were completely isolated. For the next twenty-five years, they lived, just like Andries predicted, in Hell.
‘Andries refused to go. When the bulldozers came, he said goodbye to Susan. She noticed that he dressed in the traditional San way and carried his bow and arrows. And she knew she’d never see him again. He walked off into the desert and never looked back.
‘Susan posed a problem to the Apartheid-orientated authorities. It was easy to force people of colour to move at gunpoint, but she presented a completely different mix of problems. In the end, she solved the situation by volunteering to accompany the Riemvasmakers to Khorixas.’
Boggel holds up a hand to silence the narrative. ‘But what about the nice doctor, Herman Viljee? What about him and Susan?’
‘That’s where the magic happened, Boggel. For years and years the two of them lived in separate worlds, with Herman being the dedicated doctor in Upington and Susan looking after her father in the isolated village in the Kalahari. It was a case of east is east and west is west. and ne’er the twain shall meet. They saw each other occasionally and one might even be tempted to think they had a secret love affair.
‘But the events of the forced move, forced the issue of their commitment, as well…’
The corporal tried to hide his embarrassment. Susan Bothma made no secret of her absolute disgust at what was happening. She had berated the man – half her age – who dared to call her ‘Tannie Bothma’. She told him, in no uncertain terms, that he would never be good enough to be part of her family.
‘You are nothing to me, you prematurely aborted idiot. You don’t even begin to understand what you are doing.’ Susan never used strong language, but when she was finished a good ten minutes later, the corporal understood that his manhood, his intelligence and his morals were extremely doubtful issues.
Just when her tirade had died down, a brand new Land Cruiser stopped in front of her house. Herman Viljee stepped out, and , for a change, was not dressed in his customary white safari suit.
‘We have a lot to settle, Susan. But it’s a long way to Khorixas and we will have ample time along the way to discuss things. Now, if you’re quite finished shouting at this imbecile, we can load up your stuff and be off.’
To be continued…
Please follow the links in the first paragraph to find out more about Gertruida’s early life…
‘Susan and the young doctor had a most…unusual…courtship.’ Boggel senses the tension in Gertruida’s voice. She is obviously struggling to keep her tone level. ‘At first it was the health of old CJ. Then the vision and illness of old Andries. And then, the cruellest cut of them all: the forced removal to Khorixas, far in the north of South West Africa. This sequence of tragic events was almost too much for the fragile constitution of the frail Susan Bothma.’
CJ was the first to require the good doctor’s attentions. It was in the spring of 1965 and the veld was particularly beautiful that year. However, the war-injuries had taken their toll on his body. Over the period of a few years, he had become more and more tired. The loss of Francina just made maters worse. It was as if CJ simply didn’t want to live any longer. Susan drove to Upington to ask help. Herman Viljee immediately agreed to accompany her back into the wilderness of the Kalahari. His examination revealed a major problem.
‘It’s progressive kidney failure, Susan.’ The news was bad, but hearing him say her name, caused a shy smile. ‘I suspect it was the trauma of that landmine. So much muscle damage may overload the kidneys and cause irreparable damage. His arm improved, but that was a nerve injury. In his case, the kidney situation will keep on progressing. There isn’t much we can do.’
‘But..but what about this new thing? They transfer…er, transplant a kidney into a sick person. I read that in Die Brandwag. Can’t it be done for him…?’
‘Ai, Susan, I wish. But you’re right, the medical world is abuzz with the possibility of organ transplantation. I hear Doctor Myburg is leading a team of specialists in Johannesburg and it’s quite possible that they’ll do the first kidney transplant on the continent within the next year.
‘But, Susan, that’d be too late. Your father is too ill, anyway.’
‘And so it was.’ Gertruida swallows hard. ‘CJ passed way quietly one morning before Christmas that year. He was buried, as he had wished, in the burial ground outside the village. Herman had become a regular visitor at that stage and supported Susan right through CJ’s final days.
‘Then, it was Andries’s turn.’
Andries woke up one morning and directly went to the house CJ had built in the village. The year was 1972 and year-long conscription had become compulsory for all white South African males over the age of 18. Very often this meant that, before a teenager was allowed to vote, drink or drive a vehicle, he was licensed to shoot to kill another human being. At this stage Andries was a stooped, almost bald and toothless old man, but his mind was as sharp as ever. He didn’t knock; he simply went in and sat down at the kitchen table. Susan was mildly surprised at his sudden appearance, but offered him a mug of coffee, nevertheless.
‘Thank you, Miss Susan.’ As poilite as ever, he waited for an invitation to speak. Susan understood this and asked him how he was.
‘I’m too old to move, Miss, just too old. I’ll never make it.’
‘Too old? Move? What are you talking about, Andries? We’re going nowhere.’
‘I had a dream, Miss. A terrible dream. I saw flames and heard screams. I saw men in uniform pushing us into lorries. I saw men pleading and children crying. I saw women throwing themselves in front of bulldozers. And I saw that it didn’t help. We were loaded in to cattle trucks and a train took us away, far, far away; away from our ground and our goats and cattle and houses. Then I saw our huts burning. Your house, this very room, became a place where soldiers stayed.’
Susan shook her head. ‘Ag, come on, Andries? You think the army will come and throw us out? This is Riemvasmaak, man! This is as far from civilisation you can be. Why would the army want to be here?’
‘Guns, Miss. Guns and canons and bombs. Nothing will be left.’ For the first time since she got to know Andries, Susan saw the old man crying helpless tears.
‘They’re taking us to a place in hell, Miss Susan. There’s nothing there. Nothing.’ He wiped away the tears with an angry hand. ‘I’m too old for this, Miss. I’m too old. My seasons are done. It is time..’
To be continued…
Bob Dylan, born as Robert Allen Zimmerman
(Dylan wrote the song when he was 20. This is what he told Sing Out magazine in 1962:
” There ain’t much I can say about this song, except the answer is blowin’ in the wind. It ain’t no book or movie or TV show or discussion group, man. It’s in the wind … I still say it’s in the wind and just like a restless piece of paper it’s got to come down some … But the only trouble is that no one picks up the answer when it comes down so not too many people get to see and know … and then it flies away.”)
Whenever Gertruida gets near the end of one of her lo-o-o-ng stories, she’ll order a round of Cactus Jack, like she does now. That usually serves as a sort of warning for the audience to steel themselves – the climax is near. And that could be happy…or sad. Whichever way it goes, it helps to be prepared.
‘You know, the young doctor simply sat down, took her hand very gently, and shared in her grief. The church was full of people – Francina had been a very much-loved member of the community – but the petite Susan suddenly felt alone – with him. It was a comfortable feeling. They shared one of those moments in which words would have spoiled everything. Just being felt so good.
‘And then Susan had the strangest dream. Or vision. Or Imaginary moment. Whatever you call it, doesn’t matter. What matters is that she saw, or felt and heard, her mother. Francina was smiling, waving as she walked away from her. She blew a kiss and whispered goodbye. She was dressed in white and held a twig of Namaqua daisies in her hand. Susan saw her mother disappearing as if in a thin mist, and just before she was completely gone, she dropped the flowers.’
Susan Bothma listened to the last Amen . So, that was the end of her journey with dear Francina, the mother who loved her so much? How sweet and short and cruel the voyage through the stormy waters of Life! Why so fleeting the passage, why so inevitably final the end? But she remembered the words old Andries spoke when they returned from Upington with her terminally ill mother…
‘Look at the animals of our veld, Miss Susan. They are there season after season. Sometimes you see the same animals as last year, sometimes you see the next generation. And, Miss, they continue to feed on the short grass in our desert and they continue to be content – they never move away to places with more water and more grass. When it rains, they rejoice. When it’s dry, they endure, We must learn from them
‘You mother is dying, Miss Susan. Soon, she’ll know the world is on the other side. But we’ll stay behind for a while. We’ll join her when the time comes. But now, in this time, we must endure. Think about it: do we have a choice? Can the Gemsbok wish for more grass when the drought has withered the veld? No, they know how to endure – and that is what we must do now. Yes, we must grieve, but we must grieve with gratitude. Be happy for the past and look forward to the future. The rain will come again. The season will change. And we’ll be together again when the time is right.’
She glanced at the two men next to her: CJ, the big brother who worked in faraway Natal, and the young doctor – a man she hardly knew but felt strangely comfortable with. Her father was in the aisle, in his wheelchair, stone-faced and grey. Three men. Three pillars.
When they trooped out of the church, sniffing and silent as is customary under such circumstances, she noticed Andries waiting for her next to the steps of the building.
He was holding some flowers in his hands. It wasn’t much. Just a little green branch with some daisies at the end.
‘When Susan was twenty-one, she and Francina were sitting on their porch one sunny spring morning. Life was sweet. CJ Jnr wrote home every week, telling them about his happy life as game ranger. Because he had grown up among the mix of cultures in the Kalahari, he found working with Zulus quite easy. The two women were talking about his latest letter when Francina felt a twitch of pain on the left side of her neck. Her hand went up to examine the area. And then she felt the lump.’
Gertruida says – because she knows – that Life is never a straight line. Just when you think you’re winning the game, the winger drops the ball five yards short of the tryline. Or the guy at silly point drops a sitter. Or somebody says something about expropriation of land without compensation. She says these mishaps are important, otherwise we’d never know when to be happy.
‘The nearest doctor was in Upington, a certain young man who’d just started practicing there. Geel used the pickup they normally utilised for the natural remedy herbs, to transport the two women to see the man. What they imagined would be a short consultation, turned into a week-long’s worth of agony.’
Francina had an extremely malignant form of breast cancer. Because it had spread, there was no sense in trying to operate on the tumour. Some journals contained articles on a new field of medicine, but chemotherapy was not widely available – maybe at teaching hospitals for selected cases, but definitely not for a terminal patient in the faraway Kalahari. The young doctor, Herman Viljee, sympathised – but he was also honest in the most kindly manner.
‘It is a matter of time, Mrs Bothma, I’m sorry. I can help you with pain and support you and the family in any way I can, but the outcome of this is predictable.’ And then he spent two precious hours, explaining again and again the results of the biopsy he had done, the pathologists report, and the prognosis.
‘Men are such predictable animals,’ Gertruida says in her knowing way. ‘No matter what the circumstances are, they are always aware of gender. These days the world is trying to rid itself from sexism, but that is a lost cause. The day a man does not respect the beauty of a woman; or doesn’t step back at a door, or doesn’t compliment elegance – why, that’s the day we all deny who and what we are. The key, of course, is the word ‘respect’.
‘Be that as it may, Doctor Viljee could not but help noticing the innocent beauty of Susan Bothma at his patient’s side. In those days doctors were very much aware of ethics and what was considered to be proper. Viljee took note, that’s all. But deep inside (if he were completely honest with himself) he promised himself that he’d like to see her again in the future, when the time for such advances was appropriate.’
Geel took the women back to the village. A paper bag full of morphine drops and aspirin tablets sat on the seat between Francina and Susan. There wasn’t much to say. To discuss such matters was to try to avoid the ultimate outcome. It was time to absorb, reflect, rebel and accept – and that is exactly what the corrugated road to the village afforded them.
However, when they arrived back home, the aged old Andries was waiting on the steps of the stoep of their house.
‘I know, Miss Fransie. I had a dream. And I’m sorry.’ He held both Francina’s hands in his as the tears streaked down his dust-coloured cheeks. ‘But life comes and life goes. Seasons. Once we are young and once we are old – if we are lucky to live through the years. We should never be afraid of the journey, Miss Fransie. Every step is a blessing, even the hard ones.’
And, oh! He said, he’d already spoken to Mister CJ. There was no need to hide anything – they were in this together. The journey wasn’t for just one person. They’d see: the journey would bless them all.
‘And so it was,’ Gertruida says. ‘Viljee’s medication helped, but it was Andries’s remedies – especially his root-cure – which relieved the pain and anxiety Francina lived through in the next three months or so. She took solace in what she saw: how everybody took care of CJ and how the villagers showered them with love and affection. The morning before she died, she called everybody together, blessed them and bid them goodbye. Then she called Andries and told him it was time. The old medicine man simply nodded. He knew what to do.
‘It was during a prayer at the funeral service, led by Oudoom in Upington, that Susan felt her hand being taken by somebody sitting down next to her. She peeked. And that’s when she knew: it was going to be alright.’
‘To describe the mindset of the Bothma family back then, you only have to consider what the average farmer feels like today.’ Gertruida makes a vague gesture with her free hand (the other holding a cold one, despite Tannie Zuma’s decrees). ‘Abandoned. Forlorn. Angry. Depressed. Like today’s farmers, they were realists. The war was drawing to a close after more than 11,000 South Africans – Black, White and Coloureds – died in battle. We simply do not know how many casualties our forces suffered, nor how many struggled with mental illness afterwards. What is known, is that the Afrikaners were fed up with the Smuts government.
‘Of course CJ and his family didn’t want to return to their previous lives. CJ Snr was incapacitated in the worst possible way, Francina was afraid that the Smuts people would jail her again and little CJ Jnr did not want to leave the village-life they had become accustomed to. When the legendary Peter Stark – the famous White Bushman of South West Africa – was 15, CJ, too, was learning the intricate culture of the Damaras, the San and the Hereros. He stood with his two feet planted in two cultural kraals – Western and the heady mix of African ways and histories. Lastly, CJ Snr felt embarrassed and guilty about his war wounds – appearing in public would have been just too painful.
‘Still the nightmares continued. One night, after a particularly violent nightmare-storm – this one ending in blood welling up from the ground – Francina soothed her husband like she usually did. What was unusual that night, was CJ’s response. He often complained that the dreams were frightfully terrible, making his feelings of guilt and incapacity even worse. A man should weather these storms, not so? A real man doesn’t sob himself awake in the middle of the night and then expect his wife to comfort him? A real hero has two legs and a string of medals.
‘Francina understood all these things. And then, on that wonderfully fateful night, she proceeded to prove to her husband that he was still the same man that left for Egypt in uniform.’ Gertruida sighs dramatically. ‘You men are all the same. Primitive, simple-minded creatures. Once your ego get stroked, you plop over in a blissful slumber. And that, gentlemen, is exactly what happened that night. Little Susan Bothma was born in that same hut, nine months later.’
Servaas raised an eyebrow. So this is the Susan that would have a relationship with Herman Viljee…interesting!
The years that followed, were as peaceful as one could wish for. The Bothmas adapted to life in the Kalahari and the Riemvasmakers adapted to them. A house was built next to the huts – the first of many to follow. The natural remedy and CJ’s courier business continued to thrive under the care of Geel and Mister Gibson. A healthy trickle of cash flowed into the village’s coffers, where CJ saw to it that there was a fair distribution among the villagers. CJ Jnr grew into a strapping young man and little Susan was the darling of everybody.
While South Africa drifted sideways and backward on the tide of inappropriate legislation, Jan Smuts lost the 1948 election and the Nationalists eyed the prospect of a republic. Unfortunately, that is not all they did. History would judge the leaders of that time harshly, and rightly so.
Malan and Strijdom used the churches, the newspapers and the radios to re-educate an entire nation. Blatant propaganda focused on the danger of communism and the deterioration of independent African states. The progressive destruction of the country’s motto – ‘Ex Unitate Vires’, In unity lies our Strength – created an unbridgeable divide between the peoples who live in this beautiful country.
‘CJ Jnr wanted to see the world, but he had no formal education. Francina and Geel had taught him to read and write, and he had a natural aptitude for numbers. His father knew the boy could not spend his life in the village. Life in the city was not an option. In the end he wrote – without much hope – a letter to Ian Player, a war veteran like himself, who at that time worked in the Natal Parks Board, one of the early South African efforts to conserve game, nature and the environment.
‘Much to CJ’s surprise and Francina’s joy, Player not only answered the letter, but also invited CJ Jnr to come and see him. The rest, you guys know, is history. CJ Jnr was a fierce fighter for RR – the NPO he started. Rhino Rescue remains testimony to his singleminded goal in life to protect those huge pachyderms from extintion. He died in his eighties, peaceful and content with his contribution to Life on Earth.’
Gertruida wipes away a tear. ‘At least he had that, didn’t he? His father died in the sixties, a rather fortunate situation, for he was spared the hardship and anguish of the forced removal of the Riemvasmakers from their ancestral grounds. He did, however, witness the wonderful relationship between little Susan Bothma and Herman Viljee. I suppose one may think that he died in peace, despite the loss of Francina, the poor man.’
The group at the bar sits up. ‘Francina died? Why?’
To be continued…
Giuseppe Verdi: Va pensiero
Some of the words:
|Arpa d’or dei fatidici vati,||Golden harp of our prophets,|
|perché muta dal salice pendi?||why do you hang silently on the willow?|
|Le memorie nel petto raccendi,||Rekindle the memories of our hearts,|
|ci favella del tempo che fu!||and speak of the times gone by!|