The night the Emperor went naked…

Emperor_Clothes_01_edited-1“Promises, statistics and other lies – not much else.” Gertruida sits back, eyeing Servaas critically. “I mean, what else? The man is under siege, his reputation is shattered and his support base is shrinking. He’ll have to create the illusion that he’s in control and that everything is rosy. Oh, he’ll acknowledge things like global warming, the drought and the state of the world’s economy, blaming them for the country’s problems. But will he be bold enough to state that he’s at least partly responsible for the chaos in the country? I don’t think so. He’s far too clever for that.”

“It must be terrible to address a nation, knowing your popularity is bouncing about in the basement. If he has the guts to appear at all, pretending nothing is wrong, I’ll have to tip my hat to the man.” Vetfaan smiles at the surprised glances he gets. As an outspoken critic, his statement really makes them sit up. “On the other hand: maybe he just doesn’t understand these things. Maybe – in his own mind – he’s a real Jimmy Do-good; you know, as innocent as can be and only doing his best to govern the country fairly….But even he, despite his academic background, should be nervous right now.”

“Reminds you a bit about Hans Christian Andersen’s story, doesn’t it? When everybody watched the parade through the city and pretended to admire the emperor’s clothes – but only he believed he was, indeed, attired most gracefully. The naked king actually believed his advisors after they mimed dressing him up – but he was as naked as the day he came into this world. Shows you: putting all your trust in the people you’ve appointed can be a dangerous thing! They must have been so fed-up with his overbearing attitude, they decided to parade him through town for everybody to see him as he really was: a real clown.

“He embarrassed everybody but himself, that king! That, I suppose, is only possible when somebody is so vain, he believes himself to be right all the time.” Servaas has always said there is much more to children’s stories than meets the eye (or the ear).

“Could be megalomania, Servaas. Even a sign of being intellectually challenged in the most severe degree, if you asked me. Why would the king in the story believe he’s dressed when, very obviously, he’s not? Still, he must have enjoyed his little parade, even if he was only mentally dressed.”

“So there we have a vain king, a terrified populace and nobody said anything?” Kleinpiet arches an eyebrow. “That is the most stupid thing ever! Being a king shouldn’t be reason for the people pretending he was dressed. You can’t fool all the people all the time, for goodness’ sakes!”

“The story doesn’t end there, Kleinpiet.” Anxious to add to the story, Servaas answers quietly. “You see, all the faithful citizens tried to prop up the charade by applauding the naked emperor’s new clothes. But…Andersen already had the manuscript at the publishers  – and then he changed the ending. He added a child to his plot – an innocent, honest little boy cried out that the emperor was naked. And then the population took up the cry and ridiculed the emperor’s new clothes. You know what? Despite that, the emperor continued with the procession.”

“Yes, I knew that.” Gertruida, of course. “It is said that Andersen himself – as a little boy – joined the throng to see King Frederick pass bay. And, according to his recollection, he said: ‘Oh, he’s nothing more than a human being!” His mother then tried to silence him by crying, ‘Have you gone mad, child?’  That incident, according to some, made him change the script.”

“So it’s business as usual? An Imbongi singing the prez’s praises, the whole parliament listening in quiet admiration while the emperor speaks, and the rest of the country in awe?” The sarcasm in Vetfaan’s tone is unmistakable.

“Only if he’s honest. Confesses to the fact that he violated the constitution, that there is more fire than smoke in the many accusations flying around, and that he’d be willing to step down.”

Boggel laughs so much that he almost drops the bottle he has ready for the next round.

“Fairytales!” He eventually manages. “Oh, how we love them!”

“…You had me several years ago when I was still quite naive…”

“Any colour, as long as it’s black…”

1910Ford-T“That’s what old Henry Ford said back then about his cars.” Gertruida folds the newspaper with a sigh. “I suppose it was acceptable in those days. We are currently far too inclined to be sensitive about these things. Just look what’s happened in Stellenbosch: two young ladies expelled for painting their faces purple. Some insist that they were doing the blackface-thing.”

“Blackface? What’s that?” As usual, Servaas displays his ignorance of trending news.

“Look, here’s the picture of the ladies, all dressed up to attend a student theme function as blackfaceinterstellar spacewomen.” She holds up the picture. “Hard to see any racist slur in that.”

“That looks like purple.” Vetfaan says after a few moments. “And they got expelled for that?”

“What’s a blackface?” Servaas persists.

“Well, you see, it’s an old theatre tradition. When white people portrayed so-called black characters, they used to paint their faces black. Many, many well-known actors did that, including  Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Irene Dunne, Mickey Rooney, Shirley Temple, Judy Garland, and Chester Morris and George E. Stone. At the sinterklaas-002time, this wasn’t seen as racist – rather it introduced audiences to Afro-American culture…or so some historians say. Remember Zwarte Piet? In the Netherlands he’s a much-loved character. Or…to be more precise…he used to be universally accepted as Santa’s helper. But, sadly or not, even his role and character has become the centre of a debate on racism. Some say it’s bad, others don’t.

“The point is this: times have changed. Things that were generally acceptable fifty years ago, are now frowned upon. Today, society does not accept the blackface on face value alone any more. The calendar has ticked over to 2016 and people are much more sensitive about these things than in the previous centuries. No longer are we prone to joke about heritage or race – it’s become a serious matter.” Gertruida finishes with a flourish, happy that she’s made her point.

Fuck white people“Um…” Kleinpiet turns to page three. “If that is true about Stellenbosch, what about these students in Johannesburg? This is the Wits law school, so they have the right to free speech, I suppose. And see what the University had to say about it: ‘The university’s management said it had been advised that legally‚ the campaign may not be a violation of Constitution‚ which provides for freedom of expression unless it constitutes incitement to cause harm. “In this instance‚ while the messages are certainly hurtful‚ we have been advised that they may not directly incite harm.’.”

“Ag, Kleinpiet, racial tension is as old as the hills, man. Since the beginning of time, people have taken to accentuate differences – colour, culture, tradition, religion – the whole lot.” Boggel serves another round, trying to ease the tension in the bar. “It’s a bit silly, really, when you think about it. Look at our country – we are all here, moulded together into a single nation. Why on earth spend so much time trying to alienate each other, while we should be working together to build a better future for later generations? You know what’s happened? We’ve lost the vision. We’re destroying the dream. If we cannot find a way to live together in harmony, we’ll destroy each other. Banning two girls with purple faces and pussyfooting about freedom of speech are just symptoms of a society grappling with deep-rooted insecurities. While we are so terribly conscious of race, we are polarising what needs to be united. I find that exceedingly sad.”

Gertruida, at loss for words for a while, eventually nods. “I’ve got two quotes for you. The one is from Robert Sobukwe, who said: . ‘The Africanists take the view that there is only one race to which we all belong, and that is the human race. In our vocabulary therefore, the word ‘race’ as applied to man, has no plural form.’ This was in 1959. The other is by Henry Ford himself: ‘I don’t know much about history, and I wouldn’t give a nickel for all the history in the world. It means nothing to me. History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.

“These two men made statements we can take to heart at this point in our country’s development. Sobukwe emphasised that we belong to one family. Ford maintained that our actions today determine our future – and that the past is of little consequence. Both were saying we must look ahead, not back. We should never poke fun at other cultures, that’s true, but we must stop skewing social morals, for goodness’ sakes! How can we object to purple faces and turn a blind eye to racist graffiti?

“It’s time for us all to start accepting some facts. We do have a colonial past – like most of the world. Slavery was accepted by our forefathers – it doesn’t imply that we still embrace the concept. Cecil John Rhodes did live here and he contributed both positively and negatively to history. Many individuals and groups forged the country into what it is today – from Kruger to Verwoerd – and we cannot change that history, even if we wanted to. That’s why Ford is correct: the only history worth anything, is the history we make today. I do so wish people bear that in mind whenever somebody wants to polarise society for political gain. Even our prez, when he sings about shooting the farmers.”

She falls silent, eyeing her little audience. There is another quote from Ford she’d like to tell them about, but she decides it’ll sting too much. No, better to remain silent on that one. It’ll only cause a protracted debate that’ll go around in circles forever, Still, it’s one of her favourites.

‘As long as we look to legislation to cure poverty or to abolish special privilege we are going to see poverty spread and special privilege grow…’

“…I knew a man who lived in fear
It was huge, it was angry, it was drawing near…

“....It wasn’t roaring, it was weeping.”         Dan Heymann

 

 

Swan Lake – the Kalahari Tragedy.

swan-Lake-on-Ice-4“They’re doing Swan Lake in Cape Town – on ice, nogal!” Gertruida sighs as she puts down the newspaper and stares out of the window. Oh, how she longs for the days when she could waltz in to the State Theatre in her best evening gown, excited about another excellent performance of ballet or opera! Out here in the Kalahari, she seems so far removed from those moments.

Servaas frowns at this. It doesn’t make sense! “I though global warming was melting everything down there.”

“It’s a ballet, Servaas. With skates. On ice.” Gertruida tries her best to be patient, but old Servaas really gets to her when he’s so ignorant.

“It’s sinful, then,” he retorts. “Short skirts and those tight-fitting pants! I don’t like ballet.”

“Oh, shush! Shut your trap! Ballet is the most graceful of all the performing arts. And to do it on ice, requires years of experience and practice. It says here that the troupe is one of the best in the world.”

“Ja, maybe, whatever. But I’ll have you know that our troops used to be the best, way back then. Nothing lasts forever, I suppose. Look at our cricket team.”

Vetfaan comes to the rescue. “It would have been nice to see it, Gertruida. I agree.  But we can only dream of it, can’t we? Cape Town is too far and the tickets seem a bit pricey, don’t they?”

“Ag, I don’t know. Travelling all that distance for a show is way above my budget. And my sheep needs shearing.” Kleinpiet sips his beer, thinking how nice it would have been. “Tell us about the ballet, Gertruida?”

“Well, it’s a fascinating story. Odette is a beautiful girl, transformed into a swan until she meets a man, falls in love with him…somebody who’ll remain faithful to her forever. This almost happens when she meets Prince Siegfried, but he is tricked into declaring his love for Odile, who he thinks is Odette. This is, of course, a major mistake and banishes Odette to swanhood forever. When Siegfried realises his mistake, he is devastated. The only way he could be with Odette, is to die with her. So they decide to drown in the lake and live happily ever after in the hereafter.”

This doesn’t improve Servaas’ mood. “Who thinks out such farfetched plots? Huh? Swans and suicide? It’s ridiculous.”

Even Vetfaan gets upsets with Servaas now. “Look, it’s only a story. And a good one, at that, I’ll have you know.” He remains silent for a few moments, lost in thought. “It’s much like our politics these days, Servaas. Think about it.”

Serfaas knits his bushy brows together, shakes his head and grunts. “What are you talking about?”

“It’s like this. We have a country that wants the most beautiful future for all. Then a prince comes along – in the form of our beloved prez – and everybody wants him to love them. With him at their side, the people thought they’d have a chicken on every table, every Sunday. For a while it seemed as if was going to work out just fine. Then a certain Mister Gupta comes along and upsets the apple cart. The prez, it seemed, didn’t love the country as much as the new admirer in his life. So prez teams up with Gupta, see, and the people are left grieving the loss.

“Well, one shouldn’t underestimate the Guptas of the world. He’s just using the prez for free landing rights at Waterkloof and the business contracts he can wrangle out of the system. Well, by the time the prez finds out he’s made a mistake, he – and the people who kept him in power – will realise they’ve committed political suicide. So they drown in a sea of corruption and crime, and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men will never be able to put them together again.” Vetfaan raises his glass in a mock salute when Gertruida offers a modest applause.

“Oh.” Servaas brightens. “So it’s a true story? No short skirts and tight pants?”

“Yes, Servaas, with rumpled suits and extra XXXX size  long pants. About the skirts I’m not sure, but probably nothing above the knees. As for the troupe: you’re actually part of it, as well. A minor part, but still…you did vote, didn’t you?”

The old man contemplates all of this while he finishes his beer. “It’s a tragedy, isn’t it?”

“Yes Servaas. It’s a sad, sad affair.”

“I think –  after having given it some thought – that I’d rather prefer the version on ice.”

That’s the nice thing about Rolbos: the townsfolk tend to think along the strangest lines, come up with the most ridiculous ideas and somehow manage to be convincing as well as entertaining at the same time. Tchaikovsky would have fitted in quite nicely, come to think about it.

(Only watch the video if you understand South African humour – and the art of exiting the political scene gracefully…sort of!)

The Porcupine and the Coconut

154768913“So now the president is offering to pay back the money – at last? After all those commissions and enquiries he simply ignored and laughed away in parliament?” Servaas puts down the paper with a sarcastic smile. “I’d say that’s mighty big-hearted of the man to eat humble pie for a change.”

“Ag, Servaas, you’re being your old facetious self again!” Gertruida throws her hands in the air in mock horror. “It’s all about not fighting the battles you cannot win. The Constitutional Court is about to hear the case and the municipal elections are just around the corner. He’s performing plastic surgery on the wrinkled face of the governing party -even though he knows it’ll leave lasting scars. Better to cut your losses than to erect a house on sand.”

“He’s good at that,” Vetfaan smiles. “Erecting things, I mean.”

They giggle about that for a while. Then Gertruida tells them of the porcupine and the coconut…

***

One day, she says, Porcupine found a coconut in the desert. Now, this was a strange thing, for the coconut was completely out of place: it simply didn’t belong there. Porcupine wondered about this, but when he shook the coconut, he heard the milk swill around inside.

“Now this thing may be very precious,” the porcupine mused, “I shall take it to my home to prove how farsighted I am. Nobody else has one like this – they’ll all admire me for being so clever to own a coconut that’ll benefit all. I’ll wait until it starts germinating, then I’ll plant it. It’ll become a huge tree, with fruit and shade.”

images (20)Oh, and how the other animals admired Porcupine’s new object! Zebra liked the hair on the surface, while Gemsbok thought it resembled the tsammas that fed him during dry seasons. Elephant sniffed at it, thought it was foreign, but still said it was a nice thing to have.

But in all communities you’ll find that not everybody accepts what others admire. Hare, for instance, asked what good does the coconut do, sitting there on a shelf in Porcupines house? And Owl, wise as always, remarked that such a thing could only bring bad luck if it were to start growing.

“Keep it on the shelf – don’t try to do anything with it. As a showpiece it’ll be okay, but if you really think planting such a tree will be useful, you’ll only be disappointed.”

And so the coconut stayed in Porcupines house, where the other animals  could see it. Although some maintained that it underlined Porcupine’s powers, after a while others started doubting it. They asked owl to explain.

“It doesn’t belong here, see?” Owl shrugged. “We are used to living in the desert. Our world is a harsh one, where you survive because you understand the circumstances. Now that coconut…well, when it starts growing, it’ll need water and nourishment and lots of care. More importantly, if Porcupine really tries to grow here, it’ll steal our precious water. And, mark my words, it may survive a good season or two – but when times are tough, or it becomes too big and thirsty,  it’ll die. And to what avail, I ask you? If anything out here can’t contribute to our well-being, it’ll simply be a thief and a scoundrel that’ll rob us of our livelihood. No, it might be a nice thing to look at, but in the end Porcupine will regret taking it home.”

Porcupine ignored such remarks, of course. Instead, it watched as the coconut sprouted a few little roots and started growing a stem.

“Oh, how beautiful my coconut is!” Porcupine was  very proud. “In all the desert, this will be the most beautiful of all things. I shall care for it, make it grow, and the others will see my powers.”

To keep the coconut alive, Porcupine had to water it every day. Whenever its roots became dry, its fragile leaves drooped and hung limp. No longer was the coconut able to sustain itself with its own milk and oil – Porcupine had to spend his days carrying water from the little fountain that supplied water to all the animals in the desert.

One day, the animals gathered to discuss the situation. Coconut was using so much water, there was almost nothing left for them.

“Let us get rid of Coconut,” Hare said. “Coconut must fall!”

Many of the other animals simply nodded, because their mouths were too dry to speak.

When Porcupine heard this, he became exceedingly angry. “We,” (Porcupine loved using the royal plural), “have brought this wonderful thing to the desert. If you do not revere Coconut for it’s beauty and power, you’ll regret it. Moreover, Coconut provides shade for you to protect you from the sun.”

“Protect? Protect!?” Hare was furious. “It has grown so high that even the birds cannot nest in its silly things it calls branches. As for us down here, it only provides shade for you. Coconut has left us with no water and no shade. You, Porcupine, have brought great hardship upon us.”

For a long time the animals only complained like this, but nobody dared face Porcupine with his terrible quills. And then, at last, the fountain dried up completely. It was no longer possible for Porcupine to sustain the tree he had planted. Some animals died. Some animals sought for a new home.

In the end, all the animals suffered.

Ever since then, Porcupine had to hide from the rest of the animals, and had to search for food at night. His wonderful Coconut had ruined his reputation as a powerful creature. Walking around in daylight, proud of the object of his power, became impossible. Instead, he became a shadowy figure of the night, causing the other animals to scorn him as he dug around for roots in the moonlight.

It took a long time, but in the end Porcupine secretly wished he had never found the coconut.

By then it was too late.

***

“Well, that’s a nice story, Gertruida. I don’t understand why you felt like telling it now, but I’m sure there’s a moral  hiding in it somehow.” Servaans beckons for another round of beers. “But to get back to the point: do you really think the prez is going to pay back the money?”

Vetfaan shakes his head. “The fountain, Servaas, has dried up. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear a heavy thud one of these days. Tall trees do that when they crash to the ground.”

Vibrant Bo-Kaap

Colour is an emotional issue in South Africa. It gets in the way of both national politics as well as individual common sense. It’s almost as if people have forgotten to celebrate diversity and the wonder of individuality. To form a Rainbow Nation – so it is thought – people have to coalesce to embrace a concept that requires the amalgamation of the masses into a single culture.

In the Bo-Kaap (Upper Cape Town), this is not the case. Culture, tradition, religion and individuality are joyously exhibited – and lived – for all to see. The community welcomes inquisitive tourists into their homes. They know their neighbours and their families. They spend endless hours in the streets, swapping stories and discussing family matters. It is surely the most colourful place in South Africa.

Take a walk down the cobbled street with me. These stones used to be ballast in the old sailing ships visiting the Cape.

B2

The drab suburb suddenly erupts in a kaleidoscope of colours, overwhelming the senses.

B6Here street art does not follow the trend to deface buildings with amateurish graffiti.

How to camouflage your dustbin? Easy! Add colour and suddenly nobody sees the garbage bin anymore!

B8

The mosque towers over it all. The community (mostly) follows the Muslim faith, but you won’t find them excluding other religions. Live and let live – in kindness – is the philosophy of the people you meet here.B7

The Bo-Kaap is almost like an arched gateway to a new way of thinking about society. Colour? Yeah, man! It shouts optimism, whispers hope and asks so little. Just be…and let be.

B5

And maybe, at the end of your walk through this historical area, you’ll see the smile we all hope to have – the smile that says: “I’m me. And you know what? That’s good enough.”

B10

Ah, yes, colour! We don’t have to build a monument for it.

We already have one, right here in the Cape…

When Time Stands Still

 

Steeple-Replacement-Guided-by-Church-Specialities-Professionals-at-Norton-PresbyterianIt started as another of those days.

As usual, Servaas woke up, groaned, held his throbbing head for a few minutes, sighed, got up (very slowly, holding on to the strategically placed chair to steady himself), brushed his false teeth and slicked down the obstinate hairs of his bushy brows. Then he dressed, had a mug of coffee (to wash down the aspirin) and  went outside, crossed the street and sat down wearily on the old bench on Boggel’s verandah. And as usual, he looked up to the old clock on the church steeple to check the time every now and then. Up to that point, his daily routine was unchanged and pretty much normal.

Then he realised that he’d been sitting there for quite some time, but the hands of the  clock still stood at a few minutes after twelve.

Twelve? The clock stopped just after midnight?

It couldn’t be, for goodness sakes! Judging by the sun (he had to squint because of his hangover), it should be about ten or eleven; Boggel should have been there long ago to open up the little bar. Looking up and down the street, he also noticed that Sammie hadn’t opened his shop either. And Vrede, the town’s dog, was nowhere to be seen.

Now, this posed a few rather uncomfortable questions to the old man. Where were everybody? He considered that they might have all overslept, but then a strange and unwelcome thought seeped to the surface of his painful and troubled mind. If they’re not around, waiting for Boggel, they could all be…dead? Suppose the rapture occurred and he, Servaas, didn’t make the grade? Midnight…it had happened at midnight! The thought made him sit up straighter.

Impossible! He had been an elder in Oudoom’s congregation since before Mandela was freed. And he even stopped shouting at the TV whenever the president spoke. (Truth be told: Gertruida warned him that such language would see him being sent downstairs when he meets St Peter). Well, maybe he hadn’t been a paragon of virtue, but still – his intentions were usually at least 60% good, weren’t they? In the old days, that used to be a first class pass. Not a distinction, mind you, but clearly way above the class average…

But why, then, the static hands of the clock? Is it not so that time would cease to exist when the world ends? No clocks in eternity, no sir! Pearly gates and sidewalks of gold, yes – but no clocks or watches or any form of chronometer would be necessary in Heaven. No need. Eternity means you’re never late.

But suppose – just suppose – he was late for the rapture? Or that he was forgotten? Who did one call under such circumstances?

And then again…Oudoom did speak to him last month. About his drinking. Oudoom was most kind about it, reminding him that an occasional tipple was quite alright, but that moderation was the hallmark of drinking discipline. And – Oudoom reminded him – he should remember that he was the senior member of the congregation; people looked up to him for guidance. “You are important to this congregation, Servaas; you are the example that the others follow.”

Well, that might be true, but…

Servaas tried to think about a good reason. Surely the other Rolbossers understood his loneliness? Excused his intake of Cactus Jack because he needed the drink to sleep? To escape from the terrible vacuum of solitude that crept into his life after Siena passed on?

And Siena…oh Lord! If he missed the rapture, Siena would be all alone up there – wherever up there might be – and she’d be profoundly ashamed that he missed the Salvation Bus. What would the other angels say if they knew her husband, a respected elder, had been left behind because of his habits?

Servaas got up and walked purposefully to the church. There’s only one way to protest against the situation. He’d go to the front pew, sink down on his arthritic knees, and beg for a second chance. Maybe the Second Coming is just that – the last chance to join the others.

Servaas never prays impulsively. He arranges his prayers the way they should be: first a salutation and praise; then thanks for being blessed with so much, followed by a request or two (or more, especially after another presidential speech); then more praise and a very respectful ‘Amen’. When he walked into the church, he had the words ready. He’d protest with great diplomacy – admitting that the second bottle of Cactus Jack last night was a mere little oversight, a small glitch in the way he was thinking at the time; and that Siena mustn’t think badly of him, please? Surely she’d understand that he wasn’t drinking to sin on purpose? He just took to taking a snort or two to dull the pain of solitude – and to make the politics of the day seem less important than getting to bed?

Servaas was holding on to the front pew to arrange his aged frame into a kneeling position when a voice spoke to him.

“Servaas? Servaas? Why, I didn’t expect to see you here today. It’s only Friday, you know. Service is only on Sunday, remember?”

Servaas felt a chill run through his body. Lost…he was lost. Protest wouldn’t help, but still he was at the point of saying it was all a terrible  mistake and that he’d been left behind by accident, when he looked up…into the questioning eyes of Oudoom.

He gaped. “You too, Oudoom? They left you behind as well?”

Oudom smiled. “Ja, they did. I’m glad, too. That trip is no pleasure. It’s a long way and today is going to be another scorcher.”

Servaas didn’t understand. “Where we’re going, could be hotter still, Oudoom. I’m worried.”

“Nah, we’ll amble over to Boggel’s and have a cold one. He’s left the keys with me.”

Oudoom, Servaas realised, was much to cheerful for a left-behind. “You…you’re going to have a beer? On this day? Now? Despite everything?”

“Of course, Servaas. What else? With everybody gone, I’d like the company. Hate drinking alone, you know? It’s the first sign of slipping down that slippery slope to being a problem drinker.”

“But…what about the others? They drink as much as I do – and they’re not here anymore.”

Oudoom looked down at the worried face f his favourite elder. What was bothering the old man? He seemed so…confused?

“Look Servaas, they’ll be back this afternoon. The battery of the clock on the steeple needed replacing and Boggel had to stock up for the weekend. They all left before dawn and Vrede went along for the ride. I asked whether they’d like to take you along, but Sammie said you needed the sleep. But look, here’s the key. Let’s go, I’m rather thirsty.”

Oudoom often remarks that the ways of the Lord are mysterious.

They are indeed. Servaas stopped drinking that day. For a full hour he sat there, sipping his Sprite, while Oudoom enjoyed his lager. Then they listened to the news and the latest statement by the president.

“Mind if I have the usual, Oudoom? And get you a fresh one, while I’m at it? I’ll write it up on my tab.”

And so, life returned to normal in the little town of Rolbos. Tonight Boggel will peek at the clock on the steeple before announcing the last round. Servaas will be in a reflective mood, and tell everybody that nobody knows when the last round will be. He’ll get a few curious glances for that, but he’ll ignore it and smile at himself.

Ja, Siena will understand.

“In life everything is folly
which does not bring pleasure.
Let us be happy, fleeting and rapid
is the delight of love;
it is a flower which blooms and dies,
which can no longer be enjoyed.”

La Traviata by Giusseppe Verdi

 

Weekly Photo Challenge: Optimism…

Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. – Nelson Mandela.

This is true, especially in Africa, where the sun is such a prominent presence. But it cuts deeper than merely the physical, doesn’t it?

c2Mothers guard their young with  worried frowns. What about tomorrow? What dangers lurk in the shadows of the night? How shall I manage?IMG_4786The young bachelor is lost and lonely – will he find that special someone, that ultimate mate to share his life with? How does one go about it? How to avoid the many mistakes waiting in the future? And…will he be good enough to match what she has to offer?

IMG_4846Camouflaged in the desert, the chameleon might well ask what has happened to the trees? His family has it so good, so easy – and he has to make do with so little. Does that mean he didn’t make the grade; that he is being punished for something? The pessimist is prone to depression –  will he give up, surrender, and slink away to mope in the vast empty space around him?

IMG_5000a.jpgIndeed, Life regularly seems to turn her back to us, leaving us wondering what it’s all about.

IMG_5116aWith so many predators around, any single individual becomes prone to doubt. Life seems to blur as we tend to consider the problems bigger than the solutions. Is there – when all is said and done – any sense in going on? Should one not just wallow in the profound pessimism that surrounds us, give up…and die?

IMG_4670But then – oh, the bliss! – we look up at the sun and don’t get blinded by its rays. For look, there is the promise; the rainbow; bringing hope. It lures us on and on, for no matter how heavily pessimism weighs us down, it’s darkness can never outshine the brightness of hope.

In the words of Helen Keller – arguably the epitome of optimism and an example to us all: “Be of good cheer. Do not think of today’s failures, but of the success that may come tomorrow. You have set yourselves a difficult task, but you will succeed if you persevere; and you will find a joy in overcoming obstacles. Remember, no effort that we make to attain something beautiful is ever lost.”

 

Gertruida’s new National Anthem

zuma-must-fall-CPT-tourist.width-370“The old one is nice,” Gertruida shrugs, “but what does it say? Every nation is dependent on God’s grace and blessing – that’s true.  And we should be loyal and proud of who and what we are. So, in my book, our National Anthem – as beautiful as it is – doesn’t imply anything unique or new. I mean: every song should have a message, shouldn’t it? Something fresh and inspiring that’d encourage people to forge a better future.”

Gertruida does this sometimes. She’d make an outrageous statement – completely out of the blue – and then wait to see what the others do with it. Sometimes this habit unleashes heated debates, which helps them pass the time of day. One can never be sure if she is really serious or whether she’s just rattling their cages for the fun.

“Look, Gertruida, I grew up with Die Stem before politics intervened. We sang it in school, at funerals and in the army. I never thought it’d become such a political controversy, yet I understand that people wanted to incorporate other verses to include the entire community. But…I’ve become used to N’kosi Sikelel and quite like the song. Now you want to change it…again?”

“Calm down, Vetfaan! Look, let me try to explain…” Gertruida takes a long sip from her glass before continuing. “Okay. When you hear ‘rugby’, what do you see?”

“Why, the Springboks, of course?”

“And people overseas? If you say ‘Johannesburg’, what do they think?”

“Um…gold?”

“Well done, Vetfaan.” Gertruida beams her pride at the burly farmer’s answers. “And Kimberley?”

“Diamonds!”

“Great going Vetfaan. The point is: when you mention a name or a place, you immediately associate it with some mental picture in your mind.That’s the way our brains are wired. Now let’s take a step to the left and follow another line of thought.”

This, too, is typical of the convoluted way Gertruida’s mind works. Straight lines, she always maintains, are for fence wires.

“We are stuck with arguably the most unpopular president in our democratic history. Madiba was a wise leader. Mbeki was clever. But currently we have a clown that laughs his way through parliament. Have you listened to what even the children say about our esteemed First Person?”

 

Vetfaan collapses in a fit of laughter. “Really? If the kids can see through the farce, why do people still vote for him?

“Oh! People! I guess they voted in good faith for the Madiba dream to continue. They trusted the ANC, believing the political party was there for them. Nobody – really, nobody, especially not the majority of the voters – foresaw the chaos that would follow the last election. Who could have predicted the fiasco of corruption, lawlessness, the virtual bankruptcy of our airlines, ESCOM, the railways, the postal services? And what about housing,  our roads and the lack of service delivery? Look at our airforce and navy. Even the education sector is collapsing.  If people had known what they were voting for, they would have been more careful about where they drew their crosses.”

“No argument there, Gertruida. But what has that to do with a new anthem?”

“An anthem is a song. A song has a message. That’s important to remember. Now…back to the questions.” She flashes an encouraging smile. “When you say: ‘South Africa’, what do foreigners think or see? Let me help you here:  who is the Face of South Africa?”

Vetfaan’s response is immediate. “Madiba. They see Mandela.”

“But he’s dead, Vetfaan. You have to choose a living person, one that interacts with the rest of the world right now.”

Vetfaan blanches. “Oh, my….you mean? Really? Our president? Gosh no! That’d be grossly unfair! We have such wonderful people here – kind, wise, caring people. Like, maybe Desmond Tutu for instance. Writers like Adam Small. Singers and songwriters like Johnny Clegg and P J Powers. We’ve got doctors, scientists, philosophers…and Boggel, of course. Why would a German or an American associate our country with Zuma?”

“Because the majority chose him, dummy. He’s the Number One, The Leader, The Face of South Africa.”

Vetfaan slumps down on the counter, holding his head in his hands. “Gimme a Cactus Jack, Boggel. I desperately need one now!” He looks up with a bewildered frown. “So a new anthem will change all that?”

“That’s what I think, Vetfaan. An anthem is a message to the world. We tell the world out there who we are and what we strive for.Listen to this: it’s more catchy than God Save the Queen, has more rhythm than Advance Australia Fair, and easier to sing than Chichewa. No disrespect to those countries, mind you, but it’s such an easy song – the whole country knows the words already.

“Most importantly, this song tells the story of where we are right now, and what we want to see happening in the near future. As far as anthems go, I think this one will be very popular.”

Vetfaan listens. Smiles. Slaps Gertruida’s back. Orders a round on the house. Yes, dear Gertruida has a way of shaking things up in Boggel’s Place. If only she could do the same on a much larger stage…

(Author’s note: This is a satirical piece, using fictional characters to voice fictional opinions. The National Anthems of various countries are not ridiculed, neither is any disrespect implied. The #zumamustfall hashtag has, however, gained unprecedented popularity in the social media, and is here addressed in the way it should – tongue-in-cheek with a wink and a smile.)

The Man from BBE

images (19) copy“That must be Mister Ball, ” Boggel says as the line of dust on the road to Rolbos nears the town. “I wonder what – exactly – does he want? Said he had to come to do business, but that was all. He sounded rather strangely pompous as if he expected us to fall for some sales talk. Something about empowerment and compliance – couldn’t make out head or tail…”

They’ve talked about the visit ever since the telephone call a week ago. Servaas reckons it has to be a government thing, because they seem to be creating more and more agencies to regulate businesses and organisations. “It’s their way of creating jobs, see?” Servaas gets upset about the way the government insists on appointing inept and unqualified people to positions of power – officials who do not have the faintest idea of what they should be doing, anyway.

Gertruida has been hard at work, too. Using the skills she had picked up in her days with National Intelligence, she created a perfect copy of a liquor licence  – something Boggel has never bothered to apply for. That, of course, is a completely different story, and one that has been told a long time ago. Still, if the government wants to see that piece of paper, she’ll have it ready for them.

The black BMW purrs down Voortrekker Weg (still misspelled after all these years) and comes to a stop in front of Boggel’s Place. A chauffeur in a perfectly pressed suit jumps out to open the back door for a remarkable man. Remarkable? Maybe not the right word. Astounding might be more appropriate. The huge figure emerging from the vehicle is, indeed, typical of the average government employee – built like an over-sized teapot with a soccer ball head and frog-like eyes. He, too, is dressed in a suit; but how he managed to squeeze his massive bulk into the clothes, is a mystery. Maybe one should not be so critical about Chinese material -it really stretches!

“Mister Ball…?” Boggel steps forward to shake the large man’s meaty hand.

“Just call me Black. All my friends do.” The lips scarcely move, but a gold tooth manages to wink at Boggel. The voice is alarmingly high-pitched, making Gertruida wonder about the man’s hormonal balance.

“Black?”

“Yes. Black. Black Ball. That’s me.” He tries bow slightly and almost manage, too. He hands over his card, which states that Black Ball is the managing director of BBE – Black Ball Enterprises. Underneath, in smaller letters: already 

“Come on in, er…um…Black. You’ll need something cool after driving through the heat.”

“No. No drinking. I’m here on business and I don’t have time to waste. Where can we talk?”

Boggel leads the man inside, where they have to place two chairs next to each other to accommodate the large frame.

“Let me get straight to the point here. You guys need protection. I can offer you this…at a very reasonable rate. You have a choice: work with me, or not. If not…well, the consequences could be rather …uncomfortable. Even painful.” Black pulls a face to emphasise the point.

Now look. You don’t talk like this in Rolbos. Never. It’s not done. Especially not if Vetfaan has had to overhaul his old Landy again – for the second time already this year. This time it was the head gasket, which necessitated a vigorous scrub-down with petrol to get rid of the treacle-like oil that clung to everything. The scrub-down was for Vetfaan, of course, resulting in his cheeks being even more rosy than usual.

“Now look here, mister…”

“Black, just call me Black.”

“Well, Black, I think you have the wrong address. We’re not interested in bribing our way out of your trouble. We’ve got rifles, pistols, a few revolvers and Vrede, our dog. We need protection? My foot! You and who are going to protect us?” Vetfaan gets up to tower over the sitting giant.

“Of course you need protection! Everybody does. Guns won’t help you.” Black spreads his hands in front him. He doesn’t have to say it – his incredulous expression tells them it’d be very stupid not to co-operate. “Look, it’s the way things are in the country.” Now his voice is an octave higher, almost pleading. “I go from town to town and everywhere I’m welcomed with open arms. But you? Sheesh! I feel like you people don’t like me! And here I am, offering you a lifeline in these troubled days…and you don’t want it?”

A troubled silence descends on the group in the bar. Boggel coughs, looks up at the ceiling, and wonders how he can defuse the situation. Sure, they had been a bit apprehensive about the visit, but this is worse than even Servaas’ worst fears. This isn’t the usual governmental mess – this is criminal extortion… He’ll have to get the large man to relax – maybe they can work something out without Vetfaan losing his temper. That would certainly bring on a gang of tattooed ex-bouncers and a bunch of ululating ladies. Hard to say which is worse…

“Look..er…Black. What does your protection cost? Let’s talk about this, man?”

“It’s very cheap. Really.” This time, the snake-like eyes seem to glimmer with…hope?  He certainly sounds more eager now. “Way below what you’ll pay in Upington, for instance. And you’ll have my personal assurance of quality. When I’ve got you covered, you’re as safe as can be. I’ve never had a complaint about quality.” He shakes the large head. “No sir. Never.”

Gertruida sits up suddenly.

“Um…Black? Your protection? Can you give us a demonstration of it?” She smiles her most charming smile. “Please?”

Black calls his chauffeur over to give him instructions.

What happened next in Boggel’s Place, will remain a source of hilarity as long as  Boggel is there to serve his customers. He insists on keeping the complementary sample on the shelf behind the till.

***

“Who would have guessed?” Vetfaan whistles as he slaps his hands together. “Of all things! And there I was, ready to take the poor man out, hey?”

“Always a good idea to listen before you act, Vetfaan? Gertruida tries to sound stern but the twinkle in her eyes tells him she’s not serious. “Hey, it’s the New South Africa – everybody is just trying to make ends meet. I felt rather sorry for him, but he does seem successful enough.”

Sadly, Black Ball failed to make a sale in Rolbos today. Servaas said he was to old, Gertruida pleaded menopause and Vetfaan said something about celibacy.

In bigger towns like Kenhardt and Pofadder, Black might be able to sell his wares. But in a small place like Rolbos? You see, after a certain age – especially if you’re from a more conservative background -some people simply do not use the stuff. They’re fun to blow up and Vetfaan even filled one with water; but to actually use it for its intended purpose would be worth a lot of bragging rights in Boggel’s Place. Only – here everybody knows everybody else’s business, hence they’ll know when a bragger is lying through his teeth. It’s not that they don’t want to use condoms…they simply can’t any more…

Shame..

 

Calculating Racism

wpid-1177012_977770“If I’m proud of who I am, does that make me a racist?” Vetfaan folds the newspaper to show the others the front page.  The headlines contain the usual mix of politics, murders and price increases. “I mean, it’s as if the country just can’t let go of the past – it’s all about black and white. Still, I am who I am. My family is my family.But whenever the politicians rant about Apartheid and how the whites stole the land from the blacks, I can’t help feeling angry.”

“It’s a difficult one, Vetfaan.” Gertruida pushes the newspaper away with a dismissive gesture. “Unless you start reading up on mathematics. That’s the only way. As long as we insist on dividing the nation – or the world – up according to the amount of pigment in your skin, we’re lost. Of course, history is important; it shows us what not to do. But we never learn, do we?”

Gertruida is fond of making statements like this. She’ll mix theory, history and current affairs in a few sentences, and then sit back and watch the others trying to digest what she has just said.

“Huh?” Servaas shakes his head. “You’ve lost me again, Gertruida.”

Gertruida smiles triumphantly and starts explaining. “Look, a certain German mathematician had the same problems with the issues of the day, way back in the seventeenth century. His name was Leibnitz, and he wanted to create an encyclopedia in which everything was awarded a set of numbers. Everything – from fruit to religion – would be represented by a number and that would define the exact nature of the subject under scrutiny. Bertrand Russell wrote about it in 1807, and I’ll try to quote from memory: ‘If controversies arise, there would be no more need of disputation between two philosophers than two accountants. For it would be suffice to take their pens in their hands, to sit down to their desks and say to each other : Let us calculate.'”

“But that’s impossible, Gertruida! You can’t assign a figure to everything? Who decides a goat is number 265 and a car is 1098? Can you imagine if an American gets only number 105, while a Russian gets – say – 1098765? There’ll be endless arguments about getting into the top 100.”

“No Servaas, not like that. The number isn’t of any numerical value – it’s a tag. That tag will take into account what the object is, what it does and how it lives. So hypothetically,  no matter whether you’re German of Japanese, if you write down 158730, everyone will know it’s an adult female elephant with a six-month-old calf, grazing on the grass in central Zambia. The number, according to Leibnitz, will define exactly what is being spoken about.”

Servaas scowls, thinking that this will mean an endless dictionary of numbers. “I still say it’s too far-fetched to be practical. If everybody spoke this mathematical language, nobody will understand what is being said…”

_84018027_binary_code_thinkstock“Unless you’re a machine, Servaas.” Gertruida interrupts the old man gently. “A machine, programmed to think in numbers – and only two of them. Zero and one; the binary language of computers.

“You see, Leibnitz didn’t know it, but he was one of the mathematicians who started the quest for artificial intelligence. His idea might have taken a few hundred years to mature and become practical, but his basic argument was right.”

“Now, how does this solve racism? Surely the problem is more complex than a set of ones and zeroes? And moreover, you can’t expect a computer to solve personal issues like these? Machines have no emotion!”

“Bingo, Servaas! I’m glad you finally understand the basic fault of being human. We attach emotion to everything – not a number. So we seek out people, places and events that make us feel happy and secure – while we avoid those that make us uncomfortable. In fact, we simply hate discomfort. We react with our emotions while we seek fulfillment. Humans, my friend, are wired to avoid situations that rattle the bars around our comfort zones. We get angry when it happens. We rage against the misfortunes of life. And we end up hating those that threaten our existence.”

“Sooo…”

“So politicians rely on fear and hate to keep them in power. As long as they can generate enough unease about the present and the future, voters will go for the easiest road back to their isolated cocoons of comfort. But…to do that, the government needs the past – desperately. They’ll keep on pointing fingers while diligently avoiding some thorny questions. For instance: this country didn’t belong to any specific black nation in the past. The blacks came down from the north, and stole territory from the San and Khoi people. The original hunter-gatherers were hunted down and destroyed.  And tell me: have you ever heard about restitution for these people? No – the government blames the whites and that’s the end of the argument.”

“But that’s the story of the Aborigines and the American Indians, not forgetting the Incas and a whole history book full of other examples – like England and a number of European countries.”

“That’s true, Servaas. But mostly – not in all cases, though – those countries have moved on – or are moving on. For them, the past is the past. They have accepted that no war in the past has been without casualties, but that constantly creating fear and guilt won’t help building a better future. In an advanced society, history serves as a guide – not as a whip.”

“So, am I a racist for clinging to my identity?” Vetfaan still hasn’t heard the answer to his question.

“No, you’re normal.” Gertruida reaches over to tap him on the shoulder. “Without knowing who you are, which culture you belong to and what you believe in, you might as well be a frog. The proviso is, of course, that you cannot deny anybody else the right to his or her identities. Once you get to that point, racism disappears and hope starts blooming.”

“It’ll take a long time…” Servaas muses.

“Indeed, Servaas. Remember Apartheid? They used laws to force down an inhuman policy, based on race. History is simply repeating itself in the country. You can’t use laws to change people’s opinions. That’s a heart-thing – it happens in here.” She taps her ample chest. “That happens when we leave emotion out of the equation, look at the issues objectively, and start calculating. Leibnitz was right.”

“Are you saying I should be allowed to be a proud Afrikaner – despite the government’s rhetoric?”

“Yip, you should. But only if you grant the same for those around you.”

“And that’ll make us the Rainbow Nation?”

“Rainbows only appear after the storm has passed, Verfaan. As long as the clouds are building up and the wind is howling, you won’t see a rainbow. Not in nature, and not in society. One day, we’ll start calculating – and hopefully get to the right answer at last.”