Oudoom has spent a long time in preparing his sermon. He knew he was taking a chance, but – on the other hand – he felt he had to make his flock think about life; especially in the times they are living in right now. It’s not about Aparheid, the country’s history, or the fact that even the Americans only opened the polls to…er…um…all people of different descent, who were forcibly taken to their continent in 1966. This made perfect sense to the clergyman. American slavery started to occur 30 years before Jan van Riebeeck landed in the Cape, so freedom to vote in South Africa happened 30 years after the Americans saw the light. In his mind, that made the Old America just as racist as the Old South Africa was. And, he thought, long before Obama, we had Mandela. Nothing to be ashamed of, then.
“But, Brothers and Sisters, we still live in a world where masters are masters and workers are workers.” Oudoom ignores the puzzled looks and goes on. “The Bible teaches us that masters must respect their workers, and vice versa.
“Now, I’m not sure if this is happening everywhere. In fact, I’m not sure it’s happening at all! We in Rolbos, have to take the lead in this country. We must show the world we are not backward. Here, in our little town, we must light the fire of respect and kindness, so that our light can shine all over the world.” He pauses for dramatic effect and lowers his voice to almost a whisper. “That’s why I invited the Platnees family to the service today.”
The benches creak as the congregation turns to look at the family, all dressed up in their Sunday best. Oudoom explained to the Platnees family beforehand what his sermon was all about, and they’re all smiles.
“The congregation is going to appoint one so-called master to swap places with our beloved brother, the head of the Platnees family,” Stunned silence. “It’s what the BIble teaches us, Brothers. Humility. Respect. Love. You have to die within yourself. A Christian, Brothers, can harbour no pride. It’s only by climbing into someone else’s shoes, that you can really come to understand the life he lives.” Again the pause. “Now, who will be our volunteer, our Joshua or Caleb, to enter the unknown? Who will be brave enough to go where no man has ever gone before? Who … is Christian enough to live according to the rules so clearly set out in the Bible? Come on, Brothers, it’s only for a week…?”
Boggel – remembering the little incident with the lorry driver, Vetfaan and Sersant Dreyer – and their reluctance to help him out in his hour of need – is sitting right behind Vetfaan. As usual, his back doesn’t allow him to sit up straight, so he is already bent forward, halfway towards Vetfaan. It is a simple matter of poking his finger in Vetfaan’s armpit to make the big man jump up in fright.
Oudoom had a brotherly talk to the two men, and urged them to act responsibly. But, he said, the project would fail if they didn’t take it seriously. Vetfaan had to move to the shack behind the barn, while Platnees occupied the house on the farm.
“A complete role-reversal, Brothers. And you will come to understand so much better. Complete, remember. No exceptions.”
Vetfaan had no argument against the theologian’s logic. He couldn’t refuse and he didn’t want to cooperate. Platnees, in contrast, couldn’t stop smiling.
Vetfaan carries his sleeping bag to the shack, grumbling as he does so. He, as an elder in the church! He, the farmer who worked his fingers to the bone! He, the man with the mortgage on the farm that will keep him tied down for another fifteen years. And he is the one to swap places? It might be Biblical, but it isn’t fair. To make matters worse, Oudoom had them swap names, as well!
“Hey Platnees! Where do you think you’re going with my sleeping bag? Bring it back at once!” Vetfaan doesn’t realise he’s being spoken to, and continues on his way. “ Mister Vetfaan, you’re Platnees now, remember? I’m called Vetfaan for the week.” Platnees’s tone is almost apologetic, but Vetfaan can swear he can detect a certain degree of mirth in the voice.
Gritting his teeth, Vetfaan walks back to Platnees.
“Please Mister Vetfaan, may I borrow your sleeping bag for the week?” Vetfaan grinds out the words.
That’s how it starts. Vetfaan is under church orders, obliged by holy ordinance, to keep to his word. He also knows the customers in Boggel’s Place will have a field day discussing his short temper – and will be laying bets how long it’ll take for him to explode. Well, he’ll show them…
On Monday, Vetfaan wakes up to the sound of Platnees shouting at him.
“Platnees!! Where’s my coffee? And remember to stir it before you bring it. And…I’ll have some bacon and eggs this morning. Two eggs. Sunny side up. And don’t burn the bloody toast like you always do. Hurry! You’ve got work to do.”
Vetfaan sinks to his knees, and promises to give up smoking if the good Lord will only make this week disappear. Of course it doesn’t. He dresses quickly and hurries to the kitchen to get the breakfast going.
Platnees reclines against the cushions after smacking his lips. “Now that’s what I call a breakfast, Platnees, you did well.”
Vetfaan is sure Platnees is enjoying the spiel more than he should, bites his tongue and remains quiet.
“Now, today, Platnees, I want you to dig up the garden. You know that patch where you put in the cabbages last year? That spot. Dig it deep, put in some fertiliser and water it. Then I want you to get some seeds form Sammie’s shop, and plant some cabbages. You know how I love cabbage.”
Vetfaan clenches his fists and turns to go.
“Platnees, Platnees, Platnees! How can you leave without taking my breakfast tray? You know you have to do the washing, first…”
Vetfaan, still under the impression of his higher calling, cleans up the kitchen.
“Can I go now, Mister Vetfaan?” He calls from the kitchen while Platnees shaves the stubble from his chin. With his shaver, nogal…
“Yes, Platnees,” Platnees calls back, “I’ll come and check in a second.”
Vetfaan walks out of the kitchen, lights a cigarette and stares at the horison.
“The spade is missing…”
And so it goes on. The garden fork is ‘broken’. The rake is ‘stolen’. The hosepipe to water the garden, doesn’t have the connection to the pipe…
“Platnees,” Platnees is furious by this time, “You have to look after these things. I can’t just buy new things every time something can’t be found. How many times must I tell you that?’
“But why?” Vetfaan has his innocent face on. “Mister Vetfaan can buy new things every time I ask. Don’t you have money, Mister Vetfaan?”
“Look, Platnees, you don’t understand. I owe the bank a whole heap of money for this farm. And the tractor broke again, just the other day. And remember, the diesel costs more every month. Don’t forget about the drought and the falling price of wool. Money doesn’t grow on my back, understand?”
The argument would have gone on forever if Oudoom didn’t arrive at that same moment.
“Ah, Brothers! I can see you are like master and slave, only the slave is the master and the master is the slave – so in the end you are the same. Equals in effort, partners in commerce. The one won’t survive without the other, and the other can’t live with the one. I think that is what Ephesians 6:5 is all about. Well done!”
Vetfaan sighs, grabs a pick, and starts digging up the patch of ground. “Mister Vetfaan,” he reminds Platnees, “you have to go to Upington to talk to the bank manager. You need to drop the interest rate on your bond, otherwise you can’t pay me at the end of the month.”
In the annals of Rolbos – if ever they are ever written – the Platnees/Vetfaan week will feature as the seven days that changed a lot of things. Vetfaan came to know the frustrations of a worker on his farm, while Platnees suddenly understood much more about the intricacies of owning and running a farm. Oudoom, it must be said, understood much more of the teachings in the Bible after that week.
“Brothers and Sisters,” he intones the next Sunday, “we are gathered here to witness humility. We have to celebrate brotherly love. We rejoice in forgiveness. The fact that neither elder Vetfaan, nor our esteemed brother Platnees, came to physical blows in the last week, is a testimony of what Christianity is all about.
“However, I want to thank the good Samaritans who took such good care of the worker on Vetfaan’s farm this week. I never knew such generosity in all my time as pastor to this flock. The blankets, tinned food, yea, even the new bed – this all now belongs to the Platnees family now, of course.
“But I urge you, kind people, to rather remain silent about the happenings in our congregation this week. The Bible teaches us not to boast; and the rest of the country – nay, the rest of the world – is not ready for this message yet.”
Kleinpiet sighs. He was hoping the project would become a national one. Then he could swap places with President Zuma, and teach him a thing or two about serving the underdogs. But then again – he would have had to take care of the six wives, and the twenty-odd children… No, not a good idea, he thinks, even Biblical truths can’t stretch that far.
Nowadays, Vetfaan sits on the back of his pickup when Platnees drives him to town. Oudoom thinks this is a wonderful gesture of humility and understanding, but Vetfaan reckons differently. He says the real hoipolloi always sits in the back of their limousines. It’s a sign of power and achievement.
Gertruida has a different take. She says people have been moulding the message of the Bible to suit their own needs, since the Book was assembled and compiled in the 4th century AD. “Religion encompasses much more than just reading and interpreting the words we have in that Book. It’s what is in your heart that counts.”
Vetfaan is building a proper house, there behind the barn. He wants to be better prepared if Oudoom has another of his bright ideas. He still smiles about the service on the Sunday when Oudoom declared the week a success, and ordered the two of them to assume their normal roles again. When Oudoom said ‘Amen’, Vetfaan rushed to the front door, to wait for Platnees. He wanted to settle a few things then and there. But Platnees, with new insight into Vetfaan’s personality after the week, chose to slip out by the side door. This, Vetfaan says, was a good sign. It shows you, he says; there is a time for everything under the heaven. There is a time to stand still, and a time to run.
And Platnees ran very fast, indeed…