“It’s the Impimpi File!” The colonel grabs the file from Patrick’s hands, his eyes wide with shock. This is the moment he has been afraid of for so long. Over the years he gathered snippets of information regarding the possibility that such a file exists, until the clues pointed to Dawid van Graan. That’s why he ordered the burglary…and now he’s staring at the file containing the damning evidence. Nobody must see it. Nobody. This could ruin him…
The others back off instinctively, realising that the colonel is serious in his threat. Whatever information is contained in that file, he’s prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to protect it,
While most of the group are familiar with the term, it is Gertruida who immediately grasps the significance of the find.
During the struggle years, both sides involved in the war used everything they could to gain advantage over each other. Lies, disinformation, propaganda, covert operations and blatant spying formed the canvas on which the horror of war was painted. It was a no-holds-barred time; the rule book was thrown out – life meant nothing.
At Vlakplaas torture was refined to a gruesome art and here a number of anti-government activists were coerced into spying for the Nationalist government, Human endurance has its limits: at some point the pain, drugs and disorientation erodes the resolve of the most brave of men; and they’ll do anything – anything – to make the torturers stop. That’s when activist turned into informer – or impimpi, as they were known.
Colonel Tshabalala knows this. He has, after all, first-hand knowledge of the efficiency of those methods at Vlakplaas.
He flips through the file, trying to ignore the names printed in bold – but no, they keep jumping at him. Senior officers. Parliamentarians. Captains of industry. The list of impimpis goes on and on, detailing – next to the name – information supplied, when it was supplied and what the result of the information was. Prominent names in society, important ones, loyal party and union members…
And, of course, the reason for his interest: his own name. It screams at him from the page, along with the paragraph containing the names of his comrades who he, in those moments of sheer terror and pain, betrayed.
“That’s why,” Gertruida guesses in an hushed and asking voice, “that’s why you wanted to find that list? Why it was so important? Why you had to? That file contains the records of the prisoners at Vlakplaas – and what happened to them?”
The colonel nods lamely without consciously deciding to do so. He is overwhelmed – not only with finding the file, but especially by the number of names he recognises as important men in South African society today. How many of the comrades remained true? How many, like him, did what so many countries in the world did: supporting both sides in an effort to obtain personal gain?
“There’s only one thing to do; you understand that, don’t you?”
She gets another nod.
It is Rusty – the only smoker in the group – who gets the lighter from her back pack.
The helicopter takes the subdued group back to the parking lot at the public’s entrance to the ‘real’ caves. There’s not much to say – not after they all realised that so many men were involved in the struggle for many other reasons than pure patriotism.
But, huddled together, mother and daughter are trying to figure out why their lives took such a wrong turn.
“You know about Dad’s cancer, don’t you?”
No she didn’t. Didn’t know about the tumour in his brain that affected his personality so much. Didn’t know about his mood swings and bouts of depression. Didn’t know how he fought the disease, and how he tried to remain normal – and failed pathetically.
How his paranoia – in the end – made him tear up every bit of post coming to the house. How he had lucid intervals – the last one when he took Rusty to see the entrance of the cave. How he raved about everything he lost and how he blamed everybody – including God – for the miserable life he led.
And how he died – an unhappy man, fighting the many demons of the past he had been forced to live.
“So…that’s what happened to my letters?”
“I suppose so, Mom. He tried to protect me, I think. His thoughts got so jumbled, it was difficult to follow his reasoning. At times he said his condition was a just punishment for what he had done; at others he became sad that the dreams of a New South Africa became such horrible nightmares.”
“Your father was a particularly proud person. He hated failure – and that’s why he was so driven to succeed in everything. I could never understand why he reacted the way he did: chasing me off and refusing to take my calls were so unlike him. And now…now I wonder if it wasn’t the tumour…”
Gertruida will tell you (because she knows everything) that we all rationalise events and situations until we make them acceptable. She says the more abnormal the situation is, the more effort we put into such efforts. The brain – according to her – will protect the individual from sorrow, pain and guilt by simply rearranging impressions to create an agreeable picture.
And maybe that is why, when Dolly van Graan, the artist, decided to blame the tumour for her failed marriage, her daughter nodded and said yes, that must have been it. Rusty, with a wisdom not expected of such a fiery character, could not bring herself to tell her mother how often her father cried out for her during the final phases of his disease. Always – always – he’d stop suddenly, as if waking up, to make Rusty promise not to try and contact Dolly. She mustn’t see me like this, he said, I’m a disgrace. I did wrong. I cannot burden her with this as well..
Rusty won’t ever tell her mother about the difficult years following her sudden departure. About the desperate need she had for, at least, a simple explanation. About how, after a while, she rationalised her own feelings of loss by becoming a rebel. Using her short temper and rowdy vocabulary, she has managed to shock and alienate her friends – because she wanted to hurt them first before they hurt her.
But now, in this bizarre series of events, she realises that her mother and father were …. only human, after all. They made mistakes. A perfectly happy family was torn apart because they all rebelled against Life. Her father didn’t like what he was doing, but felt he had no choice. Her mother didn’t fit in with the expectations of society, but she too, felt the need to conform despite her unhappiness. And then, one day, it all went horribly wrong, leaving them all to lead unhappy lives.
That’s why she gives her mother a hug. “Maybe this is a second chance, Mom. Let’s not bugger this one up as well.”
Colonel Tshabalala will have nightmares about that dark chamber for the rest of his life. He won’t ever mention the incident to anybody – especially not to the people on that list of impimpis. He’ll go back to Pretoria where he’ll support the promotion of Patrick and Sipho, after he’s sworn them to secrecy.
Yet, despite his renewed efforts to serve his country, he’ll remain a colonel for the rest of his life. The feelings of failure – that he betrayed so many of his comrades – will never fade. Whenever the question of his promotion comes up, he’ll decline it firmly, saying he doesn’t deserve it.
He will, however, visit Dolly van Vuuren from time to time. Those shared moments in the chamber of darkness created a strange bond between the two of them. It became a symbol of the troubled lives they had led and the desperate search they both shared: to live in Light for the rest of their lives. Maybe that’s why they’ll find such solace in reciting the Lord’s Prayer every time they meet.
Boggel, Gertruida and Servaas returned to Rolbos with the old Volkswagen – Rusty told them she’d come and pick it up again one day, but first she preferred to stay with her mother in De Rust. They had a lot of catching up to do.
Servaas offered to stay in De Rust, of course. To help with whatever, anything, if that’s okay with Rusty? And Rusty actually giggled, telling him he’s a despicable old man, and one day she’d love to spend some time with him. “You looked at me. Despite my abrupt manner and unkind words, you saw me as a woman – a desirable one at that. And you know, Oom Servaas, that’s okay. You chose to see my beauty and not my mask. Every woman needs a bit of that.”
And so we find Boggel’s Place filled with people tonight. Boggel is back on his crate, serving his excited customers. Servaas is in the corner, staring into space with a silly grin, while Gertruida tells everybody that there is no such thing as a coincidence. There is only Life, she says. and It happens. Each living thing has a purpose, she tells them, and each event slots into the next with a specific reason.
Oudoom nods, pats her on the shoulder and orders a round on the house. “Coincidence? That’s God choosing to remain anonymous. That way He makes us think we discover the wonder of Life all by ourselves. Clever, isn’t it?”