The Death of an Era

“Nothing,” Gertruida says (because she knows everything), “is permanent. Life, circumstances, love, the universe  – you name it, and it’s got a sell-by date. Everything; from empires to wars; gets to expire somewhere along the line. And somehow we never quite get to grips with the concept of things being temporary.”

“Ja, that may be so, Gertruida, and you can sound very clever saying things like that, but it is human nature to hope that things will last. And sometimes it does, let me tell you. That Massey Ferguson is still going, and my father  bought it before Vorster became president.” Vetfaan smiles triumphantly, believing he proved a point. “I know it dies on me occasionally, but it is still as good as new.”

“Oh, pulleaze, Vetfaan, pull the other one! That thing alone increases Rolbos’ carbon footprint up to Cape Town’s category. It uses more oil than Shell can import. As for the carburettor…”

“Some things gets worn with age, that’s true. But that doesn’t mean I have to buy a new tractor. That machine needs a gentle hand and a bit of loving care, that’s all. It’ll outlive us all, I tell you.”

“There comes a time.” Servaas sighs heavily as he tugs at the collar of the black shirt he’s got on today. He’s in one of those moods again. “We have to let go of the old, Vetfaan. I listened to that tractor the other day – it hasn’t got far to go any more. Something wrong with the crank shaft, I think. It is still going, but for how long?”

You don’t argue with Servaas when he’s like this, so everybody remains quiet while Boggel serves the next round.

“Even F W de Klerk is in trouble, just like your tractor. He can get a new spare part, but it’s a question of time. And Madiba…we all know how he’s doing.” Servaas drains his glass in a single gulp, belches, and pulls a face. “Even the ANC is ailing. Who’d have imagined that? The once-mighty political machine is belching out smoke, misfiring, and losing speed.”

“It’s the season, Servaas. In winter everything grinds to a halt. Some things hibernate, others die. And comes springtime, new growth makes the world pretty again.” For some reason, she thinks back on John Steinbeck’s last novel, The Winter of Our Discontent. Is it possible, she reasons with herself, that the fallen hero could be great again? That honesty will persevere over corruption? That Love will triumph over Hate?

Or will we, like Ethan Allen Hawley, all be guilty of the murder of the town drunkard with the key to financial survival?

“The old order is passing, Servaas. Slowly but surely, one after the other of the pillars of our current democracy is leaving us to hold up the ceiling, and I’m not so sure we are strong enough to do it. It isn’t working in Egypt or Syria, nor has it lasted in Zimbabwe or the Congo.”

Sure, Ethan eventually made the right decision, but still his son plagiarised his way to winning a national essay competition. How much damage did the father’s own dishonesty and lack of integrity contribute to the future generation? And even if a new government gets elected some day: won’t the legacy of crime and corruption just keep on eating away at whatever moral fibre is left at that stage?

She sighs – there are no real answers, are there?

“You know, Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for literature, even if the reviewers in America thought his work was without much merit. They stated that his criticism of a corrupt American society was totally unwarranted. More than a decade after his last book was published, the reviewers had to hurry to apologise when Watergate happened. They said they never realised America ‘had a condition’.”

“So,” Sevaas looks up sourly, his brows knitted together in a show of disgust, “you’re telling me two things: One – a country with a corrupt soul is bound to fail; and Two – the writers who dare write about it, won’t be appreciated by their own people?”

“It’s inevitable, Servaas. Vetfaan’s tractor won’t run forever. We’ll bury Madiba and F W de Klerk eventually. And…if we don’t prepare for the new season, we’ll be caught with our pants down.”

Boggel holds a glass up to the light, frowning at the crack in the side. It was one of the original glasses he bought when he opened the bar, and now he’ll have to throw it away. Gertruida is right, of course. He’ll have to budget for new glasses.

Gertruida doesn’t say it. She doesn’t dare to. But…South African society has become Ethan Hawley. The dire need for survival has eroded our culture to such an extent that we find it difficult to distinguish between the need for survival and honesty. That’s why the ANC will serve another term. Allan Hawley will win the essay competition.

And if we have the guts to turn away from the attempted suicide, the rising tide will get us if we allow the events of Rhodesia to migrate south of the Limpopo River.

In the end, we’ll only be able to blame ourselves.

Like Ethan Hawley did.

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