Writers live in an isolated cell with high walls and a very small window. From there, they take a seemingly insignificant situation, throw in a bit of conflict and allow the characters of the story to interact with unfolding events. Nothing, like we all know, ever remains constant and therefore the characters have to adapt to create – in the end – the plot.
But where do the stories come from? It varies from writer to writer. It’s safe to say that there is always at least a smidgin of truth behind each story. It may be much, much more. And then there’s the imagination (or the Muse, if you prefer) to fill in the gaps.
Fly Away is such a story. It also contains – on purpose at times, at others, it was impossible not to submit to the natural progression of the story – a symbolism which forms the backdrop to the stage of South African society.
Annatjie is the stereotype of the Afrikaner women who’ve lost so much during the war years. Their husbands came back (if at all) very often as changed men. The trauma of war never leaves the soldier and although he might act just the way he did before being shot at, there are many (if subtle) changes in the way he considers life, the objectivity with which he views politics and even in the way he expresses love. Too many Annatjies had to adapt to too many silences. Too many couples struggled through the aftermath of the war without proper debriefing. Too many women, even today, wonder what – exactly – happened in the bush. Like Annatjie, many women responded to these issues, trying to limit the damage. And many of them retreated from reality to create a space to survive in.
Hendrik Meintjies? Well, there can be very few soldiers who didn’t question the purpose of the Border War at some or other stage. The White young men were told what to think and how to think. They were moulded into a super-efficient fighting force where discipline was absolute. This is quite obviously the purpose – the goal – of every army in every war ever fought. It did, however, come at a cost. (Think of Vietnam or Desert Storm and the way it affected those young men – especially afterwards.)
In South Africa, back then, young White men didn’t dare question the ideology the Church, the State and the media propagated in every conceivable way. It was the way they were brought up. Their parents were – in this regard – as effective as the government. Discipline used to be strict in schools as well as in families. That’s why, when the draft papers arrived, thousands of youths reported for duty, believing they were serving God and country in the fight against communism. There was no Je Suis Charlie back then.
Also: there never was a proper program to help the soldiers after the war. No psychological support. No post-traumatic sessions. In the end too many soldiers came home with too many memories of what they had seen and done. Many of those who didn’t die on the battlefield, had difficulty in living in suburbia afterwards.
Like Hendrik Meintjies, there were many boys with their fingers on triggers, wishing they could have done something to stop the madness. Does this make them traitors? Not at all. It is, after all, completely normal to pray for survival when the enemy is throwing bullets, bombs and mortars at you in the middle of the night. No matter how brave the youth – they all felt the cold finger of fear running down their spines.
The other aspect of Hendrik Meintjies’s life the story tells about, is the way his father viewed other races, other cultures and other policies. There was – in the 50’s and 60’s – a groundswell of Nationalism. South Africa – just like America – was grappling with the concept of the racial identity (and differences) that existed at the time. This wasn’t something that happened in 1948 when the Nationalists came to power. Racial segregation was the norm in the world during the 1800’s and the early 1900’s – and, indeed, was established here during the governance of the region by England and the Netherlands long before the Union of South Africa was established in 1910. So, old Mister Meintjies must be seen as a product of his time. While there may be no excuse for discrimination, the reality of South Africa’s development towards equal rights for all is not so dissimilar to the history of Alabama and the southern states of America. The fate of indigenous peoples in America, Africa, and Australia in the previous centuries underscores a history of discrimination that most commentators try to ignore when they report on South Africa.
Then: the mission to Luanda. It is wrong to label all White South Africans as conservative, bigoted supporters of Apartheid. One must remember that Black people in America only received equal citizenship in America in 1966. Separatism was – and sadly still is – universal; if not in name, then in more subtle ways. (When 17 people die in Paris, the world’s outrage is without limits. The massacres in Nigeria should have had the same – if not more pronounced – effect.) The world’s history is riddled with racism, whether we want to acknowledge that today or not. South Africans didn’t invent slavery. Neither did they invade Khartoum or India to subject the ‘natives’ or claim the natural resources as their own.
No, South Africa’s history isn’t without blame. All the races in the country were guilty of varying degrees of atrocities in the past. We have to live with that and build a better future. It is, however, a terrible mistake to allow the past to dictate the future. It is the present – the here and now – that affords us a chance to plan for a better tomorrow.
There are in South Africa (as everywhere else) members of society whose names will never appear in history books. Ever since the first Europeans set foot on our beautiful shores, there have been men and women who advocated peace and stability. These were often common folk, living in the far-flung rural areas and on farms. They were quiet, God-fearing people who preached justice – people like Hendrik Meintjies who rebelled against the destructive policies of the day. Sadly, history prefers to forget these men and women; they rate too low on the Sensation Scale.
But the Afrikaner is also fiercely independent. He’ll die for his cause and many of them did. It is one of those monumental coincidences in history that the National Party and the Berlin Wall crumbled within months of each other. If communism were allowed to cry Uhuru! in South Africa in the 60’s, the very real fear existed that the resultant bloodshed would have been worse than the massacres in Kenya and the Congo combined.
Hendrik Meintjies was a soldier and a rebel, which tells us something else about Afrikaners. They are a stubborn nation. They fought – and won – a war against the mighty power of England. The Republic was established despite the world’s opposition. Once the course is set, it takes a storm to divert the route. And in the period between the 60’s and the 90’s, they were buffeted by a political cyclone of an immense magnitude. Some remained loyal to the cause. Some stubbornly considered the alternatives.
The sealed letter. Annatjie didn’t open it in the end. She tried to keep Hennie alive by not reading his words. She didn’t want to acknowledge the reality of the past. This is true for South Africa in so many spheres. The Whites want to forget about Apartheid, but the ruling party continues to use it as a political tool. Many individuals – with some justification – look back at the time when South Africa experienced the world’s best economic growth and had a reliable rail and postal service. They remember the time when crime and murder occurred rarely and rape was unheard of. In that closed envelope, they live in denial of the reality. Time has moved on. The past, is past. Despite the horror of the current reality, this is where we have to live.
The result of Annatjie’s denial was the years she wasted in demented isolation. She tried to justify her jumbled reasoning by remembering other aircraft crashes that claimed other (famous) people. This symbolism can be applied to both Black and White people in the country (and probably in various other places around the world). In some ways, there are people who want to justify their actions, based on out-dated ideas. To scrutinise those ideas – and their origins – can be a very painful process. To them, it is better to keep the envelope closed.
Racial identity is too often based on prejudice. (This may very well apply to religious identity as well. The events in Europe may be an example). This prejudice leads to isolation, which in turn may fester into fanaticism. Denial, one of the main themes of Fly Away, can never contribute to a better future. Breaking out of denial, facing reality, is the only way ahead. That reality challenges each of us to acknowledge that we share space with others who may look and think different to us – and that it’s okay to celebrate that diversity. The old South Africa had a slogan: Ex Unitate Vires. Sadly, it seems as if our current government seems unwilling to embrace such an outlandish concept.
So, in a few simplistic ways, Fly Away tells the story of a nation struggling to come to terms with the past. The story may be of little literary merit, and I accept the blame for that. But, although never intended to coincide with the attack on Charlie Hebdo, Fly Away does echo with the desire to improve the world we live in by having a critical look at our society, our past and our hopes for a better future.. After all, if nothing changes, everything remains the same. Then the promise of a better tomorrow might as well fly away on a doomed aircraft…
We’re not going to do that. Je Suis Charlie is alive and well and living in Rolbos, too. Behind the message of kindness and the occasional humour, the patrons in Boggel’s Place simply can’t shy away from addressing the very real issues confronting us every day. Neither should you…
After careful consideration, it seems appropriate to conclude the story of Annatjie and Hendrik with a special recording – and a message – by the inimitable John Denver…