Monthly Archives: October 2015

Sparks Strydom and his Speeding Gun.

3fc23d2c4a81ab717c9d8f35e9804dba“Sparks Strydom got me stopped again today.” Verfaan sits down heavily, takes off the sweat-stained hat and wipes his brow. “I feel so sorry for him.”

Now, if you’re a regular traveler between Upington and Rolbos, you’ll know all about Sparks. He’s a sinewy man of about fifty, sporting a small moustache and a goatee beard. He’s not altogether unhandsome, but the high cheekbones and the sunken eyes combine to give him a cadaver-like appearance, which  seem to frighten children. The few who know his story, also know that he’s a kindhearted, gentle soul who’s only trying to make ends meet.

“Really? I thought that gun would never work.” Kleinpiet signals for a round of beers. It’s been another scorcher in the Kalahari. He knows all about Sparks. They served on the Border together. “He used to be quite clever, that man. But that was before…”

Yes, they all nod, Sparks could have had such a bright future. He had been the star student in Pofadder High, the only one who passed matric with distinctions. A bursary was offered to study engineering, but the Border War intervened and he was conscripted to the army. 

“I remember that day they brought him back to the hospital in Grootfontein. Man, was he a mess! It was a miracle that he survived.” Vetfaan, who also spent some time recovering in that hospital after an ambush, shrugs as he sips his beer. “The doctors said he’d never be the same again. They were right.”

“Ja, shame, the poor guy. And when the war was over, he tried to study. Lasted two weeks in the university before the professors realised he couldn’t keep up. Such a pity.” Kleinpiet recalls the day he met Sparks in  Upington. He had been shopping for a new transistor radio at Kalahari Electric, when the gaunt man behind the counter offered his help.

***

“Gosh, Sparks? Is it really you?”

The man allowed his eyes to drift upward from the glass-topped counter to travel over Kleinpiet’s paunch, his chest and finally to Kleinpiet’s face. A small frown furrowed his brow. “Ja, it’s me.”

“I’m Kleinpiet, remember? We played rugby against each other. In Prieska…before the war.”

“Oh.” The dull eyes attempted an apologetic smile. “I don’t remember things so well anymore.”

It was an embarrassing moment. Kleinpiet smoothed it over with smalltalk and then said he wanted to buy a radio. Sparks shuffled away to call the other salesman.

***

“He did get better,” Gertruida tries to sound optimistic. “At least, that’s what I heard. Some of his old ways returned – he actually started reading again.”

“Yes, that’s true. He read up on wars. Fascinated by conflict, Sparks was. Maybe he still is, for that matter. But the gun? I think it’s a stroke of genius.”

Gertruida nods. “Yes, when he stumbled upon the work of Barker and Midlock during WW II, he became obsessed with them. Imagine soldering tin cans together to create microwaves? Shew! But that was the start of the radar speed gun, which paved the way for laser speed guns. And our Sparks copied that – only he had at his disposal a whole heap of old, broken radios – an unlimited supply of transistors, and diodes and who-knows-what.”

“Yes, and now he’s the only independent speed analyst in the Northern Cape. He’s hard to miss, dressed up in his old army uniform like that. I could see him a mile away, standing next to the road with his contraption, so I speeded up a little.  Didn’t want to disappoint him.”

“That was kind of you, Kleinpiet. So what was your fine?”

“Well, he stepped onto the tar, held up a hand and I screeched to a halt. As usual, he didn’t say much; just held the contraption so I could see the reading. So I apologised and waited. He held out his hand and I gave him fifty bucks. Then he waved me on.”

“His usual routine, eh?”

“Yup.”

The group at the bar remains silent for a while. Yes, they do feel sorry for Sparks. And yes, they know how the scars of war sometimes never heal. Politicians so often blow on the embers that flare up emotions, cause conflict and result in harm and bloodshed. Gertruida once said it’s the result of an imbalance in the logic/ego ratio. Once the ego increases in a disproportionate ratio to logic, irrational circumstances are sure to follow. They all nodded wisely as she said this, just to show her they weren’t ignorant. Afterwards they tried to figure it out until Servaas told them about the rabies one of his dogs once contracted. It’s a fatal thing, he said, when the brain cannot cope with fear. That, they agreed, was what Gertruida tried to say.

“At least he’s making an honest living,” Boggel say  as he refills their glasses.

They laugh at that, because they know Boggel is just trying to lift the mood. Just like stopping when Sparks holds up a hand when you approach, one should at least smile when Boggel makes a remark like that.

***

Note: If any of the readers ever travel to Rolbos, please be on the lookout for Sparks. He’s the one with the Ricoffy tin next to the road. He’ll stop you and make you read the little ‘screen’ on the back, where ‘150 km/h is clearly scrawled in his shaky handwriting.

Don’t argue.

Give him something. 

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Freedom’s just another word…

Credit: cnn.com

Credit: cnn.com

“Free education? What’s next? With 25% of our workforce without a job and 16% of the population paying taxes, that’ll create an unbearable situation.”  Vetfaan scowls at his empty glass while he remembers how he used to work as a stoker on the railways in order to pay for the time he spent at the agricultural college. “I had to work eighteen, twenty hours a day during the holidays to pay for my studies.”

“Different times, Vetfaan.” Gertruida almost manages to sound sympathetic. “Back then the education system was subsidized – properly, as it should – by the government. Yes, there was an unacceptable racial slant and yes, the policies of the day prevented many promising students from attending universities…”

“Oh, come on, Gertruida! There were the universities of Fort Hare, Western Cape, Cape Town, Wits and Medunsa…!”

“Now, don’t you go shouting at me, Vetfaan!” The angry glint in her eyes makes Vetfaan back off. “I didn’t make the rules back then, nor do I make them now. But…we can’t ignore the fact that many, many lives would have been vastly different if the Nationalists put more emphasis on education. Apartheid remains a fact of history, no matter how much we want to erase it from our memories.”

“I’m not talking about that, Gertruida.” Vetfaan sounds resigned, beaten. “All I’m saying is that we can’t go on with social grants, a huge salary allocation for government officials, free water, electricity, medical care, AIDS, services…and the rampant corruption we read about in the papers every day. What does government do? Every time – every time – they say the private sector must come on board! The EFF wants 51% of shares on the stock exchange transferred to the workers. The ANC wants the farmers to hand over half of their properties to the farm labourers. And you know who is paying for those politicians? You and I, my dear Gerty. You and I. We’re paying them to bankrupt the country. Now that’s irony for you!”

“Two sides to that coin, Vetfaan. As much as we’d like to ignore certain facts, we cannot deny the inequalities in the country…”

“I’m not saying that!” The veins on Vetfaan’s neck stand out as he tries to control his temper. Taking a deep breath, he continues in a calmer voice. “The inequalities need to be addressed, that’s for sure. The feeling I get is that we are continuously being punished for a policy the English forced down on us when they wrote to old constitution for the Union of South Africa in 1908. Now, suddenly, everybody is pointing fingers at us whiteys. Why does nobody question the decisions of Queen Victoria?”

“They do, Vetfaan. That’s why the Rhodes statue was removed.”

“Oh puleeez! Whether Rhodes stands at the foot of Table Mountain or in some heritage park, is of almost no significance. At least he’s being blamed for something – but he’s not being abused as a taxpayer. Our government is increasingly adamant about ‘redistribution’. In my book it means: ‘bankrupting society’. Have you seen what happened to the farms they already allocated to previously disadvantaged individuals? Or have you forgotten the reason why SAA, Escom, Water Affairs, Telkom, the railways and even our army and police have degenerated over the last twenty years? How can you ignore the effect of appointing people with inadequate skills to positions they simply cannot handle?

“Yes, Gertruida, I agree that there are still imbalances in our society. And yes, the one key is education. But the main lock to open, is the bolt that’ll free government to rule in a focussed, logical way. The private sector has been taxed to death by a government that can only remain in power by handing out freebies to the masses.” Vetfaan sighs this thanks as Boggel pushes over a fresh beer. “What we need is a contructive approach – not one that’ll destroy the fabric of society and which continuously emphasises race as the major dividing factor. What’s happening now, is a recipe for anarchy, hatred and violence. Look at the crime stats.”

Gertruida remains silent for so long that Vetfaan thinks she’s ignoring him. When she eventually addresses him in her quiet tone, he sees the tears in her eyes.

“You know, Vetfaan, we’ll never live down the injustices of the past. We need to recognise them, learn from them. That’s what Mandela said and it’s true. But he also emphasised the power of forgiveness and reconciliation. He said: “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.”  And he said: ‘…the day the ANC does to us what the Apartheid government did, we should do to the ANC what we did to the Apartheid government.’ Maybe that’s what is happening: the students have lost their fear for the securocrats and are doing exactly what Madiba proposed?”

“But, Gertruida, where is all this leading up to? Another Zimbabwe?”

“Possibly. Even…probably. We have one, single chance – and that is that democracy will prevail. People aren’t stupid. The poor is getting poorer. The previously disadvantaged masses are even more disadvantaged now. We have elections next year… We need a leader…no, many leaders…to stand up and get to work. We won’t build a better South Africa by doing nothing. We need good, honest men and women to tell the nation the honeymoon is over. Forget about demanding this and insisting on that, if you haven’t contributed anything. People must get used to working hard…and then be rewarded for their efforts. A student doing well at university should be allowed to continue his or her studies as far as possible. People with skills should be appointed to the right positions and then reap the rewards of their hard work. And the many unskilled labourers should be paid fairly – because their contribution is absolutely essential in the workforce. Maybe it’ll take a generation – even longer – but there can be no doubt that we have the potential to be a great country. Capitalism may have it’s shortfalls and it’s wise to acknowledge that. But socialism can’t exist in a vacuum; then everybody has an equal share of nothing. The answer is education, work, productivity and …love.”

The last word makes Vetfaan look up sharply. Yes, he wonders…what happened to that?

The Fable of how the Buffalo lost his Temper

images (18)Long, long ago the animals had to choose a king. As was their custom, they selected the biggest and strongest animals to be candidates, after which their nominees had to prove their ability to lead. In those days the animals – being what they were – declared that during this process only the best of manners be the order of the day. No hunting was allowed, and even Vulture had to be kind and courteous.

During this election (their last, as it turned out), the elders selected Lion (of course) as well as Elephant and Buffalo. As usual, everybody thought that the honour would befall Lion, as he had proven his worth over a long time. Elephant was, however, tremendously popular; the animals loved the way he could recite the history all the way back to the Great Flood. Also, the quiet way Elephant went about his daily business appealed to all, causing some debate as to whether Lion should really be elected again.

In those days, Buffalo was known for his good humour. In fact, he was so funny that Hyena (his best friend) couldn’t stop laughing. Whenever the animals gathered for the First Rain Celebrations, Buffalo was called upon to make a speech about the good times ahead. Man, the great animal soon had everybody rolling about in helpless laughter as he made fun of the hardships they endured during the dry season. Even the most serious situations – like when the ants ate all the grass or the river ran dry – were told in such a way that Boffalo’s uncontrolled giggling had them telling each other what a great comedian he was.

But…there was a dark side to Buffalo’s humour, something the other animals never realised. Buffalo, you see, had a secret. He knew about a pasture – set amongst the rolling hills of the veld – where he never allowed any other animal to go. Whenever he saw somebody approaching, he’d start telling his jokes and all too soon that animal would forget all about being hungry or thirsty while laughing with the big Buffalo and his funny stories.

Now, when the day of the election arrived, Elephant (being the biggest) got to be the first speaker at the Animal and Nature Conference, the gathering where everybody had to vote for their new king. True to Elephant’s nature, he reminded them of their heritage and the hardships of the past.

“Look,” he said, “we must not repeat the mistakes of the past. We must work harder and work together. Should you elect me as your king, I’ll see to it that we utilise our resources with greater care. Some of you might have to venture to pastures far away – to bring back food for the old and the needy. And you’ll have to clean up the river; we need good, pure drinking water. I also like the idea of building a dam so we may have plenty of water during the dry seasons.”

The animals listened with great respect, but the younger ones looked at each other in dismay. Elephant’s plans were so radical! And who would have to do all that work? No, they told each other, they won’t vote for him.

Lion was up next. He growled and grumbled, telling the meeting that he had been their king for a long time. “Elephant is far too ambitious,” he said. “What is wrong with the way we had been living? No, progress will only spoil the veld and the forest. I am a natural leader and there’s not one of you who can challenge my strength. If you don’t vote for me, you’ll have to bear the consequences.”

This time the animals looked at each other with knowing glances. Yes, they knew about Lion’s strength, but what had he accomplished in the time he was king? No, they needed a progressive leader, but one which didn’t make them work the way Elephant had proposed.

Then Buffalo stood in front of them and pulled a face while twirling his bushy tail in a grand circle.

“Hee, hee, hee,” he said, watching the audience carefully. Of course they sniggered. “This is all too serious, my compatriots. Why waste your time with a king that’ll make you work all day long? Or, for that matter, who scares you into voting for him? No, we are comrades in this kingdom. We must be happy. Nobody should do more than he needs to – in fact, let’s do nothing at all!” So rousing was his way of talking to them that all the animals cheered. “Now, look at Elephant. He’s so fat he can’t even scratch his ear.” (Lots of laughter). “And Lion? Why, he makes his wife do all the work! She has to do the hunting. She feeds the cubs. And he?” Buffalo waited a second to let the question sink in. “He’s so lazy he sleeps all day!” Buffalo went ‘Hee, hee, hee” again as the animals pointed paws and hooves at Lion, making fun at their former king.

And so it was no surprise that Buffalo was elected king. Even today the animals remember that summer, when the veld echoed with laughter. Buffalo allowed everybody to do as they pleased while he told them funny stories every time they sought his advice. It was a time of great freedom and merriment.

But then the winter came. The grass withered and the great river became a sluggish little stream of muddy water.

“King! King! What are we to do? Our children are hungry and the water is fuinished?”

And Buffalo went “Hee, hee, hee” and told them drought is a good sign: it means it will be broken at some stage. “Why, do you want rain all year long? No, you’ll just get too fat and lazy if the grass is green all the time. You must embrace the winter, comrades, for it means spring is just around the corner.”

But that year the spring didn’t bring rain. Instead, the sun burnt down from above and the muddy river became a dry river bed. Again the animals complained to their king. Buffalo laughed and suggested that Crocodile and Hippo were responsible for the river drying up. As for the veld? Why, didn’t they see the ants carting off the grass? No, they can’t blame him, King Buffalo, for their hardships, The real problem were the thieves amongst the animals.

For a while the animals believed their king and even managed the occasional smile.

And then Ferret found out about Buffalo’s secret pasture.

“Have you not seen how fat Buffalo is? And have you seen ho well-fed his many wives are? Come on, guys, think! We are barely surviving, but our king is living as if nothing is wrong!”

Yes, the animals said, that is true.

“Well, I’ve followed Buffalo for a while now. You know what I’ve found?” And he told them about the green pasture and the fountain and the place Buffalo tried to hide from them all.

The animals didn’t believe Ferret at first, but he took them to the secret place and showed them. The animals became very angry and gathered to speak to their king. One by one they stood up and accused the king of trying to fool them all. Buffalo tried laughing his way out of this predicament, but the animals had had enough. With the help of Elephant, Hippo and Crocodile, they tied him up and left him there. Then they all rushed to the secret pasture and ate their fill.

For once, Buffalo couldn’t laugh his way out of trouble. He thought about the animals eating up his secret source of grass and became so incensed that he broke free of his bonds.When he stormed up the hill to try and save his pasture, the animals rolled down rocks. He bellowed in anger, but everybody just laughed at him. This wasn’t funny at all. Buffalo finally lost his sense of humour. He knew then that he would never be king again.

From that day on, the animals were very careful to choose a king that would be fair, who could lead them properly and who could look after their interests.

But it was too late. Buffalo had become an angry, fierce beast; intent on attacking any living thing he encountered.

And the veld never really recovered.

The moral of the story: be very, very weary of a funny Buffalo. All animals know that. Maybe some day, humans will, too…

The man from HI (Inc).

The_Bible_and_moneyWhenever you talk about a dominee in Rolbos, the group in the bar will imagine somebody like Oudoom: kind, honest and blessed with a dry sense of humor. Now – us folks that have travelled beyond the greater towns like Prieska and Pofadder – we know there is no template for the perfect clergyman. The Americans like popular preachers telling them that all sins are forgiven and that prayer will make you amazingly rich. In Africa, it is not unusual for congregations to expect a sermon which marries superstition and gospel. Conservative Afrikaners go for fire and brimstone, while more liberal folk lean over to an everything-goes philosophy. As one would expect, preachers (usually rather intelligent men) pick up on the needs of their local flock and tell them what the want to hear. In this way they not only fill the pews on Sundays, but (more importantly) they also keep the financial side of the business ticking over.

But not so in Rolbos. Oudoom sticks to the truth, which is sometimes most unwelcome and will lead to lengthy debates in the bar. Last Sunday Oudoom reminded his small congregation that Christianity is a way of life, and that simply talking about religion isn’t enough. “Look,” he said, “at the way you carried on when Fourie du Preez scored that try? When last did you feel that way about your Salvation?” After church, the Rolbossers retired to Boggel’s Place in a gloomy silence – something which they shattered when Craig Joubert awarded that penalty to the Wallabies.

And so, when a brand new Mercedes purred down Voortrekker Weg on Tuesday and a tall, willowy man stepped from the air-conditioned interior, they tried to follow Oudoom’s teachings by inviting the stranger in to the bar.

“How kind of you all,” the man boomed, patting his white tie into it’s correct place between the lapels of his jacket, “I can see you folks are real Christians.”

This pleased the group tremendously as Boggel pushed a complimentary beer over the counter.

“I am Pastor Victor, but you can call me Vic. I’m here with an important message. Would you care to hear it?”

A message for Rolbos? Of course they were curious.

“See, the Rapture is near. Over the last few weeks you would have heard the repeated warnings that the world is on it’s last legs.” The group in the bar had never heard of such a thing, but they listened respectfully in any case. “The rapture is near!”  This was said in a whispered shout.

Of course, the rapture is something Oudoom never neglects, so the group nodded as one.

“Money won’t help you any longer. You’ll be called before the throne as you are – stripped of all worldly possessions. Do not for one moment think your bank account will help you Up There, my friends. Fancy cars and fancy clothing makes no impression in Paradise!” Pastor Vic warmed to his subject as he expounded on the vast difference between Heaven and Earth. “But,” he continued, “I have a solution.”

Several questioning eyebrows went up.

“You see, I represent Heavenly Investments Incorporated. We’ll relieve you of your earthly burdens – which will be useless soon – so you can help the poor and the downtrodden. This, my friends,” said in a conspiratorial tone, “will help you enter Paradise.” He went on to explain – in many words and with considerable passion – how the Bible taught them to look after those less fortunate than them. He spoke for a full hour, finishing with: “Get rid of your worldly riches! Now is the time and here is the opportunity! Heavenly Investments is here, ready to accept your earthly burden of soon-to-be useless money. Act now! Salvation is at hand!”

People often think about the inhabitants of places like Rolbos tend to be naive – and sometimes they’re right. But Pastor Vic had never been to Rolbos, so one may excuse him for not understanding their way of having fun.

“Is it true,” Vetfaan asked innocently, “that Paradise is a wonderful place? Pearly gates and streets of gold? Choirs singing all day long? With many mansions for believers?”

“Of course,” Pastor Vic said, “and you can all be there by giving away the anchors that bind you to this world. The more ye shall give, the more ye shall receive. That’s what’s written and that’s what you believe.”

“But…” Gertruida held up a hand. “with all those pearls and golden highways…the property tax must be astronomical?”

“And,” Vetfaan added timidly, “the municipal accounts can’t be free. Who does the garbage collecting and sweeps the sidewalks? I mean: it’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it?”

“What about dog licences? We can’t go without Vrede, after all. We don’t want him expelled simply because he transgresses some laws.” Servaas leant over to pat Vrede’s head, knowing how upsetting the conversation must be for his doggy mind. “Without money to pay for his licence, our poor dog is doomed.”

“Well, there is an upside. With all the criminals downstairs, the police force would only have to direct the traffic. And can you believe the savings when you don’t need burglar bars, alarm systems and security guards everywhere?” Kleinpiet’s nephew lived in Johannesburg and had phoned him about the student unrests. “At least everybody will know everything, so no students either. Stiil, without our savings we’d never be able to afford the occasional beer – not with our own brewery being sold to the Belgians. The prices are sure to increase…”

The Rolbossers had been worried about this ever since they heard the news. Kleinpiet’s last sentence made them all pat their wallets: no matter what the price might be, beer was an essential part of living – even in heaven.

Pastor Victor stared at the group in total unbelief. Were they poking fun at him?

“Let me put it this way,” Oudoom finally said, “Heavenly Investments Inc. may be on the right track – albeit for all the wrong reasons. I propose we do the right thing and run the gentleman out of town. I think it’s our heavenly duty to do it with grace and kindness – and if that doesn’t work, we’ll trade an eye for an eye and steal his car.”

It is, indeed, said that it is more blessed to give than to receive.This is especially true when imparting good advice. And Pastor Vic, it must be said, was a good receiver.

Gertruida summed it up as they watched the trail of dust disappearing toward Grootdrink. “And that, Oudoom, is the Christian way of living: to discern the truth from stupidity. You’ve preached so often from Proverbs, telling us about wisdom and foolishness. I think you can begin to relax now – we’re almost there.”

The Rolbossers trudged back to the counter, feeling they had done well that morning. But Oudoom knew it was only a passing phase. Come Saturday, and they’d be shouting at the ref once more – just like all good believers do when they remember to be normal once in a while.

Now the words have wings.

Kort buiteblad

It started as a casual remark, a vague notion, six years ago. A glass of wine, a late night and the comfort of relaxed companionship made us explore something neither of us had contemplated before. ‘What if?’ changed to ‘why not?’ and we smiled and said ‘maybe’.

Time rolled by. Words trickled on to the computer screen, ever so slowly at first, but later – when the situation changed – it became an unstoppable torrent. A lot has changed: we’re both older, maybe wiser, and an unwelcome diagnosis clouded the horizon.

Randall Wicomb is a biographer’s dream. He remembers details with such clarity that it creates vivid pictures for a writer to put to words. He is accurate, honest and humorous. Add to that a lifetime of highs and lows, the influence of politics on his life and the many  people that have had an impact on his life, and you have a heady mix of humor and tragedy.

Now, at last, the book is on the shelf. Brilliantly edited by Daleen Malan, I am proud of the final product.

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With Japie Gouws (ATKV)

The launch on the 14th October was memorable for many reasons. Leone Pitts arranged an evening that will remain with me forever. It had all the glitz and glamour a writer can wish for – and more. Randall was the star of the show and entertained the guests with his music and words. The ATKV (the organisation for the preservation and promotion of Afrikaans) honoured him during the evening – in recognition for not only his years in the Afrikaans entertainment business, but also for the remarkable work he’s done in preserving the music and words of previous generations.

12119921_1645154049073209_2306824655083130497_oThe book also explores Randall’s family life, something that had to be done with brutal honesty. The breakup of his marriage meant the end of the Randall-an-Koba duo, one of the most loved and admired couples in the South African music scene. Their three children were interviewed and contributed additional insight in to their family life. Now, with the launch, it was a privilege to see Koba and the daughters there. Once again, like at the launch in Pretoria, Koba joined Randall on stage. It had been a long twenty years since their last performance…

met adam smallThe event was graced by the presence of Rosalie and Adam Small. What an honour it was to meet them there! Adam did, of course, write the introduction to the book; but that was all done via e-mails. The Small couple lives up to their name only in physical stature – Adam’s contribution to South African literature is undeniably huge. Rosalie, the quiet power behind the throne, is the subject of a recent column by Adam. This endearing piece appeared in the Cape Times, and is well worth reading.

12109814_904208186325592_1814827794224502249_oJohan Rademan was the MC for the night. As a famous radio personality he needed no introduction and he navigated the audience through a most entertaining program with considerable skill and consummate ease. His interview with Randall illustrated why he is such a popular voice on the radio. Poignant and funny, but to the point, the conversation had audience spellbound while he guided Randall through some of the incidents in the book.

The catering by Hester Hoogendijk was superb while Distell sponsored the wine. There were reporters and TV crews. And, most important of all, there were the fans, the friends and the family of a man whose life touched them all. I’ll remember the night as one of kindness, compassion and many smiles. It passed all too quickly. Then again: that’s the nature of life, isn’t it? However, knowing that books tend to have a longer lifespan than the conventional  three-score-and-ten, there is some  consolation in imagining the the words on the pages are alive and well and living on bookstore shelves, waiting to tell you a story of triumph and heartbreak.

It has wings…let it fly!

Weekly Photo Challenge: Happy Place

A happy place?  Why, that’s easy. To get there, might not be such a breeze. The first step is to find a place somewhere off the beaten track and to plan the  trip. With all the preparations in place, it’s time to load up, leave the city behind and follow the map.

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If absolutely necessary, lodging along the way needn’t be luxurious. A fine little shelter at night is more than enough.

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Then onward, ever onward, deeper into the silent continent to find peace and solitude.

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The journey is half the fun. Take time to stop, enjoy a cold beer, and enjoy the surroundings.

h2At last. Pitch the tent, get the fire burning – night is approaching fast…

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It’s so simple, really. The crackle of a  late night fire, cold wine in a glass, and the roar of a faraway lion. An owl hooting overhead. Stars above.

And peace.

My happy place…

Weekly Photo Challenge: Boundaries

This challenge isn’t a simple one. It got me thinking about how important it is to nurture Hope.

b4All too often, we are faced with a featureless horizon. This is called depression, the empty feeling of despair.

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It’s as if the light is sucked from our days, with darkness threatening to obliterate the dreams we used to have. That’s when the wrongs of the past come rushing in and we relive – over and over again – those incidents that cut so deeply into our hearts.

b5That’s the time to gather the last bit of courage, even if it means exploring the unknown. Go on, fight back. Draw a line. Pack a row of stones to keep the desert out. It might seem insignificant, but it does confirm your resolve to tidy up your mind. And look: those stones aren’t huge rocks; they simply represent the many small acts of determination – getting up, being kind, forgiving the past, forgetting anger, embracing those near to you…and daring to love again.

b6And lo! Suddenly the scene changes as  a new day dawns with an unexpected rainbow. Depression simply can’t be beaten by staying in the desert – it involves a journey of many miles, step by step – to reach the hope you once thought you had lost.

Gertruida’s Unwedding. (#6)

Childrens Home 1 copy“He said he we could expect him today,” Vetfaan says as he watches the sun approaching the western horizon.

“The day isn’t done yet.” Boggel slides over a new beer to the burly farmer. “I like Herman. If he said he’d be here, I believe him. He’s a straight shooter.”

It’s been six weeks since they returned from that extraordinary visit to Kimberley. The events they lived through have provided them with ample material to talk about – in fact, even the performance of the Springboks in England had to take a backseat.

“They sure took care of that minister,” Servaas says for the umpteenth time. “Not very imaginative, as usual. Calling it a botched hijacking is so old-school! Ten years ago one expected at least some suspects to be taken into custody, but this time the police didn’t even bother. It’s like that Dewani case – somehow it simply got smoothed over. Still, it was a nice funeral and all that.”

“At least he got what he deserved,” Kleinpiet shrugs. “Just like Herman and the businessman from Kimberley. They blamed a faulty gas connection, which is more original, I’d say. I think the two of them must have suffered a lot in that fire; but we’ll never know. There wasn’t even enough left of them to do proper forensics, so the cause of death is a guess at best. And  Bertus must have pulled a few strings with the insurance company. Their refusal to pay out because of the negligence of the owner was a stroke of genius. I hear the place was auctioned off yesterday – wonder who bought up a burnt-down ranch?”

The conversation is suddenly interrupted by the barking of Vrede, the town’s dog. They know what it means: he’s heard an approaching vehicle. Herman! He’s kept his word… Storming outside, they are thrilled to see the new Land Rover – with an unfamiliar logo on the door – coming to a stop in front of Boggel’s Place. When the old man gets out, they can’t help staring.

“Herman?” Gertruida gasps at the transformation. The unkempt old man is no more. Dressed in a smart suit, he looks ten years younger. He’s had his hair cut, the beard is gone and the moustache is neatly trimmed. Has he had some dental work done? “Gosh! You look great!”

Herman Grove walks over with a brilliant smile before hugging her and shaking hands with the men. Everybody starts talking at the same time, but he holds up a hand.

“Lets go inside, shall we? I am as dry as a bone, tired as a dog and hungry as a wolf!” Gone, too, is the uncertainty, the stammer and the down-cast look. This is a new Herman, a revived man, whose eyes shine with enthusiasm. Life – very obviously – has a completely new meaning and purpose for the erstwhile directionless man. The men are obviously impressed, but Gertruida can’t keep her eyes off him.

Boggel serves a generous round and places bowls of biltong and  peanuts on the counter. Having gathered around Herman, the Rolbossers eagerly await his tale. He complies with a happy grin.

“Well, you know how Bertus explained it all? He said we had to remain silent about those….events…and that he’d sort out the ID fiasco? And that bit about the overseas accounts?”

Yes, they nod, of course they remember. Bertus told them that the government preferred to keep everything at arm’s length – they didn’t want to get involved, especially not with their own minister running an international child trafficking cartel. The money was safe and sound, deposited in the name of Herman Grove in the banks in the Cayman Islands and Zurich. “If, for instance, a man arrived at the bank and presented an authentic ID and passport, he would theoretically be able to withdraw all the money from those accounts, not so? Such a person could then return to South Africa, pay his taxes on income earned abroad, and be left with a considerable amount to spend as he pleased. This is not something one would advertise, of course, but who knows what a difference this could make to the life of a lonely old man?” They remember the off-hand way Bertus said this, his features completely neutral, as if he was talking to himself. After that, Bertus greeted them all cordially, wished them a safe journey home and left them standing there in the empty office in the hospital.

“It was a piece of cake, I tell you. Bertus must have pulled a few strings. When I arrived back at the airport, the customs people drew me aside. They had all the papers ready and I simply had to sign. They knew exactly how much I withdrew from those accounts and sorted out the tax there and then. Very smooth, extremely efficient. Didn’t take half an hour. I walked out in the sunshine a rich man!”

Vrede, who has been begging at his feet, lets out a happy yelp as Herman feeds him some biltong.

“So, what are your plans, Herman? I see you’ve had a make-over and bought a Landy?”

“And that’s not all Gertruida. I put in a bid on that ranch yesterday and am now the proud owner of a prime piece of land. There are horses, chalets, a dam, a lovely swimming pool…and a burnt-down lodge. This, I am working on. The builders will be on site by Monday. It’s amazing what you can do if money isn’t a problem.”

“Wow! You’re going to farm?” Vetfaan wonders about this. Herman – the solar geyser salesman – has no experience of farming, after all.

“Oh, no, my friends. That farm is going to change. Part of it is going to be allocated to be developed as a solar energy setup. Quite big, if I say so myself. Bertus was tremendous – when I phoned him about my plans, he sorted out the approval and everything within a week. He’s a very influential man, that one.”

“And the rest of the farm, Herman?” Gertruida has to know.

“A safe haven for homeless children, Gertruida. There are thousands of them in the country. They’ll be housed, fed, and schooled right there on the property. Maybe I won’t be able to help all the kids in need, but those that I can accommodate, I will – and they’ll have a better future, thanks to Kromhout and Myrtle.”

Gertruida is aware of the tears welling up, but she doesn’t care. How rare it is that heinous crimes produce such wonderful results? Evil turned to good; heartache, the source of hope? Herman could have used the money himself, but he chose not to…

“You’re a good man, Herman Grove,” she says softly, desperately trying to keep her voice even.

“Ja,” Vetfaan smiles, “now the two of you must unwed, hey? That’s the only bit of the situation that hasn’t been cleared up properly yet.”

And Gertruida, with a wan smile that belies her true feelings, nods slowly. “Yes,” she whispers, “I suppose so…” She meets Herman’s gaze and is almost not surprised when he suddenly turns away to stare at the last red glow of sunset.

The End.

Gertruida’s Unwedding. (#5 )

image074Bertus Cronje, former intelligence officer and now advisor to the commissioner of police, is a man who has seen it all. Blood, gore and mutilated bodies have long ceased to upset him. He simply refuses to allow emotion in his work, simply because it makes it so much easier. But here, now, faced with the sad-and-dismayed expressions on the group’s faces, he finds himself amazed to share some of their feelings.

“Yes, well…” he swallows hard, “I know how upsetting all this might be. Hardus Kromhout is a psychopath with absolutely no sympathy for his fellow man.” The sentence strikes him as odd. Has he not become something like that?  Has his lifelong fight with crime and his involvement with subterfuge scraped through the thin veneer of the pretence all people use to create an acceptable society? Is the factor missing in the world of today, not exactly that: a responsibility to feel other’s discomfort? He shakes his head. No, these thoughts must be explored later…if at all. “Anyway, what I’m trying to say, is that you cannot imagine the way such people live. They care for nothing. Their only object is to control others, and all too often that implies money and power. Kromhout had power over these children. He got money for them – lots of it. Result: one happy psychopath…if he were able to experience happiness, that is…”

“But you have him in custody, don’t you?” Gertruida has to know.

“Unfortunately – or not – the answer is no. Let me explain…”

Bertus tells them that he put out an alert for anybody travelling with Gertruida’s or Herman’s passport. By sheer luck he struck gold almost immediately, when a woman with Gertruida’s details passed through customs at O.R. Tambo Airport near Johannesburg.

“It happens like that sometimes. You can work a case for years and years and get nowhere. And then – very rarely – a case simply bursts wide open without any effort at all. The luck of the draw, I suppose. I gave instructions to detain her and I immediately went there. She was travelling under your name, Gertruida, and so I alerted the airport to be on the lookout for the man using  Herman’s details – but he apparently passed through customs ahead of her and  was nowhere to be found.

“Well, I sat down with Myrtle and had a...little chat...with her.” Gertruida has to smile at the choice of words. She knows exactly how Bertus would have approached the woman. Subtle tactics can be so much more effective than torture. A short lecture on the lack of security in the country’s prisons, the threat of having to share a cell filled with criminals, the prevalence of AIDS…one doesn’t have to spell out  anything – imagination is the most powerful tool in any experienced interrogator’s hands.”Eventually she agreed to cooperate, in return for which I promised her a lighter sentence and a single cell. I calmed her down and had her phone Kromhout, saying that there’s been a problem. She couldn’t meet him at the long-term parking lot where they were supposed to reunite, as the airport had received a bomb threat. She told him she was in the toilets when the police sealed off the area, but that they weren’t too worried. It was most probably a hoax, she told him. Be that as it may, she’s just waiting for the police to give the all clear, then she’d be out of there. Maybe, she suggested, Kromhout should rather clear out. The place was crawling with police – very subtle, most in plain clothes, very careful not to cause panic – and she didn’t want to draw attention to either of them. Go on, she said, I’ll catch up in Kimberley.”

“So they stayed here all the time? In Kimberley, where they started all of this?”

“Yes, Servaas, and with good reason, too. You see, they were in cahoots with the gentleman Kromhout originally approached when the idea of child trafficking was hatched. Not only is he a prominent businessman in town, but he is part of an international cartel involved in the smuggling of children. The market is huge, especially in the East. These children are sorted over there: either they are sold to childless couples, or they are brought up to be addicted sex slaves. On average, the Kromhouts netted $100,000 per child they delivered, of which 25% went to our local kingpin.

“So, Kimberley was their head office, with the two of them appointed as ‘managers’ on the extensive ranch this kingpin has in the district. All above board, nothing illegal.”

“Phew! So you got them both?”

“Not yet. We’re tailing Kromhout as we speak. He’s in town all right, but we want to nab the both of them when they meet. A few minutes ago I had Myrtle phone him again. She told him she has a little girl with her – picked up in Johannesburg – and they must plan the next trip. So we expect Kromhout to go out to the ranch, meet up with his contact and wait for Myrtle. Then, my friends, we would have them all.”

An uncomfortable silence settles in the room. Then:

“Bertus, I appreciate all that you’ve done. But why bring us here? You could have smoothed the situation over, talked about it on the phone, whatever. Why are we here?”

“Gertruida, you know how this works. I have to swear you to silence. You see, the kingpin we know of, is not the head of the snake. That person is in parliament – a very, very influential figure. The political fall-out of such a revalation is unthinkable and the government simply cannot afford yet another scandal. You may not – under any circumstances – ever breathe a word about this”. He pauses, weighing up his next statement carefully. ” In a few day’s time the country will mourn the loss – in a tragic accident – of a stalwart of our democracy. We have to keep this under wraps, people. Not a word. Accidents are easy to arrange.”

The group facing Bertus listens to the message hidden on those words. Yes, they understand. No, they don’t want to be involved in any ‘accidents’. They Herman holds up a hand.

“B-b-but…”

“Yes, I know, Herman. You’re still ‘married’ to Gertruida. I have the most extraordinary proposal for the two of you…”

The glint in his eyes should have warned them. Nothing Bertus does is ever straightforward…or completely above board…

(To be continued…)

“I bet there’s rich folks eatin’,
In a fancy dining car,
They’re probably drinkin’ coffee,
And smokin’ big cigars,
But I know I had it comin’,
I know I can’t be free,”

Gertruida’s Unwedding. (#4)

homeless-girlVetfaan has to hide a smile – despite the circumstances – when Gertruida meets the woman who stole her name. Not only does the rotund, short thief  contrast dramatically with the trim figure of Gertruida; the more comical feature is the difference in their facial expressions. Gertruida, normally in control and often with a sparkle of mirth in her eyes, now stands transfixed with her lips pursed in anger. The other lady’s expression of guilt and humiliation is all too obvious to ignore.

“Gertruida, this is Myrtle Kromhout, nee Botha. She used to be a clerk here from 2007 till 2010. We had her singing all morning.” Bertus lifts an eyebrow as she shuffles to a stop a yard or two from Gertruida. “An interesting story she told us, even if it is so disgusting. The men will take her to the cells now. I’ve already spoken to the magistrate – she won’t get bail.” He now turns to Myrtle with a cynical sneer. “Enjoy your stay with us, Mrs. Kromhout.”

The group watches as the woman is led away to the waiting police van.

“How…?” Gertruida still has difficulty in expressing her thoughts.

Bertus suggests they go inside, where he leads them to an unoccupied office.

“Myrtle Botha was a nobody with no prospects. She filed reports and patient’s files in the store room down the passage. Not having finished school, she knew she was facing a lifetime with dusty files in the dimly lit room. As you can imagine, a girl with her looks couldn’t hope to snare a well-to-do bachelor, either.

“So, one day, sergeant Kromhout walked into her store room, wanting details on a man who had been admitted after being shot during a burglary. The policeman seemed to be a kind, warm-hearted young man and Myrtle tried her best to impress him. She handed over the file, saying something nice. He responded by asking her if she’d like to have coffee with him after work. She was overjoyed.

“And so it started. Kromhout, apparently, was the local station’s fingerprint man and filled in whenever the short-staffed police service needed him to help out. Sometimes he’d be needed in the charge office; at others he’d be on patrol…and so on. He had the run of the place, see?

“But the man also had a darker side. He dreamed of a life of luxury, something he’d never have as a sergeant. Coming from a poor family – just like Myrtle – he’d been toying with the idea of using other people’s money to make his life easier. At first he took money from the wallets of the accused in the cells – nothing much, but enough to whet his appetite. Having free access to the evidence room and the safe where they kept belongings, he’d help himself to a tenner here and a hundred there.

“When he met Myrtle, it was a question of spontaneous combustion. A match made in hell. On that first date – right in the beginning – they both bemoaned their individual lots.The conversation drifted from complaining to possible solutions. More dates followed. And…eventually…they hit upon the idea of identity theft. Could they become ‘other people’ and so escape the long arm of the law? But how? What could they do with stolen identities?

“Myrtle says it was Hardus Kromhout’s idea. We’ll never know for sure, will we? Anyway, stealing identities was one thing…what about stealing real people? They laughed at the idea in the beginning, but then they hit upon stealing children. Hardus had recently been involved in the investigation of a missing child and had followed some leads. He thought he had a very good clue who was behind the disappearance, but had no proof.”

Bertus sighs heavily before telling them that the sergeant met with the man he suspected and instead of apprehending the criminal, he asked him for advice.

“They set to work, then. Kromhout used his connections to create new identities for him and Myrtle. She supplied the information on Gertruida and Herman Grove – two patients with no next of kin and therefore less risky. The fingerprints were more difficult, but if a filing clerk went from ward to ward to pick up documents and files, nobody lifted an eyebrow if she took a glass from the bedside. With Kromhout’s free range in the police station, he easily concocted false affidavits for the “stolen” ID’s. I’m not sure how he managed to get the marriage certificate, but if you knew the right people at Home Affairs, nothing is impossible. They did get married in real life, as well, in 2010 – but I suspect that was part or the ploy: they could be the Kromhout…or the Grove…couple whenever it suited them to assume a certain identity.

“They didn’t stop there. Being somebody else isn’t going to make you money. So Myrtle set the second phase of their plan into action – she stole the information on three babies that were born in the hospital.” Bertus waits for the gasps of dismay to quieten before continuing. “It’s easy, you see? A baby gets born. A father rocks up at Home Affairs with the proof. They register your child. One, two three… The clerk doing the registration has no idea who your wife is, but you have all the documentation ready. They were deviously clever in this, too. They registered the births a week later in Bloemfontein, citing complications at birth and illness in the family as reasons for the delay and the different place.

“And there you have it: Mr. and Mrs. Kromhout, now Mrs and Mrs Grove, with their lovely little family of three children. Now, with unabridged birth certificates ready, they’d cross the border at Komatiepoort, drive to Maputo, catch a plane to Singapore with their little kid in tow…and sell him or her.”

“How…?” It’s Vetfaan’s turn to be speechless.

“Children disappear all the time, Vetfaan. But here’s how they went about it: in 2010 they both quit their jobs – and soon after that, they did their first ‘run’. They always just took one child, but used different birth certificates, depending on whether it was a boy or a girl. Apparently they tried to take two boys once, but it turned out to be too much of an effort.  Still, it was a lucrative enterprise. Myrtle says they toured the country after that..Pick up a seemingly homeless child, spoil him with sweets, a nice room in a nice hotel and tell him his mommy and daddy are so happy that he can go on this luxury holiday with his uncle and aunt. The kid has no idea that his name has changed, but the passport and documentation is perfect for border control.

“So you nab a kid in Polokwane, another in the Free State and maybe one in Durban. Always a different place and never too near to anywhere they’ve ‘worked’ at before. The police won’t connect these disappearances and there’s no reason to suspect the Grove family on their way to Mozambique.”

“And they did this over and over again?”

“Yes Servaas. In the beginning they used younger children, but as the birth certificates aged, so did their victims. They now used four-year olds.”

Servaas says a words that usually upsets Oudoom – but this time he nods his approval.

“What about Kromhout, then?”

“Ah…that’s the juicy bit. Let me tell you…”

(To be continued…)