Category Archives: terrorism

Happy Wind #6

OssewaBrandwagWapen.png ‘Nobody, especially the colonial power of England, ever managed to subdue the Afrikaners, you know.’ Gertruida – who knows everything – frowns. ‘Not the English, especially, after the way they treated women and children during the Anglo-Boer War. South Africans have a very long memory, understand – all of us – and we nourish and care for our personal grudges with great compassion.

‘So, during WW II, many Afrikaners objected to fighting for England. They formed the Ossewabrandwag and a paramilitary force called the Stormjaers and made their objections very clear.

‘Well, initially, Francina didn’t care much for these groups. She concentrated on her work at the hospital and cared for CJ Jnr. But then CJ, the father of her son, disappeared in the Sahara conflict. The last she had heard of him, was a postcard from a place she never had heard of – El-Alemein. And then she heard about the big fight there on the radio…and CJ disappeared. Now,  if you really, really wanted to upset an Afrikaner woman, you disrupt the harmony in her house. You want trouble, you do that. It was bad enough that CJ was sent to North Africa, but fearing him to be dead made her mad.’

***

For a while – the first two months after CJ’s disappearance – Francina went about her daily tasks in a fog of automated actions. She nursed without passion. At night she put little CJ Jnr to bed without a bedtime story or a prayer. She hardly slept, fearing somebody would come with news and she’s miss the knock on the door. The matron at the hospital called her in, sympathised, but told her to stay at home. Patients were complaining she said. Francina just nodded, and like the automation she had become, went home to sit in front of the radio.

It is there she heard the news bulletin.

‘Prime Minister Smuts once again urged the Ossewabrandwag and their leader, Mister Johannes van Rensburg, the erstwhile Secretary of Justice, to refrain from any anti-government actions. He called on the movement to stop dividing the country along pro- and anti-colonial lines. Smuts also reiterated that the full force of the state would be directed against the Stormjaers, which again cut the telephone lines between Johannesburg and Cape Town last night.’

Joining these forces would not bring CJ  back, that much Francina knew. The objective in her mind then was to hurt the hand that snatched her husband from her side.

***

‘It was quite easy to slot in with the Ossewabrandwag. The secret organisation wasn’t such a big secret amongst the Afrikaners. Somebody knew somebody else who had a contact and soon Francina was visited by a man and a woman. They talked. They listened. And they approved her joining the fight against the English. Francina’s anger suited the Ossewabrandwag well. They needed trustworthy footsoldiers. After the top echelons were consulted, Francina was inducted in the Stormjaers with the oath: ‘If I retreat, shoot me. If I die, avenge me. If I advance, follow me’.

‘Her first mission was to observe the blowing up of a power line outside Boksburg. This was to have been her initiation and the start of more serious missions. To dynamite a pylon in the middle of the veld, under the cover of complete darkness, should have been an easy mission.’ Gertruida snorts. ‘But, the best laid plans of mice and men…’

The police were waiting for them they were all caught. The next day a very brief appearance in court resulted in a verdict of guilty. Francina and her comrades were sentenced to six months in prison, with hard labour. It could have been worse. Had they blown up that pylon, they might have been hanged for treason.

‘But what about the boy, little CJ?’ Precilla wipes away a tear. “What about the poor little boy?”

To be continued…

The Horizon Hunter #3

The only baby picture of Mo…

“I’m back,” Mo said as he sat down, overstating the obvious. “I thought about what Gertruida had said, so I returned. That is, if you guys will have me. I hope you do…”

Boggel pushed a can of Coke over the counter. “Rolbos has always been open to all. The only ones who left, were the ones that wanted to. In fact, we welcome newcomers – we get tired of Vetfaan complaining about his old Land Rover all the time.”

Mo smiled and thanked the group at the bar.

“I owe you more than the superficial background I gave when I first stopped by. Let me tell you my story…”

***

Mo’s father, Gerhardt Frederikus Cronje, prided himself ons his ancestry, which included (according to him), Pieter Arnoldus Cronjé, the (in)famous Boer general in the Anglo-Boer war. Pieter, as it is well-known, was thought to be a brilliant tactician, who captured Leander Starr Jameson of the Jameson Raid at Doornkop. His fame grew during the ensuing war, with the sieges of Kimberley and Mafeking. During the battle of Modderfontein he caused heavy British losses, but his surrender at Paardeberg signalled the end of the Boer resistance. Gerhardt never mentioned this last bit of history, of course.

Thus, when the Border War escalated in the 60’s and 70’s, Gerhardt did not think twice about volunteering to ‘drive out the terrorists’. He joined the infantry and rose to the rank of lieutenant. In October 1975, the South African army advanced into southern Angola with the Zulu Taskforce. While this move was an all-out success, it did incur casualties. Gerhardus Cronje was listed as MIA.

Back in Boksburg, his pregnant wife waited anxiously for news of her husband’s situation. None came.  Her impatience turned to fury…

Maria Francina Jacobs was not your average soldier’s wife. She had a secret that only Gerhardt knew about. She was the product of a marriage between Mohammed Sulliman, a trader on the Cape Flats, and Maria September, the daughter of a Norwegian tourist and what is discreetly noted as a ‘lady of the night’. Maria Francina, due to that unpredictable lottery genes play, passed as white in the old South Africa. She met Gerhardt as a waitress in a restaurant in Cape Town, and was carried away by his kindness and humour.

Relationships share one common trait: fascination. Gerhardt was fascinated by the beauty of the waitress hovering near his table; she was in awe of the command he had over his friends he had invited to celebrate his 21’st birthday. It didn’t take long for the two of them to acknowledge the spark between them and a date followed the next evening.

It was a classic boy-meets-girl-falls-in-love story. The Mixed Marriages Act and Gerhardt’s family could not stop them. Denied the right to be legally married, they moved to Boksburg where they were not only accepted by the community as being married, but more importantly, also as being another ‘white’ couple.

Maria’s acceptance by society was, of course, dependent on Gerhardt being at her side. Without Gerhardt, it would be a matter of time before her deception was uncovered. Her fury at her common-law husband going missing on the border stemmed both from her frustration at his defending the country (and its laws) as well as her fear of being exposed – not only as an unmarried woman, but as not being white as well.

The weeks became months. The initial outpouring of sympathy for the plight of the lovely wife of Gerhardt slowly waned and reality set in. The crunch came when her pregnancy reached full term and she had to be admitted to hospital. There, she reminded them of Gerhardt’s sacrifice to serve his country – and then said she had lost her identity documents. That, at least, got her to the maternity ward where her son was born. Then his birth had to be registered.

Maria knew she had no chance of registering the infant without her producing some form of identification. At first she tried to see the officials with only a copy of Gerhardt’s papers, but they insisted on proof of identity for her as well. She said she’d go home and look for it again and fled the offices.

There was nothing else to do. She left Boksburg on the late-night train to Cape Town to rejoin her own family on the flats. Of course she left no forwarding address.

Maria found refuge with her brother, Achmad Sulliman, who arranged a room for her in the house of a friend in Atlantis. Here, mother and child could live quietly and avoid the scrutiny of the apartheid officials.

And here, too, she had no hope of hearing about her husband, Gerhardt, through official channels ever again.

***

“So, you see,” Mo said as he pushed his empty glass over to Boggel – emphatically, almost angrily, “even before I was born, I didn’t fit in. I am part Afrikaner, part Norwegian, part prostitute and part Coloured. My father was a soldier for a inhumane regime, my mother a fake.

“And that, my friends, was only the start…” He sat back, seemingly fatigued by recounting his sad history. “There was more to follow…”

To be continued…

On Political Correctness, Racial Awareness and Honesty.

IMG_4985 copy“So the Emperor displayed his new clothes for all to see.” Servaas tosses the newspaper aside and signals for a drink. “Not that there was much to hear.”

“On the contrary,” Boggel smiles, “never in my entire life have I seen an obese parade with so much evidence of affluence. Did you see the size of some of them? My gosh! Our trade deficit must be huge – as a result of the yards and yards of material necessary to cover up the wobbly backsides. Maybe that’s why the prez is cutting down on catering – the cost of installing extra-outsize chairs in parliament would finally convince the rating companies that our economy deserves junk status.”

“That,” Gertruida scowls, pointing a finger at the little barman, “is not politically correct. You are in fact insinuating that some of the ladies and gentlemen in our government are fat. Now…’fat’ isn’t a word to use when describing somebody. That’s insensitive and uncalled for. It’s as bad as saying we are optically  challenged to observe the extent of their circumferences. No, it’s unkind, to say the least.”

“Like calling somebody ‘white’ or ‘black’?” The smile on Servaas’ face is without humor. “Come on, Gertruida – when something is obvious for all to see, why play the Elephant-in-the Room game? Should we now be so sensitive that we are forced into denial?”

“That’d be following the government’s footsteps, Servaas..” Boggel sighs. “They insist we’re a non-sexist, non-racial society with equal opportunities for all. The way I see it, is that they’re fooling nobody. Black empowerment isn’t an equal opportunity policy. Enrolling in an university is far more difficult for white kids than others. The only situation where the prez favours whites, is when he has to defend himself in court – then the advocate is white. Why?”

“That would be horribly politically incorrect to speculate about that, Boggel. You’re at rsik of being labeled a racist.”

“But being racially aware, doesn’t make me a racist, Gertruida! Are you suggesting that I should renounce my heritage? Of course I’m what is called European, or white, or whatever. But I was born in Africa and I have the right to be called an African.” He arches an eyebrow. “Am I American? No! Spanish, French or German? No! I am a proud citizen of South Africa and that’s who I am. I happen to have a different skin colour than the majority of the inhabitants down here, but why does that put me at a disadvantage? Because of a history I had no control over?” He lets the question hang in the silence. “And what about the rest of the world? Their histories are even more tainted by oppression, extermination and xenophobia. South Africa has had her share of these horrible things, but nowadays it is used to sway the mood of society to pro-black and anti-white. I am forced to acknowledge the fact that I am currently disadvantaged and they hold me hostage to what has happened generations ago – the government rubs my lilly-white face in it every day. Am I happy about it? No! But I have to live with it – in shame, if the ruling powers had any say in t. The very government who claims to be non-racist, is using racism to deny me equal opportunities based on performance. If I open my mouth about this, a chorus shouts:’ Racist!’, simply because of my skin colour..”

Boggel shrugs. “The government is only trying to retain their voter base, Servaas. They cannot very well say they have ruled fairly and justly over the last 20 years, can they? They have to play the race card to keep their support secure. With so many state-owned enterprises in trouble and service delivery as bad as the corruption we read about every day, they have no choice but to unite the majority of voters by emphasising race. It may not be politically correct, but it is politics. United we stand, divided we fall, remember?”

“So ‘Black’ – the word – is given special  significance? If you say something about black – like it’s a Black Friday, or black magic, or blackmail, black market, blackout,  black box, black eye – then the first thing we must think about, is race? How absurd is that? Anyway, who started calling people ‘Black’? Nobody’s ‘black’ – we’re all shades of brown and beige and cream.Moreover, we are suddenly  so sensitive about the blackface phenomenon that students get expelled for having purple faces  when they portray aliens?

“No, being proud of who you are, doesn’t make you a racist. It simply means you identify with your individuality, your identity and your culture. You’re a racist only when you put these attributes above all others. If I think white is superior to black, then, sure, I deserve the label. But if I respect somebody else’s right to be who he or she was born to be, that makes me a humanist. Racism in South Africa would have died a long time ago if the government hadn’t insisted on reviving it all the time.” Vetfaan shakes his head – it’s all so horribly wrong!

“I still think there are too many heavyweights in the parliament,” Servaas tries  to change the subject to something more humourous.

“You’re a racist, Servaas.”

They all laugh at Gertruida’s remark, but it’s the type of laugh you laugh when you get your tax assessment in the post – a despairingly sad laugh, without real humour and tinged with a dose of sadness.

“Being politically correct means you insist on living in a bubble, with no own opinion and certainly no insight. That’s the thing, isn’t it? You may think something, but saying it is wrong. That means you have to pretend all the time and you end up fooling everybody except yourself. What that means, is: you constantly have to put the sensitivities and preferences of others higher than your own. In other words, you have to view yourself as inferior to others.” Boggel spreads his arms wide. “Now that, my friends, is as bad as racism where you think you are superior to others. Thinking yourself to be inferior, is just as bad.

“Which brings me to justified reverse apartheid. The very words imply that only whites can be racists..which is certainly not the case.

“Why can’t we just be people – whether white or green or yellow or the B-word – and get on with the joy of living together? The longer we insist on pigment – or the lack thereof –  defining ability, efficiency and opportunity, the worse our society will fare. And, mark my words, pigment maketh not the man – what is needed is a deep-seated desire to contribute and build.”

Gertruida nods slowly. “You better keep that talk right here, in the bar in Rolbos, Boggel. If you dare say things like that in bigger places like Prieska or Springbok, you’ll have to see a lawyer.”

“Okay then, Gertruida. Like the rest of the country, I shall say nothing about the elephant in the room. It doesn’t exist, does it? Just a figure of speech…like ‘efficient government’ or ‘united nation’.”

The Many-headed Hyena.

hyena“It’s no use,” Gertruida says as she switches off the radio. “They’ll never stop this thing by taking out a few activists here and there. Oh, it’s good for morale and all that, but in the end, it’s pretty much symbolic.”

“Oh, come on, Gertruida…you’re in one of your black moods again. Russia and France are bombing those terrorists, and the police all over Europe are doing a magnificent job in unravelling the network of activists. How can you say it’s ‘symbolic‘?”

“All I’m saying, Servaas, is: too little, too late. Let me tell you one of !Kung’s stories…”

***

Once upon a time, many, many winters ago, the quiet life of the people living in a remote village was disrupted by a hyena. It was a huge beast, with fierce fangs and huge jaws.This hyena had developed a taste for the villager’s children, which naturally upset the parents tremendously. They held many meetings and spoke of the beast in hushed tones, calling it a coward and a thief – but still they didn’t do anything. Eventually, after yet another attack, they called on all the men in the village to hunt this animal down.

tour-dundee-04This they did, and after many bloody skirmishes, the men returned triumphantly, proclaiming their victory and boasting about their bravery. The villagers relaxed, painted many pictures of the battle on many rocks, and made up new songs for their warriors.

But, in the hills, something happened they didn’t know about. The Hyena had had a pup: a small and furry little animal that cried at night after the loss of it’s father. Some people from a neighbouring village heard the pitiful sobs, looked for and found the cute baby animal.

“What is this poor baby doing all alone? See how hungry it is! It is our duty to feed it and help it grow.”

And this is what they did. The shaman in the village took care of the pup, feeding it and making it strong again.

One day, the little hyena spoke to the shaman, telling him how bad men had hunted his father and killed him for no reason. The shaman felt exceedingly sad upon hearing this and promised the young animal that no such thing would ever happen to him.

“Look, I have cared for you,” the shaman said, “and now you’re big enough to go back into the wilds. But you’ll be hunted, like your father was. This cannot be. Here, drink this potion, it’ll protect you. No hunter will be strong enough to kill you now.”

And the young hyena took what the shaman offered, drank the potion and felt how it made him stronger. Then it left to seek out his own in the wilderness.

Some time later, some hunters found his tracks and followed it. When they saw the fully-grown hyena, they ran back to the village.

“Ayee! Ayee!” They shouted for the people to hear. “There is a hyena in the veld again. We must kill it at once!”

And so the men took their bows and arrows, their spears and knives, to go and find the hyena. This they did, and a fierce battle ensued. Eventually one of the marksmen managed to kill it with a well-aimed arrow.

“Let us cut off his head,” they said amongst themselves. “The women would be most impressed.” And this, too, was done.

While the villagers celebrated their brave warriors, a strange thing happened out there in the veld. On the corpse of the hyena, a new head grew. The shaman’s magic was working.

And the hyena continued to feed on the villager’s children, no matter how many times they hunted it down…

***

“Kung told this story about how some people never stopped doing bad things – he called them many-headed hyenas.” Gertruida nods at Boggel to order a round of drinks. “But it has a wider meaning than that. Evil – once it is nurtured and fed – will keep up it’s destructive ways once it has progressed beyond a certain point.”

“But the Muslims…”

“No, Servaas, this has nothing to do with religion. The evil isn’t confined to a certain way of believing, a certain culture or a specific race.  The evil was fed by politicians to attain political goals. But now the hyena is out there and he doesn’t need the shaman’s protection any longer. We can cut off its head many times…only to prove it’ll grow back every time.”

“So what can we do, Gertruida? Surely there must be some way…”

“It’s the most difficult problem, Servaas. The shaman created it…it must now stop feeding it. And I’m not sure that’ll happen.”

“You mean the politicians?”

“Ja, that, and the media, the religious leaders, the financiers, the suppliers, the fanatics and the fundamentalists. And I can’t see that happening. The pup has grown up. Now its got too many heads…”

The Symbolism behind “Fly Away”.

800px-South_African_Defence_Force_Memorial001Writers 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.

***

downloadRacial 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…

Fly Away (#7)

Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov

Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov

When the cars stop at the retirement village, Mister Blum is reading under the shady tree in the park. As a conservative follower of his faith, he has always been intrigued of the teachings of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the father of the Chassidic movement. Living in the 1700’s, the Rabbi taught his followers to forgo their own needs for the sake of others. Blum runs an arthritic hand over his flowing white beard – yes, that is very noble. But what would business and economy be when nobody works for a profit?  On the other hand, it is quite true that he, Abe Blum, used to do a lot of pro bono work. Maybe the Rabbi was right when he said that we should dance to the melody issuing forth from every living thing in creation? He’s still contemplating this wisdom when he becomes aware of Gertruida standing next to him.

“Um…Mister Blum?”

He looks up in surprise, his frown changing to a welcoming grin when he recognises the lady who’d visited him recently.

“Oh…Miss Gertruida? How nice of you to come and say hello…”

“Actually, this visit is not about me, Mister Blum. It’s your daughter, Annatjie, who wants to see you.”

The smile disappears. Deep furrows develop between his brows. His lips form a straight, thin line.

“Annatjie? Here? To see me?….Why?”

Gertruida has peeked over his shoulder at the piece he’s been reading. “Don’t be deaf, Mister Blum. You can hear the melody, now it’s time to dance…”

***

If Mister Blum is apprehensive, it is true to say Annatjie is absolutely petrified. Literally. She stands as a frozen statue while her eyes follow Gertruida to the old man on the bench. Is this…Papa? This old man?  The picture in her mind has always been of this strong, invincible man…and now he’s turned into a diminutive, shrivelled octogenarian?  Is it possible? Clutching the box of letters to her chest, she feels a wave of…what?…sympathy? empathy?…wash over the beach of of her isolation. As if by magic, the years roll back as memories – so long denied – bubble to the surface once more.

Yes! It is Papa! How could she forget those eyes, the way his kippah always seems so skew on his big head? Time disappears and suddenly she is a young girl again. A young girl, wanting to be comforted by her daddy. Her feet take over. Her arms, too. The next thing the Rolbossers see, is how she forms a small bundle on the surprised old man’s lap. His arms, too, move without waiting for the command from above. They wrap themselves around the shaking shoulders of his little girl…

“He’s dead, Papa,” she sobs. “He died….”

***

Nurse Lucy Kruiper brings out a tray with a large teapot and homemade cookies.

“Nap time, Mister Blum. But if you promise to be good, you can stay out just a little bit longer.” She bends over to resettle the kippah properly on his head, then whispers: “If I didn’t know it’s your daughter, I’d have been jealous!”

Mister Blum reaches out to pat the pretty nurse’s trim bottom. She responds with mock surprise, (she expected him to do it, like he always does) placing a theatrical hand over the perfect ‘O’ her lips make. Jutting a seemingly indignant nose in the air, she marches off to the buildings to the gentle laughter of the rest.

Father and daughter find it hard to talk at first. The years apart have created a gulf of unfamiliarity between them, making it difficult to pick up the broken lines. Yet, with gentle prodding from Gertruida and the rest, the two manage to fill in some of the gaps of the intervening years. By the time a stern-faced Lucy comes to tell them – for the fourth time – that it really, really is time for Mister Blum to turn in, they say reluctant goodbyes and leave with the promise to return soon.

At the gate, Lucy tells Gertruida that it may be possible for Annatjie to find accommodation there. “We’re adding a new wing to the single’s quarters, Miss Gertruida. Maybe…”

***

images (3)Gertruida says not all stories have happy endings. That’s as true in life as it is in fiction. One of the little cogs that turn the Wheel of Life can get broken – or just lose one it’s tiny teeth or simply wear out a fragile miniture axle. It takes a miracle – she maintains – to go through life with the wheels and gears spinning precisely right to produce an eternal happy smile. It simply doesn’t happen. The wrinkles of older people, according to her, are produced by these very little wheels spinning at the wrong speed – or not at all.

But sometimes – miraculously so – the cog gets nudged on a notch and suddenly the engine of Life starts running smoothly again. This, in a nutshell, happened to Annatjie the moment she threw herself into her Papa’s lap. That, Gertruida will tell you, is the power of Love. Nothing on earth is as powerful a cog-nudger as the affection of a loved one. Like Paul said: it overcomes everything.

Back in Rolbos – Precilla insisted that Annatjie stayed with them until her room is ready at the retirement village – Gertruida watches the trembling hands of Annatjie turning the sealed envelope over and over.

“Are you going to open it?” She has to know…

Annatjie blinks away a tear.

“No, Gertruida. After all these years I don’t need to read what he wrote. He’ll tell me he loves me and that he’s fighting bravely to defend our country. He’ll say something about the heat and the hardships, but not enough to make me worry. And he’ll tell me he can’t wait to come home.” Ever so carefully, she slips the envelope back into the box. “It’s not about the letter, Gertruida. It’s about what I remember. That’s what I want to keep alive.”

She’s still so frail, so vulnerable, Gertruida thinks. Poor woman.

“I have to let go, I suppose. Let bygones be bygones. Move on. Live a little again.” Annatjie almost succeeds to smile. “After all, Hennie gave his life so I may have mine. I owe him that.”

Gertruida swallows away the lump in her throat. If Annatjie wants to move on (as she put it), then she must find closure on who and what Hendrik was.  She sighs. She hates lying…

“You know, Annatjie, I made enquiries about Hendrik Meintjies. Oh, such glowing reports! Such praise! He was a true patriot and such a brave soldier. You can really be proud of him…”

And so, while the sun sets in a blaze of orange, purple and red, the group in the bar falls silent. Hendrik Meintjies may have done the wrong thing for the right reason. Gertruida did too, when she lied to Annatjie. But as in war, so in love: there are nor rules. Tonight, when sleep slips into the homes of the tiny settlement of Rolbos, Gertruida will pray about her sin. And then, perhaps in her last wakeful moment or maybe in a dream, she’ll see a vision of a young soldier. Standing to rigid attention and dressed in his step-out uniform, he’ll salute her smartly before marching off.

The End

PS

Why did Hendrik Meintjies defect? Or more precisely: did he?

The question gnawed at Getruida’s mind for a full three months  before Colonel Gericke’s letter arrived in Rolbos. A part is reproduced here as he wrote it, but some names have been omitted for obvious reasons.

I have made further enquiries. You know how the intelligence world works! Remember Luis Gattorno? My opposite number in those years? Well, we’ve become sort-of pen palls after 1994 (easier these days with e-mails and such) and have taken to swap experiences. He’s actually writing a book on the Cuban involvement in Angola. He supplied a surprising piece of the jigsaw…

Lance corporal Meintjies – much against his wishes – was assigned to the high-security section where they kept the caught terrorists prisoner. Apparently a captain – his name is known to me – was rather creative in his methods to make these prisoners reveal certain facts. Without going into detail, I can tell you that – according to several classified reports – our troops were forced to participate in these interrogations. Hence, as you can imagine, the level of post-traumatic stress observed in troops from this particular base. 

One can only imagine why Meintjies did what he did. In retrospect, he may well have done the honourable thing. According to Gattorno, the Cubans found a manuscript amongst the wreckage. Although they never shared the exact contents with us (naturally!) it apparently contained a detailed plan for an armistice, pleading for a political solution to the conflict.

And then, Gertruida, I got the shock of my life. The passengers in the plane were not members of his patrol or anything like that. Meintjies, it seems, was part of a secret delegation dispatched by moderate ministers in parliament. That’s why the flight was ‘unscheduled’. Well, the infighting between the politicians and the generals – which so characterised the Border War – resulted in them spying on each other. Thee one hand  never quite knew what the other was doing.

On board that plane was a senior diplomat and a junior minister. Gattorno thinks Meintjies was selected to go along because he was trustworthy and known for his aversion towards the war. They needed somebody with navigation and survival skills on the trip and he fitted the bill precisely. It is probable that the presence of a soldier in the delegation would have strengthened the case they wanted to present in Luanda, as well. Or maybe he was just the wrong person in the wrong place at the time – you know how the army worked! I guess we’ll never know..

Gattorno confirmed the shooting down of the Cessna by a Mirage. He maintains that it wasn’t done because they ‘defected’, but because the generals wouldn’t allow the politicians to reach Luanda. Or that the commanding officer on the day had no knowledge of the plan. Once again, we can only speculate.

It would take another twelve years before sanity finally prevailed and the ‘rogue’ delegation had talks with the ANC in Dakar. But that story you know well, having been there yourself

 The fact that the ‘accident’ was never made public, the colonel writes, was due to the paranoia of the time. Telling the world that South Africa was seeking peace and that there was dissent in the government, was unthinkable. It was better, they decided, to bury the incident..

They almost managed to do so…

Old Mister Blum would have been encouraged if he knew this history. Hendrik Meintjies, staunch Afrikaner, may very well have been the best example of a chassidic personality he’d ever met.

And Annatjie? Oh, she’s okay, I suppose. She’s the Bingo champion at the retirement village. On her good days, she wanders through the garden without her precious box of letters.

Fly Away (#6)

2134-Despite the remarkable progress of the day –  or maybe because of it – Gertruida can’t relax. Sure, they’ve managed to get Annatjie to peek out from behind her high walls of denial, but three things still had to happen. One: she had to be reunited with her father. Two: the letter…must she read it? And, worst of all, Number Three: what about the report she got back from Colonel Gericke? This last issue weighs heavily on Gertruida’s conscience – should it be made known at all?

Annatjie sips her tea while she asks Servaas to tell her again about Siena. This is the third time the old man has to relate his history and this time she reaches out to lay a hand on the old man’s shoulder when he gets to the part where the two of them had to say their final goodbyes.

“You were lucky,” she says when he falls silent.

“Lucky? Maybe. But it was hard work, too. We never allowed an issue to be unresolved. If something bothered either os uf, we talked our way out of it. Communication…that’s why our love grew over the years.”

“W-What must I do, Oom Servaas?”

Another step forward! Gertruida almost manages to hide a wry smile. Her soft, psychologically correct approach didn’t make the slightest dent in the armour of Annatjie’s depressed mind – while Servaas simply blundered his way through. Shows you, she thinks, books and professors only go so far – sometimes the wrong approach can be the right one.

“You’ll have to do what you can, Annatjie.” Servaas’s tone is surprisingly caring. “You had two major losses in your life: Hennie and your daddy. For a while you stayed with Mevrou Meintjies, thinking it’d fill a void. I’m sure you two women helped each other survive. Then she, too, died and left you here on this godforsaken piece of ground. Hennie is dead. Your father, however, is still alive. When last he visited here, you blamed him for Hennie’s death – that hurt him a lot. Maybe, if you could consider seeing him now, you can repair that damage, don’t you think? After all, he’s the only living relative and the only link you still have with Hennie…?”

The group watches, spellbound, as Annatjie slowly nods.

***

Gertruida can’t help worrying about Gericke’s report. She can almost recall – word for word – what the old man had said.

“This is a tricky one, Gertruida. That young man flew through his basic training. The reports on him paint a glowing picture of a natural leader, which is why he was promoted to lance corporal even before they finished the initial phase at Voortrekkerhoogte. He came from the Kalahari – as you know – and knew a lot about survival skills and tracking. As soon as they’d  finished basic training, he was sent to a base in the Caprivi Strip. 

“It seems as if he lost it up there. Initially he was the perfect soldier, but then they started having contact with the terrorists. Something must have happened, because he avoided the enemy at all costs after a while. I have one report here that describes how he made a massive detour to prevent his patrol from running into the other side. When asked about it afterwards, he said he was saving lives. His commanding officer was in the process of transferring him to Grootfontein when the…incident…happened. 

“Anyway, he left on an unscheduled flight, late in November 1975. Him, two others and a pilot. The plane headed across the border, apparently aiming straight at Luanda. An emergency meeting was held. A Mirage was scrambled to follow them. When it became clear that their destination was indeed to fly to Luanda, the Mirage pilot tried repeatedly to contact them on the radio. No response. He even tried to herd them back, flying close and cutting them off. Still no effect. So, acting on orders from HQ, the Mirage brought him down.”

“You mean….we shot down our own plane? With our own men on board?”

“Yes, Gertruida, that’s exactly what the report states. Officially, the loss of the plane was blamed on the Cubans, but that’s not what happened.”

Gertruida closes her eyes. Oh Lord, give me the wisdom to handle this one correctly…

***

Precilla and Gertruida help Annatjie clean up for the visit to her father. Once Annatjie agreed to the meeting, they jumped into action. There was no time to waste: nobody was sure what she’d be like the next day, so it was an easy decision to get her ready immediately. After a quick trip to Rolbos, Precilla returned with the necessities.

Now, with her hair neatly brushed back in a elegant bun, some makeup and the dress Precilla brought, Annatjie is almost unrecognisable. Gone is the forlorn and sad look. Even the lines on her face seem less. When she emerged from her bedroom, flanked by the two other women, Kleinpiet let  a soft wolf-wistle – earning him a look of mock jealousy from Precilla.

“Shall we go, my dear?” Servaas offers her an inviting elbow.

Annatjie stops dead in her tracks. Staring at the excited faces of the Rolbossers, she suddenly hesitates, uncertainty once again clouding her mind.

“I can’t…” With the skin on her chin wrinkling up with emotion, she shakes her head. “I can’t do this… Not alone. Not without…”

She turns, rushes back to the bedroom. Returns with the box of letters.

“Hennie will help me,” she says softly. “He’d want me to be brave…like he was…”

***

The trip to the retirement village takes an eternity. Annatjie seems to have disappeared behind her walls again, stoically staring out of the window with a withdrawn and distant expression.

Boggel tried to get her to talk about the farm, got no reaction, and gave up. Precilla, on the other hand, is tremendously pleased with the result of their efforts. Annatjie must have been a real beauty when she was younger. It’s amazing what a little care and cosmetics can do. She wonders if – when this is all over – it is possible that Annatjie will be able to escape the attentions of the few widowers in the district. The thought makes her smile.

But it is in Gertruida’s mind that anxiety reaches a boiling point. How will Mister Blum handle the situation? The time spent with Annatjie went by in such a rush, there was no time to contact the old man to warn him of his daughter’s visit. And – oh Lord! – what about the report? And the letter?

Gertruida – the woman who knows everything – closes her eyes in a silent prayer. She simply does not have the answers to all the questions.

(To be continued…)

To eternity…and back (#5)

_old_man's_hands_crutchServaas couldn’t bear to look up. He heard Gertruida say good afternoon to somebody and recognised Vetfaan’s subdued voice, but it was as if everything froze and time stood still for a while. Although the room was stuffy and warm – summer in the northern Cape  is never cool – he shivered as a chill ran through his body. Gertruida, what have you done…?

Then, almost in slow motion, he allowed his gaze to travel to the man standing next to Vetfaan – Shorty de Lange, the man he last saw in 1970.

Yes, it was Shorty alright. Tall, still athletic despite the years, the same handsome face although it gathered the wrinkles and lines associated with the passage of years. Servaas noted – with cynical satisfaction – the slight paunch, the mild stoop, the cane and the gnarly hands of arthritis. Nobody escapes the ravages of age, he thought, not even Shorty.

His overwhelming experience at that point was a mixture of fear, revulsion, guilt and an infantile desire to pull the blankets over his head in the hope everything will be alright by the time he reemerged.

“Hi, Servie.”

Servie. His old army nickname. He hadn’t heard it in decades. He managed to croak a reply of sorts. Then, gathering his bushy brows together, he closed his eyes firmly.

“Servaas, I brought Shorty to see you.” Vetfaan’s remark, superfluous as it was, as he tried to break the ice.

“I…I…don’t want to…” The rebellion in Servaas’s mind was obvious. Why did Vetfaan and Gertruida bring this man there, at that point, when he least expected – and needed – to be reminded of those terrible moments when he lost control and almost killed somebody he’d have described as a friend before?

“It’s a choice.” Shorty interrupted in a quiet voice. When Servaas closed his mouth so firmly that his dentures clicked upon themselves, Shorty launched into a monotone that touched them all.

“You may choose to ignore me, Servie, and I’ll understand. But let me tell you about choices, and maybe my being here will make some sense.

“You see, Servie, I made a choice that evening before you beat me up. A bad choice. And let me tell you, that was only one of the many bad choices I made in my life. Had I listened to you, my life would have been…different.

“Sure, you gave me a proper hiding. I deserved that, even if I didn’t think so at the time. I was conceited and self-righteous to the point where I called you a wet rag and secretly poked fun at your narrow-minded approach to life behind your back. But, what goes around, comes around. Choices have consequences. Let me tell you…”

***

When Shorty de Lange was discharged from hospital, he moved in with the beautiful young student he had met on that fateful evening before he and Servaas had the fight. She had visited him frequently in hospital, oozing sympathy and bringing little presents. On the day before his discharge, she told him she was pregnant.

“My world started to implode right there. I mean; one night with her, one careless fling, and suddenly everything changed. Her father turned out to be this conceited and overbearing minister in the church, a man with strong connections with the government. He arranged my transfer to a desk job in Voortrekkerhoogte, made the complaints against me – for the damage we had done to the barracks — disappear, and demanded that all the blame be put on you, Servie. Then he insisted that I marry his daughter. I didn’t know it at the time, but  that’s where my hell started.”

His newly-wed wife, Hester, seemed to blame him for everything – the pregnancy, the fact that she had to drop out of university, the small flat they had to stay in, even the way her once-shapely body adapted to the baby she was carrying.

“Most evenings ended in a shouting match. Then the baby was born…”

Baby Jacobus had a chromosomal defect – . Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease. The condition, Shorty told them in a hesitant, hushed tone, is characterised by spasticity, blindness and retarded mental development.

“Even now, I cannot bring myself to describe the shock to you. It was…overwhelming…

“You’ll never understand what it is like to take care of such a baby. Doctors, physiotherapists, medicines, constant – every second of every day – care and attention.

“Well, the good reverend distanced himself from his grandson, saying the most horrible things about the wages of sin. Hester held out for a year, then the situation became too much for her. Psychologists and psychiatrists didn’t help much. Our little flat had pills and medicines everywhere! For the baby, for her…and for me. When she suggested a divorce, I was only too happy to go along with it. One less thing to worry about, see? It was completely out of the question to allow her custody of the baby – there was no way she could take care of him.

“So, there I was, stuck in a stupid little flat with an abnormal baby. The only good thing the reverend grandfather did, was to obtain my discharge from the army and arrange work for me at a research facility  near Roodeplaat dam. At least they provided a house on the premises and I could afford to employ a nurse to help look after the baby.”

platRoodeplaat Research Laboratories did biological research – of the warfare type. Shorty’s job involved – amongst other duties – caring for a pond filled with frogs. The African Clawed Frog (Xenopus or platanna) is commonly used as  a source for fast-growing, large cells, making them ideal for biological research.

“Those frogs were a nightmare. I was responsible for breeding enough specimens to keep up with the laboratory’s demands and had to identify the females who produced the most eggs. I tried tagging them with bits of plastic, but that didn’t last. That’s when I started working on an idea to implant a small transponder under the skin and to develop an scanner to identify individuals.”

Shorty reminded them that he had an accounting background – another strangely humorously cynical coincidence.

“I had become a bookkeeper of frogs! Because of the ultrasecret nature of the research, my official job description was, indeed, that of an accountant. So there I was, looking after frogs in the daytime and taking care of my baby at night.” Shorty allowed a sad smile at that point. “In both cases, the level of intelligence was about the same…”

Baby Jacobus slowly deteriorated, requiring more and more attention. His spasticity and regular seizures progressed to the point where it was virtually impossible to care for him at home, but at that stage there were virtually no facilities to care for the needs of such children. The few that could, were prohibitively expensive.

The years rolled by and eventually Roodeplaat had to lay off most of its workforce as many of the projects had no bearing on the course of the Nationalists’ war against terrorism any longer. In the late 80’s, Shorty was a jobless father of a severely ill young boy.

“My life, you see, was an  endless struggle to make ends meet, take care of little Jacobus and simply surviving  – there was no time for socialising at all. That day, when I drove out of the gates of Roodeplaat for the last time, I was destitute. I had nowhere to go at all, no idea what to do.”

On the way back to Pretoria,  baby Jacobus had another of his seizures – only this one didn’t pass like previous ones did.. Shorty knew he had to get help, and get it fast. He raced to the HF Verwoerd Hospital, where the frail and dying boy was admitted to the paediatric unit.

“I left him there. Spent my first night alone since our fight in the barracks in the parking lot in front of the Union Buildings, crying, praying…and fighting with God. Why did He punish me so much? What did I do to deserve all this?

“And He gave me an answer. The word that came up in my mind that night, was ‘Choices’. I wasn’t being punished, you see? I was living the consequences of my own choices. My choice to ignore your admonishment that evening after the movie, determined the course of my life. Had I listened to you and went back to the barracks, i could have had a happy life. But I didn’t, did I…?”

***

Servaas listened to Shorty – at first with downcast eyes and wringing hands, later in silent sympathy. Then, when Shorty paused to dab his eyes, he spoke up for the first time.

“And then, Shorty?”

Shorty looked up sharply, blinking.

“I had to make another choice…”

(To be continued…)

The Day a Sergeant became a General

Credit: nbcnews.com

Credit: nbcnews.com

“Those Canadians,” Vetfaan said after the third peach brandy, “are a crazy lot. Imagine doing something like this in South Africa?”

“Shooting intruders? We do that all the time. Even civilians do it, but then they somethimes have to do a bit of jail-time afterwards.”

Vetfaan glares at Kleinpiet for a second. The ignorance! The backwardness! Surely Kleinpiet, like himself, replaces the batteries in his transistor radio from time to time? Why, one must keep up with the world – and the weather.

On the other hand, he thinks, listening to the radio once a week – or even a month – is more than enough. The  circumstances surrounding Nkandla and the Arms deal have not changed in years – and neither has the weather. Maybe he shouldn’t be so hard on his friend.

“No man. I’m talking about that Vickers guy in Ottawa. At least you realised that, I know, but my point is not the shooting. It’s the rest. I can’t understand that.”

Even Gertruida – who knows everything – looks up in surprise. What is Vetfaan going on about? The news of the tragic events in Ottawa has dominated their conversations ever since Oscar’s incarceration – a welcome relief from an upsetting bit of history. Welcome? She shakes her head. No, that’s the wrong word. Nobody welcomes the news of terrorism, even if it happens on the other side of the Atlantic.

“I’m not sure what you’re getting at, Vetfaan.” With her brow knitted in an admonishing scowl, Gertruida  uses her lecture tone. “That man, Kevin Vickers, is a national hero in Canada. He prevented a disaster  by remaining calm, doing his duty and protecting their Prime Minister.” She turns to Servaas, who is trying to order another beer from Boggel. “Vickers is almost as old as you are, Servaas. what would you have done?”

“Um…let me see.You mean: there I am, an unknown man brandishes a gun and I have to stop him? Gee, I don’t know.” He pulls at one of the long hairs protruding from his left ear. “Well, I’d consider what would happen afterwards. First of all, the police will confiscate my gun and my licence, telling me I can never own a firearm again. Then they’ll arrest me for disturbing the peace, reckless handling of a gun in a public place, discharging the same at somebody I assumed was an intruder – but had no proof of the man’s intent, inciting racial unrest, and – of course – manslaughter, culpable homicide or murder…or any combination of the above. Consider, too, that I might have missed and hit one of the statues in the building – then they would have slapped a charge of the malicious damaging of public property on me as well.” The hair releases it’s hold on the ear, allowing Servaas to inspect it closely. At length, he concludes: “It’s not a trick question, is it? I would have run away as fast as my legs can carry me. I don’t need trouble at this stage of my life.”

Vetfaan rolls his eyes and sighs. “I’m not talking about the shooting, man! In Johannesburg they discharge guns at traffic lights just for the fun. Anybody can pull a trigger. What I’m talking about is, ” and here he waits a dramatic moment, “the gold!”

A stunned silence follows the silence.

“What gold?” The group’s question sounds like a well-rehearsed chorus.

“That thing the man carries around all day. What do you call it? That  club on his shoulder?”

download (1)“It is called a mace, Vetfaan. It’s a ceremonial staff that symbolises authority.” Warming to the subject, Gertruida tells them that  – originally – a mace was a club with a heavy head, used to bludgeon the enemy. “The Canadian mace looks very much like the British one, with the head consisting of four panels: the Arms of Canada, the rose of England, the harp of Ireland and the thistle of Scotland.”

“Well,” Vetfaan says with a satisfied grin – Gertruida actually strengthened his case. “It has a lot of gold in it. Can you imagine what it is worth? Must be thousands, even more.”

Kleinpiet still has a confused look. “What’s your point, Vetfaan?”

“Don’t you get it? The Canadians entrust that…mace…to a mere sergeant! It’s unthinkable! We’d never be so irresponsible in South Africa, Just stop to think about it: scrap metal is a burgeoning enterprise in our country. Cable theft halts trains and stops Johannesburg from getting water. And let me remind you: we’re talking about copper here. Not gold. No, my friends, a thing like that should be the responsibility of a general or kept locked up in a safe. If you walked down a street with that thing on your shoulder, you can be sure it’ll be melted down before the sun sets.”

***

Gertruida had to explain the system to Vetfaan, who finally understood more about the rank of Sergeant-at-Arms when he finished his eighth peach brandy.

“In Rolbos we’ll call him a General-at-Arms,” he concluded, an awed expression replacing the cynical smile, “and we would have bought that man a Bell’s. Goodness me, what a man! Gertruida, you have to write to that Prime Minister and tell him to promote that sergeant. I think he deserves it.”

vickersIn the end they decided – due to the protracted postal strike in the country – that such a letter won’t even reach Pofadder. So, if you walked in to Boggel’s Place over the weekend, you’ll see a photograph of Kevin Vickers on the shelf behind the till. Precilla has drawn four stars on the man’s shoulder. Over here, they insist on talking about General Vickers. Even Gertruida says it’s only fair.

The Rape of Religion

Credit: cbc.ca

Credit: cbc.ca

“Of all the subjects to talk about, you may choose anything…except religion. Of that you shall not speak. It is the modern-day apple in Paradise. Unless, of course, you want to go overboard and talk about racism – then you venture into really dangerous territory.”

The group in the bar has been discussing the events in Ottawa and the possible connection with ISIS, after Gertruida explained the issues in the Middle East. Servaas said something about the danger of a Jihad, prompting Oudoom to caution against prejudice.

“Look,” Oudoom says, “religion is about many things. We can talk about the creation of the universe – and the world – and marvel at the Creator. Or we can talk about the directives – in all religions – about love and tolerance. Most religions – the exception I know of is the way the Aztecs thought about time – accept that the world has a beginning and an end. And all religious teachings say something about Life after Death. Those communalities are enough for me. I’d like to accept that and then to stop thinking about the differences. Surely the concept of God is an universal one – something that calls us all to be more circumspect in our denouncement of ‘other’ religions?”

“Ja, Oudoom, that might be true. But what about terrorists acting in the name of faith?”

“That’s the oldest story ever told, Servaas. Go back in history: more wars were fought in the name of religion than anything else. The land disputes and greed of kings and rulers pale into insignificance once you add religion. Since Biblical times this hasn’t stopped. Joshua invaded Canaan. The Israelites fought the non-believers. The Muslim conquests in the 7th and 8th century were followed by the Christian Crusades. Today we have similar situations in Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Nigeria…and now in Canada.

“The question, of course, is whether we must condemn the religion…or the people. My take is that people use religion to justify their means. Faith, my friends, has become a shield to hide behind when you promote certain ideals.”

Gertruida nods -yes, she knew all this – but still she frowns. “What I don’t understand, is why religion – which ostensibly preaches love and tolerance – reverts to violence? And if terrorism isn’t in line with the ideology of religion, why do people shoot at soldiers standing guard at the memorial for the Unknown Soldier?”

“Let me tell you, Gertruida, that the most dangerous thing in this world, is faith. Once you start believing everything that is preached from the pulpit, you must remember that there is a human element to such sermons. Remember how some churches justified Apartheid? And how they led a whole country astray – for purely political goals? No, we must not jump on the bandwagon and condemn all people who follow other religions. It’s not about Muslims or Christians or Shiites or Sunnis. It’s about the rape of faith, the corruption of an age-old message to live and let live. And that, my friends, has been the polarising factor in our world since the dawn of time.”

“But why then attack innocent bystanders – or wage war in Syria?”

“Money, Servaas, and power. There will always be people who are suppressed by others in the name of capitalism or politics. We live in a world where differences in ethnicity and status are defined  and accentuated by financial factors. The person who controls the purse, is the boss. So you take people who have nothing to lose, give them the blessing of their faith, and what happens? They believe a martyr’s death is the key to salvation. The’ll wage your war for you and you end up with the spoils. Do you think any religious war has ever benefitted the poor? Of course not! The poor remained poor, but the new emperor or king  – or whatever you call the leader – he’s the one who ends up sipping the champagne.”

“I’ve never understood war.” Vetfaan remembers his days in the army. “How do you convince somebody of your ideology by killing people? I mean: is it right for the side that kills the most, to come out tops? Will a thousand dead bodies convince a million live ones that the aggressor was right all along? It doesn’t make sense.”

“If I understand you right, Oudoom, you’re saying the real enemy isn’t religion, but the people who corrupt the message of faith? That the head of the snake is the problem, not the rest of the body?”

Oudoom smiles at this. Yes…ever since the Garden of Eden it has been like this. Did not the snake speak to Adam and Eve…with it’s head? And does not a snake kill with it’s fangs and not it’s body? Yes, somewhere in the world the head of the snake is hiding while we insist on being horrified by the body we can see.

“There’s the myth of Typhon, of course.” Gertruida switches to her lecture voice. “Typhon was a snake-like creature in Greek mythology – the enemy of the Greek deities. Zeus didn’t like it very much, conquered the monster, and confined it beneath the ground. Typhon rumbled and roared his displeasure, causing volcanoes to erupt. Since then  – according to mythology – Typhon is responsible for the fire and lava that erupt from mountains.” She pauses, allowing the story to sink in. “There’s a lesson in that myth: even if you drive such a creature underground, it won’t go away. Instead, it’ll cause untold misery by erupting a volcano when you least expect it – killing innocent men and women in the process.”

Oudoom sighs. “There’s no real answer to this. Religion is the road to salvation, but it also holds the seeds of destruction. The only thing any individual can do, is to be critical about his or her belief. Like St James said: your actions must tell the world what you believe in. Let’s pray that those guys with the guns and the bombs think about this before they put on their balaclavas next time…”