Tag Archives: Apartheid

The Horizon Hunter #5

000_ARP1530688.jpg“Being a free man – or a free youth – was wonderful. I went back to Aunty Florrie’s house and found out a lot had changed in the meantime. Mom called me aside that evening.”

***

“It’s been fifteen, sixteen years since your father left us, Mo. He never returned from that operation into Angola and all I know is what they tell me: missing in action. Now that it’s safe to make official enquiries, I’m still not sure what had happened to him. I must assume he’s dead – the army even offered me a pension of sorts.

“So now I’ve met this man, James February. A good man, Mo, who loves me. We want to get married.”

Mo thought it was a great idea. Mary Cronje, his mother, was not a young girl any longer – she deserved to have some love and joy in her life. Mo, however, couldn’t get himself to accept James as a father. Having grown up without such a privilege, he had learnt to fend for himself, think for himself and set his own boundaries. Anyway, his real father – of whom his mother occasionally made mention – remained an enigmatic figure in the back of his mind. He’d fantasised about the man; conflicting thoughts imagining a fearless soldier as opposed to somebody defending apartheid. At times he’d wish he had known him, at others he despised the very idea.

James February tried his best to befriend the rebellious youth, and succeeded to some degree. After all, James was a prominent political figure, somebody who commanded respect from the community. And James, knowing as he did what trauma the youth had lived through, treated Mo with great care and compassion.

Mo was now almost seventeen and James tried in vain to enroll his stepson in a technicon or even a university – but with no formal schooling, it was impossible. The solution was to appoint Mo as a personal assistant and chauffeur. At least, James reckoned, that’d keep the boy busy.

Mo’s old network of friends and contacts also welcomed him back after his imprisonment. Mo was the hero, the one who refused to divulge anything about their activities despite the severe interrogation. For a while, Mo was quite the toast of the town and feted as a minor celebrity.

The elections of 1994 saw the inevitable change in government. James was appointed on the Mayoral Committee of Cape Town. The future, it seemed, could not be anything but rosy. Had it not been for Mo’s old network, it might have been.

The problem surfaced one evening in 1998 at a local shebeen where Mo and his old friends were having a drink and chatting about the bad old days. By then, they could laugh at the hardship and the many close shaves they had had, and Mo’s story was told over and over again.

“It’s just a pity things are getting out of hand again.” This remark by Steven Plaatjies resulted in a sullen silence. Yes, it was true. The politicians were in it for their own good and rumours of rampant corruption were common. “The more things change, my friends, the more they stay the same.”

“I’ve heard some stories,” Keith Petersen nodded. “And it’s not just the ministers and high-ups. Local government is equally bad. If this goes on, the government will lose Cape Town.”

“Impossible!” Mo rose to his feet, shaking his head in disbelief. “James is working hard to improve conditions in the Cape. I know – I’m with him all the time.”

Keith laid a placating hand on Mo’s shoulder. “Listen, Mo, we’ve been friends for a long time and I wouldn’t want that to change. But…you’ll have to open your eyes, man! Already there’s talk about the possibility of the Soccer Cup coming to South Africa in 2010. Some say it’ll definitely happen. And who’s meeting with construction companies all the time? James! And why? Because he’s worried about a stadium? No way, my brother. The big guys are making deals – big deals – that’d line their pockets very nicely, thank you. Tell me Mo, you’re the chauffeur. Where have you been taking James the last few weeks?”

Mo shook his head. James? Corruption? What were they talking about? Yes, James must have visited all the major construction companies in the Cape, but he thought…

“Look, these things are planned years in advance. Remember Lucy Adams, the auntie who’s a cleaner in the premier’s office? Well, she has to throw out the trash every day. And boy! The stuff she finds in the wastepaper baskets! No we,” Kieth pointed at the rest of the group, “didn’t want to talk about it – especially not you – but now it’s become too much. You’ll have to help us, Mo, otherwise everything we fought for will go down the drain.

“You see, apparently the premier, the mayor and certain officials – James is amongst them – are skimming a lot of money from different projects. But now they’ve become greedy – they want more and they think they’re untouchable. The big prize is the Soccer World Cup, with Cape Town being one of the host cities. It seems as if there are people out there that’d do anything t make that happen. They want to get a piece of the action while most people are still wondering if the soccer will really come our way. The way I read it – it’s already in the bag. Money, Mo, is what is at stake. The World Cup is a mere sideshow.

“Aunty Lucy is great and she finds papers. But you, Mo, are right on the spot. Keep your eyes and ears open. If our suspicions prove to be correct, we’ll have to go high to stop these corrupt deals. Maybe…even to to the president.”

Steven Plaatjies agreed. “Mo, you’ve been tortured. We’ve fought hard. In the old days, we ran around selling dagga – that was nothing but a way to survive. Then they promised us a better life – and have you seen any difference? I haven’t. It’s because our politicians don’t care a owl’s hoot about us common people. They sit in their air-conditioned offices, wheeling and dealing and filling their wallets. We have to stop this.”

And Mo, only barely an adult, found the tears welling up. Did not James buy that big BMW just the other day? And did he not promise a holiday in Mauritius over Christmas? What about the diamond earrings he gave Mary?

The next day after work, he visited Achmad Sulliman. If anybody knew about crime in Cape Town, the drug lord of the city was sure to know. Achmad was careful how he chose his words, but he was as honest as he could have been with the boy he had rescued as a baby.

That was the night Mo’s journey really started.

 To be continued…

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The Horizon Hunter #4

download (8).jpg“Life in Atlantis was okay, I guess. The neighbours all knew our story and warned us many times whenever the inspectors were checking up on people’s ID’s. However, my mother refused to send me to school – the danger of exposure loomed too large. Anyway, I was an unregistered child, remember? Basically – as far as the officials were concerned, I didn’t exist.”

***

Mo’s mother found work as a waitress in Cape Town itself, which involved a lengthy train trip to a fro every day. Mo stayed at home, under the care of Achmad, her brother, for a while. Achmad was the main middleman in the supply of dagga (hashish) to the local community. A friend of a friend had a hidden plantation in the Transkei and he had several distributors who acted as agents in the Cape area. In the days before drug lords, Achmad was the king of Atlantis.

Dealing in illicit drugs  was (and still is) a nefarious and dangerous business. Achmad could not survive without a network of dealers and informers. A lot of people depended on him for an income and quite a few were deeply indebted to him in more ways than one. One of them was the lovable Aunty Florrie.

Florrie was a remarkable woman. She used to be a social worker and even helped out at the small local school for a while, but the slippery slope of alcoholism deposited her squarely in the cul de sac of addiction. She was one of Achmad’s runners and – despite her sales – could never quite get out of debt with her supplier. Achad made her an offer she could not refuse: if she housed Maria and her child, her past transgressions would be forgiven. No more debt. A new start.

Florrie grabbed the opportunity and not only provided a roof over the poor mother’s head, but also started teaching the child the basics of reading and writing. Mo proved to be a fast learner.

At the time, Mo’s identity remained a huge problem. Achad suggested that he’d arrange with ‘some people he knew’ to register the child in his name. A sympathetic Methodist pastor agreed – rather enthusiastically – to baptise little Mohammed Sulliman, clearly a convert to Christianity from a Muslim home. Now, with documents from the church and Achmad’s ID papers, the Department of Home Affairs had to be convinced that the child’s birth simply wasn’t registered due to an oversight by the Sulliman family. Money changed hands. Mo Sulliman became a real, official person.

Aunty Florrie continued her home schooling simply because it kept Achmad off her back. No, she didn’t think formal schooling would bring out the best in the child – not at all. He was far too clever to be immersed in the second-rate teaching the government provided (she said) and she provided individual teaching, didn’t she? The other side of the coin also deserves mentioning: so profound was M0’s influence on Florrie’s life that she almost stopped using drugs. Almost. Not quite.

Initially Aunty Florrie guided Mo through the basics of learning quite successfully, but when the boy was about nine years old, her addiction flared up again. Achmad was dismayed and then had to face the problem of an almost-ten years old boy who never had formal schooling. A government school was out of the question – but what to do with a ten-year old kid with nothing to do? The solution: recruit Mo as a runner to make deliveries to the agents. images (22).jpgThis was a brilliant move. While his other distributors were adults, mostly convicts and generally known to the police, the little boy could fool them all. The only problem was his rather white skin – which was solved by generous applications of Coppertone and plenty of sun.

And so, gradually over the next two years, Mo became familiar with the underbelly of the Cape’s drug world. In turn, people accepted the little runner as one of their own, while his reputation of always managing to avoid the long arm of the law eventually earned him the respect of  a number of ex-convicts and other individuals surviving in the world of petty crime and other illicit activities.

At the time, the Anti-Apartheid Resistance Movement was gaining ground amongst the Coloured people of Atlantis. The community was ripe for rebellion – after their forced move from District Six, the mood in the community was distinctly anti-government. AARM needed informers and made a deal with Achmad: they’ll smuggle the new drug, LSD, to him, in exchange for information. Achmad’s network fitted their requirements like a glove: his distributors and users worked in the affluent houses of Cape Town and some were cleaners in government departments. A few even were employed as officials and clerks. And they all could be trusted to be true to the cause as long as the supply of drugs was guaranteed.

Mo became the trusted runner with stolen documents, secret messages and  drugs – a heady mix of danger and adventure for the youth who understood the necessity of secrecy all too well. But, in the end, even this elusive runner became the focus of police activity, for the officials also had their own network of informers. A reward was posted and Mo was caught.

What followed is not something Mo wants to talk about. His interrogation was merciless and involved the usual methods used on other so-called terrorists. Solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, beatings, water – these and other ways of making him talk were all used. However, young Mo stubbornly refused to answer any question, repeating over and over again that he knew nothing. He was a street child, homeless, with no real family. Yes, he knew Achmad Sulliman, he was an uncle. And yes, Achmad had adopted him, but that was a long time ago. No he didn’t know where his mother was. He survived by scavenging on the streets – go on, ask anybody in Atlantis: they’ll all confirm that he was seen here and there, doing odd jobs and living off scraps. His interrogators redoubled their efforts. Mo remained unbroken.

The one thing Mo still remembers, is a visit from Aunty Florrie.

“I only heard – later – that she had died a week before. I didn’t know that.  But one night, while I was shivering from being cold and wet and hungry – suddenly, as if by magic – Aunty was there at my side. I was so disorientated and confused, I didn’t question her presence or how she got there.

1990-02-03.jpg“Well, she held me in her arms and made soothing noises. It was wonderful. Then she told me I had to be strong, everything would change soon. I would be free again, she said. She said I must remember the date: it was Thursday, the 1st of February, 1990.”

Then, as suddenly as she had appeared, Aunty Florrie was gone. The next day, on the 2nd of February, President F.W. de Klerk announced the release of Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of the resistance movements.

 ***

Mo sat back, his characteristic smile replacing the scowl of recounting his experiences during those terrible days.

“I thought that would be the end of it all. You know – Mandela was freed, there were talks about a negotiated settlement and even free elections for all. And…you won’t believe it…my interrogators arrived on the Monday after De Klerk’s speech with new clothes and a hamburger. They said it didn’t matter anymore and that I’d be freed that Wednesday. A doctor came and examined me. They even sent a pastor to give me a lecture on forgiveness!

“Me? I didn’t care. All that mattered was that I’d be set free and that the beatings stopped. I was old enough to understand that everything had changed, but too young to be cynical about it. So, on that Wednesday, I was ushered to a back door in my new clothes, given ten rand and told to bugger off.”

Mo sioghed. “You know, I really thought that was the end of my troubles.” He shook his head. “Had I but known…”

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…

The Half-eyed Girl and the President.

Twitch-Inside-Image-1Klaas Vermaak and his wife, Sophia, had only one child, born in the year Armstrong stepped out on the lunar surface: the strange and almost sightless waif called (quite inappropriately) Hope. Gertruida said her problems were due to the Uranium people later found underneath their farm, but more popular opinion had it that she carried the heavy burden of her grandfather’s sins, who had been a minister in D F Malan’s cabinet. In the end it didn’t really matter who or what got blamed, it was poor Hope that suffered.

Except that she was exceedingly thin and remarkably pale, her most obvious abnormality was the curious way her pupils had formed. Like upside-down half-moons, only the lower parts of the pupils were black, indicating that only those bits of the lenses allowed light to be focussed on the retinas. This, as one can understand, allowed Hope only to see the few metres on the ground in front of her. If she really wanted to see ahead, she had to tilt her head completely back to squint past her pert nose and over her pale upper lip. Despite this, her partial sight allowed her to get by without a white cane or a friendly Labrador as guide.

Sometime in her infancy, her desperate  parents took her to a clergyman to pray for her – after visits to the country’s top specialists advised against surgery. The religious healer prayed long and with passion…but when they went home, her eyes remained just the same.

Resigned to her fate, little Hope lived with her parents in sad isolation. She had no friends, didn’t go to school, and never had a birthday party or a sleepover. Hope took to reading after her mother taught her the basics of the alphabet. This, she found, was something she could do relatively normally, with her head up high and the book held tight against her chest. Not really being able to help her father on the farm or her mother in the kitchen, both parents were overjoyed that their daughter started devouring books to pass the time. In the beginning that involved the two books in the house: the Bible and a collection of hymns. Realising the need for more, Klaas Vermaak started buying books at bazaars, auctions, the second-hand book store in Upington and whenever the library sold off its old, dilapidated stock. The result: Hope knew almost everything about everything there was to read about by the time she was twelve. She could quote Tolstoy, the Bible and Fitzgerald with consummate ease although she found the work of Stephen Hawking rather challenging.

Around the time she turned sixteen, her fame as a very knowledgeable person  had spread through the district. She was, as Gertruida puts it, the first human Google. Whenever a child wanted to score extremely well in a school project, all they  had to do was to get in the car and drive over to Klaas Vermaak’s farm. There, within an hour or two, the project was completed with so much information that an extra exercise book was usually necessary.

Hope, however, found these visits boring and frustrating. People didn’t come to visit her – they were only interested in what she could do for them. Still, it was better than spending the days alone – especially after she had found a new interest in the process: shoes!

Shoes fascinated her . As she could not see the faces of her visitors, it was quite natural for her to study the footwear of those in her company, Soon, she associated specific shoes with specific people, and created a type of catalogue of shoe-people in her mind. She read a lot in the scuff marks (walking in the veld, playing games at school, roughing it up with other boys), shiny shoes (diligent student, strict parents, poor family) and raised shoes (spinal abnormalities and low self-esteem). Gym shoes, church shoes, high heels, platforms, sandals, boots, pumps – all these spoke to her, telling her about the personality and habits of the wearer outside the confines of her tiny room.

It became a game, a pleasurable intellectual exercise, to guess these things, making her look forward to the next hopeful who awaited her encyclopaedic  explanation of lesser-known facts. This was her personal, private form of amusement; something she didn’t share with her parents.

Klaas Vermaak was a staunch Nationalist, whose family helped bring about the Apartheid regime in 1948. As a elder in the church and a member of the Day of the Vow committee, he upheld the policies of Verwoerd, Vorster and Botha – whose photographs were displayed prominently in the lounge of their home. When the finger wagging, lip-licking Botha and his entourage paid a visit to the electoral constituency of Upington, the Vermaaks were chosen to show the president the way the farmers eked out a living from the dry Kalahari soil.

Sophia – as can be expected – panicked. A president in her humble home? Here? Yes, Klaas assured her, PW  was on his way and they’d better make sure he left with a favourable impression. It’d only be a short visit, her husband declared, just for tea. The president, she ought to know, was a busy man.

The house was cleaned. A cake baked. Cups and saucers were borrowed, the silver spoons (a heirloom, reputedly brought over by an ancestor from Europe, never used in living memory) polished, and Ouma Vermaak’s doilies arranged just right in front of the best chair in anticipation of the visit. Klaas’s church suit was pressed. Sophia carefully stitched the loose bit of lace back to the bust of her wedding dress. The president was coming and they’d look their best.

Botha surprised them by arriving in khaki. To identify with the farmers, see? Short-sleeved and immaculately ironed slacks, the important man smiled his tight political smile when the Vermaaks greeted him at the door in their best attire. Sophia introduced their daughter, who stared straight ahead and thus was able to grasp the outstretched hand of the president with the first try.

The cake was superb. Botha complimented the tea set, admiring the spoons. The president chatted amicably about the conditions in the Kalahari. He told the family that he, too, was a simple man working under difficult conditions. Like them, he was a humble Afrikaner who feared God and followed biblical directives. They shouldn’t think that he, as president, occupied the highest seat in the country because of fame or money, Botha said, not at all. He simply did what was best for everybody, keeping the communists out and ensuring stability in the country.

“Not true,” Hope whispered in the silence that followed Botha’s monologue. Her parents were horrified, the president kept on smiling, and she repeated the two words.

berluti

Berluti: Verona Leather Oxford Shoes £1,400

Klaas then quickly ushered the president outside to show him the sheep and the tractor he had cleaned up for the occasion, telling the big man that his daughter had…certain…health problems. The president understood, yes? Botha nodded, smiling still.

But, banned to her room, Hope wiped a tear from her half moon eye. She was right, she knew it! The shoes, that’s what gave the president away. Berluti shoes. The most expensive shoes in the world. No true Afrikaner would wear those on a farm, even if he could afford them.

The president was a fake. His smile was fake. And his compliments were fake.

***

Jacob-Zuma-dancingGertruida says Hope was sent away after that – to Worcester, where they had a school for partially sighted children. There she eventually consulted a new eye surgeon, who corrected the defect in her eyes with the most modern equipment. At the age of 25, she finally was able to see properly; but she still looked at shoes whenever she met somebody, playing her shoe-game in her mind.

She says her vote will go to any candidate with scuffed, well-worn shoes; a hard-working, honest man whose shoes tell of commitment and trust. Of course, this isn’t going to happen in the near future, but she lives up to her name in quiet desperation. Until then, she prefers to look at the world like she did before: only a few metres in front of her feet. The view, she says, is much less disturbing.

Je Suis Andre?

Andre P Brink

               Andre P Brink                      (29 May 1935 – 6 February 2015)

Andre P Brink did a lot of things in his life. Honoured in so many ways, respected for his work and revered for his phenomenal intellect, the country lost an irreplaceable literary giant in the past few days.

He showed the world that not all Afrikaners dress in khaki, while clutching antiquated Mausers and shouting abuse at those of a darker skin colour. He wrote about inequality in South Africa even before all Americans had the right to vote. His books often reflected his observations at the time of writing, which in the end, says a lot about the evolution of society in Southern Africa.

His early works targeted the conservative approach prevalent in government circles at the time. He despised Apartheid and made his readers take a long, hard look at the current policies of the sixties and seventies. Then came a phase of hope, anticipating a better future and a just society under fair majority rule. And finally, disillusioned by the corruption and crime the old Brink emerged once more as a protester against the new realities of the country. In his autobiography (A Fork in the Road – 2009) he tells the story of a young man who came to realise the injustices in his country – only to view the current state of affairs under majority rule in the same despairing light. The circle of protest was complete. Neither so-called ‘Left’ or ‘Right’, Brink remained the critical observer throughout his life. Much like Archbishop Tutu, he had the courage to be honest, even if it meant treading on unforgiving toes.

Brink used his literary voice with great effect. The numerous accolades showered on him – both locally and internationally – attest to the power of his works.

But…

Will the man in the street hear his voice? Did they, in the seventies when the Nationalists banned his books, understand what he was saying? And do they, now? It’s a shame that he was viewed as an acclaimed academic. This tag caused a distance between his work and  those who really, really needed to become involved in his thoughts. His target wasn’t just the Nationalists in 1960 or the ANC after 1994 – it was (and is) the hearts and minds of common citizens. He spoke to ruler and ruled alike in his unapologetic analysis of our diseased society. And, while we know that governments tend to harden their stance in the face of criticism, it is the populace – the voters, you and I – who should be observant enough to take note of what Brink was trying to tell them.

Brink may have passed on, but his voice is still there – loud and clear – pleading for us to open our eyes and to not repeat the mistakes of the past.

As an author, Brink attained a form of immortality.  Throughout his life, he had been labelled as a communist, a liberal, a protester and anti-establishment. In reality, he only acted as a mirror – reflecting all too brightly the issues most people chose to ignore. In this, his message is timeless.

Are we be bold enough to listen now? To see, to analyse, to acknowledge? To join his voice in condemning the sad state of affairs we are forced to live with?. To say: Je Suis Andre?

Rest in Peace, Andre Philippus Brink; but may your words continue to challenge us towards a brighter tomorrow.

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…

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 Last of the True Afrikaners

IMG_2534Driving from Grootdrink, a veritable bustling metropolis in comparison with Rolbos, you cross the Orange River before passing the little collection of huts where the Geel family stays. Not everybody knows that the Geels and the Kruipers are closely related, and therefore of royal blood – in the Africa sense of the word. Regop Geel, the oldest man in the family, is well known in these parts for his uncanny ability to recite, word for word, the proud history of the San people – exactly as his grandfather had told him.

About ten kilometres farther along the twisting and sandy track, one passes the locked-up homestead of Lothar de Wit, the once-wealthy farmer who – according to Gertruida – couldn’t  live with the past. Perhaps it is true to say that Lothar made his own bed, only to find it extremely uncomfortable; but that would be unkind and even rude in the modern society we live in.

Few people – according to Gertruida, at least – knew the stoic Lothar. Oh, he was a popular figure in the 80’s, being the politician he used to be. But, despite being a well recognised person, he really had no true friends. He was too superior, too supercilious and far too pretentious to bend down to the level of the common folk of the district. Lothar’s sheep were always the fattest, his car the newest and his suits cut according to the latest fashion. He also had a wonderful way with words, which was why he represented the district in  parliament as a respected and convincing orator.

But…like so often happens, he was the architect of his own little disaster, poor man. And that’s a story everybody knows…

***

“Trees,” Gertruida says, “shouldn’t grow high if they can’t stand the wind.”

“A tall tree without proper roots will topple over,” Servaas nods his agreement, “just like old Ben Bitterbrak when he has had too much. I’ve told him to get heavier boots, but he just won’t listen.”

“You can weigh that man’s feet down as much as you like, Servaas, but it won’t help. He collapses from the head downwards – his feet are on the ground already.”

“Ja, just like old Lotta.”

This remark by Kleinpiet stops the conversation. Somehow the subject of Lothar de Wit is one they avoid, simply because his fall from grace had been such a painful one. Even after all these years, Lothar – who was called Lotta behind his back – remains an uncomfortable reminder of who they don’t want to be. Lotta? Last of the True Afrikaners, according to the tongue-in-the-cheek local gossip.

“Listen, we’re all Afrikaners, man! We make mistakes just like everybody else. We live, we love, we hurt, we hope…just like anybody else. We shouldn’t joke about Lothar de Wit.”

Tuynhuys, Cape Town

Tuynhuys, Cape Town

“Shame, you’re right, Precilla. That poor man had the world at his feet, but he believed one stupid thing. I mean, he was a member of the Broederbond, represented the National Party and had a Mercedes Benz. That was as far as you could go in those days. But there was more: he had dinner with PW Botha in Tuynhuys, was an elder in the church and  had season tickets for the Blue Bulls’ games at Loftus.

“Thoroughly respected, he was. Then he started with that True Afrikaner story. Pure blood, he said, was they key to leadership. He reckoned that once you were of mixed origins, you couldn’t claim to be an Afrikaner and therefore would be unfit to lead.. He shouldn’t have said that.”

“Ja, it’s much like the ANC has this obsession about being black. It’s exactly the same mistake. If you are Pure Black, you’re seen in a different way than when you are called Coloured, or Indian, or White. I mean, Hitler proved, in the most terrifying way, that you cannot talk like that. So did the Nationalists, for that matter.” Vetfaan stares at the heatwaves shimmering on the horizon. It’s difficult to see where heaven stopped and earth began. “I don’t understand this absolute emphasis on race. And…surely: can one still claim to be of ‘pure’ blood these days? Aren’t we all carrying genes of mixed origin?”

Kleinpiet shrugs. “I met a man in Rehoboth with the same names as I have. We compared notes and found he’s a distant cousin of sorts. That makes me a Coloured, I suppose. And let me tell you: if ever they start testing the nation’s DNA, we won’t be able to talk about Whites and Blacks any longer. I think we’re all related to one another in some way.”

“Of course. Read your Bible. First Adam, then Noah – that’s where we all come from. Or, if you insist on being scientific, read up on the Origins of Man. It’s obvious either way: somewhere in the distant past we all had common ancestors.” Oudoom looks down at his hands, smiling. “We all share many features, but the opposing thumb – and the soul – separate us as unique in the animal kingdom.”

“Not so, Oudoom. There are apes with opposing thumbs, too. That, according to you, only leaves one singular characteristic for humans: we have souls. That’s all that counts.” Gertruida sits back with a knowing smile. She likes arguing with Oudoom about evolution.

“That’s the point Lothar missed – like the current government, he tried to believe that race is a defining characteristic. That’s all a bit short-sighted. Culture defines you, not colour.”

***

If you should unlock the door to Lothar de Wit’s house on the deserted farm, you’ll find nothing much of interest. A thick layer of dust covers the yellow wood floors that once were polished to a brilliant shine. The tattered curtains are still there, but that’s about all. In the porch, the wall retains the unbleached square where the framed collection of pictures of the De Wit forebears once hung. For years important visitors had to pause at  yellowed photos of the line of ancestors stretching back to Andries Pretorius, the Voortrekker leader. Of this, Lothar was particularly proud and he made a point of making his guests aware of this noble ancestry.

That is, until Regop Geel came to see the politician to discuss  independence for the San people. As can be expected of the Nationalist politician, he listened with apparent interest, promised to look into the matter, and promptly put the matter out of his mind. However, still intent on impressing his visitor, he pointed out his heritage when they passed the photos.

“Andries Pretorius? He’s your great-great-great grandfather?”

Lothar nodded proudly.

“Yes, I have some of that family’s blood too.” Regop Geel stood on tiptoe to peer at the pictures. “Catharina van Bengale, a freed slave girl, way back in the 1600’s. According to my grandfather, one of her sons became a guide to some travellers, which is how the van Bengales got taken up by our family. But that woman, Catharina…she was the great grandmother of Andries Pretorius. That, I think, makes us family.”

Ai Mieta, who worked in the kitchen at the time, overheard the conversation. She, naturally, couldn’t wait to spread the story.

***

“Poor chap. He simply packed up and left. I heard he’s farming in the Karoo now – changed his name and everything – because of the shame of having mixed blood.”

“No, Servaas. It’s no shame to have mixed blood at all. It is, however, unacceptable to proclaim your superiority on the basis of the amount of pigment in your skin. Lothar’s political demise was the direct result of his misplaced belief that purity of race should imply certain privileges. The shame of it all lies in the fact that Lothar was a symptom of a far-reaching, serious disease. It’s endemic to our society – and many societies in Africa and elsewhere. And until we stop thinking that race can – in this day and age – still be pure, we’ll continue to view people of different hues of pigmentation as different to ourselves.”

***

Before you drive past the Geel village, you might want to stop and have a chat with the wizened old man sitting under the lone tree in the clearing that serves as a square for the villagers. Here you’ll be able to hear one of the last oral historians tell you about the Bushman, the San and the Khoikhoi cultures. Be prepared to be patient while he elaborates on the difficult and convoluted history of their struggles for survival. And, if you were to ask, he’ll take you to his humble hut, where a large, square frame filled with old photographs hangs. Then he’ll tell you about Catharina van Bengale and how her offspring influenced events over the centuries.

( Read also about Angela van Bengale, the other slave girl who helped establish wine making in the Cape)

The Man with the Grudge

Credit: johnnyafrica.com

Credit: johnnyafrica.com

(follows on the previous posts)

Right then, just when Reverend Joseph stops talking, a woman appears in the doorway. Diksarel follows Joseph’s eyes to stare at her. Straight-backed, she stops to take a long, hard look at the two men at the front of the little church.

Gertruida says one shouldn’t feed a grudge. It keeps on growing, she says, until it devours the person filling the feeding trough. No matter how honourable or righteous the cause, the grudge will end up in a bigger catastrophe than the original wrong.

Diksarel experiences something like this when he recognises the face of the woman. She’s older – much older – of course. The lines on the face have multiplied and her hair is now speckled with grey – but her eyes remained the same. Sharp, penetrating eyes, unwavering in their stare, unashamed of who they belong to.

“You….?” Diksarel doesn’t know how to continue – the many words he wants to say seem to rush through his mind at the same time. This is, he realises, Miriam; the woman who led his father astray. Oh, everybody knew about her back then. Younger, more shapely, white teeth and the full lips. The one who didn’t dare come to town…afterwards…

“Careful what you say, White Man. You might regret it…” Joseph’s quiet words are lost on Diksarel.

The dam bursts. “Regret? Regret? You bring Miriam here, this…damn woman who crushed my life as if it were nothing? Who took away my mother and killed my father? Who…sucked the very life out of my youth to make me an outcast? What the hell will I regret?”

Reverend Joseph holds up a hand. “Slow down, will you?” When Diksarel opens his mouth to say more, Joseph tells him to shut up. “Stop it! How dare you condemn this woman? I’ve known her for years, and the only thing she talks about, is that…incident…back in Upington. Now the good Lord has delivered you here in this godforsaken township – and He’s done it with a purpose. And, oh yes! I know her story by heart by now. Word for word I can repeat it. But you? You know nothing. You think you now, but you don’t. Now shut up and listen.”

The rebuke leaves Diksarel speechless for a while, allowing Miriam to approach him.

“You dear boy.” Three words. Diksarel gapes at her. Dear boy…? “I need to speak to you…”

***

They all knew about Meneer Labuschagne, the white man who visited Pastor Plaatjies so often. At first it was assumed that this was one of those rare friendships between men of different colour (back then it didn’t happen so often), but soon the idea took hold: this man was a spy for one of the Apartheid organisations.  Plaatjies wasn’t a man to shy away from issues: his fiery sermons attest to that fact. So he confronted Meneer Labuschagne and everything came out.

“You see, ” her face crinkles in a smile, “your father wasn’t stupid. He knew the Nationalists were wrong. He understood the plight of my people. But he worked for an organisation which dictated his way of thinking – and although he didn’t like it, he couldn’t afford to disappoint his employers. Back then, you fitted in or were labelled as a traitor. And believe me: once you’ve gone against the government, your life was over.” She hesitates for a second. “Just like today, I suppose.”

“Well, he and Plaatjies talked and talked. About the past. About the present. About the future. About how Meneer Labuschagne couldn’t see a future in the policies of the day. About the bloodshed that was sure to follow. About so many things – and most of them were stone walls that stood n the way of a peaceful solution to the country’s tomorrows.”

By now, Miriam is seated next to Diksarel, who has fallen quiet.

“In the end, it was your father who supplied information to Pastor Plaatjies. He said he felt he had no choice. If he wanted to help the country, he couldn’t keep on destroying the little chance for success that still existed.”

“But the Natinalists had people everywhere. Even in the locations. And they learnt about your father’s actions and they made a plan.”

If ever there were people who ‘could make a plan’, then the agents of BOSS would be in the top ten of all times. From being instrumental in building South Africa’s atom bombs, to eliminating ‘undesired elements’, they had ways and means to manage a variety of problems.

Meneer Labuschagne was an embarrassment. That was the bottom line. When they recruited him, he seemed like an agent with a bright future. But, over time, he supplied less and less information – some of it obviously false. Add to that the secretly recorded telephone conversation in which Meneer Labuschagne warned Pastor Plaatjies about a police raid on the township, and the case against the white traitor was sealed. He had to go. They had several choices: get rid of him permanently…or simply destroy his career and his future.

“Killing him would have been merciful – and that is one thing those men didn’t do. Mercy wasn’t big in their thinking back then. So, what did they do? They conjured up an affair with Pastor Plaatjies’ daughter – me. Clever, hey? Meneer Labuschagne and a black political activist destroyed by one bit of misinformation. Bang! Just like that. All that was necessary, was to spread the gossip around a bit. A word here in a bar, there in a shebeen. And the next thing you know – everybody talks about it.”

Diksarel’s father didn’t deny it. In fact, he said nothing. To protest would have been useless, anyway. And, since he couldn’t admit to his double role – something that was even worse than having an affair – he remained silent. Plaatjies, too, couldn’t say much. Who’d listen to him, come to think about it? Knowing his telephone was tapped and the location crawled with informants, he tried – for a while – to continue being a pastor in his church.

“But it couldn’t work. As much as the news of the affair broke up your family, so it did for us. My father had to move to Soekmekaar, where he was employed as a social worker. His career in the church was over. He was powerless against the might of BOSS, you see? One more wrong move…and who knows what would have happened?” Miriam Plaatjies sighs. “They might as well have killed us too. Maybe they did…”

“So, my father…and you…? Didn’t do it? Have an affair?”

The laugh-crinkles around her eyes deepen. “No, White Man, we didn’t. Your father was check-mated into silence, forced to endure the gossip, even to the point of wrecking his marriage and your life. Pretty much the same happened to me. I could have denied it, of course. I even tried to, once or twice. But in those days the scent of the scandal was just too strong, too juicy, and the white community lapped it up. The power of BOSS…” She lets the unfinished sentence hang in the air.

“But my father told my mother about you…”

“Your mother. Hermiena Labuschagne. Née Botha. Daugther of the minister. Staunch supporter of the government of the day. Left Upington to stay in Cape Town. Met a man there, a government man, and settled in Mowbray. She said he had admitted it. I won’t ever know if that wasn’t just another lie. You won’t either, now both of them are dead.”

“How…how do you know all these things?”

Again the smile – more sympathetic now. “I did some research. You see, after 1994 I started writing a book. It wasn’t very good, but one of my father’s friends read it. He’s in government now, that friend. Economics and things like that. He said it was a story that needed to be told, but I had to tell both sides. I knew he had a point, of course, but I never wanted to see Upington again. Never! So I settled here and tried to help the community wherever I can. I met Reverend Joseph, here.” She leans over to give the clergyman a hug. “And now you’re here…”

Diksarel finds it difficult to swallow. After all these years… Suddenly, after all these years of feeding that animal inside him, he feels…free.

“About that grudge…?”

Diksarel acknowledges Joseph’s prompt with a nod. Then he shakes his head. Not now. He can’t speak now…

The Man in a Church

Credit: nj.com

Credit: nj.com

(Follows on the five previous posts)

Churches, Gerttruida is fond of saying, are often misunderstood. People go there to hear their sins are forgiven, and so often that is the only message they want to hear. And the pastors and reverends and priests have to keep an eye on the donations, so they have to get their flocks to keep on returning to hear the good news. That, Gertruida maintains, is the biggest blessing and the biggest curse of the modern-day church. If you don’t preach what your congregation wants to hear, you will have to return your brand-new BMW to the dealership. It’s become a game of numbers: a full church is a successful business.

Gertruida says that’s okay, and not a problem in itself. The issue is the message. Salvation is freely available, provided it is preceded by honest repentance and sorrow. It is in these few words many churches fail. Salvation isn’t a freeby the pastor hands out – it follows on a change of heart. People don’t want to hear that. They want to continue just the way they are, and get forgiveness every Sunday…

Admittedly, these thoughts doesn’t occupy Diksarel’s mind as he sits down in a front pew.  In fact, he’s a very worried man. Added to his previous woes, he now finds himself in a completely foreign environment.

Mama Sarah unsettled Diksarel with her questions. She wanted to know everything about him, his family, his work…and his problem. Then she left and he sat there, contemplating his impossible situation, until a dapper young man opened the door and asked (ordered) him to accompany him. Diksarel didn’t know whether to laugh or to pray when he asked, and the man told him they’re going to church.

It was a short walk through the township. The tin shacks, dilapidated wooden structures and cardboard homes flanked the dirty street where several mongrel dogs sniffed at him suspiciously. The people didn’t seem to pay attention, but Diksarel imagined a thousand eyes peering at him from hidden doorways and windows. Listless chickens squawked at him as he followed his guide, while a black cat scampered across the road, right in front of him. He tried to ignore the cat..

The ‘church’ was another surprise. Somehow Diksarel imagined a building with arched doorways and tinted windows. Instead, he was taken to a shed-like structure, no bigger than a lean-to, something you could park two small cars in. The front pew is a regulation church seat, but the rest of the space is occupied by a variety of chairs, boxes and crates which do duty as pews. In front – on a little platform – is a grandish, red chair and a small table. Diksarel can see some stars through the holes in the corrugated iron roof while his feet rest on the bare ground that serve as a floor.

Why did they bring him here? For some macabre ceremony, where they sacrificed sinners? If Diksarel wasn’t so scared, he would have cried… He ended up praying softly.

“Tell me again what you told Sister Sarah.” The booming voice stops Diksarel’s reverie. Surprised, Diksarel turns around to see who it belongs to.

The man is about his height, but twice his size. Like Mama Sarah, his face is round, making his nose and eyes appear too small and insignificant in the flat landscape between hairline and chin. The black coat barely makes it around the ample stomach, something the white shirt has given up on.

“W-w-who are you?”

“I’m the Right Reverend Joseph Mogatshe. Call me Joe. I’m the local preacher.” Apparently Reverend Joseph finds this funny as he punctuates his introduction with a guffaw. The coat holds up, despite the strain on its seams. “And you can talk to me, I’m harmless. Not like that young  man who brought you here. Not at all. I’d be very careful around him.” More laughter. “So tell me?” His eyes are suddenly steely-cold as he sits down heavily on the chair on the platform.

In for a penny…. Diksarel recounts the whole episode involving his fraud and Kneehigh’s involvement.

“No, not that part. The part about your father.” The folded fingers across the prominent middle drum out an impatient beat.

Ashamed, Diksarel has to tell it all again.

“So, your father was Philippus Johannes Labuschagne?”

The question catches Diksarel completely off-guard. At no point did anybody ask him his surname, and how the dickens did this man know his father’s names?

“I’m sorry.” For a second the steely eyes almost seem apologetic. “We went through your luggage. Found your ID in there, but not your passport – which I see you have in your top pocket. Of course, when I heard the story, I couldn’t believe it. But now…”

“I-I don’t understand?”

“Maybe you do. Maybe you don’t. That is almost of no consequence.” The tiny eyes peer at Diksarel through the slits between the round cheeks and smooth forehead. “But, you know, the Bible tells us a lot about the sins of the fathers. And your father, my friend, was a very active man on that front. He went to a lot of trouble to make life difficult for a lot of people.”

“B-but that’s not my fault?” By now Diksarel is convinced something horrible is about to happen. His father was an agent for the Bureau of State Security…and heaven knows: those men and women have a lot to answer for. Perhaps – in the era gone by – their actions could be justified as ways to secure a stable society; but in hindsight much of what they did was indefensible. “I mean, I was a small boy back then. Society punished us – the whole family – for what my father did. And to this day, I’m still suffering the results of his infidelity. I’m so ashamed…” He’s almost pleading now.

“HAH! You white folk with your strange ideas! You talk about your suffering as if it happened to you alone! Have you any inkling, just the vaguest impression, of what we had to go through? And your father, the uptight, upright upholder of Apartheid, he was part of it! And now you plead your shame? What about us?”

Diksarel can only shake his head How do you answer to this?

“I’m sorry…” It sounds lame.

“So am I. So are a lot of people. Well, so be it. It’s time for you to meet somebody. Somebody who has a very specific reason to come to terms with the past.” The smile on Joseph’s face is humourless. “Let the past meet the present…”

Gertruida is right (again). Salvation isn’t automatic. It requires a lot of soul-searching and even more honesty. Diksarel is about to discover both…