Tag Archives: ISIS

A Flower for Paris

eiffel-tower_edited-1Even though Rolbos is so far away from the capitol of France, the group in Boggel’s Place gathers for a moment of silence to pray for the victims, the families and friends of the people who died there last night. Oudoom leads them in prayer – breaking the sombre silence – before sitting down slowly.

“The world is at war,” Gertruida eventually says, “but not like the wars in the past. The world is at war with itself.”

Servaas nods. “Yes, that’s true. Something horrible happened to the human race. I don’t know when, where, and how it started, but suddenly we have become a brutal mass of beings, intent on destruction.  It’s happening all over. I just don’t understand.”

“Well, over here it’s simple. The thousands of protests we have every year; all too often accompanied by the burning of busses, buildings, and such – not to mention the loss of lives; are  the result of an incompetent government.” Gertruida is lecturing again. It’s her way of rationalising – of escaping the reality of the horrors we live with every day. “We are, however, only experiencing the initial symptoms of social unrest. In it’s most advanced state,  this unrest turns into terrorism. Incompetence has nothing to do with that; it’s pure fanaticism.”

“But what happened to democracy and diplomacy? Why can’t people talk to each other any longer; you know, discuss problems and find an amicable solution?”

“You solve mathematical problems, Servaas. You can’t solve ideology.” When she sees him knitting his brows together, she explains. “Look, both democracy and ideology are forms of brainwashing. Almost the same animal, vastly different outcomes. In democracy the will of the majority is supreme. If you’re in the minority, you’re forced to accept whatever drew the most votes. So you stare at the TV every night, shake your head at the antics of politicians….but you remain a loyal citizen.

“But ideology? The backbone of ideology has nothing to do with minorities or majorities. The will of the people doesn’t count. If you dare disagree, your life is at risk. The brainwashing here is more brutal, stark in its reality and doesn’t respect the individual. Ideology demands absolute ownership of your life, your soul and even your spirit. That’s the danger.”

“But why Paris? It’s the capitol of Love, isn’t it?”

“Exactly, Servaas. Love and ideology doesn’t mix. Oh, there will be other reasons as well – France is fighting against ISIS, after all – but in the end, the attack on Paris was a cowardly expression of hate. Shooting innocent people – unarmed individuals enjoying an evening out with friends –  at random can never be seen as an act of heroism. You don’t kill people you love; you shoot those you hate. And why would a gunman open fire on a crowd? I’ll tell you: it’s because some twisted person propagated lethal violence as the means to an end. That’s ideology, be it political or religious in principle.”

“Ja, I agree.” Oudoom’s voice is tinged with emotion. “Religion is far more dangerous than all the nuclear arsenals of the world combined. Forget about an atomic war ending life on this planet. Religion will do it long before some idiot pushes the red button on the console.”

Oudoom…?” Servaas can’t believe his ears.

“It’s true, Servaas, and sadly so. Look, all the religions believe that Man was created by a Supreme Being, the ruler of the universe. That’s faith and so far, so good. But then we lose the plot by insisting we know all about Him…or Her…or It. We attribute all kinds of human characteristics to our gods, assume certain attributes and preach about God’s will – as if we have an intimate knowledge of the mind of God. That, my friend, is called religion. We have corrupted faith into various religions that suit our ways of thinking. And then…in the extreme form of this…we create an ideology, throw reality out of the window, and start hating people who differ from us. When logic fails, my friends, we use God to justify our actions. That’s fanatical ideology, the fundamental flaw of the human race that’ll be our downfall.”

“And that’s why they shot those poor people in Paris?”

“That’s my take, Servaas. I simply cannot think that God – whatever different religions might call Him – would sanction such acts. Religion can. and people seem blind to the fact.”

“So, what can we do?”

“Do what your faith tells you: that God created us all. That we have but one life on this one earth. That all life is precious. And that there is no power strong enough to destroy Love. What god would like to see his creation destroying itself? Killing others won’t get you to heaven,Servaas, it’s a sin.”

“Well, my heart goes out to all those in France.” Gertruida sighs. “Faith, religion, ideology…I don’t care how those terrorists justified it – what they’ve done is wrong. It’s sad. It’s pathetic to think somebody is so warped as to strap explosives to himself before opening fire on innocents. It is, in the end, not the action of somebody who stands up for anything. It’s the action of somebody stupid enough to die for nothing except the tears of those left behind.”

cederberg sandpoort vygiesKleinpiet walks in to the bar with a small flower in his hand. It’s a vygie, the hardy little plant that survives in the harsh climate of the Kalahari.

“I brought this,” he says, “for the people of Paris.”

Boggel places the flower in a glass of water. “That’s the religion I believe in, Kleinpiet. Thank you.”

(Read also the prediction in the fable posted in September.)

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The Bird that would be King

Albatross_Atl_YN_1_clive_harris_01_november“Fire,” Gertruida said, “is a natural phenomenon. Ever since the first thunderclouds gathered in the sky or the first volcano erupted, flames have been at work on dry grass and old wood. Fire isn’t there just to make light and cook food – nature needs fires to clear land, to help seeds germinate and then allow new growth to take over.”

“That may be true, but the fire in Cape Town destroyed much more than a few old trees. Houses, resorts, forests and the mountainside  will need a lot of time and money to recover. People have been left without homes. Animals were burnt to death. I can’t see the bright side this time, Gertruida, I just can’t.” True to her nature, Precilla dabs a tear.

“Nature – like Life – works in endless circles, Precilla. The forest of today is so often the burnt landscape of tomorrow. Beauty yields to age just like summer must bow to winter. Once we understand that, we know that the devastation we now see, will return to be the fairest Cape of all in the near future.”

“Does it always work that way? Even with people?’

Gertruida sighed. This question, she knows, leads to the one exception of the rule. “Not always. You see, Nature will recover from fires and floods and droughts – simply because Nature accepts the cycles of fortune it is subject to. In contrast, we are prone to overstate our importance, which may very well lead to permanent damage. Let me tell you an old African myth, Precilla. . Maybe it’ll help you understand…”

***

Once upon a time – long, long ago – the earth belonged to the birds. Not only were they the only ones who knew the secret of navigation and seasons, they also could fly high to look for fountains and rivers, forests to live in and safe places to nest. Over the years they became more and more numerous as they occupied the most fertile pieces of the land.

One bird, in particular, outstripped the others in wisdom. It was a  huge animal with beautiful plumage – the envy of all the other flying species.

“I shall rule over the land,” he said as he surveyed the vast continent, “for I am bigger and more beautiful than the rest of my family. And,” he added smugly, “I am so much cleverer than they.”

So this bird – his name I shall tell you in a moment – set about proclaiming his kingship. “I am of royal blood,” he cried, “and all the animals will pay homage to me. It is my right!”

While it was true that this bird could fly higher and remain in the air much longer than everybody else, the other birds accepted his claim and then addressed him as their king. For a while this brought great satisfaction to the self-proclaimed monarch and he bore himself in a manner befitting his new rank. He was gracious and kind and took a keen interest in all those under his proverbial wing.

Then, one day, the big king-bird soared high on the winds and looked down at the small animals grazing on the plains below.

“Is it right,” he mused, “that all the feathered animals proclaim me as their king, and yet those with hooves and paws ignore me? They are surely too small to oppose my rightful claim.”

So the big bird soared down to land next to a tortoise.”I am now your king. You shall respect me as such.”

And the tortoise, slow and small like he was, drew back into his shell to contemplate this.

Next, the bird approached a jackal, repeating his claim.

And the jackal, as clever as he was, slipped into a burrow under a rock to think about it.

Then the bird found a porcupine and informed him that he had to bow down before the new royalty.

And the porcupine rustled his quills and withdrew to analyze the situation.

Finally, the bird landed next to a lion. Before the bird could finish his proclamation, the lion smote it heavily with his huge paw, cursing the bird for being so forward.

“As the king of all the animals, I will not allow such foolish talk. You, who have inflated your importance to the point where you are deceiving not only others, but also yourself….you will henceforth not return to land. You will soar over the oceans, vainly searching for peace and rarely put your feet on solid ground again. Sailors will stare at you in fear, as you will be the symbol of misfortune and bad luck.  A king you shall never be, only a servant of the winds.”

The lion turned to go, but the badly injured bird pleaded for mercy.

“Please, Lion, do not leave me like this. I am but a poor bird and your curse will make me poorer still. Have you no mercy?’

And the lion turned to look at the bedraggled imposter and felt sorry for him. “I am, indeed, merciful. I shall grant you one wish.”

The bird didn’t hesitate.

“Give me something – anything – to help me?”

Lion thought about this and finally agreed. “I shall give you the sharpest eyes of all – so that you may gaze upon the land while you are flying over the oceans. You shall see the land and the rocks and the rivers. You shall observe the animals grazing and playing and hunting. But you, banished over the ocean, shall only see and only observe, for you have laid claim to what isn’t yours and tried to rule over what you have no right to. Your eyes, Bird, will be your punishment and your reward, which will be as one.”

And so the Albatross gathered his feathers and limped away. After he regained his strength, be flew to the ocean, where he resigned himself to his fate.

***

“That’s such a sad story, Gertruida. But…why tell it now?”

Gertruida smiled as she rolled her eyes.

“Don’t you see? It’s the story of South Africa. It is also the story of most countries. The rulers of today will one day – if they live long enough – wonder why they didn’t go about their tasks with more compassion and kindness. They’ll look back and see what they have lost.

“Sadly, it isn’t only the politicians and the rulers who suffer this lot. It happens to common people – like us – as well. And the source of this hardship, Precilla, is greed. It’s the ego. It’s the demand to be more important than we are.”

Precilla thought about it for a long time. Then: “The fire in the Cape has come. Now it is gone. And nature will recover?”

Gertruida nodded.

“But people who succumb to greed and ego will lose what they craved for? Rulers and subjects alike?”

“Yes, Precilla. The proud and unbowed necks of too many, will wear the albatross of their folly in the end. It’s in every newspaper, every day – radicals, extremists, fundamentalists – once you proclaim that you have not only all the answers, but the only one, the winds over the vast ocean awaits you.”

“The Cape is lucky, then. It’ll recover.”

“Yes, Precilla. That’s the message. Nature can complete it’s cycles. Humans don’t.”

They’re Killing the Wrong Past

Credit: ibtimes.com

Credit: ibtimes.com

“It’s a disgrace,” Gertruida says as she folds the newspaper, “an absolute tragedy. Imagine destroying those old artifacts? What on earth will that tell the world about Isis?”

“Not much more than we already know, Gertruida.” The bushy brows knit together as Servaas sits down with a sigh. “I’m not opposed to Islam, but this makes them really look bad. Would God really command the beheading of people and the destruction of statues? No, I don’t think so – not in the way I think of a loving God, at least.”

“You can’t blame Islam, Servaas. It’s not the religion – it’s the people who interpret the Quran in a certain way.”

“Oh, and now you’re an expert?” The remark sounds more aggressive than he intended, so Servaas hastens to add: “No offence, Gertruida, but you know we don’t know much about the Quran as such. Few Christians read it, after all.”

“I’ll have you know that the Quran does have a lot to say about how believers should conduct themselves. It says: ‘They enjoin good conduct and forbid wrongdoing, and they hasten to do good works.  These are among the righteous.’  And it says something about religious tolerance, too. ‘Certainly, those who believe, those who are Jewish, the Sabians, and the Christians, whoever acknowledges God and the Last Day and does good, will have nothing to fear, nor will they grieve.’.  The problem isn’t the Quran or Islam – it’s far more complex than that. It’s about the Sunni and Shia groups that simply won’t let the sun shine on each other.”

Servaas is silent for a while, impressed by Gertruida’s knowledge. “But why? Why can’t they live together?”

“It goes back to the death of the Prophet, Servaas, in the year 632 AD. a Caliph or successor was chosen – a man named Abu Bakr. Some thought he was the wrong choice and under the leadership of Ali, the Shia movement started. Well, Abu Bakr was assassinated and eventually Ali became the fourth caliph in 656. Again there was revolt over this choice, and the Sunni’s gathered against him. Ali was assassinated in 661 – and since then the fighting never really stopped.

“Today the Sunnis claim – as part of their perceived rightful heritage – portions of Iraq and Syria as land that belongs to them. The fact that there’s a lot of oil underground, is  – according to them – of no consequence. But you and I know: logic whispers, money shouts. And sometimes, it shouts louder than religion, too.”

“So…you’re telling me they simply can’t let go of the past? And have been killing each other for 1500 years for that and the wealth under the ground?” He gets a nod from Gertruida. “Then, Gertruida, we’re in big trouble.”

“How so, Servaas?”

“Look at us, Gertruida. Look at what’s happening in the country. Poor old Jan van Riebeeck gets blamed for all the problems in the country – much like this chap…what did you call him?…Abu Bakr. And now the fight is on for land reform, just like in Zimbabwe. Or Iraq and Syria, if you like.  Here, they change names of towns and streets to reflect only a certain heritage, to emphasise the history of just one portion of society – while over there they destroy statues that are ‘foreign idols’. What’s the difference? It’s the same thing.”

1502574_689750454457656_4131447609257149473_n“You’re right, of course. But it’s not ‘them’, or ‘they’…it is the leaders of the organisations that keep on festering hate and intolerance. Do you think the average man in the street wants xenophobia or racism or violence and abuse…in any form? Of course not. Mister Average wants a job, a loving wife and obedient kids. Two out of three isn’t bad. Hell, one out of three will do. But then the so-called leaders; the ones people perceive to be on their side; start considering other issues – like money and status and more wives and grand homes. The foot soldiers get lost in the less important matters of the day while Mister Big thinks out clever things to say to impress voters”

john“But why do people bother listening to such leaders, Gertruida? That John fellow didn’t behead people on his own accord – he belongs to a movement and that movement has a leader. Once he was an innocent-looking schoolboy, now he’s turned into a monster. Why did he allow himself to be turned into a despicable being? Surely even the superficial grasp of religion teaches us that all life is sacred, coming from God?”

“Ignorance, Servaas, is the pillow on which the uninformed head rests. Listen to what the Prophet said: ‘O you who acknowledge, one people should not deride another, for it may be that they are better than them; nor should some women deride others, for it may be that they are better than them; and do not insult each other or ridicule each other with nicknames.’ He warns against false leaders: ‘And if you obey most of those in the earth, they will lead you astray from Allah’s way; they follow but conjecture and they do but guess.’ And the Prophet writes: ‘Surely the worst of beasts in God’s sight are those that are deaf and dumb and do not reason.’. 

“But, my friend, people have forgotten how to think. They follow blindly and do not listen to all sides of the argument before making up their own minds. They’ve become, just like the Quran says, deaf and blind.”

“And destroying statues help to promote the goals of a few leaders?”

“They’re killing the past, Servaas, in an effort to establish a new future. What they don’t realise is that they’re keeping the wrong past alive by alienating the rest of humanity. Just like the continuous accentuation of the wrongs in any history will keep on dividing people, so the beauty of coexistence will make people want to forget about the atrocities of Huns and the Nazis and all the horrors of the past – every nation’s history is riddled with wrongs, after all. And I don’t mean forgetting like in totally wiping out the memory – we have to learn from history, after all. What I really mean is that we must take note – and not make it the basis of an ongoing, neverending struggle.”

Servaas sighs and sinks back in his chair. “Sometimes – just sometimes – I wish that all the energy going into evil could go into something positive. What a world it’d be! But then I realise how many people rely on the past to justify their present, and then I know: people will use scriptures to promote the most weird ideas. From fighting wars to beheading people – if you want to justify evil, you can quote verses completely out of context – and some fools will believe you. Evil, sadly, is part of everybody. If you feed it, it will grow.”

They fall silent after that – there really isn’t much more to say. Mankind has been created with both evil and good lurking inside every heart – and for some reason, evil will always – like love sometimes – find a way.

That’s why the Wrong Past will continue to spawn Evil next to the hearth of Greed, while love and friendship will huddle outside, shivering in the cold reality of a world where care is just another four-letter word.

A Season of Lies

Credit: BBC

Credit: BBC

“Don’t they have a pension fund in Zimbabwe? That poor guy is nearly 91 and still working for a salary. One would think that, after three decades in the office, they would allow him to enjoy what’s left of his old age.”

“Gee, Vetfaan! You can’t say things like that. Pffft! Old Age? If you were over there, you’d be inside a jail right now. He doesn’t believe in dying, anyway. He once declared he’s stronger than Jesus…”

The picture of the man stumbling down some stairs caused a bit of debate in Boggel’s Place and Servaas was most upset to learn that Zimbabwe still has the same leadership.

“Well, things can be worse. Look at Syria.”

“What? How easily we forget, Vetfaan. The situation with ISIS boils down to a corrupted religious doctrine and a fight between the Sunnis and the Shiites. This fight has roots stretching back to the time after The Prophet’s death, when a dispute developed about who the successor should be. After the Americans and their allies ‘defeated’ Al Qaeda in 2006 in Iraq, Al Qaeda eventually emerged again with religious fervour to reclaim their position as true believers with divine goals.” Gertruida is in her lecture mode again. Nothing will stop her now.

“Anyway, ISIS used to be a part of Al Qaeda, but the relationship got more and more strained as they argued about leadership and control. Eventually, in 2014, they split up. Al Qaeda may have given birth to ISIS, but the infant-organisation soon defied its authority and now exists as a separate entity. Now it’s a bloody game of arm-wrestling: who has the most followers? Who controls the Middle East? And…sadly…who is the most effective terrorist organisation.”

“Like boys having a peeing competition?”

“Yes, Servaas, only at stake are the poor individuals caught in the crossfire. You see, ISIS dreams of an Islamic State that encompasses the Middle East, stretching as far as North Africa – not just Syria and Iraq like the West was led to believe initially when Saddam Hussein – himself a Sunni like the followers of ISIS – caused so much trouble back then. To accomplish this, ISIS needs soldiers, guns and money. So…you either support them, or you die.”

2598715631Vetfaan sighs heavily while he signals for another beer. “Unfortunately, my friends, that recipe is a most successful one. I’m sure there are many precedents for this in history, but remember the way Mugabe killed off the minority Ndebeles in the 80’s? 20,000 died. Then he moved on to the White minority. And you know what? The African Union now has him as president! Talk about the spoils of war! I hear he’s building a mansion in Natal – guess where somebody got the idea for Nkandla?”

“But isn’t this the story of all wars? Minorities and majorities; religious differences and power; greed and brutality…racism and ethnicity?” Kleinpiet doesn’t understand the complex situation in Syria, but he does understand the effects of propaganda. After all, was he not once a fuzzy-faced youth in the army? Were today’s heroes not called terrorists back then? “And once a new leader sits down on a bloodstained throne, he commands the historians to describe him as a saviour. It’s the little people – you and I in the crossfire – who get sacrificed on the steps of the palace.”

Now, everybody who knows Kleinpiet, will be surprised at his eloquent use of metaphors. Usually down to earth and direct, his little speech generates a subdued round of applause.

“There are,” Precilla  says thoughtfully, “striking similarities between the situation in Syria and our northern neighbours. It’s a pity that CNN and BBC insist on publicising the Middle Eastern situation more than the African conflicts. It’s as if the atrocities in Nigeria, Somalia, Zimbabwe and even here aren’t important enough to broadcast to the world.”

“Pride before the fall, my dear. The inseparable Siamese twins. Nobody stays in power forever. No empire has withstood the test of time. Mark my words: ISIS, Mugabe, our own prez…they all will eventually tumble down the palace’s stairs – if not carried out, feet first. You can justify just about anything these days using convoluted logic – but you can’t escape the consequences of your actions. The Middle East may be heading for one of the bloodiest conflicts of all time, and in the end the area will be a wasteland of destruction. The high ideals of the leaders will result in untold misery for the population.”

‘As if they care, Gertruida.”

“Yes, Servaas, that’s true. It’s the story of our country as much as it is elsewhere. In those countries the leaders murder opponents to show the world how great they are. Here, they’ve decapitated our rainbow dream.”

Outside the little bar in Rolbos, the sun beats down mercilessly on the barren ground. It’s a desert out there, where only the most hardy of stunted plants survive. Gertruida once said that’s how truth grows: painfully slowly – but it endures. Lies, on the other hand, grow lush and green – but it only lasts a season.

The Silence of the Emerging Porcupine

Credit: listal.com

Credit: listal.com

“The world,” Gertruida says as she folds the newspaper, “is a mess. You have Al Qaeda running around with bombs, ISIS holding Syria at ransom, North Korea making ominous noises, and Croatia in chaos. What about this barbaric practice of beheading people – or using children as suicide bombers? And we’re not immune, either. With a woman being raped every four minutes, rhino poaching – almost three a day – and farm murders, we’re at war with crime and gangsters in every level of society. And now we have rioting around Johannesburg, with shops being burnt down and looters being shot.” She sighs, throws the newspaper on the counter and signals for a beer, “People killing people…when will it end?”

“Ja, Gertruida.” Kleinpiet draws a gallows on the counter top with a stick-man dangling from the rope. “You once told us about that beautiful animal that got angry. Remember?”

***

Once upon a time – long ago – a beautiful animal roamed the veld. Like other creatures, it had a head, a body and four legs. If anybody cared to look, such a person would have said: yes, indeed, this is an animal, just like the others around here. But then that person would have looked again, and remarked on its beauty.

You see, this animal had a face that made you smile. It seemed to be happy all the time while it was sniffing the ground and digging for a nice, fat root below the surface. Everybody agreed that the Creator must have been in an exceptionally good mood when He brought this animal forth to live on Earth.

It had the softest fur, the cutest little legs and a tail all the other animals envied. But, most striking of all, was the upward curve of the lips. Neither drought nor flood could erase that smile. In short: it was a harmless, joyful little creature that went about its business quietly.

But some of the other animals didn’t like the happy creature. They looked at it with jealous eyes and told each other that there must have been a reason why it was so happy.

“It’s got a secret stash of food somewhere,” the hyena said, “hoarding it all for himself. Look at him: he’s always got that silly smile on his fat face. We all live off the veld, so we are entitled to make him share his food with us.”

“And I can’t see why he should be happy at all.” The vulture’s scowl made him look even more acrimonious than usual. “I hate happy animals. They’re just too…” He searched for the right word, finally settling on, “…alive.”

“I believe,” the snake said,”that we have a responsibility. It is fundamentally wrong to allow that creature to continue the way it does. We must correct its ways.”

So the three of them; the hyena, the vulture and the snake; set about tormenting that beautiful, happy animal. They stole it’s food. The hyena chased it about. The vulture swooped from the sky to scare the animal they now labelled as ‘the enemy’. And one day – a most unfortunate one, indeed – the snake coiled itself around one of the animal’s young, suffocating it before inflicting a poisonous bite.

This happened over a period of time, you understand, but when the baby animal died, the beautiful, happy animal finally lost it’s smile. It shed it’s tail in anguish…and changed the soft, beautiful coat for a set of dangerous quills. No longer would it allow the others to torment it – enough was enough!

And so the animal world lost the innocent beauty of a little creature that meant no harm to them. It changed into a walking fort, an armoured fighting machine that even lions and leopards avoided. It became solitary, moving about at night with the frightful rustling of its quills warning off any imminent attack.

download (3)Hyena was its first victim. When the scavenger tried to harass it again, he got stung by so many quills, it took months to heal. Even today, you can see the spots where the scars were.

And when vulture swooped down from the sky again, he lost all his neck feathers when he crashed into those quills.

Cape-VultureEven the snake tried to kill this new animal, but try as he might, he couldn’t get his teeth  into his victim. He suffered tremendous injuries as a result of the quills, causing his face and body to be covered by scales to this day.

And so, the greed and envy of the other animals caused the disappearance of the most beautiful of all animals. They had created a formidable fighter, who relied on his impenetrable armour to ward off any threat. The other animals ignore these defences at their peril.

***

“Why do you think about that story now, Kleinpiet?” The usually small furrow between Gertruida’s brows deepen as she glances over at him.

“That fable, Gertruida, is happening all over again. Religious fanatics, political fundamentalists, despots, corrupt officials, terrorists, criminals of every description – they all are busy destroying the beauty that once existed amongst mankind. And one day – like the Parisians did recently – there’ll be a cry of enough is enough! Already we have the kangaroo courts in the townships: people simply don’t trust the drawn-out judicial system where dossiers get lost and clever lawyers allow criminals to roam free. What’s the conviction rate for burglary in South Africa? 10%? Less? And what percentage of murders get solved?” He frowns, thinks hard, and shakes his head before answering his own question. “Maybe 20%? I dunno. But it is true to say that crime pays. And that common people – you and me – are getting fed up with this lunacy. Some say there had been 80,000 farm attacks since 1994. We can’t go on like this.”

Kleinpiet’s little speech causes an uncommon silence in Boggel’s Place.

It’s a contemplative quiet, something that is happening all over the world. It’s the stillness after a lightning flash, before the rumble of thunder reaches the ears. It’s the echo of the mute rebellion – in London, Paris, Washington…and many more small communities all over the world – in which the soft fur of beauty is slowly changing into dangerously unforgiving quills.

When the Compass Fails.

depositphotos_10579006-World-map-with-compass-showing-Africa“I remember,” Vetfaan said as he nursed his beer, “how we struggled in Angola. We had to use a map and a compass – and had to trust both completely. No GPS in those day, none at all. You sat down with your little sliding rule, looked at where the river – or mountain – was, and plotted your course.”

“I remember that,” Kleinpiet smiled. “Got lost a few times, too. And at night it was even worse: you couldn’t use a torch to study the map. The stars helped, though.”

“There was one incident…”

***

Nighttime in Africa represents a fascinating interplay of uncertainty and adventure. This is true for the modern-day camper; but it’s even worse during times of war and conflict. Today one may sit comfortably next to the fire, clinking a few ice cubes in the scotch in the glass, while listening to a hyena calling a few hundred yards away. That’s the romantic picture, the allure of the bush, the reason why so many tourists flock to this beautiful country.

But when the smell of cordite stings the nose and the thud-thud-thud of a hovering gunship helicopter seems  to be the only sound in the gloom…well. then even the bravest of soldiers finds it hard to control body and spirit. When rifle inspection is done the next day, it isn’t unusual to find so many soldiers with full clips of ammunition – they simply crept to the nearest rock to spend the night in prayer.

It was during the build-up to Cuito Cuanavale that Vetfaan lived and prayed through just such a night. The patrol of four men had almost completed a sortie of a sector and were on their way to the base camp, when it became painfully obvious that they were lost. The map didn’t make sense. The compass reading was off. Overhead, a bank of clouds threatened to release the torrents of rain so characteristic of January in the subtropics. No stars. Not even the moon.

And then a single shot rang out. One loud bang in the silence, reverberating across the veld in a promise of death.

Jackalberry tree

Jackalberry tree

They huddled together next to the trunk of a huge jackalbery tree, whispering in almost-inaudible tones.

Who the $%#@ fired that shot? Where did it come from?

I don’t know. That way? The darkness prevented the others from seeing which way the trooper was pointing.

Doesn’t matter. Somebody out there is taking potshots at somebody. We have to get out of here.

Another shot rang out. Nearer this time.

Vetfaan took out the faulty compass to study the luminous needle behind a cupped hand.

Let’s just adjust the bearing by about thirty degrees, and follow the compass. We should get to a river sometime, then we can follow it to the base. It’s upstream, if I’m correct. Let’s go.

Nobody argued. That’s the way it worked. Somebody made a decision and the rest followed. If the decision turned out to be wrong, they’d all pay the price for it. But, unless you could come up with something better, there was no other option.

About half an hour later, Vetfaan almost stumbled over the man waiting in ambush next to a faint game trail. This man – a Cuban, they later discovered – was the first in a line of nine soldiers, waiting for them to enter a killing zone that would have wiped out the entire patrol. Vetfaan didn’t think. Reacting instinctively, his huge hands found the man’s neck, choking hard to prevent the hapless soldier raising the alarm. With the man writhing desperately to loosen the grip, Vetfaan turned around and walked his patrol out of the area.

***

“Did you kill him?” Precilla’s eyes are wide with fear, her lips a thin line of disgust. War has never made any sense to her.

Vetfaan manages a wry smile. “No, I didn’t. He was a small bugger, poor chap. I dragged him to a spot where we thought we’d be safe and then made him sit down. He could speak broken English, so I told him we’d let him live if he could tell us where we were. Man, you’ve never seen a guy so happy to tell something to his enemies. So we took his gear – he had dropped his rifle when I grabbed him – and made him take off his shoes. Told him to stay right there until the sun came up.

“The funny thing was: we were all equally afraid. The darkness in Africa didn’t discriminate. Everybody couldn’t see a thing. It was as big a curse as it was a blessing….”

The group at the counter sits in silence, each lost in own thoughts as they remember the dark days of the Border War.

“Ja,” Servaas says, “it was dark in many ways. Many young men got lost there.” Vetfaan knows the old man isn’t talking in geographical terms.

“And now it’s the same for America and those guys with the Islamic State.” Gertruida, who had been deeply involved in Intelligence during the 80’s, sighs sadly. “They’re following a faulty compass…again. Imagine beheading innocent people to intimidate the rest of the world? Instead of creating sympathy for their cause, they are making it easy for Obama and Cameron to retaliate.”

“Who’s Cameron?” Servaas isn’t big on international affairs. Gertruida ignores him.

“It’s the same thing, Vetfaan. The world has heard a few random shots. They tried to ignore it, or at best, to avoid confrontation. Then IS ambushed them with these atrocious, inexcusable, inhumane acts. Avoiding conflict is no longer an option. We’re heading for a full-out war, I’m afraid.”

“But the powers-that-be are going about it in a wrong way, too. I heard the overseas media tend to blame all Muslims for the situation.” Boggel pours another round before Gertruida continues. “And I don’t think that’s right. They’ll split the world down the middle by polarising Christianity and Islam. That’s like taking us back to the days of the Crusades, which I fear is happening all over again. Remember; in the first millennium Christianity was a religion of peace. It gained popularity because of this appeal. Then Pope Urban II called for a crusade against the Muslims, and that changed the history of Europe and England radically. Feudalism disappeared. Crusades were fought for heavenly rewards, but the noblemen returned home as impoverished individuals who bankrupted their estates. It established xenophobia as a ‘just’ cause, sanctioned by the Church. I can go on and on about the positives and the negatives to emerge from the Crusades, but the bottom line remains: millions were killed, countries were changed and society – and religion – didn’t escape unscathed.”

“So, once again, the moral compass is way off mark?”

“Yes, Vetfaan, it is. IS is moving in the wrong direction. The West is straying off a peaceful path by labelling all Muslims as radical – this is simply fuelling xenophobic fear. God knows how this will play out, but this time I can’t imagine a peaceful ending. You were lucky with that soldier you stumbled across; but I afraid  you won’t find a handy Cuban in the Middle East today, unfortunately.”

 

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…”

Nero’s Nkandla

 Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, also known as  Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus   Dec. 15, 37 —June 9, 68

Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, also known as
Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus
Dec. 15, 37 —June 9, 68

“The ancient Greeks were an interesting lot,” Gertruida says – because she knows everything. “They gave us myths and stories, developed mathematics and invented democracy. The world would have been so much poorer without them. After them came the Romans, of course.”

Servaas gathers his brows together, shaking his head. As one of the few hippy-elders of the world, he feels he has to respond.

“But they had tyrants – like Nero. He didn’t like Christians much, setting a bad example for today’s extremists, like ISIS.”

“Ah, yes – the much maligned Nero. Yes, you’re right about the Christians – but he wasn’t a tyrant. A tyrant, according to Plato, is “one who rules without law, looks to his own advantage rather than that of his subjects, and uses extreme and cruel tactics—against his own people as well as others”  This description, quite clearly, doesn’t fit Nero. He was extremely popular at the time, the masses loved him, and he stuck to the law. At least, he used the law to solidify his position as ruler. Clever, no?

“But he wasn’t a nice man. His stepfather – Claudius – had another son, Britannicus, a few years younger than the adopted Nero. Some wanted Britannicus to be the emperor after Claudius’s death –  who incidentally died after eating some mushrooms. Poor Britannicus also died after ingesting poison on the day before he would have been proclaimed an adult. which would have strengthened his claim to the throne. The list of murders in which Nero was supposedly involved, is a lengthy one. If you dared cross him, you were simply removed from the scene. Even his mother didn’t escape his wrath.

“Despite all this, he was also rather popular with the ladies. He married three times – taking women from higher and lower in social standing – and is rumoured to have had a number of willing lassies waiting for his call. Isn’t it strange how women gravitate toward men in power? No matter what the man does or how he conducts his affairs, some ladies simply can’t resist sucking up to them, if you’ll excuse the pun.

tumblr_mdfrgfMYc61ryfivao1_1280“And then there was the Great Fire in Rome in 64 AD. Many historians blame Nero for the fire, but the debate on the cause still goes on. What is known, is that Nero certainly didn’t play a fiddle while Rome burnt – the fiddle would only be invented almost a thousand years later. But he may well have played a lyre, which may have been the granddaddy of the violin. Anyway, he wasn’t in Rome when the fire started, according to Tacitus, he was in Antium. But…of course he wouldn’t have run through Rome with a box of matches himself, he was the Emperor, for goodness’ sakes! A man like that had many servants, not so? If you’re the ruler, you’re supposed to be distanced from any criminal activity. It’s just like the Arms Deal: you have to make sure you have enough other officials to blame in order to make yourself look good.

“Anyway, Nero knew that popular support was important to anybody who wanted to stay in power. So, after the fire, he set about doing charitable deeds. He had Rome rebuilt, providing his subjects with brick houses to replace the shanties they had lived in before. While he was keeping the populace happy with their fine, new, one-roomed dwellings, he quietly had his architects design a new palace for him: the Domus Aurea or Golden House. This was  – quite coincidentally – situated on a piece of ground recently bared by the fire.

e2133 Domus aurea print1

Domus Aurea

“Now this palace was something else! Situated on a hillside, the grounds sloped down through an amazing garden which bordered the man-made lake. It had 300 rooms, and the main dining room had a revolving ceiling, resembling the movements of heaven! Other ceilings were covered in mosaic and there was a large statue of Nero, himself. And oh! The decorations! There were paintings and frescoes and and ivory and marble – every conceivable luxury of the time was displayed to emphasise the importance of the man we know as Nero, the Tyrant.

“In the end, Nero committed a sort-of suicide four years after the Fire of Rome. There were several reasons for this, notably the way he started taxing the rich and influential people of the day. Italy simply couldn’t sustain the extravagance of their emperor any longer. A revolt started, causing Nero to flee Rome. He later returned to the palace but found his loyal supporters had all left. The Senate convened, declared him a public enemy, and sentenced him to death. Upon hearing this, Nero sought refuge at some friend’s house, where he forced his private secretary, Epaphroditos, to stab him to death.”

“A fitting end to a man who caused so much hardship.” Servaas nods. “What ye sow…”

“And his palace?” Vetfaan has to know.

“It became an embarrassment to his successors. The ivory and gold were stripped, but the edifice remained. Then they filled up the entire area, covering the palace with ground. The Baths of Titus were first built, followed by an amphitheatre and the Temple of Venus and Rome. Within 40 years the palace was buried beneath the soil.”

“Surely the people rejoiced at all this?”

“Some did, Precilla, but not all. The lower classes still held Nero in great esteem, revering his memory. It was only the people who understood what he had been doing who had reason to feel relieved. Still, it took a number of years for things to settle – a situation like that doesn’t end when the tyrant goes.

“And don’t think it’s an isolated case in the history of mankind. Rulers and kings have stayed in power by being supported by the people they reign over. It’s only when popular dissent grows from a grumble to a scream that things change. Rulers understand that. Remember: logic whispers, money shouts? That’s why President Zuma could say with so much confidence: “….only very clever and bright people care about…Nkandla.” He implied that his support came from the poor and disadvantaged part of society. It was true in Nero’s time, it’s still true today..”

“But the palace…the palace started the slide in his career, didn’t it?” The pleading note in Servaas’s voice is unmistakable.

“Back then, yes.” Gertruida sighs. “Who knows? Maybe history does keep on repeating itself, after all…”