Tag Archives: land mine

The Many Names of Stephanus du Toit

stumpingNobody calls him Stephanus any more. The story of his life is just too tragic to think about him as Stephanus. Over the years, various incidents contributed to the fact that the way people think about him, changed from time to time – and with it, the list of nicknames grew. At least cricket supplied something respectable.

As a baby, his parents had to hear the neighbours refer to their son as ‘that child, you know, Yellow du Toit?’, after a particularly severe attack of jaundice. Later as a toddler, when he got lost after wandering off, aimlessly, into the Kalahari, they made remarks about ‘that naughty child, Tracks du Toit’. And so it went on. Casts – after managing to break both arms by falling from the donkey-cart. Stitches, due to an altercation with a neighbour’s dog. Even later, Slow; because of his inability to progress past Standard Three. Now, in quick succession, add Crazy, Sleepy, Dopey, Smiley, Happy – all of them in a good-natured way because he was a rather loveable boy. 

Surprisingly, Stephanus had a particular talent for cricket. No, not as bowler or batsman, but as wicket keeper. He’d crouch down behind the wickets and watch every ball with exaggerated concentration. Then, should the batsman venture an inch beyond his crease, the bales would go flying through the air, accompanied by the triumphant shout of ‘Howzit!!!’. He made the town’s team as Howzit du Toit.. 

It was during that time, just when it seemed possible that he’d make a provincial team, that he was drafted to do his stint in the defence force.

The army, as we all know, was the Great Leveller. Here it didn’t matter whether you obtained a distinction in Maths or flunked matric. The sons of doctors and lawyers were treated exactly the same as ragtag boys of shunters and mechanics. The idea was (and probably still is in armies all over the world) to create a fighting animal made up of units of men. That was the key. The men had to be the muscles and sinews that made the creature move, relentlessly, towards the enemy. Arms and legs of a killing machine, indeed. Yet, despite the forced military mould, Stephanus stood out here as the best mine-sweeper. He became Mines du Toit because he had a particular slowness about him; a deliberate way of moving one step at a time with an endless patience; something quite rare in the adrenalin-filled atmosphere in the bush of the Caprivi border.


“I can’t believe it’s his birthday again.” Vetfaan slaps the dust off his jeans as he gets out of his bakkie. “It seems like yesterday we congratulated him on his fiftieth.”

Kleinpiet nods. Yes, time flies. How many birthdays have they celebrated here with this man? Ten? Maybe. And every year they drive out to the forlorn little house on the slope of the isolated hill to sing Happy Birthday to the man who can’t really see them, can hardly hear them. But they know: he knows they’re there. What’s left of his lips curl upward and he’ll rock from side to side in tune with the song. That’s when Vetfaan will lift a beer to the gash that once was the mouth and shout Cheers!. He’d swallow a slow gulp. Kleinpiet will dry the froth – and the tear – and then they have to leave.

“You won’t stay long, will you, Mister Vetfaan?” 

That’s the usual greeting from Aunty Beauty, his caretaker-nurse. She’s been there since forever – Kleinpiet once heard she helped with his birth. But you don’t ask questions to Aunty Beauty. She, like her patient, doesn’t say much. Only the most necessary words and then the blank face that tells you she isn’t there to make small talk.

“No, just sing and give him a sip. The usual. Is he…okay today?’


Vetfaan once said he doesn’t want to live like that. To be like that all day, saying nothing, staring into the veld…and that picture? No, he can’t do that. It’s better, he said, to be dead. They should have left him. Left him to die…

Vetfaan had been first on the scene, after that explosion. When the helicopter touched down to take Mines away, he told the medic it was all over. Nobody could survive such injuries. And afterwards, when he saw him again in 1 Military Hospital in Pretoria, he was glad that Mines couldn’t see his tears or hear his sobs. 

Same. He’s always that. Same. 

They go in, stand around the chair with the broken man staring at the veld.  They sing. The gash opens, the corners lifting in what may be a smile. Vetfaan offers the beer. A laborious slurp follows, then a soft burp.

“Go now.” Aubty Beauty’s voice is soft but the finality in it is unmistakable.


“They gone,” she says as she watches the bakkie bump it’s way over the uncared-for track leading to the house. “You relax now.”

She sees the muscles unwind and the shoulders slump to their usual position. Then, almost effortlessly, she lifts the body to carry the man to his bed. She did this when he was small – she’ll do it to the end. Only, back then there was more of him, even when he was a baby. 

Stephanus du Toit has made it through another year. Aunty Beauty smiles down at the man as she arranges the cushions so he faces the veld outside. That, and the team photo on the windowsill. The one where he stands in the middle, with the big gloves on. She knows he likes it there. Every day she tells him it’s there, reading the names of the team mates out loud. And she’d sing, like only African mothers can sing: melodious verses with simple words, over and over, telling the story of a young man who plays cricket for his country. 

...he catches the ball behind the sticks,

and Lordy, does he know the tricks

to get the others out

and he’d shout h-o-o-w-z-i-i-t! 

as he laughs and he jumps about…

“You rest now, Mister Stumps. For a whole year, you can rest.”

Then she wipes a bit of froth from the chin and she’s rewarded by a slight movement of the gash. At least, she thinks, he’s didn’t lose that

‘Though nothing can bring back the hour

Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower

We will grieve not, rather find

Strength in what remains behind…’

(William Wordsworth, Intimations of Immortality)

African Rhythm

Wherever you go in Africa, you’ll find rhythm. Unlike China and America, Africa exudes a simple rhythm; a strikingly basic one; and it is not generated by small plastic objects with LED lights and earphone plugs. In Africa the beat often blends so smoothly with the background that one has to concentrate to be able to hear it. Only then do you realise that Africa is, in fact, rhythm.

Of course, music is part of this pulse. So is the flapping of a big bird’s wings; or the stampede of hooves across the Serengeti. You can hear it in the beat in a thousand waterfalls, or in the tapping of a humble toktokkie. Africa is filled with it. And people – even people – contribute to the repeated melody that makes Africa so unique.So do events, wars and history. It’s been like that since the dawn of creation. It’ll be like that forever. Africa’s never-ending melody of recurring stanzas will continue to mesmerise future generations.

Ben Bitterbrak; the dour, angry-at-life farmer so aptly nicknamed; doesn’t hear Africa any more. He doesn’t need to. Africa – especially the South – made him that way.

It started way back in the sixties when the brown envelope arrived. He still had two years of schooling to do, but already the government was busy preparing him to fight. They were clever; these faceless minds that made young boys want to go to the army. South Africa, they said, was the last bastion of civilisation in Africa. Look, they said, at what happened up North. The Mau-Mau murders; the Uhuru shouts; the English driven from Kenya; the war in Rhodesia; the bloodshed in the Congo…  Africa was burning and it’s coming to your street, your people,  soon…

While America reeled from the Cuban Missile Crisis and JFK’s murder, South Africa staggered when the Prime Minister was stabbed to death in parliament. Daily newscasts reminded the citizens of the Red Danger and the Black Danger; the only solution was to fight, the way they had to so often in the past. Remember Amajuba? Victory was assured; as long as State, Church and Citizens stood together in the frontline against Evil.

When Ben turned eighteen, he proudly shook his father’s hand at Upington station. He was going to defend his country. Father and son knew the risks involved, but no sacrifice was too big to protect the hallowed ground their forefathers fought for.

Ben breezed through the training camps. He was an excellent shot, superbly fit and totally committed to the cause. His almost-reckless bravery made him an obvious choice to join the new battalion stationed on the banks of the Okavango River, where he donned the beret with the buffalo emblem. Promoted to corporal, he wrote home to tell his father he then held the highest rank their family had ever attained.

War wasn’t just trenches and explosions and guns. There were endless patrols, nights in the rain and malaria. Sometimes their provisions ran low or the water ran out. Back at the base, drinks were cheap and hangovers were common. And there were times of unmitigated boredom when sitting under a tree and waiting for time to pass were the only options.

It was a Saturday afternoon that the chaplain sat down next to him and sighed. I’m sorry, he said, staring into the distance. Your father was involved in a landmine incident. Ben remembers those words. Involved. Incident. It sounds so much better than saying blown to pieces in a senseless attack on an innocent old man.

Later, after the funeral, Ben Bitterbrak went AWOL. Unlike some of his compatriots, he didn’t sneak off to Rundu or Katima for a taste of civilisation and some freedom – he went on patrol all by himself. They killed his father. They… Sure as Hell – they were not going to get away with it. He’ll punish them right back.

Late one night he crept across the no-mans land that separated South West Africa from Angola. There’s a village, unnamed and unimportant, where a few old men and women stayed. The young men were part of FAPLA or SWAPO – it didn’t matter – and it was here Ben headed before sunrise that morning. He carried enough ammunition, a rucksack full of hand grenades and a mind filled with smouldering rage – the perfect combination to fan the flames of revenge. An eye for an eye

The village – a few huts and a communal fire – woke up that morning to a beautiful sunrise. The red and orange and ochre painted the night’s dark canvas with light as the villagers slowly made their way to the fire. Shuffling old feet carried ageing bodies to the smoky remains of the previous night’s embers where a wrinkled old woman blew flames into the bundle of dry grass she put on top. Twigs, and later a log, made sure they’d be able to make a simple meal to lessen the constant hunger they endured.

Ben had a clear view of the opening between the huts. He had a good rifle. Taking care to remain quiet and unobserved, he slowly got the gun into position. The little lever to select automatic fire was in the right position, the safety was off. At the range of maybe fifty yards, he wouldn’t have any difficulty to finish them all off.

While he was selecting his first target, an old woman sat down next to the fire. To his surprise, he saw she had a guitar – and she started playing on it. One by one, the other villagers started swaying with the simple rhythm – to and fro, side-to-side – keeping in time with the tempo of the strumming fingers.

Ben Bitterbrak released the pressure on the trigger, watching the scene unfold before him. A moment ago he was looking at the people – now he saw them.  They were thin. Hungry. Old. Defenceless. Living in the most basic of conditions.

And they were dancing.


Nowadays, Ben comes into town occasionally.  Groceries, paraffin, booze. He never buys a newspaper, and when he stops for a beer at Boggel’s Place, Boggel turns the radio off. Ben once told him it’s all lies, you can’t believe a word. Ben is strange, in that way. You don’t argue with him. There are embers smouldering in his eyes that tell you to shut up and move away.

Oudoom once rode out to Ben’s farm, all the way out there near Bitterbrak. Ben saw the cloud of dust and waited at the gate. No, he said, no more lies. Oudoom had to turn around and drive all the way back.

Oudoom said Ben wasn’t angry or anything. He simply stood there with his hand on the gate, waiting for Oudoom to leave. But there was one thing that seemed out of place, Oudoom said later. He always thought Ben lived alone. The little collection of huts behind the house was a surprise.

That, and the strangely rhythmic melody drifting on the wind. Surely Ben doesn’t have a radio there, does he? Or was it somebody playing a guitar?

If Ben had the ability, he’d be able to explain what happened that morning in the bush. Or maybe the music does it better. Once you understand it, you’d know why Ben doesn’t listen for the rhythm of Africa any more.

He doesn’t need to.

He’s become part of it.

(PS: watch the lady’s crafty left hand – there’s a lot of grace and elegance in the way she plays)