Tag Archives: Mandela

Who Painted the Moon Black?

MAAN 002 mod“There once was a very tall man.” Gertruida sits back, making up the story as she tells it. “Very tall. Taller than anybody else on earth. He was a soft-spoken man who cared for his family very much.”

Servaas nods to egg her on. He wants to hear another fable, a myth, a legend – anything – to make him forget the way things are in the country.

“He was a good hunter and  an even better farmer. His family ate well every day. But…like his family, he was afraid of the dark. In those days, the nights were black with only a few stars to light up the sky. His family, because of their fear, collected firewood every day so that the flames could drive the darkness away once the sun had set. This made the tall man very happy.”

By now, everybody in Rolbos is listening with rapt attention. Gertruida’s fables aren’t stories to ignore; they all have a moral hidden somewhere.

“But one day he tracked an Eland and he ventured too far away from his home to return to the family’s fire. The sun set. It became dark. And the man was afraid once more.

“Getting up carefully, he stretched a hand into the darkness and to his surprise he touched something. Up there, in the black of the sky, he felt an object nobody had ever seen before. It was the moon. The man sat down and thought about his discovery. If only he could make the moon bright, he’d never have to fear the night again.

“He went home the next day and told everybody what he had found, but nobody believed him. They laughed and told him he must have dreamt it, nothing can exist in such blackness. No, they said, only a few stars could live in the dark, and they weren’t things to touch, anyway. Did everybody not know that those pinpricks of light were holes in the blanket that covers the sky at night? They laughed at the tall man and he felt much ashamed.

“Still, he knew there was something up there, something only he could touch. But how was he going to make the people stop laughing at him? He had to make a plan, so he went down to the river to think. He asked the water to go up there and roar like a waterfall – so the people might hear the object. The water refused, mumbling that water runs down, never up.. Then he asked the crows to fly up at night to nest on the object so they can squawk there, but they didn’t want to. They had to stay on earth to scavenge from Man, they said.

“And so he asked jackall to howl on the moon, lion to roar on the moon, hyena to laugh on the moon. They all refused. Eventually the man realised he would not be able to make the people hear the moon – he had to show it to them…but how?

“That’s when the fireflies came to him to tell him they’d go. They could fly, they said, and make light. If many of them gathered on the tall man’s moon, people would be able to see not only the moon, but also through the darkness of the night.

“The man was delighted. The next evening he gathered everybody around him and watched as the fireflies all gathered on the moon to give them light. The people were amazed and now treated the tall man with respect. They even made him their leader.

“The sun welcomed the moon in the sky and befriended the new source of light. They were very happy.

“But the tall man became old and told the people to elect a new leader – he wanted to rest, he said. So a new leader was chosen and the tall man lived out his days in peace. Once his soul left his body to join those that went before, the people soon forgot about him. Such is the nature of man, after all. Good people are much easier to forget than bad ones.”

Oudoom holds up a hand, interrupting Gertruida’s story. “That’s true, you know? History books are filled with the stories of bad men – when last did you read about something nice and uplifting in the past? It’s there, of course, but there are more Mussolini’s than Mother Teresa’s.”

Gertruida flashes a wintry smile in Oudoom’s direction – she hates interjections. “Anyway, the new leader was jealous of the tall man’s accomplishment and wondered what he could do to impress people. After much thought, he decided to make the moon black again. If his predecessor gave the people light at night, he’d give them darkness. Surely they’d respect him for that? So he went down to the river to fetch long reeds, to which he fastened some grass. He piled mud on this long brush and waited for night-time. Then he painted the moon black again. The fireflies died  and night became dark once more.

“The sun saw what had happened and grieved for his friend the tall man had created. It therefore refused to draw back the night’s blanket from then on, leaving the earth in darkness.

“The people became afraid again and cried out, but the darkness remained.”

Gertruida falls silent and asks Boggel for a beer.

“That’s it? That’s the story?” Servaas shakes his head; surely that can’t be the end?

“Well, that’s as far as the story goes, Servaas. Until another tall man comes along, the land will remain dark. So far, it hasn’t happened.”

Oudoom nods slowly. He grasped the moral. “So, we’ll just have to wait, Gertruida?”

“Yes Oudoom. It’ll remain dark until another Mandela comes along.”

How the Hyena Lost His Powers – a Modern Fable

Zambia ekspedisie 150One day, long ago, The Old Elephant Died.

Now, one must understand that it came as no shock to the other animals. The had seen how their old leader deteriorated, and some even thought he had died some time ago – but still, it saddened them all when the jackal ran through the woods, spreading the news.

“We’ll have to make sure he gets a proper funeral,” the owl said.

“Yes, and we must invite all the animals to attend. We’ll all gather on that open piece of veld where we can all see what’s happening. And we must keep the vultures away…you know how they are. Any death is good news to them; they just love to pick at bones once any of us lies down for the last time.” Tortoise spoke wisely because he had been granted the longest life of all, and had seen (many, many times) what happened once one of the animals died.

“I don’t know.” The little bushbuck was the shyest of them all. “I think it must be a private affair. Just the family. Maybe one or two close friends. That’s what I think.”

“Oh no!” Hyena had other ideas. “Let us have a huge send-off. Let us, indeed, gather all the animals to share in our grief. We owe The Old Elephant that.”

He was fooling nobody.  They knew he had some plan up his sleeve, but were afraid to get involved in an argument. Hyena had a short temper and a long memory. Also, he had the strongest jaws of all, which caused great fear amongst the antelopes who fed on grass only. The other carnivores took pride in hunting, but this involved careful planning and lots of patience. Hyena wasn’t like that; he simply ran up to his prey with tremendous speed and agility and bit them to death. Nobody was as fast, as cunning and as strong as hyena – they all knew that.

“Y-you want to eat us.” Hare was surprisingly bold to say this, but he had made sure he was near enough to his burrow for a quick escape. “You do that type of thing.”

Hyena controlled his anger and forced a broad smile to show he’s not offended. “Me? No, not at all. Nobody must take advantage from the death of The Old Elephant. Much too respected for that.  We’ll bury him to honour him.” Despite his friendly tone, he made a mental note to dig up hare’s burrow as soon as the funeral was over. He’d dig him up and eat him, that’s what he’d do.

Hyena wasn’t planning on eating them at all, though. With The Old Elephant out of the way, there was no way the other animals could stop him from being their king. Now was his chance to rule and he wanted everybody to know that. As soon as the funeral – the big one he planned – was over, he’d simply announce that he’s taking over. The plan was ingenious in its simplicity.

Although the animals discussed the idea at length, hyena got them to agree with several growls and snaps from his powerful jaws.

There was a problem, of course. The giraffes and the rhinos and the parrots – in fact many other animals – didn’t share the language of their plain. After a lengthy discussion, it was decided that jackal will have to act as the interpreter. He’s the only one clever enough to make everybody understand each other.

Then the problems started. Why, asked the animals, was hyena suddenly so important?  Yes, they were all afraid of him, for was he not fast and strong? And sometimes, it was rumoured, he’d start eating even before one of them was properly dead. Imagine, they whispered, being eaten alive!

No, they wanted another animal to be in charge of the proceedings on that sad day…but who? Owl came up with the answer.

“O, hyena, we all know you are the most important of us all. You must be the host and the guest of honour. That’s why you must arrive to loud cheers only after everyone has been seated already. Then we’ll get some of the other animals to say a few nice things about The Old Elephant before you make the most important speech of the day. That’ll ensure everybody knows you are in charge.”

Hyena thought about this for a while. This was, after all, his chance to show everybody they were right to fear and respect him. Then he nodded – yes, it would be like that.

Jackal had also been making plans. If he could get eagle to attend, then hyena won’t steal the show. Eagle, with his sharp eyes, razor-like talons and his strong wings, was one of the most honoured animals in all the world. As a hunter he earned the respect of every animal…and he could fly, soar, higher than any other bird. Yes, if the eagle spoke before the hyena, the hyena would pale in comparison.

Happy with his plan, jackal then set off in the jungle to have private talks with some of his friends. He had to ask them to do him a special favour as well….

On the day of the gathering, the animals cheered loudly when eagle landed. Then, just as jackal told them to (for they’d never have done it spontaneously), they hissed and grunted when hyena strode in amongst them. Jackal set his features in a grim expression and scolded the animals, who knew he was just putting on a show.

Oh, and how beautifully did the eagle speak. His words filled them with pride and even hippopotamus – who rarely exhibited any emotion – had to ask some of the more agile creatures to help her dry the tears.

Then hyena walked gracefully up to the ant hill to make his speech. Once again the animals grunted, hissed and growled, upsetting hyena tremendously. Secretly he vowed to get even with them – all of them. Once he took over from The Old Elephant, they’d see…

Jackal had to tell the other animals what hyena said; but because he had other plans, he translated the speech to his own satisfaction.

The great hyena says you will all be struck with lightning bolts and he will make a stew out of you. Yes, and even though I don’t want to tell you this, I’m afraid hyena isn’t in a good mood. He’ll start hunting you as soon as the funeral is over. You have been warned.

Now, of course hyena didn’t understand this, as jackal was speaking the other animal’s language. When he finished speaking, jackal told everybody to cheer, which they reluctantly did.

Soon after hyena trotted off, looking for somewhere quiet where he could plan his revenge, the other animals gathered.

“Look,” jackal said, “you all know what’s going to happen next. Hyena is going to start killing us all. The only way we’d be able to stop him,” and here he paused, waiting for them to listen real carefully, “is to tackle him. All of us, together. As soon as the funeral is over. That’s when we must combine our strengths and get rid of him.”

hyenaAnd so it happened that, on a bright and sunny morning, the animals ambushed hyena. Because they were scared of his deadly jaws, they all jumped on him from behind, breaking both hips. Then hyena snapped at them and they all ran away.

But jackal’s plan worked. Now hyena had these short hind legs, which robbed him of his speed. His jaws were as fearful as ever, but he could no longer hunt like he used to. Hyena, poor hyena, had to resort to the habit he has to this day: eating the leftovers after the real hunters had their fill.

Now the other animals realised hyena’s weakness, they started taunting him, calling him names and teasing him. Eventually hyena became so mad…that he lost his mind. That’s why, in the stillness of Africa’s nights, there is no mistaking the whoop-whoop! cry of the hyena, followed by mindless laughter.

***

Who became their king after The Old Elephant?

The fable doesn’t tell us. Maybe they found a nice, strong lion to lead them into the future.

One can only hope they did.

But hey! Why worry about this? It’s only a fable about animals. Right?

Right??

And yes, you may share it…

The Memorial Service – For the Living…

Credit: M&G (mg.co.za)

Credit: M&G (mg.co.za)

“Gee, Oudoom’s Mandela sermon was picked up all over the world. Lots of people read it and some even commented on it. The old man must be proud.” Boggel isn’t sure whether Servaas aimed this remark at Mandela or Oudoom, but lets it slide anyway. “Whatever people say about Madiba, though, he certainly influenced the global village.”

“Maybe that was his secret – understanding the world as a village. Lots of opinions and lots of ideologies. But…in a village you listen to everybody before making a rash decision, and having grown up in a small village, that gave him the background, I suppose.” Vetfaan is all too familiar with villages – African villages – where a child has many fathers and mothers and everybody chips in when it comes to teaching, disciplining and caring. “I think that put him streets ahead of the Ivy League leaders of the world.”

“Amen to that.” Servaas scowls at his empty glass and waits for a refill before continuing. “It serves no purpose to have a pretty face and a wall full of diplomas. If you don’t have compassion, you’re a dictator.”

“There’s something else we have to remember,” Gertruida has that look again. “While everybody’s going to try to outdo the others with their eulogies, there’s a woman who’s going to miss him. Miss him terribly much. I feel for her.”

Boggel lifts an eyebrow. “Winnie? Graca?”

He gets a shake of the head. “Zelda, Boggel, Zelda la Grange. His private secretary. The power behind the throne, in some ways.”

Once again, Gertruida has the facts. She tells them of the young girl who landed a job as a typist in the president’s office. An Afrikaner girl. Later secretary to the first democratically elected president. White young woman. Older black diplomat. Initial inexperience combined with wisdom. Nationalist background slotting into the ANC. “It’s the stuff of fairytales,” Gertruida reminds them.

Ms la Grange is a fixer, Gertruida says. “She gets things done.” When Madiba quit being the president, he asked her to stay on as his personal assistant. She organised, accompanied, worked with Madiba right till the end. Travelled along on more than 200 overseas visits. Met people, organised even more meetings than she’ll ever remember. Met more people. Important people. Kings and presidents and rock bands and common people. “Where he went, she went. They were a team.”

“And now…?” Precilla lets it hang in the air.

“Oh she’ll manage. She’s a fixer, remember? But I guess she’ll miss the hectic life she had before. Or maybe she’ll welcome the change. But a bit of her died with Madiba, I’m sure. You cannot work with one of history’s greats for so long, and then just walk away as if nothing happened.”

Boggel raises a glass in a silent toast. Yes, so many tears will be shed. People will talk and write and televise – and the world will mourn. A few individuals will make derogatory remarks – an inevitability in the cynical, superficial world we live in. And yes, he will be missed in the turbulent times we live in, for somehow he had – even when he was critically ill – a reassuring and stabilising influence on the people who lived in his shadow.

But who will remember the woman who dedicated her life to serve Madiba? She never forced her way into the limelight, quite content just to smooth the way for her boss to do what he did best: building bridges.

That’s why Boggel replaced the well-known rugby-jersey-photo of Nelson Mandela next to the till with another picture. The old man, waving at the global crowd, saying goodbye for the last time. And at his side, a vivacious young lady with a smile to equal his. She, too, is saying goodbye – in a way. Not only to her boss, but to the bustle that made him instantly recognisable in almost every home in the world.

“Let’s raise a glass to a brave, competent woman. And when we say our sad goodbyes to the late president, let us spare a thought for everybody that helped and supported him.”

“…and his family,” Precilla adds. “Once Madiba brought us all together with hope. Now let us unite again by sharing the family’s grief. This is not a time to whittle away at what happened in the past – if anything, we should build bridges, just like he did.”

“And she did,” Fanny smiles sadly as she runs a finger over the photograph. “I think we should write her a letter, or something. Maybe Oudoom should write it, telling her we appreciate her work…and loss.”

“Or we can simply tell her ourselves?”

And that’s what they’re doing…

Oudoom’s Mandela Sermon

Springbok-jersey“It has come to my attention,” Oudoom says gravely as he leans on the lectern, “that there are many opinions regarding the life and times of the late President, Mandela.”

This, of course, is true. Fanny, who grew up in England, remembers the protests against the Nationalists. There was no doubt, back then, that the ANC was fighting a just war against oppression. Mandela was a hero – he still is.

But Vetfaan remembers the war, and Servaas lost his only son on the border. The war, they’d tell you, was the direct result of the violent terrorism that gripped South Africa for more than three decades. While the Nationalists were seeking peaceful solutions, the ANC insisted on an armed conflict. Terrorism. And the biggest of them all? Mandela. Did he not say things, do things, that were responsible for so many unnecessary deaths?

“So,” Oudoom continues, “we must see what the Bible teaches us. If we can find an answer in The Book, then we can decide how to remember Madiba, Forget our own history, Brothers and Sisters. History is fickle: it gets re-written every time the government changes.

“But the Bible is the Bible. It doesn’t change.”

He waits for the words to sink in while he opens the book of Acts.

“I want to remind you about Saul, the young man who persecuted Christians. The Christians were afraid of him – in fact, I think it’s true to say they hated him. And then his life changed and he became the greatest evangelist of all times.”

Oudoom pauses for a second. “Now, how do we remember Paul today?  Well, we remember his legacy, that’s what. He started out wrong, changed direction, and changed the world. Now…is there a single soul in this little church today, who wants to condemn this Saul/Paul character for his wrongs? Or do we celebrate his rights?”

Servaas folds his arms. This is cutting too near the bone! Is Oudoom saying he must respect the man who killed his son? Well, not directly, but still…

“Now, let us look at Mandela. Let me say it outright: I’m not – not – comparing him to any Biblical character. I’m not saying he was the Messiah or a disciple or a holy man. No man can be that. Not him, not us.

“But yes, he did end up in jail for treason and planning a civil war. I think it was Oliver Thambo who said something to the effect that their imprisonment was a blessing in disguise. In his later life he remarked that – if they went ahead with their plans – South Africa would have been a bloodbath. So, it is right to write up the history and remember the facts.

“But what is Mandela’s legacy? Why do the world’s flags hang at half-mast?

“I’ll tell you: if we had any other president after the 1994 elections, the country would have gone down the drain. Did you want Zuma back then? Who do you prefer? Mandela – for reasons we still marvel at – preached reconciliation. Forgiveness. Peace.  He touched lives with his compassion. He met all his old enemies – from the warders, to the state prosecutor, to Mrs Verwoerd – in person. What do you think would have happened if Mugabe was in charge? But Mandela sat down and had tea with these men and women – and he earned their respect.”

Something strange shifted in Servaas’s mind. He imagined a South Africa with a dictator in charge. Would such a man learn to speak Afrikaans, or even try to understand the white culture? Put on the No 6 jersey at the 1995 World Cup?

“So, my dear friends, we must choose what we emphasise. What, exactly, is Mister Mandela’s legacy? The bombs? Did we not plant bombs as well? The killings? Did we not kill as well? The jail? Were we not in a spiritual jail as well?

“Well, I can tell you what I think. If we choose to remember Paul for his later life, then we must also choose to remember Mandela in context. We must decide whether we want to remember the good…or the bad.

“Tell me: do you think Madiba was always right? Of course not! But then again: who of us are? Let the purely just amongst us get up now, and tell the congregation he is without wrong, without sin.” Oudoom lets his eyes travel over his little flock, daring a single person to declare his absolute purity. “Mmmm,” he says after a second or two, “I thought so.”

Servaas glances over at Vetfaan. The burly farmer sits quietly, staring stoically ahead.

“The history of the world,” Oudoom continues, “is written with conflict. It is human nature to differ, to fight, to struggle. There is no country that can claim absolute peace and fairness and a just society. We were designed to have opinions. And it is this tendency to formulate impressions that leads to conflict. It’s been like that since the beginning. It’ll be like that till the end.

“But we…we have a limited time on Earth. Sixty, and if you’re strong, seventy years. And we’ve lived through a terrible piece of history and we’re still going strong. I’m not talking, mind you, of the current situation in the country. I’m talking about Mandela. My question is: how do we choose to remember him? And where, do I ask you, would we have been without him?

“Where would Christianity be without Paul?

“Or do we insist on remembering Saul?”

***

“Ja, boet.” Servaas sits down next to Vetfaan. Boggel will open the bar as soon as Oudoom closes the parsonage door, so they’ll wait outside on the stoep of Boggel’s Place for a while. “We all have a tainted history, don’t we?”

“I know, Servaas. But the war left scars. Deep ones.”

“I know.” Fanny sits down next to Vetfaan to rest her head on his shoulder. “But I think the wounds don’t bleed so much any more. Most of them are healed, leaving only the scars. And, as you know, scars are the body’s way of telling you, you had a life. No scars, no life.”

“All I can say is this: Oudoom has a point. I want to remember Paul, not Saul.” Servaas sighs heavily as he hears the key turn in the lock before Boggel pushes open the door. “And yes, things could have been much, much worse.”

When they sit down next to the counter, they see the little picture of Mandela next to the till. It;s the popular one, with Madiba in the Springbok jersey.

“Et tu, Boggel?” Fanny, with a twinkle in her eyes.

“I made a choice,” the bent little barman says. “I want to remember to be thankful. If we want a future in this country, we must not talk about forgiveness and reconciliation. We must live it. Otherwise we might as well turn back the clock and start fighting all over again. And let me tell you: the conflict we face has nothing to do with guns and bombs – it’ll be fought in our hearts. If we don’t make peace with ourselves, we’ll perish.”

“But that is true for everybody in this country, Boggel. All of us. The whole rainbow.”

“Yes, Servaas, all of us. May we remember to forget the bad and never forget to remember the good. I want to think of Madiba that way.”

He serves the first round. Boggel’s Place will be quiet today. Everybody has a lot of thinking to do.

And choices to make.

Their futures depend on it…

Some say love, it is a river
That drowns the tender reed.
Some say love, it is a razor
That leaves your soul to bleed.
Some say love, it is a hunger,
An endless aching need.
I say love, it is a flower,
And you it’s only seed.

R.I.P. Madiba, Nkandla

bokke1-text“So finally, it’s official: Nelson Mandela is dead.”

Kleinpiet sits quietly at the counter. It is late on the evening of the fifth of December. A cold Kalahari-wind is gusting outside.

They’ve speculated about Madiba’s death for some time now, convinced that ‘they’ are keeping him alive for some obscure political reason. Now, however, death at last has claimed the famous man and no amount of political interference can manipulate circumstances any more.

“We’ll remember him for many reasons,” Gertruida says, “some bad, some good. But, in the end, he became a symbol of tolerance and forgiveness. I’d like to forget the days of treason and bombs and terrorism. I want to remember him standing next to Francois Pienaar, trying to unite the nation.”

“He did that, to some degree,” Vetfaan says, “and he set a great example for the ANC. Despite everything, he was revered far and wide for his example as a leader who wanted to rule fairly.”

“It’s about the heart, isn’t it?” Precilla sniffs loudly. “In his heart of hearts he wanted peace. He wanted us to be a rainbow nation.”

Boggel sits down next to Vrede. “And so we shall remember him. Not for treason, bombs, innocent civilians maimed and killed – but for his message of reconciliation.  I’ll always respect that. And of course, he was the last leader in the country who didn’t openly accept corruption. He cracked the whip and the parliament listened. Nowadays it’s a free-for-all.”

There’s not much to say in Boggel’s Place tonight. The nation lost an important man. Some will try to politicise the death, TV-crews from around the globe will fly in to broadcast the funeral and the country will spend an appropriate time in mourning. It is fitting that these things happen.

But it is also important to look ahead. Will the ANC of today still honour the directions the great man dictated in life? Or will they continue to slide down the slope of self-interest?

“Isn’t it interesting,” Gertruida ponders, “that they decided to release the Nkandla report only hours before his death? There’s no doubt they knew about his condition.”

Smoke, mirrors and politics – the toxic mix the public gets fed to form an independent opinion.

“A moment of silence,” Boggel says, “let’s be quiet for a minute.”

For a fleeting moment Gertruida wonders whether the bent little man is talking about the past –  or the future. Then she closes her eyes in a silent prayer.

Alive? Dead? Coma?

download (7)

“I’m not sure.” It’s the first time – ever – that the townsfolk has heard Gertruida say these words. She reads the National Geographic, for goodness’ sakes!

“Well, initially there were SKY, CNN, BBC and even the SABC camped outside the hospital. Every night the newscasters said he was critical, in a serious condition, non-responsive…or something. Now we hear nothing. What happened?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” Boggel shrugs as he serves another round. “Maybe he’s better? Or maybe the family doesn’t want us to bother him? Or maybe the news channels simply lost interest?”

“No way, man! That man has statues all over the world. Well, he has one in Sandton, that I know. But what happened to the flowers outside the hospital and the choirs that used to sing there?”

“You know what I find strange? It’s that the major TV stations have withdrawn and the international press has stopped asking questions. Why is that? Did somebody tell them to back off?” Precilla isn’t an expert on international relationships, but she’s not stupid. “Is there a conspiracy of silence? And if so…why?”

An uneasy silence descends on Boggel’s Place. If even Gertruida doesn’t know the answer, it’s a massive mystery indeed.

“Maybe we just missed the announcement, you know? After all, we’re a rather isolated community. Things happen out there that we never know about.” Kleipiet remembers the ban on ostrich meat he only heard after it was lifted.

“No.” Gertruida lifts an adamant finger. “There’s something strange going on. People don’t forget the Helderberg, or the farm murders, or the corruption in government.” She pauses to allow it to sink in. “People – according to the powers-that-be – are all suffering from Alzheimers. We’re supposed to forget about Selebi’s and Shaik’s medical parole. We’re supposed to think that strikes originate amongst the workers. They even expect us to believe that South Africa is fighting illegal immigration and that the government is worried about poaching. But, sadly for them, that’s not true

“Look at us. We’re living in isolation, but these questions keep cropping up even here. You think it doesn’t happen in big places like Prieska or Pofadder? We’re all wondering, but nobody has the guts to ask the question. At least we do.”

They speculate about this. Is Madiba recovering? Frozen in some morgue? Still alive and hanging on? Secretly and privately buried in the family’s sacred plot?

“I can tell you one thing for sure.” Oudoom places his empty glass on the counter for a refill. “I’m sorry for his family. Madiba deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. I’m not so sure he’s getting that at the moment.”

It turns out to be a quiet night in Boggel’s Place. This is not a subject to debate about.

At the very least, they owe him the respect of compassionate silence.

The Wake (# 1)

images (20)“It’s the brigadier,” Vetfaan whispers in awe, “he’s actually come to town!” His shout is evident, despite his hushed tone.

“Impossible,” Servaas says.

“Not in your life,” Kleinpiet exclaims.

But it is. Brigadier Kasper Albertus van Graan – himself – climbs out of his old Toyota pickup to stand, alone and for all to see, in Voortrekker Weg. He’s dressed in drab khaki, old boots, and a wide-brimmed hat. His lined face is tanned from the many years in the veld, while his skeletal frame says something about his frugal lifestyle.

“I can’t believe it,” Boggel breathes as he shuffles towards the door. “The Brigadier, nogal. Himself? Really?”

But it is. Kas van Graan steps towards Boggel’s Place, rigid and tall in his old uniform. When he pushes the door open, he’s greeted by a silence that threatens to hurt ears. Seemingly unperturbed, he walks to the counter to order a beer.

“You’ve been scarce,” Boggel says, referring to the last fifteen years. “Welcome back.”

The Brigadier has aged considerably since his last visit. He fights the natural stoop of his figure, but his hair has gone. So has that determined look in his eyes. He seems, for all the world, like any old man you’ve ever seen – the type that refuses to acknowledge the passage of time. You get them all over the world – at least, Gertruida says so. Except for the uniform, of course…

“Don’t patronise me,” the old army is still in his voice, “just give me a beer. Or didn’t you understand my request?”

“We’re just happy to see you, sir,” Boggel lies, “it’s been some time.”

“Been busy,” the brigadier lies back. “on the farm.”

Everybody in the bar knows it’s not true. Nothing ever happens out there. When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission forgave the brigadier, he came here to hide. Him and his pension and the ghosts from his past.

***

In 1964, with H F Verwoerd at the pinnacle of his political career as President of the new Republic of South Africa, Kassie van Graan understood nothing about the intricate and complicated problems facing the country. Barely into his teens, he accepted the racial divide in the country as normal – a concept supported by everything he was exposed to. The all-powerful radio, the church, his school and his parents were unanimous: different cultures had the right to exist and required a safe space to develop further. It seemed so natural, so logical,

Kassie had no idea of the laws that enforced this policy. The forced removals, the brutality associated with segregating the society, the pass laws – these were carefully tucked away behind the camouflage the Nationalist government used to hide their true intentions. Look – the radio, the church, the school, his parents, said – we are helping people to help themselves. It is our Christian duty to guide people to their destiny.

And Kassie thought it was all okay as he fantasised about Hester, the neighbour’s daughter with the tanned legs and the promising buds that contoured he blouse. Here, the church and his parents instilled in him, was the danger of sin, a danger that overshadowed anything else going on in the country. The fear of going blind or growing hair on his palms was much greater than his concern for his own, personal safety on the streets of Brakpan, where he grew up.

It all changed on the cold winter’s day – the 24th of July of 1964 – when he joined his mother on a shopping trip to Johannesburg. They travelled comfortably on the green leather seats of the Second Class carriage, a natural choice for most White people, while the Others were crammed into the Spartan 3rd class coaches. This was just another normal day in the (in Kassie’s opinion) quiet and peaceful and safe Republic.

After shopping at the OK Bazaar and a late lunch at Garlick’s, they were on the platform – waiting for the train back home – when the bomb exploded. The crash of the blast, the smoke, the screams were burned into his young mind, and he never forgot the bleeding, burning, screaming people who stood and ran and lay about; while the horrible realisation that the Republic wasn’t a safe place any more, got imprinted in his juvenile mind.

They escaped major injuries. His mother was deaf for months, and Kassie could brag with his few scratch marks when next he met Hester. However, the damage was the unseen uncertainty, the fear that developed in young boy’s mind.

Simething was wrong in South Africa, he realised that. The church blamed the Communists, the government blamed the African Resistance Movement, and his teachers told the school that they must follow the news in the papers – the truth will surface. John Harris, they said, was a disillusioned man, a misguided soul, and everybody sighed in relief when he was hanged for his deed on 1 April 1965. April Fool, they called the only White man ever to be hanged for the struggle against Apartheid.

Kassie started reading the newspapers. He learnt about Nelson Mandela – a name he’d never heard before – was in prison for treason. He read – mostly between the lines – that the South African society rested on many fracture lines, and that there was a very real danger that the stable and happy Republic could go up in flames. The problem was the Communists, the papers said, as article after article appeared, showing the public what was happening in the rest of Africa. Uhuru and Mau-Mau became the justification to suppress any action that might threaten the State.

The situation deteriorated. Sharpville happened. Verwoerd was murdered. Fear grew as Africa became the place of Unrest.

When his call-up papers arrived, ordering him to report for duty in Voortrekkerhoogte on his eighteenth birthday, he was more than ready. This was his country and like ancestors, he was quite prepared to lay down his life to defend his right to be here.

***

“He can’t escape the nightmares of his past,” Gertruida whispers, “look at him: he’s a broken and depressed man.”

Precilla nods. “I only heard about him. This is the first time I’ve laid eyes on him. I almost feel sorry for the man.”

“I wonder how he feels about his past.” Vetfaan takes a more pragmatic line. “It can’t be easy.”

Brigadier van Graan ignores them. They don’t, won’t, can’t understand. He signals for another drink. How can they, anyway? Were they on that platform when the bomb exploded? And afterwards…afterwards – where were they then? While he fought his way across Rhodesia, Mozambique, Angola; while he watched young men die and wrote letters to grieving parents – where were they then?

“It’s a bugger-up,” he mutters.

“You need to talk about it, Brigadier. You really do.” Boggel pushes another beer across to the man, telling him it’s on the house.

“Can’t.” A single word, saying so much.

Gertruida walks over to sit down next to Van Graan. “I used to work for National Intelligence. Did you know that? And sometimes – late at night – I remember things. Bad things. It keeps me awake.”

He turns to stare at Gertruida, his eyes suddenly uncertain. “Too much death. It became part of me.”

And Gertruida, who knows everything, settles in the chair next to the troubled Brigadier. She understood exactly what he has just said.

“If you don’t get rid of it, Brigadier, you’ll never live again.” Her tone is kind, understanding.

“As if you care.”

“Strangely enough, I do. We all do. It’s our country too, you know?”

“It was the bomb…” he says.

“Maybe that’s a good place to start,” Gertruida now does something she is very good at. She turns to him, her attention completely focussed on him, and adopts the ‘listening position’ with her chin resting in the palm of her hand. “Go on – you can do it. Be the brave man you’ve fought for so hard.”

Brigadier van Graan, much to his own surprise, finds himself travelling back in time, to the years of hope and glory. Oh, how great was the dream…

The Death of an Era

“Nothing,” Gertruida says (because she knows everything), “is permanent. Life, circumstances, love, the universe  – you name it, and it’s got a sell-by date. Everything; from empires to wars; gets to expire somewhere along the line. And somehow we never quite get to grips with the concept of things being temporary.”

“Ja, that may be so, Gertruida, and you can sound very clever saying things like that, but it is human nature to hope that things will last. And sometimes it does, let me tell you. That Massey Ferguson is still going, and my father  bought it before Vorster became president.” Vetfaan smiles triumphantly, believing he proved a point. “I know it dies on me occasionally, but it is still as good as new.”

“Oh, pulleaze, Vetfaan, pull the other one! That thing alone increases Rolbos’ carbon footprint up to Cape Town’s category. It uses more oil than Shell can import. As for the carburettor…”

“Some things gets worn with age, that’s true. But that doesn’t mean I have to buy a new tractor. That machine needs a gentle hand and a bit of loving care, that’s all. It’ll outlive us all, I tell you.”

“There comes a time.” Servaas sighs heavily as he tugs at the collar of the black shirt he’s got on today. He’s in one of those moods again. “We have to let go of the old, Vetfaan. I listened to that tractor the other day – it hasn’t got far to go any more. Something wrong with the crank shaft, I think. It is still going, but for how long?”

You don’t argue with Servaas when he’s like this, so everybody remains quiet while Boggel serves the next round.

“Even F W de Klerk is in trouble, just like your tractor. He can get a new spare part, but it’s a question of time. And Madiba…we all know how he’s doing.” Servaas drains his glass in a single gulp, belches, and pulls a face. “Even the ANC is ailing. Who’d have imagined that? The once-mighty political machine is belching out smoke, misfiring, and losing speed.”

“It’s the season, Servaas. In winter everything grinds to a halt. Some things hibernate, others die. And comes springtime, new growth makes the world pretty again.” For some reason, she thinks back on John Steinbeck’s last novel, The Winter of Our Discontent. Is it possible, she reasons with herself, that the fallen hero could be great again? That honesty will persevere over corruption? That Love will triumph over Hate?

Or will we, like Ethan Allen Hawley, all be guilty of the murder of the town drunkard with the key to financial survival?

“The old order is passing, Servaas. Slowly but surely, one after the other of the pillars of our current democracy is leaving us to hold up the ceiling, and I’m not so sure we are strong enough to do it. It isn’t working in Egypt or Syria, nor has it lasted in Zimbabwe or the Congo.”

Sure, Ethan eventually made the right decision, but still his son plagiarised his way to winning a national essay competition. How much damage did the father’s own dishonesty and lack of integrity contribute to the future generation? And even if a new government gets elected some day: won’t the legacy of crime and corruption just keep on eating away at whatever moral fibre is left at that stage?

She sighs – there are no real answers, are there?

“You know, Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for literature, even if the reviewers in America thought his work was without much merit. They stated that his criticism of a corrupt American society was totally unwarranted. More than a decade after his last book was published, the reviewers had to hurry to apologise when Watergate happened. They said they never realised America ‘had a condition’.”

“So,” Sevaas looks up sourly, his brows knitted together in a show of disgust, “you’re telling me two things: One – a country with a corrupt soul is bound to fail; and Two – the writers who dare write about it, won’t be appreciated by their own people?”

“It’s inevitable, Servaas. Vetfaan’s tractor won’t run forever. We’ll bury Madiba and F W de Klerk eventually. And…if we don’t prepare for the new season, we’ll be caught with our pants down.”

Boggel holds a glass up to the light, frowning at the crack in the side. It was one of the original glasses he bought when he opened the bar, and now he’ll have to throw it away. Gertruida is right, of course. He’ll have to budget for new glasses.

Gertruida doesn’t say it. She doesn’t dare to. But…South African society has become Ethan Hawley. The dire need for survival has eroded our culture to such an extent that we find it difficult to distinguish between the need for survival and honesty. That’s why the ANC will serve another term. Allan Hawley will win the essay competition.

And if we have the guts to turn away from the attempted suicide, the rising tide will get us if we allow the events of Rhodesia to migrate south of the Limpopo River.

In the end, we’ll only be able to blame ourselves.

Like Ethan Hawley did.

In Loving Memory…

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President C R Swart

“I remember when Oom Blackie Swart died. When was that? In the sixties?” The frown on Servaas’ forehead says something about his uncertainty.

“No, he died in ’82, Servaas. I remember that procession down Church Street – it was such a solemn occasion. The whole country mourned. Everybody.” Gertruida smiles at the irony of it all. “He was a most interesting man, Oom Blackie. Imagine being the first president of a Whites-only government, and your surname is Swart? Still, he was a kind-hearted and honest man, and people respected him for that.”

“Wasn’t he interned in the concentration camps during the Anglo-Boer War? I seem to remember that.”

“Oh, he had an interesting life. Sure, him and his mother spent time in Winburg’s famous concentration facility, where his one brother died – the conditions were atrocious. And his father was wounded at Paardeberg, captured, and was a prisoner of war until 1902. Then little CR Swart went to a government school at the age of seven, and passed his final exams when he was13. At 20, he was a lawyer in Bloemfontein.

“But then his life took an unexpected turn, and he went to Hollywood, where he starred in a few silent movies! Imagine that? A boertjie in Hollywood? Anyway, he was back in Bloemfontein in 1919, and that’s when his political career started.”

“…To become Minister of Justice in the 50’s?”

“Yes. He believed that each nation must have the opportunity to develop independently, and that people should protect their heritage. Of course, that’s the background of Apartheid  and South Africa became the object of much blame and criticism.  Sadly, everybody conveniently ignores the fact that Nat King Cole had to use the back door to enter the theatres he sang in because he couldn’t use the ‘White’ door and all Americans could only vote in 1966.”

“It’s funny how the rest of the world targeted South Africa on this issue. I mean, racism and homophobia and gender inequality were world-wide phenomena. Of course, it is difficult to compare the philosophy of the Fifties with the current situation. It took independent America more than 230 years to get their first Black President. We did it in 30.” Boggel shrugs at this, knowing you can’t draw too many parallels, given the context of time.

“Yes, we’ll suffer the legacy of Colonialism for a long time. It’s wrong to say it’s all Britain’s fault, of course, but they sure as nuts established Apartheid in all their colonies.” When Gertruida points at her empty glass, Boggel shuffles over with a new drink. “But there is a reason why I’m thinking about Oom Blackie today. He was a special man.” She waits for the questioning looks before continuing. “He was humble. That. like with Nelson Mandela, was his most endearing characteristic. He used to drive his own car. Going to church wasn’t an official function, so the government’s Mercedes remained in the garage on Sundays. He hated corruption. And he always kept his word.

“In that sense it is interesting to think about the first White president of the Republic of South Africa, and the first Black one. Both of them had a history of being oppressed, interned, and unjustly treated. Swart acted in movies, Mandela was a boxer. Swart signed certain acts into law, Mandela approved the explosion of bombs that killed innocent people. And both of them believed vehemently in their cause, but remained almost unbelievably humble.”

Servaas, still rather conservatively right-wing in his mind, shifts uncomfortably. “You’re saying that Swart and Mandela will be remembered for the good they tried to do, despite everything?”

“Exactly, Servaas. When that procession moved down Church Street that day and all the flags hung half-mast, Swart was honoured for his personality and his service. No matter how history judges his actions today, he believed in his cause. Like Mandela, Swart tried to create a society where everybody could live in peace. Sure, we know how skewed it all turned out, but then again: do you think Mister Mandela would be proud of what he established – if he were to see what has happened to his dream?”

“Then, Gertruida, you’re telling me we should remember selectively? Forget the Apartheid laws and the bombs and the mayhem it all caused? That’s like telling me I must forget who I am, and become some kind of programmed robot.”

“No Servaas.” Gertruida smiles benignly. “I’m saying you can travel the world and try to look for one single country, one single nation, with an unblemished past. It simply doesn’t exist. Everybody makes laws and everybody makes mistakes. Sometimes, that very mistake is important to generate a new understanding of what it means to be a nation – and the importance of other people’s rights. After all, it only took the entire span of history to establish equal rights for women, gays, minority groups – and even now the world is filled with prejudice and misconceptions.

“What is important, my friend, is that our leaders remain humble. Oh, they’ll still make mistakes, and we’ll have to live with that. Society has become so complex, that there are no easy answers left. But…give me an honest, humble leader, and I’ll be prepared to journey with him.”

“The world will remember Nelson Mandela like that.” Vetfaan signals for another beer and sighs happily when Boggel obliges. “But you know? I’m not too worried about the past – in fact, we can’t change it, anyway. I’m worried about the present. Where is the honesty, the integrity, the belief in policy? And, sadly, where is the humility?”

This time, Gertruida doesn’t have to respond.

They all know the answer.

The King is Dead – Long Live the King

mandela“I think he’s gone,” Boggel says as he places the bottle of Cactus Jack on the counter. “Just a feeling, despite the president saying he’s a bit better.”

“Well, when I was in Upington to fetch that new carburettor for the tractor, everybody was talking about it. Some said it’s all a hoax, he isn’t that sick at all. Others were preparing to hold a wake in his memory. It’s so confusing.” Vetfaan gulps down his beer and reaches for a Cactus.

“But that Mac guy said he’s ill. Critically so. I heard him on the radio – and he’s the presidential spokesman, after all.”

“Ja, Precilla. Remember the little boy who cried wolf? He lied so much. nobody believed him in the end, even if he was speaking the truth.”

“My point, exactly.” Gertruida sighs. So many lies, so little to believe. “When they wanted to keep Nkadla secret, they passed a law to prevent us from finding out. They lied about the schools and the matric results. Loads of money disappear into already well-lined pockets. Our public hospitals are in such a bad shape, no minister ever gets admitted to to one. And where do you think the minister’s children gets schooled? There’s a good reason why they won’t set a foot in a government-run institution. 

“And, remember, our president said – just the other day – things have never been better in South Africa. That’s while they’re considering nationalising the mines and telling the public Zimbabwe is a good example for land reform.

“Meanwhile, people are raped and murdered at such a rate that the courts can’t keep up and the jails are overcrowded. Our farmers live in fear. The promised reduction in jobless people never materialised. Our Air Force is crippled because they can’t do maintenance on the planes, and our war ships are rusting away in the harbours.

“And yet the president makes jokes about the economy, telling journalists to write nice things about our country.”

“Gee, Boggel… Give me that bottle. Gertruida is talking me into a depression.”

“No, Vetfaan, it’s not me…it’s the government. We simply cannot believe them any more.”

Servaas raps the counter and points at his empty glass. “Well, next year we’ll have an election. Things will change.”

“Sure.” Kleinpiet shakes his head. “That’s what they believed in Zimbabwe, too.”

“But is Mister Mandela dead, or better? I still don’t know.”

“He died a long time ago, Servaas. Him and the dream of the Rainbow Nation. Remember the optimism during his term as president? That was his dream, his life – and over the last ten years, it all went up in smoke. And why? Because his legacy wasn’t what the government wanted. Instead, they allowed the police force to become an ill-disciplined group of people. The army was deployed all over the show, even to he DRC, where they lost soldiers because the president – in his wisdom – decided they had to protect interests there. What interests?

“And then the Guptas? You think Madiba would have done something like that?

“No, guys, Madiba had a dream…and it was kept alive on life-support for a while. It’s time to realise the dream never made it through Intensive Care. Those entrusted with the responsibility to sustain it, failed.”

“Agge nee, Gertruida! You’re generalising now. Not all of us feel that it’s hopeless.”

“Wake up, Kleinpiet. We’ve got to stop thinking that Madiba – in spite of his huge contribution – was the only one that could save the country. No, we need a new dream, a new hope. We need to rebuild a nation of honest, God-fearing people, who respect each other. We need responsible, accountable people in parliament, who are there to serve the masses, not exploit them. We need public servants to become just that: public servants.

“And that’s why we must be open and honest in our conversations with other people. They must know next year’s election is an opportunity to get back on track. Madiba won’t be there when the votes get counted, but we can keep his dream alive by honouring the ideals he tried to establish in our government.”

“And if that doesn’t happen?” Vetfaan raises an eyebrow, his face a picture of despair.

“Oh, that’s easy. Then the dream will become a nightmare, that’s all.”