Tag Archives: memory

Freedom in Captivity

ImageMevrou watches as Oudoom gets down from the pulpit. He’s really getting old now. The thought worries her. She remembers how he used to walk when they were students…

She remembers the time when Professor Holiface suggested they work on that assignment together. Albertus Viljee had the reputation of being a bit of a rebel; an unwelcome tag for a student in theology.  As a student in Social Sciences, she  was very careful to be seen with the ‘right’ people. An astute believer in a Better Tomorrow could not start with a Bad Yesterday, after all. The professor insisted, however. Much to her surprise, she found her co-worker to be quite brilliant. Her thesis on The Advancement of Deprived Households was said to be the best in her class.

They dated in the fashion of the day. A movie here, a cup of coffee there. Not like the young adults of today. She found herself drawn to the serious young man who rarely smiled. He laughed only once she can remember:  she had said he would become a member of the synod – no, he’d be the chairman. A leader amongst men. Somebody to look up to. And he laughed…

But she knew. Always she knew. Connie Cromwell was never far from his mind. Oh, they never corresponded, she was sure of that. Connie fled to England soon after the Treason Trial where Nelson Mandela almost got sentenced to death. As an activist who promoted liberal ideas on the social development of South Africa, she drew a lot of attention from the media. Some papers described her as a fearless lioness; others blamed the riots and uprisings on people like her.  She saw how Albertus devoured every scrap on newsprint about that woman.

The two of them were developing in different directions. She was convinced the future of the country rested on the separate development of the different peoples in the country; he believed everybody was a child of God – and therefore should be equal before His eyes. Mevrou knew it was that Connie’s fault. It was she who poisoned his mind with those liberal thoughts.

The two of them split up because the arguments became too intense. Yes she liked him as a man and as a brilliant thinker; but they could not agree on the course to the perfect society. She believed in an exclusive approach while he believed in inclusivity. Professor Holiface called her in again.

“Albertus Viljee is an outstanding student, one of the best the faculty has seen. However, his liberal ideas are unacceptable. No congregation will want a Dominee who is at odds with the decision of the Synod.” She knew about the sanctioning of Apartheid by that austere body in 1957. Theologians declared that the Bible was, indeed, the basis for the policy of separate development. That was, after all, the foundation of her reasoning. And the Synod was always right. “I  know I suggested you see him, and I hoped your level-headedness would bring him to his senses. Sadly, it didn’t. “

The professor did, indeed, look sad.

“Now, there is no reason why he shouldn’t graduate; his marks are far too good for that. He will receive his degree, I’m afraid. However, I will make sure he doesn’t get called to serve in a congregation. He’ll have a theological degree and that’s all. The Church will not accept him as a leader of a flock.”

She knew the professor was warning her off. Get yourself another boyfriend, the dean was telling her. And she did. Just like the professor predicted, Albertus got a degree and then…nothing happened.

Albertus Viljee also fled, but not in the way Connie did. He found a small town with a church and no dominee somewhere in the Kalahari, she heard. A town, where the radio and the newspapers never got to. A has-been town, a burnt-out mine and a few inhabitants that refused to move with the times. A town that asked no questions.

She, however, was much in demand in the Cape. With her doctorate in Social Sciences, she was appointed to be in charge of the move of ‘undesirable elements’ from District Six. The people had to be accommodated in ‘more suitable’ environment. She sat in on the planning of the relocation and listened to the arguments that the area was a slum beyond saving; that crime and gangsterism made the place uninhabitable; that it was a breeding place for disease and crime. On paper, she not only saw the benefits for society, she endorsed the plan completely.

Then, on the 11 February 1966, she was present when the bulldozers moved in, and the inhabitants tried to save their meagre households and belongings. Despite her erstwhile enthusiasm to help these people live a better life elsewhere, she saw their reaction as their lives were wrecked. The tears and the despair were just too much. Her heart broke. In a desperate attempt to stop the atrocity, she lay down in front of a bulldozer.

The newspapers had a field day. The staunch planner of the removals was photographed with the machine-monster bearing down on her. Questions were asked. Within a day, she was the pariah dog of the Nationalist government. She lost her job and nobody would employ her. The new boyfriend promptly told her she had no place in his future. The final blow came when her father phoned her to say he never wanted to talk to her again.

And Mevrou (then still Juffrou) fled, like Connie fled and Albertus fled. She found Albertus in his god-forsaken little town and told him what had happened. He took pity on her, arranged accommodation and allowed her to take care of the welfare issues in the district. Their marriage was a quiet affair in the magistrate’s office in Upington; Albertus said the Law commanded more respect in those days than the Church did.


Now, as the old man shuffles his aged legs down the steps from the pulpit, her usual stern face softens into a rare smile. The ways of the Lord are strange indeed. If it weren’t for that liberal little hussy, she would never have met Oudoom. If she hadn’t  listened to the professor, if she didn’t go to District Six, if …

She walks towards her man, her husband, and offers him her elbow. There’s tea in the vestry.


“Was that a smile on Mevrou’s face when she walked towards Oudoom?” Vetfaan can barely hide his surprise.

“Nah. I don’t think so. Must have been a cramp or something.” Kleinpiet knows: Mevrou never smiles.

“Shame on you, Kleinpiet. Mevrou may have a stern face, but her heart is in the right place. And don’t be so quick to judge, either. Didn’t you listen to the sermon? One day I’m going o rustle up the courage to ask Mevrou how the two of them met. It should be an interesting story.” Gertruida is chatting away as they walk over to Boggel’s Place. “But somehow I think she won’t tell me. Oudoom once told me she never talks about the past. He said it’s better that way.”


And somewhere in London, an old woman looks over the cot railings. It is cold, as it always is. The nurse (what is her name again?) should be around with the tea tray soon. Like Mevrou, she doesn’t talk about her past. The difference is that Mevrou remembers the past all too clearly; old Miss Cromwell doesn’t.

Gertruida once said there are two types of memory: those that build your future and those that break down your past. Connie Cromwell – if she could still talk, that is – would have said there is no difference: all memories have an element of pain. That’s why they haunt us so.