Tag Archives: politics

The Man with the Stick

xenophobia-poster a“They tell a story,” Gertruida says after Boggel switched off the radio, “up in North Africa. About the treacherous nature of man.”

She waits, knowing they’d want to hear more. The news of the horrendous xenophobic attacks caused them all to fall silent as they searched for words to describe their feelings. Yes, the government proved once again their inability to grasp the reasons behind the attacks, failing to act timeously to the repeated warning signs over the last few years. Most of the unrest during this time coincided with the burning and looting of foreigner’s shops, a fact the authorities chose to ignore. Xenophobic tendencies were evident as far back as the Marikana incident and even before that. But, always too keen to please the masses they need to vote them in power, the government remained silent about these crimes.

“Ag, go on, Gertruida. Tell us. We know you want to.” Vetfaan signals for another beer. Although he is mildly interested, his mind dwells on the sudden nature of recent events. Why did the authorities not see this coming? Surely there should be enough ears on the ground to pick up rumblings of such impending disasters? Or is there something more sinister behind these attacks? He doesn’t believe in the so-called ‘third force theory‘ – no, somebody or something must have orchestrated these attacks to occur in such a wide-spread manner.

Oudoom nodded his encouragement. Anything to divert their thoughts from the mess in ESCOM and the national airline, the corruption in the police, the disastrous land reforms, the state of the roads, the failure of service delivery…

“Well….”

****

Once upon a time a kind man found a baby snake in the veld. He picked it up and took it home, as it quite obviously was an orphan. The snake was well-cared for and eventually grew up to be a big, healthy adult.

Oh, he loved that snake! It kept the rodents away from the corn and scared off the rabbits that eyed the vegetable garden. But the snake watched his kind master and wondered…

Then, one day, the snake wrapped itself around the man’s neck. Just like that, out of the blue. “You say you’re a kind man, and yes, you’ve fed me well. But in reality you are ungrateful and selfish. You raised me to serve you, not because you were compassionate. I shall kill you for that.”

“Oh, no!” The man cried. “Of course I’m grateful. Ask the ox.”

The ox chewed it’s cud and thought about the whip that drives him to pull the plough. “No, you’re not.”

The man panicked. “Well, the ox isn’t a clever animal. Ask the cow. Go on, ask her…she’ll tell you.”

The cow cast her big, brown eyes on the man and moo-ed softly. “That man pulls my udder and takes my milk – every day. For my whole life, he’ll just steal my milk. And when I run dry, he’ll kill me and eat me. No, man is ungrateful and selfish.”

Desperate, the man told the snake to ask the tree.

The tree didn’t hesitate. While it rustled it’s leaves, it whispered: “Man isn’t grateful. He eats my fruit and sits in my shade. One day he’ll chop me down and burn me for cooking his meals. Grateful? Oh please….”

The man’s wife had been standing outside the door, listening. Knowing that the snake will kill her husband, she went in and started making the snake’s favourite dish with cream and porridge.  The snake hesitated at first, but then let go of the man to eat the meal the woman had placed on the floor. 

“Quick, now is your chance!” The woman handed a stick to her husband, who hit the snake repeatedly until it died.

****

“Gee, Gertruida, is that it? The whole story?” Kleinpiet shakes his head. What a horrible story!

“That’s the way they tell it in Kenya, Kleinpiet. It’s typical of the stories you find up north – they leave you to complete the narrative after the storyteller falls silent.” Gertruida smiles her all-knowing, superior smile; always keen to show off her vast knowledge. “In this case the story leads you to examine the concept of kindness and gratitude while it exposes the greed of man. The ox, the cow and the tree gave unselfishly, but in the end man will destroy them, too.  It also makes one realise that we have to examine our actions carefully – we have to look at ourselves as others see us. You may think you are such a hero, but in reality your motivation may be selfish greed.”

“I still think it’s sad. Why kill the snake?”

“Because the snake asked the wrong question, Kleinpiet. Because the snake looked and saw how lazy the man was. The man was simply using everything around him to do his work and to enrich himself. You know what? The man became so embarrassed when he realised the snake was right, he killed it. A dead snake can’t spread the word…”

“But the word was spread. You’ve just told the story?”

“Yes, Kleinpiet.” Gertruida suddenly looks old and tired. “The story will always escape, no matter how hard you try to kill it. That’s what the news was all about.”

Thou Shalt have no Statues

Credit: iol.co.za

Credit: iol.co.za

“First Rhodes, now they’ve defaced Gandhi as well.” Gertruida sighs as she folds the newspaper. “Called him a racist, and poured paint over the statue. I know he used the maligned K-word, but so did the rest of the world in the 20’s. I’m not saying it’s right, but context is important. There is no question that racism was the norm in earlier times – it is not logical to apply today’s norms to the years when the world still struggled with the concept of equality.”

“It is strange,” Boggel adds, “that races have taken such a long time – centuries – to get to this point in time. Even now the system is flawed. Previously, Whites were in charge. Now the pendulum has swung the other way.”

“But why use skin colour to define identity? Look at us – we’re a mixed lot. Sammie is a Jew, with his own culture and beliefs. Mister Stevens is more English than a cup of tea, and he doesn’t know a Marino from a Dorper. The fact that he shares the same amount of pigment we have in our skins, doesn’t make him sing De la Rey all day.” Shaking his head, Vetfaan signals for another beer. “One day people will identify with their culture – not their skin. That’ll be the start of real democracy.”

“Ag, Vetfaan, then they’ll start saying the Xhosas are better than the Vendas, or the Zulus are superior to the Sothos. Culture or skin, it doesn’t matter. It is human nature to want to be at the top of the ladder. Any excuse will do…”

“So – for now – we’ll just sit back quietly while they take down all the statues? First Rhodes, but soon Paul Kruger, Botha and dear old Queen Victoria?”

01300542702710141569413260945“Well,” Gertruida puts down her glass with a thump. “The Americans can be glad they don’t have the same situation over there. Remember Abe Lincoln? He made a speech in 1858, saying: ‘I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in anyway the social and political equality of the white and black races.‘ His statue would have no chance over here!”

“Ja,” Oudoom agrees, “Woodrow Wilson was a segregationist and Reagan supported the Apartheid regime. If you want to talk about a flawed past, America is a good place to start.”

“Don’t forget about England. Or Germany. Or China…I can go on and on. There is no country with an unblemished past” Oudoom sits down gratefully, accepting the beer Boggel slides over the counter. “You know, I think God created diversity with a purpose. Instead of creating a one-dimensional herd of humans, He made us into a multitude of many-faceted societies, so that we can build on our strengths. What do we do? We use diversity to weaken. We emphasise differences of ideology and appearance in an attempt to prove superiority. A wise man once said it’s only a fool who judges history – the wise will learn from it. We simply fail to grasp that simple fact.”

“So what do you suggest, Oudoom? That we retain the statues that are offensive to others?” Gertruida smiles – there is no correct answer to the question, is there?

“I’m saying,” Oudoom says after thinking a while, “that we should either have statues…or not. In a hundred years or so, todays heroes may be seen as villains. And the outcasts of today might very well be seen as people who stood at the forefront of progress. Who knows? The point is that history will always be a subjective subject. It depends on the individual observer. Today we have the King Shaka airport – but in the future somebody will remember that his hands weren’t clean at all. Some ascribe the worst atrocities and human rights violations to the great Zulu king. Remember the mfecane?”

“So…no more statues? No more streets and towns named after struggle heroes?”

“History is a fickle thing, Gertruida. One should never forget that it is virtually impossible to reflect all sides of all stories in the past. Yes, there have been villians. We certainly had some very bad men and women who shaped the history we have to live with. But…that’s where the point about context comes in. Only when you consider all the angles of a specific event, can you judge people like Abe Lincoln or Paul Kruger or Ghandi. And, surprisingly, not only will you find that they did what they had to do, but that they may have contrinuted in some small way to a better world.”

“So you’re saying….?”

“Let those of pure mind cast the first stone. I mean, labelling Rhodes as a colonialist, sounds a bit racist to me…”

And so the discussion goes on and on. In the end they decide, quite wisely, not to erect any statues in Rolbos. The cost of removing such monuments could be spent much more wisely over the counter of Boggel’s Place. Peach brandy and peace are surely more acceptable than fighting over a piece of bronze.

The Prince of Words

Miguel de Cervantes

Miguel de Cervantes

“So they found him at last,” Gertruida says with a satisfied smile. “He can now be buried properly, monument and all.”

“Who? The president?” Servaas looks up sharply – it sounds like good news.

“No, you dummy, Miguel Cervantes.”

“He the new president?”

Gertruida rolls her eyes. Such ignorance! “Cervantes, Servaas, was one of the greatest writers Spain ever produced. He was born a long time ago, in 1547, the same year Edward VI banned execution by boiling in England.”

“And they say we are backward?”

“The point is – if you’ll stop interrupting me – that Miguel Cervantes created Don Quixote, an erant knight with high ideals. Despite his blustering stupidity, he was an extremely wise man.”

“Now that, Gertruida, makes a whole heap of sense. Just like our parliament.”

“Well, I’ll have you know he could have written a speech for the country, seeing the vote of no confidence in the president was defeated by the ruling party’s inability to see the wood for the trees. Listen to what he wrote in 1605: Don Quixote was addressing his faithful squire, Sancho Panza at the time, after suffering severe setbacks.”

Bear in mind, Sancho, that one man is no more than the other, unless he does more than the other. All these tempests that fall upon us are signs that fair weather is coming shortly, and that things will go well with us; for it is impossible for good or evil to last forever. Hence it follows that the evil having lasted so long, the good must now be nigh at hand. So you must not distress thyself at the misfortunes which happen to me, since you had no share in them.

Servaas doesn’t know much about knights, old-time chivalry or squires, but he understands the bit that evil can’t possibly last forever. In his mind, parliament has degenerated into a circus: good enough for entertainment but not really huge in the problem-solving department.

“And, whats more, Servaas, he wrote something else that comes to  mind…”

I do not deny that what happened to us is a thing worth laughing at. But it is not worth telling, for not everyone is sufficiently intelligent to be able to see things from the right point of view.

“Wow! He should have been our president, Gertruida.”

“You wish. But still, even though he died a poor man, at least he’ll be honoured by a monument. People from all over the world will come to pay homage to his genius.”

Servaas thinks about this. Cervantes, dead but honoured for his honest wisdom. The president, alive, and scorned for his devious ways.

“We live in a crazy country, Gertruida.”

“Indeed, Sancho.”

“My name is Servaas.”

“Oh…but you sound like him.”

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.”

Survival of the Fittest?

images (11)“That was most unpleasant.” Gertruida goes harrumph and finishes her beer. “Imagine that? We’re being investigated for being honest.”

“What did you expect, Gertruida. Those poor men have to investigate somebody – and if not the criminals, why not us? We’re exactly the type of people that disrupt the peace and quiet in the country. The baddies sneak around and do their thing in silence, and at night. We, however, tend to get rather rowdy within minutes of Boggel unlocking the front door.” Servaas goes tsk-tsk and orders another beer. “We certainly have a lot to learn.”

The watch the black BMW drive off, not quite managing to miss the big pothole. The crunch of the chassis on the road causes the patrons in the bar to relax  a little, The visit by the three men had been as unexpected as unpleasant. Dressed in black suits and sporting Raybans, Gertruida immediately recognised the secret service attitude. However, after the two-hour grilling, she still isn’t sure whether they are from the police or some other government agency. True to the nature of these things, the men didn’t bother to introduce themselves properly.

The list of questions seemed endless. Who are they? Who funds them? Why are they constantly criticising the government in general and the president in particular? What are their plans? Do they have a stockpile of weapons? What’s this about them planning to declare their own republic? Did they not respect the high office of the president and other parliamentarians?

Oh, the men were friendly and never threatened the group at the bar in any way, except to discuss amongst themselves the expense of hiring a lawyer and how difficult it’d be for these backward people to meet such accounts. They also talked about the overcrowded jails, the gangs that are more powerful than the Minister of Correctional Services, and how popular a few white faces in the cells would be.

In the end they left, asking – nay, ordering – them to be more careful in their denunciation of the government that tries so hard to rule fairly over the obedient masses in the country.

“Well,” Boggel slides a cold one across to Servaas, “at least we never said anything about the president showering, the way he’s losing weight, or how one of his wives tried to poison him. If we start telling the truth, we’d be in deep trouble.”

“Stop moaning like that, Servaas. Lets concentrate on saying nice things about the way the country is governed. There has to be something….”

Silence.

“O-o-okay.” Kleinpiet scratches at his five o’clock shadow, staring at the ceiling. “Let me see. We can consider awarding prizes for the top performers in the higher echelons. Mmmm. Not a bad idea.”

Vetfaan catches on immediately. “Like the Order of the Hammer and Sickle for somebody who’s getting the Russians to build nuclear reactors here, and the plans to dump the waste somewhere in the Kalahari?”

“Oh. My. Word! Talk like that will see you sent to Siberia, Vetfaan! How can you make such statements? Those men will make a sharp u-turn in Grootdrink if they heard this.” Precilla is clearly upset. “It’s like proposing the De Klerk Medal of Courage to anybody who speaks out against the quota system in sport.”

“No, I’d like to see somebody brave enough to accept the Jan van Riebeeck Award for Responsible Thinking. You know? Somebody who can point out the cause of all the strikes, land reforms and Marikana.” Boggel smiles smugly at this brilliant suggestion. “And while they’re at it, they can have the ceremony to convey the Order of the Iron Bar – First Class,  to the architect who now has to bear the blame for the swimming pool at Nkandla.”

After this they consider the Weighless Award for the politician who loses the most weight, the Shower Award for the cleanest parliamentarian, and the Cirque du Soleil Medal for the best clown in the House. Surprisingly, they all go to the same person.

The group at the bar gets so deeply involved in the discussion that they fail to see the black BMW stop in front of the veranda again.

“These people are mad,” the man in the back says as he removes the earpiece.

“You are right, comrade.” The driver sets the air-conditioner to ‘Freeze‘.  “It is a common malady that occurs in such isolated places. These men and women have too much time to think, then they come up with these crazy ideas. Politicians try do it, too – but their ideas are harmless: they just talk. We’ll have to report this to headquarters.”

The man in the passenger seat remains quiet. He actually likes the drift of the conversation in the bar. Having a bit of fun amidst the chaos in the country shouldn’t be halted by the law. In fact, he’d want to see them encouraged; especially after the silly idea of establishing a university here. These Rolbossers, he reckons, could have had marvellous careers in Escom or Sanral. But, sadly, these people lack the drive and ambition needed to aim for such illustrious careers.

They’re just too honest to be employed, unfortunately.  And, since the survival of the fittest (or the most creative at factual gymnastics) is a law of nature and politics, these people won’t be a factor to consider in the near future.

He sits back to allow his compatriots to discuss – at length – their report. Let them talk, he thinks, and let them write that report. In the end nobody’s going to read it, anyway. The officials concerned have bigger fish to fry: like whose turn it is to pop out for KFC.

Rolbos University to Offer Postgrad Degrees

edukacja_1“They should be more careful.” Vetfaan points at the photo of our ambassador to Japan and grunts. “I mean: why claim you’re a doctor when it’s so much more impressive to say you’re a professor? The problem with our politicians – as I see it – is that they lack ambition. If you have to lie about your academic achievements, lie big. Tell the world you were the rector of some university, don’t settle for a mere PhD.”

“But that’s the problem, Vetfaan. To make it stick, you have to have a legit university. Putting a fake degree or a fake university on your CV is stupid. Ellen Tshabalala, Pallo Jordan, Carl Niehaus, Tembakazi Mnyaka,  Mninwa Mahlangu and Mohau Pheko have all tried hard to hoodwink people into believing they were cleverer than they are, just to expose their lack of insight when their claims were investigated.”Gertruida adjusts her glasses like the president does to emphasise her point.”Mind you, it shouldn’t be that difficult….” She allows the unfinished sentence to hang in the air.

“What?’

“How difficult can it be? Why can’t a group of individuals get together, establish a university, and dish out certificates. Instead of our politicians having to send out thousands of dollars to some fake institution overseas, we can make it so easy: keep the money in the country, issue the degree in one of the eleven official languages and create new degrees. No politician worth his salt will be able to withstand a degree in Culinary Sciences – they have to know how to make KFC in the office. Think about the time saved if they don’t have to stand in a queue at McDonalds? ”

Kleinpiet’s suggestion that he be appointed as Senior Lecturer in the Dept of Sport raises a few eyebrows until he explains. “Stretching the Truth 101 should be an obligatory course before being allowed in parliament. Jumping the Queue will be popular too, as will Slight of Hand as an advanced course. Running for President, Shooting the Breeze and a Certificate in Nepotistic Relay will surely draw many students.”

“I still think the way to a politicians heart is through his stomach. A PhD in Advanced Sushi will see you right to the top.”

“Even better,” Boggel adds, “will be a legal faculty to issue degrees in Parole Law, Advanced Dossier Misplacement and Legitimate Corruption.”

“No, you guys. This is wrong in so many ways. Shame on you for joining our leaders in their quest for dishonesty.” Oudoom seems genuinely upset. “Any form of fraud is a crime, you should know that by now.”

“But that’s the point, Oudoom. Instead of tempting our esteemed politicians to lie about fake degrees, we are going to help them stay on the straight and narrow by offering them a honest alternative. We’ll offer nice certificates” They all crane their necks to see Precilla’s drawing.

stanton_degree copy_edited-2 copy

In the end, they all agree that this is, after all, a good idea. If all the fraudulent degrees originated from a central source, the government would save millions by not having to pay agencies to do background checks on ambassadors, senior officials and other political appointees. One simple telephone call would be all that is necessary. Servaas even suggested that they be made the official fake university, which earned him a round on the house.

“Look, we advertise it the way it is: a discombobulate faculty for incongruity. That way, everybody will know what it’s about.”

Oudoom grudgingly accepted the proposal on the condition that they replace the words ‘Rolbos University’ with something more academic, like ‘The African School of Learning’.

They are still arguing about it…

Will the Honourable Cockroach please step forward?

Julius-Malema1“Politicians are a really crazy bunch of people. Imagine calling somebody a cockroach?” Precilla pulls a face, disgusted at the thought.

“Oh, I don’t know…” Obtuse as always, Gertruida jumps at the chance to differ. “Cockroaches have been around since forever, and they still will be – according to some – long after humanity finally manages to be stupid enough to start pushing little red buttons on firing consoles. They’re very resilient – able to withstand freezing, submerging and the lack of oxygen. While most people think of them as pests, one has to admire the way they survive under even the most inhospitable conditions.”

“You just love arguing, Gertruida.” Servaas bunches his bushy brows together in protest. “You don’t call anybody a cockroach in Africa. The Hutus did so with the Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide in ’94; completely dehumanising them. No, let’s face it: a cockroach is a pest, an unwanted, despicable insect nobody likes having in their homes. By comparing poor mister Malema to such a creature, is an insult.”

Boggel suppresses a snigger while he serves another round of beers. Poor mister Malema, indeed!  Servaas has been an outspoken critic of the EFF in previous weeks, but since they kept on insisting that the president must pay back the money,  Servaas has toned down his disapproval. He says a man must use what’s available. If you don’t have the right spanner, a monkey wrench will just have to do. It’s a variant of the old adage about my enemy’s enemy…

“Ag, drop the pose, Servaas!” Gertruida sees how the old man’s jaw sets and hurries to defuse the situation. “You’re right, although cockroaches aren’t just bad. All I’m saying is that it won’t do much harm to take a new look at one of the world’s most common insects. They actually have their place in folklore and literature.”

“You telling me somebody was deranged enough to write a story about a cockroach?” Precilla shivers at the thought.

150px-Metamorphosis“Well, many authors did. Maybe the story of Gregor Samsa by Franz Kafka is the most notable. In Metamorphosis, the travelling salesman is transformed into a giant, cockroach-like creature. He withdraws to his room after being paralysed by his father throwing an apple at him – and dies there eventually. It’s a poignant, sensitive, moving novella about acceptance and rejection – and what it means to be a family. It is, arguably, one of Kafka’s greatest works.

220px-TheRevoltOfTheCockroachPeople“More to the point, Revolt of the Cockroach People is a book about the downtrodden minorities in America in the previous century. Acosta’s protagonist, Buffalo Zeta Brown, rises in protest against an unfair society, even when he knows that he has no chance to win the battle against the laws and conditions of the time. Still, the book speaks of survival despite overwhelming odds.”

Precilla studies her shoes – she has no desire to hear how wonderful cockroaches are. They’re creepy, they’re horrible and they’re pests.

“Moreover,” Gertruida isn’t finished yet, “they have medicinal uses.”

Precilla’s face gets a green tinge as Gertruida continues with a smile.

“In olden days they treated diseases with cockroach tea – did you know that? Killed them, boiled them up, and added a bit of honey for flavour. And in northern China they extracted molecules from cockroaches that can be used to cure heart and liver diseases. Apparently those substances are great for treating burns and other wounds as well.”

wall-e3“Look, nobody’s going to give me a cockroach pill when my liver packs up.” Vetfaan runs his calloused hand over his tummy. “But I did enjoy the cockroach in Wall-E. A real little hero, that one. I remember he was called Hal, after the producer, Hal Roach. Har! Now there’s a movie I enjoyed; not the drivel the modern artists turn out.”

“Well, Madonna made a famous statement.” Oudoom almost bites his tongue – he doesn’t want the group at the bar to know about his secret fascination with the wild personality. Still, her quote is apt under the circumstances. “I am a survivor. I am like a cockroach, you just can’t get rid of me – her words, not mine. I think it implies a certain determination to ignore criticism.”

“Our clergyman have emerged from his dark and humid cupboard, guys!” Kleinpiet high-fives the reluctant reverend. “Like Gregor Samsa, he has to show his true colours!”

“Leave Oudoom be, Kleinpiet.” Gertruida’s scowl is enough to make his sit down again. “Do you know who the first mother in space was? Of course not. She was Nadezhda the cockroach, who mothered 33 babies in space. In Russian, her name means ‘Hope’ and she was returned to earth successfully with her offspring.”

When Gertruida falls silent (at last!), the group at the counter settles down in deep thought. As usual, Gertruida surprised them with her vast knowledge. Servaas says Gertruida should write a letter to Malema, explaining that being called a ‘cockroach’ is actually a compliment, but Vetfaan disagrees. He reckons the political waters in the country is muddled enough after the president jumbled up our history into an unrecognisable piece of fiction, forgetting the Xhosa-Zulu struggle completely and omitting the atrocities of Mzilikazi.

No, Vetfaan thinks as he watches a flat, black insect scurry across the floor, being called names isn’t the problem in the country. Maybe some of our public figures are comparable to the insect family regarding the degree of collective intelligence, but they differ considerably in the amount of legs possessed and the habit of self destruction. Some, however, are better at scavenging and – admittedly  –  live in the cracks only found in the convoluted world of politics.

He considers the trembling antennae of the insect before it disappears behind the counter. Cockroaches? He smiles. No, we won’t get rid of them…

The Half-eyed Girl and the President.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

berluti

Berluti: Verona Leather Oxford Shoes £1,400

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

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

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

***

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

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

Riding a Rhino

the day after 1_edited-1

“It is a great talent – a gift – to be like that,” Gertruida says. “A truly remarkable display of either statesmanship…or stupidity.”

“Nah, he stuck to the written script.” Kleinpiet draws a rhino on the counter top with his beer froth. “He didn’t dare acknowledge what had happened – that would have been political suicide. I mean: how could he answer the question? He can’t. No matter what he says, it’ll just drop him deeper into the doodoo. It’s like when the lawyer asks a man whether he still beats his wife. Either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ implies guilt.”

“It will have the usual consequences,” Servaas’s bored tone indicates his displeasure. “The ruling party will say it was a despicable display of childishness, a terrible contravention of parliamentary protocol, and an indication that Malema should be banned from attending future proceedings…”

“”Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” Boggel interrupts the old man. “Can you imagine the chaos if that man should ever be in a more powerful position? I can just see him shaking hands with world leaders in that red overall.”

“…while the opposition parties will be unrepentant.” In true Zuma style, Servaas ignores the interjection. “They all speak so fat and say so lean.”

Rubens_Venus_at_a_Mirror_c1615“Those scenes were hugely entertaining, guys; best thing since sliced bread! But you raise the point that bothered me most.” Kleinpiet now draws a rather Rubenesque figure next to the rhine. “Man, our taxes are being used to good effect! Too good! Some of our esteemed leaders could hardly manage the stairway. It’s no wonder they get paid so well – can you imagine how much they have to spend on XXXXXL attire? It’s not like they’d fit into regulation clothing.”

“It’s a circus.” Even Precilla seems depressed. “Jamming cellphones, armed men in the parliamentary chamber, chaos all over. The banana republic shown to the world in the most embarrassing way. Whatever will Aunty Merkel or Madam Elizabeth think of us? I can honestly say I’m not proud of the way the president handled things. And then: that speech! Pffft! What did he say?”

“Nothing new. He’s still insisting on driving the country into even further problems. Land reform is no longer a question of willing seller and willing buyer. He blah-blahed about the energy crisis, omitting to tell the truth about his nuclear deal with the Russians. He admitted their inability to get the economy boosted and said ‘Cheers!’ twice. He takes his cues from Escom: it really takes a lot to keep the country in the dark like that.”

“You’re right, Servaas. But mark my words: we should remember this State of the Nation Address. It was a turning point in our history. They’re going to rewrite parliamentary rules, suppress robust debate and try to regulate conduct in the chamber. This won’t work, of course. Good manners, respect, work ethic and  statesmanship aren’t things you can teach people with a handbook of rules. Parliamentary culture is something you feel, an undeniable inner voice, permitting free speech but also allowing for a sense of decorum. And that, my friends, is not the way we’ll see things done until sanity returns to the hallowed halls of government.”

“And when will that happen, Gertruida?”

She sighs and signals for another beer. “Who knows? Maybe never. But yesterday’s fiasco was a start. We heard the last State of the Nation Address from Zuma – of that I’m sure. He’s become a Jonah on the ANC ship. They are just stalling, unsure of who will be chosen to give him that final shove. Then, they’ll replace him with Ramaphosa, who’s been doing the job for months now, anyway. And then, after the next election, we’ll hopefully have a more balanced parliament where one party doesn’t call all the shots. Maybe then…”

“That’s the future, Gertruida, and even you are uncertain about how things will unfold. At this moment we’re still stuck with the situation as it is.”

“Ever tried to ride a rhino, Servaas? You can only stay on top for so long…”

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.