Tag Archives: society

When a photograph changes the world…

Credtit: Reuters

Credtit: Reuters

“I refuse to look at that,” Vetfaan says as he closes the newspaper. “It’s such a sad, sad, sad picture. Somehow it tells me how sick the world has become, and I don’t want to be reminded.”

“That’s exactly why one should look at it, Vetfaan. We need to be reminded that society can simply not go on as if nothing has happened. We have to acknowledge the tragedy taking place in the Mediterranean – it is a mirror that forces us to take a good, long, hard look at what we’ve become.”

“Yes, Gertruida, I remember that other picture of the child and the vulture. It told me more about the circumstances in Sudan than all the reports in the newspapers.”

vulture-child“Oh, the one that Kevin Carter took?” Gertruida remembers all too well the famous photograph taken by the legendary South African. “He won the Pulitzer, I think. He captured – in a split-second and a single shot – the entire tragedy of the war and the famine up there. That photograph wasn’t just a picture, it was a message to us all.”

“Ah, but do you recall the girl with the penetrating eyes? Man, that was a haunting picture as well!”

afghan“You mean the photo of the Afghan girl? Sharbat Gula? Her picture was taken in 1985 by Steve McCurry and her enigmatic look conveyed so much! In her eyes, people saw despair, pain, uncertainty, even a plea for help and support. Some saw hatred there, others saw love. 

“They found her again after 17 years and National Geographic ran the story. At least we know she survived…which is more than we can say about that poor child in Sudan. Nobody knows whether she survived – but the chances are slim.”

“The problem with these photos,” Oudoom says, “is that they capture something that has already happened. We palmer1acannot change that. And, in this age where we live in denial and find all kinds of ways to explain away our guilt, photographs are brutally honest in the way it depicts horror, shame or tragedy. Look at the furore caused by that dentist in America. If that photograph didn’t start circulating  around the world, nobody would have known…or cared.”

“The world is an ostrich, Oudoom. We’re tortoises, hiding in a shell. When something horrible happens, we simply retreat to a safe place, close our eyes, and try to ignore the obvious.”

2013_06_21_075820_6_att00038“But there’s something more.” Servaas closes his eyes  as he formulates his thoughts. “I don’t understand why some images get to be these iconic photos, while others – equally strong and powerful – get ignored completely. Why don’t the pictures of the farm murders in South Africa go viral? Or, for that matter, the decay of the government’s so-called land reforms? “

2013_06_21_075820_7_att00041“Maybe society has the ability to filter what we take note of? You know? We get bombarded with so much bad news, that we have developed a  defence mechanism to protect us. And then, every so often, a graphic picture worms it’s way through the cracks and hits us with such honesty, that we are unable to block it out. That’s why photographs are so important: instead of the subjective reporting and opinions – so often pure propaganda – we are fed every day, a photograph is an objective reminder that you cannot fool all the people, all of the time. Pictures don’t lie. They tell the story of a thousand words in a single image. They force you to acknowledge reality.”

Vetfaan opens the newspaper again, unable to block out the picture in his mind. It’s just a picture, he tells himselfof something that happened far away. Just another picture…

Gertruida leans over to offer her small, white handkerchief, but Vetfaan ignores it. He’ll need something much stronger, something much bigger, before that image fades away.

If it ever does…

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The Extinct Instinct of Trust

1280px-Oryx_gazella_male_8054The Kalahari is big.

Huge.

Massive.

And – mostly – empty.

Here you can listen to the wind rustling the dry grass in the wee small hours after midnight, or hear the forlorn, far-off cry of a jackal before dawn. You can drive around for days without seeing a single other human being. And you can hold your cellphone up as high as you like – there simply isn’t any way you’d pick up a signal.

One may be excused for thinking this is a place forgotten by man and God alike, a place shunned by civilisation and society where life – as most people practice it – is impossible.

But that’s not true. Stunted plants have worked out ways to suck water from deep underground and even from the air. Animals can go days without water. And frogs hibernate for impossible lengths of time, waiting for some rain to form a puddle nearby. Somehow. Mother Nature has found ways to celebrate life in one of the most inhospitable places on the globe.

Although isolated and – to the inexperienced eye – lifeless, the Kalahari remains one of the very rare places where one can escape the madness we call civilisation. Here you head for the shade of a camelthorn tree, pick up the broken twigs and branches (carefully avoiding the vicious thorns) and build a small fire. Be careful where you pitch the tent – the ecosystem under the tree supports snakes, scorpions and rodents. Respect them, and they’ll leave you alone.

images (9)And it is here, under the spreading branches of a lonely Acacia erioloba that Vetfaan sits down to contemplate Life, Love and The Future. He had to escape the hubbub in Boggel’s Place for a while – the talk about the recent insanity in parliament, the attacks by ISIS and the shootings in Paris and Copenhagen was just too depressing to endure any longer. The pictures in The Upington Post of the hardships in Eastern Europe and the dismal performance of Escom didn’t help to lighten his mood, either.

It is not unusual for Vetfaan to escape like this. Ever since the time he served as a soldier during the Border War in the Caprivi, he has experienced – from time to time – the need to be alone. It’s as if a fog slowly builds up around him, fed by the ever-prevailing diet of bad news and political mayhem, until it becomes imperative to isolate himself from it all. And then, it is only the silence of the great Kalahari that can peel away the layers of accumulated psychological harm – layer by layer – until his mind frees itself from the shackles of despair.

On the second morning next to his fire, a movement on the horizon draws his attention. He has to squint in the harsh glare of sunlight to make out a lone Gemsbok slowly making his way towards him. It is a magnificent animal with long horns. white-socked legs and a flowing, black tail whisked this way and that by the soft breeze.

Credit: wikipedia

Credit: wikipedia

Vetfaan knows this animal should be called an Oryx, and not a Gemsbok at all. The old German term of Gemse referred to the chamois, a much smaller antelope of Europe occurring in mountainous areas. Labeling the regal Gemsbok with the name of a mere mountain goat – probably due to the facial pattern and the straightish horns – was as appropriate as the naming of the tree Vetfaan is sitting under. Camel thorn doesn’t refer to camels at all. The discarded Latin name – Acacia giraffe – was much more accurate; but to the original Dutch explorers a giraffe was a ‘camel horse’ (kameelperd) – hence the common name.

When the antelope draws nearer, Vetfaan notices the deep wounds on his flanks. Lion! This Gemsbok must have beaten off a predator with his sabre-like horns; however, he didn’t escape unscathed. Now he can see it is limping as well – a signal to the carnivores of the desert that are always on the lookout for an easy meal.

Vetfaan gets up slowly to fill a basin with water from the container on the back of his pickup and places it in an area of dense shade, as far away as possible from his chair. The Gemsbok will smell the water, but also the fire – will it be brave enough to drink? Not wanting to scare away the injured animal, Vetfaan settles down to stare at his boots. Eye contact could imply a challenge, and that might spell out death if the antelope chooses to shy away from help.

IMG_9085 camel thorn acaciaHow long did he sit there? Time has no meaning out here except for the contrast between day and night. It could have been hours – or maybe just minutes – before soft crunching makes him look up. The Gemsbok is there, barely three metres away, eating some of the camel thorn pods. This is a good sign – those pods represent one of the most nutritious sources of food in the desert.

“There’s water,” Vetfaan whispers.

The Gemsbok’s head comes up sharply to stare at him. The wounds on his flank are still fresh and obviously cause a lot of pain. The eyes are tired, exhausted, sad.

“It’s okay.” Keeping his voice low and reassuring, Vetfaan doesn’t move. “Go on.”

And so a strange bond is formed. The wild Gemsbok and the disturbed man share the shady area beneath the canopy of the tree in silence that is only broken by the crunching of pods and the slurping of water. Perhaps the Gemsbok is just too tired to care any more, or maybe it understands – instinctively – that Vetfaan has seen enough suffering and death to abhor the very thought of it. Or, possibly, the animal knows that this fire, this man, represent the lesser of the evils that threaten him right now.

During the day, Vetfaan moves around quietly, deliberately avoiding scaring the Gemsbok off. Later, when the sun starts approaching the horizon, the Gemsbok lies down behind the trunk of the tree, resting its magnificent head on the ground. Vetfaan has never seen a Gemsbok sleep before and wishes he had a camera in his kit.

The next morning, the big antelope is up before Vetfaan peeks out of his tent. The wounds seem better and are no longer oozing blood.

“You better today?”

The Gemsbok snorts, pawing the ground softly with his hoof.

Then, after locking eyes with Vetfaan for a long moment, it turns and trots off across the sand.

***

When Vetfaan returns to Rolbos, he doesn’t tell the patrons in the bar about his experience. He does, however, tell them that life is precious, love is rare, and that the madness we call civilisation is a fallacy.

“There are predators all around us, guys. Carnivores waiting to pounce. And you know what? If we don’t take a chance here and there by trusting others, we might as well lay down and die. What do we learn from the media? Hell, man, they keep on telling us what a terrible state this world is in. Look at the papers: murder, rape, war, corruption. Even our parliament is a fine example of bloody conflict.

“The media, my friends, make a living by broadcasting distrust. The news tells us that we are threatened from all sides and implies that nobody can be trusted – everybody is out to disrupt peace. Drive with your doors locked. Don’t talk to strangers. Put up burglar bars. Get a safety door. Don’t walk alone after dark. Check your bank statement. Get a new president.

“What’s the message? And what are we telling our subconscious mind on a 24/7 basis? And then we insist on being surprised that the world is in such a disarray?”

He leaves the bar deep in thought. Space. That may be the secret of the Kalahari. Out there, there are no newspapers, no television channels, no overcrowding and no crime. In the Kalahari you have to depend on your instincts and trust your judgement. That, he decides, is only possible when you cut out the noise and the clutter and allow silence to show you the way.

That’s why, he realises, that Gemsbok had more insight than most humans do. He was brave enough to trust.

Our Teacher: The Humble Ant

The enigmatic Eugene Marais

The enigmatic Eugene Marais

“I feel sorry for them,” Fanny says as she sees another ant tumbling into the antlion pit. “They really have no chance.”

“Ants, my dear, have been around longer than humans. They’ve evolved with time and now inhabit every continent except Antarctica.” Gertruida just can’t allow a chance to lecture pass by. “Remember Eugene Marais? He wrote The Soul of the White Ant, a stunning piece of work for that time. First published as a series of articles in Die Huisgenoot,  from 1925 to 1926,  the English and Afrikaans versions were only published in book form later.

“Marais was a keen observer. Trained as a lawyer, he had considerable medical knowledge as well – seems he picked this up during his studies in London from 1897 to about 1902. At the time, he was a widower, a morphine user and a seasoned journalist. He picked up other skills as well, the most notable of these his ability to hypnotise both people as well as animals.

“Anyway, he was the first author to promote the idea of a termitary,  where all the creatures combined their abilities to form a composite animal. At the time, that was quite a revolutionary concept.”

“You mean like bees work together as a unit, so do ants?” Kleinpiet thinks of all the cans of Doom he’s emptied on the lines of ants carting off his sugar.

“Indeed. They are, per definition, socialists. The individual is less important than the society. They work together to create a better world. No strikes, no protests. Every ant does what he is supposed to do, because then the entire colony benefits. And what’s good for the colony, is good for the individual. Win-win…and they all live happily ever after.”

Precilla arches an eyebrow, nods when Boggel offers a fresh beer, and taps the side of her head. “I remember something about Marais.  Didn’t he write books about baboons and apes as well? He was a sort of social recluse, lost in his world of depression, malaria and morphine. And yet he left a legacy like no other?”

“That’s true, Precilla. Much like Darwin, he formulated certain ideas about Nature, and strangely Darwin died of melancholy as well. Darwin just didn’t want to go on living, it seems. And Marais…well. he shot himself.”

“But he did a lot of good, as well.” Defending the memory, Precilla forges ahead. “Despite his lack of training, he delivered babies, operated on extremely sick men and women; and as far as I know, he never lost a patient, either. That’s not bad for a lawyer. There’s also a famous story about how he hypnotised a paralysed woman and she started walking again.

“Yes, he did that. After 17 years, she walked again.” A small frown creases the space between Gertruida’s eyes. “In a way he was much like us. An outsider, looking in. A loner who needed people around him. But while he used opium or morphine, we are much more civilised with our Cactus Jack. Like him, we observe and comment, without getting involved. Mind you, he had Piet.”

“Piet?” They chorus together, not sure if she’s referring to Kleinpiet’s family.

“Piet was a baboon he brought up. Used to ride next to him on his donkey cart – even steered the donkeys with the reins. That baboon was quite clever. Dressed himself warmly in winter and insisted on wearing a type of hat in summer. A lot of that experience prompted him to study a troop of baboons, which formed the backbone of his My Friends, the Baboons. I remember a poignant chapter from that book, where the primates tried to save the man they had learnt to trust.”

Vetfaan uses his scuffed boot to divert another ant from tumbling into the antlion’s trap.

“A collective unity. ” He muses. “A composite animal. They dig for water and save for the hard times.  Equal in duty, equal in reward. Every one pursuing a common goal.”

“Ja,” Oudoom sighs as he sits down for his daily snort. “The Bible teaches us to go to the ant and become wise. Marais may have been the first to make scientific observations regarding that, but the advice was given centuries ago.”

“…and it’ll be centuries before mankind stumbles upon that solution. Or never. At least, I can’t see it happening in South Africa soon.” Kleinpiet smirks at his clever remark.

“Oh no!” Gertruida wags a friendly finger at him. “We’ve got ants. Lots of them. Fire ants are what we’ve got. Nasty critters with venomous stings and strong little pinchers. They raid and kill. Sadly, they don’t live in mounds and ant heaps – they have huge houses they build with taxpayer’s money.

“Maybe that’s why he wrote:

‘n Druppel gal is in die soetste wyn;
‘n traan is op elk’ vrolik’ snaar,
in elke lag ‘n sug van pyn,
in elke roos ‘n dowwe blaar.”

(May be translated as:

You’ll find a drop of gall in the sweetest wine,

A tear in every happy tune,

In every laugh hides a sigh of pain.

In every rose a wilted petal.}

“We can dream, can’t we?” Gertruida sighs as the ants now forge a new road, around the antlion’s trap. “Maybe, one day, we’ll learn about ants and antlions; about working together and the beauty of caring. Until then… Marais said the ruler of the colony determines the activity in the nest. In the ant’s case, it is the queen who does this, of course. In our case we are ruled by a government and the president. We’ll just have  live with what we’ve got.” She smiles, shrugs, and then adds:  “The ants, I think, are extremely fortunate. They haven’t discovered politics and democracy yet…”

This is Randall Wicomb’s interpretation of one on Antjie Krog’s poems. It says something (to me, at least) about the life and times of Eugene Marais…

The Unique Bogus Reality of Life

article-2242722-1657FE04000005DC-339_634x474“Did you know,” Gertruida asks because she knows everything, “that people lie every day? Some studies have shown that men lie six times a day, almost twice as much as women; while others show that 60% of people will lie at least once in a ten-minute conversation. The studies vary so much, because people tend to lie about lying. Psychologists reckon that deception was important for the development of the rather large human brain.”

Now, you must understand, Gertruida has a way of throwing out this type of statement whenever the conversation in Boggel’s Place dies down and the customers lapse into staring at their half empty glasses. Or maybe they’re half full, depending on your point of view. If there is one thing she can’t stand, then it is the absence of communication.

“It has to do with the survival of the fittest, you see? Initially it was the biggest and the strongest Neanderthal that dragged the most beautiful female off to his cave. Now, if that trait continued, the world would be filled by giant men and every woman would be stunningly pretty – but that isn’t the case, is it?”

By now she gets a few curious looks. Where is she going with this?

“So, somewhere along the line, some little guy managed to convince the alpha male that he wasn’t good enough. Maybe he had to be cleverer to get somebody to cook his meal, or maybe he lied about the size of his clan (amongst other things) – but in the end, deception became a necessary factor for survival. Tiny, the diminutive Neanderthal, had to intimidate his huge nephew Brutus, to get to Delicious, the pretty one who got tired of being beaten up every night.”

“So you’re saying that the original lie was a way to stop domestic violence?” Servaas thinks this is all so un-Calvinistic, and his face show it.

“Well, you have the two extremes: brute strength on the one hand, and deception on the other. Deception can take many forms, mind you: setting a trap for Brutus, or waiting in ambush is as much a lie as telling him your sixteen brothers are on their way to beat him up. Making somebody feel safe while you’re waiting for him to fall into the cleverly-disguised hole you dug, is deception. So is telling Delicious you love her simply because you want her to share your cave.”

“Ag, alright, Gertruida. That’s all very interesting. People lie…I get it. Why bring it up?”

“Because, Servaas, the liars became more and more creative over the years. Brutus had no chance once Tiny and his offspring got to the point that the females stopped falling for the strongest – they went for the cleverest. And you know quite well that stupid people don’t lie so well. It’s the clever ones that mix fact and fiction to such an extent that you believe them completely.”

“I’m still not sure what this has to do with us?”

“We live in a world of lies, Servaas: we get fed lies from dawn to dusk every day. Do you think newspapers tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Every front page is slanted towards a political ideology. Reporters get paid to chase a story because we just love sensation – and then they write articles to tell us what the editor thinks we should know. What’s even more important, is the stuff we don’t get told about. The media filters the truth, Servaas, there’s no question about it.”

Precilla has been listening quietly. “Then advertising is simply sophisticated lying?”

2011716_StuyvesantCigaretteAu1970“Absolutely! Remember the Stuyvesant ads? They used images of planes, boats and ski-slopes – suggesting that people who smoke this brand are sophisticated and rich. So smokers used it as a symbol of their success – and they were lied to as well as lying to everybody around them. 

“Marketing involves creative lying. Skin products promise eternal youth, clothing brands want you to believe that you’ll be the envy of all if you buy their products, and consumers buy pure beef sausages containing anything but cow.”

By now, Servaas is sitting up straight. “You haven’t touched on politicians yet, Gertruida.”

“Who needs convincing? Look at Uncle Bob next door. Or Malema – himself not a paragon of virtue – who claimed that there were 700 criminal charges against our President? And who’ll forget the statement : I did not have sexual relations with that woman?

“To be a successful politician, you have to be extremely creative in the way you handle the truth. Simply sticking to the facts is not going to cut the cheese.”

“Ag nee a!” Vetfaan signals for another beer. “You’re depressing me here, Gertruida. You make it sound as if the world is stumbling along on a diet of fat lies. It can’t be that bad?”

“Wake up, Vetfaan. The Truth is a dying entity. Human evolution depended on the ability to lie. Nowadays, we reward liars by electing them to positions of authority or by buying product we believe will improve our lives. I’m sure there are exceptions to the rule, but the fact is: the rule is in charge.”

“I agree.” Oudoom sighs as he joins the conversation. “We use an interesting term to justify lying: interpreting. People read verses of the Quran or the Bible – then they interpret it to suit their causes. Apartheid was justified by that. The fighting in Egypt, too. The list is long, but the point is: that’s the most dangerous untruth of all…”

“Where will it end, Gertruida? Are we doomed to live in a world of lies?”

“It’ll change, Servaas, but not in our lifetime. A very important thing must happen first: before we stop lying to others, we must stop lying to ourselves. Once we accept that we’re not as sexy, rich or successful as the adverts, and not as gullible to believe that other people must form our opinions, then humanity will revert back to the truth. And that will only happen when the drug of deceit is no longer addictive. When? Lies destroy, truth builds up. So, lies will cause such a major catastrophe that the world will change. 

“Maybe it’ll be a religious war, or a massive economic crisis, but in the end, only Truth will survive. It’s a tragedy.”

“I don’t agree.” Vetfaan empties his glass. “Fanny asked me yesterday whether I thought her jeans made her look fat…”

He gets a few sympathetic smiles, but the mood in the bar remains gloomy. One after the other, the patrons find an excuse to leave, claiming something to be done or forgotten.

“They don’t like the truth, Boggel.” A sad note has crept into Gertruida’s statement.

“No, Gertruida. They don’t. Lies are just so much easier to believe.”

Cathy’s Eyes (# 2)

downloadCathy stayed with her father in a shack on the edge of the township. He worked (when he wasn’t drunk) in the post office as a sorting clerk, helping to guide packets and larger pieces of post on their way to distant places. On the first Saturday of every month, he’d head for the race track in search of that ever-illusive win. He did make a bit of profit occasionally, but that didn’t make a difference; when he got home, he’d be drunk and broke.

Sersant Dreyer remembers the first time he visited Cathy. The three-roomed tin-and-cardboard shack was clean and tidy, in contrast to the others around them. She served coffee in tin mugs and apologised that there were no rusks to go with it.

He wanted to know. She was obviously an intelligent young woman; why? What happened to them? White people in townships aren’t all that rare…but…how did they end up here?

Cathy looked at the cement floor for a long time before answering. 

“It was the cancer, you see? Mamma got it in her ovaries.” Here she glanced up, not sure whether it’s okay to talk about such things in the presence of a man  – one she didn’t know so well, either. “Pappa never believed in insurance, see? He said medical aids and life insurers milked the public for money and they make huge profits. So he had a savings plan and put money in it every month. But when Mamma go sick, that didn’t help much – one operation followed the other. Then she had irradiation. Then chemotherapy. Pappa said she deserved the best, and he insisted on that. He started selling things, believing the doctors who always said she’d be okay, if she had this or that treatment.

“Well…she died. Pappa lost everything.” She sighs. “And he started drinking – so he lost his job, as well. I attended university at that stage – trying to become a lawyer. I had to leave that as well. Now I work as a cashier in Woolworth’s. It keeps us going…”

Even back then, Black Economic Empowerment prevented mature white males from gaining meaningful employment. The once-successful businessman had become a labourer at the post office…  Dreyer could just imagine what they had been going through.

Her eyes told more – so much more. They remembered sleepless nights, waiting for the hospital to phone. They were dark with the pain of the shame of helping her father back to bed after vomiting in the bucket that served as a toilet. When she talked about earlier times with her mother, they lit up at the beauty of those moments. And they changed forever after watching the coffin being lowered into the grave.

“So, that’s why we’re here. Whiteys living in a Darkies world. Sometimes I think it is funny. Remember that song? My, my my, how the mighty has fallen? Well, that’s us. If I can get Pappa to stop drinking, it might help…”

Sersant Dreyer (still only a constable) talked to his chief, who talked to a social worker, who organised for the old man to be admitted to a rehabilitation centre. Dreyer took him there and made sure he was all right. Cathy’s eyes shone: a new dawn was breaking – maybe, this time, the day will follow. 

With her father in the sanatorium, Dreyer felt it was too unsafe to leave Cathy in the shack all by herself. He convinced her to move in with him, and she agreed; on the condition they didn’t share the bedroom. By this time, the young Dreyer looked after himself rather well, and had become passably proficient in the kitchen. With him sleeping on the couch every night, he got up early enough to prepare proper meals for breakfast and dinner every day. Cathy got the vegetables and meat that had reached their sell-by dates from the shop at a huge discount, resulting in both of them eating well and gaining weight.

In Cathy’s case, the change was remarkable. The straight lines became curves. The lines on her face filled up. The ugly duckling changed into a swan. He said so, one night. Her eyes smiled at him, rewarding him for his care and dedication.

“I’ll never be able to thank you,” she said, “for all you’ve done. Pappa’s being discharged tomorrow, then I’ll be moving back and you can have your flat to yourself.”

This, of course, shook Dreyer to the core. Her moving back? To live in the shack? Surely she didn’t consider that? But…what about her father? The flat was too small for two people – three would be impossible. 

“You wouldn’t like to stay here, and let him have the shack?” He wanted her to hear he wouldn’t like to see her go.

“Oh no…he needs to be cared for.” Her eyes filled with compassion. “I’m afraid he’ll just slip back to his old ways. No, somebody must take care of him…”

“But…”

“No buts. I have to do what I have to do. So do you. If you thought this is a nice romantic way to woo me, you’re wrong.” Her eyes told him she’s lying, but she stood firm. “This is not about love, Dreyer, this is about life. Some things are just more important than others, and we have to make room for them. Once he’s settled, we can think again. But now…”

And so it happened that they fetched her father and Dreyer left the two of them waving in the doorway of their shack at the edge of the township. There was no way he could have predicted what would follow.

The days turned into weeks. He visited her frequently, but by now her father was at home all the time. The post office had given up on him and he was unemployed. The old man slipped back into drinking again. It was a mess. Dreyer scolded him and fought with Cathy. Her eyes filled with tears, shouting at him that he didn’t understand. He had no choice – and left.

At the door, he turned. “But I love you,” he said.

Her eyes softened for a brief second. “Love is a myth, Dreyer. A fable. You either need somebody in your life – or not. Simple as that. You don’t need me. Go now…”

Chastined and disappointed, he did exactly that.

It was way past midnight when the call came. Dreyer was on duty at the time, scanning the messages that came in from the patrol vehicles. When he saw the address, he knew…

Deep down, he knew.

That’s the moment he started doubting whether God ever cared about the little people in the world…

Whatever Happened to Mister Average?

oscar 2Boggel gets on his beer crate to scan the faces of his customers. When he does this, they know it’s time to remain quiet, he wants to say something.

“I have something to say,” he says.

“Get on with it, Boggel, we’re discussing the Oscar case. You’re interrupting a serious conversation.” Servaas scowls into his beer as he waits.

“That’s my point, you guys. Whether Oscar is guilty of a heinous crime, or if he made the worst mistake in his life, is something the courts must decide. But the reason you chaps is in such a deep discussion, is because Oscar is…well, he’s Oscar. National idol, international icon. A real modern-day example of overcoming all the odds. The man with no legs, who competed in the Olympics.

“Had he been Joe Soap from Brakpan, he’d have maybe fifteen seconds on SABC 3, and a mention on page 5 of the Sun. The magazines would have ignored him and the tabloids would have looked for something more sensational.”

“Ag, come on, Boggel! The man killed a beautiful young model…”

“My point, exactly, Servaas. Suppose she was just an old woman, living on a farm? Who would have noticed? Who would have cared? Do you think that BBC, CNN and Sky would have bothered to send a single journalist to cover the story? But no! Take an Olympic star, a model, and a gun – and you’re guaranteed hours and hours of screen-time. 

“My question is simple. Why, oh why, is the loss of Reeva – as sad as it is – more important than the murder of thousands of farmers? Is the death of one lovely girl at the hand of an idol, so important that we ignore the 3000 farmers killed by criminals? Why is CNN quiet about that, huh? And some say 70,000 Whites were killed violently since 1994, remember? Where’s BBC? Goodness knows what the figure amongst our Black population is – it’s probably even more horrendous. Do you think Sky was interested?

“Why do you insist on discussing Oscar, when women are raped at the rate of one every four minutes in our country? Children are being mutilated for muti, young men die at initiation schools and two children are murdered every day. Last year alone, there were more than 15,000 murders in our country. Did you see it on any front page in London or New York?

“When Time magazine said we live in a violent society, everybody got up in arms, saying it isn’t so. I’m sorry…we’re living is Wonderland. Like Alice, we’ve gone down a rabbit hole to escape the reality we can’t face any more.”

“So Boggel,” Gertruida’s voice conveys her concern, “what do you suggest we do?”

“Here in Rolbos? Not much, I’m afraid. We can respect the dead and the families concerned, I suppose. We can stop gossiping. And we can take note of what’s happening around us. Somebody must stand up to say enough is enough; and tell the government to stop pilfering the coffers and start doing their job.”

“But Boggel,” this time it’s Precilla who tries to placate the barman, “nobody’s going to listen to us, man! We’re such a small, little town. We’re nobodies. No way anyone will listen to us.”

Boggel shakes his head. “You’re wrong, Precilla. To change anything – anything – you have to start with yourself. Only if you’re convinced that you’ve figured it out, can you talk to a friend or an acquaintance about it. And if more and more people convey that message – friends talking to friends, families sharing the idea and so on – it’ll work it’s way through to everybody. Believe me: if the country adopted such an attitude, it’ll effect people in other countries as well. Word of mouth – that’s how we’ll change the world. The answer isn’t the sensational front page or the horrified TV-presenter; the answer is in each of our hearts and minds.”

“Okay, Boggel, you’ve made your point. But we’re just chatting about Oscar, and you’re talking about changing the world. It really isn’t the same thing.” Servaas points to his empty beer glass as he shakes his head.

Boggel obliges by opening a cold bottle of Castle.

Sometimes he wonders why he even bothers to talk to his customers. Maybe he expects too much from them?

Boggel is a very mild-tempered man. He doesn’t curse or shout. Now he looks Servaas straight in the eye as he says:

“%@#* man! Don’t be like the millions of South Africans out there! Wake up, will you? The country is in trouble and all you can think about is cold beer…and Oscar!”

The little bent man slams down the beer in front of Servaas, rips off his apron, and storms out.

He’ll take a long walk, calm down, and be the quiet barman once again. Like the rest of the country, he’ll just have to learn to ignore reality and go on living with Alice and her friends down that damned rabbit hole.

At least they seem happy down there.

Human Rights – You’re Joking, Right?

“They went about it the wrong way.” Servaas is in his black suit again, the heavy frown changing his eyes to slits. “There’s no such thing as Human Rights. It’s nothing to celebrate, anyway.”

For once, Gertruida looks up in surprise.

“Really Servaas? Where does this come from?”

“Here.” He thumps his chest. “It comes from in here. Human rights are the ultimate oxymoron. It says you have certain rights, and others must respect that. It’s wrong.”

“Come on, Servaas, of course we have rights. Education, protection, medical care…” Vetfaan’s list peters out when Servaas interrupts him.

“Exactly. That’s my point. Now you go tour the country, Vetfaan, and see what the government did with those rights. Schooling is in shambles. The hospitals are understaffed, under equipped, and badly run – in fact, most governmental hospitals do not have the facilities to function properly. As for protection….we have had a slew of senior police officers and commissioners who embarrassed the country.” Servaas sits back, eyeing the ceiling. “And then you get to BEE – do you think white people have the same rights as blacks? Pull the other one, my friend.”

“So, what do you suggest, Servaas. You must have something in mind?”

“We must stop this harping on about rights, and rather look at Human Requirements. What is expected of you rather than what you can expect of society. The requirement to be responsible, versus the demand to have rights. It’s a complete shift in understanding John Doe’s position in society.”

“Ah…I get it!” Gertruida’s face lights up. “You’re saying you can only have rights – or earn the right to have rights – by respecting your fellow man?”

“Exactly. Look what’ll happen: with enough respect going around, you’ll have no more raping, no murders, no crime, no corruption. Those things exist because some people imagine it is their right to take what is not theirs. They embrace their rights and deny others theirs. Why? They have no respect, and therefore no responsibility.” He lets out one of his famous, long, drawn-out sighs. “It’s a social disease. It started long before Apartheid and won’t stop until we – everyone of us – start rethinking what it means to have human rights. And that won’t happen soon. The template for future generations is wrong.”

“But that sounds rather drastic. It implies that people who disrespected others, should be denied their rights – or at least, the human rights as we understand them now.”

“Exactly. That is the punishment needed. Now, if you get caught – and only 6% of criminals get convicted – you have the right to a fair trial. That, I agree with. A fair trial means no dockets going missing, no technical points to throw cases out, no medical parole for healthy friends of the government, no fancy dodging of the law. Once you have been found guilty, you forfeit your rights. It’s harsh, but that is something criminals will respect. They thrive because they can depend on their rights to protect them.”

“Servaas, that is rather radical, you must admit. No responsible government will ever pass such laws. They’ll be rejected by every free country in the world, because it will pave the way for dictatorship.”

“Ha! You see? That’s where the picture gets warped.” Servaas smiles for the first time. “A society whose prime aim is kindness and respect to others, will elect a kind leader – somebody fighting for their rights. It’s as easy as that. In the meantime, we have the right to be raped, murdered, lied to and be served by corrupt officials.” ”

“Well,” Boggel opens a new round, “it won’t happen in our lifetimes. I think I must declare my right to have a beer. It’s a holiday, after all.”

“And that,” Servaas is serious again, “may be the only right left in the country…”

The Brutal Nature of Vultures

Credit: Kevin Carter

Credit: Mirror.co.uk

Credit: Mirror.co.uk

Silence, in Boggel’s Place, is unusual and unwanted. People gather here to relax, to laugh, to forget for a while. But the banter and the smiles became progressively less over the past few days as news of murder, rape and unrest filtered through from the rest of the country

“Nothing makes sense anymore.” Vetfaan is building little umbrellas with paper clips for Boggel. It keeps him busy and makes him feel he’s useful. “It’s as if society lost the plot, man. And not just here…did you see the Upington Post? They’re stealing diamonds all over the show. Abductions, kidnappings, strikes and mayhem. To top it all, the poor British are having a hard time chewing through the horse meat in their lasagne.”

“Well it looks as if our police force made a nice bugger-up of their case against Pistorius. Their presentation of the case to the court makes it difficult to believe everything we heard on the radio. For the past 6 days everybody was baying for revenge. Now, people are starting to be critical. I mean – absurd though it might sound – suppose it was an accident? ” Precilla has always admired Oscar, and is keen to grab at any good news. “Sure, his actions led to her death. Call it any word you like, she’s dead. Nothing can change that. But the photograph on the front page of the Post upsets me every time I look at it. The poor man seems completely broken. What if he made a horrible mistake?”

“No Precilla. The Bible teaches us about an eye for an eye. He killed her, he must pay.” Servaas, once again in his black suit, is in his dark mood again. “No mercy. Finished en klaar.”

“But what about motor car accidents? Or aircrafts crashing in mid-air? I mean, real accidents. Surely we don’t put everybody in jail for life because they made a mistake? If you cause death accidentally, you get charged with manslaughter, sure, but that doesn’t make you an out-and-out murderer. I think there is a difference.”

Servaas is quiet all of a sudden. Many years ago the brakes on his car failed… The child survived, but it could have been so much different.

“Look,” Gertruida says, because she knows everything, “you guys are starting the gossip-thing again. The facts are simply that we don’t know what happened. It could be this. It could be that. And what does it matter? The girl is dead. The man’s life is ruined. Two  families are devastated. Gossiping and all the hype and drama, the second-guessing and thousands of photographs…does it change anything?

“Why are we so fascinated by tragedy? Is it because we are born with the natural tendency too finger-point, judge, and reject? Or do we revel in the misery of others? Is our curiosity born out of a secret lust to see others suffer? We’re back in the Colosseum, chaps. We want to see others bleed while we stuff our faces with popcorn in front of the telly. We say the perpetrator is sick. I say society is extremely unwell. Remember the photograph with the hungry child and the vulture? It won prizes, for goodness sakes! And the photographer snapped the shot and left things as they were. Where’s the compassion? You know, if you look at the photographs, they’re exactly the same.”

“If I remember correctly, the photographer committed suicide afterwards.” Kleinpiet folds his napkin into a coffin shape. “Such a pity…”

“And that, Kleinpiet, is what is happening to society. Our morbid interest in suffering is a bad sign. We love movies with blood and gore. Reality must be graphic, or they get bad reviews. What happened to Polyanna?” Gertruida laughs cynically. “You make a goody-goody movie today, and it’ll flop at the box office.”

“So what’s the answer, Gertruida? Surely we can’t go on like this. Society, as you so nicely put it, is on the road to self-destruction. Morals are gone – you can tick that off. Respect is non-existent – look at the way people interact on a New York street, or in Jo’burg, when a handbag is snatched. Valuing others died in Marikana. Peaceful debate got killed by violent strikes and destruction of property. I think it’s a one-way street to … well … nothing?”

“It is, Vetfaan. It is.” Gertruida sniffs loudly, sips her beer and takes a deep breath. “But there is one thing. The only trump we have. A final chance. And it’s called forgiveness. You can’t forgive, if you haven’t judged something to be wrong. Neither can you forgive by not distancing yourself from a situation. Forgiveness does not mean something didn’t happen and now everything is hunky-dory. It simply means you have decided something is wrong and that you no longer associate with it. It means you get it out of your system and refuse to drag it along with you any longer. It also means you hold no grudge.

“People think forgiveness is the same thing as condoning or accepting are forgetting. That’s wrong. There are three processes to consider here: a legal process which must take care of the laws of the land. That means you can sit back and let it run it’s course. There’s also a psychological process, in which you free yourself from whoever did wrong. And then there’s a religious process, where you know you are not going to be the final judge in the matter.

“And it’s hard. It’s an art to forgive somebody. It’s something you have to work on to get forgiveness-fit. And it’s the only way we as  a society, will be able to start building respect and morals and values again.”

“Ja Gertruida.” Vetfaan signals for another beer. “But then everybody has to do it. Otherwise it won’t work.”

“A journey of a thousand miles, Vetfaan, starts with the decision to take the first step. It’s up to you. If you won’t do it, why expect others to try?”

Silence reclaims the upper hand in Boggel’s Place after Gertruida’s speech. It’s an uncomfortable silence – one that is felt in every home, every office and on every street corner – right across the world.

And in that silence, quietly, confidently, the vulture waits.

The Man Who Found the Horizon

Credit: Christianity.com

Credit: Christianity.com

“Of course,” Gertruida says as she orders a fresh beer, “There is another story to tell. There are always many sides to each story, and it depends how you want to interpret it. But, in a nutshell, it is the story of the Curse of the Horizon…”

Once upon a time, in a land far from here, a small village existed at the edge of a big desert.They had enough of everything, but certainly not too much. And every day the men in the village said unto themselves: verily, there is more out there. If somebody can be so brave as to go to the horizon, he will bring much fortune and honour to our village.

The men would look at each other in the hope that somebody would be strong enough to do this impossible deed, and then they’d laugh and convince themselves only fools will attempt such an incrediblee task. But lo! One day a youth stood up and said he’d do it. The horizon isn’t very far, he said, so it can’t be that difficult.

So he set out towards the horizon. He walked and walked for many days. Then he happened upon a stream, and next to the water, some sweet berries grew. This, the young man thought, was his reward for being brave. No, he said unto himself, I shall not share this with the village – I shall go on.

So he walked even farther, always in the quest to find the horizon. And always the horizon shimmered quietly in the heat, calling him on. One day, when he was about to give up hope, he arrived at a city, next to a river. Now this young man had never seen so much water, or so many people, ever before. He wandered through the wide streets and stared in wonder at the wares the traders were selling. 

One man stepped from the crowd and asked the young man where he came from, and where his journey was leading to?

“Oh, I’m about to find the horizon,” he said, “and have come far to do so.”

The people of the city admired the young man for his courage and applauded him on. They gave him food and water, new shoes and clothes, and asked him to tell them what he found on his way back.

Much heartened, the young man stepped forth, renewed in his hope to find the horizon.

Then one day, quite unexpectedly, he stood at the edge of the horizon. Behind him the endless path  back to his village was almost unrecognisable. He glanced back trying to decide whether his return should be this way, or that? But, with the horizon at his feet, he simply couldn’t look back any more. He had to find out exactly what lay ahead. So he got down on his knees to peer over the edge. What he saw there, ended his life.

He cried out in anguish, but it didn’t help. He already received the Curse of the Horizon. He had no choice – forever after, he was doomed to return to the damning horizon over and over again.

“Oh, come on, Gertruida! These stupid stories all have terrible endings.” Kleinpiet shakes his head in dismay. “What did he see?”

“He saw his face in the mirror of time. He saw selfishness. He saw the ego that drove him. He also saw the jealousy that would await him when he returned to his village. He saw the gossip and the untruths that would surround him. He saw himself crumble under the pressure to return to the horizon time and again, so people will admire his courage. And he saw how it would end, because it was written in his name.”

“What then, please tell us Gertruida, was his name?”

“His name is OJ, and Hansie, and Lance, and Michael, and Marilyn, and Diana and James Dean. He has many other names, he lives in many villages and cities, and no matter how many times his story is told, it always ends when the horizon holds up the mirror. And in the mirror he can only see himself.”

“But gee, Gertruida…are you telling us ambition is wrong? That we should never attempt to improve, to be better, to progress?”

“No Kleinpiet. Not that. I’m telling you we all have a horizon, and it’s out there calling you. Some will insist on finding it. But some, the ones with wisdom, will settle for the berries. To be content requires a lot of bravery. To know there is still more out there, and yet be happy with less, requires a rare maturity. It is simple, really: when you reach your horizon, the road ends. There, you have to face who you really are and what you had to do to get there; and that may turn out to be something most of us would prefer not to do.

“It’s the old story of grasp and reach. Go for humility you can grasp comfortably, and not the heady fame you can touch when standing on tip-toe. Stay away from the horizon. Stick to the berries.”

Richard Wagner – Tannhäuser – Pilgrim’s Chorus

THE OLDER PILGRIMS

Through penance and repentance I have propitiated
the Lord, Whom my heart serves,
Who crowns my repentance with blessing,
the Lord to Whom my song goes up!
The salvation of pardon is granted the penitent,
in days to come he will walk in the peace of the blessed!

The Chance to be a Hero

Wolraad Woltemade“We need a hero,” Servaas is dressed in his black suit again. It’s an ominous sign. “Somebody with faith and conviction. It’s been ages since we had one.”

“Well, we have Mandela,” Precilla points out, “he didn’t do too badly. World-wide he is seen as a man of character.”

Kleinpiet shrugs. “That’s true. But once you go down that road, you end up labelling all the people who participated in the struggle, as heroes. And let me tell you: that’s a difficult one. We all welcomed democracy and the end of Apartheid, but that suddenly made all the soldiers in the regular army villains; and all the terrorists – beg your pardon, freedom fighters – heroes. Surely there’s something wrong with that picture?”

“Listen,” this time Servaas uses his church-voice; the one he reserves for making grave statements, “every conflict and every war must deliver a victor and a loser. Through all the ages, the victor gets the laurel leaves and the losers gets reminded about what a bad person or nation they had been. Check out the results of any war you’d like to mention: it’s always the same. And often, very often, the guys fighting from the losing corner have to be braver than the odds-on favourite, who has the backing of power, money and sentiment. I mean: if you know you’re outnumbered and outgunned, the natural reaction is to lie down and play dead. The hero is the man who is prepared to stand up for his principles despite what the world thinks.”

Kleinpiet drains his beer and scratches his head. “But there’s a problem. Take a country – any country – and you’ll find different ideologies floating around. People identify with their cultures and religions and language – good characteristics, all of them. The point is this: most people believe in God in one form or another. If there were a single unifying concept or ideal everybody could cling to, it would have been their faith in God. Tell me, Gertruida, how many churches are there in the world?”

“Oh, that’s a difficult one. There are 21 major religions, I know: about 3,7 million Christian congregations, encompassing  67,000 denominations.” She nods slowly. “So I get your point: every congregation puts a personal touch to their ministry. Because of that, splinter groups form and even more fragmentation takes place.”

“That’s what I’m trying to say.” Servaas signals for a beer. “If we can’t agree on a fundamental thing like religion, how on earth are we going to agree on matters of a more material kind?  It follows that no country represents a unified population. Capitalism trains us to be selfish. Democracy inadvertently suppresses the minorities. Socialism stunts ambition.  Religion – in contrast to what it should be – sparked more wars than any other single issue. No matter what you believe in, somewhere along the line you’d find a disgruntled group, deprived of their dreams. Look at Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Congo – it’s the same old story over and over again.”

“You make a good point, Servaas.” Gertruida tries to calm the old man down. “But maybe we’re going about this in the wrong way. You’re saying we need a hero; somebody like Jopie Fourie, who was shot because he didn’t want to go to war against South-West Africa. Or Wolraad Woltemade, who saved those people from the sea until he, himself, drowned. I agree they were true heroes, and we need to respect them for that.

“But you know, the days when villages were small and populations not as vast and compact like they are today; then the act of a single person may have influenced a lot of people. They became legends by the telling and the retelling of their stories, and over time they became famous. That is the hallmark of a true hero.”

“Are you saying we can only call somebody a hero in retrospect? Like after they die?” Precilla doesn’t like the idea. “What about rugby players or soccer stars? And Lady Gaga or Madonna? To many people they are heroes?”

“The issue is not how many records you sell, or how fast you run, Precilla, although modern society does tend to award sporting and entertaining superstars a type of hero status. Heroes, by definition, are exceptional people, so it’s natural for the people on the pavilions and in the stadiums to cheer exceptional performances.  To be a hero, however, you have to be principled. You have to make a difference to the world you live in. A true hero is somebody with humility, a giver rather than a taker, a changer of lives. That, I’m sure we all agree, is rare.”

Boggel gets on his crate to join the conversation. He’s listened carefully to the patrons, but feels they are missing the point completely.

“Here’s what I think. In days gone by, with a much smaller society, single acts by remarkable people made a big difference to society. The world has changed. We live in a global village with billions of people. There are lots of religions and all kinds of political views. The chances are almost zero that we’ll discover one single man or woman who’ll rise up from the masses to be somebody the world will admire for humility and service. Oh, there’ll be isolated cases, but even these politicians and sporting greats have a limited impact – and only on a segment of society.

“So… we need to redefine the word Hero. We must look at the smaller picture, like  in townships, suburbs, communities  and families – like it was in the old days. The global village is too large and too fragmented.  Servaas is right: we need heroes. But being a hero doesn’t mean you have to change the world, like wars and politics try to do. A hero is a person who tries to improve the lot of somebody else – even in the smallest of ways. It’s a selfless act, a generous gesture.

“And then there’s another point. Modern-day heroes should not be single persons any more. A modern-day hero is somebody who instils his vision for a better community on others. He is infectious. His enthusiasm creates other little heroes. Nowadays the true heroes are groups of people who make other people look at themselves and want to change.”

His speech leaves the group at the bar silent for quite some time.

“Okay.” Servaas clears his throat. “You’re saying we must not look for individuals any more. In the connected world we live in, groups will make the difference? It makes sense. But how do we get to the point where group-heroes come into being. Isn’t it an impossible dream?”

Boggel shakes his head. “No. It’s within the grasp of every community to be a hero-group. It’ll happen if governments and churches stop fragmenting society with politics and religion – and we know that won’t happen. Too many ministers – whether in church or parliament – have a vested interest in what they are doing. I know this is a generalisation, but just go with the argument for a while.

“Now, suppose a community starts working together. They live together, work together, support each other – because they have more things that bind them together than differences that drive them apart. Now that would be a hero-group, in my opinion.”

“It’ll also be a miracle,” Gertruida adds. “I have this mental picture of a little fountain in the desert, with lots of people living around it. Won’t there always be some fool who wants to have exclusive rights? To capitalise on the situation?”

“Good example, Gertruida.” Boggel hands her a new beer. “Now, if that community said no, we don’t want you to steal our water, they will not only have their fountain back, they’ll be heroes because they stood together as a group.”

“Then groups will affect other groups, until a country is a hero-group?”

“Right. Look at us in Rolbos. We have differences, but the Kalahari has taught us to live together. We are, quite frankly, a hero group. Lots of people visit us from time to time. They may be remarkably different to us. Maybe they go to another church. Maybe they belong to other cultures. Maybe they shop in malls. But … if they act kindly to those around them, we can start a world-wide hero-movement, right here, from Boggel’s Place. It can be done, if we look at the smaller picture around us. Families should have heroes. Friends should be heroes. The man sweeping the street can be a hero. The bigger picture will take care of itself, then.”

Boggel steps down from his crate to shoo Vrede from his cushion below the counter. It’s nice to talk about these things, he thinks. It’s great to dream about it, even. Maybe some day communities will, indeed, start sharing similarities rather than emphasising differences. It’ll upset a lot of politicians, that’s for sure; it may even result in (gasp!) churches joining hands; but it will change a lot of things for the better. Until then, he decides as he ruffles Vrede’s ears, we’ll just have to settle for the old heroes while we dream of new ones. Remembering Mandela and Woltemade is great, but it’ll be John and Jill Doe who’ll change the world in the future. And strangely, they won’t get a medal or a monument. They’ll be nameless, and it won’t worry them.