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Following Ariadne’s Thread

ariadnetheseus krauss8,3.jpg“People still argue about her, you know? Was she a goddess? Was she immortal? Or was she, like you and me, simply human? Or…most disappointing of all – is she only a myth, after all?” Gertruida simply loves doing this when the group in the bar has grown tired of discussing the drought and the latest blunders by our bungling party in power. She’ll throw out a sentence like that and pretend everybody knows exactly what she is talking about. Then she’ll get out her book of crossword puzzles and ignore the rest.

Servaas sighs dramatically and rolls his eyes before digging an elbow into Vetfaan’s ribs. “Your turn,” he whispers.

The problem with small towns – if Rolbos can even be elevated to such high status, more often being called a hovel or sometimes a ‘small collection of scattered buildings’ – is that the set routine about how things are done, is seldom subjected to logical scrutiny. Their behaviour is governed by the way things were done in the past, and that’s the way it’d be done next week…or next year, for that matter. Servaas had taken the bait the last time Gertruida egged them on, so now it is Vetfaan’s turn.

“Ag, okay then, Gertruida, we give up. Who you talking about? Our previous Public Protector? She certainly  fits the bill… ”

“She’s much older than dear Thuli, Vetfaan. Much older and  … much too young.. Like Thuli, she had a analytical, logical brain which she used to solve the most difficult problems with. And, sadly, like Thuli, there are many voices condemning her today as an unfaithful and two-faced character. The only difference, maybe, is that our heroine belongs to Greek mythology, while Thuli is very much alive and well and living in our midst.”

“Oh, for the sake of Vrede,” Servaas gestures to the town’s dog, patiently waiting for a bit of biltong on Boggel’s pillow beneath the counter, “stop the nonsense. Who – or what – are you going on about?”

“Why, Ariadne, of course.” Gertruida rolls her eyes in mock horror. “Didn’t you know? I thought everybody knew about the stunningly beautiful girl who helped Theseus to slay the Minotaur in the labyrinth.”She stares at the blank faces for a few seconds before sighing heavily. “Oh my. Surrounded by the crowd of super-gifted intelligentia once more.

“To slay the Minotaur, Theseus had to find his way through the labyrinth to get to the creature/man. And once he’d managed to kill the beast, he had to find his way back again – a seemingly impossible task. Enter Ariadne with a ball of twine, which she handed to Theseus. Then, much like Hansel and Gretel did with their breadcrumbs, Theseus knew exactly what route to take to get to the exit of the labyrinth again.

dePasse16002gs.jpg“So, today, if you talk about Ariadne’s Thread, you talk about the ‘solving of a problem with multiple apparent means of proceeding – such as a physical maze, a logic puzzle, or an ethical dilemma – through an exhaustive application of logic to all available’. Simply put, it says that you must consider all the ways to solve a problem and that logic will dictate the best route.

“So, Ariadne’s thread helped Theseus to accomplish the apparently impossible, just like we have to in the current political climate.” Gertruida drew two sketches on the countertop to illustrate her story:

Minotaurus-in-center-300x232.gifimages (1).jpg

“A grand story if ever there was one.” Servaas suppressed a bored yawn. “But your analogy to our politics doesn’t make sense.”

“Oh, it does, my friend. You see, the majority of people approach our current situation on an emotional basis. They argue that the ruling party deserves credit – and loyalty – because of the struggle to free the country of Apartheid. That’s why our prez cannot say two words without harping back to the past.

“But, of course, the ANC of Sobukwe and Biko and Mandela has passed on a long time ago. The high ideals of the struggle have been replaced by individual greed and chronic megalomanioses. To keep the masses voting for them, the ruling party has to remind them of the past – all the time. And then, of course there are the 2,3 to 5 million (depending on which source you believe) taxpayers who have to support 17 million recipients of social grants. Logic whispers, Servaas, but money shouts.

“There’s no logic to our electoral system, see? There is a huge difference between democracy and being held at ransom by the masses who cast an emotional (as opposed to a logical) vote.”

“Old news, Gertruida. We know that.”

“True. Everybody does. But we need somebody like Ariadne to give us the thread so we can slay the Minotaur and still get out of the Labyrinth alive. We need respected people to stand up and tell it like it is. We don’t need emotional votes, neither do we need emotional criticism. We need logic to be resurrected in our society, with people choosing their words and actions wisely and … logically. Ariadne’s way, in fact.”

Vetfaan slices off a piece of Kudu biltong and slips it to Vrede.

“I’ll drink to that. May our Ariadne  have enough thread for a nation.”

“So, what happened to Ariadne?”

“Nobody really knows, Vetfaan, there are variations in the myt,.depending on who tells the story. Some say she committed suicide, others maintain she was abandoned on some island. Most agree that she had a sad end.”

Servaas nods slowly. “The price of honesty. That’s the problem. Few are brave enough to face the truth…”

 

There’s a grave waiting…

images.jpgThe cemetery at the foot of Bokkop – outside the small town of Rolbos – is a rather lonely spot. Bearing in mind the handful of people living in town, one can understand that the cemetery cannot be compared to those in larger places like Loeriesfontein or Lekkersing. Why, the bustling community of Riemvasmaak sees far more of the extremes of human life than our little hovel in the Kalahari.

One of the most recent graves belongs to Siena, old Servaas’s sadly-departed wife. He finds solace in the memories of many years of marriage to the soft-spoken lady, as well as in the cold beers Boggel serves in the little bar. He says the one sustains the past while the other props up the present, The future? Servaas says it’s far too dark to contemplate at all..

Still, despite the relative freshness of Servaas’s loss, there is a new mound of red sand at the edge of the cemetery – just a oblong heap is sand with no cross or any other form of marking. And, because the place is visited so rarely, it is quite likely that the soft night winds will flatten the surface again before anybody should visit the grave of a departed loved one.

Now, the good people of Rolbos are not superstitious and they do not harbour gullible thoughts on irrational subjects. No, they will always find the most logical answers to the most difficult questions, like the time Gertruida questioned the decision-making prowess or our government. It was Vetfaan who reminded her that we – indeed – do not have a government in the classic sense of the word, but that we have been reduced to insignificance by a group of megalomaniacs. Good governance, he said, was an oxymoron, just like effective policing or, more recently, the term ‘public protector’.

So, should one of the Rolbossers notice the freshest grave in their burial place, he (or she) would want to know why he (or she) missed such an important event and why he (or she) didn’t have the opportunity to question Oudoom on the Church’s approach to thorny social issues. But, being summer and unbearably hot, the townsfolk spend their time in the most logical (and comfortable) place, enjoying a few cold beers and sensibly avoiding the scorching heat outside.

But it’s out there, on the plains of the vast desert, that death finally had the last say and the noble existence that once lived proudly, ceased to be. It simply had no fight left, no desire to compete against the odds that were becoming more and more unfavourable every day. Life is like that, not so? The risk of death increases with every passing minute, every hour of life that speeds by. Like a playful puppy, it keeps on crawling nearer, no matter how hard we try to ignore the inevitable.

The neglected mound next to the rusting fence is the last resting place for a pair of twins, in fact.  The inseparable Siamese siblings, Truth and Integrity rest here in eternal peace after a life-long struggle to impress upon the country the essence of their existence. Through the years they have been battered into submission – first by the Church, then by the media and finally by a succession of political leaders. Although sick, diseased, fatigued and in dire straits, the twins battled on bravely. They refused to succumb to the ever-increasing tide of scorn and lies levelled at them, prepared to fight to the last.

And they did. They fought bravely, making sure that the facts of so many lies and corrupt dealings got to the right people  at the right time; using newspapers, TV and common men and women to expose the greed and corruption eating away at the fabric of our society.

And then came the final blow; the act that killed the twins in such a cowardly manner that generations to come will hang their heads in shame. Professors in Political Science will tell the story for as long as there are students that listen, while others who had followed the liberation movement in the past, will stare at the pages of history books in shame.

Truth and Integrity might have stood a chance of survival under different circumstances. Had the country had a government of honour, the twins would have been with us still. But, with State Capture nearing completion, the final blow came with the appointment of a man to parliament who has no respect for the twins. He killed them with his tears, his lies and his desire to serve not the country, but the man who has shown a singular  and progressive lack of political insight over the past few years.

But, one must admit, the nature of Life is a strange phenomenon.Yes, the little mound of red earth will flatten as the winds caress the fine granules of red Kalahari sand away to the open plains. And yes, for a while people will forget the twins ever lived.

But…

How strange then, the fact that people forget so easily? That the odds of dying increases with every breath? And just like Truth and Integrity aren’t real people but still have died, so there are others that will have to succumb to the inevitabilities we all have to live (and die) with. Nothing remains hidden forever, just as nothing lives forever.

So, Mister President, the blood of the twins is on your hands – and those of your current favourite little friend, he of the crocodile tears and the many questions of his role in load shedding. Enjoy your season in the sun – for time marches on and Deceit and Corruption will have to die as well. The risk of that happening increases with every passing minute, Mister Commander in Chief. And when they, at last, cease to be – as they must – your family and the rest of the country will remember.

They’ll remember.

Everything.

With limitless shame.

The Horizon Hunter #6

South_Africa_1998_Waterfront_Cape_Town_Table_Mountain_stamp.jpg

Cape Town, 1998

Mo’s smile was gone by then. Remembering the conversation with Achmad had been bad enough – but talking about it was worse.

“You know, that man – the one who helped me get a name – well, he listened to my concerns and I remember him sitting back with a condescending smile. He told me – rather bluntly, I must add – to grow up.”

***

“What’s your problem, Mo? Do you think you’d get anywhere with the current government under the current conditions? We’re the in-between people, son. We’re not black. We’re not white. We’re a minority in numbers as well as political importance.

“Political power belongs to the north – to the Zulus and the Xhosas and the others. In the Cape you have a different racial spread, resulting in our opinions being trashed by the majority. The only power we have, is the power of money – but how do we get that? With Black Empowerment, the big money quite naturally goes up north.

“But we? We have gangs and drugs and a lot of very clever people. The government is made up of men and women with very little experience and almost no insight in the long-term expectations of common people; they want to dig into the cookie jar as deep as they can get, while they are in a position of power. So, influential businessmen – and not the white variety – are all too happy to voice their support for the government and they do it loudly. They get rewarded with contracts that earn them millions.

“And how do they ingratiate themselves with the powers that be? By cutting them in – shuffling a generous share under the table, see? It’s the most logical thing to do.

“That’s why some of us in the Cape use our brains and play the game. James has read the script, Mo. If he doesn’t play ball, he’s out on his ear.”

So what was the price of integrity, Mo asked? Ahmad laughed at that.  “Integrity? She’s a prostitute, Mo. Throw money at her and she lies down with a smile.”

***

“I can’t remember leaving Ahmad’s house. When I calmed down, I was walking along Adderley Street and I looked around. Cape Town’s streets were filled with litter and beggars. There were whores everywhere, giving me a hopeful eye. I thought back on the bad old days and remembered how clean the place used to be, how orderly everything functioned.

“And I felt the way Cape Town looked that evening.

Sea Point Promenade.jpg“Later, I sat down on the promenade and watched the white foam on the waves roll in. I was, I realised, a nobody. I had no father, no schooling, no prospects. I was part Christian and part Muslim. My genes were a mosaic; my name borrowed from an uncle. And the lofty ideals of freedom and fairness? Ah yes, those were only nice ideas, stuff only kids believe in.”

Realisation hit hard. Those terrible days in the damp and lonely cell; the nights of torture and his steadfast refusal to tell the authorities anything – it had been a pointless rebellion. He had been the protector of a system that was destroying the country. Yes, Mandela was still there, but his term of office was almost over – and who will the corrupt government appoint then? There were no great leaders to fill Madiba’s shoes, were there?

In his dark thoughts, three facts stood out quite clearly: the struggle had been in vain and the future promised only a decay of what was still left. That…and the point that he was a nobody with nowhere to go. His loyalty to the cause and dedication to change had born the most despicable fruit. His life, he realised, had been wasted.

“I went home that night. Told my mother that I needed time out. Explained how I felt. She actually understood, much to my surprise. Then I packed a rucksack, took the little money I had, and walked out of Atlantis.

“I’ve never been back.”

***

On the balmy evening of 6 March 1998, Cape Town rocked to the music of Sixto Rodriguez in the sold-out Bellville Velodrome. He sang about escaping reality. It was a stunning performance by the enigmatic and improbable artist and the audience loved it.

Outside Cape Town, a young man stood next to the N2, his thumb in the air and tears on his cheeks. He didn’t sing about escaping – he was attempting to.

To be continued…

The Horizon Hunter #5

000_ARP1530688.jpg“Being a free man – or a free youth – was wonderful. I went back to Aunty Florrie’s house and found out a lot had changed in the meantime. Mom called me aside that evening.”

***

“It’s been fifteen, sixteen years since your father left us, Mo. He never returned from that operation into Angola and all I know is what they tell me: missing in action. Now that it’s safe to make official enquiries, I’m still not sure what had happened to him. I must assume he’s dead – the army even offered me a pension of sorts.

“So now I’ve met this man, James February. A good man, Mo, who loves me. We want to get married.”

Mo thought it was a great idea. Mary Cronje, his mother, was not a young girl any longer – she deserved to have some love and joy in her life. Mo, however, couldn’t get himself to accept James as a father. Having grown up without such a privilege, he had learnt to fend for himself, think for himself and set his own boundaries. Anyway, his real father – of whom his mother occasionally made mention – remained an enigmatic figure in the back of his mind. He’d fantasised about the man; conflicting thoughts imagining a fearless soldier as opposed to somebody defending apartheid. At times he’d wish he had known him, at others he despised the very idea.

James February tried his best to befriend the rebellious youth, and succeeded to some degree. After all, James was a prominent political figure, somebody who commanded respect from the community. And James, knowing as he did what trauma the youth had lived through, treated Mo with great care and compassion.

Mo was now almost seventeen and James tried in vain to enroll his stepson in a technicon or even a university – but with no formal schooling, it was impossible. The solution was to appoint Mo as a personal assistant and chauffeur. At least, James reckoned, that’d keep the boy busy.

Mo’s old network of friends and contacts also welcomed him back after his imprisonment. Mo was the hero, the one who refused to divulge anything about their activities despite the severe interrogation. For a while, Mo was quite the toast of the town and feted as a minor celebrity.

The elections of 1994 saw the inevitable change in government. James was appointed on the Mayoral Committee of Cape Town. The future, it seemed, could not be anything but rosy. Had it not been for Mo’s old network, it might have been.

The problem surfaced one evening in 1998 at a local shebeen where Mo and his old friends were having a drink and chatting about the bad old days. By then, they could laugh at the hardship and the many close shaves they had had, and Mo’s story was told over and over again.

“It’s just a pity things are getting out of hand again.” This remark by Steven Plaatjies resulted in a sullen silence. Yes, it was true. The politicians were in it for their own good and rumours of rampant corruption were common. “The more things change, my friends, the more they stay the same.”

“I’ve heard some stories,” Keith Petersen nodded. “And it’s not just the ministers and high-ups. Local government is equally bad. If this goes on, the government will lose Cape Town.”

“Impossible!” Mo rose to his feet, shaking his head in disbelief. “James is working hard to improve conditions in the Cape. I know – I’m with him all the time.”

Keith laid a placating hand on Mo’s shoulder. “Listen, Mo, we’ve been friends for a long time and I wouldn’t want that to change. But…you’ll have to open your eyes, man! Already there’s talk about the possibility of the Soccer Cup coming to South Africa in 2010. Some say it’ll definitely happen. And who’s meeting with construction companies all the time? James! And why? Because he’s worried about a stadium? No way, my brother. The big guys are making deals – big deals – that’d line their pockets very nicely, thank you. Tell me Mo, you’re the chauffeur. Where have you been taking James the last few weeks?”

Mo shook his head. James? Corruption? What were they talking about? Yes, James must have visited all the major construction companies in the Cape, but he thought…

“Look, these things are planned years in advance. Remember Lucy Adams, the auntie who’s a cleaner in the premier’s office? Well, she has to throw out the trash every day. And boy! The stuff she finds in the wastepaper baskets! No we,” Kieth pointed at the rest of the group, “didn’t want to talk about it – especially not you – but now it’s become too much. You’ll have to help us, Mo, otherwise everything we fought for will go down the drain.

“You see, apparently the premier, the mayor and certain officials – James is amongst them – are skimming a lot of money from different projects. But now they’ve become greedy – they want more and they think they’re untouchable. The big prize is the Soccer World Cup, with Cape Town being one of the host cities. It seems as if there are people out there that’d do anything t make that happen. They want to get a piece of the action while most people are still wondering if the soccer will really come our way. The way I read it – it’s already in the bag. Money, Mo, is what is at stake. The World Cup is a mere sideshow.

“Aunty Lucy is great and she finds papers. But you, Mo, are right on the spot. Keep your eyes and ears open. If our suspicions prove to be correct, we’ll have to go high to stop these corrupt deals. Maybe…even to to the president.”

Steven Plaatjies agreed. “Mo, you’ve been tortured. We’ve fought hard. In the old days, we ran around selling dagga – that was nothing but a way to survive. Then they promised us a better life – and have you seen any difference? I haven’t. It’s because our politicians don’t care a owl’s hoot about us common people. They sit in their air-conditioned offices, wheeling and dealing and filling their wallets. We have to stop this.”

And Mo, only barely an adult, found the tears welling up. Did not James buy that big BMW just the other day? And did he not promise a holiday in Mauritius over Christmas? What about the diamond earrings he gave Mary?

The next day after work, he visited Achmad Sulliman. If anybody knew about crime in Cape Town, the drug lord of the city was sure to know. Achmad was careful how he chose his words, but he was as honest as he could have been with the boy he had rescued as a baby.

That was the night Mo’s journey really started.

 To be continued…

The Horizon Hunter #4

download (8).jpg“Life in Atlantis was okay, I guess. The neighbours all knew our story and warned us many times whenever the inspectors were checking up on people’s ID’s. However, my mother refused to send me to school – the danger of exposure loomed too large. Anyway, I was an unregistered child, remember? Basically – as far as the officials were concerned, I didn’t exist.”

***

Mo’s mother found work as a waitress in Cape Town itself, which involved a lengthy train trip to a fro every day. Mo stayed at home, under the care of Achmad, her brother, for a while. Achmad was the main middleman in the supply of dagga (hashish) to the local community. A friend of a friend had a hidden plantation in the Transkei and he had several distributors who acted as agents in the Cape area. In the days before drug lords, Achmad was the king of Atlantis.

Dealing in illicit drugs  was (and still is) a nefarious and dangerous business. Achmad could not survive without a network of dealers and informers. A lot of people depended on him for an income and quite a few were deeply indebted to him in more ways than one. One of them was the lovable Aunty Florrie.

Florrie was a remarkable woman. She used to be a social worker and even helped out at the small local school for a while, but the slippery slope of alcoholism deposited her squarely in the cul de sac of addiction. She was one of Achmad’s runners and – despite her sales – could never quite get out of debt with her supplier. Achad made her an offer she could not refuse: if she housed Maria and her child, her past transgressions would be forgiven. No more debt. A new start.

Florrie grabbed the opportunity and not only provided a roof over the poor mother’s head, but also started teaching the child the basics of reading and writing. Mo proved to be a fast learner.

At the time, Mo’s identity remained a huge problem. Achad suggested that he’d arrange with ‘some people he knew’ to register the child in his name. A sympathetic Methodist pastor agreed – rather enthusiastically – to baptise little Mohammed Sulliman, clearly a convert to Christianity from a Muslim home. Now, with documents from the church and Achmad’s ID papers, the Department of Home Affairs had to be convinced that the child’s birth simply wasn’t registered due to an oversight by the Sulliman family. Money changed hands. Mo Sulliman became a real, official person.

Aunty Florrie continued her home schooling simply because it kept Achmad off her back. No, she didn’t think formal schooling would bring out the best in the child – not at all. He was far too clever to be immersed in the second-rate teaching the government provided (she said) and she provided individual teaching, didn’t she? The other side of the coin also deserves mentioning: so profound was M0’s influence on Florrie’s life that she almost stopped using drugs. Almost. Not quite.

Initially Aunty Florrie guided Mo through the basics of learning quite successfully, but when the boy was about nine years old, her addiction flared up again. Achmad was dismayed and then had to face the problem of an almost-ten years old boy who never had formal schooling. A government school was out of the question – but what to do with a ten-year old kid with nothing to do? The solution: recruit Mo as a runner to make deliveries to the agents. images (22).jpgThis was a brilliant move. While his other distributors were adults, mostly convicts and generally known to the police, the little boy could fool them all. The only problem was his rather white skin – which was solved by generous applications of Coppertone and plenty of sun.

And so, gradually over the next two years, Mo became familiar with the underbelly of the Cape’s drug world. In turn, people accepted the little runner as one of their own, while his reputation of always managing to avoid the long arm of the law eventually earned him the respect of  a number of ex-convicts and other individuals surviving in the world of petty crime and other illicit activities.

At the time, the Anti-Apartheid Resistance Movement was gaining ground amongst the Coloured people of Atlantis. The community was ripe for rebellion – after their forced move from District Six, the mood in the community was distinctly anti-government. AARM needed informers and made a deal with Achmad: they’ll smuggle the new drug, LSD, to him, in exchange for information. Achmad’s network fitted their requirements like a glove: his distributors and users worked in the affluent houses of Cape Town and some were cleaners in government departments. A few even were employed as officials and clerks. And they all could be trusted to be true to the cause as long as the supply of drugs was guaranteed.

Mo became the trusted runner with stolen documents, secret messages and  drugs – a heady mix of danger and adventure for the youth who understood the necessity of secrecy all too well. But, in the end, even this elusive runner became the focus of police activity, for the officials also had their own network of informers. A reward was posted and Mo was caught.

What followed is not something Mo wants to talk about. His interrogation was merciless and involved the usual methods used on other so-called terrorists. Solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, beatings, water – these and other ways of making him talk were all used. However, young Mo stubbornly refused to answer any question, repeating over and over again that he knew nothing. He was a street child, homeless, with no real family. Yes, he knew Achmad Sulliman, he was an uncle. And yes, Achmad had adopted him, but that was a long time ago. No he didn’t know where his mother was. He survived by scavenging on the streets – go on, ask anybody in Atlantis: they’ll all confirm that he was seen here and there, doing odd jobs and living off scraps. His interrogators redoubled their efforts. Mo remained unbroken.

The one thing Mo still remembers, is a visit from Aunty Florrie.

“I only heard – later – that she had died a week before. I didn’t know that.  But one night, while I was shivering from being cold and wet and hungry – suddenly, as if by magic – Aunty was there at my side. I was so disorientated and confused, I didn’t question her presence or how she got there.

1990-02-03.jpg“Well, she held me in her arms and made soothing noises. It was wonderful. Then she told me I had to be strong, everything would change soon. I would be free again, she said. She said I must remember the date: it was Thursday, the 1st of February, 1990.”

Then, as suddenly as she had appeared, Aunty Florrie was gone. The next day, on the 2nd of February, President F.W. de Klerk announced the release of Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of the resistance movements.

 ***

Mo sat back, his characteristic smile replacing the scowl of recounting his experiences during those terrible days.

“I thought that would be the end of it all. You know – Mandela was freed, there were talks about a negotiated settlement and even free elections for all. And…you won’t believe it…my interrogators arrived on the Monday after De Klerk’s speech with new clothes and a hamburger. They said it didn’t matter anymore and that I’d be freed that Wednesday. A doctor came and examined me. They even sent a pastor to give me a lecture on forgiveness!

“Me? I didn’t care. All that mattered was that I’d be set free and that the beatings stopped. I was old enough to understand that everything had changed, but too young to be cynical about it. So, on that Wednesday, I was ushered to a back door in my new clothes, given ten rand and told to bugger off.”

Mo sioghed. “You know, I really thought that was the end of my troubles.” He shook his head. “Had I but known…”

To be continued…

The Horizon Hunter #3

The only baby picture of Mo…

“I’m back,” Mo said as he sat down, overstating the obvious. “I thought about what Gertruida had said, so I returned. That is, if you guys will have me. I hope you do…”

Boggel pushed a can of Coke over the counter. “Rolbos has always been open to all. The only ones who left, were the ones that wanted to. In fact, we welcome newcomers – we get tired of Vetfaan complaining about his old Land Rover all the time.”

Mo smiled and thanked the group at the bar.

“I owe you more than the superficial background I gave when I first stopped by. Let me tell you my story…”

***

Mo’s father, Gerhardt Frederikus Cronje, prided himself ons his ancestry, which included (according to him), Pieter Arnoldus Cronjé, the (in)famous Boer general in the Anglo-Boer war. Pieter, as it is well-known, was thought to be a brilliant tactician, who captured Leander Starr Jameson of the Jameson Raid at Doornkop. His fame grew during the ensuing war, with the sieges of Kimberley and Mafeking. During the battle of Modderfontein he caused heavy British losses, but his surrender at Paardeberg signalled the end of the Boer resistance. Gerhardt never mentioned this last bit of history, of course.

Thus, when the Border War escalated in the 60’s and 70’s, Gerhardt did not think twice about volunteering to ‘drive out the terrorists’. He joined the infantry and rose to the rank of lieutenant. In October 1975, the South African army advanced into southern Angola with the Zulu Taskforce. While this move was an all-out success, it did incur casualties. Gerhardus Cronje was listed as MIA.

Back in Boksburg, his pregnant wife waited anxiously for news of her husband’s situation. None came.  Her impatience turned to fury…

Maria Francina Jacobs was not your average soldier’s wife. She had a secret that only Gerhardt knew about. She was the product of a marriage between Mohammed Sulliman, a trader on the Cape Flats, and Maria September, the daughter of a Norwegian tourist and what is discreetly noted as a ‘lady of the night’. Maria Francina, due to that unpredictable lottery genes play, passed as white in the old South Africa. She met Gerhardt as a waitress in a restaurant in Cape Town, and was carried away by his kindness and humour.

Relationships share one common trait: fascination. Gerhardt was fascinated by the beauty of the waitress hovering near his table; she was in awe of the command he had over his friends he had invited to celebrate his 21’st birthday. It didn’t take long for the two of them to acknowledge the spark between them and a date followed the next evening.

It was a classic boy-meets-girl-falls-in-love story. The Mixed Marriages Act and Gerhardt’s family could not stop them. Denied the right to be legally married, they moved to Boksburg where they were not only accepted by the community as being married, but more importantly, also as being another ‘white’ couple.

Maria’s acceptance by society was, of course, dependent on Gerhardt being at her side. Without Gerhardt, it would be a matter of time before her deception was uncovered. Her fury at her common-law husband going missing on the border stemmed both from her frustration at his defending the country (and its laws) as well as her fear of being exposed – not only as an unmarried woman, but as not being white as well.

The weeks became months. The initial outpouring of sympathy for the plight of the lovely wife of Gerhardt slowly waned and reality set in. The crunch came when her pregnancy reached full term and she had to be admitted to hospital. There, she reminded them of Gerhardt’s sacrifice to serve his country – and then said she had lost her identity documents. That, at least, got her to the maternity ward where her son was born. Then his birth had to be registered.

Maria knew she had no chance of registering the infant without her producing some form of identification. At first she tried to see the officials with only a copy of Gerhardt’s papers, but they insisted on proof of identity for her as well. She said she’d go home and look for it again and fled the offices.

There was nothing else to do. She left Boksburg on the late-night train to Cape Town to rejoin her own family on the flats. Of course she left no forwarding address.

Maria found refuge with her brother, Achmad Sulliman, who arranged a room for her in the house of a friend in Atlantis. Here, mother and child could live quietly and avoid the scrutiny of the apartheid officials.

And here, too, she had no hope of hearing about her husband, Gerhardt, through official channels ever again.

***

“So, you see,” Mo said as he pushed his empty glass over to Boggel – emphatically, almost angrily, “even before I was born, I didn’t fit in. I am part Afrikaner, part Norwegian, part prostitute and part Coloured. My father was a soldier for a inhumane regime, my mother a fake.

“And that, my friends, was only the start…” He sat back, seemingly fatigued by recounting his sad history. “There was more to follow…”

To be continued…

Alive and Well…

ams-history“It’s been awfully quiet lately.” Servaas burps as he orders a fresh beer.

“Ja, people think nothing happens here any more.” Raising a questioning eyebrow, Vetfaan turns to Gertruida. “What’s up? Has he stopped writing? Gone walkabout? Emigrated? Long holiday? Contemplating his navel?”

“Oh no!” As usual, Gertruida has all the answers. “He’s been spending lots of time at his keyboard. Lots! But, he says, it’ll all be revealed soon.”

“Oh?” Boggel closes the empty drawer of the till. “That’s nice. I’m sorry to interrupt, guys, but it’s the end of the month. You have to settle your tabs.”

They ignore the little bent man…like they always do when he reminds them that the only thing in life you get for free, is the Vrede’s landmine in the middle of Voortrekker Weg every morning.

“So what is he writing?”

“Ah, it’s the story of a man who made international history a few years back. It’s got everything. Poor boy, an outcast, struggles with politics, love and rejection. He gets a chance to change the world…and then he does.”

“Is he a local chappie?” Vetfaan loves to hear that not everything in South Africa is falling apart. “Please don’t tell me it’s about Zuma of Malema?”

“Oh no! Not a political figure, although politics features quite prominently in the man’s life. No – he was just a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who  made good. Like our stories, it’s a feel-good tale of determination, perseverance, a bit of good luck and a breakthrough. Oh, and love against all odds. It makes fascinating reading.”

“Yeah?” Servaas isn’t impressed. “That sounds rather common to all men, I’d say. I had a tough time convincing Siena to shack up with me, too…”

“Which is quite understandable, given your looks.” They all laugh at Kleinpiet’s interjection before turning to Gertruida again.

“And there’s a small chance – maybe more than that – of a movie. In fact, the storyline is so intriguing, it’d be a crime not to film it.”  Even Servaas sits up when Gertruida informs them about this. “Yes, a movie. We have such wonderful, real-life South African stories. People read about our economy going for junk status. They watch our parliament becoming a joke. Our president single handedly wins the competition to be the most ridiculed man in the country. Malema frightens the whites and Zuma scares the blacks.

“But where – oh where! – are the good stories? We need to be reminded of a once-proud nation which produced remarkable men – sometimes against all odds. Instead of allowing us to sink deeper into a muddy depression, we should be reminded that no situation – no political rhetoric – has the right to dump the nation into junk status. If it happens to the economy, that’s beyond your and my control. But…each of us is the captain of his own ship.

“That’s what the story is all about. Maybe you’ll read about it soon. Maybe you’ll see it on the big screen. It’s a  story we must all take note of. Essential reading, I’ll call it.”

“Well…who is it about? A real person?”

“Yes, Vetfaan. He’s real.” Gertruida suddenly looks sad. “But he won’t tell me the name. I can guess, but I really don’t know…”

The group at the bar stares at Gertruida in shocked silence. Gertruida doesn’t know? That’s a first!

“…But I’ll find out, believe you me! I’ve got my ear on the ground. Pretty soon I’ll know his name – then I’ll tell you.”

“Don’t you have a clue?”

“I do, Servaas. I’ll play you a song … ”

Our very own Firefrorefiddle, the ultimate Fiend…

51Z7RPtdZkL._AC_UL320_SR240,320_“Funny, isn’t it?” Gertruida, true to her nature, doesn’t elaborate for a while. She wants a response and won’t continue until she gets it.

“Um?” Vetfaan gives her the obligatory quizzing look.

“Life runs around us in circles, Vetfaan. What goes up, must come down. Today’s losers are tomorrow’s winners. History repeats itself over and over again.” She busies herself with her beer, knowing she’s done enough to pique interest. She gets it with the second “Um…?”

“The world has been oscillating between Radical and Conservative,” she goes on. “Ever since the beginning of time, the real war on earth has been between the aggressors and the pacifists. Then, of course, the pacifists become the aggressors and everything goes up in flames for a while. After a suitable period of time, the pot gets taken from the stove, everything settles down…and then we do it all over again.”

“Depressing, Gertruida. That’s all I can say about that. Talk about something nice for a change.”

Gertruida stares at the ceiling for a full minute before saying anything. “You think life is a musical, Vetfaan? Dancing girls and happy endings? Well, wake up, will you?” Suddenly feeling a bit guilty about her rebuke, she continues in a kinder note. “Have you heard about Firefrorefiddle, the Fiend of the Fell?”

***

It wasn’t Lloyd Webber who created Gus, the theatre cat, but T.S. Elliot, who described the old cat in  Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Gus, originally called Asparagus, used to be a great actor once. Now, old, decrepit and no longer the darling of the stage, poor Gus is left with the memories of his previous successes.

His best ever performance, he remembers well, was when he played the role of Firefrorefiddle, the Fiend of the Fell. That scoundrel cat broke into every house and stole everything he wanted. He used to be so good, Gus recalls, that he thought he could never be caught.

And he likes to relate his success on the Halls,
Where the Gallery once gave him seven cat-calls.
But his grandest creation, as he loves to tell,
Was Firefrorefiddle, the Fiend of the Fell.

Gus used to have what is called the gift of the gab. He could talk in a way his audience simply couldn’t ignore.

“I have played,” so he says, “every possible part,
And I used to know seventy speeches by heart.
I’d extemporize back-chat, I knew how to gag,
And I knew how to let the cat out of the bag.
I knew how to act with my back and my tail;
With an hour of rehearsal, I never could fail.
I’d a voice that would soften the hardest of hearts,
Whether I took the lead, or in character parts.

Now, his fiery performances are a thing of the past, and Gus – the Theatre Cat – can only dream about his glory days. The younger generation is taking over, something Gus finds a bit unacceptable.

“Well, the Theatre’s certainly not what it was.
These modern productions are all very well,
But there’s nothing to equal, from what I hear tell,
That moment of mystery
When I made history
As Firefrorefiddle, the Fiend of the Fell.”

***

“That’s much better, Gertruida. I like it when you talk about something different for a change.” Vetfaan winks, sips his beer and then suddenly looks up. “So, what happened to Firefrorefiddle?”

Gertruida smiles – he’s put his foot right in the trap.

“You see, Vetfaan, life has a way of turning the wheel. Firefrorefiddle tried one last daring heist. He  broke into the bank and opened the safe. And then, while he was staring at the stacks of gold that soon would be his, his admiration for his own special abilities made him drop his guard. He didn’t see the security guards approaching. And that was the end of his thieving ways, much to the relief of the people of the Fell.”

“Firefrorefiddle brought about his own downfall? His ego got in the way?”

“That’s right, Vetfaan.”

Vetfaan sighs. He’s been tricked again. Gertruida’s story wasn’t about T.S. Elliot after all. He should have known better.

“Did Eliot really create that story? I mean the one about the bank and the safe?”

Gertruida flashes him a condescending smile. “No, Vetfaan, he only invented Gus. The ending is the South African version by our very own president.”

“What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”                                                                                                       T.S. Eliot.

Vetfaan’s SONA

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North West University. Credit: enca

“Is it,” Vetfaan muses, “a privilege or a right to study?”

Gertruida sits back, deep in thought. Then: “It is one of the most difficult questions you’ve asked in all these years, Vetfaan. “Privilege” involves exclusion of some to the benefit of others. “Right” implies the opposite. I’ve often thought there should be something in between, like ‘a rightful privilege’ or something.”

“What I don’t understand,” Vetfaan continues, “is that students are burning down universities – while they’re there to study. It makes no sense at all.”

“That, my friend, is smoke and mirrors. Have you heard the president admonish the students? Has the government made an unequivocal statement, condemning the destruction, the torching and the disruption happening on campuses?” She hesitates before answering herself. “No! The government is worried like never before. They’re going to take a whipping when the municipal elections come about later this year. They simply cannot afford to alienate the youth of the country.”

“Afford? Afford? My foot, Gertruida. That means we have to foot the bill with our tax money.Can I afford it – that’s the question?”

burning-train.jpg“I wonder,” Servaas lets the words dangle in the air before completing the sentence, “what these protests cost us every day. I mean: the prez says they’ll host fewer parties in the coming year, and that’s great. But in the meantime the country is burning. Busses, trains, libraries, municipal offices…you name it and the vandals are there with petrol and matches. This isn’t a mere Nkandla we’re talking about – the totals must be staggering billions, not millions.”

“It’s the old story, Servaas. Remember the saying:You become your parents? How you were brought up will determine who and what you’ll be as an adult. If you see your parents and leaders acting in a certain way, you naturally assume that’s  the accepted norm. Look at our political leadership – and then ask yourself whether the youth, alone – are to blame.

wpid-s_africa_protest_0723“Whenever some political parties hold marches, destruction follows. It doesn’t end there, unfortunately. What is worse, is that politicians create expectations with promises they know they’ll never deliver upon. The destruction we should be talking about, isn’t about buildings, roads and vehicles – it’s about lives being wrecked by the absence of proper leadership.” Gertrida sighs. “I so wish the politicians realised that.”

“Okay, then I’ll make the State of the Nation Address I would have liked to hear.” Vetfaan gets up, tries to laugh like the prez, and adjusts his imagined glasses with his middle finger. “Compatriots, fellow South Africans and countrymen. Today I’m going to tell it like it is.

“Hehehe…destruction of property is unlawful. It’s a criminal act. No matter how angry you are, two wrongs don’t make a right. By burning down universities, you are not creating a better future, are you? From now on, all individuals who cause damage of any sort to property – governmental or private – will be liable to compensate for that loss. Let me remind you that we have laws in place for exactly that. The fact that I’ve been reluctant to prosecute perpetrators in this regard, is shameful to say the least! In fact, it was downright stupid to allow the situation to deteriorate to this level, and I take full responsibility for the lack of proper leadership and discipline.

“Furthermore, I realise that I’ve lied about many things – even right here in this parliament. I expected you to believe me, just as the many, many people that’ll still want to vote for us in the upcoming elections. To those faithful followers, I want to say thank you, but no thank you. Do not vote the same way you did before. That’s a sure way to destroy even more buildings and cripple the infrastructure  worse than in the past. We are on a certain road to self destruction and we have to make a sharp U-turn or face the consequences.

“Then, fellow countrymen, I have instructed the police to have no mercy with murderers, rapists, molesters, and other corrupt officials. Planning for a high security prison in the most inhospitable area of the country is in advanced stage. Prisoners will in the future have no voting rights either. Forget about medical care, nice overalls and a bed. Prison isn’t a hotel. The ablebodied will be put to work wherever we need them – twelve hour days with no minimum wage – cheap labour. If you took part in any activity that harmed society, you will be forced to contribute to society again before you are allowed back on the streets. In this way, we can maintain and service roads, railways, sewerage farms and other infrastructural elements in need of work.

“Also, my friends, we are declaring a war on rubbish and litter. How can we expect our countrymen to be proud citizens who want to protect their environment, when government never does anything to educate the masses? Throwing rubbish in the streets, scattering plastic bags all over the veld and heaping up trash everywhere is certainly not conducive to a civilised society. From now on, if you throw your KFC box out of your car’s window, you’ll be forced to help clean up the shanty towns around our cities.

“That brings me back to education. Children must be able to attend schools where they are efficiently and properly educated in not only the basics of reading, writing and maths, but where a sense of responsibility is instilled into them. They must learn that all actions have reactions. If they boycott schools, they’re the ones who suffer – and society is only the poorer for that. Ubuntu isn’t just a word, compatriots. We cannot sit here in the luxury of parliament while the children out there are being neglected. If they are disadvantaged, my fiends, we are disadvantaged, too. We’ll leave a legacy of shame if we don’t make a stand on this.

“You’ll notice that I haven’t said anything about our economy. It’s not necessary. Once we repair the fabric of our society, the economy will correct itself. What that means, is this: it’s no use making laws and promises when the average man in the street has no hope, no pride and no sense of responsibility.

“It’s about freedom, you see. Freedom doesn’t mean you are free to do anything or say anything. Freedom comes at great cost, compatriots. It’s an expensive luxury – and I’m not talking about money here. It requires us to embrace responsibility – something that’s been sadly lacking in these chambers ever since I’ve taken over the reins. And responsibility will cost everyone of us something: some will have to own up to corruption, others will maybe have to admit to lacklustre performances and still others may have to vacate their seats due to incompetence. These are harsh words, my friends, but absolutely necessary.

“And lastly, I have taken a firm decision to lead by example. In the words of the opposition, I now bid you all goodbye. I’ll retire to the nice house you’ve kindly built for me and from now on laze in the firepool or tend to my chickens. Bye bye…”

In all the years Boggel has been running the bar, he’s never heard an applause like the one that follows when Vetfaan sits down.

Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose…

There is no excuse. No excuse at all. (#2)

 

 

Jean-Dominique-Bauby-01

Jean-Dominique Bauby

 

Telling us a story of a musical savant doesn’t help us all that much, Gertruida. It may be inspiring to a certain degree, but we’re still stuck with the same old problems in the country…or the world, for that matter. Playing a piano never fixed crooked politics, neither can disabilities be used to set the example for South Africa’s masses.” Servaas, after spending a restless night while contemplating the remarkable life of Leslie Lemke, is not in a good mood at all.

“On the contrary, Servaas. It’s about being disadvantaged and overcoming odds. That – I’ll have you know – is the most important and universal lesson for all of humankind. It’s of absolutely no value to sit down next to the road, complaining about the journey. We are each given a route – an individual journey – to complete during our on earth. Some get the easier paths, others not – it’s not something we can demand or change. Read it up, Servaas. (Proverbs 16:33) I suspect you know the passage…you should, actually.”

“So we are mere passengers on a runaway train, helpless to change anything? What about Revelation 20:13? Why judgement in the end if people have no choice in their actions?”

Gertruida sits back to applaud the old man’s remark. “Well done, Servaas! You’ve just proven  my point. I’m sooo proud of you!” Despite Servaas’s confusion, he has to smile at her tone. “You see, Servaas, your life will follow a certain path. That’s a given. But…what you do on that path, involves specific choices only you can make. Let me tell you about   Jean-Dominique Bauby, maybe that’ll help you understand…”

***

Jean-Dominique, or Jean-Do as his friends called him, was a young man at the pinnacle of his career. As editor of Elle, he was a know face in the French fashion crowd and a respected writer in his own right. He probably thought Life was a sweet fruit to be savoured and enjoyed – one can only imagine…

Then it all changed. At the age of 43 he suffered a massive stroke, leaving him an a coma for three weeks. He shouldn’t have woken up, but he did…in a manner of speaking. While he seemed to recognise faces and voices, he was completely paralyzed, except for his eyes; they followed movement. Despair turned to hope; maybe he’d regain more function as time went by?

But it didn’t. Things got worse. His right eye developed complications and had to be sewn shut. Then, with movement and observation restricted to his left eye, the terrible consequences of his stroke became apparent: he had Locked-in Syndrome. He could hear and see…but nothing else. He couldn’t respond in any way to external stimuli by speech or emotion. Only the movement of one single eye could possibly convey messages to the people around him.

A plan had to be made. With all the paths of communication destroyed by the stroke, only the left eye could possibly be used to reach his thoughts. Remember, this happened in 1995, before machines like Stephen Hawking uses, were available. The nursing staff did what they could, ending up with a nurse sitting next to his bed, reciting the alphabet. Over and over and over…and over. When she got to the letter he wanted, he’d blink. The letter was then written down and the selection of the next letter began. At last…he was able to communicate his thoughts to the world out there.

Then…the surprise. i-w-a-n-t-t-o-w-r-i-t-e-a-b-o-o-k.  Write a book? In his condition? Surely an impossible task?

But he did. Letter for letter, four hours a day, with the patient assistant reciting and reciting the alphabet over and over again. It took ten months, but in the end The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was published in 1997. Sadly, two days after the book appeared on the shelves, Jean-Do died from lung complications…

***

DivingBellButterflyMP“Ten years later, a film was made of the book. It won at Cannes, BAFTA, Golden Globes and was nominated for four Oscars. The story of Jean-Do inspired people long after his death. His life was maybe above average before the stroke, but afterwards it became truly remarkable. He had to lose everything – except an eye – to summit the highest point of his life. 

“So you see, Servaas, being disadvantaged isn’t fun. People have the right to complain and revolt against unfairness and injustice. But what has happened in the past, is no excuse for poor choices in the present. It is a sad fact that everything we do today, will impact on tomorrow. And that leaves us with but two choices: do we destruct or construct? That, my friend, is the Black and White we have to deal with – there is no middle way in that. Choices determine actions and words, which in turn result in consequences. If we are not building, then we are breaking down.

“So, Servaas, harping on about hardship is an entirely futile exercise. In our society it’s become the norm to be destructive. And that, I’m afraid, is determining how we will be judged by history.”

“Well,” Servaas mumbles, “at least I’m not burning buildings and busses. I’m just saying…”

“Unfortunately,” Gertruida interrupts quickly, “words do more damage than burning a library. They remain long after the broken glass have been replaced and they hurt more than rubber bullets. ‘Just saying’ is no excuse. It’s the mind behind the words that makes you say things – and only you can fix that…nobody else is going to do it for you.”

And, just like yesterday, old Servaas finds himself at loss for words. This is a good thing, Gertruida thinks, because the country is being wrecked by people ‘just saying’. If only we could get to ‘just doing’ – positively – we’d become an example for the world.

But, she realises, we’ll get the future we deserve. And for that we have no excuses. No excuses at all…

“….Mutual misunderstanding
After the fact
Sensitivity builds a prison
In the final act…”