Tag Archives: South West Africa

When will we ever learn…?

pieter_pieterse

Master Story-teller: Pieter Pieterse

(Following on the two previous posts)

Not everything was banged-up during the war,” Kleinpiet says in an effort to lift Vetfaan’s mood. “Remember that porcupine?”

Vetfaan nods reluctantly. When he is in the grip of those dark thoughts, he doesn’t smile easily.

Spiesie (Afrikaans for ‘Little Spear’) they called him. He rattled into camp one cold winter morning, apparently oblivious of the fact that there was a war going on and that you needed special permission to get anywhere near the workshops.  Without bothering with the fine military tradition of saluting your superiors, he made straight for the one large shed, where a SAMIL was unloading a new axle for a broken-down Bedford. There, still ignoring the men in their browns, he settled down under the idling engine. He liked it there – it was nice and warm.

“Man, that little prickly pet had a mind of his own. Unlike the other animals in the Caprivi, he had no fear of man…or beast. And he refused to be tamed in any way. But if you had an apple in your tent, Spiesie would find it. The cook had to put the potatoes in a locked cupboard. And don’t think he was deterred by plastic bottles – he simply gnawed his way through them to find out what’s inside.”

Vetfaan straightens his shoulders a bit. “That’s how we lost him, not so?”

“Ja, the poor thing. Spiesie gnawed his way into a 2-litre Windhoek Lager bottle one night. We found his tracks that morning…weaving about in a rather random way. Sometimes straight, then – apparently confused – doubling back.  Once or twice he even rolled about in the sand. But…that was the last. Maybe he simply didn’t like the beer?”

“Nah.” Vetfaan shakes his head. “Wasn’t that. I think he hated that early-morning bugle. And he couldn’t stick to mealtimes. Undisciplined, he was.”

“No, not like that little elephant.”

This remark hits the target. Vetfaan brightens considerably as he signals for another beer.

“Yes, now that was something, hey? Imagine that?”

Elephants aren’t rare in the Caprivi and the Okavango Delta. In fact, one has to be careful driving around there, as one might find one of these giants thinking deep thoughts right in the middle of the road on a daily basis. Usually these encounters occur while negotiating the rutted tracks at speed.

On the day he met Daisy, Vetfaan was driving the SAMIL sedately, nursing an apocalyptic hangover. The previous night had been a hectic affair at Rundu, where the quartermaster took pride in showing off (and sharing) his ‘hidden’ (read: stolen, or more aptly, rerouted) stash of imported whiskies. As a result of the pounding headache, Vetfaan was leaning forward on the steering wheel, staring at the track with half-closed eyes while keeping a gentle (if slightly shaking) foot on the accelerator.

Now, here’s a fact few people are aware of: you want to cure somebody’s hangover? Get rid of the headache and restore 20/20 vision to bleary eyes? It’s simple. Put an elephant in his path. Try it; it works like a charm. In the micro-second it takes to recognise the obstacle, all thoughts of self-pity get replaced by such loud alarm bells that the afflicted forgets – instantly – about such trivia as sore heads and dry mouths. In fact, the tongue becomes even more arid, but that isn’t noticed.

The lorry slewed to a skidding stop only metres away from the giant beast. Vetfaan – now in  total panic-mode – tried to engage reverse, but forgot to use the clutch. The engine died. Vetfaan prepared to do the same.

And waited for the beast to charge.

And waited.

And nothing happened.

That’s when he saw the injury to the pachyderm. In fact the elephant just stood there, swaying from side to side, paying no attention to the vehicle at all. When Vetfaan peeked over the dashboard, he took in the fact that he might just survive this encounter. There was a reason: the elephant’s trunk had been almost amputated by a snare.

The poor animal was in a terrible state. With the wound relatively fresh, Vetfaan saw a drop of blood plopping down in the dust. More relaxed now, he noticed the flies around the raw flesh and the pleading, helpless eyes imploring him to help. What to do? He couldn’t just walk up to the elephant and offer his services, could he? Maybe he should shoot it and get the suffering over with. Vetfaan never shot an elephant before. To be merciful, the coup de grace must be instantaneous and not add to the animal’s woes at all. And, while it may be possible to shoot an elephant with a R1, one had to be pretty sure where to aim at. Where is an elephant’s brain?

Then the miracle happened.

Three older cows emerged from the bush, to gather around their stricken family member. Prodding their patient along gently with soft touches of their trunks and the occasional gentle bump of a head, they herded their injured younger sister along the track.

Vetfaan knew that track well. He realised what they were doing: they were taking the injured one to a river that was about a kilometer away. He waited for a minute or two, and then managed to get the engine going again. Idling along slowly, he followed the four to the place where the river (then only a stream, as it was the dry season) crossed the road.

Daisy’s state was obviously due to two major factors: her trunk was badly injured…and she couldn’t drink with the damaged trunk. Vetfaan watched in complete amazement as the others led her to the water and started offering water to her with their own trunks. One after the other, trunkfull after trunkfull, the other females fed the life-giving water to the greedy mouth of Daisy.

Vetfaan sat there for a long time, watching the spectacle. Daisy certainly perked up and the other cows led her off into the reeds.

In the months following, Vetfaan found many an excuse to return to the river. Sometimes he’d see the four sets of tracks, sometimes not. On three separate occasions he was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the four backs amongst the reeds. Daisy, it seemed, was recovering. Slowly, but surely. And then, one memorable day, the four elephants emerged from the reeds only minutes after he stopped there. Daisy’s trunk was scarred, but certainly functional. Standing proudly amongst her saviours, she raised het trunk halfway as if to tell Vetfaan she’s well enough to help herself again.

And they turned away, ambled off towards the bush…and Vetfaan never saw Daisy again.

“Yes,” Vetfaan says, gulping down the beer, “the animals. They were special. I leant a lot from them. Spiesie wanted food and warmth – just like us. And like us, he got drunk and lost his way. But Daisy and her helpers?  They showed me what Life is all about. Or at least, how it should be.”

Gertruida puts down the book she’s been reading, peering at Vetfaan over her glasses. “That, Vetfaan, is what we’ve been doing for the last few days. That elephant recovered from that dreadful wound due to the others helping her. I just so wish you’d get rid of your snare.”

And Vetfaan, still wounded by the war, smiles gratefully at her, gets up, walks over to the austere woman, and gives her a hug.

“It takes time, Gertruida. A lot of it.”

Sometimes the atmosphere in Boggel’s Place is upbeat and frivolous. Not always. There are times when the ghosts of the past join the group at Boggel’s counter, to remind the customers if the price they had paid for the privilege. The war, the struggle of the oppressed masses, the mad propaganda justifying murder and mayhem, the injustices preached by the media and churches alike…the list goes on and on. Somehow, everybody in the country can look back at history with sadness. Was it really necessary for so many young men to lay down their lives? Why did we allow politics to divide the country so? And yet – despite the knowledge of the past – aren’t we hard at work repeating all the same mistakes?.

That’s when Vetfaan remembers the animals during the Border War, knowing they, at least, survived because they cared. The thought always gives him hope.

1328929_140116135753_Birthday_3237PS: These animal events and encounters are based on fact. Pieter Pieterse witnessed and described them (in a different context and style) in his beautiful book: Winterwerf in die Kavango, published by Tafelberg in 1989. The book is out of print now, but if you can lay hands on one, it’s well-worth reading. I hereby acknowledge his valuable contribution to Afrikaans literature and so wish I could swap stories with him. Sadly, he was brutally murdered in 2002 – yet another victim to the endemic violence so prevalent in our beautiful country..

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Waterloo in the Kalahari

train 3 leaving station close“Those were the days,” Vetfaan says when Kleinpiet reminds him of their time in the army. “The best part was when you got a pass to spend time with your family. Those train rides back home were quite a bit of fun. At every station we had to get off to buy more beer…”

He smiles at the thought: a thin, almost sardonic smile, as he remembers the stop at Mariental, on his way back to South Africa.

***

Two weeks! After a particularly hectic period of fighting, Vetfaan’s platoon were rewarded by some much-needed time off. He naturally didn’t want to spend that time in Rundu or Grootfontein and headed southwards, homewards, to his parent’s farm in the Kalahari. If there was one thing he needed now, it was the silence of the dunes. No pill, no psychologist can restore a broken spirit as fast and as well as the quiet hours amongst those magnificent sandy mountains.

There were quite a few soldiers on that train, all of them heading home, which resulted in a party of note while they progressed through the arid wastelands of South West Africa. Windhoek came and went. So did Rehoboth and Kalkrand. By the time they pulled in to Mariental, they’d discussed cars, booze, ABBA (that decadent new band with those girls) and how strange it’d be to wear something else than browns again. They told jokes, laughing again and again at the one that was told fifty miles before.

And they drank. Alcohol took away the memories of blood and vomit; dimmed the thoughts of broken limbs and gaping wounds. And the more they drank, the more they tried to forget the friends that would never share a drink with them again. And, like it sometimes happens during war times, their party petered out into a drawn-out silence – a wake for those who were less fortunate.

At Mariental it was Vetfaan’s turn to get a fresh supply of beers. He was glad to escape the gloomy atmosphere in the compartment and wandered into town. It was a Saturday, and a kindly old gentleman directed him to the bottle store at the end of the street. Ten minutes later he staggered back to the station, carrying the two crates of beer.

And watched in dismay as the train pulled out of the station, heading towards Keetmanshoop.

***

“I had to do something. My mates were on that train and I had the beer. I was sure they wouldn’t miss me so much, but the beer…now that was a catastrophe! That’s when I decided to hike to Keetmanshoop in the hope of catching the train there again.”

***

agnetha-liveHe had scarcely taken up his position next to the road, when  – much to his surprise – a vehicle screeched to a halt next to him. The surprise wasn’t the willingness of a driver to pick up a young man in uniform – in those days people seemed to consider helping a soldier as an act of patriotism – the surprise was the vehicle and it;s rather attractive driver. The fire-engine-red Mustang was driven by a young lady who looked remarkably much like Agnetha, the sexy singer they’d so recently discussed.

“Going to Keetmanshoop, soldier?” The startling blue eyes were staring at him, knowing his answer.

It turned out to be a memorable trip. She asked him a million questions, most of which he answered with a stuttering mumble. H couldn’t  tell her much, of course. The excursions into Angola were highly sensitive; one of those obvious secrets of the time – and one everybody speculated about.

“Look,” she said eventually, “you’re fighting a losing war. There’s no way you can win. We need…” and here she hesitated only for a second, “…we need guys that can supply us with information. Somebody like you. Somebody with real inside info. And we’ll pay you well…”

***

“There I was, young and innocent and … interested…and this woman with the body of an angel and a face to match, offers me an opportunity to turn into a traitor. You can imagine my thoughts. Although I’d been drinking all the way from Rundu, I was sober enough to realise what she was asking me.”

***

Vetfaan showed his disgust. Shaking his head, he stared at her in dismay and moved to sit as far from her as possible.

She laughed at that, saying she understood.

“You poor, poor boys. You get fed a constant stream of lies, half-truths and propaganda. Of course you believe you’re fighting for a true and just cause. But…there is a bigger picture. There is a world out there, and it’s changing. In the last fifty-odd years, women got to vote. In 1966 – at last – every citizen in the United States got the right to vote. Communism is dying and soon Russia will break up in many smaller states. The Berlin Wall will fall. And…the Nationalists will surrender power to the ANC. That is the future of South Africa, and it’ll be a bright and wonderful one at that, too. The communists aren’t your enemies, your government is. These things, soldier, are facts. I’m sorry, but I have to tell you your war is a futile one.”

Then, more than even when she asked him to spy, Vetfaan was convinced the woman was deranged. He shook his head again, staring at the barren countryside flashing past. He wanted to tell her about the way the Chinese and Cubans were killing young men in their quest to establish communism in Southern Africa. Their aim was not to liberate the black masses because they were such benevolent friends – they wanted to get their hands on the vast mineral resources hidden under the soil of his fatherland. And look at what the Soviets did to churches and the Russian culture? No, this woman had no inkling about what she was talking about.

At the age of barely twenty, Vetfaan trusted the news on the radio, the articles in the newspapers, the sermons in his church and – above all – his superior officers. The opinion of this young woman – as beautiful and as alluring as she might be – would never sway him to betray his country.

“You’re wrong,” he said as they neared the town of Keetmanshoop. It was a simple statement, but said with much bitterness and conviction. When one is young, one tends to have set ideas about the way of the world.

“Why?’ Her question was equally blunt.

“Because we’re protecting the country. The whole country. If we were to lose this war, everything we’ve built up over the centuries will be lost. Roads, hospitals, schools, factories, mines. We simply cannot hand over reigns to individuals who want to strip the country of its resources. Our government, I have to tell you, have the best interests of all South Africans at heart. That’s why we’re up there – for God and country. Whites and Blacks. That’s why.” Vetfaan felt he delivered his speech well – it was text-book stuff right out of the lectures he listened to during his basic training.

They drove into Keetmanshoop and Vetfaan got off, heading towards the station without saying goodbye.

***

“That’s such a sad story, Vetfaan.” Emptying her glass, Gertruida watches the big man with sympathetic eyes. “And you never saw her again, I suppose?”

He nods. “No. Later, I heard other soldiers talking about the girl in the Mustang that gave them a lift. Always on the remote roads in South West Africa. I always listened to those stories, wondering how many young men fell for her ploy.

“And it was clever, I must admit. Pick up a tired, footsore soldier, returning from the war up north, and sit him down in a Mustang and a beauty queen. Some would have fallen for it, I’m sure.”

Kleinpiet suppresses a hiccup. “Well, tonight we’ll listen to the president giving the State of the Nation address. He’ll tell us how they plan to employ millions. He’s going to turn the economy around. He’ll say how serious they are about eradicating corruption. He’ll emphasise education and health care – and how much they’re doing for social upliftment. It’ll be a repeat of previous speeches, just dressed up nicely to sound optimistic.

“He’ll sound just like that blonde in the Mustang. Or like Vetfaan on the train. No matter how you string words together, you can’t fool all the people all the time.”

He gets a nod from Gertruida. “Well, here’s my guess: this is the last State of the Nation address by President Zuma. He’s slowly being sidelined to make way for somebody who hasn’t had his hand so deep in the till lately. Maybe somebody with less wives and even less children. Maybe he’ll hint at his deteriorating health, saying the pressures of government has worn him down. Mark my words – if you listen carefully, you’ll hear the hidden messages.”

Yes, Vetfaan thinks, we’re all in that Mustang, listening and talking and trying to convince each other that we have the answers to the country’s problems. Some will fight a war, others will strike or argue, and yet others will sit quietly, waiting for the storms to pass. We’ll continue to believe in righteous causes and rich rewards. But, in the end, we’ll all hurry along to catch the train at a dusty station, hoping it’ll carry us to freedom and peace.

But like that day in Keetmanshoop, the station might very well be deserted and the train long departed.

***

The station master eventually offered the forlorn soldier housing for the night. They talked, like true patriots do, about how important it was to preserve and protect their way of life.

The next day Vetfaan was hitch-hiking again. This time he wasn’t facing south at all; he returned to his base near Rundu. There was a war to be fought, after all.

***

“History,” Vetfaan says heavily, “will keep on repeating itself. Presidents will come and go. Liberals and conservatives will fight. Traditionalists will warn about radicals. Capitalists will square up to communists. And, in the end, we’ll keep on insisting to fight wars we cannot win.”

“Maybe.” This time, Gertruida s smile is genuine. “But what keeps us hoping, is the future. No matter where we’ve been, we can always hope to reach a brighter tomorrow. That, my friends, is the only way.”

Kleinpiet writes ‘For God and Country’ on the counter top, using the froth from his beer. After staring at it for a long minute, he wipes out ‘Country’ with his sleeve.

“Enough lies,” he says. Then he invites them all to a braai on his farm tonight. “Not for the meat or the beer,” he reminds them, “but because I don’t have a radio or a television.”

Of course they all accepted, The president isn’t going to tell them anything they don’t know already. That train has left the station a long time ago…

The Curse of the Bogenfels (# 7)

images (65)General Matotsi comes from a long line of shepherds: he’s used to being obeyed.  Running DEAD is a simple affair for him: you issue orders and await results. This time, however, reality didn’t fit into the scenario he had hoped for. Surely warning off an old lady cannot be this complicated?

He gets off the helicopter. trying to look grim. Unfortunately, his features pucker themselves up in a cartoon-like resemblance of Nemo, which is why Gertruida has to concentrate to keep her face straight. The little general stomps in to Boggel’s Place, comes to a halt, and studies the bemused faces studying him.

“What is this all about?” Attack being the best form of defense, he doesn’t bother introducing himself.

“Ah yes. You must be the general?” Syrup dripping from Gertruida’s words. “Come in, dear man. Sit down. It’s so hot outside, you must be thirsty? What can Boggel get you, sir?”

Matotsi cannot decide whether the woman is stupid or being sarcastic. Nevertheless, he sits down at the counter, refusing the beer Boggel is waving at him, growling “Not while I’m on duty.”

Boggel nods with his understanding barman face, suggests a cooldrink, and excuses himself to fetch it from the storeroom.

“We still have the other chap.” Vetfaan seems to be talking to his glass. “A veritable fountain of information he’s been. I actually like him. Pity he isn’t here. Not feeling well, he said.”

“Wha…?” Matotsi swings around to face Vetfaan. “Where is he?”

“Listen, General, let’s get something straight. This is Boggel’s Place. Maybe you’ve never heard about it, which explains your confusion. The first rule upon entering here, is that you stomp the dust off your boots, take off your hat and say hello. Then, if you don’t know the people, you introduce yourself. Thirdly, we only drink cooldrink when the cactus runs out. Otherwise we’d think you’re a bit of a whimp, see?’

Matotsi can only stare at the big man.

“So, let’s start over, shall we? I’m Vetfaan and you’re…?”

The general gives his surname, but Vetfaan shakes his head. “First name?”

“Alpheus.” By now the general is completely unsettles. Who are these people?

“Okay, Alphie, this is how it’s going to play out. We’re a peaceful bunch over here. We don’t pick fights – especially the ones we cannot win. But we do believe in peace and harmony and we subscribe to equal opportunities. See? We have women in the bar and a disabled barman. We also practice religious freedom, which explains why Oudoom’s church isn’t always full on Sundays.

“But we don’t assault old men, and we don’t threaten mature ladies. That’s what your men have been doing. We don’t take kindly to that. Gertruida – she’s the one over there – knows all about DEAD and she’s written a most entertaining letter about it and it’s recent activities regarding the lady over there, Elsie. Now she’s waiting to see if she must post it to The Mail and Guardian.

“I suggest we all sit down, relax, and share a brandy. Then, as becomes civilised men, let’s have a friendly chat.”

This is the longest speech anybody has ever heard Vetfaan make, and it is so eloquent that he receives muted applause from the Rolbossers.

“Ja. And tell your three men – the bodyguards outside – to take a scenic tour of the town and its surroundings. They make me nervous.” Kleinpiet feels he has to say something, anything, to show everybody he’s brave, too. He puts on his Basset face when he gets no response from the little crowd…

Gertruida says you mustn’t think shepherds are stupid. They live in the veld, get to know the weather very well, and understand risks. Matotsi weighs up the odds as he accepts his cooldrink from Boggel. If he tastes the generous tot of Vodka in the orange juice, he shows no sign of it.

***

Gertruida is fond of saying alcohol is the greatest social lubricant ever invented. She also says smaller quantities are the source of great wisdom – before the next glass brings out the imbecile in you.

So it’s no surprise to find the bar a rather rowdy place two hours later. Vetfaan discovered that he and Matotsi must have had each other in their sights during the bush war. Strangely, it forms a bond between the two men.

“You were at Cuito Cuanaval? Hey man, that time I was really scared! Eish…I think we all were.”

Vetfaan nods, orders another round, and tells Matotsi he still wakes up at night, hearing the mortars explode.

“I do, too,” Alpheus Matotsi admits, clinking his glass with Vetfaan’s.

“Now tell me, Alphie. What’s this with you being involved with scaring old ladies? You guys fought bravely in Angola…what’s with you now?”

 ***

Matotsi remains silent for a long time.

“I’ll tell you,” he says after obviously coming to a decision. “But what I say now, remains here. I have the power – and the influence – to make your lives…very difficult. Understand?”

Oudoom assures the general that they won’t whisper a single word of the conversation. He doesn’t lie – he didn’t say anything about talking or writing.

The general’s account tends to drift off the subject every now and then, but Gertruida manages to piece it together.

The Nationalist government realised it was in trouble in the 70’s. The world was turning against them, their funds were drying up, and civil unrest took it’s toll. They were still firmly in the saddle, though – but they needed a lot of money to keep them there.

images (66)It was general van den Bergh who remembered the story of the City of Baroda. It was one of the bits of gossip making the rounds in the internment camp where the pro-British government of the 40’s held the members of the Ossewabrandwag (who sympathised with Germany).

According to the talk in the camp where van den Bergh and John Vorster were locked up, the Third Reich was crumbling under the combined assault of the Allies. However, the die-hard members of the Hitler regime refused to believe the end of the war would be the end of the Nazi dream. No, they planned a Fourth Reich.

“The Germans smuggled out something to South West Africa.” By now Matotsi had to concentrate really hard to keep the narrative together. “Had a lot of sympathy there amongst the people – most of whom still spoke German as a first language. And then they wanted to let their sympathisers in South Africa know about it. So a letter and a box containing evidence of what they’ve done, was sent to a member of the South African parliament – somebody they trusted. But…” he waves a wobbly finger in the air, “the box was on a ship. Ironically, the ship was sunk by a German U-boat.”

Matotsi’s eyes, set high and wide on his pointed face, starts drooping. Boggel immediately serves a mug of strong, black coffee.

$T2eC16F,!yMFIcTu(VTBBSM22eyPyQ~~60_35“Van den Bergh guessed this had to do with a massive fortune. Gold. He knew the Nazi’s already established a bank in Monaco in 1943 where they tried to hide their treasures. Later, in an investigation by the Americans into the way Germany tried to secrete away money for later use, they confirmed that a shipment of gold was smuggled to South West Africa.”

“Operation Safehaven,” Gertruida whispers. “The West stealing the assets the Germans stole…”

General Matotsi almost loses his balance as he spins around to face Gertruida.

“You know about this?”

Boggel laughs. “She knows everything, Alphie. Everything. Get used to it.”

“Oh.” Matotsi sipped the scalding coffee. “Well, that was what Boss was looking for back in the 70’s. The Minister of Finances sent an expedition. They died in the desert. That was the end of it, until this woman started poking around.” His one eye focussed on Elsie. “And we couldn’t have that. No sir. Not at all.”

“Why, Alphie?”

“Because we’re looking for it, too…”