Tag Archives: tradition

The Bullet (# 1)

10Of course the conversation ceased when the man walked down Voortrekker Weg. Not only is it unusual for Rolbos to be the final destination of any traveller, there was something else: it felt as if the man brought with him an atmosphere of ‘assured silence’ – as Gertruida tried to explain it later. Barefoot, dressed in his sheepskin coat and carrying his stick, he reminded Oudoom of an Old Testament prophet…or at least somebody with a story to tell.

For once, Oudoom was right…

Boggel got on his crate to stare at the man: tall, handsome in a rugged way; with finely chiselled African features. The liquid-chocolate eyes blinked once when he entered Boggel’s Place before he smiled uncertainly in greeting.

Gertruida noticed the gap between the upper teeth – and the missing four lower incisors – and whispered to Precilla sitting next to her. “A Himba?” Although she said it as a question, she was fairly sure she’s right.

She was, as usual.

Tjike…” The man lowered his eyes when he noticed the people in the bar. Realising that it was his way of saying hello, Gertruida twisted her tongue around the word in return.

“I speak English,” the man said kindly, “and I need to find Sergeant Ben. That’s why I am here.”

“Um…” Vetfaan faltered, unsure how too continue, ” we only have Sergeant Dreyer here. He’s the policeman.”

The man frowned, held up a hand; uncertainty – even fear – in his eyes. “Police?”

“Don’t worry. He’s not like that – he’s one of us.” Gertruida motioned for the man to come in. “Come sit here. You walked to Rolbos? You must be thirsty.”

“Ja, and we’ve been discussing the drought for days now.” Vetfaan smiled his encouragement. “We’d like to have something else to talk about. You’ve come far…so tell us about this Sergeant Ben?”

The man sat down with a relieved sigh. “I have to give Sergeant Ben something. It’s a matter of honour…”


It was a day like any other. The sun beat down on the little kraal where the women sat in front of the huts, watching the smaller children play in the dust. The men and older boys were out in the veld, keeping watch over the flock of goats and cattle. The drought caused them to roam wider into their ancestral territory, looking for patches of withered grass in the mountainous region. And water, of course. Always water. Late at night, around their fires, they told each other that something very bad must have happened; why else would the drought be so severe? The earth was unhappy: they knew the clouds would not release the rain when new growth would only serve to feed evil.

They knew about the war, of course. Only the previous week they heard the crump of distant explosions. They didn’t know the sound, didn’t recognise the crackle of automatic weapons – but they did understand that people were killing each other.

They had speculated about that. Why would men find it necessary to kill each other? Was Life not something to protect and preserve? All life – even that of the goats – had a purpose. Killing an animal to feed the hungry mouths in the kraal had a purpose. Killing a man…? And they had a long conversation around the fire, eventually agreeing that whatever reason the men had for such killing, must be wrong.

That’s why, the old men said, the rain stayed away.

23On that day the women sat in the sun, grinding ochre and hoping their husbands and sons would find a protected valley with grass and fresh water. Without their cattle and goats, they’d never survive. In the meantime, the best thing to do was to see to it that there were enough ochre and fat – when the men returned, they wanted to look their best.

It was one of the little boys who saw the three men running towards the kraal.

“Look! Look! Men are coming – and they’re not Himba.”

IMG_2163The First Wife, Miriam, glanced over to see what the boy was shouting about. When her husband was away, all authority and responsibility rested on her shoulders. At first she hoped the men would go past the kraal, leaving them in peace – but soon realised that was not to be. The men carried guns and that meant they have to be soldiers. They rushed through the kraal’s entrance without asking permission, brushing aside the two little boys who gaped at them.

“Hide! We must hide!” The biggest of the three grabbed one of the boys, holding him up like a puppy. “And you lot will shut up. When the others come, you say nothing! Nothing!”


By now the entire population of Rolbos has gathered in the bar, listening to the Himba telling his tale. He sips his bottled water as he watches their faces – allowing the pause to create images in the minds of his audience. Telling a story – especially one as important as this – is an art. Rushing to the end won’t do. On the other hand, if the tempo is too slow, the listener loses interest. As a veteran of many a camp fire, the Himba understands the fine balance needed between telling, pausing, and feeding his audience just enough to keep them hungry for more. He knows every listener needs to become an observer of the unfolding scenes, making them see the story rather than simply listening to it. In this way, the observer becomes a participant – for is it not so that every story has the power to change people?

That’s why he sits back, allowing the image of the kraal, the desperate soldiers, the horrified First Wife and the frightened boy to become a reality in the little bar in Rolbos. And, like he knew it would, he watches faces change from mild interest to reflect the emotion he felt when that soldier grabbed him and dragged him into the sacred interior of the First House…

“And then…?” Vetfaan asks, his beer forgotten on the counter in front of him.

“Ah, yes. That’s when the horses came. The horses with the men and their guns. Many of them…”


She Sang Him a Waltz

download (9)Jesse and Jeremiah Shewitz. That’s who they were, before the war came and changed everything. Twins. The focus of the Shewitz household. The pride of the small Jewish community of Warmbad, north of Pretoria.  Some of the older people still remember the Bar Mizvah at the old synagogue. The boys recited their passages and both gave a d’var Torah, to the delight and the tears of their parents.

But in August 1986 the brown envelope arrived. The one with the official emblem of the Republic, addressed to J Shewitz. The one that said the addressed, J Shewitz, had to report to Voortrekkerhoogte in January 1987. This of course, caused much debate in the household. The two boys were of similar age and initial.  Who did the war-hungry machine want? And, after waiting for the next two months, it became evident that the Government (with a capital ‘G’ in those days) did not call up both twins. In the confused and chaotic days towards the end of the Border War, the army never considered the two J Shewitz’s, born on the same day according to their records, were two people. It was far more logical for them to assume a double entry. Such things happen when panic nibbles at the edges of logic and the slide towards surrender begins.

Papa and Mama Shewitz called in the boys, and prayed with them. One of them had to go and defend the indefensible; the other had to disappear. It was obvious who was going to win the war and they were not going to allow both their children to be heroes for a cause they never supported.  It was Papa who suggested the Old Testament way: let them draw lots, he said. Mama cried, saying not one of them should wear the browns of the army, but Papa said it was too late. If they kicked up a fuss, the army would come and realise there were two Shewitz boys. And then, he said, they’d lose both.

In later years Mama Shewitz could never sit through Sophie’s Choice. It was impossible, she said. How can it be – a mere generation apart – that the same mistake was done all over again? But it was: the letter n the brown envelope confirmed it.

Jeremiah drew the short straw.  Papa Shewitz cried. Mama sobbed. And Jesse, although emotion prevented him from saying anything, wanted to protest. Jeremiah was the weaker of the two – he’d always been. Childhood illnesses, splinter fractures and delayed puberty were all his brother’s lot; while he was the healthy one – the star of the rugby team; the Valentine of the immature girls in his class.

They made the decision that evening. If the lot fell on the one, the other had to disappear. It was the only logic to oppose the inevitable call-up of both of the Shewitz boys. On that terrible day in January, when Papa and Mama accompanied Jeremiah to the station, Jesse stayed at home. They dared not risk the exposure of their luck – if it could be called that. Still, in those days when every able-bodied young man was forced to defend the country against the terrorists (they weren’t elevated to the heady status of freedom fighters yet), the omission of one son from the rigours of the Defence Force was seen as a blessing from above. Divine intervention, Papa called it. Mama didn’t see it as grace – she hugged Jeremiah while she instinctively knew her little boy would disappear from their lives. He might come back as a seasoned soldier – or not at all. Whatever happened, her Jeremiah – the weaker twin – was about to board a train that will take him away from her forever.

Back home, the parents planned the way ahead for Jesse. They had enough money and he was a very competent young man. Their dreams of the two boys taking over the small lawyer’s practice Papa had built up over the years, were shattered. If Jesse enrolled at the university, the game would have been up. If he registered as a voter, the government would know. Even obtaining a driver’s licence was an unacceptable risk. The government had eyes and ears everywhere. No young man was exempt. You either took up their guns to fight for a lost cause, or you were thrown in jail. And once saddled with a criminal record, the prospects for employment, study and even a simple thing like opening a bank account … all those things were impossible.


The remotest, smallest, most backward outpost of South African civilisation.  Papa did meticulous research: his son could set up a small shop there, away from everything, safe from prying eyes. Oh, he considered sending the boy to the family in Israel, but that would imply passing through customs. And, short-sighted though the government might have been – they were extremely competent at sniffing out young men intent on skipping National Service.

And so, the evening – the last one in the town of Warmbad – arrived for young Jesse. His parents invited some close and trusted friends for a traditional Sabbath dinner. Challah and gefilte fish were followed by mousse cake, with Mama lighting the Sabbath candles. It was a solemn, sad occasion; with only the presence of Rachel to lighten the atmosphere. Rachel, young, vivacious and alluring. Rachel with the sparkling eyes. Rachel with the typical conservative dress, long sleeves and covered collar bones. Rachel, who surreptitiously played footsie with Jesse under the table.

And then Rachel; in complete contravention to tradition; sang to Jesse afterwards, in the garden.

Papa Shewitz drove to Pretoria. As a man versed in legal matters, he found it surprisingly simple to change Jesse Shewitz to Samuel Rabinowitz at the Department of Internal Affairs in the Hallmark Building in Proes Street. He expected a lot of questions, but he found the usual disinterested clerks all governments employ behind the dirty glass cubicles inside the building. After a while, he even discovered h didn’t have to pretend to change his own name; all he had to do was to fill in the appropriate forms. And so Jesse Shewitz became, at the sound of a bored rubber stamp on a piece of unread paper, Samuel Rabinowitz. And Samuel, safe from the possibility of discovery by the army, was free to escape to the Northern Cape. Certainly, Papa argued, there was no way the authorities would connect his son with J Shewitz. He was right.

Jesse, now answering to the name of Sammie, retreated to Rolbos without incident. When his brother was killed in Operation Moduler in 1987, Papa ordered him not to attend the funeral. The risk was too great.

And now, every year on the anniversary of his arrival in Rolbos on fifth of December,  Sammie closes his shop early. With Papa and Mama gone, he has no one to phone. He can’t say how sorry he is; nor is there anybody around to tell him it’s okay, some things are meant to be. There are no candles on his table, no traditional fare to enjoy.  All he has, is the memory of Rachel. Rachel, dressed to hide her femininity. Rachel, playing footsie and singing to him. Rachel, the sexiest woman he ever laid eyes on.

Just the other day he told Boggel he mustn’t allow circumstances to jeopardise his love for Mary Mitchell. He said he could see the way she looked at him. And he told him: the saddest thing ever, is to remember the words when the song is lost in the past.

Boggel didn’t understand, of course.

It takes time.

Ask Sammie. It took more than twenty years.