August 20, 2020
Dear Karoosters ….
We are now officially in Lockdown Stage II and I can’t say much has changed. Lots of people are wearing the mask (I even saw Donald on TV wearing a very stylish black one) and lots still aren’t. Taxis are more packed above 100% and I have rarely seen one with even one window open.
The economy has been gutted and daily I encounter clients who are in some sort of hospitality business and most are terminal. It is really a sad time in the country’s long history. There is no winner in this war.
We have had some very interesting comment on the proposed list of wise South Africans from all walks of life, the likes of which I believe we would like to see be overseers to our country at least until the next election.
Writer Ian Sutherland (Freatherstream) commented that “perhaps the dearth of writers in the line- up is their (sometimes unfair) reputation for not being “men/women of action! And People who need to stand apart from the currents of power to observe.”
You will note that the growing list includes many economists, bankers, finance people and academics. We have not placed anyone on the list who has some glaring issues with morality and honesty. That alone cut our gene pool down drastically…sadly a South African fact of life.
A couple of nights ago on eNCA news in the evening with Sally Burdett (the same who famously asked where is this Holy Sea?(sic)), she interviewed Thuli Madonsela. Most of the interview concerned the Botswana story and the alleged embezzlement of billions by former President Khama and South African businesswoman, Brigette Motsepe-Radebe.
Towards the end of the interview Burdette asked about the ANC fiasco involving the former mayor of Durban, Zandile Gumede who was arrested and charged with corruption linked to multimillion tender fraud. The had many assets seized. She is out on R50,000 bail. Gumede has now been appointed / redeployed by the good time boys and girls in the ANC, as now a provincial legislator. I would take this as being a promotion from lowly municipal to provincial rungs of power. Wit it a salary increase! Crime pays in the RSA. And she is being primed to become the chairperson of the provincial cooperative governance committee. It is obvious that the ANC sees no problem in this regard. They are genetically incapable of doing the right thing let alone being seen to be doing the right thing.
Madonsela was asked to comment upon this latest fiasco and she calmly went on to explain it (I attach a link to the interview for your interest; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cp47VfaGPao ) for the viewers. Basically Gumede is an employee of a company (the ANC) and as such has the rights and privileges of a company employee and is therefore subject to internal disciplinary procedures and rights before a labor court. The ANC in her view was acting correctly and that this matter should have been resolved by the NEC!
We all know only too well that the ANC and its NEC are incapable of rendering any legitimate and honest resolution to any matter involving itself. That Madonsela thinks in this fashion and did not come out boldly and state in uncategorical terms that Gumede should be suspended and prevented from holding any elected office is a huge disappointment to South Africans who have long held the view that she was one of the good guys who would be able to steer the Good Ship South Africa off the rocky shoals. Sadly, she is not. Her thoughts are clearly cadre programmed and controlled. I hope that I will be proved wrong.
There is something drastically wrong with our political system in that the politicians are in fact working for a political party and not for the people who pay them. Does Zandile Gumede get a monthly cheque from the ANC’s cheque book or from that of the City of Durban or the KZN Provincial Legislature? I am talking of course about the salary cheque....not the cash money and other fraudulent gains, all the under the table stuff!!
There is something very rotten in our political system and it seems to be coming to a big purulent head in the ANC; probably in the main because they control just about every province, municipality, and the central government. Much of the corruption in sadly inbred in the mentality and right to rule South Africa as its own little reserve bank.
Corruption will never come to a halt under any ANC administration. They are singularly incapable of doing anything honestly. A quarter of a century of ANC rule is enough and South African needs a paradigm shift in the ways and means of the operation of RSA PTY Ltd. We can’t wait for another two years. Ne need a caretaker government or a government of national unity or something in which this place is run by capable and honest people. We do have many such people in this country, and we call on them step up to the plate…..or rather in South African terms, step up to the crease.
We need a rapid national convention and a mechanism under which the new rule will operate. We need the likes of a Desmond Tutu to call the meeting to order. We need the population of South Africa to speak out and demand new government.
We simply cannot continue to drift towards the disaster the ANC has steered us to.
Please feel free to add to the list:
- Judge Dennis Davis Judge
- Moeletsi Mbeki Economist
- Johan Rupert Businessman
- Elon Musk Businessman
- Prof Adam Habib Academic
- Prof Jonathan Jansen Academic
- Tony Leon Politician
- Pieter Dirk Uys Actor…….this is serious business!
- Kglema Motlanthe Politician
- Frans Cronje Scenario Planner
- Mike Schussler Economist
- Bantu Holomisa Politician
- Zwelima Vavi Trade Union
- Pieter Groenewald Politician
- Prof Raymond Parsons Economist
- Gerrie Nel Legal
- Jeremy Samson Brand South Africa
- Steven Koseff Banker
- Kgalema Motlanthe Politician
- Tito Mboweni Finance
- Trevor Manuel Finance
- Lesetja Kganyago Banker
- Dr Imtiaz Sooliman Gift of the Givers
- Wayne Duvenhage Civic
- Bishop Desmond Tutu Moral Leader
- Adv Paul Hofmann Constitutional
- Chief Justice Mogoeng Judge
- Prof Ashwin Desai Sociologist
- Helen Zille Politician
- Herman Mashaba Politician
- Pravin Gordhan Politician
- Kimi Makwetu Finance
- Zamani Saul Politician
- Mark Barnes Business
- Michael Jordaan Banker
- Lindiwe Sisulu Politician
- Ronald Lamola Legal
- Glynis Breytenbach Legal
- Maria Ramos Economist
- Judge Edwin Cameron Judge
- Natasha Mazzone Politician
- Raymond Suttner Intellectual
- Gill Marcus Finance
- Mcebesi Jonas Finance
- Tony Leon Politician
- Judge Dikgang Moseneke Judge
- Terry Crawford Brown Legal
- Andisa Ntsubane Marketing
- Paul Sullivan Legal
- Cas Coovadia Business
- Lindiwe Mazibuko Politician
- Judith February Lawyer
- Prof William Gumede Economist
- Adv Thule Madonsela Academic
- ?????????????? suggestions???????
IN A TIME OF UNIVERSAL DECEIT – TELLING THE TRUTH IS A REVOLUTIONALY ACT
- George Orwell
We are still planning BoekBedonnerd XIII albeit on a reduced scale and more spread out. If any speakers on the list feel that they definitely cannot or will not be attending please let us know as soon as possible. We are all on the same page and understand fully.
Darryl is in the boiler room organizing what is billed to be the largest on-line literary festival under the banner of:
Booktown Richmond & BoekBedonnerd
Madibaland World Literary Festival 2020
November 20 – 30th
More to follow….don’t change your dial and stay tuned!
Following please fine a lovely short story from Cape Town author Ian Sutherland, winner of last year’s South African Independent Publishers Award for best novel.
Why am I smiling? It’s my last day, after all. I’m about to go sailing for the first time but I suspect it’s more because they told me that’s what you do when someone points a camera at you, like my new friend, Shane does. That’s him at my shoulder without a life jacket. Judging from this Kodachrome snapshot, I could be his brother: same pudding-bowl haircut, freckles and skinny legs. Except for my ears. Damn those ears. It was hard enough not having parents.
That yellow surface in the background is the caravan the Wilson’s keep by the dam as a base for weekend races. They don’t tow it for fear of it falling apart. Shane’s mother says not over her dead body would she sleep there with all the goggas. Calls it a shack, but to me it’s a mansion. The first race starts at two o’clock sharp. If you factor in the rigging and tuning of the dinghy and the forty-minute drive, there’s no time to linger after church for tea and gossip. It’s all about priorities.
Shane’s mother - Aunty Pam – must be behind the camera: the girls don’t sail. She’s still alive. Goes down to the Fish Hoek beachfront every sunrise to feed the sea gulls from her hand. They’re her children now. Real ones fled to Perth ages ago. She doesn’t know it’s me strolling past her, of course, but she smiles and waves. Always had a way of making a person – doesn’t matter who - feel special. I think that’s why she still features fondly in my memories, despite what happened.
Half an hour after the photograph was taken, she’s seeing us off at the slipway. Asks me why I’m shaking like the mainsail before I’m even wet. I just shrug and broaden my smile because I can’t bring myself to tell her it’s because I haven’t been taught to swim properly and I’m terrified. After patting Shane on the back, she says to him ‘good boy for sacrificing the day’s races for your friend.’ That’s how they introduce me to people – as a friend - but after ten days I feel like a brother. How I imagine that to feel, at least.
When Mr. Viljoen called me into his office the day before term ended and told me I’d been accepted by a family, I fainted. Okay, I felt faint. I’ve resolved to stop telling fibs. That’s step number four of the program’s twelve. But really: me? When there were so many younger, cuter boys to choose from? I only believed him when he showed me the letter. Here, I still have it in my coat pocket with the other things. See the personalized watermark, the elegant cursive. I swear, everything about Aunty Pam was beautiful.
Out on the water Shane’s transformed. Gone is the stuttering ten-year old in the shadow of his older sister: he’s in command. Despite having been given a rundown of sailing terms beforehand, I’m bewildered. ‘Jib sheet in’; ‘trim’; ‘that’s right’; ‘cleat it’. Between orders, he throws himself about the deck as though his body is an extension of the tiller. The South Easter’s up - white caps are everywhere – and the gunwale under us lifts through thirty degrees from the horizontal and now and again I’m blinded by spray as the bow slices through a wave. We’re halfway across the dam by the time I pluck up the courage to trust the toe straps and throw my weight over the side. Immediately the dinghy rights itself, but too quickly, and my backside hits the water as we stall and for an awful moment I’m convinced we’re going to capsize and I’m going to drown, but thankfully the sails fill and we’re flying again.
The mud flats are approaching, where the shallow water causes the waves rolling in to break. My stomach muscles are killing me so it’s a relief when Shane shouts ‘about tack’ and shoves the tiller hard left. A second later the dinghy’s nose veers through the teeth of the wind and the sails crackle above us. The sharp deceleration causes me to slip into the bath of brownish water that’s collected in the cockpit. Shane’s pressing me down on my shoulder as he ducks, the boom whipping across, and, presto, there he is, up on the windward gunwale. I’m still sloshing about trying to find the figure-of-eight knot at the end of the jib sheet when the mainsail snaps into fullness and then I just watch as Shane’s feet tighten in the straps, his body hanging stiff over the water, and he eases the nose to leeward to begin our reach.
Though I still worry about drowning, the speed freak in me is delighted as I feel the bow rise and start humming and we rock gently from side to side in that magical state yachtsmen call planing. At first the clubhouse is a pimple on the far shoreline, but it quickly swells as we scream along downwind. We pass to the lee of an array of innumerable sails chopping along in close procession toward the committee boat which serves as one end of the race’s start line. ‘See the blue flag,’ Shane says, pointing at the committee boat’s mast, ‘the one with the white square in the middle? That’s four minutes to go.’ The yachts are jostling for position and then there’s a clunk and someone’s swearing at the top of his voice. Hell, curses, I’d never heard. ‘That’s Klaus,’ Shane says. ‘He’s a German immigrant. Hasn’t recovered from his childhood in the war. Thirty years in South Africa and it’s still hard to understand what he says. You must see how he swaggers around with that knife of his at his waist, even when he’s in a speedo. Yes, at his age.’
I imagine little Klaus stepping off the boat in Table Bay. He probably felt a bit like I did when I arrived at the Wilsons’ place. Paarl may only be thirty kilometers or so from Die Kinderhuis in Worcester but to me it’s another country. Picture Uncle Jeff – that’s Shane’s dad – flooring the accelerator and the BMW engine straining up their long, steep driveway until the exhaust pipe scratching beneath us signals that we’ve arrived at the level paving and we pull up in front of a double garage. I’m gobsmacked: there’s a basketball hoop mounted on the wall and it’s even got its own backing board. The place is more like a country club than a house. Trimmed hedges and footpaths and lawns that cascade down to what they call the rugby field because it is big enough to play five-a-side on. And trees – no, orchards - of loquat and mulberry and - can you believe it - their own swimming pool. Our school doesn’t even have one.
Aunty Pam asks me what I’d like for supper. What? No-one ever gives me a choice. ‘Go on’, she said in that kindly voice of hers, ‘you’re our guest of honor’. I don’t want to come across as greedy, so I say, ‘chicken please’. To me that means a thigh piece on plain rice, but we get a roast with all the trimmings followed by ice cream. The next morning Aunty Pam wakes us up with mugs of steaming coffee. No, I’m not joking. I even get to decide how I’d like my eggs and how many rashers of bacon.
Mr. Viljoen gave us strict instructions as to how to behave, so I start off being tentative about the house - ‘may I?’, ‘please’, ‘would you mind?’ - but Aunty Pam keeps telling me to make myself at home and so, gradually, I do. There’s Coke in the fridge, for example, and you can help yourself anytime. That first morning I meet Klara, the char, who comes in twice a week. She’s in the laundry and her toddler is with her, playing under the ironing board. I don’t envy her job, with so many rooms to clean. She’s nice though: brought me tea one time without me asking. I was watching TV - what a treat - Willie, Willie, Walie or Haas Das se Nuus Kas. Remember those?
Because I’m Shane’s friend, his gang accept me without question. It’s school holidays, so we spend hours roaming the streets getting up to no good. Once we hurl stones onto the tin roof of a teacher’s house until he comes running out screaming blue murder. Every adult in the neighborhood knows who’s responsible for trouble and they don’t hesitate to call Aunty Pam. But she just mutters something like ‘how awful,’ and that she’ll look into it. That’s another thing I like about the Wilsons: they don’t immediately assume you’re guilty like they do at Die Kinderhuis.
One day we go up the mountain and play Second World War games where rival gangs defend their dongas and there’s a field of no-man’s land between them. And boompie-ry, where you climb a new-growth tree until its trunk starts bending and ride it to the ground before it snaps. Man, the freedom’s like a drug: the extent of my world until now has been the school grounds, an outing to the public swimming pool and church on Sunday.
I’m not saying there aren’t issues of fitting in. Take the thing with the pellet gun. Shane’s friends can’t stop laughing when I keep missing the milk bottle from close enough to spit at. I want to run away and crawl in a hole. To make things worse they brag about hitting a squirrel’s head from fifty meters. I hate guns, the smell of oil and what they can do. At heart, I’m a sensitive chap. Uncle Jeff says there’re enough weapons in their neighborhood for a citizen’s army. Which might be necessary, if he’s to be believed. Once a month since the riots in ’76, he and other fathers have had to take turns to guard the school. He doesn’t say why there’s rioting, and I don’t ask.
Kgrr. That’s the static from the Volkswagen Combi’s radio. I turn the knob and the thin red line moves through the frequencies. ‘Stop’, Uncle Jeff shouts. ‘Back’. I reverse the dial, slower this time. Kgrr. I’m trying to find the SABC for him, desperate not to mess up. Imagine how special I feel being allowed to sit up front. I think Shane’s sister, Susan, is jealous. She hasn’t warmed to me. It doesn’t help that I’ve become such good friends with Shane. A friend of your enemy is your enemy.
Jislaaik, those white lines fly by when you’re that close to the road. Especially in the flat nose of a Combi. Uncle Jeff bought it as a birthday present for Aunty Pam. Wrapped it in a bow, would you believe? Mmmh. Inside, it’s still got that new car smell. That might be where my fancy for objects of beauty started. Got me into a lot of trouble in the end, but that’s for another story.
Shane’s dinghy is on the roof, and wind’s singing through the straps. The bow extends a couple of meters ahead of us but doesn’t shield me from the low-hanging sun shining through the windscreen and onto my legs which are red and burning. The temperature gauge still reads twenty-five outside. Ah, those oven days of the Boland, how can I describe them? Above you the sky is more haze than blue, shimmering over the corrugated roofs of the townships and ahead the road is a mirage. People stay shuttered indoors until the sun sets and then sit under oaks if they have them, sipping wine, and turtle doves koe-koerr, koe-koerr, the cicadas zing and occasionally a dog barks. Technically, it’s still spring though. The 28th of September 1978, to be precise.
Kgrr. Then it clears. Found it! An Omo washing powder advert is playing. ‘Shhh”, Uncle Jeff hisses. He turns around to glare at his children, but the racket continues. Shane and Susan are squabbling again. They fight a lot. Sometimes it even gets physical. I guess that’s the only way Shane can get even. Last week, Uncle Jeff had to stop the car and threaten him with a hiding. I can’t understand my new friend. If I had a sister, however irritating, I’d treat her like a princess.
The car veers left, and I’m scared we’re going to careen into the ditch beside the road but at the last second Uncle Jeff straightens. He points out a block house. ‘The British built a string of them to keep the commandos out during the Boer War. Jan Smuts and his men got far enough to see Table Mountain. His childhood farm’s back there, in Riebeek West.’ The conflict ended in 1902: I do the sums and realize there must be people alive who would have been teenagers back then.
We’ve slowed to under sixty because we’re on the outskirts of Wellington or Hellington on a hot day. Uncle Jeff calls this the arse end of the town because there’s a permanent stink there from the tannery. ‘Sis,’ Susan cries, ‘fess up’. Shane denies it and they guffaw. One of them winds down a window and hot air rushes in with the smell of cow hide but the change in air pressure causes a shuddering. ‘Close the damn thing’, Uncle Jeff shouts and leans his ear toward the radio. ‘This is the six o’clock news…’
‘Shut up’, Uncle Jeff shouts, which is out of character. Uncle Jeff is a model citizen. I know that because he’s a member of the Round Table. You’ve got to be a professional to belong, a man of means. Uncle Jeff describes himself as self-made. He’s always reminding Shane and Susan how privileged they are. Which is why he signed up for the adopt-an-orphan holiday program. Lucky for me, I thought at the time. But how was I to know?
The newsreader tells us that the National Party caucus is still in session. It’s a three-way race to succeed BJ Forster as Prime Minister. BJ: I’m old enough to know what else those initials stand for. Imagine an old bug-eyed verkrampte like that taking a job on his…it’s no wonder he had a heart attack. The foreign minister, Pik Botha – that friendly guy with a mustache - is the favorite – Uncle Jeff’s anyway. The other contender is Connie Mulder, but he’s been involved in something sinister called the information scandal. Thinking about it now, those people sure had a warped morality: it’s alright to oppress three-quarters of the population because of the color of their skin but not to lie on a form.
At Die Kinderhuis we aren’t usually interested in the news. We know that none of it will help us get out of there or bring our moms and dads back. According to Mr. Viljoen mine died in a car crash, but my friend Riaan says he tells every boy that. Riaan’s the last word on anything. He’s smart as well as strong and consequently top of the pecking order in the primary school. Gets me left-overs from the canteen sometimes. Most new boys happily accept this but for the others there’s the boxing gloves. Adult ones that make a skinny boy look like he’s going to topple when he’s holding them out front.
We’re in the industrial area of Paarl with lots of factories and warehouses, but, because it’s Sunday, they’re roller shuttered, and the place is deserted. A huge signboard reading Oshkosh Trucks catches my eye. I love motor vehicles of any kind. Wow, there must be twenty cabs lined up on the yard. We pass an empty field on our left, which is strewn with Checkers bags and Coke cans and the litter gets worse further up the slope to a ridge running parallel to the road. ‘That’s where Klara lives,’ Uncle Jeff says, pointing to a double-story block with washing lines strung between its windows. ‘The extended family, fifteen I think, share a one bed flat. Take turns to sleep’. Boy oh boy, I thought we had it tough at Die Kinderhuis, but at least we have our own beds.
Like many English-speakers, the Wilsons call themselves liberal. Bloody Nats. They use that phrase a lot. And Aunty Pam’s a member of the Black Sash. But I bet if you pointed a gun to their heads they’d admit they’re thankful for the Afrikaners. Technically, that would include me. Half of me, anyway. You see, my name’s Andrew Potgieter. I wish my parents had been decisive and called me Andre. Damn business caused me to be branded a soutie, never mind that I’m native fluent. Salty, it means: one foot in England, the other in the Republic and your thing-a-ling dangling in the sea. If only it was funny. In Worcester in the seventies it was akin to a death sentence. ‘Hey, soutie, you people put our mothers and children in concentration camps,’ they’d yell at you every time before a fight.
Which is where the ritual of push-ups before bedtime prayers comes from. Shane’s in awe of my discipline: he thinks it’s from virtue, but the truth is I got the idea from Oer Aap, our PT instructor. Ancient Ape: that’s what the boys call anyone with a protruding forehead and hair on the knuckles. Before becoming a teacher, he’d been in the permanent force. Koevoet, no less. Every time you did an exercise wrong he’d shout ‘sak vir twintig’. Told us they make you do that all the time during basics to toughen you up for the border. Once – I think he’d been drinking – he told us he’d seen a Cuban himself, up close, that the bugger’s eyes were like saucers before he died.
I took the idea to the extreme. Did a couple of hundred a day: hands shoulder-width; fingers touching; even the ones where you clap your hands on the way down. Man, you should have seen me running around Die Kinderhuis shadow boxing after I saw the Rocky flick at the bioscope. Can you believe, all that effort was for just one fight? It was worth it, at least. We have them behind the bicycle shed on Friday afternoons so the whole school can watch. Also, the teachers have gone home. Now, I’m not proud of what I did but he had it coming. Little shit wouldn’t stop calling me wingnut.
And the bedtime prayers? I can assure you I wasn’t confessing my sins or anything – not in those days, anyway. Give me this, that, help, more like it. Don’t be fooled by every hard luck story: a poor boy can be as much of a selfish bastard as the next guy. I’d still be that way if I hadn’t have met Reverend Terrance in the program. He used to say the only thing that differentiates the poor from the rich is that that the rich have money. I liked that he had a sense of humor. He wasn’t one of those who threw the book at you – his life was enough.
We get to a turning circle where there’s an advertising board that says Human & Pitt Funerals. Susan makes a joke about it which, I gather from the groans, has been heard before. The second right takes us up Lady Grey Street toward the Railway and Berg River Bridges. The current is broad and swift and the color of soil and from upstream a canoeist paddles in long, patient strokes towards and as we cross he disappears under us. Ahead, is the infamous Station Hotel. It has a vacancy sign, and the liquor outlet with the Johnny Walker man on its facade is boarded up, just like Interfruiters opposite it. ‘You don’t want to be here on a Saturday morning,’ Uncle Jeff says. ‘Especially on pay day: it’s overrun.’ Of course, he doesn’t mean badly by this. He’s a liberal, remember.
A sleepy Boland dorp, I’ve heard Paarl called, but for a Worcester boy it’s the big city. CNA, Selwyn’s Chemist, OK Bazaars: the shopfronts on Lady Grey Street get progressively brighter. Where the road dog-legs left into Main Street, there’s a strip of shops, which is where Aunty Pam got me a new pair of shoes. A going away present, she called it, though I suspect it was from pity. My Grasshoppers have gotten so tight on my feet that I’d have ingrown toenails by now if the soles hadn’t separated from the leather. The shop was long and narrow and - hells, bells - I’ve never seen so many shoes: box stacked upon box on every wall; the salesman needed a ladder to get them.
Ah…my back still tingles, and I get a dreamy feeling when I think of those metal blocks they used to measure my feet pressing all cold and hard through my socks. We tried one pair of shoes on after another until empty boxes and tissue paper was strewn over the floor, but I kept rejecting them. ‘What’s wrong’, Aunty Pam eventually asked. ‘Don’t you want new shoes?’ By then she must have been thinking I was an ungrateful so-and-so, and I felt bad for it. But how could I explain the pain I was in?
The same thing happened at the Spur last night (the life-sized red Indian sign is coming up on our right). Mmmh: I swear they pump that burger smell into the air to tempt you. Anyway, there we were, our waiter with a fake smile and a name tag and the first thing he does is take our drinks order. Coke for me, of course, so cold when it came that rivulets of condensation ran down the side of the glass. For years I’d fantasized about holding one of those wooden menu boards and there I was living the dream, but I felt terrible.
Jislaaik, my eyes were on stalks at the prices, but Uncle Jeff said we could order whatever we wanted except a steak. For that they treat themselves at the Wagon Wheels, where apparently you can stand and watch your meat being grilled and the flames leap chest high when the chef does his basting. My Goodie Burger with its pineapple UFO and chips and onion rings arrived but all I could do as the others tucked into their meals was sit and fiddle with that wooden spike that holds the hamburger patty to the bun and then force myself to eat. Dessert was the same story, even though I got a Chico the Clown with all that ice-cream and chocolate. I could see that Aunty Pam was upset: the whole reason we went there was as a farewell treat for me. It made me feel worse, of course, but no matter how much I tried I just couldn’t make myself happy.
Paarl’s Main Street is the longest in the country and runs the length of the mountain. We’re about half way along it, in the heart of the town when a massive Dutch Reformed Church appears on our left. If you’re an Afrikaner, either this is your spiritual home or the Strooidak further south. The language itself was founded in that nondescript house just beyond Die Pastorie there, where Die Genootskap van Egte Afrikaners used to meet. Strange concept, isn’t it, establishing a language? Die Taal Monument is similarly anachronistic - that upturned finger on the rump of the mountain that’s supposed to represent Afrikaans’ ascendance. ‘Ridiculous’, Uncle Jeff muttered when we visited the concrete monstrosity. He doesn’t say what the mud huts to one side represent and I don’t ask, but now that I think of it they were probably mean to represent African tongues.
‘What’s that?’ Uncle Jeff fiddles with the dial. He’s recognized the beeping that signals a special announcement. ‘The results of the first round of voting in the National Party caucus have been tallied and…’ The shock on Uncle Jeff’s face is palpable. Pik Botha has been eliminated from the running. ‘It’s between Connie Mulder and PW Botha to lead the country’, he moans, ‘a crook or a bore’. But I fail to share his interest. I’m hardly listening. It’s as though my mind has detached from my body.
We turn off Main Street and head up the mountain, a vineyard on one side, mansions on the other, into the shade of spreading trees until the Wilsons’ postbox comes into view and then the Combi’s engine is straining up the driveway and next thing we’re in front of the garage. The men are supposed to untie the dinghy and unload everything while the ladyfolk prepare dinner. Shane and Uncle Jeff spring into action but the mere thought of getting out of the car seems like an effort too much for me. An oxygen-sapping sense of dread has overcome me. Think of your worst Sunday night feeling and double it.
They’re calling me for dinner. The girls have managed to rustle up omelets and there’s bacon, which I’d normally run a mile for. But instead I just sit there in Shane’s room on the end of what has become known as my bed and stare out the window across the valley’s patchwork of suburbs and vineyards, all the way to the Hottentots Holland Mountains. It’s magnificent the way they turn pink after the sun goes down. Uncle Jeff says the best part of his day when he gets home from work early and sits on the stoep with Aunty Pam and has a glass of cold Chenin Blanc.
But I’m not really looking at the mountains, I’m looking through them, to the next valley. They’re taking me home tomorrow. Not that Die Kinderhuis has ever been a home to me. It’s just a place where I exist. Mr. Viljoen warned me it was going to be difficult when my stay came to an end. He’s a hard man, a product of his time, but his heart isn’t bad. He said it would be worth it though, a life-changing experience. And he was right. Just not in the way he meant it.
We’re winding our way up the Du Toitskloof Pass (this is before the tunnel). Down below in the green valley, farm dams glint and the air’s so clear I can see all the way to the wheat fields of the Swartland. We round a hairpin bend and Uncle Jeff says this is where an Oshkosh truck its brakes once. The driver used his gears to slow down, but he still must have been flying. The company gave him an extra week’s leave for bravery. This talk of speed and machinery would normally have thrilled me but today all I’m thinking is that I really, really, don’t want to get to the top of the pass.
It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all? Rubbish. The only smart arse who’ll dish you that sort of platitude is the one who’s never known real grief. I’m talking about the kind that numbs you to the core until the smallest task seems overwhelming. Where there’s no taste and nothing beautiful in this world and you’re convinced it will last forever which it sometimes does. That was to come later though. My overwhelming preoccupation as we cross the Breerivier, its banks still strewn with detritus from the winter’s floods, is to keep back my tears. I’ve made a pact with myself not to show them how much I care, to be a brave little boy, and no way in hell am I about to break it. I was good with that sort of thing once. Keeping my commitments.
In the parking lot I cling to Aunty Pam’s dress until she pries me off and my eyes are so watery the world is a blur. I’m not crying, just hurting, hurting, hurting. In retrospect though, it pales in comparison to the dashed hopes to come. As we gather in Mr. Viljoen’s office for the formalities, Uncle Jeff goes on about what a pleasure I’ve been, a role model for their son, and throughout it all Aunty Pam nods and she even blows me a kiss. I mean, what was I supposed to think?
I write to thank them afterward – just like we were taught - saying it was the holiday of my life, how I – yes – love and miss them and thanks so much for the shoes, the experience has changed me forever. But then, at the hurdle, I get stuck. Sure, I hint - oh, how I hint - but I just can’t come out and ask them to have me to stay again. Do I regret it? Every day! But it wasn’t unreasonable for me to assume they’d invite me anyway. I mean, I fitted in. My behavior was above reproach. I was the brother Shane never had.
Every Friday afternoon until Christmas, I sat in the Die Kinderhuis’s foyer and waited, always, with my new shoes on, polished just the way she showed. My nose got sore from pressing against the frosted glass as I scoured the parking lot for the BMW that never came, my heart anyway skipping a beat every time a blonde woman with dark glasses approached. But one rich bitch after another breezed past with barely a glance at me. You see, even at ten I was old in the eyes of an orphan-seeker, and ugly.
Now she’s looking past me again, out over the shimmer of False Bay toward Hangklip. A sea gull alights on her shoulder and takes off. What’s changed in the past twenty-nine years? Here I am, standing in front of her, still smiling to mask my pain, and invisible.