Monday, December 13, 2010

A RELIGIOUS RUCK and MAUL


The Bed and Breakfast I booked into was aptly named, TRADING PLACES. It summed up in two words, my situation in life at the time: the need to trade what I knew and was used to, for the unknown, in the hope of finding a new form of certainty: to redefine my pride in the language that had shaped my tongue – Afrikaans.

There was no conscious decision in choosing Smithfield as my first stop over.
 It was simply a decent day’s drive in the general direction I had decided to follow and I had made a decision prior to leaving Durban that I would go West, a ‘Great Trek’ in reverse, toward the big blue sky of the Karoo and that I would leave as much of my journey as I could to synchronicity. My old mate Piet Panel-Beater had reminded me, prior to leaving, of the old diamond prospector adage – ‘some day’s a diamond, some day’s a stone, most day’s just stones’, and I knew that in order to find the diamonds of clarity that I sought, I would need to dip my pan into a lot of streams and therefore I shouldn’t be to prescriptive in choosing their where-about.

The Abbo’s in Australia believe in going ‘walk about’ to reconnect themselves to the meaning of life. I was a ‘boertjie’ on a similar mission, questioning the very foundation upon which the building blocks of my life had been placed thus far. It is curious how we deny ourselves - natural destiny, choosing rather to adopt the mantle that transient society and ideologies impose on us. Impositions which we gladly wear in some vain attempt to satisfy what we think our relatives, friends, and the familial flock perceive us to be.

I felt very much an alien in my own Land. It was quite ironic that Smithfield became my first stop on a quest to understand the effects that the new dispensation was having on the Afrikaaner. Smithfield was the birthplace of the Nationalist Party, the very womb from which the Broederbond was conceived.

I emerged from my dusty bakkie like a python from a cardboard box – it had been a long day at the wheel. As my body gratefully uncoiled, the first thing that struck me was the colour of house that was to be ‘casa mia’ for the next two days. The colour was a mixture of Fanta Grape with a hint of plum jam, interspersed with metal advertising signs from old trading stores, extolling the benefits of Pegasus Motor Oil, Boxer Tobacco and Koffiehuis. It was exactly what I needed to see – a smorgasbord of colour and choice on brick and mortar, enticing one to consider trading places.

The best part of the house was at the back, a raised covered stoep ran the entire length of the house, facing what must have been a barn of sorts in the original construction. A tall thick hedge joined the two buildings on the one side and a broad-trunked evergreen on the other, acted both as touchline and grandstand to a quadrangle of lawn, complete with fountain.

The barn had been converted into the reception office and what could be best described as a large creative space – my host, a woman whose eyes reflected a trust tempered by experience, was primarily a writer – of some note – as I was later to discover. The doors to the office sent chills down my spine and I was thankful that they were open! The formalities completed and a warm welcome received, my eyes turned back to the doors and studied them as old memories flooded my mind. “From the Reddersburg Prison – I salvaged them from the demolisher after the prisoners burnt it down”, she said. ‘It was a protest action against the government... some of the prisoners died... their crime for which they got time – not having a dompas. Cell doors close with a finality that can only be fully experienced from the inside”, she continued, as she led me to my room!

Being the only guest I got the big room – homely, high ceilings, comfortable and cool – with a lovely old sash window that gave a view of the rugby field across the street through the trees. “Forty winks”, I said to myself, “and time for the mattress to massage the miles out of my legs – a good shower, a very cold beer or four followed by a big steak, slap chips and a couple of eggs”... I don’t remember much else – the mattress folded around me like a hot dog seeking a sausage and before I could ask for tomato sauce, I was gone.

A knocking on the door and her voice saying, “would you like coffee”, was a wonderful way to be woken. “Thank you”, said I, “can I have a quick shower”?
I emerged onto the stoep shortly thereafter to find good coffee and rusks that needed dunking. As I sat, looking across the lawn at the barn with its cell doors now closed for the day, thoughts of Patrick Mynhardt suddenly filled my mind. I could see him entering, stage left, onto the stoep toward a table and chair set centre stage. I could hear the audience, seated on blankets with baskets under a canopy of Free State stars, break into happy applause as his Afrikaans accent, complete with its dry gravel roads, tumbling streams and haunted passes gave life to Bosman’s stories of the Marico and cold stone jugs.During a pause I saw his eyes move to the walls of the barn that had, for effect, been lit by a solitary spotlight. I saw his eyes focus, suddenly and sharply, on those doors from Reddersburg, both he and I heard the Judge say, “Hermann Charles Bosman, your sentence of death by hanging has been commuted to ten years imprisonment with hard labour... consider yourself a fortunate man...”.
A judgement made with wisdom that even Solomon would have applauded!

A wet nose pushing against my hand interrupted my vivid thoughts. My eyes dropped to see a ‘brak’ looking at me in the very same way as that dog that used to look into the gramophone speaker on those ‘His Masters Voice’ records. Do dogs understand our thoughts? The answer is simply – no. They do understand the tone of our language however! Bosman thought in Afrikaans but wrote in English and in doing so illustrated to those who could not speak my mother tongue the beauty she held within her ample bosoms.

 As Afrikaaner Nationalism grew from possibility through probability to become a governing reality, we grew less and less concerned about the tone of caring that should accompany our language. We drove and coloured our agenda’s of apartheid with a violence of opinion - because we could. We declared our language to be official... and white! In doing so we allowed our beloved ‘taal’ to be viewed and sadly, accepted, as the language of the oppressor.

Picking up my cup I went to the kitchen hopeful of another. “I took the liberty of booking you a table for dinner at Luigi’s – four hundred metres to the left toward town”, she said, from somewhere down the passage. “They serve good pasta, although the decor is very Sandton on Smithfield, if you know what I mean. The table is booked for eight o’clock and I have left front door keys on the table next to your bed”.

“Thank you”, I replied. “Is there a pub in town where I could meet some of the locals and enjoy a very cold one or four - my throat could do with a good watering before dinner”, I asked? As she entered the kitchen she flashed a knowing smile. “The Pig – Out would be the place”, she said:  “honestly earthy, is an apt description of it and that includes the patrons, the barman and the conversation! Turn right, instead of left, also about four hundred metres, you can’t miss it”.

I changed shirts, added deodorant and left in search of a pig with cold beer. As I crossed the road I noticed the very large solid plate-steel sign at the entrance to the rugby field – KOSIE DU PLESSIS STADIUM – it said, in Afrikaans. The size, solidity and proportion of it brought back some bruised memories of very large, very thick props that I had played against! Kosie was probably of a similar ilk and I made a mental note to enquire after him at the pub.

Country pubs, especially Afrikaans country pubs are not places for the faint hearted, nor the ‘windgats’ of the world! There is decorum of behaviour that must be observed upon entering as a stranger – a short apprenticeship that must be served prior to acceptance into the body of the church and a clear understanding that hospitality is repaid promptly with reciprocal hospitality when it’s your turn. Having had the pleasure of spending many happy hours frequenting such establishments in my line of duty as a ‘travelling smous’, I was soon batting off the front foot, with my origins and credentials accepted.
As a fraternity of alcohols gently cleansed the gathered throats of diesel and dust, I found myself discussing rugby with Oom Doors - an elderly man mountain, the type English South Africans call ‘a big Dutchman’!
 His spine was pure religion – his strength the stuff of legend, his response when I mentioned the name Kosie Du Plessis was delivered with the venom of a striking cobra....!
“That man tore this town apart”, he hissed. “They named that stadium after a man who destroyed a church”! A silence descended, one or two throats were nervously cleared, The Pig – Out Pub transformed into a theatre that validated the immense power of description embodied in the Afrikaans language.  Oom Doors personified the passion of those who spoke it as mother tongue.

“He and his moneyed friends, all Nationalist’s, they thought they owned this town”, he continued, his voice trembling with emotion. “The old church was a building of great character – most of the people from town and the district around, were either christened, married or buried there .... “That church was the very fabric that clothed our lives! Kosie Du Plessis decided this town needed better, a new and bigger church and that the old church should be demolished”..., his voice trailed into silence as old memories rolled across the playing fields of his life. “He and his friends, half of whom were in his pocket, forced a vote and won by a very narrow margin, Sunday Service became a war zone of competing prayer that divided the community to such an extent that a deputation was sent to the Governor - General in Pretoria asking him to intercede in the matter”.

“The deputation returned with a letter from the Governor General forbidding the demolition of the church”, said Oom Doors taking a deep swallow of his brandy. “It was to no avail, however”... his voice dropping in tone as he spoke... “The Governor General had died the evening prior to their return to Smithfield and his edict was therefore null and void”!

“Those who were for the new church, took this turn of events to be a sign of divine intervention and trumpeted the imminent fall of Jericho, such was the ego of their ilk”, he said, his eyes narrowing like a boxer ready to counter punch. “We took the matter to the Supreme Court in Bloemfontein. We lodged our case, however, with heavy hearts. One does not take your church to court and escape without sentence personally”, said Oom Doors, the pain of this past action still evident in his eyes. I looked around and saw how deeply the gravity of his words had penetrated the minds of those listening.

“The matter never got to be heard in court”, he said quietly. “The General Synod sent their judges and wise counsels who with sage word and deed persuaded the opponents to embrace respect for each others position, without retreat, in the interests of bringing forgiveness to the bosom of the community”.
“A new and larger church in Smithfield was needed to serve a growing future congregation and had been part of the thinking of the General Synod for some time, they said. The current church, they concurred, had indeed been part of the holy cloth of our lives, however, its structure according to learned engineers they had commissioned, had deteriorated to an extent that the spire was in danger of collapsing. It was therefore necessary, they concluded, ‘to de-construct’ its presence in the town”.

The ringing of a cell phone interrupted what might have followed. Oom Doors rummaged, firstly through the wrong pocket, to find the said electronic gate- keeper that controls our modern lives. “Yes, I will be home just now”, he said, “Yes, I’ll bring milk”, and rang off without farewell. There was a ‘double’ on the bar that had his name on it, the glass disappeared into his big hand and its contents disappeared in a single gulp directly thereafter. “Cheers - I will see you boys tomorrow”, as he moved toward the door, “and you too boet, if you are here”, he said, nodding in my direction.

Realising how time had flown and how hungry I was, I too took my leave shortly thereafter and with a good moon to guide me soon found myself on the patio at Luigi’s, my table offering a good view of the garden. A bottle of wine opened and a rare steak ordered, I allowed my mind to savour the events of the day.

There was no doubting the strength that religion had imparted to the Afrikaaner.  Many of our forbearers had come to this land as victims of religious oppression, forced to flee to a foreign shore in order to worship, in freedom, that unbreakable thread of belief that was theirs. Many others had come to this land as ‘free men’ only to suffer later the fate of oppression imposed on them by another nation – the British. Some, from other shores, arrived as slaves and ended up as relatives! The British became the denominator that united our diversity as we rose up against the new oppressors; we won battles and lost wars whilst our wives and children died in concentration camps, such was our commitment to the cause of freedom.

 Together we forged a language - our language - a pot-pourri of voice, with diverse European and Eastern origins, connected to a central foundation of Dutch. A language that grew and flourished in the rich soil and sunshine of Africa, adopting nuance and description from a rainbow of nationalities and a diversity of cultures that only that period in Africa could provide. Afrikaans – will remain, for better or worse, the only African language of World origin that exists on the continent of Africa!

 We were the foot soldiers that opened the back roads of our country to economic enhancement. We became the farmers that fed the nation, the “can do” people that made a plan... we took jobs in the towns and villages that nobody wanted, because those were the jobs we could get – we were, in the main, ‘The Poor Whites’ - citizens of The Union of South Africa and subjects of a Royal Realm that needed us, yet never knew us and in truth didn’t care either way.
We did, however; we took our politics, our religious strength and our work ethic and built a power base in the villages and small towns. We took control of the Health Committees, the Town and District Councils, and created employment for our people. We created the Co-operative Societies that helped our farmers to plough plant and expand into an economic force whose voice could not be denied. We became the prison warders, the clerks in government departments and the grader drivers that smoothed the roads for others of us to gain passage into higher echelons of power, who, in turn, extended our realm of control.

Success gave us the confidence to extend our efforts. We built Universities, Colleges of Religion and a Broederbond that produced leaders of distinction in abundance. At one stage we had more Dominees than churches and those who were in excess we simply retreaded to serve our politics with equal fervour. Our politics and our religion became branches of each other as our people and indeed, the country flourished. Their needs and wants well served they started to believe our politics to be righteous and so it appeared to be, when in ’48 we won control of the country and its parliament.

The last morsel of a very tender steak had me wishing there was more. There was a glass remaining in the bottle and I decided to enjoy it with a cigarette, standing up, in the bar. The air conditioned bar was cold as I entered and my mind quickly agreed with thoughts of a good port to follow what was left of the wine before leaving. Herman Smith, who I had met earlier at The Pig, was propping up the bar a little worse for wear! “Oom Doors was right”, he said, changing elbows on the counter as he spoke, “some of our people grew ego’s that were too big for small towns and some small town Dominees, some of them relied too heavily on the plates of donation that fed them”. “Ja – Nee”, he muttered with inscrutable Afrikaans logic, “when things change they never stay the same”. With that he picked up his keys, said his farewell and left. Finishing my port, I too followed him, a short while later. With clouds trying to steal the stars as I walked, I wondered to myself, aloud, “When he said – they – did he mean things or Dominees”?

My pace quickened as my bed beckoned. I found myself repeating the simple words of Herman Smith, “Ja – nee, when things change they never stay the same”. As I entered Trading Places and locked the door behind me, I added the phrase, “Ja-nee, maar more sal altyd nog, ‘n dag wees”.

Morning came quickly and quietly to Smithfield, the sun waking me gently as it found its way through the sash window. I thanked my Lord for yesterday, begged his guidance for today and thanked Him for allowing me the hope of tomorrow. I put emphasis here on yesterday, because the events of the previous day had truly rekindled the belief that the language that gives body to my soul would survive all those who seek to define her tomorrows.

That faithful mare we affectionately call ‘Ons Taal - Afrikaans’, was thoroughly bred, from a colourful lineage. She would carry the dreams that link the hearts and minds of those who love her with a stamina and courage bred from the paternity of Pierneef, the brotherhood of De Jongh and the destiny of a Dorsland...  She had no need of any Rapportryer, to choose her races!  

A good breakfast brought on an urge to seek the back roads of town, an urge to feel the pulse of its community as they rose to greet the day. As my stride cut through the freshness of the early day a voice interrupted my thoughts, “More boet”, it was Oom Doors, “I’m sorry I left you so abruptly yesterday, the English call it, the maintenance of domestic bliss, I believe. They always had a funny way of diverting the truth”.

“I never got to the end of my story yesterday.... a new church was built, a great edifice of a place with none of the character of the old one – Kosie was like a cockerel on steroids, such was the sweetness of his victory”, he said, with just a tinge of malice! “They then began the de-construction of the old church, as they put it... they began with hammers, chisels, picks and shovels to no avail. They resorted eventually to dynamite, firstly one stick, and then two... ‘The cloth that clothed our lives’ was too well woven and shrugged off their efforts with disdain”, he continued with more than a hint of glee!

“Eventually”, he said quietly, “the dynamite won and  the old church rumbled as she crumbled under the power of the blast.... which simultaneously caused every window in the new church to shatter in a myriad of shards”... A very satisfied smile creased his laughter lines, just a little, as he took my hand and shook it.

“Let us thank Our Lord”, he said, his voice no more than a whisper, “for allowing us only twenty six letters to use in our language; more would only have enticed our imagination to drive us further apart.
(Dear Reader - I would love to receive your comments on the above!)

Spyker Koekemoer. Copyright reserved 


     







    

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