A South African artist living in Ireland writes about her cultural life in her homeland
Blaring the insufficient speakers, Peter Gabriel’s “. . . Tower that Ate People” rattles the crystal stones lined along the metallic grid to absorb the laptop’s brain toxic emf’s. Finger tips dik their familiar dik-dik-dik-dak-dikking rhythmic patternings on the keyboard, with a regularly sporadic, rallentandoed reach of the right hand to the backspace button diagonally right, dik-dik dik-dik*.
She’s been far away. She doesn’t even know how come she went. She just found herself back there again. Like she hadn’t ever left. Like she hadn’t even lived anything since then. Like that was all she’d ever lived . . .
Newly a wife to a legal officer in his second year of compulsory military conscription, she’s living in Suikerkop, one of the Air Force’s wild, nature reserves surrounding the Eastern Transvaal base.
Peaks of the Drakensberg escarpment rise purple in the west, flat to the horizon everywhere else -the ‘platteland’; scrubby, arid, bushveld, exuding the unassuming stealth of a nature soundscape that inveigles itself to an intoxication of the memory forever: chorusing bird exuberance on the clarity of sunrise air, into the morning, a building rustling, crickling, thwicker of busy insect percussion, on midday haze, the stultified, pinging hover of dozy reclining, perhaps punctuated with thumping hooves of an Antelope herd suddenly disturbed in its amblesome grazing, the emanating instruments blend a repetitive, baroque-like predictability in the cooling relief of afternoon; distinguishable solo calls announce evening, hyena howling laughingly, warthog grunting, in the night a far off lion roar, elephant trumpets, the domed-ness of the star-filled amphitheatre audible in its reverberating resonance of the soil thrum-humming below, in the dark right next to the window, Giraffe mandibles masticating leaves off the top of a tree – the collective echoes of an eternality.
She feels the soft, billowy fall of the cool, downplayed, blouson, t-shirt-type dress, peach, with ties on the shoulders and a darn in its skirt – specifically selected in sensitivity to the poverty of her students at the school where she works, as offset to the fashion parade of the other teachers; sandals with coarse style stitched, orange leather, criss-cross straps and dark wooden wedge heels on rubber soles squeak down the streaky-grey, cold, cement tiles of the passage to the bedroom in the sparsely spacious prefab house that is refuge from the parched heat outdoors.
“. . . there’s a bump in the basement – there’s a hole in the floor – there’s a guard in the garden, locking up the door . . . .” the music is a strobe-ish sound, like her mind in the there then and also in the here now, Iceland fighting off ruthless attack by savage marauders, Birgitta Jónsdóttir* online calling out.
Successful eco centres wave hurrah flags of getting-fatter mother organisations, with unsuspecting, noble, co-opted stragglers from the peripheries who would be put better to the task of establishing the real balance of self-sufficiency in their own flailing outposts.
An arrogant, self-serving, old-school, new age man emails a presumptuous message of peremptory instruction to unsubscribe from a 16 year old subscription to an alternative research network because he thinks that an out-of-office automated message response to his chain of forwards is specifically directed, opportunistic spam.
doenk, doenk, doenk, . . . the cursor winking is waiting for more.
She’s perched cross-legged on a pillow, the bed’s too low for the table. She notes the child has just gone out into the chill winter night again to re-shake the gas bottle into giving up its truly last dregs for just one more pot of popcorn. She drops her whingeing arms, rubs her freezing hands and rolls her head to release the knot that’s tightening underneath the right shoulder blade.
The lyrics urge. “. . . tell it like it is – . . .”
The glaring at her eyes of the supercilious screen assumes her dikdikdak will continue animating its virtual white with the linear blink of letters like a miniature buck herd hemmed in two-dimensionality leaping digitality.
“. . . tell it like it is – till there’s no misunderstanding – . . .”
- over the brazen flames of a hardekool fire with the neighbours, aromatic smoke rises from reddening coals into the nostrils, trails upwards into a sketch on the bare night sky.
The smell and sounds of meat sizzle, loads of it, ‘vark, bees, en skaap’, wors -
“ . . . waneer die aanval kom,”
“ja, ons moet gereed wees”
“- geweer oefening, vir die vrouens, dis belangrik, jy moet gaan Mev. Jenkin”
“en dan, as dit by die venster inkom,”
“en as dit bruin is,”
“ja, met krillerige hare, skiet jong!” [invigorated titter and laughter]
“En nou Dominee, asseblief, sëen die kos, . . .“* [heads bowed]
No ‘dominee’ who speaks like this is going to ‘sëen’ her ‘kos’, thank you very much and she puts her hand over her plate and turns an open-eyed face to the mighty, domed heavens in the hopes that she will be able to chew and swallow against the tightening restriction in her chest and throat . . ..
“. . . when you strip it right back . . .”
The car is orange. (Seems to be a colour scheme theme.) A real, dik* orange. Faded matte. The body is a mis-shapen trot on four wheels, a vehicular hunchback, but, its just the retrograde Corona model. There’s an occasion of reprieve from the daily, three-phase commuting routine when she doesn’t have to be dropped off on the side of the road at some arbitrary pick up point to facilitate the convoluted claim strategies that the Boere stock have devised to milk the most out of the state education department transport allowance system, and, back from her teaching day, she’s turning the wheel to steer the tyres over the gravel stones in the driveway to park the car under the carport adjacent to the outdoor sink and the back door of home.
A surprised slitherer is in transit slink across the driveway stones and instant foot reflexes attempt an acceleration to squash its tubes in before it can get away. But of course it does. Get away. Very fast. Like spontaneous teleportation, not even out of breath, there it is coiled stationery in a tree, authentically venomously leering back at the orange jalopy that has tried to run it down. She’s learning that the Mamba is reputed to be easily retributive and malicious. She notes the unleashing of her primitive instinct to harm this snake as she considers re-angling the car for another run at it, but she can’t ram the tree. Behind the safety of the car window she’s become mesmerised, watching; there the two potential combatants sit, in a time-stop staring match. She switches off the ignition, riveted. Intermittently the desire to goad him(her?) resurges. She taunts with a yell, waves her hands, bangs the car window like a dolt in dementia. Slitherer is coiled, staring, motionless. Sweat beads accrue the need for food and drink, accrue the need to get on with the afternoon, read Larousse Gastronomique for the next in the series of meal presentations by a new wife, exercises to Jane Fonda’s LP, chores in the house, prep sheets to be bashed out on the manual typewriter, marking 100 essays, the promise of an evening swim . . .. Slitherer is motionless, coiled, staring. She turns the key and Slitherer, winner of the stare-down, is vanished. She edges the car into its spot. Encumbered by bags and books, she gets out the car, walks to the back door and enters the safe, coolness of the house.
“. . . there’s a bump in the basement – there’s a hole in the floor – there’s a guard in the garden, locking up the door . . . .”
The cupboard is left open to the light and air to prevent the dark, dankness of the chill, wet, northern climate from turning the precipitous leaves into mould. In long, deep, grey filing trays fashioned out of cardboard, vegetable boxes, all her writings and records from grade I to current maturation are neatly catalogued, classified and stacked. She hauls out pages cold to the touch from a draught that creeps in through a recess in the wall:
A thin, white, A3 paper folder opens onto various official forms, D.E.T.* appointment, salary R6591 pa, signed Director-General; annexure BT-4 pages; PAYE personal particulars; South African Teacher’s Council for Whites membership directive; roneo-typed agenda sheet for staff meeting 13 July 1983 with pencil notes back and front; 5 page, stamped affidavit in black pen addressed to the provincial security police, with additional note page; Franz Khosa’s permission slip; 3 browned, torn out pages.
There’s 10 white, 9 black teachers, 300 pupils in standard nine and ten, 75% of them in the boarding hostel at the bottom end of the extended, sloping grounds. The central linking corridors along the grass verge are concrete, but there’s bare sand to reconnoitre on the walkways beyond the established buildings that glare the aesthetic-less-ness of institution. Scant other facility. Classrooms are bare and husked in dust, with aggressive green blackboards.
At the beginning of the year the students presented a blanket, blankness at the English being spoken by an English speaker from the city and they were blatant in their scepticism and mistrust. It took a few months for her register class to interpret her nurturing intentions. Some men in the Matric classes, themselves parents and well older than her, remained gloweringly suspicious of her for the entire year. The teaching was a draining process of quickly having to learn the language of second language English, being mindful to hone speech rhythms to an articulate lope, whilst also speeding the pace needed to cover the material in the prescribed curriculum. Aural comprehension was cumbersome for all, but it did develop, and by the August it was as if lights had switched on in some faces, imbuing the class sessions with a bright energy. Daily marking one hundred, garbled, unintelligible scripts was laborious, onerous, it felt painfully futile. What was the point of returning pages filled with indecipherable red pen that virtually rewrote each student’s essay? But some of the submitted homework began to transform into presentations lilting with indications of grasp. A pathway that could flow to lucidity was opening.
Of course an increasing awareness had to factor in that lack of engagement in the classroom oftentimes, in some instances, could be attributed to the brain void of sheer, gnawing hunger.
There was no way to impede the constant spirit of under-the-breath derision coming off the white staff like a frequency radiation cloud and the expedience for work load shift in the arrival of a new, naïve, first year teacher from the city was a gap they closed smartly, especially since they were uninclined to more than base minimum delivery for the ‘Kaffirtjies’ they had been hired to educate. The black staff were remote and polite, but being friendlier by half year, this came to measure breathing space. The home economics teacher, Duduzile Maswanganyi, emerged as close, sweet companion in complex difficulties.
The date of the kidnap of the young boy into the staff kombi was 1 September 1983, long after the transport arrangements had been re-configured into a speedier drive and enhanced profits for the claimants. The trauma of sustaining the teaching post had been reaching fulcrum well before that.
One morning early in the March, with a bout of severe sinus and noting nonchalance in staff absenteeism, she announced to her new husband that she was going to take the day off. She encountered his resistance and insisted, but he picked her up, put her over his shoulder, carried her outside and put her behind the orange wheel, decreeing that she would present for duty, no matter what.
A tall, lean, rugged skinned, thinning-white haired farmer of some bearing in a long-trousered safari suit waits in his small bakkie at the Klaserie train station. She’s been driving twenty minutes at 120km/ph. At 06:10 exactly, the agreed time of meeting, she opens the bakkie door with a weary greeting, “Môre Oom Haas” and he huffily declares her late again, like he’d done all the days before, like he was going to do every day following. They pull off in the impending heat, with the Hervormde Vroë Môre Ordenking blaring the speakers. In resilient resignation she stares left out the window, experiencing a gratitude that silence will soon follow when his religious habituality will fling the knob to off before the sacrilegious heresy of any other denomination can be broadcast into his world. She’s actually calling him ‘Uncle Hare’, making herself a laughing stock in this mistake. But he doesn’t alert her to the Afrikaner’s tendency to drop the ‘n’ in their speech and that his name is ‘Hans’.
07:00, a half-consumed brandy bottle is lying on the floor of the principal’s office. The sun is getting high, pupils are gathered to pray and sing in xiTsonga from the missionary hymn book, the principal staggers, hiccupping, the students laugh at the principal’s ‘Durbeyfield sickness’*; staff are lined up at the small, retaining stone wall on the grass verge, whites to the right, blacks to the left, and the woman in the peach dress, in the no-person’s land in between the two groups, calls on the grace of any deity who will help her stand in the place of saying no to degrading human hostility.
The little vehicle meticulously edges itself forward very slowly on the return journey at the height of the sun. The reek of school hostel waste in a barrel of swill on the back en route to Hans’ pigs comes in at the window. Hans wears his clear distaste of his passenger’s being, since she attended a ‘kommunis’ university in Johannesburg and she’s clearly a ‘kaffir-boetie’, but, as an Afrikaner, Hans has more heart and innate care for all life than the 1820 English Settler stock ever had, so he makes a point of establishing that she has enough food to eat, “I can giff you a pik to ‘sloughtirr’”. She has about as much inclination to ‘slaughter a pig’ as she has to ‘shoot something brown that’s coming in at the window’, so she declines his kind offer, but asks instead for a recipe for Koeksuster from his authentic farm wife, Tannie Coetzee. He reneges in his reservations that this ‘kommunis engeltjie’ will untangle the intricacies of the recipe, but, he says, he will ask his wife.
“. . . there’s a knocking on the wall – . . .”
Paperclipped to the A3 folder, a tattered, dog-eared page is inscribed with a pencil header:
EDUCATION AND HOMELANDS in Apartheid South Africa, Orhovelani Senior Secondary
It was a model high school for the rural ‘homelands’ that dignitaries could tour with pompous aplomb and utilise as demonstration to make proud claim that all was legitimate in the state of the feudal nations and the people well facilitated. On a V.I.P. day at the local Thulamahashe stadium, with attendance by the school staff obligatory, Mnr Putter, the headmaster, made sure to conduct a sadistic tour of his own. With a wily recognition that the images would be disturbing for her, he took the sensitive, naïve city girl on a site-seeing spree of all the freshly ‘sloughtirred’ lumps of raw, red animal parts, lying in backs of bakkies and on heaps at various fire points, awaiting cooking.
In the staffroom reserved for white employees, she’s trying to cover some paper work during one of her few off periods. Her place at the table has a view into the kitchen. Mnr Putter stands there, in his hands, a long, thin reed; he inserts it into the sink and draws on the other end with his mouth. Then he moves his arm in arcing patterns with the reed willowing flexibly in the air.
She looks back at the papers in front of her, not processing what she has just seen. Then from the principal’s office through the wall sudden, mind-stopping, palpitating thwacks, screams, a jolting thud, with Mnr Putter’s commanding voice: “gitt aap you fool”.
This initiation into the practise of corporal punishment changed everything she had been.
From the A3 folder, 3 browned, torn out, lined exercise book pages, smudged, scribbled back to back in blue ink demonstrate her ineffectual attempts to track the insanity:
“13/9/83, today, Frans Khoza came to English during the 4th period approxiamately[sic] 9.15. He seemed to be agitated when he walked in, and when he apologized for being late, I could see that he was biting back his tears. I know that he is a very sensitive person, who desires to please. He becomes distressed when he realises that he has not done so. I asked him why he was crying, and he said that he had been cained[sic] by the principal. I knew that he had been absent on Friday 9/9/, yet he had come to me for permission to go home, whereupon I had exorted[sic] him to the vice-principal. He presented to me at this point, his permission slip to be away on Friday. He had explained this to the principal, who he said, had apparently refused to listen. The principal said that the pupil had run into the bushes when he had been spotted by the principal. The pupil denied this. I have found Frans to be a truthful child. Apparently Frans requested to call me, his register teacher. This request was denied. Frans was at home on Friday 9/9/ with permission, and could therefore not have been the pupil spotted in the bushes. He was cained with 5 strokes on the buttocks. The Gazankulu education department has put out a circular, stating that pupils are to be cained only for serious offences not more than 4 strokes to be administered to one child per day. Surely even were the pupil guilty of running into the bushes, exceeding the maximum legislation for corporal punishment, is not policy?
Today I have also heard the cain[sic] resounding from the office at other times during the day. Pupils yelling thereafter. One in particular at ±12.15, this corporal punishment sounds brutal when one listens to the sounds from the principal’s office
I am distressed, when trying to reassure a young man who is crying, to find that his pleas for innocence are totally disregarded. This pupil Frans Khoza, had requested to go home to collect money to replenish supplies which had been stolen from him. Then to be cained for an incorrect supposition? Surely this is not the way to bring a pupil through his exams?”
14/9 Jane Nxumalo cained[sic]-office by female teacher, in the pupil’s report she was cained anywhere on the body together with her husband. Pupil answered 12 poems instead of 18. Approximately period no 8. It is heresay[sic] that she was taken unconscious to hospital
Jane Nxumalo cained resulting in a fit. Unconsciouss[sic] for the day. It is known to the principle[sic] that she reacts in this way when cained perhaps as the result of a rape experience as a child. She had apparently not attended the study time the day before. I found her in the class salivating her desk filled with liquid, sobbing + whimpering
26/9/ principal tied pupil Gabriel Mashele up with string and brought him before Assembly. A result of truancy. The other pupils were made very sore by this. Principal staggering, drunk
6/10 called in to witness caining[sic] of Elsie Mokoena-10A, told principal I would not witness it as a school circular forbade the caining of girls- he said he must do it and ordered me out (that day he did not cain her)
Principal not attending classes. 9C children asked me for help “ma’am please come and teach us, we are going to fail.” -little I could do -only in chapter 15 of a 59 chapter book by exams.
Ellen Hlabane, beautiful, radiating girl, she came crying with reports that the principal calls her and others to his office and says he must touch their breasts, otherwise he is going to fail them.”
“. . . when you strip it right back . . .”
Paragraph 3, sworn affidavit 23/11/83, to the provincial security police, “a further aggravating factor in this case is that the Headmaster at one stage during the year threatened my wife by saying that he was in a position to make trouble for her. I have recently heard from the Vice Headmaster that Mr Putter at one stage expressed an intention to report my wife to the Security Police for investigation of her alleged left wing and communist attitude.”.
In the situation the young English woman found herself, it turned out to be fortuitous to be the wife of a legal officer on the air force base.
She travelled to the capital city, Pretoria, to go and meet with the head of the D.E.T., a polite figure, but with the eyes of an inquisitor, upon her throughout the interview, the eyes of one who interpolated her as the enemy. With his hands clasped upon his big desk, in the demeanour of a patient confidant, he heard, from a visibly upset young woman, a meticulously prepared report on the activities of the staff under his employ at Orhovelani High School. The he said:
“You know Mevrou, some men can be like dogs on heat. The have an insatiable lust for these primitive peoples – it is a sickness. We will put Mnr Putter in a post somewhere where he will be observed, where he can be rehabilitated. And we must see where we are going to put you, where we will redeploy you.”
That year a big bomb had exploded in a building in Pretoria, at some ministry or other. She drove past it on her way back to Johannesburg. The doors and walls were knocked out, a big hole in the floor.
But nothing was going on. Those who walked other throngs beyond knowing still claim nothing is going on. Even with all the investigators that raise an eye to the available unfolding of history.
She had gone back to her religious affiliation to tell them: “look, look what I’ve seen, this is what is going on, it’s breaking me, what does it mean, what do we do?” and one reply proffered the consoling counsel that Jesus died for the sins of these people. In a slowly increasing perceptibility, she could feel the shun, she could feel the reared shoulder, she could feel the closing exclusion from the groupings who’d been her people. Shining lights in holy company would raise their hands at the details of the atrocity and say: “no, no more, I don’t want to know, I can’t listen” and would scurry from the room to go and join in on another conversation celebrating the greatness of the deity and the richness he brought to their lives.
The names she was apportioned eventually came back to her – a radical, for seeing the revelation; only ever more becoming more and more of a radical, for wanting to return to the place where she thought she belonged with reports of what she’d witnessed. Soon the minister of that community tactfully referred her into membership of another more suitable to her leanings and then, formally, he relieved her of her pastoral duties.
She located educational theorists who had been analysing the negative pedagogical strategy in the education system and she found work in that sector, writing distance courses in English second language.
“. . . tell it like it is – till there’s no misunderstanding – . . .” doenk doenk doenk.
Six years after teaching at Orhovelani, a very changed woman, living a subsequent life back home in the city, she opened the door at the ring of the bell and was transfixed by the actual presence and sound of a fondly familiar, lingering memory: “Hello Ma’am . . .”. Lucy Lubisi, a student from Thulamahashe 400 kilometres away, was standing on the porch. Lucy had spent months, every penny and resource, to search to the doorstep of her belovéd mistress.
The belovéd mistress wasn’t anything special. She wasn’t a political radical of any import. She wasn’t anyone particularly notable. She just was. Little really, ordinary, normal. But those remote parts there had rarely encountered someone in such a painful induction to the art of standing up, alone, and saying a resounding no to those who assume automatic right to project their malformed will into becoming the suffering and plight of another. It seems she became something of a legend in the area. There are likely those who may still carry her name in vengeful malice, because she reached Orhovelani in the little hamlet of Thulamahase.
The 20 January 2010 edition of The Sowetan*, carries two interesting articles. The deputy Home Affairs Minister visits Orhovelani High and discovers that the children dash back to the classrooms after assembly to grab a desk because there is a shortage.
There were enough desks in 1983. Although, the students did have to clean their own classrooms, which, the young city teacher found strange. The faces of the black cleaner staff at both her primary and high schools can still be recalled from the strobed recesses of her mind.
The other article reports the arrest of the wife of a Minister of Intelligence or something, for alleged cocaine trafficking. Some young girl in the syndicate is now in jail in Brazil, they say.
This is now a worry, the fattened people, the fattened people who were castigated for being people for the people, who now don’t give a shit about the people with whom they were once, the people.
It is said that all movements are instigated by the same controller that pits peoples against each other in a divide and rule strategy. It’s a gross tragedy that the Black and the Afrikaner didn’t get together to ensure that they weren’t being deceived into not seeing an onslaught upon and robbery of their joint soil by the very intruder that was playing them off against each other. What a pity it would be if it turned out to be proven that the really malevolent operatives were most likely eminent English speaking fuckers.
There is the case of Oom Cecil’s spectre that has never been staked securely. It continues to stalk global populace from the Oceans of the Cape of Good Hope to the far waters of the North Sea.
“. . . tell it like it is – till there’s no misunderstanding – . . .*”
Herewith, Tannie Coetzee’s Koeksuster Recipe, in translation:
The day before making KS, prepare SYRUP;
Combine: 16 cups sugar, 8 cups water, ¼ cup lemon juice and grated rind, 5cm piece chopped, green ginger, 2 cinnamon sticks. Stir until all sugar is dissolved. Boil for 20 minutes. Sprinkle over syrup when cooked: 1 heaped tsp cream of tartar. Cool. Refrigerate until very cold, the secret of KS.
Rub: ¼ lb butter into 5 cups flour. Add: salt, 10 tsps baking powder. Mix well. Beat: 2 eggs. Add: ± 1 cup water. Beat again. Combine liquid and flour mixture. Add more water if required. Knead dough for 5 minutes until smooth and elastic. Cover with a clean, damp cloth and stand for 2-3 hours.
Roll 4cm long tubes of dough on an oiled surface. With a rolling pin flatten to about 5mm thick and 7cm wide. Split into 3 sections with a spatula, leaving one end attached. Platt, and secure other end by pressing down firmly. Heat oil in a large, heavy saucepan.
Test temperature by dropping a small piece of dough into it. It should rise on a count of 10. Cook KS in oil until golden brown. Remove KS with tongs and immediately plunge them into the very cold syrup. Press KS down and keep them submerged for 5 minutes with masher or similar implement. Remove from syrup and place on a wire rack with a tray underneath to catch any drippings.
Suikerkop: literally, sugar head
platteland: literally, flat lands
hardekool: very dense, hard wood from certain trees, splendid for outdoor fire making
vark, bees en: pig, beef and
skaap, wors: sheep, sausage
Mev. / Mevrou: Literally, Mrs, can denote ‘dear madam’
boere: literally, farmer, referring to a race / culture grouping, not necessarily pejoratively
‘Kaffirtjies’: diminutive- little Kaffirs, pejoratively used by bigots in racial superiority, ref. ‘unbeliever’
bakkie: open backed, light delivery vehicle
Hervormde: one of many protestant denominations of the Dutch Afrikaner church
Vroë Môre: early morning
‘kaffir-boetie’: literally, ‘kaffir’ brother, pejoratively, those displaying friendliness towards blacks
Koeksuster: a seriously sweet, syrup soaked, sticky platted pastry dessert
engeltjie: diminutive- little Englishman
Mnr. / Meneer: Literally, Mr, can denote ‘Sir’
translation: “ . . . waneer . . . die kos”
. . . when the onslaught comes, yes, we must be ready, gun practice, for the women, it’s important, you must go Mrs Jenkin; and then, if it comes in at the window, and if it’s brown, yes, with krissy (curly) hair, shoot man! And now pastor, please, bless the food
dik-dik: a small east African antelope, the word originally the simulation of an animal cry
Birgitta Jónsdóttir: http://joyb.blogspot.com
D.E.T.: nationalist party federal department of education and training for Black scholars
Durbeyfield sickness: a reference to the drunken gait of John Durbeyfield in
Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbevilles, prescribed set work for standard nine English, D.E.T. 1983
“Reprieve joins Peter Gabriel and the music industry in urging President Obama to explicitly ban the use of ‘torture music’ in the new Army Field Manual”. zero dB is Reprieve’s innovative online ‘silent petition’ which aims to stop music torture by encouraging widespread condemnation of the practice.
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