A few readers of my first contribution, »The Child Molestress«, took note of my partially South African background and asked for tales from that far-removed country. With this series of unconnected short stories I try to comply with those requests. When reading these, it should be borne in mind that during my time in South Africa, Apartheid was rife and some of the stories will only make sense when this concept of enforced segregation is understood. I do not condone Apartheid, whether it be White against Black, as it used to be, or Black against White, as it is being practiced now; however, domination of one group of people over another is a fact of life which may be regretted but cannot be talked away. The various languages spoken in South Africa, and their idiosyncrasies: English, Afrikaans (a Germanic language with its origins in 17th century Dutch) as well as various native languages and idioms furnish other aspects of my stories. I do realize that usage of derogatory terms for groups of people is not politically correct. Even so, for politically correct, boring stuff I recommend you read the Government Gazette — of any country of your choice!
Here are a few terms used in the following stories, which should be understood before reading: Kaffer, Kaffir — Nigger (derived from the Arabic kaffirah, giavr, i.e. unbeliever); Boer — Farmer (the name the early settlers of Dutch origin gave themselves); Baas — Boss (formerly the »correct« term of address for Blacks when speaking to white men); Tsotsi — Small-time black criminal; Biltong — Jerky made from either venison or beef; Droë wors — Dry sausage, made from whatever meat was at hand — delicious but dangerous stuff; Stywwe pap — Very stiff porridge, finger food really, made from corn meal and used as a staple when traveling; Wit blits, Mampoer — White Lightning, an extremely potent moonshine; Moenie! — Don't! (sounds exactly like a Scotsman listens to money); Rooinek — Redneck, derogatory term for British soldiers, going back to the Anglo-Boer wars of the late 19th, early 20th century; Bushcat, Bushie — The South African coloured people; Love gap — As rumour has it, the lack of several front teeth is conducive to pleasing the ladies.
In each country there evolves a quite specific mode of human transportation, due not only to local geographic peculiarities, distances to be covered, means available, but also to the mentality and circumstances of the people having to commute between home and work, from township to town. The times of the ox wagon are long past, of course. Modern transport in South Africa includes all manner of vehicles; from donkey carts pounding oppressively dusty and hot dirt tracks in the rural areas to gleaming Benzes, BMWs and American imports, shunting their chauffeur-driven passenger in air-conditioned silence from air-conditioned luxury home to air-conditioned luxury office. In between, there are cars of every make, description and condition; brutish buses of cast-iron construction with a total disregard for passenger comfort; filthy, noisy trains defying description, apparently even less suited for human transport and yet overcrowded at any time of the day, with some daring natures even hanging on to makeshift handholds on the outside.
Governing all aspects of everyday life of the Blacks in South African cities, Apartheid policy forced them to live in townships far removed from their places of work, and the meagre wages they received for mostly unskilled labour (you have heard about job reservation for Whites, haven't you?) or as domestics made them find their own solution to their transport needs. And it is exactly here that praise, well, maybe not exactly, must be sung for the one vehicle most suited to these conditions: the ubiquitous Kaffir taxi — microbuses made by a number of Japanese manufacturers, licensed to carry nine people, sturdily built with strong engines pulling them along at excessive speeds on highway and byway alike. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, were it not for the fact, that these taxis are crammed full with people, fifteen and more being the rule rather than the exception, to make up for the low tariffs and, furthermore, that these taxis will stop wherever demand dictates. One has only to step up to the road (if you happen to be Black, that is), raise a hand, a finger, and even in bumper to bumper traffic the driver will slam on his anchors to pick up another valuable fare, and never mind the screeching tires, the swearing of unnerved, frustrated drivers trying at once not to climb through their own windscreens nor to smash the offender into oblivion. Politically correct, these contraptions go by the euphemism of informal transport but everybody curses them as Kaffir taxis, the total of their accidents not quite as high as the number of passengers moved. Add to this the animosity between oppressor and oppressed, the Afrikaners, English-speaking South Africans and people of colour, and you have instant mayhem in the making. This is the story of what I saw, and, like most true stories, it isn't »nice«. But you should judge for yourself.
My best friends lived in a smallish town about 110 km to the south of Johannesburg. Visiting with them was always a highlight for the whole family. They were an extremely friendly, hospitable and gregarious family, their doors open to all and sundry. People would pop in for a cup of coffee, a quick chat, a few jokes and make way for the next lot. It goes without saying that our visits tended to stretch far into the night: the children bedded down provisionally, a semblance of quiet relaxation descending and a glass of our favourite poison (Remy Martin cognac) warming in our hands, savouring our company, knowing full well we would have to travel homewards in the small hours of the morning.
With four children, we used our own version of taxi: a VW Microbus, adapted for the children with the back seats laid flat and converted to beds, were they would fall asleep as soon as we hit the road. I quite liked this night-time travelling. Hardly any other vehicles on the country roads, the morning air cool and refreshing. However, to get back to Johannesburg we had to bypass a long stretch of one township after the other, and it was imperative to be alert and on the look-out for abandoned vehicles, stray donkeys and bored cattle looking for whatever pasture they could find in the dark. And then there was this unlit crossroads.
Approaching from afar I saw the flashing blue lights of the police, red ones from ambulances, could make out scores of people moving about slowly, but only from up close could I take in the whole scene of complete and utter destruction. The shredded remains of what but could have been two taxis were strewn about till far off into the veld. In between we saw ominous shapes, some of them obscenely twisted and bent, covered with blankets, their sheer number revealing the full horror of the crash. A police officer was directing ambulances and people with floodlights searching in the surrounding shrubbery for possibly more victims. I got out of our car and approached him with my question, in Afrikaans, whether I could lend any assistance. He looked at me — the grimly satisfied expression on his face will be with me forever — and said quietly, yet totally unperturbed, »Nee dankie, meneer, alles is doodreg!« — »No, Sir, thank you, everything is dead right!«
In the late 1980s, when the writing was on the wall that Afrikaner domination would soon come to an end, an old bachelor farmer living in the northernmost parts of the country, the hot and dusty, draught and crime-ridden Northern Transvaal Province, decided to pack up and move to the Cape Province with its moderate climate, much lower crime rate and a more equal mixture of races and nationalities.
He proceeded to load all of his meagre belongings onto his small truck, making up quite a load nevertheless, and stuck his pet parrot, his only speaking companion for well over 20 years, on top of everything, its cage secured with string. And off he went, after lighting his pipe with his chokingly smelly Boeretwak (tobacco). The road from the northern parts of the sub-continent to the extreme south is almost interminably long, some 2000 km, and, at stages, utterly boring, the central parts of the country, first the Orange Free State and then Cape Province, consisting in large parts of flat, semi-arid land, sustaining sheep and goats and not much else. Being of a somewhat frugal nature, though not entirely by choice, the farmer decided to travel with the absolutely least number of stops, his moving larder being well-stocked with delicacies only a fellow Boer would fully appreciate: Biltong, Droë wors, Stywwe pap and, to keep things moving smoothly, a handsome number of bottles of his best Wit blits thrown in for good measure.
.... There is more of this story ...