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.
Now this Wit blits is something inspired directly from heaven. Every farmer boasting a couple of fruit trees naturally assumes the god-given right to transform said fruit into something more agreeable to a man's stomach, to fire up the body, warm the soul, and bugger the IRS. This heartily refreshing and fortifying liquid also goes by the name of Mampoer and is stoked from any fruit available, be it apricot, peach, plum or even the wild Maroela, but, whatever its name, it is a drink for a man, mere boys falling by the wayside with eyes bulging, throat constricting and stomach heaving under the onslaught of 50 and more percent alcohol. But let it be stated here quite clearly: that old farmer was man through and through. Gnarled his body might have been, and himself and his clothes would well have appreciated a few more applications of water and soap and his worldly possessions were few, but it wasn't the effect of a few slugs of his home brew, well, a few bottles to be honest, that made him fall asleep behind the wheel. No, man, those damn Free State roads, stretching for hundreds of kilometres in a straight line, with only the occasional windmill or a few scattered sheep underscoring the monotony, did it to him.
Sadly, with him sound asleep, his truck eventually ran off the road, overturning down the steep embankment in a hot, noisy, dusty tumble of furniture, clothing, bedding and various assorted household and farming implements. However, the old man went peacefully, with a smile on his face, to meet his maker, friend and fellow moonshiner in the sky. When the dust settled eventually, it became apparent that the only living thing to survive the carnage was the old parrot. Having been flung from the opening cage, it was now hopping around disconsolately, yeching and tsking while it tried to find its bearings and straighten out its ruffled feathers.
There is a very quirky fact about South Africa: as wide-spread and, in some parts, as desolate as the country may be, you are almost never alone. Be it in the barren mountain ranges of the Drakensberg or in the semi desert of the Karoo, there is bound to be the odd wanderer, shepherd or Tsotsi about, looking for work, for lost sheep or simply something to steal. So it happened that a member of this nameless bunch of people saw the cloud of dust in the distance and immediately lengthened his strides towards this new-found destination. Arriving on the scene, he realised that a fortune lay here to be picked up for free. However, not having eaten for quite a few days, his first priority was food. And with this thought he made a grab for the parrot, with the clear intention of wringing its scrawny neck, the distressed parrot barely able to screech out, »Jy, kaffer, wat dink jy doen jy?« — »You, kaffir, what do you think you are doing?« On hearing this, the Tsotsi dropped the bird as if struck by lightning and stammered, »Akskies, my Baas, akskies. Ek dog die Baas hy was 'n hoender!« — »Sorry, Boss, so sorry. I thought the Boss is a chicken!«
Money, isn't it?
Andrew McFergus was a Scotsman through and through. Now, before anyone holds this against him in prejudice, let me also tell you that he was a very agile, industrious and nimble man, and quite clever, if not exactly intellectual, by all standards. You may be aware of the definition of a Hungarian, the claim that those admirable people might enter a revolving door behind you, yet will shuffle, shunt and shove till they come out ahead, then Andy McFergus sure had the drop on them. Especially when it came to the lassies. Having scored in situations where anyone of lesser caliber would have given up in despair, our Andy was blessed with a confidence rarely found in mere mortals.
He didn't look like much at first glance: not too tall, of indeterminate looks, a tad scruffy even, oh, and he was an engineer, therefore black fingernails were his trademark. He specialised in water pumps of any description. Some of the pumps were huge monsters buried 2000 m underground in the gold mines of the Free State. Others were small, to be stuck down into boreholes to extract ground water, and some of them were driven by windmills, lifting the precious drops to the surface in arid, god-forsaken country for the enjoyment of man and beast alike. And it was here where fate put him, to make the rounds on the farms, repairing pumps, installing new ones and thereby getting to enjoy the hospitality of the farmers. And this hospitality is unsurpassed anywhere. He was fed and bedded, and entertained with the best of whatever moonshine was available, notwithstanding the fact, that the Boers considered him a Rooinek Britisher in disguise, whom they would have shot with glee only a few decades earlier. So, Andy had no complaints, with but one exception: the farmers, free as they were with their worldly possessions, were utterly disinclined to make their daughters part of their offerings.
But Andy could bear with that since not all the girls he encountered were wholly appealing to his connoisseur's eyes. That changed, however, as soon as he set his sights on Marietjie. She was everything he dreamed about in his lonely nights on the unyielding farm bedsteads. Tallish, blonde, lithe of body and mind, she quite enjoyed Andy's charm and attentive chatter, smiling happily all the time and calling him a »lawwe mompadda«, a tautology of course, on a par with calling him a silly fool. Andy fully intended to change her attitude as well as her obvious physical status, rising proudly to the magnificent challenge this lovely creature presented. He worked hard all week on the huge farm, installing his pumps, rigging up windmills, and, at the farmer's request, even lowering one pump illegally deep into the waters of the sluggishly flowing Orange river, concealing the pipes with great cunning, and enjoying the waters gushing forth presently as much as everybody else on those barren lands. - But on Sunday he would make his move!