Saturday, November 3, 2012

Notes for a Novel #1

My favourite blogger, C is for Cape Town [and see Blog], recently encouraged us all to Help a Rural Child, a fantastic project that I fell instantly in love with.
Like C we too spent many years in the rural hinterland of the Cape, and Mrs Kaartman and I and the junior Kaartmanne were not uninvolved with the rural children of those times. There’s a story to be told here ... the occasional Kaartman blog might indulge. I have no fear of being sued, but I will say that I’m sure that all my characters are entirely fictitious, at least the guilty ones. Tuesday 13th November is an important anniversary in our particular struggle, too, as may eventually be revealed, if I remember.

Here’s the background. A few months after the 1976 Soweto tragedy the Kaartmans relocated to Plumfoot, a small rural town on the Cape coast. Its real name is, geographically speaking, just as dom as Plumfoot – you can call it Pruimvoet, if that sounds more authentic. The Kaartmans’ move had nothing to do with Soweto, but everything to do with some mapping contracts for the all-new National Hiking Way.
Don’t get me wrong – we were not politically naive, we’d had our share of the Cathedral steps, Twickenham protests, student unions, Bob Dylan and Pink Floyd, but we were frankly absolutely skint with a small child, and there was a family holiday home going cheap at Plumfoot. We were almost, but not quite, remittance men [actually man, woman and girlchild].
We rapidly discovered that full-time living in Plumfoot wasn’t quite the same as our childhood holiday experience. For starters the social hierarchy was quite beyond our ken. At a crude level it went like this:
1. Afrikaners, with obligatory membership of the NG Kerk and the National Party; the “ruling elite”, like today’s ANC fatties.
2. Germans, mostly retired from Namibia, mostly living on pensions from the West German government;
3. Engelse like us, a teeny sprinkling of entrepreneurs and remittance men.
6. The Coloured population, the labouring class with a few self-employed poachers.
Each of these categories could be further subdivided several times: 
in category 1, depending upon favourite social activities; religious groupings in category 6; 
native or foreign born in category 2; 
and, in our category 3, age, income, dress habits and the probability that you were a secret communist. 
      There were no categories 7. Asians, or 8. Black Africans because neither of these population groups were represented. Actually there was a solitary Black African, who lived in a small tin shack at the bottom of the garden of a prominent retired Afrikaans professor, but he didn’t really count. He had no friends or social contacts at all and I always felt that for him life in Plumfoot must have felt exactly as it would if you were a solitary human, captured by aliens and forced to live amongst weird monsters in a galaxy far, far away.
Asians were completely unknown in Plumfoot. Many years later we landed in Durban with a bunch of Plumfoot kleintjies; to feed the hungry masses we ducked into a KFC. After a few minutes I felt a tug on my elbow.
“Pietta,” [my name] whispered Sandy Khoikhoi [his nickname], pointing to the shop attendants, “is diĆ© almal Mexikane?”
The Plumfoot political breakdown was unspeakable. If there were any liberal, apartheid-hating Afrikaners at all we never came across them; of course, the entire community we knew must have died by 1994 because in that year there were no apartheid supporters at all still alive in Plumfoot.
The German community remained stolidly indifferent to all local and national politics. Secure in their multi-Deutschmark pensions they could no more contemplate getting politically involved in SA than fly the East German flag. Besides, some of them were ivory and diamond smugglers, of which more anon.
The Engelse kept their heads down and the Coloured community did not squeak. There was no tri-cameral parliament yet and resistance movements such as the ANC were but improbable rumours on the wind. The school children of the Scheme, the township, had not risen up in 1976 to confront the apartheid police.
The mayor of Plumfoot was a retired policeman, a surprisingly short, chubby little fellow, Colonel Johannes Jacobus Knoetze. Everyone knew him as “Kolonel” and in our first year at Plumfoot, in his Christmas message to the holiday makers who annually streamed into the village he placed his cards firmly on the table by describing Plumfoot as an “Afrikaner Seaside Resort” [his actual words were “Boere Kusdorp”]. This despite the fact that the majority of residents were Coloured, German or Engelse, in that order, and at least 50% of the holiday makers were Engelse, too, but facts, then as now, were not important if you were part of the ruling elite.
The elite’s racial attitudes were, to us, unfathomable. There was a retired dominee in the town – one of many, and we’ll meet more of them later – whom I always found to be a charming, educated and cultured man. Dominee Gysbert was tall and aristocratic; his family were part of the old Stellenbosch aristocracy and his brother was a prominent Advocate. Dominee Gysbert had won gold for South Africa throwing the javelin at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. He had been personally congratulated by the Fuhrer and had shaken Hitler’s hand; he was often rumoured to have been a personal acquaintance of the traitor, Robey Leibbrandt. 
Gysbert played a prominent role in the town’s White social life; he was a conservationist of note, but he was not known for charitable work amongst the poor and oppressed. I once asked him for a donation – he was a wealthy man – towards a bursary fund that sent impoverished Coloured children to high school.
“One thing you must understand,” the good dominee said to me, pulling himself up to his full, aristocratic, refined, educated, god-fearing height, “is that the Coloured people are still children. They might not be ready for high school education, they might be better off not reaching for heights which they cannot attain.” He declined to donate; he died before 1994, which I have always felt was a real pity. Maybe his god had mercy upon him.
There it is. May these notes set the scene, for what I hope will be an unfolding story of hope as much as its bizarre dramatis personae might allow. There was plenty of humour in Plumfoot as well as pathos; bathos as well as inspiring stuff. So what, prithee, does this all have to do with the rural child?
Well, there came an evening in Plumfoot when I put the dog out to wee before closing up the house for the night. From the bottom of the garden the dog, a small hairy mongrel, barked and barked. I took a torch, expecting to find a treed cat, a snared buck or even a snake. I found two tiny shivering children, boys, one seven, one eight, hiding in the bushes, staring out with huge, frightened eyes. One was wearing a dirty sleeveless vest and underpants; the other was wearing just a vest. That’s where my tale can rest, until another time.

Kaartman, November 2012

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