Return to Groenfontein
Lewis stepped out of his almost new car and
locked the door on the driver's side. Then he remembered that this
was rural Calitzdorp. No one stole cars here, especially not in
broad daylight. The locals also had respect for the property of
strangers. He walked across the wide main road towards the white
washed cafe and glanced at the signs displayed "Volstruis
Biltong"and Sonskyn droe perskes en rosyntjies. He looked
at the buildings for a moment and realised that not much had changed.
The post office was still there. The old Van Eck tailor's shop had
been bought by a farmer and turned into a curio shop. The police
station still had the ox-wagon wheels displayed on the lawn in front
of the door. Little had changed. He stepped inside the cafe and
took in the smells. Nothing had changed in this regard.
The large Boer woman behind the counter looked
at him unsmilingly. He reminded himself that this was rural South
Africa. A black was a black and nevermind the new constitution.
She asked in a tone reserved for out of town visitors whether she
could help. "May I please have a packet of Rothmans and a bottle
of fresh orange juice"? The woman looked intently at him and
then suddenly a smile lit up her leathery face. "My hemet Lewesieafter
all these years! How could she forget? The child was often in here
when he came to buy supplies for the Van Eck woman the tailor's
wife. Those eyes so bright and penetrating. That face so fine and
sensitive. Those high cheekbones. Her brother on the farm used to
say the boy thinks he is an Ethiopian prince. "Are you coming
to visit your family on the farm?" she asked. Lewis smiled
kindly. He really did not expect this. He had his protective armour
on in case she asked insulting questions or made remarks which insulted
his dignity. "No," he answered, "my mother has passed
away. I am here for her funeral." "Siestog my kind, I
didn't know she was ill. I am sorry to hear about ou Siena, but
God knows best." She then proceeded to ask endless questions
about his life, his family. He was patient. He did not feel she
was invading his privacy. He understood about loneliness. He understood
that this was the highlight of her day. After the transaction he
stepped into the bright sunlight and was momentarily almost overcome
by the oppressive Karoo heat. He crossed the street and thought
what life had been like in this dorp and on the farm, as a child
of a farm labourer. He remembered the paralysing poverty, the slave-like
laws and the cruelty of farm life...if you were black. He unlocked
the car and climbed in, reversed for a short distance and sped off
in the direction of Groenfontein.
Lewis knew that he should keep his mind on
the road, that he should concentrate, but he could not help himself.
It just kept on coming back. He saw his ma, a large woman always
tidy with cornrow plaits and white apron. He saw his father, frail
and persistently coughing with nicotine stained long bony fingers.
He saw his brothers and sisters. Then he thought of the day during
the December school holidays when he decided to take charge of his
own life. He slowed the car and pulled over to the side of the road.
At a distance he watched a mother ostrich strolling with her chicks
and thought, "It's almost thirty years ago and yet it seems
He stared at the windscreen, into the past.
His mother came into the tiny yard carrying a bundle of clean un-ironed
washing. "Lewesie," she shouted in a stern voice, "Lewesie,
the Baas wants to see you." He did not stop stacking the wood,
did not look in her face. "Ma you know I have nothing to say
to that man." She put the washing down on the wooden bankie
outside the door and folded her arms across her wide chest. "If
that man wants to see you, you will go. Do you want your father
to get into trouble again?" Lewis scratched behind his ear
and continued to concentrate on the task he was engaged in. After
an awkward silence he ventured, "Ma, my Pa is already in trouble...he
is always in trouble. Look around youwhat do see? Have you
heard him sayingJa Baas-Nee Baas-prys die Here Baas. I hate
it Ma and I hate them all." Siena wiped her hands on her apron
as was her habit, looked at her eldest son without blinking an eyelid.
"If the Baas wants to see you, you will
go and talk to him. Where do you think we'll go if he tells your
pa to pack the donkey cart? For your pa's sake, for the sake of
your brothers and sisters you will go and talk to the man,"
she hissed. Lewis knew when she had had enough. He did not argue
At half past five that evening, he waited
for the farmer at the barn where the evening ration of cheap wine
would be distributed. The men stood in the queue, each with a tin
mug in hand. Um Karol, the chief laborer poured. The farmer noticed
Lewis standing next to the tractor and said aloud to his father,
"Lood, that boy is getting big and also too big for his boots.
Look at him standing there looking at the boys as if they're cow
mis. Come here you moerskond! I want to talk to you." Lewis
stepped forward slowly, his heart beating violently. He did not
lower his eyes, he stared straight ahead of him at the farmer. When
he came face to face with the powerfully built white man, ail the
workers stopped talking and laughing. The only sound was that of
the chickens cluck-clucking. The farmer looked around for a moment
and then saw the spade. He grabbed it with both hands. "This,"
he said, "is a spade. Do you hear me? A spade. This is what
you need a spade, not fokken books. You were born to use this.
You are a Hotnot. You are going to use this spade to dig this ground.
You are going to plough the fields like your father and your grandfather."
He pulled Lewis towards him by his threadbare
green jersey, a cast-off of his nephew .Lewis noticed the beads
of perspiration on the farmer's top lip. As he
tightened his grip on the frail fourteen-year-old he continued his
tirade. "You have enough schooling, I told your father two
years ago. Standard five is over enough. You can read, you can write.
What more do you want?"
There was no fear in the stick-legged boy.
He just gazed at the farmer and smileda strange cynical smile,
a smile he reserved for those who filled him with contempt. His
ma could not understand him, he always smiled when he was angry.
When the farmer released his grip, Lewis took a few steps backwards
and turned suddenly and strode off.
His ma never closed an eye that night. She
worried about the boy. He never came home. Then came the news weeks
later that he had enrolled himself at the dorp school. He was now
in standard six. The girls and boys back home on the farm envied
his guts and arrogance. They did not understand why he had to be
different. Weekend shoppers gave regular reports of his progress
to those left behind. He had found a place with the old tailor,
Van Eck. He helped the old man in the shop after school. He scrubbed
the floors, swept the yard, cleaned the windows and in return they
gave him three nourishing meals a day and a warm clean bed at night.
His teachers only had praise for the boy who only spoke when spoken
to. The one complaint they had was that he had so much anger in
him. So young...he must learn to forgive and forget, they said.
Lewis realised that he had gone very far back
in time and noticed that the sun had set. He remembered why he had
come to Calitzdorp after all this time. He put the key in the ignition
and slowly pulled away again. He had driven for about fifteen kilometres
when he decided to put on the radio. Music always soothed the demons
in him. He drove until he saw the grave, which would eventually
take him to Groenfontein where his family lived. He wondered if
things had changed. The journey on the gravel road was bumpy, dusty
and tedious. Eventually he saw the farmhouse in the distance, large
and affluent in comparison with the workers' cottages.
As he neared the house, the farm dogs began
barking and running next to the car. He passed the house and saw
a curtain moving. He knew someone was watching. He drove slowly.
The stretch between the farmhouse and the cottages was very uneven.
That was still the same. He remembered how they hated going outside
after dark. He brought the car to a gentle halt outside his ma's
house. He thought, "I'm coming to bury my mother but was far
away when my father died. Away in cold, grey, unfriendly London.
He switched off the engine and sat still for
a moment. Then the front door opened and his brother Koos came out
smiling. "Dag Boetie, so glad you could make it. Ma called
for you every day since she got ill." Lewis shook his brother's
hand warmly. He noticed that he looked just like their pa, nose
and all. Soekie, his wife, came forward and planted a shy kiss on
his cheek. All the children stepped into the small front room to
greet their educated uncle from Cape Town. In an instant Lewis knew
that little had changed. The people had not changed, the poverty
had not changed. The chains had not been broken. Not here at least.
Koos told of Ma's last days and how Soekie took care of her. Then
he said, "Boetie, the Baas asked after you. He is very proud
of you. He even cut your graduation picture out of the Banier.
He said after the funeral you must come up to the house for a chat."
Lewis remembered that fateful day thirty years ago and he smiled
his special smile. "Koos if that man wants to see me he can
come here. I still have nothing to say to him." Koos frowned
as he thought of his brother's last remark. "Ja Boetie, the
same thing you said thirty years ago."
The funeral would stay with Lewis for a long
time. It brought the past to him. No smartly dressed mourners. No
embarrassment at grief. Simple, yet dignified. Ma was placed in
a pine coffin with brass handles. The dominee, a youngish man with
small round specs on his face drove up from the dorp to bury ma.
He spoke of her courage in the face of adversity, of her love for
her children and her pride in her son Lewis who had left the land
of his birth to study so far. Lewis, who had left the farm so he
could be someone. After the service they went to the house for tea,
biscuits and gemmerbier. Lewis did not feel uncomfortable. He was
glad to be amongst his people. He chatted to his uncles and long
lost second and third cousins. They did not notice the door opening.
There was no knock. In the doorway stood an old man leaning on a
stick. "Dag Baas," said Koos. All the others greeted him
politely, except Lewis.
The old man moved forward and opened his mouth
to speak and the words came slowly. Lewis listened out of respect
for age as he was taught. "I thought if Mohammed would not
come to the mountain, then the mountain should come to Mohammed."
He smiled a little awkwardly. Lewis felt nothingnot pity,
not hatred, just plain nothing. For a moment the two looked at each
other in silence and the old man stepped forward with his hand outstretched.
Lewis looked at the gnarled, weather-beaten hand. He took it and
shook it without a word. "I came to say I am sorry," the
old man said softly. The younger man could not believe what he had
heard. The old man had come to apologize. "I know I had been
hard all those years ago. I now know I was wrong. I have been reading
about Mandela. He forgave. Can you forgive me?" Lewis felt
a dryness in his throat and lifted the glass he held in his hand.
The ginger beer was no longer cold. But it did not matter, any liquid
would now help him to get rid of the dryness. The old man went on,
"I am old now and will soon be gone. You must talk to the young
people here. You must talk to all the people, they must learn. They
must change." Lewis smiled. This time he smiled with his eyes.
Not a smile of contempt. Just a smile-smile.
Lewis drove back to Cape Town the next morning,
impatient to get home. Impatient to tell his children and his students
that there was hope, because somewhere in the Karoo an old man had
said, "Forgive me."
Former municipal councilor, mayor, and
schoolteacher, Beverley Jansen is currently a full time community
development facilitator. She writes in both English and Afrikaans.