We Introduce Long Reads a new concept that will feature every Friday here at JamesMurua.com. We start with Noo Saro-Wiwa’s nonfiction offering Paradise Within. Enjoy.
One warm evening in the Sea Point neighbourhood of Cape Town, I learned the full extent of my ineffectiveness in a crisis. My acquaintance, Pieter de Westhuizen, was being manhandled by three men who had approached us with a polite “Good evening”. They wanted Pieter’s cell phone. And while they lunged at him and scuffled, I stood rooted to the spot, watching. All that was missing was the popcorn. It never occurred to me to turn and flee.
One of the men then turned to me. “Where’s yours?” he barked in a Nigerian accent. I handed over my Nokia. Then I gave him my wallet even though he hadn’t asked for it, as a sacrificial offering to appease him somehow. Pathetic. Seconds later, he and his friends sprinted off into the night, leaving me and Pieter to gather ourselves.
“This is Seteffrika,” Pieter said, straightening his shirt and jacket. A seasoned victim of crime, he knew the drill. He was remarkably calm. His face positively glowed with vindication, in fact. All evening he had been complaining to me about crime and immigration in the Western Cape, and now his point had been illustrated perfectly. This, he, said, is why he wanted the Western Cape (the whitest and second wealthiest of South Africa’s nine provinces) to become an independent country. The Cape needed to separate from the republic before it sank further into the quagmire of majority rule and African immigration.
Pieter was a wine farmer and had recently joined a new political party whose aim was to turn the Western Cape into a sovereign state. He despised the post-’94 status quo, especially since his wife had been murdered in a robbery two years earlier. A breakaway republic was the only solution, as far as he was concerned. It was a long shot (there was more chance of me becoming mayor of Moscow), but unsurprising in a country where politics was so often powered by self-preservation rather than pragmatism.
Pieter was friendly, forthright and uncompromising; a man who claimed never to have eaten a single fruit or vegetable since he was a small boy. He was pessimistic about South Africa yet curiously optimistic about his party’s plans to secede. Earlier in the evening, he had shown me his party’s ‘manifesto’, a bullet-pointed primal scream for the preservation of the Kapenaar community.
(“… liberate our people from the slavery brought on by our new poverty; from the systematic destruction of our languages, culture and sense of place; from the loss of our elected spokesmen who now represent not us, but rather the interests of a hostile and coercive government; and from the many men of alien customs this government has invited from all of Africa to descend like locusts upon our common land and to live at our expense…”)
These could have been the words of an indigenous South African four centuries ago, but the ‘locusts’ Pieter talks about wasn’t referring to Europeans. They were never the negatives in the equation. Not that he was a racist, he insisted. South Africa should never return to apartheid. The South African constitution was “beautiful”, he told me, if only the ANC would implement it properly.
“Come and spend a few days on the farm,” Pieter said.
I took him up on the offer. The Afrikaner-farm was an alien universe I wanted to see first-hand. The pair of us shook hands and went our separate ways, arranging to meet up again a few months down the line.
It was now July, and I was on a train departing from Cape Town. A crisp chill filled the early morning air and the sun’s rays cast the landscape in glorious high-definition. We curved around the back of Table Mountain and other orange mountain ranges; the pastel houses of the coloured towns flashed by, along with green foliage that seemed sharply outlined like objects in a Van Gogh painting. A stunning, white sand beach curved around the coast for miles.
When I arrived at Strand station I was greeted with a hug by Pieter’s partner Riana. We climbed into her car and the visual dream sequence continued, beyond the town of Somerset West and into farm country, among vine leaves and lemon trees and horses that grazed within white picket-fenced fields, all of it backed by the Helderberg Mountain. It looked like paradise.
Riana was thirty years old, an articulate, friendly, tall brunette with a strong jaw and an arrestingly big butt for a white woman. She welcomed me into the house she shared with Pieter. The one-storey traditional Dutch building stood in isolation among the vines, its white walls deflecting the sunshine.
I sat at the kitchen table with Riana and her neighbour, Hanle. Hanle was a skinny, spirited Afrikaner and, like me at the time, around 27 years old. When I remarked that she and Riana were lucky to be living in such a beautiful area, Hanle responded that life here was not so idyllic. Riana nodded: “The Western Cape is a red apple with a big worm inside.”
“We get burgled all the time here,” Hanle said.
“How often?” I asked.
“At least three times a year. It’s the farm workers’ kids. They live around here. They know your routine. They’ll see you driving off to the shops, or whatever, and they know that your house is empty.”
Familiar with the layout of houses, these thieves sometimes crawled through the dog flaps or the square holes in the roofs. They took a leisurely pace, ignoring the computers but pilfering electrical goods and tools, before laying complimentary turds on the kitchen floor.
“They just help themselves to the food in the fridge.” Hanle said. “You come into the kitchen in the morning and you see the fat lines on the table where they’ve sliced the roast chicken.”
I burst out laughing, then retracted. “Sorry, it’s not funny.”
“It’s OK,” Hanle chuckled. “It’s quite funny when you think about it.” She sighed and sat back in her chair, smiling. She told me more stories, including the time the thieves stole several items and used the shower doors to cart out their booty. “And they only take the best clothes. They won’t take your crappy t-shirt or cheap skirt. They’ll go for that nice designer pair of trousers. They’ll walk out wearing your father’s or boyfriend’s shoes and leave theirs behind. You come in and you see a pair of old shoes lying neatly on the floor!”
The thieves’ were equally picky in their musical tastes. After swiping an armful of Hanle’s CDs they browsed through them as they exited via the garden, tossing aside any that weren’t to their taste. Hanle discovered the CDs months later while cutting the grass.
The local police responded to such incidents by requesting cups of tea – no fingerprint collections. Investigating petty crime was out of the question when there were thousands of murders to solve across the country each year.
Pieter’s wife, Marieke, had been murdered in the small shop she ran. A robber had demanded money, got what he wanted, then gunned her down from across the counter. She left behind a three-year-old son, who was now five. A photo of Pieter and Marieke stood propped on a corner table.
Riana had also experienced the murder of a loved one. She told me the police sent a letter regretfully informing her that, after three years, they were terminating the investigation into her father’s murder.
Taking casual strolls in their area was a no-no, Hanle told me. “My mother will say to me, ‘You going for a walk? You’re going for a rape!’” You get in your car, go to wherever you want, fetch whatever you want, then drive straight home, she said. It was a different attitude to the Xhosas in the townships who lived life both indoors and outdoors, in borderless juxtaposition.
When it came to crime in South Africa I never knew what to believe. Perception and reality were two different things. The government withheld the national crime statistics, which meant people had wildly differing opinions on safety. I had been warned by many not to take the train from Cape Town, yet on the journey itself I had seen two eight-year-old blond boys – barefoot and unaccompanied – jumping onto a carriage with their surfboards. However, Riana and Hanle felt trapped in their paradise, confining themselves to their cars and homes.
Early that evening, after Hanle went home, Pieter returned from the vineyard. He had a mahogany suntan, just a few shades paler than his beard. He was followed shortly by his friend James, a cheerful ‘English-speaker’ who was an Afrikaner in all but ancestry, a man-mountain with a blond moustache and a pig-tail mullet coiling from the back of his head.
James handed me a glass of white Steyn wine to complement the glass of home-distilled witblits I was clutching in my other hand. He told me he ran a computer software company in the United States. After selling it, James sailed around the world on his yacht. Now, barely fifty years old, he had retired in the Western Cape with his motorbike and his chickens.
“What do you think of the new South Africa?” I asked him.
James walked towards me and leaned slowly against the fireplace mantelpiece. “How African are you?”
I didn’t want to scare James into a politically correct silence (trying to have race-based conversations with most Brits or people of British descent usually made me feel like a tiger walking down a high street wondering where all the customers had gone).
“Just tell me what you really think,” I told him.
Being an honorary Afrikaner (with all the refreshing bluntness and candour that came with it), James was happy to offload.
“There’s so much money in this country,” he said. “The government collects billions in taxes but it doesn’t know what to do with it. They’re sitting on a pile of cash but there isn’t the knowledge or the skills to transfer it. And look at all the corruption. They go and spend five billion rand on that arms deal. What for?” He flung out his arms. “I’m telling you, when Nelson Mandela dies we’re going to be in trouble. We’re going to become another Zimbabwe, and once this country starts to bleed, that’s it – I’m gone.”
James recounted his experience at a corporate fair where an ANC politician told him that winning a government software contract would require him to employ a quota of non-whites. “I just turned around and walked out,” he said.
In the corner of the room, the television news hummed in the background. The justice minister – a black man – was making a speech in parliament. “You see that man?” James pointed disdainfully towards the screen. “Look at that speech he’s making… look at his vocabulary… listen to his accent. Without his speechwriter he would not be able to give that speech.
I bit my tongue hard. Just listen.
Riana rolled her eyes at me in sympathy. She was ever sensitive to racial issues in my presence. Whether it was a front to impress me, I don’t know, but I liked her instinctively. She was thirty years old (twelve years Pieter’s junior), had been educated in bilingual schools and had never dated an Afrikaner prior to Pieter. Funny and urbane, she was the kind of Afrikaner who in their school days would laugh at the rustic students wearing ankle-length dresses (“Ag, shame, she’s from the Transvaal”). Today, Riana was hunting for a new job while playing housewife and stepmother to Pieter and his son.
After dinner, as Riana washed the dishes, I stayed at the table getting increasingly tipsy while the men got fully shit-faced:
“. . . and if you think you’ve seen big arses here, wait ‘til you get to Namibia!” James roared. He was in hysterics now, sculpting imaginary buttocks with his hands. Then he pointed at Riana’s balloon butt cheeks and almost keeled over cackling.
“Yeah, yeah, I know I’ve got a Bushman’s arse,” Riana shouted across the kitchen. “Just remember I’m cooking for you on Thursday,” she threatened.
“– and then you get those European arses that are as flat as a pancake,” I joked. Pieter and James dropped their grins and sighed.
The conversation returned to more serious issues, like whether the 1976 generation of black South African school kids were wise in abandoning their education in protest against having to study in Afrikaans. Pieter and Riana said they had “cut off their noses to spite their faces”. I insisted they had no choice. Surprisingly, James agreed with me. I wanted to explore this liberal side of his, but memories of the rest of the discussion sank in a pool of alcohol. When the kitchen walls began multiplying and floating I called it a night and headed towards my bedroom. Bouncing off the corridor walls, I ploughed face-first through the door, lunged onto the bed and stared at the ceiling until it faded to black.
In the morning I opened the curtains to a beautiful dawn and vines stretching as far as my puffy eyes could see. Pieter had already been at work for a few hours and returned from the farm in a foul mood. All morning he had been dealing with a sacked employee who had refused to vacate one of the houses the farm estate provides for its workers.
Pieter said South Africa’s squatter laws stipulated that anyone who occupies a house for more than 24 hours cannot be evicted. The courts ordered him to pay this ex-worker R2,500 before he could turf him out. Eviction completed, Pieter inspected the premises only to discover that the outgoing tenant had laid a turd in the middle of the living room floor as a parting gift. Now Pieter wanted the man to pay for it.
“I’ve spent the entire morning on the phone to my lawyer dealing with labour disputes, right up until lunch time. I shouldn’t be doing that. I should be out on the farm working. It is all too much trouble,” he fumed. Then he brightened a little. “You should have been at this meeting I went to last week. They are demonstrating a new machine that can cut vines. It costs R125,000, but it can do the work of forty men. I’ve got 900 employees on my farm right now, but once I start using this machine I’ll only have one hundred.”
Later, Riana and I drove to the vineyard. The farm estate was the size of 500 rugby pitches and stretched to the foot of the mountains. Table Mountain was visible through the sunny haze. We rolled past the white matchbox houses where the farm workers lived, and eventually found Pieter among the Merlot vines, supervising six Xhosa labourers.
Pieter showed me how to cut a vine. Holding his pruning scissors in one hand, he snipped one of its twigs as if it were a ribbon (it had the circumference of a cigarette). When I gave it a go I had to use both hands and strain for a good couple of seconds in order to sever the twig. Each labourer had to cut about 10 of these twigs per vine, and 500 vines per day, surrounded by tenacious flies.
The Xhosas worked in silence, without any visual or verbal interaction with Pieter. In the townships they may have been husbands and fathers with personalities and responsibilities, but here among the vines they were characterless soldier ants. Pieter too had transformed from his jovial self into a cheerless taskmaster.
Only one man had been promoted from their ranks to management level, Pieter told me. This guy would approach him at the end of each work day wanting to know if he had done a good job or not. But Pieter considered this man the exception to the rule. The other five hundred workers weren’t trusted to complete their duties without hawk-eyed supervision. It was the same in many businesses I encountered in the Cape: white managers hovering over their black employees with an intensity I rarely saw anywhere else in the world (“Put the fries and the chicken leg in the bag . . . now give the bag to the customer.”).
Pieter believed worker inertia bred the heavy-handed management. But surely it was heavy-handed management – with few opportunities for promotion – that bred the inertia? Activities undertaken with ease by everyone else on the continent were deemed beyond the abilities of blacks in the Western Cape. On the rest of the continent farmers are known for their hardiness: they chop down hardwood trees, clear tropical bush, even fight off elephants, lions, leopards and hyenas in order to cultivate on tough, ferrous soil. But here in the Western Cape, Pieter complained that his employees “don’t take pride in doing a good day’s work”. He paid them R100 per week ($20 in 2003), which, by his reckoning, was “too much”.
Historically, Cape farmers paid their workers cheap, unsellable wine in lieu of money. They called it the dop system (‘dop’ means ‘alcoholic drink’ in Afrikaans). For three hundred years dop lowered farmers’ labour costs and came in handy as an instrument of social control. Although the practice was banned in 1960, abolition was not enforced until the 1990s, and even then it was executed patchily. Alcoholism, child malnutrition and violence are common enough in the Cape Coloured farming community to convince some people that such dysfunction is genetic (“They can’t do anything”, one taxi driver sneered to me months later in the Northern Cape).
Paternalism was a big feature of farm life. South African farmers often talked about how they paid for their workers, transport home in the holidays, or gave them money to pay for relatives’ funerals, or shelled out for medication when their employees got ill. But a living wage ought to allow labourers the dignity of covering such expenses themselves rather collecting extra pocket money from Daddy.
Pieter made his employees take breathalyser tests first thing every morning. Anyone repeatedly exceeding the alcohol limit had to pay a fine. Still, this didn’t discourage Pieter from rewarding them with bottles of wine every now and then – a hangover from the old dop system. Predictably, violence broke out regularly. Pieter recounted the time he handed out complimentary bottles of wine to a team of labourers as a ‘thank-you’ for doing overtime. One employee chose to wait in line for a bottle despite having done no work. When Pieter refused to give the man a bottle, an argument ensued. Pieter said the man knifed him on the nose.
“So I hit him over the head with a bottle,” Pieter half shouted, reliving the fury. “After that he was fine. I had no more trouble from him. I’m telling you, it’s the only language they understand. If you hit me I will moer you!”
This form of communication had landed Pieter in court 22 times on assault charges. With the exception of one ongoing case he had been acquitted each time, he told me.
Perhaps he was channeling the grief over his wife’s murder. No doubt his labourers were dealing with similar strains too. The pain on both sides was plain to see, yet in this hostile anecdoche, backstories were hidden and psychologies mutually unexplored. Pieter recognised no connection between the workers’ poverty and the burglaries, or between the dop and drunken violence.
He had more complaints about his job. The workers regularly stole the pruning scissors, he said. This meant he had to search their bags at the end of each day before letting them board the transport trucks bound for their homes in the townships. The scissors went missing anyway, forcing Pieter to replace them with cheaper, less sturdy ones.
The pain and aggravation that went into producing wine was an eye-opener, to say the least.
Back at the farmhouse Riana cooked ostrich neck marinated in Coke. After dinner she, Pieter and I huddled around the fire, guzzling red Bonne Esperance and talking politics. To them, Mandela was God, but his ANC colleagues who killed people during apartheid were the seed of Satan.
“They weren’t terrorists,” I argued. “They were fighting against an apartheid regime that didn’t allow for any kind of negotiation.”
Pieter replied: “They still should have been executed. If you kill innocent people, there’s no excuse.”
Riana and Pieter also took issue with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, launched in 1996 as a way of allowing South Africans to admit their past wrongdoings in exchange for a pardon. The Commission was biased towards ANC members, Pieter said, pardoning relatively few whites. This grievance fed a longstanding sense of Afrikaner victimhood.
“The government brings in new holidays to celebrate black history but they have taken away the Afrikaner ones, like the Day of The Vow,” Riana said. (The Day of the Vow commemorated a battle in 1838 when Afrikaners defeated a Zulu army. It was a major Afrikaner holiday. When the ANC took power, they renamed it Reconciliation Day). “They think that it was a racist celebration but it wasn’t. When the Afrikaners won, they promised to pray to God every year on this day. It wasn’t a racist celebration. We were just thanking God for helping us win that battle.”
I suggested that blacks had sacrificed a lot more than whites over the course of history. Wasn’t the loss of an Afrikaner holiday a relatively small price to pay?
“No,” Pieter said. “We did a lot of things wrong in the past. But now it should be about equality for everyone.”
I told Pieter and Riana that it is too easy to look at the poor and attribute their circumstances to their inherent characteristics. Why expect most of those farm labourers to have initiative? For centuries they weren’t (and often still weren’t) allowed to make decisions on anything about their lives. Surely one should make allowances for the country’s history?
“But isn’t it human nature to want to better yourself?” Riana asked. “You see that something is wrong, or you’re not doing it properly, and you try and change it. How can anyone just sit there and do nothing to improve things? You get some workers here who never wash their clothes. You even look at the policemen on the street and the way they wear their uniform so untidily . . . they take no pride in themselves.”
But having initiative comes more easily, I suggested, when you have a sense of control over the most basic aspects of your destiny. Surely nothing kills initiative quicker than being herded like cattle and labelled descendants of Ham, damned for all eternity?
“But everyone called each other names,” Pieter argued. “We were called boers.”
There were many things I wanted to say but I didn’t trust myself to speak without getting irate and outstaying my welcome (they were merely acquaintances, after all, and had treated me well). Someone with a more diplomatic temperament might have warned Pieter that in trying to escape South Africa’s ills he was simply fleeing his own shadow. It wasn’t the ANC or Nigerian muggers or drunken labourers who were making life difficult for him.
Outside the house, a cock crowed in the darkness. So caught up was I in conversation I forgot to savour my last sunset in this gorgeous landscape.
I don’t know why I ever equated physical beauty with paradise. It’s often the beautiful places that humans turn into Hell when we fight to lay claim to it. Paradise is lost the moment we want it for ourselves, yet we never learn. We’ll keep roaming the earth with muddy feet, searching for that clean-floored Utopia.
Riana and Pieter tossed vines and logs onto the fire to keep it going. I helped out, chucking in candles, newspapers and empty polystyrene cartons, and watching them melt instantly into the flames. It was constant work, keeping a fire raging – a lot more effort went into it than I imagined.
But here in the Western Cape countryside they were experts at it.