Authors: Beverley Naidoo
Seven Stories of Conflict and Hope
One Day, Lily, One Day
Out of Bounds
When apartheid came to an end, the world had expected South Africa to be overwhelmed by the bloodbath of a race war. This did not happen. Instead the world watched with wonder and awe as South Africans of all races participated in the first democratic elections of 1994. Many had believed that once a black-led government was in power, South Africa would be devastated by an orgy of revenge and retribution. Instead of revenge and retribution the world marveled as those who had been made to suffer so much and so needlessly as the victims of the vicious policy of apartheid, revealed a remarkable magnanimity and generosity of spirit in their willingness to forgive their tormentors and oppressors—a spirit embodied spectacularly in the person of Nelson Mandela.
Reading Beverley Naidoo’s short stories, I realize with some shock just how utterly reasonable were those dire expectations about what was in store for our beloved country. Apartheid inflicted untold and unnecessary suffering on people just because of their skin color. They were demeaned and humiliated in a manner that is now difficult to
imagine when almost no one in present-day South Africa admits that they ever supported such a vicious policy. Those who were ill-treated in this fashion should, by rights, have been filled with resentment and bitterness and should have wanted to settle scores by getting their own back.
Yes, it is amazing that they have, by and large, not done so. I was surprised by the intensity of my feelings as I read these stories, carefully crafted with such consummate skill and with such deft touches. The stories are taut and the tension and suspense become quite unbearable. Alfred Hitchcock would have been in his element. I was often a little scared to get to the denouement for I was uncertain of the outcome.
Most of what is described here no longer happens in the new South Africa. But this record is important so that we South Africans can never with any degree of credibility deny that we could reach such depths of depravity. There is a beast in each of us, and none of us can ever say we would never be guilty of such evil. We must acknowledge that it happened. But most importantly we should, after reading these quite disturbing stories, renew our commitment to the new democracy and its new
culture of respect for fundamental human rights and say for ourselves and our descendants, “Never again will we want to treat fellow human beings in this fashion.”
And I hope and pray that others in other lands may commit themselves to ensure that such evil will never be tolerated and that they will not be guilty of perpetrating it.
The struggle for justice within South Africa was, for many years, a symbol across the world. But at the end of the twentieth century, history was turned upside down. The oppressors opened their prison doors and sat down with those they had oppressed…people they had locked behind bars for years or driven out of the country. They exchanged words instead of bullets. Was it possible, together, to make “a new South Africa”?
To understand a little of this enormous task, we need to look back in time. Europeans arrived 350 years ago at the Cape in great sailing ships. Some came looking for riches, some for adventure, some fleeing persecution because of their religion. They found a vast open land that was rich for farming and people who would have shared it with them. But the Europeans set themselves apart, putting up fences wherever they settled. They wanted the land only for themselves and used their guns to get it. They fought wars with many groups of Africans, slowly moving further inland and extending their boundaries. When they could not get enough Africans to work for them, they brought in people from Asia.
The Dutch were the first settlers. Then came the British. The descendants of the Dutch became known as the Afrikaners—or “Boers,” meaning “farmers.” At times, the Afrikaners and the English-speaking settlers fought each other, especially after the discovery of diamonds and gold. But most Europeans were agreed on one thing: there was a ladder in life and that “White” people should be at the top. Below came “Coloreds,” a name given to people mainly of mixed European and African heritage. Then came Indians and, at the lowest rung, black Africans.
Some of the Afrikaners supported Hitler in the Second World War, and when they took over the government in 1948, they tightened the ladder of racism through hundreds of laws. Everyone had to be classified by their so-called race. The definitions were scientific nonsense, such as:
A “White” person means a person who in appearance obviously is, or who is generally accepted as, a White person, but does not include a person who, although in appearance obviously a White person, is generally accepted as a Colored person.
This “goobledygook” became law, and the policy was called apartheid. In the Timeline Across Apartheid, you can read about some of its terrible laws. Hundreds of thousands of people who broke them were thrown into jail. In June 1976, black schoolchildren faced tanks and were shot. But, in the end, those in power could not control people’s anger. On February 11, 1990, the world watched as Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s most famous prisoner, walked out of jail to help negotiate a new future. Four years later, he became South Africa’s first democratically elected President—the first black President and leader of a “rainbow government.”
Each of these stories is set in a different decade during the last half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. My characters are caught up in a happening from that particular time. They inhabit a most beautiful land but one that has been full of barriers—real walls and those in the mind. Some people have accepted these, while others have challenged them. There have been many different tests for the human spirit in South Africa—the land in which I was born—and they are the stuff of my stories.
Marika thrust the glass jar up to Veronica’s face.
“See this one, Nicky!” she declared. “Caught it last week!” Veronica stared at the coiled brown shape slithering inside the greenish liquid. She felt sick.
“You should have seen how blinking quick I was, man! This sort are poisonous!”
Marika’s eyes pinned her down, watching for a reaction. She didn’t know which were worse, Marika’s or those of the dead creature in the jar.
“Where did you find it?”
Her voice did not betray her, and Marika began her dramatic tale about tracking the snake in the bougainvillea next to the hen run.
It was a valuable addition to her collection. Rows of bottles, all with the same green liquid, lined the shelf above her bed. Spiders and insects of various shapes and sizes floated safely, serenely, inside. Marika carefully replaced the snake next to
another prize item—a one-legged chameleon, its colors dulled and fixed. Veronica remembered it alive. It had been the farm children’s pet briefly until they had tired of capturing flies for it. She had even helped one whole Saturday prowling around the cowshed, sneaking up and snapping the overfed blue buzzers in cigarette tins. The next morning Marika and her brothers had decided to let the creature go free and get its own dinner. But when they had come to release the catch of the splintering old wood-and-wire hutch, the chameleon lay stiff and still. The three boys had wanted to make a special grave down in the donga—but in the end Marika had persuaded them to let her preserve it.
The farm, a small holding owned by Marika’s parents, lay against a mountain in the middle of the Magaliesberg. As well as growing fruit and vegetables and keeping a few animals, the van Reenens rented out a small cottage on the farm, mostly to city visitors. It was near enough to Johannesburg for Mr. and Mrs. Martin with their only child, Veronica, to get away from the ever-increasing hustle for short breaks. They were regulars,
coming two or three times a year. In fact, Mr. Martin had been visiting since he was a child, when Marika’s mother herself had been a small girl on the same farm. Veronica’s own memories of the place stretched back for as long as she could remember. For years she and Marika had played “house” in the donga behind the farmhouse. They had used larger stones for the walls, shifting around smaller stones as the furniture. In the past Veronica used to bring all her dolls, despite her mother’s protests. Sensing Marika’s envy, she had enjoyed saying which dolls could be played with. But since Marika’s tenth birthday things were different.
Veronica had been taken by surprise. She had been sitting with the farm children on the wall of the stoep, dangling her legs and kicking the brickwork with her heels like the others. Marika had been telling her about her birthday treat when Veronica had suggested that they go to the donga.
“Hey, the girls are going to play dollies!” Marika’s twin brother, Piet, had sneered. Slipping off the wall, six-year-old Dirk had rolled on the ground, kicking his legs in the air and cooing.
“Gaga gaga! Mommy! Mommy! Change my nappy!”
Veronica had glared at him, and he had pulled a face at her. She had fought to hold back her tears. Only Anton, the oldest, had not joined in but called the others to leave the girls alone to their sissy games. Marika had reacted furiously.
“I’m not a sissy!” she had screamed after them. Leaving Veronica alone on the stoep, she had gone inside the house, slamming the door behind her.
When Veronica returned to the farm a few months later, Marika had begun her bottle collection. Veronica had also left her dolls at home, except for the eyelid-clicking, brown-eyed Margaret. But this time the porcelain head with brown painted curls remained tucked under the bedclothes and was spoken to only at night. She became Veronica’s personal counselor on the farm—a pale replica of Veronica’s personal counselor in town.
Back home in Johannesburg it was Rebecca, their maid, to whom Veronica confided. She was a far better listener than Margaret because she made sympathetic noises. With Veronica’s mother often helping out at her father’s office, or busy with Mothers’ Union meetings, they spent a lot of time together. Whether she was cooking, washing, ironing, or dusting, Rebecca was always prepared to
chat. But she never came to the farm with them. Instead she went to visit her own children, living with their grandmother, a five-hour bus ride away.
Sharing secrets with Rebecca was fun, especially when Rebecca had let her visit her dim, tiny room in the servants’ quarters at the top of their block of flats. It had started with her desperate desire to see the bedspread that Rebecca had been patiently embroidering for months on “baby-sitting” nights when Veronica’s parents went out. Although Veronica didn’t think she needed to be “baby-sat,” she liked Rebecca’s company. Together they would sit and talk at the table in the Martins’s kitchen until it was her bedtime. She had watched the bedspread growing and, when it was finally completed, had begged and nagged to see how it looked on the bed. But before she could be taken, Rebecca had made her promise, “Remember, you are not to tell your ma or pa!”
Because it had been a secret, everything had stayed fixed in her mind like a picture. The splendid bedcover draped over an old iron bed raised up high on bricks. A curtain across one corner of the room, Rebecca’s cupboard. An orange-crate table next to the bed, on which stood a photo of
Rebecca’s four children. Veronica had studied their smiling black faces to see if they looked like their mother, trying to match the faces to the names she asked Rebecca to repeat. The only one whose name she always remembered was Selo, the oldest, because he was exactly her age and his name was shorter than the others.
“Is this Selo?” she had asked, picking out the tallest of the children, who had a cheerful, cheeky grin.
“Oh yes, that’s Selo! Always getting into trouble!” Rebecca had laughed, adding, “But he’s a good boy.”
Yet here on the farm there was no Rebecca. So it was to Margaret that Veronica confided about the snake’s awful eyes. Of course if it were Rebecca, she would make some sounds to show how disgusted she was. Then they would laugh together at how stupid it was to keep all those dead creatures in jars.
But there was something even more important she needed to talk to Rebecca about. It was something Marika had said after she had put the snake back on the shelf. She had hinted strongly that her
brothers had made up a test that Veronica would have to pass before she could go on playing with them. Marika herself had carried out a dare set by the boys. She would not say what it had been, it was so terrible. She was equally mysterious about Veronica’s dare.
“I’m not allowed to tell…but you know our neighbor Jan Venter…?”
Marika had stopped and ominously refused to say anything more.
Big and burly—known for his flaming red beard, moustache, and temper—children, and even adults, usually kept clear of Meneer Venter when possible. Veronica had seen him only once, when he had come to see Mr. van Reenen to insist Marika’s father mend the fence between them.
Jan Venter ran one of the biggest orange estates in the area, and everyone knew that he threatened to shoot any trespasser on his land like he shot baboons. That was not to be taken lightly. He was also known to be “fond of the bottle,” and there had been talk about the disappearance of Mrs. Venter a few years ago. Some people said she had just had enough of his temper and gone back to her own people in another part of the country.
The rumor among the local children was that he had murdered his wife and buried her in front of his house—under a poinsettia bush that now had brighter-than-usual red flowers.
The next morning, instead of darting off early to look for Marika, Veronica hung back and waited for her parents before going to the farmhouse for breakfast. Marika and her family ate in the kitchen, but the Martins were served their meals in the dining room, beneath a pair of massive kudu horns and heavily framed photographs of Marika’s grandparents. Mrs. van Reenen followed behind the servant who carried the plates of steaming porridge.
“Still no sign of rain, but it’ll be a nice day again for you all!”
She smiled and stopped to pass on some of the local news, including talk of a leopard seen on the mountain behind the farm.
Today Veronica took her time. When she came to her last piece of toast, she chewed it slowly. She was trying to think of a good reason to stay with her parents, who were pouring second cups of coffee, when her mother said, “You can be excused, Veronica dear. You can go off and play.
You won’t go near the mountain, will you?”
She nodded, pursing her lips together and got up. Her father ruffled her hair as she passed.
“Have a good day, Ronnie!”
He only called her that when he was relaxed. She just hoped Marika’s brothers didn’t ever hear it. Their jokes about “Nicky” were bad enough.
Hoping the van Reenen children might still be at breakfast in the kitchen, Veronica headed for the opposite door, to the stoep. But they were already there on the wall, legs swinging, waiting. Anton, the oldest, was direct.
“We’ve made a new rule. Girls have to do a dare before they join our gang.”
Veronica stood rooted to the concrete floor. All the children except Anton were grinning. Deadpan, he went on to explain that she had to climb through the barbed-wire fence into the neighboring Venter estate and make her way across to the front of Jan Venter’s farmhouse.
“You’ve got to get one of his poinsettia flowers. We don’t have any this side, so you can’t cheat!”
They would accompany her as far as the fence and wait for her to return.
There was no way out. If she wasn’t part of the
gang, there would be no one to play with. As they marched across the donga Veronica glanced at the spot where they used to play “house” in the shade of the thorn trees. The stones were still there. It was like another world. Inside she felt cold and shivery even though her feet and arms were moving swiftly in step with the others and the sun’s heat was already enveloping them. As they trudged in silence along the edge of the mealie field, nearing the wire fence, Dirk suddenly broke out into a jingle.
“Nicky, Nicky, looks so sicky!”
He was told sharply to shut up by the others.
“A dare is not a game! It’s a serious thing, you idiot,” Marika snapped.
At the fence Anton and Piet parted the barbed wire for Veronica to slip through. Anton pointed.
“The farmhouse is that way. At the end of the orange trees follow the road.”
Veronica cast a quick glimpse back at the group. They all had solemn faces except for Dirk who couldn’t hide his little grin. She was already far down the line of orange trees when she heard Marika’s voice ringing faintly behind her.
“Good luck, hey, Nicky!”
Sounds of laughter seemed to follow.
For as far as she could see ahead there were only straight rows of trees, the deep green leaves and bright orange fruit silently glinting in the sunlight. They were not good cover. With her shadow darting from one tree’s patch of shade to the next, her mind began searching wildly for what to say if she was caught. Could she pretend she was lost…or that she had a dog which had gotten lost? Or that she had come to warn Meneer Venter about the leopard on the mountain? Veronica could not imagine the big burly man with the flaming beard believing any of her stories. She almost wished the dare had been for her to go up the mountain instead.
Her mouth was dry, her body wet and sticky, her legs sprinting heavily. Sucking in small quick breaths, she jerked to a halt. What on earth was she doing here, alone in the middle of Jan Venter’s oranges? This dare was too dangerous. She should run back and tell the others it was unfair. She bet they wouldn’t do it! Then she remembered Marika saying her own dare was too terrible to talk about. Perhaps she had just said that to frighten her…. But if she went back now, that would be the end of
their friendship. Whatever could she do by herself on the farm? It wasn’t worth thinking about. Lips pressed together, her eyes intently scoured the bushes ahead.
At last she could see she was coming to a dirt road. Peering from behind a tree, she studied how to make her way up it. On either side was a line of tall gray blue gums leading to a cluster of whitewashed buildings. The furthest one seemed to be the main house. There was no poinsettia in sight, so the front had to be around one of the other sides. Behind the blue gums on the far side of the road, set a little back, were some huts—servants’ quarters. Usually she hardly took any notice of these kind of buildings. They were just there, part of what you found on a farm. But now she was forced to scan the area around the huts very closely. Although there were some open doorways, they were too dark to see inside. No one seemed to be around, either on the road or in the workers’ compound, but it would be safer to stay on the side where she was for as long as possible. A few large avocado trees would provide thick cover for a short stretch—and then she would have to trust to the blue gums and to fortune.
At last, in line with the main house, she crossed the road. Her shoes smacking against the sand pounded as loudly as her heart. Facing her was a door, leading to a backyard. She ducked down to creep past a window. A few paces more and she had reached the side of the raised stoep. On tiptoe she stretched to look. Still no one! Through the wooden railings she glimpsed a spray of pointed red flowers. The poinsettia was just around the corner! Making a final dash to the bush, she ripped off a flower at the stem. Milky white stuff spurted out onto her fingers. Not bothering to wipe off the stickiness, she turned to run. But a door banging and fearsome shouting forced her to cower back next to the poinsettia bush and freeze.
“Jou bliksem! Ek sal jou moer!”
It could only be Jan Venter. Veronica’s Afrikaans was not very good despite the lessons at school. But she knew Meneer Venter was swearing and that “moer” was probably “murder.” Who was he going to murder now? Was she not perhaps already standing on his wife?
The commotion got worse. She could hear sounds of running and other people coming
outside. An elderly woman in housemaid’s uniform hurried down steps from the stoep close by to Veronica, without noticing her huddled against the wall. She was moaning softly to herself. Meneer Venter was shouting about people who stole from him. Everyone would see now what he did to thieves.