Wandering Through South Africa – Part 5

Day 7 started in blazing sunshine and I have to say the weather we have had has been great, 90% sunshine, the odd cloudy period, a couple of five minute showers and the temperatures settled at about 27C.  Often there is a wind which you have to watch, it can burn you quicker than the sun.  However you never feel uncomfortable, it is a dry heat and you do not tend to sweat.

Once more a great breakfast and then off to the early start to the conference.  Unfortunately we were all shown into a little hut, too small for such a crowd and it became weary after a while, this combined with the fact that they could not sort out the PA system and the fact that the Afrikaan’s accent was new to us, made listening a chore especially as the academics had bagged all the front seats.  The speakers were a mixed bag, they were only given 40 minutes to explain their subject and no over-runs they were strictly managed by the chair.  To stand out you had to deliver and it struck me that a lot of them, although university professors, did not succeed.  A few lectures stood out, Meurig Jones from London on Boer War Memorials, Professor Philip Everitt from KwaZulu Natal University on Buller’s Deputy, Lt Gen Sir Charles Warren whose talk rescued Warren in my mind, were the best of a bad day, although Charles Leach’s talk on Constable Charles William Eagle, a Canadian indiginent who came over and joined the Natal Police and was eaten by a lion was interesting when audible.

We went back to Lennox early, prepared ourselves for the evening had another marvellous meal and seven of us settled down with Dirk for an evenings conversation and refreshment.  Now Dirk along with our guide Des does not partake so we did not have long of their company but what we had was intense and mind troubling.  I had not been happy from the start with social conditions as I saw them, I thought that the Blacks were hardly tolerated by the Whites, they were looked down on, patronised and not in their presence, almost spit upon.  They were a lazy, indolent, undisciplined lot who did not deserve anything, not that they got much anyway, the minimum wage was about five euros a day.  In fact all the subservient jobs went to any Black who would take it.  The terms and conditions of employment seemed tenuous to say the least.  Although all children went to school, the conditions looked drab and the hours short, lots and lots only spoke Zulu or variations of same.  Any Black man or woman who had risen out of the ghetto existence was despised.

I cannot say what the Blacks think of the Whites because I was never introduced to one but it struck me that this racist feeling was mutual.  In a way I think both sides realise that apartheid still exists.  I put this view to a few Whites I met socially and not one denied it.  Because of the imbalance in opportunity in the country, the government had to bring in laws and charters to help the rising Blacks to ensure that they were given preference in certain situations in sport and in the professions, the Whites abhorred this bias and said it is now no place for young Whites.  The fact is that the Blacks have all the political power, while the Whites in the shape of the multinational companies that abound, have all the economic power.  Neither side seems able to back down from their imagined moral high ground and embrace the other.  The whites can only scorn the tribalism that affects the choice of leaders and grasp for morsels when talking about the present leader, Jacob Zuma, who incidentally has just spent €18 million of state funds on upgrading his KwaZulu Natal home.  They await their hoped for redeemer, Cyril Rhamaphosa, to put matters, in their eyes right.  They might be clutching at straws but I cannot see a Black man giving a white man an advantage.  The problem was for too long on the other foot.  So with this intransigence on both sides the country is slowly going backwards and the average age of the white population is probably getting older.  To me it seems like a first world country with massive third world propensities which is a bloody shame for all those people taking part in this charade they call life here in South Africa.

Now I know I had only been seven days in the country but to a newcomer it is like a permanent elephant in the room, you cannot move without being aware of the problems.  Whites in big houses surrounded by 6 metre high electrified fences and Security signs blocking out the sunshine and 100 metres away hundreds of blacks living in hovels with little in the way of public services, its bound to lead to contention and my thoughts certainly led to lively debate.  It is just a pity that one or two of the farm hands could not have been introduced to the conversation but they only spoke Zulu any way.  Our two abstainers had faded out of the company and we had been joined by a fellow conference delegate, an ex-army man from Durban, who made his living buying and selling military memorabilia.

Well more drink was put on the table and as soldiers do, the drinks were moved off the table and down respective gullets and the previous high brow conversation reverted to the barrack room, Durban turned to Mad Mullingar and said he was dressed like a fuckin’ Christmas tree, Mullingar said to Durban that he would knock his fucking head off his shoulders if he did not take back his words, Durban would not retreat, Boyling Scouse was wondering which side to take, the Colonel was saying an Hail Mary in a language that the clergy did not know, Flash Harry was poised for some action shots and I was quickly weighing up the scene, whether to take flight or grab the Zulu assegai hung on the wall, because Mullingar at whatever age he is, is a sight to be feared by the best of men when aroused.  We quivered between deadly intent and WW3, when a young unassuming accountant from Pretoria staying at Lennox broke the ice by asking how the conference had gone.  By god we were close!

Day 8 was slightly cloudy and as with all aftermaths the sparring partners shook hands, shared an egg and Durban gave me a wonderful news sheet, the type you see outside newsagents telling the passer-by what is the headlines in the paper.  The one he gave to me was from the Natal Witness First Edition timed at 1.20 pm on 28th April 1916 telling of the Irish Revolt and that rebels were still holding various public buildings in Dublin and that General Maxwell was preparing to go over to take charge. It was a present for our museum and what a marvelous present, which set my mind wondering how to start another row that evening if the harvest was that good.

So off to the conference in happy mood, I did not bother with the first three hours and chose to walk round the museum’s grounds with Flash and Boyling but was very interested in not missing the late morning session.  First up was a gem from Ulsterman Professor Donal McCracken from the University of KwaZulu Natal.  The place was still overcrowded and hot and still the PA system had problems but McCracken disavowed the microphone and in a voice that Ian Paisley would have been proud of started his monologue which made me think that he had been so long out of Ulster he probably could not point it out on a map.  He gave a sharp witty, disparaging talk on the ageing Michael Davitt’s visit to South Africa in 1900. Disparaging in that he described Davitt’s whole life as being a continuous  diatribe against Britain and its aims, without explaining how at the age of four in 1850 Davitt and his family were evicted from their rented property by a zealous landlord, how he had his right arm cut off in machinary at a Baxendale mill at the age of 14, a constant reminder that Britain’s policies were a massive thorn in Irish life, how he was a pivotal figure in the restoration of ownership of agricultural land back to the Irish tenant farmer with his activities  in the Irish National Land League and how he became an international socialist revered throughout the world and offered by Gandhi as being his biggest influence.  Mr McCracken’s words echoed his Protestant heritage and despised his ancestor, Henry Joy McCracken, for his good work with the United Irishmen of 1798 for which he was hanged by the authorities.  However let us just put Donal’s words down to ill conceived mischief as he said from the floor that he would not take questions from Connaught Rangers.

There was more good lectures from Arnold Van Dyk, a very interesting and likeable fellow but more about this man later, he was aided by a great photographic display, he spoke of the activities of the Isaac Malherbe Corporalship from Pretoria which included the young Reitz brothers in the early part of the war before most of them were killed.  This talk was followed by Sarie Mehl speaking about her historic roots in Boer history but again her very interesting talk was slightly nullified by the stupid PA system.  Why when they went to the trouble of inviting speakers from all over the world did they herd us into a hut and to an extent make a mockery of what people had to say.  Third world or first world?

At this juncture I have to mention the works of Denys Reitz, Boer and writer extraordinaire.  His book Commando sustained me during the many long hours travel and I recommend it to all.  It tells the tale of a 16 year old burgher who rode out with his friends in September 1899 to face the growing force of the British Army, the tremendous hardships they suffered and the bravery of them all and the privations they were put through when politically exiled from South Africa after the treaty was signed: a compelling and literate piece of work.

Enough was enough for me, I skipped the afternoon lectures went back to Lennox and had a very peaceful afternoon on the farm.  We had lunch and Dirk took us for a drive round his estate as well as cattle, he has a wild life reserve which he farms.  It seems there is money in farming these beasts and he has a herd of zebra, antelope of all sorts like springbok and eland and bigger animal like hartbeeste, he also has a family of giraffe.  While we were there a zebra was accidentally killed and he went out and skinned the beast, the hide it seems is very valuable and then hung the beast up in one of his sheds.  It would feed his workforce for weeks, they were making some biltong out of parts of it when I looked in (marinated and dried strips of meat the indigenous chew during their day).  Like dillisk the Irish seaweed variant, it is very moreish.

A quiet evening followed, everybody on edge following the antics of last night, subdued in body and spirit.  Mullingar contented himself with some sort of Zulu liquer that is supposed to be mind-bending, the colonel brought some Lourdes holy water from his bag and poured a thimble of this juice into hit, drank it, did two somersaults and went to bed without praying.  Flash and his mate Boyling settled for a crate of Castle, I contented myself with a couple of glasses of Pinotage, a native South African vine but tasty none the less.

Day 8 was waiting to grab us

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