The Ingenuity of Rural Life

R.W. Johnson

  • The Seed Is Mine: The Life of Kas Maine, a South African Sharecropper, 1849-1985 by Charles van Onselen
    James Currey, 668 pp, £14.95, February 1996, ISBN 0 85255 740 X

Kas Maine sharecropped on the marginal farmland of Willem Nieman, a staunch Afrikaner, chairman of the local National Party branch and hater of the English and the Jews. When Kas’s first son was born in 1921, he and his family celebrated in Sotho fashion. Kas then picked his way across the stubbled fields to Nieman’s house to enact his part in one of the seigneurial rituals of the Western Transvaal. Sixty years later, among the thousands of hours he spent recalling his life for Charles van Onselen – Kas was blessed with a memory from which nothing faded – he described how the ritual went:

When a child was born you went to the landlord and said: ‘We have a baby boy’. The landlord would be pleased and say: ‘Oh, you have had a little monkey, have you cut off its tail?’ Then we would say: ‘Yes, master, I have cut off the tail, it’s a person now, no longer a baboon.’ That was how the white farmers used to put it to us.

Sotho tradition did not allow the birth of a son to be celebrated without the sacrifice of a sheep; and the farmer, whether he liked it or not, was bound to provide one. But in order to establish that he was utterly the baas, he would ritually humiliate the tenant – and then give him the sheep. Only those who lived through the days of the old racial supremacy have any inkling of how complicated such interchanges could be. But Nieman was an ideologue. He knew his part in this little rite – and refused to play it. He was happy to have Kas describe his son as a monkey, and happier still not to give him the sheep. Sixty years later Kas still smarted. Nieman was ‘bloody rotten’, he said; he was ‘unwilling to take a kaffir into consideration’.

This was no small matter. The previous year Kas had realised that the failure of his wife, Leetwane, to become pregnant, together with the fact that a plague of locusts had spoiled his crops, could only mean he was suffering the curse of some malevolent neighbour. Kas trekked hundreds of miles into the Kalahari desert to visit a famous old herbalist. If he prepared the right ingredients, she assured him, and took care never to kill a woman, he could live as long as she had. She knew her stuff. Kas managed not to kill any women and lived three times longer than the average African male. The locusts left and Leetwane quickly became pregnant. But now Nieman in his ‘bloody rotten’ way had spoiled everything. Kas had no sheep of his own to slaughter and sure enough his son, Mosebi, soon died of diarrhoea. But one of Mosebi’s aunts then confessed that it was her fault because she had failed to perform the necessary cleansing ceremonies after giving birth to a stillborn child – and it was well known that such misfortunes could easily be passed on if proper measures were not taken.

Mosebi was buried under a bluegum tree at a crossroads: not a clever move since Kas had to ferry grain past this spot on a regular basis – it was one of his extra trades – and would flog himself to a frenzy of exhaustion every time in the impossible attempt to forget the dead child. Only when the right propitiations had been made did he know any inner peace, and shortly afterwards, to his dismay, he discovered that some of his donkeys had wandered into Nieman’s fields. But Nieman told him not to worry, they had done no harm. That season, when Kas harvested 50 bags of maize, Nieman remembered the donkeys and fined him 35 bags, leaving him just enough to starve on through the winter.

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