The Boer-Lover

Dan Jacobson

Like all the older people among my mother’s family connections, M. was an immigrant to South Africa from Eastern Europe. He had arrived in the country as a boy and had grown up in Johannesburg. Unlike virtually every other Jewish immigrant, however, he had chosen to identify himself not with the urban, prosperous, relatively sophisticated English-speaking section of the population, but with the Boers, the Afrikaners. As a group they may have had the reputation, at least among outsiders, of being provincial, unwelcoming, defiantly illiberal and racialistic, isolated from the rest of the world as much by their attitudes and language as by their geographical situation. Indeed, when my two older brothers and I lived briefly under M.’s roof, more than forty years ago, a substantial number of the Afrikaners sided more or less openly with the Nazis in Germany. Yet it was with them that he sought to associate himself; it was with their fortunes that he had tied his own. Tied it to the extent of marrying an Afrikaner woman and bringing up his children to speak Afrikaans. For years his mother had refused to see him, as a result.

That was one remarkable fact about him. Another, closely connected with it, I shall come to presently. At that time, no doubt as part of his programme of ‘going Boer’, M. had bought and was running a substantial farm in the middle of the Orange Free State: the flat, treeless, landlocked, middlemost province of South Africa. One summer it was decided that my brothers and I should spend our school holidays there. This would solve the summer holiday problem quite cheaply; besides, my father, who had himself been a shopkeeper and a small-scale farmer in that part of the world, had a sentimental attachment to it, which he wanted us to share. As for M., I suspect that he was lonely and bored and that he welcomed the idea of company of the kind (our kind) on which he had supposedly turned his back. Even if, as in this case, it was under age.

In the event, the holiday was not a success. We lived on the farm for about two weeks, no more; but it seemed longer to us, as it must have done, I am sure, to our hosts too. We got on badly with M.’s two children, who were younger than ourselves, and neither badly nor well with M.’s wife, who was too reclusive to have any relationship with us, apart from that involved in silently ladling out soup at the dinner table. When I say that M. had married an Afrikaner woman, I don’t want the reader to picture to himself some sturdy, bonneted Boerevrou, dressed in calico prints on weekdays and in church-going black on Sundays, given to sausage-making and child-bearing. Nothing of the kind. M.’s wife was an elongated, indoors person, who invariably powdered her face so thickly as to produce a mask-like or plaster-of-paris effect, which was relieved only by a strongly lipsticked mouth and a pair of tinted glasses. Her hair, gold-foil blond in colour, always looked as if it had been freshly dyed and permed; her shoes, stockings and dresses were always formal and fashionable. Having carefully rigged herself out in this manner each morning, like no other farmer’s wife in the province (I should guess), she would proceed to spend most of the day behind drawn curtains in the bedroom. What she did for all those hours in her room I have no way of knowing, or even of imagining. She would emerge for meals, which were prepared by the African women in the kitchen, or to spend some time with her children in the afternoons; then retire early to bed. Whenever she went out, the occasion seemed to be fraught with an intense but obscure sense of risk.

M., by contrast, was always on the go. Even when he sat down he managed to remain on the go. His voice was loud and hoarse, his gestures were emphatic, his laugh came readily and lasted for a long time, he was always eager to engage the whole of himself – shoulders and hands as much as mind – in passionate argument. Having thrown in his lot with the Afrikaners, having decided that their fortunes were to be his, he had adopted the attitudes which he felt to be appropriate to his choice: he had schooled himself to despise all liberals, left-wingers, reformers, bleeding-hearts, ‘kaffir-lovers’ and suchlike. During that holiday he tried to get us to do likewise. Thinking of him then, of the vitality that was in him, I do not find it hard to bring together the dishevelled gregariousness and responsiveness of his manner with the views he put forward. What is more difficult is to reconcile his manner with the knowledge that his entire life was spent in flight from one kind of isolation and in pursuit of another, until, as we shall see, he could bear neither any longer. Even on the farm there was distance enough between him and his wife; not to speak of the distance between him and his two sons: a solemn pair of children with cropped, sun-bleached hair and sun-browned legs, who did not like our being there and who showed a wincing unease at the copious (and to them largely incomprehensible) draughts of English with which M. regaled us – and himself. ‘Chaps’ was the hearty term he invariably used in addressing us: a word which his children had evidently never heard before. His repeated use of it eventually moved the younger of them to say to us one day, in a tone of disgusted bewilderment, ‘Julle kêrels is net ’n hele klomp chaps!’ – ‘You blokes are nothing but a whole bunch of chaps!’

That was the family. The house was a smallish, newish, box-like affair. Parked on a slight rise, it looked across wide fields and grazing lands and over a muddy river towards other farmhouses on similar rises, each one with its accompanying clump of trees. Then came the horizon, which was as firm as the rim of a bowl resting on a table. My brothers and I went for walks across this landscape; we tried swimming in the river; we watched the African farmhands milking the cows and had a go at it ourselves (how wholly unexpected, and how shamefully erotic, was the sensation of grasping the cow’s teat between thumb and fingers for the first time); sometimes we accompanied M. on the expeditions he was continually making in his car to various points in the neighbourhood. Most of these expeditions were of no importance; they were merely an expression of his restlessness, a way of passing the time.

Often enough he used to go to the nearest dorp, a place called Tweeling, which had the attractions of several shops and a railway station. Tweeling was both small and sprawling, with wide, unpaved roadways and lots of grassy spaces between its buildings. Only the spire of the Dutch Reformed church rose above single-storey height; only the church was roofed in slate, not corrugated iron. The windows of the general stores were given over to a jumble of articles; other windows were devoted to one thing only – agricultural machinery, say, or coffins and funeral draperies. At the end of every half-formed street was the green surge of the veld, forever about to engulf the place, or a dirt road heading between two wire fences for the horizon. From place to place, amid these exiguous surroundings, M. bustled about: a slight, red-faced man with a gleaming eye. His elbows stood out on either side of him, like handles on a vase, while his abbreviated legs bounded along below. The locals, most of whom looked as though they weighed about twice as much as he did, evidently thought of him as an oddity; but they did not do so, so far as I could see, with any affection. Affection did not come readily to them. M. was not to be daunted, however, ‘Come on chaps,’ he would call to us, and we, having nothing else to do, would slouch along behind him, acutely aware of ourselves as aliens in this dourly Afrikaans-speaking, Nationalist-voting landscape.

Perhaps my most vivid, single memory of the visit as a whole, however, is of the time I spent on the farm following the plough. The work was still being done in traditional style, with a team of four oxen pulling the plough, and two men following it, one with a long whip which he would crack over the beasts’ backs, and another who held the handles of the plough and steered it along, and disengaged it at the end of each furrow, where the oxen would turn to begin the next. In front was the jangling, snorting, stumbling, sweating team, with the whip cracking repeatedly over the toss of their heads, the heave of their haunches, the bunching of their shoulders and splayed feet; everything there was noise and effort and harnessed will. Behind all this, and beneath it, with an astonishing sleekness and silence, with an effortless simplicity, the tip of the plough cut through the earth and turned to one side a black, moist roll of soil which screwed away from the blade that had created it in one overflowing, never-ending turn. I have only once seen since a paring or cleaving movement that had so sustained an air of hypnotic ease to it: many years later I was to cross the Mediterranean on a boat small enough and ill-organised enough to permit me to lie at the most forward point of the deck and look down (look behind, actually) at the prow cutting the water some feet below. There the motion produced a transparent pair of water-wings travelling at one height above the sea; but the ease of the motion and the hiss which accompanied it took me back at once to the plough cutting the fields of M.’s farm near Tweeling.

Then, rather sooner than had been arranged originally, we left the farm to go home. Ostensibly this was because some of M.’s in-laws were coming unexpectedly on a visit over the holidays. Perhaps they were. I do know, though, that the day before the change of plan, our relations with M.’s children had reached their lowest point. For this I was in large part to blame. We had been wrangling over something or other in the yard immediately behind the house. One of the children made a remark that irritated me particularly. Without thinking what I was doing, I kicked towards him the dog’s feeding bowl which happened to be right at my feet. What I did not know, or took too little notice of, was that there was about an inch of milk still in it. The bowl skidded along the path for a moment, before it struck against a pebble. A sheet of milk, with a fringe of drops hanging from the end of it, like lace at the end of a petticoat, flew into the air. The little boy, my host’s son, received it full in the face and chest. He fled howling into the house.

Our visit was over. Whereas M. had taken the trouble to meet us at Bethlehem, the nearest rail junction, when we had arrived, we were put on a local train at Tweeling for our departure. We were to change trains at Bethlehem in order to make our way to Bloemfontein, where we would change trains once again to get to Kimberley, our hometown. How precipitate our departure was can be gauged from the fact that it was on Christmas Day itself that we left for Bethlehem. The empty, idle journey we made that day may seem to have nothing to do with our dealings with M.; his sole connection with it was to see us on to the train, and to be seen by us as a solitary, waving figure on the receding platform of Tweeling station. For me, though, it is as if everything that came our way after he had fallen out of sight, even the freakishness of our travelling to a place called Bethlehem on that particular day of the year, belongs to him as much as does anything else that happened on that holiday. Even at the time it all somehow seemed to be an expression or projection of the circumstances he had arranged around himself; or, to put it more grandly, of the singular destiny he had chosen for himself.

The little train to Bethlehem was virtually empty. There could not have been more than a dozen people in the three or four coaches of which the train was made up; they all appeared to be white, male and Afrikaans-speaking; many of them were drunk. (The segregated third-class coach at the front of the train, where it would catch the smuts from the steam engine, was empty; the blacks were evidently lying low that day.) It wasn’t only some of the passengers who were drunk, but also the staff, engine-driver and stoker included. As far as the latter two were concerned, we learned this when the train drew up at the first stop after Tweeling. It was nothing more than a nameless siding, with a cattle pen to one side and a shed to the other, and not a soul stirring in the expanse that lay around it; yet for some reason the train waited there, engine fuming, for about thirty minutes. During this time the stoker and driver left their cab and joined the guard and ticket inspector for an impromptu party, together with a couple of the passengers. Leaning against the railings of the cattle pen, they spoke noisily among themselves, laughed, handed around a bottle, smoked cigarettes. Then the journey continued. The same scene was repeated a few stops later. Shortly afterwards, while the train was still in its ambling or trundling motion, the stoker emerged from the cab of the locomotive and clambered on to a narrow, unrailed platform or gangway that ran alongside the boiler. He made his way along this gangway, trailing behind him a single coloured streamer of crinkly paper, of the kind people hang from the ceiling of shops or houses on festive occasions. Somehow or other he managed to suspend that frail decoration along the barrel of the engine, while the wheels and pistons continued their ponderous work below. Then he did the same thing on the other side. At the next stop we went to the front of the train to admire the effect. The streamers looked both gallant and pathetic against the engine, let alone the vacant countryside, and the incomparably vaster sky overhead, where, in the remote distance, some stormclouds were gathering. It was as if the elaborate geography of an alternative continent, complete with lakes, shores, mountains and plains, was silently being assembled there.

The engine, which had long since lost its streamers, pulled us in to Bethlehem station towards midday. Bigger than Tweeling, Bethlehem had tarred streets, many shops with concrete porticoes sticking out above the pavements, two or three Dutch Reformed churches, and a rather ambitious main square, where lawns and beds of flowers surrounded a new town hall. The shops were all closed, the churches deserted (services were evidently over for the day), the streets quite empty, the town hall locked. We had it all, stark sunshine and shadow included, to ourselves. Everyone was at home for dinner, it seemed. The blacks were safely confined to their ‘location’, a mile or so out of town, which we had seen from the train. Eventually we found on a corner a shop-cum-café, run by a couple of young Greeks, which was open. We were not the only ones to have taken refuge there. In addition to the shopkeepers behind the counter, there were three soberly-suited but boisterous men in front of it. They had apparently been there for some time. None of them seemed to have bought anything. They greeted our arrival with a lot of indeterminate noise. One of them drew my oldest brother aside. He opened his jacket. Nestled in the inside pocket, like a small pet a child might carry about with him, was a bottle of Cape brandy. He unscrewed the top of the bottle while it was still in his pocket and made as if to pour out its contents simply by tilting himself forward at an acute angle. ‘Go on! Have a drink!’ he shouted at my brother in Afrikaans. He wagged a finger at my remaining brother and myself. ‘You’re just kids. You drink lemonade, hey. But this outjie’ – lurching again at my brother – ‘he drinks brandy!’

Through an archway to one side of the shop we could see some chairs and glass-topped tables; on each was a menu card stuck into a holder. But no meals were being served. There was nothing doing in the kitchen, we were told, because all the ‘boys’ were gone for the holiday. All we could have was a cup of tea and some biscuits, or a soft drink. In the end we had our lunch, consisting of a bottle of fizzy orange apiece and a shared packet of biscuits, at fresco, sitting on the granite steps of the town hall. Once the three men who had been in the shop had departed, after some skirmishing among themselves on the pavement, and a howitzer-like banging of the doors of the car they got into, nothing disturbed the early afternoon stillness.

Our meal had long been completed when four or five boys on bicycles appeared. They must have been let out of their homes to find what amusement they could by riding around the empty streets of the town. They were somewhat younger, on the average, than ourselves. Like flies in a room, they zigzagged pretty much at random around the square. When they spotted us, however, their curiosity was at once aroused. They could not really get close to us on their bikes, because the town hall and its gardens were separated from the road by a whole series of obstacles: a low wall, steps, ornamental chains. But they were unwilling, or perhaps afraid, to approach on foot. So their circled about, as near as they could, first from one side, then from the other. At last their scrutiny of us produced the clarification they were looking for. ‘Jode!’ they shouted, by way of insult to us and explanation to one another. ‘Jode!’ Now they knew what kind of an animal these strangers were. Now it was clear to them why we should have been sitting in the middle of Bethlehem town square, on Christmas Day, with no home to go to, no dinner in our bellies, no friends to visit. Having uttered these cries, being satisfied with what they had learned and what they had done about it, they rode away in search of other entertainment. We returned the empty bottles to the café and began retracing our steps towards the station. Only another hour or so to go before we could resume our journey. We would have to go through another wait, even longer than the one we had just endured, when we changed trains in Bloemfontein.

All this I remembered when I heard, decades later, of M.’s death; and of why and how he had come by it. After that holiday I saw him no more than half a dozen times, perhaps, in all. At least on two of those occasions it was in London that we met. I had settled in London; he had come there to try to find a market for an industrial mineral of which a deposit had been found on his farm in Tweeling, and which, characteristically enough, he had at once started to mine. He was long since divorced by then, and had never remarried. I gathered that his relations with his grown-up sons were difficult: he had quarrelled with the bride which one of them had just acquired, and he disapproved of the other’s choice of profession. He was at pains to tell me that he didn’t think much of the fiction I had published about South Africa: according to him I did not know enough about ‘the real South Africa’, on which subject, after his years in Tweeling, he obviously felt himself to be an authority. On his second trip to London he actually succeeded in getting a well-known merchant bank to invest a substantial sum in his mining operation. Thus those fields I had watched being ploughed became a matter of concern in a City boardroom. There was even an article about him in one of the Sunday papers.

The business fizzled out eventually; but that failure was not what led him to take his life some years later. No, it was the presence of Cuban troops in Angola. (Here, like any other writer of fiction who tries to tell the truth I have to say, perhaps unavailingly, that this is the truth: I would not have dared to invent such a tale.) The Afrikaners’ success in taking over South Africa and running it as they pleased, and not as the English-speaking might have liked, let alone the blacks and their overseas friends, he had always seen as a vindication of a central choice, or series of choices, he had made, and as a crushing defeat of those who had pitied his perversity, shaken their heads over his marriage, condescended to his views. And then, after he had proclaimed those views and lived by them for so many years, what had happened? The Cubans had appeared in Angola! The Communists were about to march in! Afrikanerdom (in his by then diseased imagination) confronted its ultimate enemy. How could the strength of the Afrikaners, which may have been sufficient to oust the English-speaking from their position of political supremacy, and to keep the blacks in their place, be compared with that of a super-power like the Soviet Union, of whom the Cubans were the mere surrogates or advance-guard? The Afrikaners had suddenly become history’s losers, it seemed to him, not its winners. Perhaps, in the pitiless eye of history, he had made the wrong choice, after all.

So he shot himself. First he shot his dog, who by that time was his only trustworthy companion; then he turned his pistol on himself. No doubt the obsessive melancholy and dread which had focused itself so improbably on the Cubans in Angola would have found something else to dwell upon if no Cuban soldier had ever set foot on African soil; but still, that was the reason he gave for his deed; that was the form his final mania took; and it cast its own light on everything that had gone before.

These recollections included. I am sure that of those boys who rode their bikes around us in Bethlehem not one has been moved to take his life because of the threat to the Afrikaner people posed by the Cubans in Angola. But then, it must be said of M. that he had always had the courage of his own desperations.