This volume comprises two short stories. I have used the British style of spelling throughout and a sprinkling of foreign words for local colour. These are translated as follows: hauw (Xhosa) expression of surprise, disapproval etc; veld (Afrik) grasslands, savannah; mealie meal (Afrik) corn meal, maize meal; dumela (Sotho) good day; Mme (Sotho) term of respect for a woman, literally ‘mother’.
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A key rattled in the lock followed by the door opening. A heavy, metallic clang echoed in the bare room. The prisoner entered followed by the wardress. Aletta looked up from the file she was reading. She had been jotting down a few questions in the margins to ask her client. The prisoner towered over her jailer. She was not wearing handcuffs or shackles, only a plain khaki dress and sandals. The wardress ordered her to sit down at the table opposite Aletta.
‘Good morning.’ Aletta held out her hand. The woman ignored her. ‘No fine, if that’s the way you want it. I can’t force you to shake my hand.’
The wardress told Aletta that they were allowed an hour together and to call her if there was anything she needed. She closed the door and locked it. The feeling of being locked in gave Aletta cold shivers. The worst thing about being in prison, she thought, would be claustrophobia. Freedom was about going for walks with the dogs. Freedom was the wind in one’s hair, the rain on one’s face, the flowers in the veld.
‘Let’s begin.’ Aletta started reading from the file. ‘You are Mpho Dibetla of the village of Ga-Luka. Is that correct?’ She glanced up at the woman for confirmation. Her face was impassive. Aletta waited for a response. ‘No fine,’ she said. ‘I’m sure the wardress has brought me the right person.’
She examined the woman’s face. She was probably in her late thirties. It would be in her file somewhere, only she had not had time to read it. This was a pro bono case. She was not supposed to spend too much time on pro bono cases as they generated little money for the firm. That was the partners’ rule, not hers. Nevertheless, she was mindful of the fact that that her bonus at the end of the year depended on how much business she generated. She would do her best for her client, but her best should not take up more than half a day at the most. Aletta noticed wrinkles around the prisoner’s eyes, but that could be misleading. Perhaps she was younger than the late thirties. It was always difficult to put an age to country women. Hard manual work and frequent child bearing took their toll. Aletta noticed her strong, muscular hands lying passively on the table in front of her. She was not wearing a ring, but Aletta believed that she was married. It would also be in her file which would read when she had a chance. At the moment, she had more pressing cases, cases which brought in a great deal more money for her law firm.
‘It’s Mrs isn’t it? I hope I pronounced your name properly. Sorry, I should have introduced myself. Did the wardress tell you? I am Aletta de Beer, your attorney. My firm has been appointed by the court to defend you on a pro bono basis.’ The face opposite her was expressionless except for the woman’s penetrating black eyes which darted about the room, never looking directly at Aletta.
‘No fine, shall we begin? Mpho…. may I call you Mpho….? This morning, I want to go over the facts of the case against you, step by step. I want to hear your side of the story. I want to focus on the discrepancies. Do you know what a discrepancy is? Do you speak English?’ Aletta waved her hands in the air as she spoke like a conductor of a symphony orchestra, only the orchestra sitting on the other side of the table, was silent. Perhaps the woman was shy. Aletta could try asking a few simple questions to break the ice.
‘Hot isn’t it? Have you had much rain up north? You can call me Aletta. That’s okay with me. We need to get to know one another.’
This was not really true. Aletta never got to know her clients at a personal level. Their relationship would last the length of the trial and when it was all over, they would never see one another again. What she wanted was for the woman to open up so that she could understand her motives. She needed to discover mitigating circumstances to use in her client’s defence. Presumably, the woman was guilty. They usually were. Aletta paged through the file.
‘I don’t need to remind you of the seriousness of the charge against you. According to the police report, your baby was last seen alive by your neighbour on Saturday the twenty first at about six in the evening. Do you agree with that?’
She looked up again. The prisoner’s face betrayed no emotion. What was going on behind the mask? The woman’s hands moved. Was she about to say something? The prisoner scratched her neck, then her arm and then her hand returned to the table.
‘Can you describe that day to me? Let’s start from the moment you woke up.’ Aletta waited. There was no response. ‘You woke up and got out of bed…. what time was this?’ The prisoner shifted in her seat, her eyes continuing to dart around the room. Time was running out for Aletta. She referred to the notes she had jotted down in the margins of the file. ‘Your neighbour made a statement to the police. Have you read it? Do you agree with what she said?’ The thought occurred to Aletta that the woman might be illiterate. ‘Can you read? If you like, I could read it to you.’
Aletta looked around at the bleak, empty, room, devoid of the human touch. She should talk to the wardress about putting up some pictures. The walls were painted in government-issue, glossy brown paint. On the far wall, the paint had erupted in bubbles, like a skin disease. Rising damp, thought Aletta.
‘Did your neighbour actually see your baby, or did she only hear a baby cry?’ There was a long pause. ‘There is a big difference between being an actual witness and hearing a noise. It could have been somebody else’s baby crying. Do any of your neighbours have a baby?’ Aletta noticed a bangle around the woman’s wrist made out of a piece of twisted animal skin, dry and hard with fur still adhering to it. ‘Unhygienic’ and ‘microbes’ were the words that came to mind.
‘Mrs…. Mrs….wait a bit’ Aletta referred to the file. ‘Sorry, I’ve forgotten your name. There we are…..Mpho. Now, listen to me Mpho: I am here to help you. Don’t you understand? I am on your side. The court has appointed me to defend you. If you remain silent, you are making my job much more difficult. You are in serious trouble with the law. Murder of a child is a capital offence. Do you understand? Do you know what might happen to you?’
Aletta made a grimace. Her artistic hands fluttered in the air in a gesture of hopelessness. This was the prisoner’s last chance. While she waited, she looked at the paint on the wall. The area close to the floor was already flaking off in large pieces. She looked at the ceiling fan turning slowly, slowly, hardly moving the air at all. Was the electricity working? Flies were sitting on the blades of the fan as if enjoying a ride at the fun-fair.
‘Warder!’ Aletta called. ‘Can you come in here please?’ The wardress strode into the room, expecting trouble. ‘This Mrs… Mrs Mpho…’ she glanced down at the file in front of her. ‘No, that’s not it.… Mrs Dibetla…. Mpho Dibetla. Does she understand English? Is there a translator available?’
‘She speaks good English, Madam.’
‘Then why doesn’t she answer my questions? I am her lawyer. I am here to help her. I can’t do my job if she won’t talk to me.’
The wardress shrugged her shoulders. Aletta’s hour was up. The wardress ordered the prisoner to stand, took her by the arm and led her out of the room. Aletta put her documents into her briefcase. ‘These pro bono cases!’ she said. ‘They are such a waste time. I’ll just have to make a plea for temporary insanity. The firm uses a psychologist in town. I’ll get him to testify.’
A few months ago, Aletta had defended a street walker in court who described her profession as: “take the money and get it over with quickly”. It was a strategy that was remarkably similar to Aletta’s pro bono case. Only, the strategy required co-operation on the part of the client. She left the building and went to her car which had been standing in the sun for an hour. It was baking hot inside. As she started the engine, she heard the distant rumble of thunder.
At the partners’ weekly meeting, Aletta briefed them on the cases she was handling. When she reached the Dibetla case, she complained that she was receiving no co-operation from her client. She believed that the case would go against her. The best she could do would be to make a plea in mitigation of sentence. The partners accepted her assessment. In the meantime, Aletta wanted to tie up a few loose ends. The senior partner warned her not to waste too much time on loose ends. She should rather concentrate on their higher-value clients. The end-of-year bonuses were soon to be decided.
Next day, Aletta drove out to the village of Ga-Luka. It was a two hour drive from her office and the roads were bad. She had the address of the Dibetla house and wanted to interview other members of the family, preferably the husband. So far, none of the statements made to the police had been corroborated. Aletta was annoyed with Mpho. Her client’s attitude was hard to understand. She could have confirmed, or refuted the evidence and saved Aletta a lot of trouble. The defence case should have been wrapped up by now.
Unit forty four on the main road running through Ga-Luka, was painted peppermint green and the door was pink. It had a zinc roof instead of traditional thatching. This must be the place, thought Aletta. She parked her car at the side of the road and knocked on the door.
‘Hello!’ she called out. ‘Anyone at home?’
A yellow dog with a curly tail came from behind the house viewing the intruder with suspicion. Aletta viewed the dog with equal suspicion.
‘Keep away from me.’ She pointed a warning finger at the dog. The mongrel wagged its tail. Aletta noticed a young girl of about twelve or thirteen standing a little way off, staring at her. The girl was under-nourished with arms and legs as thin as matchsticks. Her dress was dirty and she was barefoot. The girl shouted at the yellow dog and threw a handful of sand in its direction. The dog slunk away to find a cool spot in the shade of a thorn tree.
A voice came from inside the peppermint green house. ‘They gone away.’
‘Who are you?’ said Aletta. ‘May I talk to you? The pink door opened a few inches. Aletta introduced herself. ‘May I come in?’
It was dark inside and the house smelt of food cooking. The elderly woman wore glasses and walked aided by a stick. She was either suffering from arthritis, or a leg injury. She explained that she was Mpho’s mother in law, Mrs Dibetla. Aletta knew that the mother in law had made a statement to the police. This was a good place to start with her enquiries.
‘You made a statement….’
‘Who is bad?’ asked Aletta.
‘Daughter in law. She very bad woman. She cause trouble. Police come. I tell police what she do.’
‘Fine, Mrs….’ Aletta hastily looked through her files. ‘…. Mrs Dibetla…. that’s right…. Mrs Dibetla. Tell me what happened.’
‘She kill baby. I know. I tell police. She bad woman.’
‘Did you see her kill the baby?’
‘I know. I tell police.’
‘Did you actually see her kill the child?’
‘She bad woman. I tell the police.’
‘Why did she do that?’
This was typical of pro bono cases, thought Aletta. Communication with witnesses was often hampered by language difficulties. She had not thought to bring a translator with her. It would have cost her firm money, but that would have been better than wasting her time with a fruitless interview.
‘Mrs…. what is it again…. Dibetla. Did you, or did you not see your daughter in law kill the baby?’
‘She kill baby.’
‘Did you actually see….’
The discussion was going round in circles. Aletta had a strong impression that the woman was biased. From the expression on her face, she assumed that the old woman hated her daughter in law. If the prosecution tried to use her in court, Aletta would have her declared a hostile witness.
‘I want to talk to your son, Petrus Dibetla.’
‘My son, gone.’
‘Where is he?’
Outside in the strong sunshine, she saw the young girl watching from a little distance away. She called her. ‘I’m looking for Mr Petrus Dibetla. Do you know where he is?’
The child shrugged her shoulders. Perhaps she did not speak English. Aletta was angry. Her expedition had been a failure. She had spent most of the morning in the village and achieved absolutely nothing. Then, she remembered that one of the neighbours had made a deposition. Aletta took the file out of her briefcase. What was the neighbour’s name? She paged through the file until she found a copy of the original statement. It was written in bold, well-formed letters on an official form: Motsepe, Mrs Itumeleng Motsepe.
Meanwhile, the young girl had been joined by two younger children. They were drawing a pattern in the sand with a stick for some sort of a game. Did they play hop-scotch out here?
Aletta smiled at the girl. ‘What’s your name?’
Aletta breathed a sigh of relief. The girl did speak English, after all. ‘Maria, you look like a clever girl.’ The child grinned shyly. ‘I want you to do something for me. Take me to Mrs Itumeleng Motsepe. I need to talk to her.’ Aletta rummaged in the cubby hole of her car for sweets. There were none. If she had to return to Ga-Luka, she must remember to bring sweets with her.
Aletta followed the girl. The path led through a vegetable garden with half-grown mealies and pumpkins, rank with weeds. She was not wearing the right kind of shoes. Hopefully, this would be the last time she would have to go tramping around in the bush. She was scared of snakes. She was annoyed that the partners had pushed this job onto her. Someone else in the office would have to handle the next pro bono case. Chickens scratching on the path scattered in panic ‘Are their snakes, Maria?’ she asked her guide. The girl pointed to a house with a tin roof through the trees. It was bigger and more prosperous looking than the Dibetla home. Aletta turned around to ask Maria if she was quite sure this was the right house, but the girl had vanished. She knocked loudly on the door.
‘Hello…. Mrs Motsepe…. Hello!’ she called.
A hand drew back the curtains of a small window. A face looked out. Then the hand closed the curtain again and the door opened.
‘Dumela!’ The figure in the doorway was short and stocky. She looked at her visitor quizzically.
‘Mrs Motsepe? May I talk to you?’
Aletta explained her mission. She opened her briefcase and took out the Dibetla file. She paged through it until she came to the statement which Mrs Motsepe had made to the police.
‘It’s in sePedi! Why isn’t the translation in the file?’
‘This really is no good. Please, can you translate this for me?’ Aletta handed her the document.
‘Ma’am, my glasses.’ Mrs Motsepe turned to go back into the house.
‘Don’t worry. Just tell me what happened.’
Mrs Motsepe stood in the doorway. She looked at the doorsteps, she looked at her feet. Aletta had noticed the same thing with her client. Mpho had avoided looking directly at her. ‘Ma’am, the babies are always crying. They hit her.’
‘Who hit the baby?’
‘You saw her hit the baby?’
‘My daughter look after the babies. She tell me.’
‘Now, wait a minute. Let me get this straight. You never saw them hit the child yourself. What did you tell police?’ Aletta tapped the file with her finger. ‘I must have this statement translated. Did you write here that Mrs Mpho hit her baby? Is that correct?’
Aletta silently cursed the police. Mrs Motsepe appeared to be truthful, but the rules of evidence had not been followed. This was hearsay. Had the police taken a statement from her daughter?
‘Did your daughter make a statement?’
‘Just as I thought. Can I speak to her?’
‘She not here.’
Aletta groaned aloud. Her visit to Ga-Luka had been one frustration after another. She thanked Mrs Motsepe for her time. Mrs Motsepe gave her a broad smile and watched her as she trod her way back through the vegetable garden in her unsuitable shoes. Then, she closed her front door, left the house and walked quickly in the direction of the Dibetla home. Aletta put her briefcase into the car boot. Then she climbed inside and started the engine. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a figure standing under a tree watching her silently. It was Maria. Aletta noticed how thin the child was, as thin as the yellow dog with the curly tail. Suddenly the girl waved at her and smiled. Aletta waved back. She must remember to bring her some sweets, or perhaps a new dress.
Half way down the main road, Aletta passed a small church. She was already well past the building when an idea occurred to her. She stopped the car and reversed. Inside the church, plastic chairs were piled up while a woman cleaned the floor with a mop and a bucket of soapy water. Children’s art works had been stuck onto the walls at the back of the church. It looked more like a school. Then, she noticed that they all had religious themes, scenes from the bible, angels and shepherds.
‘Good morning. I mean afternoon,’ said Aletta. The woman stared at her. ‘I’m looking for the minister.’ The woman stopped what she was doing and went out of the side door without acknowledging the visitor. Aletta walked to the back of the church to look at the children’s artwork. Some of the paintings had words in sePedi written next to the crudely-drawn figures. Aletta tried to guess their meanings. Then she took one of the plastic chairs from the pile and sat down. Presumably, the cleaner had gone to call the minister. The problem with working in the countryside, thought Aletta, was communication. She should advise the partners to provide translators for these kinds of cases in future. A noise behind her made her turn around.
‘I’m sorry to trouble you….’ she started.
Aletta was surprised to see the minister was a young man, younger than herself, and dressed casually in short pants. He said he had been working in his vegetable garden. Aletta introduced herself. She complemented him on the children’s artwork. In her youth, she had once considered becoming a kindergarten teacher. She loved children’s art. It was so natural and spontaneous. The minister said that his wife ran the children’s Sunday School. He showed her the children’s depictions of the city of Jerusalem, the Mount of Olives and the parting of the Red Sea. The sea, Aletta noticed, was painted bright red. She explained her business in Ga-Luka.
‘I know the Dibetla family well,’ said the minister. Aletta was glad he spoke good English. ‘I baptised the twins.’
Aletta remembered Mrs Motsepe telling her that her daughter earned money looking after Mpho’s babies. She had not realised that they were twins.
‘And I buried little Dineo.’
‘Dineo was the murdered child?’
Presumably, it was in the file which Aletta had not yet read. She asked the minister if he could tell her anything about the case, but he only knew what he had heard from others. And he had heard different versions, too. The villagers had taken sides. It was difficult to distinguish truth from rumour.
‘There are superstitions regarding twins,’ said the minister.
‘So, you think….?’
‘Mpho is a good woman,’ said the minister. ‘I don’t think she killed her baby.’
‘Her mother in law says she did.’
‘I’ve heard that.’
‘I am not inclined to believe the mother in law’s version,’ said Aletta. ‘I think she has an axe to grind.’
‘From what I can see, she hates her daughter in law.’
Aletta asked the minister if he would be prepared testify in court as to Mpho’s character. He said he would be happy to do so. Aletta congratulated herself. At last, she had achieved something. Her visit had not been a total waste of time. She asked him for his opinion on possible motives for the baby’s killing, something she could use in mitigation of sentence. In her experience, post-natal depression was sometimes a factor.
‘Some mothers,’ said Aletta, ‘suffer from depression after giving birth. I am not in a position to form a professional opinion about this particular case. I don’t suppose there is a doctor in this village who could tell us whether Mpho was depressed. What troubles me is Mpho’s lack of emotional response. It is if she is in a state of…. I can’t put the right words to it…. shock perhaps.’
‘There are other things,’ said the minister. ‘There is a lot of superstition in the countryside. We have a continuous battle on our hands against these forces. We know these practices are still carried out. We are against them. We preach against them, but they are difficult to eradicate.’
‘Twins, for example. Traditionally, twins are regarded as unlucky. Then, in the Mogwase area, there have been reports of ritual murders. We have been fortunate that this hasn’t happened here. I pray to God we will be spared. Albinos are particularly vulnerable. I have heard of albino children being murdered while they slept. Body parts are used in black magic.’
‘It happens more frequently than people realise. Most of the time, it never gets reported. The families cover up. Sometimes money is involved. We are talking about poor communities.’
‘The police do nothing.’
Aletta opened her briefcase and paged through the file. ‘I’m looking for something.’ She paged through a second time. ‘It’s not here. I am looking for the pathologist’s report. It is a legal requirement. If the baby had been mutilated, it would be in the report.’
The minister asked whether Aletta would like some tea. He lived next door to the church. She declined as it was late and she had to get back to the office.
‘Mpho’s husband: what can you tell me about him?’
‘They are not married. Some men first want their wives to prove that they can produce a son before they go through with the marriage ceremony. They could live together as man and wife for many years. Petrus Dibetla might be like that. I am not sure.’
‘And if the woman does not produce a son?’
‘Ah…. that could cause problems.’
‘Do you know Mrs Motsepe, the neighbour?’ asked Aletta.
‘Yes, I do. I can’t understand why she made a statement to the police,’ said the Minister. ‘It was her daughter who saw Mpho beating the child.’
‘Who is her daughter?’
‘Her name is Maria.’
‘The young girl, twelve or thirteen years old?’
‘She’s fourteen. I confirmed her last year.’
Next day at the partners’ meeting, Aletta reviewed the Dibetla case. From the available facts, she believed that the state had no case against her client. The neighbour, Mrs Motsepe’s account was hearsay. The actual witness to the assault was her daughter Maria and she had not been questioned by the police. Then, the accused’s mother in law was a hostile witness. Her recommendation was to file for a dismissal. The senior partner undertook to review the case with the office of the Public Prosecutor. However, Aletta was not satisfied. She wanted to talk to Maria. She had not known that Maria was Mrs Motsepe’s daughter and that she was a material witness. Why had she withheld this information?
The wardress brought the prisoner into the interview room. The door clanged shut echoing in the empty room. Mpho sat down opposite Aletta, her eyes averted.
‘Now you listen to me, Mpho.’ Aletta pointed a finger at the prisoner. ‘I want answers and I want them now. You are going to tell me what is going on between your mother in law and your neighbour Mrs Motsepe.’
Aletta waited for a response. The only sound was the clanking of the ceiling fan.
‘I met your mother in law. I talked to your neighbour. I met Maria. Now, tell me what is going on. You have wasted my time. You have withheld material facts. I am angry.’
The prisoner’s hand moved. She rubbed her nose. The ceiling fan stopped turning. It was stifling in the room.
‘Are you protecting someone?’ Aletta waited, growing more impatient with every second. ‘Mpho, would you kindly look at me when I talk to you?’ There was a metallic sound as the ceiling fan suddenly started turning again. A faint breeze stirred Aletta’s hair. ‘I am going to find out, if that is the last thing I do.’ She stood up. ‘Warder,’ she called out. ‘I’m finished with Mrs Dibetla. You can take her back to the cells.’
Aletta’s return to Ga-Luka could not wait another day. She had concerns about the safety of young Maria. Aletta telephoned the police from her office and instructed them to bring Maria in for questioning. Then, she drove out to the village as fast as she could. At the police station, she waited in the corridor. The police interview did not take long. As witness to the murder, Maria’s version was the only one acceptable in court. And her version contradicted her mother’s statement. Aletta called the girl as she emerged from the interview room.
‘Maria, come here my girl. I know it was difficult. Are you scared?’ The girl looked at the ground without answering. ‘I am going to ask the police to take you to a place of safety until this is all over. Do you know the minister? Perhaps he can look after you. Come, let’s go.’ She took Maria by the hand and went through to the station commander. There were documents to sign and arrangements to be made for the girl’s protection.
‘I’ve got a new dress for you, Maria. It’s in my car. Come.’
Next day Aletta made her third and final visit to her client. Prisoner and lawyer sat opposite each other across the table in silence. Mpho looked at her hands and Aletta looked at Mpho. Then she spoke gently, in a low voice.
‘Mpho, you know you are innocent. I know you are innocent and the police know you are innocent. Maria has made a full statement to the police. Your mother in law and Mrs Motsepe have been taken in for questioning. They might have to face charges of perjury. I expect you will be free by this afternoon. The police are busy with the paperwork. They will take you home.’
Mpho nodded her head.
‘Unfortunately, there is more heartbreak for you. You know what I mean. You have lost a child and now you will lose a husband. Your mother in law has been protecting her son and you have been protecting your husband. I’m afraid, justice has to be done. This is not going to be easy for you. I understand how you feel.’
Aletta reached across the table and touched the strong muscular hand.
‘Mrs Motsepe and your mother in law claimed that Maria had seen you killing the baby. The truth is that Maria saw your husband assaulting the child. Were you there at the time?’ Mpho’s face suddenly contorted. She withdrew her hand to rub her eyes. ‘What I want to know, Mpho, is why he did this. Was it because they were twins? Was it because you did not produce a son? Are they not his children? Was he angry because the child was always crying?’
A large, tear ran slowly down Mpho’s cheek.
‘Actually, I don’t need to know.’
Aletta reached into her handbag, took out a handkerchief and gave it to her client. Mpho wiped her eyes with it and blew her nose.
‘Tell me, Mpho, do you still love him?’
The young man seated himself in a plastic chair, his elbows resting on the kitchen table, his chin in his hands. In front of him lay a pencil and a blank sheet of paper. He had not written home for more than six months. So much had happened since then; he did not know where to begin. The young man’s name was Zakhele. He had just turned nineteen. The candle next to the blank sheet of paper flickered and wavered in the draft coming through a broken window pane. To-morrow he would tape a piece of plastic over the cracked glass. But now, he must write his letter. He turned the candle around so as to burn evenly. A rivulet of molten wax ran down the side and then froze. His father had told him to use a candle instead of the paraffin lamp. Paraffin was expensive. Candles were expensive too, but cheaper than paraffin. He dipped a used matchstick into the pool of molten wax and withdrew a blob of hot wax which he fashioned into a crude head with a pointed nose. With a fingernail, he gave it eyes and a mouth. When he was growing up, his mother scolded him if she caught him playing with fire. One day, she warned him, he would burn their hut down. Zakhele loved his mother, but he was a disobedient son. The candle was about an inch long which did not give him much time to finish his letter. He must stop wasting time now. What should he write?
During the strike, the union gave them an allowance to buy food. However, after three months, union funds were critically low and the allowance was not expected to last much longer. Candles would soon become a luxury and they would have to go to bed in the dark. Zakhele picked up his pencil and wrote the date at the top of the paper.
Father and I send you greetings. I hope you are well. We are well. How is Thembakazi? I hope she is well.”
Zakhele put his pencil down. He needed to think. He held his wax figure closer to the candle flame and watched the face melt into anonymity. He stood up, stretched and then sat down again.
Thembakazi was his younger sister, living with her mother on their smallholding in the Eastern Cape. Zakhele’s handwriting was perfect copperplate. He wrote slowly, totally absorbed in the production of each letter. He had attended the mission school at Idutywa. Neither of his parents had been to school. His mother would have to ask Thembakazi to read his letter to her. Mrs Gcina kept all her son’s letters in a cardboard box tied with string. She also kept a few old, faded photographs there.
Ah, yes…. he could write about Mr Mpisi. Zakhele picked up his pencil again.
“Mr Mpisi was injured in a rock fall. He is okay. I am righting to tell you about the strike….”
A noise outside the tin shack caught Zakhele’s attention. Was that the wind? Was the door locked? He stood up and went to the door and listened intently. He could hear his father’s heavy breathing in the next room. He must be asleep. There was that scratching noise again. Zakhele spoke softly.
‘Who is it?’
‘Me…. open up.’
Zakhele recognized his friend Vuyani’s voice. He unlocked the door.
Vuyani slipped into the shack, closing the door behind him. Zakhele locked the door. The lock wasn’t much of a deterrent to thieves. Anyone with a crowbar could break in. He must remember to install something stronger like a bolt with a padlock, or a strong iron bar. He knew a person in the settlement who did welding. The only problem at the moment was money to pay him. No-one gave credit anymore.
Vuyani was out of breath. He had been running.
‘They killed Xolile,’ he said. ‘He was hacked to death.’
‘Can I stay?’
‘Three, four days.’
‘It is good, my brother. My father will agree.’
Vuyani asked for something to eat. He hadn’t eaten for two days. There was cold mealie meal porridge left over from the morning. Zakhele lit the fire and placed the pot on the stove. He added water and a cupful of uncooked maize meal.
‘Who killed him?’
‘The Red Ants.’
The Red Ants was the nickname given to one of the rival unions. Their official name was The Democratic Workers’ Union. This was a new union, radical and undisciplined. They accused the other unions of being “sell-outs” and were making huge inroads into the traditional labour structures with their confrontational approach and their populist rhetoric. It was the Red Ants who had instigated the miners’ strike. The strike was unofficial, but both the other unions felt compelled to follow suit, or find their membership deserting them.
Zakhele and Vuyani belonged to the same union, the Consolidated Union of Mine Workers. Their union was in the majority and as such had been recognized by the mining companies. The smallest union was essentially tribally based. These members resented the influx of workers from the Eastern Cape, workers who under-cut the price of labour, men who did not speak their language and had no traditional ties to the land. They were a conservative union owing allegiance to the paramount chief. The other unions regarded them as management’s lackeys. It was a three-way struggle. All three unions were against the mine management, they were against one another and all were against the government. In terms of the law, the mine management was only obliged to negotiate with the majority union. This was unacceptable to the Red Ants who demanded that government force the mining companies to allow them to sit at the negotiating table. Government remained silent, preferring to let mine management cope with the mess.
The smallest union had little influence on the events of the day. It was paralysed by internal power struggles and was threatening to split into two factions. Their grievances were different from the larger unions. Apart from the dispute over wages and working conditions, they challenged the legality of extracting the minerals in the first place. The mines were situated on tribal land. The people who lived there did not own the land. It was held in trust on their behalf. In order to mine, the big companies had to negotiate royalties and mineral rights with the chiefs. The idea was that the royalties from the concessions would benefit the tribe as a whole. However, after a few years, the people found that the royalties were not being spent on their development. Instead, they saw palaces being built by the chiefs and big, expensive cars. They demanded that a commission of enquiry be set up. Clearly, the system was not working as it was supposed to.
Vuyani devoured the mealie porridge. He asked if there was any meat to eat.
‘Water, my brother, no milk.’
Zakhele’s father had kept a goat in the yard to supply them with milk, but the animal had disappeared within the first month of the strike. One by one the cows grazing on communal land disappeared. Children were taken away from school partly for their own safety and partly because there was no money for school fees. Zakhele’s neighbour, Mr Shiya, grew vegetables, but this year his crop of squash and pumpkins had been stolen. Hunger was the common currency. A charitable organization set up business outside the gates of the mine, supplying basic foodstuffs donated by the big supermarkets in the city. However, donations were insufficient for the queue which daily grew in length. There was huge competition for the free food. There was pushing and shoving and fights frequently broke out. The charity asked mine security to keep order, but they were so unpopular with the striking miners that some of them were assaulted. Mine management eventually withdrew their security team. Mr Shiya sent his wife home to the Eastern Cape. He planned to join her for as long as the strike lasted.
‘There is a demonstration the day after to-morrow,’ said Vuyani.
‘It is good,’ said Zakhele.
‘We meet at the smelter. Then we march to the mine gates to hand over a list of demands to management. You must wear your T-shirt.’
Each member had been given a free T-shirt by their union. Theirs was coloured yellow with their logo printed on the front and slogans on the back. The Red Ants criticised the Consolidated Union for buying T-shirts made in China. The union leaders claimed that this was untrue. They accused the Red Ants of accepting donations from overseas organizations and of being the agents of reactionary forces.
Next day, Zakhele’s father was the first to rise. It was still dark outside. He stepped over the body of Vuyani, lying on the floor of the kitchen. The boy was awake. He had spent an uncomfortable night with little sleep. He greeted Zakhele’s father. Mr Gcina asked him to fetch water from the communal tap. The settlement was stirring. This was an important day in their lives.
Idutywa, nine hundred miles to the east, saw the sun rise an hour earlier than at the mines. Thembakazi’s job was to milk the family’s cow and the three goats before walking to school. If she did not get up early enough to do her chores, she might be late for school. The school gates were shut at half past seven precisely, not one minute earlier and not one minute later. The school bell rang out a warning ten minutes before the gates closed and again two minutes before half past seven. Pupils often had to run for it. If they were late more than once in a month, various punishments awaited them. The nuns were strict. Sometimes, Thembakazi had to leave the milking to her mother. She preferred a scolding from her mother rather than facing the wrath of the nuns.
Mrs Gcina recognized the importance of education. She was a Christian while her husband remained faithful to the old traditions. It was she who had insisted on sending Zakhele to the mission school. And now it was Thembakazi’s turn. After leaving school, Zakhele had followed his father to the mines. He was employed as a safety officer because of his education. His father worked underground at the rock face. Zakhele often went underground to do safety inspections, but mostly, he was involved in training new recruits. It was a good job and better paid than his father, but he too was on strike.
For the last two months, Mrs Gcina had not received any money from her husband. There was no word from him and no explanation. Every day, she went to the post office to ask if there was a draft waiting for her. The clerk behind the counter just shrugged his shoulders. He was an impudent young man with a taste for gaudy shirts. He made his customers wait while he disappeared behind a partition. What he did there was anybody’s guess: drinking tea…. reading the newspaper…. talking to his girlfriends on the phone? Mrs Gcina and the other women in the queue vented their frustrations, but there was nothing they could do about it. Every now and again a post office worker wandered through from the back, pretending to be busy. Mrs Gcina said they were experts in ignoring their customers. She was sure her money had arrived, but the young man was too lazy to look for it. Her friend, Mrs Tolo, said that the younger generation had no respect for their elders. She had a mind to report the clerk with the bright shirts to the head of the post office. Mrs Gcina was not the only one whose monthly allowance had not arrived. Several women waiting in the queue had also not received theirs. One of the women thought that the post office employees were stealing the money. Another said they wanted bribes. No-one knew what was going on.
Mrs Gcina did have some money in her savings account at the post office. She wasn’t sure how much it was. The savings book was kept in the cardboard box along her son’s letters. She gave it to Thembakazi to read to her. Fortunately, there was enough money to buy food for the next two or three months. They would not go hungry, but her husband must send more money urgently. The next term’s school fees were due and there were books that Thembakazi needed. Perhaps the nuns would allow her to pay in instalments. She would have to ask.
After breakfast, Zakhele and Vuyani went hunting for something for the pot. They were armed with throwing sticks and spears. Vuyani made a bird trap woven out of strong grass, bated with maize. They went to a muddy stream near the settlement hoping to find the large lizard they knew lived in the pool. There were several children playing in the stream. The noise and the disturbance meant that the lizard would not show itself. They walked towards a low hill. In the distance, they saw a spring hare in the long grass and a flock of guinea fowl, but they were too far away. By mid-day, they had caught nothing. They were tired and hot so they returned to the river. The two young men sat on a rock with their feet in the water. They talked about girls. Vuyani said he would never marry one of the local girls. For him, it had to be a Xhosa. Zakhele agreed with him. After resting, they returned to their bird trap to find they had caught a field mouse. There was hardly any meat on a field mouse, so they let it go.
‘They say the Red Ants are going to disrupt our march,’ said Vuyani.
‘I am not scared.’
‘We must take our fighting sticks.’
Mrs Shiya returned to her home at Idutywa. She was seen getting off the bus at the terminus late one Sunday afternoon. Word quickly spread. She was the only person with direct knowledge of what was happening at the mines. Villagers crowded into the Shiya house clamouring for news about their husbands and their sons. Mrs Shiya confirmed that there was a strike on. How long it would last, she could not say. The previous month had been chaotic. She had stayed in her shack, too scared to go outside. The only information she had about what was going on, came from her husband. People had been threatened and beaten up by activists from the Red Ants. There had been revenge attacks. She did not know who had been hurt and who was safe. The wives would have to write to their husbands or wait for their menfolk to contact them. One thing was certain: the miners were not receiving their wages which was why their wives were not receiving their allowances.
Two days before Mrs Shiya left for home, the demonstration organized by the Consolidated Union was the worst incident of violence her husband had seen. He blamed the police and the mine security. Shots had been fired, but it was not clear by whom. Everyone was accusing everyone else. It was difficult to know the truth of the matter. Mr Shiya had not taken part in the demonstration. He had watched from the safety of a small hill near the smelter. But, he had had enough. He sent his wife home and promised to join her shortly.
Most people had thought that the strike would be over within a week or two. It was now into its third month. The latest development was an ultimatum given by the mining companies to their workers. Either they returned to work, or they would be dismissed. Being an unofficial strike, the workers did not receive their wages and they were not protected against dismissal. The principle was: ‘no work, no pay’. Some of the miners tried to return to work. However, when they reported for duty, they faced a crowd of hostile picketers at the mine gates. Anyone trying to get through was roughed up. Mine security did nothing to protect them as the demonstrators were off mine property and there was no sign of the police. Later, the Red Ants went from house to house in the settlement threatening to kill anyone breaking the strike.
Father and I send you greetings. I hope you are well. We are well. How is Thembakazi? I hope she is well. Mr Mpisi was injured in a rock fall. He is okay. I am righting to tell you about the strike. Yesterday there was a big march organized by our union….”
Mrs Shiya related what her husband had told her about the protest march. Her husband had climbed a small hill near the smelter to watch. The hill comprised round, granite boulders with narrow passageways between them. It was quite a scramble to the top, but it gave a good view. Down below, a large crowd had gathered outside the smelter. By mid-day, it was extremely hot and sellers of bottled water and canned drinks did brisk business. The two larger unions were out in full force dressed in their respective T-shirts. The third union was nowhere to be seen. The two unions faced each other across the main road. Police arrived in open vehicles and took up positions between the opposing groups. A police lieutenant drove up and down the road speaking into a loud hailer appealing for calm. Members of the Consolidated Union were armed with sticks and traditional weapons. The magistrate giving permission for the march had banned the carrying of weapons, but no-one took any notice of the order. An official from the Consolidated Union ran up and down the ranks encouraging his members. The opposing union shouted insults at him. Stones were hurled across the road. Then, the demonstrators started to move off, singing freedom songs and brandishing their weapons. Leading the procession with linked arms, were the top union officials. Behind them came the rank-and-file members holding banners and flags.
The Red Ants followed the example of their rivals, keeping to their side of the road. Their demonstration was highly disorganized. Mr Shiya heard the popping noise of gun fire. People scattered. From the top of the hill, he could not tell where the shots had come from. People were running in all directions. There were more gunshots. The police called for reinforcements. One of the police vehicles was surrounded by an angry mob and a policeman was dragged off his vehicle and assaulted. The leaders of the march regrouped and held a hurried conference. The police ordered the leaders of the march to control their members otherwise they would cancel the march and arrest the leaders for public violence. Union officials went amongst the rank-and-file to tell them to act with restraint. Then, they moved off again. By half-past two, they reached the gates of the mine where they were to hand over a list of demands.
Several spectators joined Mr Shiya on the small hill. Amongst them were newspaper reporters from all the leading dailies and a few foreign correspondents. They asked Mr Shiya his opinion. They took his photograph with the smelter in the background. Mr Shiya smiled at the camera. The photographer told him not to smile, rather to look angry, and took several more photographs. Mr Shiya was opposed to the strike and the violence, particularly the violence. He had a wife and three children to support. Yes, he was also against the mine management with their huge salaries. The reporters asked him how he would solve the problem if he had the power to do so. He said the government should intervene. Management were not negotiating in good faith, so the government should impose a settlement on them. He had to have more money. He had over-extended himself by borrowing from a finance company to buy furniture and a second-hand car. Many of his colleagues were in the same position. He had not realized how much he would have to pay back each month. The finance company did not explain it to him properly. Nor did he know that they were allowed to deduct money directly from his wages. There was virtually nothing left over each month. He said he was prepared to show the reporters his pay-slip. And to make matters worse, he was not earning a wage during the strike.
From the top of the hill, the gates of the mine property were too far away to see what was happening there. The newspaper reporters left their viewpoint and followed the crowd of people. Mr Shiya went home. Later, he heard that there had been such a crush that people had been injured, some seriously. There was more gunfire. Apparently, the mine security had panicked and fearing that the gates would collapse, had fired warning shots. The demonstrators accused them of firing into the crowd. Mine security said they were the ones being shot at. When the demonstrators dispersed, it was found that two policemen and one of the mine security personnel had been killed. On the unions’ side, hundreds of the demonstrators had been injured in the crush at the gates.
The incident did nothing to hasten a settlement. Instead, it hardened attitudes. The Red Ants felt they had lost the initiative to the Consolidated Union and planned a bigger demonstration. That night, burning tyres were piled in front of the gates of the mine property and a petrol bomb was hurled over the fence. None of the mining companies commented on the incident. There was no official statement to the press and no indication as to whether they were ready to compromise. Unofficially, they let it be known that they could not negotiate in an atmosphere of violence and intimidation. Surprisingly, the big losers were the police. They had suffered the biggest losses in relation to their numbers. Two policemen had been killed and several injured. Questions were asked in parliament as to the police’s leadership and planning. The local commander was criticized in the press for failing to control the demonstration. The man was recalled pending an investigation. The lower ranking policemen were angry at what seemed to them to being made the scapegoats. There were dark mutterings and talk of revenge.
Meanwhile, at Idutywa, life was peaceful and unhurried. Further news of the violence at the mine did not reach the miners’ families at home. Thembakazi attended school as usual and continued milking the family’s cow and goats. Her mother went every week to the post office hoping to find a draft from her husband. Mrs Shiya settled back into her domestic routine. She was greatly relieved to be home again. Her husband was expected to join her any day now. Mrs Gcina’s biggest problem was finding the money to pay Thembakazi’s school fees. She went to the mission school to discuss the problem with the nuns. Several families in the neighbourhood were in the same position and the nuns were sympathetic. A moratorium was placed on the payment of the school fees.
There was a new history teacher at the mission school, a Mr Gaba. He was a temporary teacher filling in for their normal one who had gone on long leave. Mr Gaba was a character, a total eccentric. He had grey hair, thick glasses and was probably unqualified. At first the students did not know what to make of him. Was he a clown, or was this his normal personality? Was he mad, or was he an attention seeker? The schoolgirls giggled at the man’s antics which only seemed to spur him on. He liked to act out scenes from history. History classes were more like experimental theatre than learning. And he was bored with the official curriculum. He was more interested in the glorious past of the Xhosa nation than the dates and battles of the Napoleonic wars. Thembakazi liked him.
They acted out the battle of Kwa Centane in the classroom, the battle between the British Army and the Gcaleka and Ngqika clans. The class was divided into three sections each playing the part of the principal actors in the drama. Mr Gaba doubled as the old Gcaleka chief and as the witch doctor. Classroom desks were formed into a laager for the British soldiers. Some of the students occupied the fort and were given rulers to use as rifles. The Gcaleka were positioned to the south-east of the fort and the Ngqika to the north-west. As the chief, Mr Gaba had to send out the order to all the clans to assemble for war. A messenger, one of the students, carried the traditional ox tail insignia from village to village. In place of an ox-tail, a board duster was used. When the warriors had assembled, Mr Gaba as the venerable chief, gave a speech.
‘I am an old tree,’ he said. ‘My branches have sheltered you for many years….’
Unfortunately the battle of Kwa Centane had to be postponed due to the ringing of the school bell. It was time for the children’s mathematics class. Desks were returned to orderly rows and the Gcaleka and Ngqika alliance was temporarily suspended.
Thembakazi told her mother about the history teacher. Mrs Gcina vaguely remembered stories her grandmother had told her. She was glad that someone was teaching the school children about their history. She regretted not knowing more about Xhosa history herself.
The next stage of the battle of Kwa Centane took place the following week. As a famous witch doctor, Mr Gaba gave the Gcaleka and Ngqika warriors medicine to drink which would make them invulnerable to the white man’s bullets. The medicine was orange juice. Then, the warriors had to undergo ritual cleansing in a river. This comprised washing their faces and hands in the school toilets. There was one last part of the ritual: a black dot was painted on the foreheads of each warrior. Mr Gaba used a burned cork.
The recreation of the battle of Kwa Centane was, however, never completed. The students never discovered who won and who lost. The nuns saw the black dot painted on the foreheads of their students and enquired as to its purpose. They did not object to the acting-out of history as such. This was a novel approach and might have value. However, the whiff of witchcraft in a mission school was too strong for their liking and Mr Gaba was asked to hand in his resignation.
The night before the Red Ants’ demonstration, Zakhele’s father sat at the kitchen table together with his son and his son’s friend Vuyani. Their union had not been able to come to a decision on how to react to the Red Ants’ challenge. The demonstration was to be show of force as much for the benefit of the mining companies as for the Consolidated Union. Some of the Consolidated Union’s officials called for a counter-demonstration. Others said they should not become involved. Sakhele and Vuyani sided with those who wanted to confront the Red Ants. Mr Gcina was against a confrontation.
Zakhele had not made much progress with his letter home. After his father had gone to bed, he continued writing.
Father and I send you greetings. I hope you are well. We are well. How is Thembakazi? I hope she is well. Mr Mpisi was injured in a rock fall. He is okay. I am righting to tell you about the strike. Yesterday there was a march organized by our union. There was shooting. I am okay. To-morrow the Red Ants are having a big demonstration….”
Zakhele stopped writing. There was someone knocking at the door. Vuyani asked the stranger who he was and what he wanted. It was an activist from the Consolidated Union with instructions about where and when to assemble for the counter-demonstration. Next morning, Mr Gcina rose early and went into the kitchen. The shack was empty. Both Vuyani and Zakhele had already gone. He made himself mealie meal porridge for breakfast and sat thinking. He was worried about his son.
By ten o’clock in the morning, people had gathered in the veld near the smelter. It was an informal gathering. There seemed to be nobody in charge. Mr Gcina looked for Zakhele amongst the crowd. He asked passers-by if they had seen him. Dozens of police vehicles were already there, lined up in the open. It was a far larger show of strength than at the previous demonstration and the police were armed with assault rifles. They had learned their lesson from the chaos of the protest march. There was a new commanding officer in charge and they were clearly following a previously worked-out plan. A machine was disgorging wire entanglements for crowd control. Mr Gcina had never seen anything like this before. He noticed two hearses parked behind the police vehicles. What were they doing there? Coffins were being off-loaded. Several more hearses arrived. He saw a small group on the low hill where previously Mr Shiya and the newspaper reporters had stood. Mr Gcina recognized their T-shirts as belonging to his union. He climbed a narrow footpath up the hill.
Mr Gcina found Zakhele and Vuyani at the top of the hill. He told them to go home. The presence of hearses was an ominous sign. However, it was too late to leave. The hill was completely surrounded by the police and the razor wire entanglements blocked off all escape routes. The spectators on the hill had no choice but to stay and see out the confrontation. A group of protesters started singing freedom songs. A witch doctor brought strips of cloth for everyone to tie around their head as protection. Mr Gcina asked for one too.
‘I don’t like the hearses,’ said Mr Gcina.
‘We can see.’
Coffins had been laid out in rows. The police were moving into formation.
The witch doctor brought medicine he had prepared from ox gall and various herbs for them to drink. This, he said, would make them invulnerable to the bullets from the assault rifles. Normally, warriors would be ritually cleansed in a river. Instead, the doctor gave them water which had been treated with strong medicine to wash their hands and faces. He led them in song. He sang about the great deeds of their ancestors. He danced and stamped the ground with his feet. He shook an ox-tail whisk in the air. He blew a whistle. His face was painted with white clay and he was wearing a leopard skin cloak. There were feathers and coloured beads threaded into his hair. The group on the hill was ready. A shout of excitement went up.
‘Are you scared?’ asked Zakhele.
‘No my brother. Let the police come.’
Zakhele was shaking like a leaf. His mouth was dry and his eyes staring ahead, unseeing. Vuyani told him not to worry. The medicine the witch doctor had given them was strong.
Father and I send you greetings. I hope you are well. We are well. How is Thembakazi? I hope she is well. Mr Mpisi was injured in a rock fall. He is okay. I am righting to tell you about the strike. Yesterday there was a march organized by our union. There was shooting. I am okay. To-morrow the Red Ants are organized a big demonstration….”
“Dear Mrs Gcina,
My name is Vuyani Zwane. I from Butterworth, a friend of Zakhele. I write you with the bad news of Mr Gcina and Zakhele. The police surround us and shot us like dogs. I was wounded. One of my comrades killed. He fell on top of me and I lay there and pretending to be dead. When it dark, I run away. I am very, very sad to tell you your husband and your son is dead….”
A young lawyer, Aletta de Beer, is assigned to defend a peasant woman from the countryside accused of murdering her baby. The accused’s name is Mpho (pronounced uM-Poe). This is a pro bono case as the accused is poor. The partners in Aletta’s legal firm have instructed her to wrap up the case as quickly as possible. Pro bono work brings in little revenue to the firm and uses up valuable time. However, wrapping up the case quickly proves to be a vain hope. The initial discussion between lawyer and client is frustrated by the accused’s lack of co-operation. Aletta is unsure whether the problem is due to Mpho’s poor language skills, or whether she is hiding material facts of the case. Aletta decides to visit her client’s village to verify the information in the accused’s file. However, each person she interviews has a different version of the truth. Aletta becomes convinced that the accused is a victim of cultural practices. She undergoes a change of heart and tells the partners in her law firm that she needs to spend more time on the case to prevent a miscarriage of justice. Eventually, Aletta finds a most unlikely witness to the crime. The person has been side-lined and silenced. However, to get the witness to talk, might place her in danger. In the second story, parallels between the frontier wars of the 1850-1870s and modern industrial strikes are highlighted. In the frontier wars, witch doctors traditionally prepared Xhosa warriors for battle with rituals and medicine to make them invulnerable to bullets. In modern times, the same cultural practices have been followed by striking miners.