When one travelled down the motorway towards Knysna, the monotony of every motorway was broken by the turn-off to
Swellendam, which nestled against the mountains. The turn-off took one through a dry riverbed that ran halfway through the
]coloured area. Only those, so fortunate to have found employment in the sleepy town, lived here. Their flat corrugated
roofs with pumpkins left there to dry, covered the one-room houses in a more or less haphazard way. None of the roofs were
painted and the pieces not already eaten by rust shone in the afternoon sun.
The people weren't too bad off in the summer for then the dry river-bed caused them no trouble, but came winter with its heavy rainfall, than matters changed and their ground would turn into a soggy mess and the rain pounding on the roofs would beat the rusty places into surrender and in no time a few inches of water would cover the dung floors, soak the sparse furnishings and turn the pumpkins into a soggy mouldy mess. The women battling desperately, with home-made straw-brooms, against the water that poured into the homes quicker than they could sweep it away, would shout at the children to run across the motor-way and look for fire-wood and trying to light it and to keep it burning was a kind of gift that the Lord has bestowed on these less fortunate of his many creations. If he had also given them eyes that didn't smart and burn in the smoke-filled room, they wouldn't have to leave the door open, through which all the warmth could escape again.
Everything they owned was by now either damp or soaked and the children, teeth chattering and eyes watering, would sit on the damp floor in front of the fire. Their mothers would warm some water and give that to them to drink. The rain, that mostly ended as suddenly as it had begun, would stop and out of the shacks the people would pore with wet blankets and mattresses and hang them over the bramble-bushes to dry.
Hendrik's life began here, seventeen years ago. The dry dust of summer and the ever-present dampness of winter were as
much part of his existence as of those around him. In one aspect he was luckier than most of his age- group, his father had
more stamina than others did and as he had a relative easy job in tending the church and museum gardens he lasted longer.
The fact that they had a steady income, little as it was, made it possible for Hendrik to attend primary school. He was a clever boy and if the colour of his skin didn't brand him, he probably would have been the first coloured from Swellendam to obtain a higher education. School and learning to him meant escaping from the chill and dreary existence that surrounded him. Often he would climb into the acorn-tree across the road and having done it so often he would immediately find a comfortable spot to sit and dream of the things he had learnt at school. He found it hard to believe that in all countries, but South Africa, people no matter what colour or creed lived as equals.
This fact, brought forward today by their teacher, bewildered them, but when they pressed him for more he became
reluctant and changed the subject. To Hendrik the idea that people could live together without passes, stating your colour,
seemed unbelievable. "Just imagine," he thought, and turning slightly he looked out across the white part of town, "if
those conditions existed here, we would have been living therefor they here." He wished he could get to know more about it,
but how, the Public Library was for whites only and money to buy books he didn't have. His dilemma made him resent, for the
first time, the restrictions his colour brought about. His mother's voice from below the tree penetrated his dream world
and startled him. "Boy do I have to tell you again to milk the goat? Wait till your father's home, I'll tell him about his
son who feels more at home up in a tree than on the ground where he belongs." "Sorry ma, I'm going" and deftly he climbed
The morning, that was to be the last his father would know, announced itself, with a sun: which must have used all night to re-charge itself. At six o'clock, it was already hot and the stifling heat under the iron roofs had become unbearable. His mother was already up, busy getting bread ready for his father to take along. The white boss had decided to send his father to Barrydale for a lorry-load of manure. He was taking Izak, Hendrik's younger brother along, who at this moment was eating his mieliepap (porridge) sleepily. "Mina, I don't know what time we'll be back. We have to load the lorry ourselves. Do your best at school Hendrik." "Yes Pa."
When he returned from school that afternoon, he did his chores and was just about to start on his homework when the boss appeared. "Is your mother home Hendrik? He asked. "Ma, the boss is here to see you." "Yes baas? The children all gathered around their mother sensing that something was wrong. "I have bad news I'm afraid. We don't know how it happened but the lorry left the road and plunged down a ravine. They were both dead when the police arrived," he looked at them all in turn." I'm sorry" he muttered and walked away. Death was such a constant visitor here, that although they cried they had no trouble in accepting the fact that from now on they would miss a father and a brother.
Hendrik knew his mother lived under a great financial strain, no longer could she make ends meet. The fact that the lorry was old and worn and through mechanical failure had run off the road had altered nothing. He had to find work; he couldn't stay at school any longer. His mother's heart ached when he told her about becoming delivery-boy at the butcher. "But your school Hendrik," she cried. "Maybe when we have a bit more money I can finish school by post ma, don't worry." With a heart filled with loving he fingered his books, caressing their covers gently, and knowing he was alone he gave his tears the freedom to run freely down his cheeks. All his dreams, all his ambitions to get out of this hellhole washed away.
The butcher was satisfied with Hendrik. "You're a good boy," he said. And Hendrik knew it was because he did far more than his share of work. Not only did he deliver meat to the customers, he worked in his spare time, cleaning the yard, washing the windows, and polishing the tiles. His wages he gave to his mother and somehow the few extra cents he earned cleaning that he was saving for his studies, he also gave to her.
The afternoon the police came for him, he was polishing the counter. "Are you the delivery boy?" they demanded. "Yes master." "Come with us. Where did you hide the jewellery you stole from Mrs. Retief." "I didn't steal anything." Wham, wham, wham, the beating had already started. The customers in the shop gave their orders; paid for their meat and through his pain he could hear the ringing of the cash register. No one interfered; no one intercepted when they dragged him out of the shop and down the road to the police station. They broke his nose and three ribs; they smashed his kidneys and his groin.And when they had enough they threw him in a cell. When they came to tell him that Mrs.Retief rang to say that she had found her jewellery in the bathroom where she left it, he had already joined his father and Izak.
"The bloody hotnot's dead," one muttered. "We must have hit him too hard. They can't have much you know," his mate replied. "What are we going to do?" "Don't panic. When it's dark we'll bury him in the bush and when his mother comes looking for him, we'll tell her he left here this morning. It has always worked in the past and it will work now again too. Just keep your mouth shut, no one worries about a hotnot anyway." And so Hendrik was returned to the earth, far from the dry riverbed, amongst proteas and alwyn, his body was deposited into a shallow grave. And up to today, his mother still waits for him.
Rotorua, New Zealand, 1970