Elsa “Kat” Marais had been summoned. She had no idea why. She had received an invitation from a Lydia Duncan requesting Elsa’s presence for morning tea at her toney Killarney Road home in Sandton. To her knowledge she had never met Lydia, but curiosity had got the better of her.
A maid in a crisp yellow uniform, starched white pinafore apron, and matching white doek—the headscarf indicating both respect and her marital status—greeted Elsa at the front door. She was politely ushered through to the stoep. This broad paved verandah extended the full length of the house. It overlooked a grand estate, with swimming pool, tennis court, and guesthouse nestled in acres of manicured lawn.
At the Kiaat teakwood table laden with embroidered tablecloth, napkins, and stately silver tea service sat her hostess.
“How are you, my dear?” welcomed Lydia. “Please do sit down.”
“Dankie, thank you for inviting me,” said Elsa, taking in the refined domestic setting that lay before her.
Elsa was not accustomed to wealth, so her senses soaked up her surroundings: first the fragrances as they wafted in the air, a mix of the oil of bergamot (from the Earl Grey tea) and Lydia’s Chanel No. 5 perfume; then the flavors promised by the dainty watercress and cucumber finger-sandwiches (with crusts immaculately trimmed), and warm scones (with strawberry jam and clotted cream), all resting on doily-covered platters.
Elsa considered the meticulously groomed, attractive suburbanite seated across from her and felt nervous. Her hostess was of English stock, and she was an Afrikaner, a farmer’s daughter—a boeremeisie.
“Perhaps you are wondering why I asked you here today,” said Lydia, sensing her guest’s apprehension. “But first,” Lydia prompted. “Please do tell me a bit about yourself.”
As Elsa responded, Lydia quickly did an inventory of the young woman: a natural beauty, modest, from the rural platteland, new to the big city, presumably single, unadorned (no jewelry except a turquoise-inlaid silver watch), and dressed simply in a blue sundress, the only discordant note being the white takkies or sneakers on her feet. Not appropriate attire for a tea party, but probably indicative of Elsa’s practical nature.
Elsa collected her thoughts. “I came to Jo’burg eight months ago from Brakpan.”
Lydia was familiar with Brakpan. It lay east of Johannesburg and was fatefully fertile in coal, gold, and platinum when its predominantly Afrikaner population consisted of farmers who were contented tilling the soil in the fresh air. Now, however, these farmers were disillusioned miners, having traded their plows for jackhammers to earn a harsh living underground.
“I’m staying in Hillbrow now,” Elsa continued. “It’s okay, I suppose.” She shrugged.
The truth was that Elsa detested Hillbrow. Living eighteen stories above the ground in a high-rise tower was alien to her. Add the congested traffic, the honking car-hooters, the relentless flickering neons, and the drone of the masses, and it was too much for her.
These things Elsa didn’t like, but it was the fear after dark—the perpetual state of vigilance needed against night crime—that was especially wearisome. Another annoyance was the dronkies—the European winos that grifted outside Hillbrow’s trendy international hotspots—who constantly accosted her in the crowded streets.
Though upbeat by nature, Elsa found this wasn’t the kind of excitement she needed right now and she yearned to return home to the house of her parents, with its rustic brick walls, oxidized-red corrugated iron roof, and the oxblood polished stoep out front. Maybe with time I will adjust to big city life, thought Elsa. Putting on a brave face, Elsa said, “I guess I can’t complain. I found a two-bedroom flat, a roommate—she’s a nurse—and a nice job really quickly.”
“That’s nice,” Lydia said. “Then what happened after you matriculated high school?”
“I got my bookkeeping diploma from Damelin College, a correspondence school.”
Elsa gave a shrill squeal of surprise. A tall, sleek, muscular dog had streaked over to her. As way of greeting, it had buried its damp snout in Elsa’s crotch. Then quickly the dog pranced away, chastened by the admonitions of its owner. Both women regained their composure, but the hound’s shenanigans had dispensed with all sense of decorum.
“Sorry about that!” exclaimed Lydia. “He’s so darn forward. Let me formally introduce you to the third member of our family. Meet Leo, our Rhodesian ridgeback. I was quite proud of him—until now!”
The dog’s amber eyes locked onto Elsa’s. They appeared intelligent, so welcoming, and hinted at a twinge of remorse for his tawdry behavior. The regret was probably an illusion Elsa had read within those canine eyes; she had always romanticized her understanding of animals. But in Leo’s intelligent gaze, proud stance, lustrous mahogany-red coat, and strong curved wagging tail, she saw a friend. In this African lion dog, with the distinctive darkened ridge of against-the-grain hair marking the length of his spine, she had found her first true companion since coming to the big city.
“He’s very comfortable with you, I see.” Lydia looked at the mooning Leo. His muzzle nestled on Elsa’s thigh, his left ear enveloped in the soft folds of her percale dress. Lydia was pleased. She needed to trust Elsa, and Leo’s unfailing devotion was a most positive testimonial.
“Hey, that’s like a coincidence. Leo the dog, and I’m Elsa from Born Free…both lions,” said Elsa. “You know what I mean?”
Lydia nodded with a somewhat patronizing smile.
Elsa’s parents adored the movie Born Free, a furry true-life epic about Elsa, an orphaned lioness cub, and her rescue by a game ranger in Kenya. The cub was raised as a domestic pet until the Adamson couple, George and Joy, realized her true home was the bush. With Elsa’s human family serving as a guide, the lioness learned to fend for herself, and in a bittersweet farewell returned to the wild.
With Africa in their hearts, the film resonated with Meneer and Mevrou, Mr. and Mrs. Jannie Marais, and they named their infant daughter after the spirited lioness. In keeping with her feline namesake, the Maraises nicknamed their daughter “Kat.”
“Elsa, did you see the movie?” asked Lydia. “I must say I like the film’s theme tune very much.”
“Ja…my folks often took me to the bioscope to see Born Free, and we always left with happy tears after the film.”
Elsa pronounced “film” with two syllables, as fi-lem. Lydia winced at the girl’s ungainly expression of the English language. Afrikaans was Elsa’s mother tongue. It’s such a grotty little language, Lydia thought, shaking her head.
Lydia’s difficulties with the Afrikaans language were complex. It was more than a matter of taste, though the guttural consonants and swallowed vowels were not to her liking. Her problem was the Afrikaner’s cultural insecurity and the long-term impact it had on the country as a result.
Despite English and Afrikaans being the country’s official languages, all South Africa’s laws were promulgated exclusively in Afrikaans. This was unfortunate.
The Afrikaans language simply lacked the depth of vocabulary required for something as complex and nuanced as the law. And the reason for the language’s immaturity was the desperate need by the early settlers to be self-sufficient, and independent of meddlesome administrative supervision from Europe.
Like rebellious adolescents refusing contact with doting parents, these first-generation Afrikaners severed all links with Mother Holland (unlike the English speakers who maintained their relationship with Great Britain) and as free burghers they shunned their Dutch roots. Isolated from Europe, the Afrikaans language failed to mature. And without having the rich panoply of words of matured languages at their disposal, the nation’s laws tended to be brittle, absolutist, and unkind.
This is why the government’s use of Afrikaans as the nation’s official language vexed Lydia so much. For when there wasn’t a word, the regime invented one. And the National Party’s ability to invent the worst words possible to define components of their ideology was uncanny—with “apartheid” being the greatest travesty of all. Just the ominous grate of the word (it sounds like “apart-hate”) should have disqualified it from the lexicon. But to the detriment of all, the government persisted with both word and policy.
However, Lydia admitted to some moments of inventive charm in the Afrikaans language, and she had a personal favorite: the description of a cul-de-sac being Straat Loop Dood (literally, “street walks dead”).
Tension between black and white in South Africa is well documented. Less well known is the schism between the two white “tribes”—the English and Afrikaners. Originally of Dutch descent, the Afrikaner ruled the roost from 1652. They were joined by the Huguenots in 1685 who had escaped France to gain their freedom from anti-Protestant legislation. These early settlers were content to be left alone. That was until 1795, when the British seized the Cape to prevent it falling into French hands. The British briefly returned the colony to the Dutch in 1803, only to take it back in 1806. However, when the 1820 settlers landed at the Cape, full of pomp and circumstance, the full brunt of British imperialism was felt by the locals and hostility flared.
British rule and Afrikaner resentment of this domination led to two Anglo-Boer Wars, culminating in cessation of hostilities in 1902 with a British victory. Regrettably the Boers’ hatred for the British never ceased, making any prospect of genuine peace impossible. And this antipathy from the Boers ran far deeper than the mere petulance of being poor losers—rather, it was an inflamed wound encouraged to fester further so as to unite the volk in their drawn-out campaign for eventual independence.
Major anti-British feelings remained in the Afrikaner community for generations. During World War II, flagrant pro-Nazi sentiments were apparent among influential Afrikaner leaders, including future prime ministers—all in the name of nationalism. This passion reached a crescendo in 1948.
By beating the drum of anti-British imperialism, the Afrikaners’ National Party ousted the pro-British statesman and genteel Afrikaner, Field Marshal Jan Smuts. In a fashion similar to the unseemly dismissal by the British people of Winston Churchill at war’s end, Smuts, another heroic wartime leader, was discarded by his nation having lost the internecine cultural war raging within Afrikanerdom.
This was a pivotal moment in South African history which unfortunately altered the trajectory of the nation toward legislated segregation, and eventual isolation. With Jan Smuts’ exit, the influence of liberal Afrikaners waned and was replaced by their dogmatic, conservative brethren who held a far less forgiving vision for the future of the country.
The fundamentalist National Party now controlled all aspects of South African life. Yet, despite their political victory they never felt secure and the undisguised hostility they displayed toward others never ceased; whether it be liberal Afrikaners, the indigenous natives, or those of British stock. In fact the ruling party—these nationalistic Afrikaners’—would never come to accept white English speakers as their countrymen. So for decades a mutual hatred simmered below the surface as these two white clans, at the tip of Africa, indulged in a very personal cold war.
Lydia still sensed tension. And she knew its source. Afrikaners and English speakers mixed like oil and water—they didn’t. And if she wanted more from Elsa, Lydia must get this issue out in the open. “Elsa, how old are you?” she asked.
“I’ve just turned twenty-three,” said Elsa, showing none of the modesty of women who consider their age a state secret.
“It’s 1976. What role should we modern women have in South Africa?”
Uncertain, Elsa tapped her foot nervously to an unknown beat. “Don’t know. Never really thought about it,” she replied.
“Well, how about politics? There’s Helen Suzman, the lone Progressive Party member of Parliament. Despite all the guff she gets, harassed and ridiculed, she’s still the only liberal voice sniping at the government. Now that’s one gutsy lady!”
Elsa was annoyed. Surely Lydia understood Elsa’s unswerving loyalty to the National Party that had swept her volk, her people, into power. And here Lydia was raving about this Helen Suzman, an English-speaking Jewish woman, who constantly embarrassed her government’s leadership. Wishing to protest, Elsa felt it prudent to best hold her silence.
“And on the world stage there’s India’s prime minister, Indira Gandhi. It’s a real shame about her guilt for political corruption. I don’t know if they’re related, but it’s sad because she shares the same noble name as Mahatma Gandhi…”
Lydia continued. “Did you know Gandhi had a South African connection?” Elsa shook her head. “Well, he was a stretcher-bearer, and started an Indian ambulance service during our Anglo-Boer War.”
Now she prodded deliberately at the raw wound. “Speaking about the Boer War, why do you Afrikaners resent us so much? You know us Europeans should really stick together.”
Lydia got her response.
Cheeks flushed red with anger, Elsa said, “Agh, Lydia, you must be kidding me. You rooineks came down here uninvited and tried to take away our country!”
“Whoa, missy. Cut out that “rooinek” nonsense—I was born in this country. I’m not some pasty, pale British soldier who cremated the back of his neck in the boiling African sun some seventy-odd years ago. Personally, I’d like to end this feud.”
A gesture of peace had been made, but would it be accepted?
Elsa clenched her fists, her fingernails carving half-moon indents into the palms of her hands. To her the Boer War still ran raw. Anguished, she said flatly in a voice of condemnation, “On my Oupa’s knee I heard the horrors of the British “scorched earth policy”—it was so unfair. Our commandos lived off the land, shooting wild game for food, and yes, sometimes getting support from local farmers. But in payback the rooineks…sorry, the English, destroyed our farms, slaughtered cattle, poisoned wells, and forcefully removed our women and children into concentration camps. And did you know, in those camps, over twenty-seven thousand Boer women and children died!” Elsa sobbed pitiably. Her culture was so rich in survival; Elsa couldn’t understand why the English didn’t share the same sense of pride.
Lydia dabbed away the girl’s tears with a napkin. Elsa didn’t flinch. That’s a hopeful sign, thought Lydia. The catharsis was necessary—we must speak of these things to resolve them. Then she offered Elsa a comforting cup of tea in a fine Wedgwood china teacup—an undeniable symbol of British imperialism.
For the first time, in the appearance of this lovely young woman, the Afrikaner’s visceral hatred toward the English was understood by Lydia.
It saddened her that her side had played such a devastating role in this tragic saga. It didn’t assuage her guilt to know that these concentration camps were intended as refugee camps only, and that those heartrending fatalities were not an intentional act of genocide. To the bereaved it did not matter how the victims perished, just that they were gone, forever.
Lydia felt shame. Rank incompetence had caused these fatalities: neglect, overcrowding, poor sanitation, and an alphabet of diseases including dysentery, measles, and typhoid. Shame, no wonder they hate us so. One would think that with this terrible history the Afrikaner would relate and be kinder to the local natives, mused Lydia.
An uncomfortable tension descended over the charming tea party. Leo sensed the shift in the wind, got up, stretched, circled a few times, glanced cautiously at the two women, and then settled back down at the same spot with an empathetic sigh.