Collecting Opinionsby Kim Harrisberg / 05.08.2013
“When I hear the dogs barking then I know the poachers from the rural villages are hunting on my land for their food. We go after them and sometimes shoot the dogs. When I catch the poachers I cable tie them to a tree and call the police. It is not my fault the police take three days to come and arrest them. Until then, I want the poachers as close to me as possible. I tie them to the tree right outside my house, no food, no water. When the police finally come to arrest them, they are out the next day on R500 bail.”
“But if they have R500 to begin with, then why do they come hunting on your land for food?” One of us asks.
“Because they are black,” he says, stretching out the last word as if it were a kind of vermin. He taps the side of his head with his forefinger to indicate insanity or stupidity.
This is the conversation we have with our host for the evening, Johan van Beek*. For the past few weeks, we have been attempting to understand the myriad of dialogues in the rural Eastern Cape. Together with four other friends, I have been hiking along the banks of the Great Kei River, sometimes in utter isolation and sometimes in the company of the unexpected.
We have been taking water samples for research and have begun to view these conversations as a type of sampling too, small sachets of opinion, collected and stored to better understand the psychological stratification that exists in such a beautiful place.
Johan’s house had been an oasis to us for the past two to three hours. After nine hours of hiking, with backpacks weighing at least twenty kilograms, our water supply has run dry. We were able to spot his cultivated land and alluring kitchen lights from atop the hill we had been traversing. We imagined warm beds, running water and maybe even a wholesome meal.
And now, sitting in Johan’s lounge, surrounded by the shiny eyes of the stuffed animal heads which cover almost every wall, we sit in silence, uncertain of how to respond to his fiery and assertive statement. We all seem to squirm within our own flesh, having been met with the precise hospitality we had anticipated, alongside the vile racism we had not. This is the type of racism many of us, city dwellers, have only learnt about in history class. We are children of the democratic South Africa.
How can we consolidate Johan’s stinging statements with the manner in which he opened his home to us all? We begin to understand the complexity of his words when he tells the tales of a past trauma. Leaving his farm one day to drop off his workers, he returned less than ten minutes later to find his home ransacked and his domestic worker in a state of hysteria, having just been attacked and raped by the intruders.
“Now no one knows my schedule,” says Johan. “I change my movements and my itinerary all the time. You cannot trust anyone.” He says with assured resignation. It is in his home, with the rows of hunting guns, where he says he now feels the safest. It seems this type of vigilant paranoia has almost become the norm for many white farmers in the Eastern Cape and elsewhere.
As we hike, we are confronted by further juxtapositions. One day, we trek through continuous, spitting rain. Soaked to the bone, and fumbling with our map, we realise we have almost moved backwards, thanks to poor directional advice. We have run out of water and are in desperate need of shelter. Surrounding us from all angles is damp, knee-length, yellowing grass.
Spotting a gate from a distance, we head towards it, coaxing our flickering optimism. We hear the dogs first, and then we see Themba*. He is wearing a bright yellow rain coat and gum boots, en route to close the gate through which we just wedged our backpacks. Within moments we are welcomed to roll out our sleeping bags underneath a roof and four walls.
As we walk, Themba begins to reveal his charismatic and opinionated nature. He chats about politics, throwing out compliments and insults both justified by his own sound reasoning. The house he leads us to is run down, despite being owned by a black farmer who received the plot as part of a land redistribution deal.
Themba looks after the animals while the owner lives in another village. In a mixture of Xhosa and English, he tells us about his sadness at having to watch the house go to ruins when he knows what potential it has to be a home.
“The owner does not like white people very much,” says Themba. “It is because of apartheid”. He hints towards us not telling people in the next few villages that we were met with kindness at this abandoned farm. Yet when we agree not to mention it, he quickly adds, “I am not afraid of him. You can tell anyone.”
We are beginning to see that the source of these racial corollaries run deeply into the country’s past, like an underground waterbed of which we are seeing only the spring.
These are two encounters of many. When we finally do peel off our backpacks, it is like peeling off our adopted personas. For one month, we were visitors, observers, guests. We were social chameleons in the need of human benevolence. The understanding that we had merely blown through the dry Eastern Cape surroundings like wind, became both a comfort and a regret. We had seen so much, yet were left knowing that a true understanding of the province’s complex racial dynamics were like hiking an unmapped route alongside a river: nearly impossible unless, at some stage, you are forced to jump right in.
*Names have been changed. All images © Kim Harrisberg
** This article also appears in The Agenda Press