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Pivot of Violence   -   Roy Holland
 

 

in UK

in USA

Pivot of Violence: Tales of the new South Africa.   
 

14  tales by  ROY  HOLLAND                       

Publisher: Writers Club Press           ISBN: 0-595-15821-8     

US Price $12.95       UK Price: £8.91

 

Short Stories highlighting the tensions and dramatic racial conflicts in post-Apartheid South Africa.

 

These vivid stories touch the raw nerves of imaginary yet typical characters who might have lived through and continue to live in the climate of violence and change in South Africa.

In these stories, which make an important contribution to the literary heritage of South Africa, the author brings together the atmosphere of violence and change that broods over the harsh world of the old Apartheid South Africa and which still threatens the stability of the New South Africa. Perspectives of both white and black are explored — perspectives of the victims rather than the oppressors where the victims are from both sides of the cultural divide. But the harsh realities are ameliorated by a vein of sympathetic insight, sometimes by a gentle comedy such as that which portrays a pipe-smoking priest, or by a tongue-in-cheek satire as is found in the tale of a well-to-do white woman who is methodically and meticulously covered by her lover’s semen.

The author has written a quartette of stories, the other three titles of the quartette being News from Parched Mountain: Tales from the Karoo in the new South Africa, Flakes of Dark and Light: Tales From Southern Africa and Elsewhere; and Just a Bit Touched: Tales of Perspective. All make a very vivid and lasting impression.

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Reproduced in full, here, is one of the 14 tales:

Somebody's Funeral

I had known Govan Stewart Moerane for a long time.

He had been a supporter of Albert Luthuli when it was dangerous to belong to the A.N.C.  But he was a deeply gentle man, committed to change by peaceful persuausion and the power of reason. We had both been primary school teachers in Middelburg, over thirty years ago — he, in the black school and I, in the white.

We met through the good offices of a mutual acquaintance, who was one of the founder members of the Liberal Party of South Africa which, later in 1965, was banned.

He was tall for a Mosotho, with a dignified quietness always on his face. I had never seen him ruffled. He taught music, for which he had a great talent. One thing he said I shall never forget:

“To be happy, a man should always have a tune just below the surface of the mind. If he hasn’t, there is no harmony in his soul.” 

The events I am about to relate caused him to lose that harmony for a while.

By chance, we had both retired to the same town.

Despite being godfather to his son, I had seen him rarely since we had left teaching more than ten years ago. You can imagine my surprise when, only a few days ago, he rang me up and said he wanted to talk urgently.

“Yes, of course,”  I said. “You know where I live.” 

I could see his agitation as soon as he arrived — not at all the Govan Moerane I remembered. He sat down and waited in my study while I made him a pot of tea. He showed his gratitude for it and it seemed to calm him appreciably. We chatted in a desultory fashion for a time.

When he had finished his tea, I said:

“Now, Govan, what’s the matter? . . . I’ve got nothing pressing. Ever since my wife died, a couple of years ago, I’ve followed no particular routines.” 

He nodded gratefully and blurted out:

“My only son is dead! I got a phone call. He died six days ago. In Luanda. In a hospital there.” 

“You mean, my godson, Thabo??” 

He nodded.

I was stunned.

“That bright little chap? It seems like yesterday. Let me see! We were in Middelburg.” 

“Yes. He would have been thirty-four years of age. He was born in September 1956.” 

“Now, he’s dead! I can’t believe it!” 

“It seems impossible. But it’s true!” 

We had called him Thabo Raymond Moerane. His second name followed mine. In Sesotho, his first name means happiness. It expressed what his parents felt at his birth, rather than Thabo’s nature. I remembered him as a serious-faced little boy with wide-spaced eyes and well-moulded lips, eager to know about the world.

Thabo’s parents both belonged to the Zion Christian Church; but Govan had sent Thabo to a Roman Catholic Mission School in Lesotho where, he said, the priests and nuns gave their pupils a first-class education. The son had justified the father’s choice.

In 1978, when he was twenty-one, Thabo matriculated well. A few weeks later, after he had left school, he told his family he was going to Swaziland to spend the New Year with some friends.

Time passed and Thabo did not return. Mathabo Julia, his mother, got more and more anxious.

“Don’t worry!”  said Govan. “He’s a grown man, now. He can look after himself.” 

But a few weeks later, when nothing had been heard or seen of their son, and Julia was getting near to hysteria, Govan left for Manzini, Swaziland, to find him and bring him home.

But Govan was too late.

Thabo had already crossed the border into Moçambique. He had joined a black revolutionary organization dedicated to the overthrow of the South African government.

For several years, Govan Moerane heard nothing of his son.

“Then, seven years after his disappearance, I heard on the grapevine—.”

I interrupted him.

“That would be in 1985, wouldn’t it?” 

“Yes, 1985. I heard he was in a prison camp in Angola. One of the Organization’s own camps — for their dissidents.” 

“Dissidents!” 

“Yes.”  said Govan dolefully. “Thabo always could think for himself . . . I knew from that moment on that we’d be lucky if we ever saw him alive again . . . When Julia heard the news, her spirit broke!” 

“Oh, I hope not! I am so sorry to hear all this. Is there anything I can do to help?” 

“Yes! Hear me out. Then give me your advice. That’s why I phoned you.” 

“Of course! Of course!” 

“Late last year, 1990,”  he went on, “just over two months ago, I was informed by the Local Office of the Organization that Thabo was alive, and would be returning to South Africa among a group of other exiles.” 

“When was he supposed to come?” 

“April, this year.” 

“I make that six years after you first heard he was imprisoned in Angola.” 

“That’s right! But yesterday, on my birthday, I got a terrible gift. A phone call, to say Thabo was dead. He had died six days previously, on 2nd February, in the Josiah Machel Hospital, Luanda.” 

“What a birthday gift!” 

His voice shook and he covered his face with his hands for a moment.

“I’m not sure I can bear it. Such a cruel trick of fate!” 

“I know! I wish I could help,”  I said again, lamely.

“What should I do now?”  he asked vehemently.

I had no hesitation in replying.

“Govan, there is only one thing you can do. You must demand that Thabo’s body be returned to you, here — for traditional burial.” 

The dismal expression on his face brightened slightly.

“Yes, of course! Why didn’t that occur to his Mama and me? There is only one way we Basotho say farewell to our dead. The way it has been since before anybody can remember.” 

And so, after all those years, our brief meeting came to an end. Govan Moerane rose to his feet and offered me his hand.

Kgotso!”  he said.

Kgotso!”  I said. Peace!

It was little enough I had given him, poor devil! But I was glad he left a little happier than he had arrived.

Later, he told me he had visited the office of Thabo’s Organization, where the Head of the Local Branch, a Mr Zwane, had told him he would try to get the body of his son flown back to Nelspruit; but he wasn’t hopeful.

“The war is still on in Angola,”  said Mr Zwane. “And there are no proper refrigeration facilities in the morgues there.” 

On the following Tuesday, Govan was told that Thabo’s coffin would arrive three days later, at Jan Smuts Airport.

Friday!

The load on Julia’s shoulders lifted slightly. Friday was the day she would live for!

Mr Zwane asked them for certain particulars so that the coffin could be properly cleared: Thabo’s date of birth, the name of the undertaker who would receive the coffin, the date of the funeral, and the name of the cemetery.

Wanting all these details just for entry at the airport seemed odd to me; but I said nothing to Govan.

He arranged for a funeral parlour in Nelspruit, called Paradise Gardens, to meet the aeroplane on its arrival in Johannesburg.

However, early Friday morning, Mr Zwane phoned the Moerane home again, to say that unexpected problems had arisen and that he was sorry: the coffin would arrive that day, but later than first expected.

There were difficulties with telephone lines from Luanda to Lusaka — the Headquarters of the Organization in Zambia. And there was some internal quarrel going on about the Organization’s decision to boycott the services of South African Airways. Nevertheless, the Organization had finally decided that the coffin would be brought in by Air Zimbabwe, arriving in South Africa on the 10 a.m. flight that morning.

At about 10.30, my home phone rang. It was Govan from Jan Smuts Airport.

“Is everything all right, Govan?” 

“No. Far from that. There was a coffin; but it wasn’t ours. So we are on our way back.” 

Exhausted, they arrived in Nelspruit during the late afternoon.

I was waiting for them.

The stress of the journey, the baulking of their expectations, and the frustration of their hopes had left them drained and depressed.

I had prepared food and put it in their fridge.

But, when we got home, I first made them tea, and we were just preparing to drink it when the phone rang.

It was Mr Zwane, again. I was about to let him have a piece of my mind when he started in and prevented me:

“Tell Mr Moerane,”  he said, “that his son’s body is arriving at Jan Smuts this evening on the 8 p.m. plane and he must immediately inform the undertaker of its arrival. Good day.” 

It was lucky my Sesotho was adequate. Without even waiting to see if he had been understood, he rang off. I could tell, he thought we should be grateful.

Before returning to the sitting-room, I phoned Paradise Gardens and gave them their instructions.

The two exhausted parents were attempting to eat — with little enthusiasm — some of the food I had prepared.

I gave them Mr Zwane’s message.

A look of utter defeat came over Julia’s face. She could not eat a morsel more. She looked ready to disintegrate.

Quickly, I said:

“Look! The undertaker has to go to Johannesburg, anyway — to fetch the coffin. Let him attend to the formalities. No need for you to be there. Take your time! Eat your food. Nothing else you good people can really do until tomorrow, is there?” 

“I suppose not!”  Govan shook his head. “But a father’s place is — .”

“ — I know how you feel! But I suggest you both get a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow, we’ll all go round to Paradise Gardens, when they’ve had a chance to attend to — to everything.” 

They agreed.

“You’re a good friend, Raymond!” 

“Wish I could do more!” 

Tomorrow was a Saturday, a non-working day for most people. The entire family could be present when the coffin was opened. I offered to make the phone calls, but Julia and Govan would not hear of it.

“It is family business and a family duty!” 

“As godfather to your son, I am family.” 

“Yes — almost — but not quite,”  said Julia firmly.

“We don’t wish to be ungrateful,”  said Govan. “I’m sure you understand.” 

“Perfectly.” 

These days, people don’t talk about honour. I knew Govan was a man who had it, and that he would insist on doing his duty as he saw fit. I wanted to let him know that I knew it. But I said nothing. It would sound forced and artificial: our friendship had always been easy and natural.

At ten o’clock on Saturday morning, Julia, Govan and I turned up at Paradise Gardens. We were the first to arrive.

“Where are the others?”  I asked.

“Oh,”  said Govan. “We shan’t see them until noon. I have arranged for them to view the body before we meet. Separately. They will all give us their opinions later, over a meal.” 

“Isn’t that unusual?” 

He looked at me quizzically.

“For a Basotho family,”  I added quickly, to explain my question. I didn’t want to offend him.

“I have my reasons,”  said Govan, turning towards the Hall of Tranquility.

Julia pressed her lips together and looked unhappily at her shoes before she followed her husband to the door, and went inside.

The coffin was standing alone on a trestle in the gloomy room. Some quite inappropriate piped music began to emanate discreetly from darkened walls. There was an overpowering stench of decay, mingled with something chemical, like formaldehyde, difficult to say exactly what. It was quite overwhelming.

“You go first,”  said Govan to his wife.

With a handkerchief over her nose, Julia stepped forward and peered into the coffin. She stood for a moment or two in silence, weeping, shaking her head from side to side, and then turned abruptly back. I put my arm round her shoulders to comfort her. Govan went forward. He took one quick glance inside, no more.

“Your turn, Raymond,”  he said, as he returned.

The coffin was made of aluminium and lined with lead. They had opened it with a blowtorch and its lid rested diagonally askew on top, so that we could see inside.

The man lay on his back, with his hands folded over his chest. He was bigger than I had expected. His military cap was beside him. It was difficult for me to associate this tall long-jawed corpse with the lively bright-eyed boy I had known, with my godson, with Govan’s child.

But — his father and mother standing grief-stricken at my side — I could not tell them that. Death altered people. I stepped back.

“Poor boy!”  I said, noncommittal.

“Come with me, Raymond,”  said Govan, abruptly. “I need you as a witness.” 

Surprised, I followed him out of the Hall of Tranquility and into the undertaker’s plush office. Julia did not come with us. Govan entered without knocking. The man was not expecting us.

“S-sit down, gentlemen,”  he said hesitantly. “Mr Moerane, what can I do for you?” 

“Mr Nkuna,”  said Govan. “I want the body of the man in that coffin — ,”  he pointed with a long finger to the room we had just left.

‘What on earth — ?’ said Mr Nkuna’s expression.

Finishing his sentence, Govan boomed out:

“ — Finger-printed.” 

Mr Nkuna was flabbergasted.

He was a fat, beautifully dressed man in a tailored suit, with a shaved head and a gleaming Rollei wristwatch. Normally, his black skin glowed with satisfaction and goodwill. Now, he looked at my friend with trepidation and astonishment. He spread his fingers wide to indicate his defencelessness.

“But, Mr Moerane, such a request is highly irregular.” 

“This is a highly irregular death, Mr Nkuna,”  said Govan.

“In what way, Mr Moerane?” 

Govan explained. But Mr Nkuna was adamant: Govan’s request was a blank impossibility.

“Why?”  persisted Govan.

“Well, the fact is, Mr Moerane, we examined the body on its arrival here, and — we discovered that lime had been placed on the palms and fingers of the corpse. I have to admit that! Sorry! Identification by finger-print is quite impossible.” 

“Just as I expected,”  said Govan, abruptly standing up. He leaned over the desk and looked straight into Mr Nkuna’s startled eyes.

“I’m not paying for the interment of a total stranger! Would you?” 

“Isn’t this your son?”  exclaimed Mr Nkuna, not quite convincingly.

“Certainly not! Is it yours?” 

Mr Nkuna did not reply.

Govan said: “My responsiblity to you, and to that corpse in there,”  he pointed back the way we had come, “ends right now! Please understand, I accept no responsibility for this charade.” 

He left the office in a swirl. After wishing Mr Nkuna a crisp “Good morning” , I followed in Govan’s slipstream. It seemed the least I could do.

Outside, I said: “Govan, you were magnificent!” 

He just grunted: it was most unlike him. He had a face like thunder, so I left him alone. We drove home without speaking a word. Julia was obviously too full of her grief to want talk at all.

At noon, the rest of the family arrived: two of Govan’s married daughters, his younger brother, wife and children, and others I had never seen before, as well as all of Julia’s relatives.

The little house was full to overflowing with the bereaved.

I decided to make myself scarce.

I sat outside on the stoep and took the opportunity of smoking a pipe of tobacco, the first that day. In about an hour, they all began to drift away. I was most surprised. Often, these funeral gatherings go on for hours and hours; the whole business can last for days.

“I expected things to last much longer,”  I said to Govan, afterwards.

“They would have, but it was unanimous! This body is not the corpse of my son, Thabo.” 

“Everybody’s certain?” 

“Absolutely.” 

“Don’t think I disbelieve you. But may I ask how you can be so positive? You haven’t seen him for twelve or thirteen years.” 

“Do you think I don’t know my own son?”  asked Govan with scorn. “I’d know him if I hadn’t seen him for fifty years.” 

“I’m sure you would! But just indulge me for a moment.” 

“Well, for a start, the entire family agree that this man is a good deal taller than Thabo.” 

I nodded. It confirmed my own reaction.

“I had an inch or two over my son. This man is taller than me. Then there’s his feet.” 

“Feet!”  I asked in surprise.

“Yes! We Basotho recognize people that way, just as easily as you recognize faces. Remember Penelope! She recognized her husband, Ulysses — when he returned after many years of wandering — by his feet. They change less than faces.” 

“I see!” 

It made sense. The ancient Greeks were a barefoot or sandalled people, too.

“We all agreed! The toes do not belong to Thabo. Lastly,”  he asked with a pause. “Did you notice his ears?” 

“No! Why?” 

“We Moeranes have particularly fine ears, both physiologically and musically. We are a musical family. This man has gross ears. Virtually no lobes at all and they are tight against his skull. Look at mine!” 

He held a fleshy lobe away from his head between finger and thumb.

“I see!” 

“Then there are the circumstantial details. The lime on the hands, for instance.” 

“That was terrible!” 

“Terrible, indeed! And incontrovertible . . . Now, I must phone Mr Zwane.” 

When Govan came back, he was fuming.

“Do you know what that bastard said?” 

“What?” 

“He said,‘Well, you wanted a corpse! You’ve got a corpse. Now, you can bury it!’ I said to him: ‘Tell your Organization to bury it themselves.’ Bastards!”  he concluded, passionately.

That was Saturday.

Sunday was quiet enough.

But Monday brought a new development: a delegation!

That is really what it was, although they claimed it to be just a group of concerned neighbours who had come to discuss — as their leader put it — “the unpleasantness over the situation of the corpse.”

There were eight men and two women: one of Govan’s old school principals (the leader); a retired nurse; an Indian, quite unknown to Govan who called himself Desmond; two ministers of religion; and five other people Govan did not know.

He showed his usual steadfast courage and announced calmly:

“The family wishes to make its position clear. We will not bury this corpse in my son’s name. It is the Organization’s responsibility. We want no part in this deception. Your request is an insult to my relatives and me.” 

The nurse persisted: she pointed out how severe illness can alter a person’s appearance. “Tuberculosis, especially, changes the features of a face.” 

“TB doesn’t make a corpse grow longer,”  said Govan icily.

In the end, Govan made them see that their arguments did not hold water and the Principal resorted to pleas for compromise — as a favour to the local community.

“Compromise? Death does not compromise. Where is my son? What happened to his body after he died? How did he die? I suggest you make the compromise: attend to the interment yourselves. Call it — The Grave of the Unkown Soldier! Are you aware of the pain you are causing us? My wife is near to collapse. You worsen our suffering by such requests. Good day to you!” 

“But, Mr Moerane — !”

“ — No buts! We do not want the family’s graves associated with this travesty. Good day!” 

When Govan told me about their ultimatum — for that’s what it was — I was as angry as him.

“How can they behave like this? They pretend to be your friends.” 

“We both know the answer to that! They’re afraid of what the Comrades might do to them.” 

“Aren’t you afraid?” 

“I follow God’s laws, not man’s. My trust is in Him. He has told us what is right and what is wrong. Furthermore, what the Organization is perpetrating goes against ordinary rights and decencies, not just God’s commandments. Cruelty to one’s fellow beings will not survive. These men and their inhuman ways will themselves perish.” 

I saw again the same qualities in the man that had made us friends in the first place, when the enemy was different, and a friendship between a white man and a black was a thing unheard of; I admired his courage then, as I admire it now.

The upshot of it all was, on the following Tuesday, Govan heard, via the grapevine, that a person or persons unknown had booked a grave in Nelspruit cemetery for the burial of Thabo Raymond Moerane. It was to be on Wednesday, 18 February 1991.

Govan immediately phoned Mr Nkuna, the undertaker.

“I have not given you permission for such an interment,”  said Govan.

“I am sorry, Ntate,”  said Mr Nkuna. “Those are my instructions. It is out of my hands. Talk to Mr Moetse, the Principal. He will give you the details.” 

Mr Moetse, the Principal, told Govan he had been to the Magistrate and got permission to bury the coffin in the name of Moerane.

“Who mandated you to do that?”  demanded Govan.

“Mr Moerane, I’m sure you knew the answer to that before you asked it.” 

“Mr Moetse, we were once good friends. Now, my respect for you has vanished. This thing you are doing is wrong — wrong in God’s eyes, as well as in the eyes of every right-thinking person. You and your crew are just wolves in sheepskins.” 

“I’m sorry you are taking that attitude, Mr Moerane. But the burial will go ahead as planned. With or without your permission. Whether you like it or not. The name of the Organization is at stake.” 

“And what of mine? Is my family’s name of no account? What are we fighting for?” 

“That, Mr Moerane, is for you to answer.”  And the Principal slammed down the receiver.

I shall end the Moerane’s story by showing you the flyer that was distributed in the township on the day of the burial. It read as follows:

 

The Organization Nelspruit Branch mourns the death of our cadre, who joined our ranks in exile and remained until death overcame him in Luanda on 2nd February 1991. The Organization Nelspruit Branch has been charged with the task of putting to rest this Martyr, a hero of the oppressed masses of our nation who paid the greatest price for the liberation of the oppressed from the bonds of apartheid, and therefore requests that all members of the Organization, sympathisers, supporters, progressive movements, and all those who recognize the great contribution of this disciplined soldier, to join hands and accompany him on his last journey to his place of rest. VIVA THE ORGANIZATION! VIVA! VIVA! May the spirit of Our Martyr Long Live!!!

 

I will not describe the grief and pain of the parents when they first read this declaration. It is too unbearable to recall.

It was all the worse to behold because of their own immense dignity and restraint.

Later, Govan was no longer angry, only sad; Julia, fatally resigned.

But my anger was not so easily contained.

Why were the fingerprints of that corpse obliterated? Had Thabo been tortured and killed because his questions got too dangerous to allow? How can Organizations that operate in the name of Freedom and Humanity discard ordinary decency and compassion when they are challenged? How can you preserve Love and Justice when, in the name of ‘the good name’ of a Faceless Organization, you trample them underfoot?

You must assert the values you want to survive, if people are to follow and believe in you; and, especially, if you want the values themselves to flourish.

Who are the Betrayers and who the Betrayed?

Govan’s restraint seemed miraculous to me.

Naturally, they did not go to the funeral.

But, at exactly 2.00 p.m., on Wednesdasy 18 February, he said:

“Julia, shall we listen to some music? It will restore the harmony to our souls; and, under our minds, put a tune into place.” 

“Yes, my husband. Mozart’s Requiem Mass?” 

“Wife, I think Verdi’s would be more appropriate! And, afterwards, Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring?"

He paused before he turned to me.

“Something to take account of the savagery of life! . . . What do you think, Raymond?”  


Other short story collections by Roy Holland:

                          

Novel in THE JONATHAN THREE trilogy:

THE NOWHERE MAN
by Roy Holland      
UK price: £8.99     US price: $17.95
Publisher: DIADEM BOOKS
Format: Paperback:
Perfect binding , cream interior
Size : 6 x 9 (US trade)
Pages: 262
ISBN: 978-0-9559741-0-6
Published: July-2008
A young man in Birmingham, in the sixties, escapes the humdrum mundanity of life through fantasies, tries to find himself, and finally escapes his dead-end lifestyle by gaining a place at a university.

JOURNEY TOWARDS HIMSELF            
by Roy Holland
UK price: £8.99     US price: $17.95
Publisher: DIADEM BOOKS
Format: Paperback:
Perfect binding , cream interior
Size : 6 x 9 (US trade)
Pages: 262
ISBN: 978-0-9559741-1-3
Published: July-2008

A hilarious evocation of life as a student at Cambridge University in the sixties, shortly after the time of such notable figures as F. R. Leavis, C.S. Lewis and E.M. Forster.


NOW LEAD ME HOME
by Roy Holland        
UK price: £10.99     US price: $21.95
Publisher: DIADEM BOOKS
Format: Paperback:
Perfect binding , cream interior
Size : 6 x 9 (US trade)
Pages: 262
ISBN: 978-0-9559741-2-0
Published: July-2008

In this third book of the ‘Jonathan Three’, the experiences conveyed by the protagonist’s stream-of-consciousness place the reader in the mind of the young man who eventually finds real love and meaning in a fulfilling relationship. 


THE WAKING & MAKING OF PAUL GAUGUIN        
A Play for Voices

by Roy Holland
UK price: £6.99     US price: $15.02
Publisher: DIADEM BOOKS
Format: Paperback:
Perfect binding , cream interior
Size : 6 x 9 (US trade)
Pages: 98
ISBN: 978-0-9559741-3-7
Published: July-2008

It was during his illness, in 1887, when Gauguin was 39 years old, that the battle dramatised in this play – a battle imagined in his body, and in his mind, and in his moral nature – could have taken place


ALAN PATON SPEAKING   
The Lintrose Conversations:
Interview with Alan Paton  

by Roy Holland
edited by Charles Muller
UK price: £14.60     US price: $28.95
Publisher: DIADEM BOOKS
Format: Paperback:
Perfect binding , cream interior
Size : 6 x 9 (US trade)
Pages: 114
ISBN: 978-0-9559741-4-4
Published: August-2008

 

This interview with Alan Paton by Roy Holland has never, until now, been published. The interview took place on June 19 and June 20, 1973, when Holland was a guest in Paton’s home, Lintrose, at Bothas Hill, Kloof, Natal. It provides many insights into Paton’s life, his political involvement as the founder of the Liberal party in South Africa, and his writings


Contact the author by email:  roy@royholland.fsnet.co.uk

Roy Holland