South African Dialogues: Part 3

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Is there any hope for South Africa? In this series of imaginary dialogues down the centuries, KIN BENTLEY offers a historical perspective into how we arrived at our current crisis and how, with generosity of spirit, goodwill, and integrity, we can resolve it.

The first of 23 different dialogues takes place in the late 17th century while the last is set in the near future ahead of the 2019 general election. They will be serialised over the next few weeks.

All but the last were written around 2004 as President Thabo Mbeki supported his Zimbabwean counterpart Robert Mugabe’s seizure of white-owned farms, precipitating the collapse of that country’s economy. Back home, Mbeki replaced Nelson Mandela’s focus on racial reconciliation with an overtly Africanist policy. This found expression in affirmative action laws like Black Economic Empowerment and the Employment Equity Act.

The final and longest discussion seeks to pull together the decade and a half since 2004, with a particular focus on how corruption and incompetence under the Jacob Zuma presidency brought this country to its lowest ebb since the apartheid era.

All characters, apart from obvious historical figures, are fictional. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. Pejorative racist term were used for the sake of authenticity. The odd anachronism was also unavoidable. – © Kin Bentley 2018

NEAR BATHURST, EASTERN FRONTIER OF THE CAPE COLONY

Beside the stone shell of a gutted wool-mill

March 10, 1835

 – Well, Richard, what the hell are we going to do now? We can’t very well stand guard every night and expect to be able to protect everything we’ve built up. It seems in this benighted country as fast as we build things these marauding savages will destroy them.

– You remember, Samuel, it was about four years after we arrived in Algoa Bay on the Kennersley Castle and settled at New Gloucester, up at Lemon Valley on the Torrens River, that ye decided to build a mill?

– Aye, will I ever forget? I thought I was something of a leader then. You know, taking charge of our party of 64 Gloucester settlers who sailed from Bristol in 1820. We had to leave England, of course.

– Yer right, Samuel. With the great sweep of industrialisation taking place back home, not to mention the depression after the Napoleonic wars ended, there was little hope of either of us getting anything like worthwhile employment.

– Aye Richard, cottage industries in England seem to be a dying phenomenon. Yer spinners and weavers, who supplied the Gloucestershire mills for the past 200 years, are simply being overtaken by machinery.

– But you know, Sam, even though the blighters have burnt the timber parts of this here mill, I believe we might be able to get the old fella up and running again. Perhaps as a grain mill. I mean, since when has a Bradshaw been put off by the odd setback? We wouldn’t have come out to Africa had we not been prepared for such contingencies, would we brother?

– First thing we must do is draw up a list of the equipment we have lost and lodge a claim with the Colonial Office for reimbursement.

– Aye. The mill served us well these past 10 years, Sam, thanks I think to the excellent timber work done by Jeremiah Goldswain. I mean where would we have been without the thick blankets and clothing we managed to make from the wool – good wool too, mind you – supplied by the mission folk at Theopolis?

– Aye. Who would have thought that the winters out here would have been as cold as they have been?

– But my key concern, Sam, is how much longer is this war with the natives going to continue?

– Yeah. Apart from all the other hardships we’ve had to endure, this was the hidden agenda they never told us about when we signed up to settle in this “verdant garden” of the Eastern Province. We’re little less than a human buffer between the savages across the Keiskamma River and the rest of the colony. And if anyone’s going to be attacked, Richard, it’s us. Since this war started just before Christmas last year, they’ve burnt down hundreds of farmsteads and stolen thousands of head of livestock. Numerous lives have been lost.

– Exactly. But to them in Cape Town, it’s just another frontier war. The politicians are calling it the Sixth Kaffir War. Apparently the first started last century already. And I hear the London Missionary Society are agitating against us, saying the attack was provoked after years of us abusing the natives. Clearly, though, the Xhosa are not going to stand idly by as we Europeans take control of what they consider their land.

– What other option do they have though? D’Urban’s going to push the frontier ever eastwards and the Kaffirs with it. And there’s no way we’re going back to Blighty, so they damn well better get used to us and learn to adapt to civilization. Because, Richard my good man, we are only the start of what they can expect. This mill, with its water wheel restored, will show these natives that you can let running water – this little Bathurst stream – do all the hard work of grinding grain, thereby saving a lot of time and energy. But think of all the other developments we saw in the UK before we left, the factories that were springing up with all manner of new-fangled steam-driven machinery. Mark my words, with ships plying the route between Algoa Bay and Britain on a regular basis now, we’ll be importing all those skills and inventions. Soon this place won’t know itself. We’re already exporting masses of wool, competing with the best they can produce down under.

– Yeah, Sam, we’re here to stay. Whether the natives like it or not, they’re in for a shock. You cannot put four thousand British settlers down in a country and expect them to sit around idly doing nothing. No, already I hear that the little village we arrived at in the Bay, which they’ve called Port Elizabeth, has become a thriving harbour town. Imports and exports are booming. It’s a part of the empire now, and so are we. So too are the natives, especially the Mfengu. You wait, before too long the Xhosas will be back here, bartering with us for some nice warm blankets and jerseys. Not that we haven’t already secured tons of ivory and hides from them. Trade is what it’s all about, and the empire opens up all sorts of trading opportunities.

– And you know Richard, the irony is that this is such a huge country there should be more than enough land for all of us. The natives will just have to learn to husband their herds better, and perhaps reduce stock numbers so they don’t do irreparable damage to the countryside by overgrazing. It’s a shame some of the Dutch are leaving though. They’ve really been a godsend, helping us settle in and standing by us in crises like the present one.

– By the way, Sam, how is Susan? I hear she was among those forced to hole up in the church during the last Xhosa attack on Bathurst?

– No she’s fine thanks Richard, and so too, thankfully, is young Andy. He’s turning three this July, a right little African baby, all wiry and already as tanned as a native.

– Well I’d better be off then, Sam. Got to get back to the commando unit to see what follow-up operations are planned to avenge this latest attack, and try to retrieve some of our livestock. See you later at the Pig ’n Whistle, perhaps?

– Good idea, old man. If it’s still standing.

– Anyway, cheers for now.

– Cheers.

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