The South African Dialogues: Part 1

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Is there any hope for South Africa? In this series of imaginary South African 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 dialogues takes place in the late 17th century, while the last is set in the near future ahead of the 2019 South African 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

DUTCH EAST INDIA COMPANY SETTLEMENT, CAPE OF GOOD HOPE

House near fort beneath flat-topped mountain

2 August 1679

– Close that window, would you please dear? It’s bitterly cold in here this morning.

– Isn’t it just? Really, when we decided to come out to the Cape last year, no one told us we could expect weather little better than we have back home.

– Quite so. Since we’ve been in this hovel – what, nearly three months now? – the rain has either pelted down or we’ve had wind howling incessantly over that accursed mountain.

– Talk about fish out of water! With hardly a hill across the length and breadth of Holland we end up stuck between a massive mountain and a turbulent sea.

– It seems this place is just one range of mountains after the next. I mean, take those peaks we can see through the mist towards the east. I wonder what lies beyond them?

– All I know is there are hordes of Hottentots, both closeby and far inland. As far as I’m concerned, our job is to turn this side of those mountains into a little Holland, and let them have the rest.

Ja, but isn’t it convenient that they are here? At least the Company has been able to obtain some decent cattle which, together with the vegetables we’re growing, is making life for the sailors passing through here on their way to the East that much healthier. But it must be hard bartering with those heathens?

Ja, Saskia, my dear. Normally one would exchange valuable things like rifles and gunpowder, but not with these people. The next thing they’ll be attacking us. But they are childlike in many ways. You know what we found out yesterday when we visited that tribe to the north? They had never seen a mirror before. Fortunately, we had a large stock of little mirrors, which they snapped up. You should have seen them admiring themselves, although some were clearly not sure what it was they were seeing.

– But Jan, they must have seen themselves reflected in water before?

– I know. They must have. But maybe they can’t believe man is capable of making something akin to water, something that can capture their very soul within it, just like water does. I think they found it all a bit spooky.

– Well, if I were in their shoes, I’d also find it a major culture shock. I mean, not so long ago we all believed the world was flat. Yet soon our ships were sailing over the horizon, disappearing across the sea, and then returning, miraculously.

– Galileo Galilei with his telescopes changed all that, didn’t he?

– Imagine being one of these heathens and being told you are actually standing upright at the bottom of the Earth? That you are basically suspended, yet somehow can stick to the Earth’s surface thanks to a thing called gravity.

– Well Jan, I find that hard to believe myself, despite what that Englishman Isaac Newton says. I mean, if you look out across this misty plain, right, you see the Earth as it appears in Holland. Even though we’re at the bottom of the globe it seems as if we are on top of it, doesn’t it? I mean it’s no different. How do you explain that? We know we travelled downwards, yet we were forever on a flat surface. Things changed, but stayed the same.

– It’s because the world is so damn big, Saskia. I bet – now imagine this – I bet if we could travel out into space and look back, we would indeed see that the Earth is a big ball, just like the Moon. Only it will appear largely blue, because there is so much water. The sea seems to take up most of the Earth. They should call it the Sea, not the Earth.

Ag Jan, you’re so full of your ideas, man. Do you know what I miss most about home? It’s the flatness. The feeling of open space. You know, how Rembrandt captured it in his paintings. Big open skies full of scudding clouds, with a broad, flat openness below. I miss the dykes, the tamed sea. I miss the windmills, standing out like four-armed sentinels against the skyline. I miss art galleries and good beer. I miss having sophisticated people around me. And nice things.

– Come here, my dear. At least we have each other, hey? And we don’t have to stay here forever. I don’t have to renew my contract with the Company. We’ll go back home someday soon and I’ll get work in Rotterdam. The port is bustling. So let’s just treat this as our African odyssey. Anyway, it’s not so bad. We’ve got our youth, and you’re looking splendid. Yes, really splendid. You know I may have a bit of a hangover after last night’s party, but that rum has certainly left me feeling rather affectionate this morning. Let’s cuddle up a bit. Nice and snug.

 

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