Carry me to Bethlehem

2011-12-21 00:00

THERE is a joke that comes around every year at this time: Jesus would never have been born in Bethlehem in the Free State — because it has no wise men.

I recently set off for the eastern Free State to investigate the truth of this and to see if I could find any modern likeness to the Christian Nativity story.

The first thing that strikes you is that Bethlehem’s not a dorp. Bursting at the seams, it boasts three hospitals, many churches, a few beautiful sandstone heritage buildings, two mosques and lots of shops. And when it comes to accommodation there is more than enough room at the inn.

There are bed and breakfasts on practically every corner, all trying desperately to woo passing traffic en route to the more famous scenic dorp of Clarens.

But Bethlehem is the economic big brother where you can get anything you want. The municipal tourism office is bureaucratic but they do try to be helpful with historical information.

“This will help but it is in Afrikaans and I’m afraid a little out of date,” says Santa Bronkhorst, the town’s communications manager. The book, printed in 1965, has a foreword by a young PW Botha. Bronkhorst is one of the few white survivors of the Dihlabeng Municipality.

“A lot of people got upset and resigned, but I was a widow and I needed a job. I think things are never as bad as you think they will be.” She scribbles some names on a piece of paper. “I don’t know if these people are wise but they are interesting!”

Most people are intimidated by my request to meet a wise person from Bethlehem. Perhaps in this Afrikaans-dominated region something is lost in translation. My rusty school Afrikaans is not good and people quickly revert to English.

 

The first wise man

One person agrees to meet me at the library. He is late and while waiting, I observe the agile manoeuvres of a car guard in a wheelchair. His is not an ordinary wheelchair, it has been modified and has a third small wheel projecting out in front.

His hands are gloved and he manipulates his chair with great dexterity. I feel like a peeping Tom watching him.

Alfred Mosia arrives and apologises for being late. “I am not one in favour of this African time,” he says with a chuckle. “I used to be a unionist and I learnt this lesson the hard way. Once the late arrival of a shop steward nearly cost a man his job. I learnt from this.”

Mosia is a member of the Dihlabeng Civic Organisation (Dico), and he informs me that his passion is to make sure the newly elected Bethlehem councillors do what they promised.

He has an interesting way of explaining opposition politics. It seems that Dico was mysteriously not registered in time to appear on the ballot papers, despite its timely application and paying its fees.

So it was co-opted onto the South African National Civic Associations (Sanca) ticket. Sanca supports the ANC, but Mosia says he will not co-operate if the current leaders do not act with integrity.

Mosia is also human relations adviser to the top security company in Bethlehem, called Zero Tolerance.

Its billboards proclaiming “Zero Tolerance” can be seen everywhere. Mosia says Bethlehem is in dire need of hope and jobs. His plan would be to reinstate the old food boards that used to control the prices of meat and maize.

“It would provide jobs and keep prices stable.” As he leaves he gives a tip to the car guard who whizzes around wheeling with one hand.

 

The second wise man

This guardian in a chair is the second wise man I meet in Bethlehem. Matsebetsebe Ntombela was a painter by profession until he began to experience terrible back pain.

“I would start to stagger and fall, and many people would think I was drunk.” A doctor gave him the devastating news that he was not going to get better but worse.

“They told me I had TB in the spine and in a few months I was at home just sitting.” He was very depressed and from an active person he became immobile. A friend suggested that he speak to the municipality to see if they could organise him a wheelchair.

“They helped me and within a few months I got this wheelchair. Someone told me that I could earn money by competing in wheelchair races.” Ntombela slowly got used to the chair and he soon became very fast — in fact, he is known on the streets as Potlako (Speedy).

He now has a professional racing wheelchair sponsored by local businesses and recently he came fourth in the Soweto 10-kilometre Wheelchair Challenge. This despite the fact that he had to contend with a punctured wheel. His efforts earned him R3 000.

The race was a highlight for him and he plans to compete again. “I never thought I would be happy to be in this chair, but it has given me something to strive for. At the Soweto competition, I met people from overseas and they encouraged me. A lot of people have been behind me and I am grateful.” His positive attitude is an inspiration.

I stop at local drinking hole O’Hagans, the oldest in the country. It is situated just around the corner from the local sex shop.

At the mention of shining stars, the patrons of O’Hagans tell me I should know that the local stars are rugby legends Jannie and Bismarck du Plessis who are Bethlehem residents. The whole of O’Hagans says: “Cheers!” Nobody mentions the up-and-coming Free State Stars — the soccer squad that has burst onto the Premier Soccer League.

I drive around the town and admire the old sandstone buildings. Many have been declared heritage buildings and there is a sandstone-building tour.

Once a small Jewish community stayed here, but most of them have headed north to Johannesburg. Their synagogue has been converted into a hideous green Wassa Wassa car spares. I spot a census car and think that indeed this is also a sign — for in the Bible story Mary and Joseph had to trek to Bethlehem because King Herod had ordered a census.

 

The third wise man

My next wise candidate is former mayor Clem Harrington who goes all out to put Bethlehem on the tourism map. He now serves on the local economic and tourism committee, and once nearly managed to nab the Best Town of the Year award for Bethlehem. Instead, it came second.

“Ag, it wasn’t really fair you know. They marked us down because we didn’t host a mayoress’s tea that year. I was not married, so we didn’t have a mayoress,” he shrugs.

His law offices are covered with paintings of the various sandstone buildings in the district. His plans for the district are big . He wants to put the annual hot-air-balloon festival on the map and aims to revive the agricultural industry with a plan to grow and process soya beans.

“People already know that our air show is fantastic. We are very well placed here for many ideas to take off,” he says

It’s not all hot air. Harrington also says they are investigating a breeding programme for catfish, and are also looking at growing commercial mushrooms.

The regional hydroelectric project is a huge success and the first phase of this project already produces enough electricity to power half of the suburbs with electricity. Plans are afoot to expand this project.

 

A restaurant in a stable

If Jesus were born in this bustling town, he would have to be born in a stable. My eyes alight on a pamphlet for a restaurant in a shed. The picture is of a stable — ramshackle and delightful, The Gourmet Shed to be precise, just outside Clarens.

I find an old shed on a farm where the patrons share long wooden tables and eat good wholesome food surrounded by hay bales and rusty wagon wheels. Al fresco lunches are served at the weekends and patrons are encouraged to relax and enjoy the mountain splendour.

“We decided to use this old shed because it was so inviting and rustic,” says manager Annali Bossert. There is no electricity, so food is prepared beforehand and meat is cooked over a fire. People bring their own beverages and it’s all very relaxing.”

As she bounces her baby on her lap, I look around this lovely place. The wind whistles through the cracks in the walls and a tiny field mouse darts across the straw on the floor. The lanterns swing in the rafters above. It would be an ideal venue for a Nativity scene and I am sure a perfect place to have a Christmas feast if the menu is anything to go by. The tiny toilet is hidden in an old water tank — a perfect disguise and a wonderful adaptation.

 

The wisest of them all

I am wondering what I have missed. Of course, the kings. I stomp on the brakes when I see the Crown Guest House. It’s a sign! This has to be the last stop on my journey. Here I find possibly the wisest person on my journey, a woman.

Anita Henning is the proprietor of the “inn” and she has a wealth of information on the area. As a former editor of the ToGoTo tourism magazine, she knows a lot about the people and history of the area.

Henning’s guest house is full of local art and she has many stories to tell from her travels abroad and also from her trips into neighbouring Lesotho where she takes beautiful photographs. Her love of travel has led to her investment in colonial furniture which she imports from India. Each of her rooms has a different exotic theme and her guest house has many treasures too.

Indeed, the little town of Bethlehem is possibly not the same as the original Nativity story, but when the sun goes down, and you stand at the top of one of the little hills and look over the myriad lights twinkling below you do feel it is a special place. I turn my car towards home.

 

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