'Hardegat' Tannie Kwaito

2011-05-24 00:00

WHENEVER a farmer is murdered in our area, I find myself walking around town for the next week being extremely nice to anyone I meet. I am scared of the hatred that surfaces at times like this. I smile at everyone of every race whom I see. "I am a nice one," I am saying about my Englishness to the Afrikaans people, and my whiteness to the black people. "Let's all be bound together in love, eh? How about it?"

"Thank you for letting me stay here in Africa," I imply to the black woman in the stationery shop as I smile ingratiatingly and appreciate the envelopes and her service. "Thank you." Third-generation South African and still grateful.

"If I am a good missus, pay you more than the going rate, take you to the clinic when you are sick and let your children play in our garden, will you make sure that no one takes our farm away from us one day?" I think as I write up a list of things for Muttering Darkly to do that day.

I wear my niceness cloaked around me like an armed response.

Tannie Kwaito is not concerned about being nice. I worry, and don't worry, that her sort is dying out. A battle-axe of a school ma'am who is unpleasant to everyone: English people, black people and bank employees. "Ek is oppad na julle toe," she tells Anna-Marie at FNB on the phone, "en ek wil in 'n kantoor sit. Ek gaan nie in 'n tou staan met al daardie mense nie, en ek wil ook nie op daardie vuil stoele sit in die hokkies nie."

Anna-Marie apologises, saying that they don't have any private offices for clients. The only office they have at the branch belongs to the bank manager. "Wel dan laat hom uitgaan," Tannie Kwaito replies. "Ek betaal sy salaris."

The roadworks at the municipality also have Tannie Kwaito on their case. She lives in one of the most potholed streets in our town. It rivals the 1,5 million potholes that were documented in the United Kingdom two years ago. Tannie Kwaito refuses to listen to any excuses about lack of funding and waiting until the rains clear up. She is tired of having to swerve up onto the pavement in her motor car to avoid the craters in the road whenever she leaves her home. "Julle moet dit regmaak," she insists.

I met Tannie Kwaito where I meet everyone, at a children's birthday party. She was cross that she found herself liking me. She had not planned to like me. The Boere Oorlog was mentioned. But I wear my cloak of niceness for Tannie Kwaito too, and very soon I could see that, like Piet, I had won her round despite herself.

Piet was in her class at school. Tannie Kwaito was delivering some good old-fashioned corporal punishment to an errant pupil, when Piet rushed up to the front of the class, Bible in hand. "Juffrou," he said quietly, "dit staan hier dat jy moet lief wees vir ander mense net soos wat jy lief is vir jouself."

"Maar hoekom moet ek?" said Tannie Kwaito, "niemand is lief vir my nie."

Quick as a flash, Piet threw his arms around Tannie Kwaito and said: "Ek is lief vir jou."

Very soon after that, Tannie Kwaito retired. Whenever Piet got sick of the koshuis he would slip out to visit Tannie Kwaito. Thrilled as she was to have a visitor, she never failed to report him to the headmaster that same day. The headmaster could not believe that a young boy would choose to visit Tannie Kwaito, so Piet was never called in and was never punished for his crime.

Tannie Kwaito will never employ a black person to go with her to her mother's farm 150 kilometres out of town. She is convinced any worker driving in her car with her will cut her throat as soon as they are out of town.

This tannie had just got back from visiting her niece in Australia when I met her. That place was very definitely not for her. "Nee wat, nie met al daardie Engels." She almost spits it out, and looks at me pointedly. (This was before my cloak of niceness had won her round.)

I heard later, that when she was in Australia, Tannie Kwaito could not wait to get back to South Africa.

"Dis my land hierdie," she was heard to say. "En dis my slaggate. Ek gaan nêrens."

• Catherine Smetherham is rediscovering herself and South Africa from a platteland perspective. She lives in Strydpoort, North West Province. Contact her at Catherine@holtzhausen.com

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