Country store

2011-07-29 00:00

WHILE Verna, my wife, and I were recuperating from a personal financial meltdown and several burglaries, assaults and other less-than-pleasant events on the Reef, we were privileged to experience some of the strange things that happen in the country that never get reported in the newspapers. This was at Verna’s brother’s country store near Swartberg, in Natal in the year 1993.

The store consisted of a building with two main sections — the shop itself, of course, and the storage area where bulk goods were kept. Round the inside three walls of the shop were shelves displaying all manner of goods, from Chappies chewing gum to face creams, scarves and shoes. The variety was endless. Apart from the counter itself, all the goods were behind protective wiring to minimise shoplifting, but which nevertheless still happened, despite the sharp eyes of us shopkeepers.

The store was as much a meeting place as a shop for people from far and wide — particularly from the Transkei, as it was then, which had its border with Natal just 200 metres down a precipitous track from the store to the Umzimvubu River. They would meet in groups both in the store and on the stoep outside, exchanging news in such stentorian tones as to lift the roof off its rafters.

But the real fun was when the beer truck arrived. It was the much-loved millet-brewed stuff which came in large, 20-litre plastic drums with screw tops which had vents for brewing gasses to escape. The truck, fully laden with perhaps 30 drums, would negotiate the rough roads and tracks with its seriously shaken load of beer furiously letting off gas and foam like Stephenson’s Rocket at full steam. This would settle down after offloading but sometimes late at night we would hear the hissing and bubbling still going on in the dark depths of the storeroom.

We had a doctor come down and hold a clinic once a month. He would drive from Kokstad with a male nurse/driver and set up in one of our little outside rooms as his clinic. His coming was never certain until the day he intended to arrive, when he would phone ahead to see if we were okay with it. But somehow the populace knew days before and drifted in from far afield to wait patiently from early morning. In about four hours he saw and diagnosed as many as 30 patients at, I think, R5 a person. He dispensed bottles of bright red, green and blue medicines and everyone was happy. We also had the Health Department send two nurses on occasion to vet the general health of the community.

Then one day the army came. We had been notified by the area commander that a troop had to do a patrol along the border (our river) as an exercise. They came in an armoured Ratel, the huge six-wheel armoured car of Angola border fame (or notoriety), surrounded by excited, screaming children as it bounced heavily down our track.

“Sojers! Sojers! Sojers!” they shouted excitedly, not in the least awed by the severe-looking soldiery. The soldiers debussed and camped overnight close to our store and quite happily showed off their armoury, uniforms and radio to a fascinated mixed crowd. We fed them, even though they had army rations, and gave them beer, which they didn’t have. I am not sure how the actual patrol along the river went next morning, but they all came back and mounted the Ratel and with more screaming children running alongside, disappeared in a cloud of dust back to base.

I am not sure if it was seeing these soldiers or hearing stories about serious cattle and sheep rustling in the district that made me decide to join the local commando. They were based in Matatiele, 30 kilometres away. I got issued with shirts, trousers, belt, cap, and bandolier and, of course, an unwearable pair of army boots. I was sworn in and issued with some literature which familiarised me with the commando’s purpose and, strikingly, how to behave correctly and compassionately with the rural community. Of course, a commando isn’t one without his “wapen”. In this case an R1 rifle, which was obsolete in the real army but which was still a powerful semi-repeating rifle with impact. Training was basic and gentle on us.

We were a new draft of four gents whose collective ages were over 250 years. My military post was, of course, at the store premises and I had to be available at a moment’s notice by farm radio, to join any search-and-capture team that would be after poachers from Lesotho or the Transkei itself. The only time I was called to act in a commando-like manner was when the store got robbed.

This robbery occurred just after we had finished our Saturday morning’s trade and were about to close the doors. I had already gone up to the house 100 meters away and was changing while listening with half an ear to the voices coming over the intercom permanently linked to the store. Just then, I heard: “Rob, we’ve got a problem down here” so, thinking we had again run out of change for the till, I took a bank bag with some small change down to the back door of the shop. Just as I reached it, a young man came out with an automatic pointed at me. He grabbed me and forced me into the store to join my brother-in-law, my wife and our counter assistant. Then he bundled us into the store-room and told us to lie face down. We did not do this right away, but then with alacrity after some savage blows breaking three of my ribs and brother-in-law’s jaw. Not a pleasant moment. My wife was forced up to the house to show where the keys to the safe were. She was not abused but tied up. Brother-in-law and I were still face down in the store room and did a spot of praying and rapid confessions in case they decided to shoot us. But after 10 minutes of lying there and no sounds from the thieves, we eventually heard the dulcet tones carolling at us from the door: “What on earth are you two doing lying on the floor?” It was brother-in-law’s wife who had been in the home kitchen while all this was going on, and never heard or saw a thing.

Jumping to our feet we rushed to the farm radio and asked for help. Nursing our wounds, we soon heard vehicles bucketing down our track and, in no time, we had a score of local farmers, their wives, all armed, and some curious local inhabitants. I dashed off for my R1 and joined a four-wheel bakkie full of farmers with firearms sticking out in all directions — like a porcupine. Down to the river and across into the Transkei we went. We guessed the thieves had run there for territorial asylum. My ribs were starting to hurt and with all the rough driving, the pain was getting worse. We did not find them and merely scared some villagers with our noisy coming and going. We heard later that the robbers had just run away from the store and hidden in a nearby copse of trees.

We used to provide the local community with an occasional lift to Swartberg, 20 kilometers towards Kokstad. This was something of an event on pensioners’ day, when the local chief’s old mother came into her own. She was thin as a rake but with a commanding presence and a voice that even had us snapping to attention when she ordered her lesser tribal members to brace up and board the lorry instantly to get their pensions. We nicknamed her Gugela. The old dears arranged themselves on the back with boxes to sit on and many blankets for the cold. Gugela saw her place as being up with the driver, who was usually me. Gugela was very royal, sitting high and straight, inclining her head regally in response to wayside wanderers who waved at our truck full of happy pensioners. At Swartberg our pensioner passengers showed surprising nimbleness as they disembarked and literally melted into the crowds of other pensioners from far and wide, milling around the post office.

This was always a long morning.

A couple of hours later, Gugela would arrive back at the truck and, with a snort of impatience, go off again to round up her subjects. Eventually the counting of heads was completed by Gugela who then summoned me to the cab, and we would be off back home. If you relaxed, adopted a bucolic view and let it all roll slowly over you, it was rather fun. But my wife’s health made it imperative that we return to Pietermaritzburg, so we had to leave.

About the writer



Robin Kirkpatrick is 83 and still standing. He was born in the United Kingdom and came to South Africa in April 1939. He married a Natalian in 1955 and they had two children, one who is now deceased, as is his wife, Verna. He worked in the advertising and publishing business for 60 years, and is now retired and living with his daughter. He is ‘still writing and philatelising’.


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