Gerda was a Dutch girl – unlike Don, who was a Boer, born out of parents who were Boers, the descendents of those who fought the English at Ladysmith. She was not even first generation South African, but at least she wasn’t English and she wasn’t black – both of which counted for a lot to many Boers. When her father first came to this mineral rich country to work as a cutter of rough diamonds in Johannesburg she had already turned 15 – and to South Africa she adapted easily. That was just as well because within 5 years of settling there her parents were both dead, killed as they drove through a game reserve in Natal – their car charged by a rogue bull elephant.
By then Gerda had left school, qualified as a typist and was working for the Ochatingi Mining Company. She loved her job, loved South Africa; and after the death of her parents she could see no reason not to stay. It was when she was working at Ochatingi that Don Steiger came into her life. It was on Company premises and on Company business; and Don Steiger was in front of the Board, needless to say…
He had been summoned to appear before the big bosses because he had gone on a one man protest strike, had folded his arms and, spitting at the feet of the overseer, had refused an order to go down the mine.
Why? Because he objected to the conditions under which his men were being forced to work down there. When the Company did something about improving safety and working conditions then he was ready to go back to work. But not until.
Such a strange mixture, she found him as they grew closer – a physical and rather roughly put together man whose exterior hid a very gentle soul. A man who wouldn’t stand for his Kaffirs being subjected to discriminatory working conditions and their lives put in danger. Yet somehow it never seemed to worry him that working alongside them meant his own life was subjected to the very same dangers as were theirs.
She came to learn that this big man was the heavyweight amateur boxing champion of Pretoria. He had never told her that: She had learned it from Evan Cameron, her boss. As they had grown closer she could see how passionate he was of his craft as an amateur boxer and the tools that went with it: His ring skill and, for such a large man, his lightening footwork and the speed at which, from nowhere, he could throw a whinging punch. He had fought in Pretoria and Johannesburg and as far south as Port Elizabeth. When he fought another white man, his fights were received with great publicity – but, if he was ever matched against a black then the fight had to be held secretly, on the football pitch of some run-down township, out of sight of the law. That was the law and it made him rage: Black or white, a boxer was a boxer: He judged the man by his ring skills, not by the colour of his skin…
She remembered his knocking on the outer door of the office where she sat hammering the keys of a big sit-up-and-beg manual typewriter. He was late of course. The Board was already convened in the adjoining room and they had been waiting for nearly half an hour.
Looking up from her desk she saw this very large Boer who sat himself down opposite her without waiting to be invited. He possessed the largest hands and feet that she had ever seen on a man; and although his face was nicked and scarred she actually found him rather handsome. Overawed by the size of him, she had said, “Obviously, you are Mr. Don Steiger.”
He nodded, telling her, “Ja, I am Don Steiger; and Don Steiger has come to have a little chat with the Board.”
It sounded as if it was he who had summonsed the big brass to appear before him rather than the other way round; and her mouth fell open in surprise. Sounding nervous, all she could say was, “Right… then I’ll tell them that you’re here.”
“Ja, dankie,” he said. “But don’t let them know that I’m going to read them their horoscopes.”
She thought, not only does he look like a fighter but he talks like a fighter too; and she had no idea how true that was.
Blinking, as if he hadn’t seen her properly before, suddenly he said, “Hey! You are a choty goty, aren’t you?”
She couldn’t help smiling; and when he continued, “No, I mean it: You’re a real pretty bokkie,” she knew it was intended as a compliment; and although it made her blush she didn’t mind: he wasn’t trying to pull her.
Not then anyway.
Brusquely she had picked up her folders; and it was as she was moving towards the inner door she saw the surprised look on his face when he saw that she was wearing Dutch clogs – real wooden clogs.
She came to tease him about that, when he would respond by telling her: “Just you remember that I had never seen a real Dutch doll before I saw you. But with your clogs and your pigtails…” Always, he would shake his head, going on, “…I knew I couldn’t be looking at anything else. I would try and imagine you wearing one of those Dutch hats that look like an upside down tulip, carrying two pails of milk hanging from a yoke off your shoulders…
“Well, that’s how Dutch girls are supposed to look in Dutchland – but you don’t see it so much in South Africa!”
He had been right about his protest: The Board took more punches from Don Steiger than ever they landed on him; and with Evan Cameron, their recently appointed manager, taking his side, all the security lapses of which he complained were quickly rectified…
“We were married before the year was up,” Don told Kingsley. “In a civil ceremony in Pretoria, attended only by my sister Elizabeth, who was Gerda’s maid of honour, and Davey, Elizabeth’s farmer husband. He gave her away and was the best man all in one…”
They lived mostly in the whites’ compound above the township, in something not much better than a rondavel compared to the mine manager’s house. Don was often on call, sorting problems around the mine. But whenever there was a free weekend they would drive south to ‘Friesland’, the bungalow in Tembisa that Gerda had inherited from her parents.
“…And when holiday time came,” he told Kingsley, “we would happily make the long drive to Davey and Elizabeth Smith’s farm on the Orange River.”
No one could say that they were not a well suited couple or, the absence of children apart, that they were not happy.
“The deeds of five black people,” he told Kingsley, “all of them dead now, executed by hanging, put an end to that. The tsotsis robbed Davey’s farm. They raped Elizabeth, raped my wife and killed her – and my brother-in-law as well…
“I suppose you could say that was when everything changed for me. If people had thought of me as ‘Mr. Nice Guy’, they knew that now I was changed. I used to ask myself ‘what was the point?’ What was the point of pretending to be nice when, inside, I was full of hate?
“I guess that at that moment I became a monster…
“I hated blacks so much, Kingsley, that I even refused to box with them any more. Everybody said I’d lost my nerve but I knew better – I knew that if I had found myself in the ring with any black man I wouldn’t have stopped hitting him until I had killed the fucker; and I swear that as long as I had breath in my body that’s what I would have done. Boxing shouldn’t be like that, not full of hate.”
Kingsley, pressing his hands tightly against his stomach, said, “Ag, Don Steiger Baas. That is a big thing for any man to live with and not have hate eating him up inside;” and Don retorted, “I’m telling you the bile in my gut would have burned a hole in this rock if it had drained out. I’ve hated every black in the whole of Africa ever since then.”
Then, with a humility that Don Steiger knew he hadn’t shown since the murder, he added, “Although just know that I don’t hate you, Kingsley – there’s something about you that makes me feel different about blacks, Man.”
Pensively, Kingsley said, “A Bantu who was not a Christian would speak to the witchdoctor about these matters. Then he would say he felt cured, that the witchdoctor has burned away his hate…
“But me, I would speak to God. God always burns away my hate – even when I tell Him the hate I have for white men because of what they are doing to my country. Then God tells me, Kingsley, there are good white men and bad white men; and there are good black men and bad black men…
“So, do you speak to anyone of this dreadful thing?” Kingsley asked him.
“Do I speak about it? No! Who should I speak to about it?” Steiger asked.
“Perhaps it would be good if, even here, you could talk? If you think so, then this black man can listen.”
Perhaps it would be good if he could talk? Don Steiger had never talked to anyone about it – not since he had stood up in court and shouted at the Judge that hanging was too good for these five black robbers. They had forcibly removed him from the courthouse – although it had taken six policemen to do it.
It seemed a bit like making a last confession; and his words came slowly at first…
“My sister, Elizabeth Smith, and her husband Davey, were very close to Gerda and me. We were bonded by blood, by marriage and most of all by spirit. A Bantu would say we were joined at the hip…”
Understanding that, Kingsley nodded.
On the Orange River, below the Augrabies Falls, Davey and Elizabeth Smith’s farm, couldn’t be much further from Pretoria. By road, the geographical distance between their homes was some six hundred miles – and Don had his shifts down in the mine and David worked on his farm for all the hours that God ever gave a farmer. Still, whenever holidays came they made every effort to visit each other, relaxing, catching up and enjoying each other’s company.
Gerda loved going to the place that was farmed by Don’s sister and her English husband. The great falls may have been some thirty miles from the farm but when the wind came from the east you could hear the thunder of cascading water as it plunged over the ledge and rose up again in great spumes of spray: spray that would carry on the wind so that you could feel moisture on the skin. The land around might largely be like a craggy moonscape, but in those places where it could be cultivated, the grasses were lush and green at every season, making it a great place to rear cattle. She was mesmerised by the hypnotic sound of the falls; and at night she would leave their bedroom window wide open so that their distant sound would lull her to sleep. There was no danger.
Don’s delight was wandering the length and breadth of the farm, envying Davey his wide open spaces – refreshing compared with the claustrophobia of working down a mine. He was fit then; and he took great pleasure in helping his brother-in-law out in jobs those jobs Davey couldn’t trust to the farm boys.
Usually they would drive the long journey to the farm in Don’s Holden truck, the luggage chucked in the back. They took a tent and broke the seventeen hour journey, camping off-road overnight. Always they chose the same small koppie for their stopover. From the top of this hill on a clear evening you could see the Orange River; and even when the tent was in a shroud of mist, lying in their sleeping bags they could still hear its thundering as it surged along its course to the Atlantic.
But on shorter visits they would take the steam train to Upington, where Davey or Elizabeth would meet them in the farm truck and drive them, all squashed into the cab, for the last sixty five miles to the farm.
When the robbery took place Don hadn’t gone with Gerda and she went by train, alone: There had been a problem down the mine and, having put her on the train in Pretoria, he stayed to try to sort it out. Often he wondered, had he gone with her, would he now also be dead, have preceded their killers who went to their own internment in the clay of the burial ground outside Upington prison? Or perhaps he and Davey would have managed to foil them, the Tsotsis? Then everything would be the same: Gerda wouldn’t be dead, Davey wouldn’t be dead; and Elizabeth wouldn’t have endured being raped, once, twice, five times even, whilst the Tsotsis shot Davey and then shot Gerda too. The only reason Elizabeth hadn’t been shot, she told him when he used to visited her in the psychiatric hospital in Pretoria, was because one of the Tsotsis was busy raping her when a deranged member of the gang, crazy with power and with dagga, opened fire…
Elizabeth met Gerda at Upington – much embracing and laughter on the platform before they lugged Gerda’s rather extensive luggage outside and bunted up into the back of the truck. Gerda’s cases were not just extensive – she had treated herself to new luggage, so they looked quite expensive, too. Had some passer by or some idling watcher’s gaze fallen on them? Had someone with nothing better to do, wasting time away on the hot street outside, spotted the cases being loaded onto the back of the farm truck and begun a chain of thought that ended in the horrible crime? Nothing of that had come out at the trial, but often Don wondered.
Much gossip exchanged too, as the girls negotiated the long dusty old journey back up to the farm: The only pauses were when Elizabeth, checking in mid flow, would catch Gerda’s arm and point to something, some big cat indulging itself on the warmth of a rocky outcrop, or a herd of Eland stampeding from a danger that to the watchers in the truck remained unseen. As they drove and Gerda was captivated by the passing scenery, Elizabeth took an inquisitive look down at her sister-in-law’s waistline. Did she see signs of developments?
Gerda caught her at it and, folding her hands over her stomach, with an ecstatic smile she told her sister-in-law, “Yes, at last we really think a little stork has come home to roost. After taking all this time trying to start a family it just has to be a miracle.” Touching Elizabeth’s arm she said, “But we’re being cautious and not making any big announcements just yet.”
It was such a happy day. As Elizabeth drove the last five miles through forest, up the dirt track that led to the farm, Gerda clapped with delight when a flock of flamingos rose up protesting from the surface of the lake that supplied the farm with its water. She loved this last bit of the journey the best: You would emerge from a plantation of wattle trees where impala often grazed and where, when the trees were in flower, one had to brush away wild bees and other insects feasting on the nectar. Then suddenly you were out in the open again – your progress monitored by the soulful gaze of Davey’s placid Brahma cattle. And then the first sight of the clapboard covered ranch bungalow with Wisteria growing up and spreading along the front –this was the farmhouse, always welcoming.
They bumped slowly along the last of the track, dust rising up behind them; and, reaching the yard where, parking up, Gerda could hear the familiar throb of the generator that gave them their heat and light, coming from around the back.
They went inside. Davey was out somewhere on the farm. Maybe he spotted the dust rising up behind the approaching truck, but he was back within minutes, apologising for not being at home to welcome them. He gathered up Gerda’s cases from the back of the pickup, beat himself with his hat to shake off the dust clinging to him and, inside the house, he picked his sister-in-law up, kissing her and then dusting her down too, in case any of the dust he had attracted to himself found its way on to her.
“Same room, little sister-in-law,” he told her, taking the cases and preceding her down the hallway. “Would you like me to send a message down to Augrabies and ask them to telephone Don?”
Gerda was grateful. There was no telephone out at the farm. Augrabies lay some fifteen miles below them; and if they needed to contact the outside world then it was done on the radio, communicating with friends in either Augrabies or Upington, who would pass messages back and forth for them. Gerda gave her brother-in-law a message for Don, letting him know she had arrived safely and that she loved him. After a few moments Davy, knocking on her bedroom door, shouted, “Message back from Ochatingi. Don says don’t get up to too much mischief!”
Communication was primitive, but it worked.
“I’m off to take a shower,” Davy shouted through the door. We’ll meet for a drink before dinner at five. Dining at six – partridge, shot by me yesterday, if that’s okay?”
Gerda knew it would be delicious. She unpacked her cases and took a shower from water that she knew was pumped up from the lake and, through the day, was warmed by the sun in a storage tank that sat on legs round the back of the building – ugly; but the system was effective enough. She dried herself down and put on a three-quarter length evening dress that was light enough to be comfortable without being so revealing; and she returned to join her brother and sister-in-law in the living room. Davy had cooled a bottle of their local Oranjerivier dry white, which had come straight from the vineyards at Upington. They sat, the three of them, catching up on gossip and watching the sun setting – a sun which promptly at half past five dropped behind the distant Groot Karas mountains and left the farm to darkness and the raucous sound of parquets flying home to the nearby trees to roost. A houseboy announced dinner at seven. Davy went round the house securing all the shutters and, the generator purring from behind the house, they turned down the lights and, by candlelight, enjoyed the that Davy had shot on the previous day.
There was a lot of laughter; and at the end of the meal the cook came in to be complimented. Houseboys cleared away and everything seemed normal.
Whilst they took their coffee they talked of this that and the other; and, soon, sleepy and contented, everyone was more than ready to retire to bed…
Dawn breaks around seven in the Northern Cape and, waking, Davey slipped out of bed and, opening the shutters, went to make himself a mug of tea: Possibly one for Elizabeth, and for Gerda too, should there be signs of life from either of them.
In the kitchen the first thing he noticed was that the back door was not only unlocked but was ajar. Careless: The cook slept in an alcove curtained off from the main kitchen but the curtain was pulled back and her bed hadn’t been slept in at all. It didn’t take too much investigation to realise that all the other servants had vanished too.
Leaving the kettle on the hob he came back to the bedroom, scratching his head and saying, “I wonder if they know something that we don’t.”
Still half asleep, Elizabeth turned over in her bed, blinking against a sun streaming through the heavily barred windows of the bedroom.
“Who?” she asked “Is something wrong?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that. But he’s a strange beast, the Bantu: Always acting as if he’s guided by some sixth sense, spirits – and more often than not, you find that he’s not that far wrong…
“They’ve all gone, the servants. I’m just brewing some tea but I guess we shall be making our own breakfast this morning.”
Elizabeth sat up. “You mean,” she asked, her sleepiness suddenly giving way to apprehension, “that they know that there’s something bad about to happen here?”
Davey saw her anxiety: Elizabeth was always apprehensive about living on a farm so far from civilisation and so isolated from any near neighbours. Joking, he tried to assuage her fear.
“I should say more likely they know there’s a good rugby game on in Upington this afternoon and they’ve all taken French leave to go and watch it.”
He could see that hadn’t entirely convinced her.
He took up his keys and slipped out to his office. It had nothing to do with Elizabeth’s apprehension rubbing off on him: it was just to be on the safe side.
He opened the shutters; and the bars on the window, through which the early morning sunshine flowed, diced it into slices, projected, fan-like, across his desk and the inevitable pile of paperwork that covered it. He crossed to the wall where his gun case was fastened and unlocked it. Perhaps he already knew what he would find: that the guns had gone. Someone had been there before him and his shotgun and his hunting rifle, both had gone. Returning to his desk, he unlocked the top right hand draw and in his haste, pulled it out so violently that it came free from the runners, its contents spilling out over the floor. He didn’t know why he was in such a hurry because, for certain, he knew he would find that his revolver would be missing too.
Through the barred window he could see across the yard to the nearest kraal – into which his cattle should have been driven by now, standing patiently, ready for milking. He saw that the kraal gate was standing open. There were no cattle there and no herdsmen in sight.
He returned to their bedroom, where he told his wife, “I think you’ve gone and got me spooked too, Lizzy. But just to be on the safe side, I’m going to check the locks on all the windows. If I were you, I’d get up and get dressed sooner rather that later; and don’t alarm her – but I’d go and wake Gerda, too.”
As he was checking the windows, he heard Elizabeth scream from the direction of Gerda’s bedroom: a scream of fear, a statement that there was real danger…
A paperweight was the heaviest thing he saw ready to hand and, grabbing it, he raced across the hallway to where his wife, her hands covering her face, stood at Gerda’s bedroom door. The bars on her bedroom had been forced and two blacks were in the room, one holding a revolver, his revolver, at Gerda’s head whilst the other clawed at her pyjamas, trying to remove them. Davey’s instincts were quick. The black man with the gun was the threat – and even now he had turned weapon away from Gerda, towards him. Davey hurled the paperweight – not at the man’s head but at his chest: Junior County cricketer, Rugby player, Cambridge blue in athletics – all of those things; but it was a long time ago and a long throw: he wasn’t going to trust aiming for the head.
Elizabeth saw the lump of polished rock smack hard into the chest of the gun toting black, hitting him somewhere just beneath the heart. The man gasped. Snarling with pain and fury he dropped the weapon and dropped to his knees along with it. Then as a blur she saw her husband launch himself at the man, following his projectile.
God! It was the gun that he should be going for – the gun, not for the man!
“The gun! Go for the gun!” she shouted urgently. But she was too late.
Horrified, she saw her husband airborne in true Twickenham half-back fashion. He launched himself across the room, his shoulder ramming into the side of the assailant, who was now trying to regain his feet.
Why hadn’t Davey gone for the gun? It was a fatal mistake. After that everything was horribly predictable: As if in slow motion she watched the other robber let go of Gerda and gather up the gun. Screaming, “No, no!” she threw herself at him, clawing at his face and eyes – only to be easily thrown off. She never saw the second robber positioning himself for a clear line of sight as her husband and the other struggled with each other on the floor – but she heard the shot; and when she looked up it was to see her husband’s head jerk back as the bullet entered the side of his head.
Then the two girls heard the back door being broken down: There was just one crash with the heavy beam their assailants had found behind the barn; and four more Tsotsis fell into the room behind it.
At least Davey never had to witness his wife and Gerda being raped. Two of the robbers, catching the Dutch girl by her arms, threw her back onto the bed; and two others dragged Elizabeth to her own bedroom. Elizabeth could hear Gerda moaning in the next room as she was herself thrown down on her bed and, with her clothing not even fully removed, she felt the black one-eyed snake of the first assailant burrowing between the folds of her vulva and she smelled kaffir beer and dagga from a mouth the teeth of which were embedded greedily into her cheek. Then there was a scream from Gerda’s room and another shot. The man raping her paused in mid thrust for a moment and said something to the other, who went to investigate. Returning, he said something in Swati and her rapist continued on his journey to fulfilment. Then they changed places…
“They shot Gerda,” Don told Kingsley. “The police say that she managed to break free just enough to take a massive bite out the hand of her attacker. That wound convicted them. When he screamed at the pain, the one with him shot her point blank…
“My sister Elizabeth went mad and no one could blame her. She spent nearly a year shut up in an asylum – although she is out now…
“That, Kingsley, is when I changed. When once I had despised my fellow Afrikaaners for their attitude to the blacks, I changed: I came to hate every fucking black man in Africa.”
For some time Kingsley’s head had been lowered. Now he raised it. “I cry for you,” he told Steiger. “I cry for you – and I cry also for all of South Africa.”
He didn’t try to explain that. There was no point. White or black, right or wrong, within the law or beyond the pail – no one could give any answers and certainly not a simple Bantu: The whole business was just too bloody complicated; and South Africa, bleeding freely from its self inflicted wounds, was just too complicated too…