A country imagined, but not reality.
| John no.2 nervously watched the shadows creeping over the ridges of the purple Maluti Mountains. From where he sat in the rickety chair on the stoop of his red clay shack, he could see the darkness flooding over the whole farm. He was sure it was coming for him. When he begged for more time, the Old Boss in the sky squeezed his chest a little tighter. The elderly black man could not help but feel that his long life seemed very small.
He sighed, looking at everything that did not belong to him. He did not own the beautiful land that he was admiring. It was carpeted with golden grasslands and bordered on three sides by the grand mountains, which were now completely swallowed by the night. The fields, cordoned off by neat wire fences on both sides, were lined with maize plants that stood much taller than he did. Black and white patch cows walked lazily around. A lonely dust twister danced through his pale township. He watched the younger farm workers in their tattered hand-me-downs return from a day of thankless manual labour.
The fruitful land was the property of the rich white man they all called Boss Paul Farrell. Even John no.2’s red clay shack with the straw roof that was connected to the two red clay shacks of his two wives and fifteen insolent children belonged to the boss. For eighty-eight years John no.2 was the property of Farrell Farms. He did not even own his name. His boss had numbered him like the cattle, because it was easier to remember than his Sotho name. The only thing that truly belonged to John no.2 was the walking stick he rested his tired bones on. He had proudly carved the Basotho patterns on its head when his fingers still behaved as if they belonged to him. His body was frail and his brown skin was thin. His once shiny black hair and bright black eyes turned grey. The Old Boss in the sky had a tight grip on his failing heart.
He was only a ghost of the strong young man who dutifully spent his days driving tractors and planters sometimes right through the night. It did not bother him that the pay was little and that Boss Paul worked him like a piece of equipment. He was proud to do his thankless job. Being a humble farm worker was what the Old Boss in the sky wanted him to do. Blessed are the meek. He believed it without question, because the pastor had told him so and the pastor was a clever man.
He had not always been a servant. When they were children, Boss Paul was just his chubby, blond friend. They were not yet aware that one was considered more human. Days were filled with boyhood adventures. Back at the Farrell mansion Paul always entered through the front door and John no.2 would run around to the kitchen where he knew the Madam would give him a thick slice of stale bread if Mr. Farrell was not around to see. Times changed and soon John no.2 was just the farm hand’s son. He grew up to be just the farm hand who was not allowed to look in the blue eyes of his better-fed former friend.
The old man shook his head as his thoughts jumped back to the sly shadows that were now almost grabbing his bare toes. He lifted his bony body from the chair and stabilized himself on his walking stick. He proceeded to scuffle inside reluctantly. He knew what was waiting for him in the communal area between his shacks. Betty, who he was forced to marry, was an evil woman. The short round creature with the beady glare stood up from the fire with great difficulty. She was never short of reasons to complain. She huffed and puffed as she wiped her fat fingers on the worn apron that she wore over her only faded blue dress. She breathed deeply as she ran through her list of insults and demands.
“So, you stupid old fool, what has Mandela done for us today?” she mocked. “I burnt the pap and you must cut firewood or we will all die.”
John no.2 looked at the porridge in the cast iron pot. It was always porridge. At least, the burning would make it taste different. It was this unwavering optimism about everything in his minor life that made him the town-crazy. Others had the hope beaten out of them by the hard knock life of blacks on farms. They had no use for optimism.
“We are all going to die of cold tonight, because your lazy son is drinking beer at Katlego’s house again.”
John no.2 did not like Katlego. With his bold Mandela shirts that sat tightly over his 50-year old beer belly, gold earring, and cell phone always on his ear, he looked too much like the gangsters who kidnapped children to sell their body parts in Qwa-Qwa. John no.2 was sure that he was capable of doing anything for money. Katlego, in turn took every chance he could to remind John no.2 of what a hopeful old idiot he thought he was. John no.2’s trust in Mandela and a new South Africa gave Katlego, Betty and everyone who knew his dreams the sticks with which to poke him.
When Mandela was released from prison they all gathered around Katlego’s battery operated radio. It was the only one in town, because no one else could afford one and they did not have electricity. Boss Paul had promised to have the township connected to the grid when Mandela was elected, but sixteen years on only John no.2 was still waiting. They listened to the election and the bright promises for a new life. To John no.2’s mind, nothing was impossible. A black man was president. Up was down, poor was rich, black was just as good as white.
For sixteen years, he kept his unfailing belief. However, things did not work that way. The president never came to the Free State and things never changed. Food was still pap. White people were still superior and black people still worked like slaves. One by one, John no.2 had to give up his ideals. Only to the people of the township, he always stayed positive. He was the senile old man who walked bent over his walking stick and greeted everyone with a smile. Young people greeted him respectfully with their eyes to the ground and addressing him as Ntate, which means father. They showed their true feelings when he turned around. Behind his back he could hear them chuckle and he knew they were poking fun at him, walking bent over and mumbling strange things.
In his own mind, he was not even really a man, because men had respect and admiration when they reached a certain age. They were treated like sages and their words became law. When they closed their eyes forever, they were honoured with weeklong funerals. Families celebrated and gave money to buy meat for a feast. All John had were giggles and disdain. He was sure that if his lights went out Betty would just throw him away and continue stirring the pap.
Even as he saw each little piece of possible humanity die, one dream would not let go of him. He kept his faith in the man he knew as a friend once. As the years went by John no.2 whittled down his dreams to just one more realistic wish. He dreamed of the day that he would be able to turn on a light in his shack. He had visions of himself sitting by a heater watching soccer on a TV. Betty would bring him food that she cooked on a stove. Old men deserved those small mercies.
His dream was fuelled each time they visited his youngest cousin Simphiwe at his own house in Qwa-Qwa. Simphiwe looked almost exactly like John no.2, but younger and in better clothes. He sat on a comfortable chair in front of his own TV when they visited. When nighttime fell, John no.2 was the first to switch on the lights in his cousin’s house. Flicking the switch, to turn a light on, was a powerful feeling of which he could not get enough.
The TV said many things that John no.2 could not understand. Equal rights, constitution, and right of residence were things that the modest farm worker could not comprehend. He watched in fascination. Simphiwe’s granddaughter, a teacher, talked about employee rights in smaller words and John was suddenly enabled and aware of his human rights. He did not yet know what to do. Would he attempt to speak to his boss? Would he be able to get up from his station in life and reach a little higher?
In the communal area, his wife’s words faded away and he could only see her mouth moving. He made a decision. It was not right that his burnt food was cooked on a fire. It was not right that they had to make a fire inside the shack that made everyone cough and did not really make anyone warm. It was not right that they had to light candles, with which his old eyes could barely see. It was not right that after a life of being completely powerless he did not even know what Mandela had delivered and that he was not eccentric.
Something had to be done to bring his village into the New South Africa. He was Ntate of the people and the responsibility was his. The Old Boss in the sky was clutching his heart and his window was small. He could not go to sleep forever without any of the liberties he believed in beyond question and despite ridicule. He dragged himself to Katlego’s house to borrow a Mandela shirt. Katlego’ eyes glittered with something that John had never experienced before. With the younger man’s admiration, he walked a little taller like the great Madiba himself.
When he came back through the opening in the communal area, Betty was still stirring burnt pap and cursing the heavens and her husband. She turned around and looked at her aged man, who seemed more certain of himself than ever before. She wanted to speak, but he waved her silent.
“Betty,” he started, “I am an old man. My heart is tired. I don’t have things. I have been a good and loyal servant, but I am nothing more. I am going to march to the boss’s house. He promised us a thing and today I am going to get it from him. I learnt that I can take him to court if he does not listen. Today John will not stand by the kitchen door and beg. He will walk into the house and sit on a chair, because he is an equal. It is my human right.” He exhaled and watched as Betty shook her head in agreement, strangely silent.
But, the Old Boss in the sky had his own timeline and no man’s cause is big enough to retire the hand of God. The Old Boss made a demand on his heart again and this time He was resolute. He grabbed, wrenched, and kept holding on so tightly that John had to sink to his knees on the dusty floor. The last thing he saw as he lay his head down was Betty’s worried face coming towards him and then he knew that something was dreadfully wrong.
The place he woke up in did not smell like smoke and the walls were not made from clay. This was not heaven or hell, but a hospital. People were friendly and his wives and Katlego came to visit him. Their worried faces made his ill heart feel confused but warmer. Betty spoke first and her quiet manner made him think that something worse was wrong.
“Ntate, you know they say the Old Boss works in strange ways.” She said and smiled which confused John more. “You know, Boss Paul is sick old man too. He is here!” She said excitedly and pointed to the ceiling.
“He said to say that his old friend must not worry. He said that he will pay for the hospital,” Katlego frowned at John. “Now, Ntate tell me true, is this our Lord’s second coming? Lions with lambs and all the things of the Bible? How can the white boss call you friend?”
John had a tough time explaining how things used to work. Whilst he was speaking, his mind was always on his boss upstairs. He would have to see him, and finish his quest. The Old Boss had given him the window he had asked for. He grabbed his chance and another patient’s walking frame and moved slowly upstairs. John was surprised to see that Boss Paul’s room looked exactly like his own. He was even more surprised that the man he knew was not the one he found there. Of the once heavy body almost just the frame and a tiny bit of white hair, was left. He was all alone.
“Look at us,” his Boss smiled. “We are falling apart.”
John smiled then marshalled all his courage and found it easy to speak with his boss so horizontal and captive.
“Paul… my boss, I am a good Christian soldier. I believed that my God would give to me, not treasures on earth, I never prayed to be a rich man, but at least the things that most everyone has. I believed it was God’s work when you promised us electricity, and people treated me badly because of it. But, once I knew you as a good man and I still believe it. I ask you please my boss, connect us so that we don’t suffer so much anymore. Please, Please.”
His friend did not answer and John searched his face. Paul turned away and spoke almost in a whisper.
“I’m selling the farm, John.” He sighed deeply.
John felt the shivers go down his beaten body and rest in his knees so that he had to stumble backwards to a chair. Before he could speak the questions running through his troubled mind, the other man whispered again.
“I am alone in this world. I can not take care of this body, much less a whole farm.” He paused and looked at the man in the chair. “I have not been a good Christian soldier. I have done un-Christian things. When I get up there, I know the Lord will not be happy with my life. He has already taken my son’s love. The boy can’t wait for me to die. Now the Lord is slowly granting his wish. I have nothing left but a little bit of my self-respect. That’s why I ask for your forgiveness.”
John’s ailing body ballooned with pride. His centre panged a little, because his one wish could not come true, but it was shadowed by the power that he felt. To him the Old Boss had made the impossible happen again. The white man, who had always looked down on him from his superior location, was asking him for something that belonged to only him. His forgiveness was his to give away and as a man of God, he could not refuse.
“I forgive you.” He whispered, smiled and turned the walking frame to leave the room. It was enough.
Back in his shack, life was much different for John. Betty barred him from moving. He thought she was trying to prevent the seven-day funeral. Everyone was worried about the future. When they heard that Boss Paul did not make it out of the hospital, they all waited for their only home to be sold out from under them. Confusion reigned one day when a young white man with the neat brown haircut and smart collared shirt appeared at the door in front of Betty.
“Uhm…uhm is Mr. Phakiso here ma’am?” he asked frozen in her fiery stare.
Betty could not help but lead him inside. No one had ever called her ma’am before. The man came to stand next to John’s bed with his hands folded respectfully in front of him.
“Yes, Boss?” John asked with the usual tone of a second-class citizen. The young man smiled, then frowned, then waved wildly with his hands.
“Oh, no please sir, don’t call me that! This is the New South Africa. We’re here to do the measurements. We’ll start digging the holes for the wires tomorrow. So you are my boss.” He smiled and inspected the still confused faces.
“Come again? What wires? What holes? What measurements?” Betty interrogated as usual.
The young man spoke very slowly and directly to Betty. She looked very threatening.
“For the electricity ma’am. A clause in the testament of the late owner stated that his son could have his money if he kept the farm and connected this village to the grid, starting with the house of Mr. Phakiso.”
So the young man’s team went about their business of measuring and digging and wiring and connecting and John received thankful visitors and their children. Everyone kept their eyes on the ground and respectfully wished him well. John enjoyed these courteous moments, because every day the Old Boss had a tighter grip on his heart.
On the night that the electricians left, Betty ran to John’s room as excited and light footed as a young girl. She giggled and switched on the first light in the shack. At first, she was shocked. Then the stately smile on her old man’s expired face made her proud. She immediately began planning a seven-day celebration worthy of a Ntate.