Black History Month Tribute
My maternal grandfather, George Carr, was a member of the ANC and did hard labour for actions he and his fellow members undertook in the 40s and 50s. This piece of writing is my tribute to him. It is part of a fictionalised biography I plan to publish when I’ve completed much research.
“James, why does mother refuse to have Ramona as the cook?”
The brothers, in their new bedroom, were unpacking the box containing the few precious items their mother had allowed them to take from the Cape. James, by the large picture window, eyes focused on the movement of the other boxes making their way into the house turned to 4 year old George. “Mother is of the Zulu people while Ramona is Basotho.”
“But what does that mean?”
Moving over to a recently unpacked stack of books, James began leafing through a hefty atlas. He sat, cross legged on the bare boards and placed the book before him. Without invitation George joined him. James’ positioning clearly indicated a lesson of some sort was about to commence and George loved nothing more than to hear his older brother's erudition on the family and the world in general.
“Once upon a time, the Basotho lived here, and here and here.” James circled various sections of the map in the Free State with his finger. “But then along came Shaka – a big, strong Zulu chief.” James jumped to his feet, legs spread akimbo, chest puffed out, fists on his hips. He towered over George. In an imperious tone, mimicking an African accent his mother would beat him for using, he declared. “These Basotho are a lazy bunch. What they need is a king like myself to make them more productive. I will conquer them and make all their kraals my own.” He flopped back to the floor. “So Shaka got his great army of Zulu warriors together and viciously attacked the kraals of the Basotho.”
Slamming the book shut, James leaned in towards the now kneeling George and whispered conspiratorially. “So that is why the Zulu and Basotho people positively hate each other.” He stood and began shelving books.
Still baffled, George scrambled up and followed his brother. “But mother and Ramona don’t look all that different except Ramona is a bit fatter.”
Turning from the shelf, James stepped over to George and put his hands on his brother's shoulders. “It’s not what people look like which counts for much but what goes on inside them. Now, if we look at mother and father – their appearance is very different – but their thoughts are one; always of the Great British Empire and how to make us more British and less African.”
George tugged his left ear and stuck his tongue out in his effort to understand.
James smiled at his younger brother’s expression. He pulled George over to the bed and sat him down. He raised their two arms up to the light from the window. “I am lighter than you. I favour father's skin tone. But you are more coffee and condensed milk, a combination of mother and father. So my lot in life will always be easier than yours. But if you are able to show your intelligence adequately, then people might forget you are a half breed and see you only as a man.”
His brother's voice had dropped in volume and George heard the final words catch in James' throat. “Don't be sad James, please.”
Clearing his throat James replied, “I am not sad little brother, only trying to explain how the world works.”
George stared in wonder at his brother. How did he know so much? Was it all learnt at boarding school? If that was the case then he couldn’t wait to go to school. He hoped his father would keep the promise he made before the move. He watched James rise and cross to the table which served as desk where he ran his fingers over the ink well. Always an observant child, he noticed his brother's mouth turned down at the edges. James' thoughts were elsewhere. He wanted time alone. This had happened often in the Cape before he went away to school. Only once had he shouted at George to leave him in peace but then had pulled him close and hugged him tight. “I need to be alone wee tike.” James had sounded so much like father it had startled George.
But it meant George knew the signs. So he slipped from the bedroom and left his brother to his musing. Besides, with his new found knowledge of the tensions between the different people in his world he had many battles to plan. It was time to become familiar with his new surroundings, to seek out those nooks and crannies suitable for development into the best of sanctuaries.
And when he encountered the first of the children from the compound who was to become a firm friend, he rattled out, “Zulu or Sotho? Choose.” This type of questioning would become a required process of introduction into the group of children fast becoming a little army at the mine. Before long there were regular mid-morning cries of “I will die defending my kraal you Zulu scoundrel.” and “Die you Sotho dog, die! History declares I will beat you and take your kraal for my own.” When the latest Western was projected onto the side wall of the mine refectory then the following day would resound to cries along the lines of, “Lie still while I scalp you white man.” and “Quick, let us cut the Apache war dogs off at the pass.”
In the throes of play the children forgot they were from one class, tribe or another. The nature of their world was dictated by the books in the curriculum at the mine school and the monthly films they saw. When they sat in the red dust and shared a half loaf of bread, inside cored then stuffed with tender sweet meats or were berated by exasperated mothers at the state of their clothes; then they were one small colourful nation.
Sometimes it seemed to George that the trill of their combined laughter rocked their diamond rich playground, rattled the barbed wire fence of the compound with the capacity to snap individual links, to let the rest of the world in, to let them all out.