22 August 1972
In yesterdays Sunday Times, a report from Francistown in
Botswana. Sometime last week, in the middle of the night, a
car, a white American model, drove up to a house in a residential
area. Men wearing balaclavas jumped out, kicked down
the front door, and began shooting. When they had done with
shooting they set fire to the house and drove off. From the
embers the neighbours dragged seven charred bodies: two men,
three women, two children.
The killers appeared to be black, but one of the neighbours heard them speaking Afrikaans among themselves and was convinced they were whites in blackface. The dead were South Africans, refugees who had moved into the house mere weeks ago.
Approached for comment, the South African Minister of Foreign Affairs, through a spokesman, calls the report unverified. Inquiries will be undertaken, he says, to determine whether the deceased were indeed South African citizens. As for the military, an unnamed source denies that the SA Defence Force had anything to do with the matter. The killings are probably an internal ANC matter, he suggests, reflecting ongoing tensions between factions.
So they come out, week after week, these tales from the borderlands, murders followed by bland denials. He reads the reports and feels soiled. So this is what he has come back to! Yet where in the world can one hide where one will not feel soiled? Would he feel any cleaner in the snows of Sweden, reading at a distance about his people and their latest pranks? How to escape the filth: not a new question. An old ratquestion that will not let go, that leaves its nasty, suppurating wound. Agenbite of inwit.
I see the Defence Force is up to its old tricks again, he remarks to his father. In Botswana this time. But his father is too wary to rise to the bait. When his father picks up the newspaper, he takes care to skip straight to the sports pages, missing out the politics the politics and the killings.
His father has nothing but disdain for the continent to the north of them. Buffoons is the word he uses to dismiss the leaders of African states: petty tyrants who can barely spell their own names, chauffeured from one banquet to another in their Rolls- Royces, wearing Ruritanian uniforms festooned with medals they have awarded themselves. Africa: a place of starving masses with homicidal buffoons lording it over them.
They broke into a house in Francistown and killed everyone, he presses on nonetheless. Executed them. Including the children. Look. Read the report. Its on the front page.
His father shrugs. His father can find no form of words spacious enough to cover his distaste for, on the one hand, thugs who slaughter defenceless women and children and, on the other, terrorists who wage war from havens across the border.
He resolves the problem by immersing himself in the cricket scores. As a response to a moral dilemma it is feeble; yet is his own response fits of rage and despair any better?
Once upon a time he used to think that the men who dreamed up the South African version of public order, who brought into being the vast system of labour reserves and internal passports and satellite townships, had based their vision on a tragic misreading of history.They had misread history because, born on farms or in small towns in the hinterland, and isolated within a language spoken nowhere else in the world, they had no appreciation of the scale of the forces that had since 1945 been sweeping away the old colonial world.Yet to say they had misread history was in itself misleading. For they read no history at all. On the contrary, they turned their backs on it, dismissing it as a mass of slanders put together by foreigners who held Afrikaners in contempt and would turn a blind eye if they were massacred by the blacks, down to the last woman and child.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Summertime Copyright © J.M. Coetzee, 2009
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
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