South Africa is a land of immigrants. During the first quarter of the nineteenth century, black tribes were moving from Central Africa, southwards, down the East Coast while white Dutch settlers from the Cape of Good Hope were moving northwards to escape British rule. The Hottentots and particularily, the Bushmen, the original natives of the country, streamed into the arid areas of the Khalahari to escape genocide.

Many battles were fought between the black tribes and the white migrants as they met head on in their migration. The Voortrekkers, as the Dutch migrants were now called had many of their pioneers killed as they confronted Dingaan’s Zulu empire, but their superior weapons eventually allowed them to overcome the native tribes. They settled in the broad and empty veldt of the Transvaal and Free State. The land was uninhabited, and they laid their claim as they staked their farms. It was during one of these treks that Brakenstroom was founded on the banks of the willowed  Brak River; a river which lazily meandered through the red fertile soil offering the farmers plenty of water. They divided the rich veldt amongst themselves (one days horse ride defining the boundaries of each farm) and began to extensively farm the veldt between the koppies (small hills) that formed the rich fertile valley that became Brakenstroom.

As the infrastructure of the Boer Republik developed, Brakenstroom became a base for exploration into the interior with hundreds of adventurers and prospectors streaming through the town as they explored the surrounding countryside. Diamonds had been found at Kimberly and there was always the possibility of another great diamond find. When gold was discovered on the Witwatersrand ninety-two miles away, and the golden city of Johannesburg was still a congregation of prospector tents, Brakenstroom boomed.

Most of the Jewish emigrants from Europe travelled to America, but the few that came to South Africa were more adventurous, lured by the stories of enormous wealth. Very few made their fortunes on the gold and diamond fields. Most prospered in businesses to service the prospectors and the families that followed them.

This book is a collection of short stories about Brakenstroom and a few of its inhabitants. These are stories that the author heard from his parents and their friends. All are based on truth but in most instances, a number of personalities have been merged to create a single character, for example the story about Meish is actually the story of three different men. Life in Koster and the events leading to Koster were the experience of one friend, who relived them while walking on Muisenberg Beach. The story about Emmie, the mayor’s wife and the story of the hearing aid belong to another eccentric of the town, who has even more remarkable stories to his name, while the kidnapping with its earlier events in the Shtetl belong to yet a third unforgettable character.

Notably absent in this book are stories about the black Africans of South Africa. There are plenty of stories that can be told, but I can only touch on the pathos and drama that every black person felt by living in South Africa. To the white South Africans, they were the shadows that kept the house clean, cared for the children, and worked in the fields and gardens. Under white supervision and with white engineers the black Africans built the cities and towns and worked the mines that brought the country tremendous wealth. Without white technology the black tribes may have remained a tribal empire, warring among each other. With white technology and the oppressive master slave ideology that came with the whites, black Africans became users, rarely innovators.  Although they were granted a limited education, they were never given true opportunity, the cornerstone of a viable democracy. It has been said that the greatest tragedy of Africa was colonialism, and the second greatest tragedy was when the colonialists left. One has only to look at Africa today to see that with Independence came poverty, hardship, starvation and in many cases civil war with the slaughter of millions of innocents. South Africa has yet to prove otherwise, but it’s large white population, many fourth, even fifth generation South Africans may be pivotal in preventing the gradual degradation found in the rest of black Africa.

The reader should remember that at the time these stories took place, Hendrik Verwoerd had not yet become Prime Minister, and the hated apartheid laws that he implemented were not an official part of South African legislation, although racial discrimination was rife and legislation of a discriminatory kind did exist. The black man and the brown man that lived in this pluralistic society were regarded as inferior to the white Baas.   Mahatma Gandhi, in the period he lived in South Africa, sharpened the passive resistance knife that he used so effectively in India, on a South African wet-stone.            

The Boers never colonised South Africa. They simply took it because it was empty and “up for grabs.” It was Britain’s Cecil John Rhodes who, in establishing a financial empire in Southern Africa forced Britain to protect his assets and conquer the Boers in the Anglo Boer war. The war changed many traditions in the British army. Redcoats were exchanged for khaki uniforms as their soldiers were easy targets for Boer sharp shooters. Concentration camps that imprisoned under ghastly conditions, women and children of the Boer Commando were created because they cared for and fed their husbands and sons while in the field. For the first time in the history of warfare, innocents were confined behind barbed wire and the poor conditions and a shortage of food in the camps led to the deaths of thousands of Boer women and children. The hate that was nourished in these camps against England and everything that was English was the reason why South Africa very nearly entered the Second World War on the side of the Germans. During the Boer War, the Zulus, Xosas, Tswanas, Soesoetoes, Matabeles and other smaller tribes were the spectators.   

In the story “Hettie,” blacks are mentioned for the first time, and then as heroes and heroines.  They saved a young white girl’s life. This is the role black women played in white society - they were the comforters, the alternate mothers, and the wet nurses. They were loved, hated, abused and discarded, but they were never feared. Fear only came after their liberation and yet in all the years of terrorist warfare, when they fought for their independence, they never ever attacked or hurt one white child even though they had plenty of opportunity.

Today, they abhor being patronised, yet many of the older blacks still rely on the pensions paid to them monthly by their white employers, and they and their families expect and believe they deserve it as due payment for a lifetime of loyalty.

Are there more stories to be told? Yes, there are plenty more, as there are in any small town in South Africa. There is still the story to be told of Wendy and John, of Helen and Christopher, and of Mary. There is also the story of Chris and Selma, telling how Chris returned as a ghost with a message to Selma after he had died, and there is the tragic story of Harry, the man who never went outside. These are however, stories for another book.

Jacob Singer                                                                                                                August 6, 1997.