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Chapter VI Our Indebtedness to White Women O woman! in our hours of ease Uncertain, coy, and hard to please, And variable as the shade By the light quivering aspen made; When pain and anguish wring the brow, A ministering angel thou. Scott. Some farmers (unfortunately too few) who had at first intended to change the status of their native tenants, had been obliged to abandon the idea owing to the determined opposition of their wives. One such case was particularly interesting. Thus, at Dashfontein, the wife of a Dutch farmer, a Mr. V., on whose property some native families were squatting, got up, one morning, and found the kitchen-maid very disagreeable. The morning coffee had been made right enough, but the maid's "Morre, Nooi" (Good morning, ma'am) was rather sullen and almost bordering on insolence. She did her scullery work as usual, but did not seem to care, that morning, about wasting time inquiring how baby slept, and if Nonnie had got rid of her neuralgia, and so on. She spoke only when spoken to and answered mainly in monosyllables. Mrs. V. was perplexed. "What is the matter, Anna?" she asked. "Nothing, Nooi," replied Anna curtly. Mrs. V. tried some of her witty jokes, but they seemed to be wasted on Anna. After jesting with the servant had failed, scolding was next tried, but nothing seemed to bring back the girl's usual cheerfulness. "Oh, Anna," said the mistress at length, "you make me think of the olden days, when such disagreeable whims on the part of frowning maids used to be cured by ----" Anna was evidently not listening, and, if she had heard the mistress, she did not care two straws (or one straw for that matter) what cures Mrs. V.'s great-grandmother had prescribed for sullen servant girls. In fact, Anna had become a wild Kafir, for though she went about her work in silence, her face bore an expression which seemed to speak louder than her mouth could have done. She was clearly engaged in serious thought. The mistress tried to dismiss from her mind the inexplicable attitude of her servant, but the frowning look on Anna's face made the attempts unsuccessful. The fact that when Anna went home, the previous night, she was happiness personified, did not decrease Mrs. V.'s perplexity. "There must be something wrong," Mrs. V. concluded, after vainly trying ruse after ruse to get a smile out of her servant girl. "Something is amiss. I wonder if one of those well-dressed Kafirs from Potchefstroom had been prowling about the farm and instilling in Anna's simple mind all kinds of silly notions, about town flirts and black dandies, silk dresses in Potchefstroom and similar vuilgoed (rubbish). And if a town Kafir is going to marry Anna, where on earth am I going to get a reliable servant to whom I could securely entrust my home when I have occasion to go to town or to the seaside on a shorter or longer vacation? Who could cook and attend to my husband's and children's peculiar wants, if Anna is going to leave us? It seems certain that Anna's heart is not on the farm," she said to herself. "It was there right enough when she went home last night, but it is clear that some one has stolen it during the night. Anna is helplessly lovesick. I must find out who it is. The swain must be found and induced to come and join, or supervise, our squatters. We cannot let him take her away, for what will the homestead be without Anna? I was looking forward to her marrying on the farm and giving her a superior cottage so that other Kafir girls may see how profitable it is to be good. Anna leaving the farm, O, nee wat! (Oh, no). We must find out who it is; but wait, there is old Gert (her father) coming, with old Jan (her uncle). I must find out from them who had been intruding into the company of their daughters last night. I should warn them to be on the alert lest Anna elopes to Potchefstroom with somebody, probably to take the train and go farther -- to Johannesburg or Kimberley, as did Klein Mietje, whom I had hoped to train as our housemaid ----" "Good morning, Auta Gert, how is Mietje and the kleintjes (little ones)?" Auta Gert's demeanour was a greater puzzle to Mrs. V. than his daughter's when he replied, "So, so." Mrs. V. (between horns of the same dilemma): "And you, Auta Jan?" "Ja, Missus," replied Jan. Mrs. V.'s perplexity was intense, for it became evident that the two Natives were there as a deputation, charged with some grave mission. Before she uttered another word the two Natives asked for an interview. "Not to waste much time, Missus," began old Gert, "a thunderbolt has burst on the native settlement on the farm, and Dashfontein is no longer a home to us ----" "No longer a home!" exclaimed Mrs. V. "I hope you idiotic Kafirs are not going to be so foolhardy as to leave me, leave the Baas, and leave the farm upon which your fathers and mothers lie buried. Do not you know that during this very week numbers of Natives have been calling on the Baas, asking him for places of abode, complaining that they have been turned adrift, with their little ones and their hungry animals, for refusing to become servants to farmers on whose property they had been ploughing on shares? White men have suddenly become brutes and have expelled Natives with whom they have lived from childhood -- Natives whose labour made the white man wealthy are turned away by people who should treat them with gratitude. And are you going to leave your old home just when the Devil appears to have possessed himself of the hearts of most farmers? In your own interest, apart from my own and the Baas's, Auta Gert, you should have left us long ago when you could find a place elsewhere. Are you so deaf and blind as not to hear and see the change which has come over the country of late? White men formerly punished a Kafir who had done some wrong, now they worry him from sheer cussedness. You must be mad, Auta Gert, to try and leave us. What is going to become of your family and your beautiful cattle. No wonder that Anna is so upset. I have been thinking that some rondlooper (vagabond) from the towns had been trying to take her away." As Mrs. V. spoke she was agreeably surprised to find the sobering effect which her rebuke seemed to have upon her husband's native tenants. She knew her influence over them, especially over the old native families, but in all her dealings and close association with them she could not remember an impromptu speech of hers that produced such immediate results. The faces of the two Natives brightened up, and they kept looking at one another as she spoke. At length she turned round towards the stoep and there was Anna, for the first time that morning, interested in and delighted by what she said. Usually it would have been a serious breach of the rules of the house for Anna to listen when the Missus was speaking about something that did not immediately concern her scullery duties; but Mrs. V.'s satisfaction was unbounded on seeing the bright look on her servant's face, which she had hitherto vainly sought. "Now, you see," said Anna to her father, "I told you it would never happen if the Missus can help it." At this, the men could scarcely suppress a laugh. The Missus looked round again, and said: "Anna, have you Kafirs plotted to fool me this morning? Because I take such a deep interest in your welfare, you have so far forgotten yourselves that you connived with your parents to come over to my house and fool me on my own farm? What is the meaning of all this?" Auta Gert unfolded his story. The Baas was at the native settlement the previous day. He called a meeting of the native peasants and told them of the new law, under which no Kafir can buy a farm or hire a farm. He added that, according to this law, their former relations of landlord and tenants have been made a criminal offence, for which they could be fined a hundred pounds, and he gave them ten days to decide whether they would become his servants or leave the farm. "Go away, Auta Gert; you were dreaming, my husband would never talk such nonsense. You have been with him from childhood, long before I ever knew him, and yet you do not know that my husband is incapable of uttering anything half so wicked?" "He said it was the law, the new law." "Of course you need some stringent measures against the useless, sneaking and prowling loafers, but there is no fear that such laws could apply to Natives like you and Mietje and your children." "But, Nooi, the Baas told us to leave the farm as the law did not permit him to ----" "Get you gone, Auta Gert, he was joking. You must know that the law did not buy this farm. The old Baas purchased it from Baas Philander. I personally helped to add up the number of morgen and to calculate the money, and there was not a penny piece from any Government. Go home, Auta Gert, and leave everything to me, and do not let me hear you saying Dashfontein is no longer your home." "Well, Nooi," assented the Natives with some relief, "if you say it is all right, then it must be so, and we will go back and reap our mealies in peace, and if a policeman comes round demanding a hundred pounds we will tell him to arrest us and take us to the Nooi of the farm. Good-bye, Nooi." "Good-bye, Auta Gert; good-bye, Auta Jan ---- Poor Anna, my dear little maid, why did you not tell Nooi this morning that you were worried over this matter. Really, Anna, I was thinking that you were lovesick. How did poor old Mietje take it? Sadly, did she. Well, I will speak to the Baas about it. He had no business to attempt to bring bad luck over us by disturbing our peaceful Natives with such godless tidings. Tell your mother that Nooi says it will be all right." A few days later, Hendrik Prins, the farm manager in the employ of Mr. V., was due at the native settlement to see the steam sheller at work and also to receive the landowner's share of the produce. Instead of Prins, Mr. V. attended in person. Each Native regarded this unusual occurrence as the signal for their impending eviction and thought that day would see their last transaction with their old master and landlord. Mr. V. counted the separate bags filled with mealies and Kafir corn placed in groups around the sheller. He counted no fewer than 12,300 bags, and knew that his share would total 6,150, representing about 3,000 Pounds gross. Could he ever succeed in getting so much, with so little trouble, if poor whites tilled his lands instead of these Natives? he thought. After all, his dear Johanna was right. This law is blind and must be resisted. It gives more consideration to the so-called poor whites (a respectable term for lazy whites), than to the owners of the ground. He, there and then, resolved to resist it and take the consequences. The grain was all threshed; a number of native girls were busy sewing up the bags, and the engine-driver ordered his men to yoke his oxen and pull the machine away. Mr. V. ordered Auta Gert to call all the `volk' together as he had something to tell them. Auta Gert, knowing the determination of his mistress, did so in confidence that they were about to receive some glad tidings. But the other folks came forward with a grievous sense of wrong. The fact that some Natives on the adjoining property had been turned away three days before and sent homeless about the country, their places being taken by others, who, tired of roaming about and losing nearly everything, had come in as serfs did not allay their fears. Auta Hans was already conjuring up visions of a Johannesburg speculator literally "taking" his Cape shorthorns for a mere bagatelle, as they did to William Ranco, another evicted squatter from Hoopstad. Mr. V., the farmer, mounted a handy wagon hard by and commenced to address the crowd of blacks who gathered around the wagon at the call of Gert. "Attention! Listen," he said. "You will remember that I was here last month and explained to you the new law. Well, I understand that that explanation created the greatest amount of unrest amongst the Natives in the huts on my farm. Personally, I am very sorry that it ever came to that, but let me tell you that your Nooi, my wife, says it is not right that the terms under which we have lived in the past should be disturbed. I agree with her that it is unjust, and that the good Lord, who has always blessed us, will turn His face from us if people are unsettled and sent away from the farm in a discontented mood." (Loud and continued applause, during which Mr. V. took out his pouch of Magaliesburg tobacco and lit his pipe.) "The Nooi," he continued after a few puffs, "says we must not obey this law: she even says, if it comes to physical ejectment, or if they take me to prison, she is prepared to go to Pretoria in person and interview General Botha." (More cheers, during which the Natives dispersed to cart away their mealies amidst general satisfaction.) * * * * * The writer visited Dashfontein in July, 1913, when the above narrative was given him word for word by old Gert. As old Gert narrated the story, Aunt Mietje, his wife, who had had timely notice of the impending visit of the morulaganyi (editor) from her husband (who slaughtered a sheep in honour of the occasion), superintended with interesting expectations over frizzling items in the frying-pan on her fireplace. Her bright eyes, beaming from under her headkerchief, suggested how she must have been the undisputed belle of her day. The rough wooden table was covered with the best linen in the native settlement, and on it were laid some clean plates, and the old yet shining cutlery reserved for special occasions, besides other signs of an approaching evening meal. Having learnt the art from an experienced housewife on whose farm her people were squatting, and improved upon her teaching, she was famous in the neighbourhood for the excellence of her cooking. Her only worry in that department was her seeming lack of success in training her daughters up to her elevation. She is usually sent for when important visitors come to Dashfontein, and would then don her best costume of coloured German print, and carry down with her the spotless apron which Mrs. V. gave her the preceding New Year; and in spite of her advancing years, she would cause Anna, and every other upstart at the homestead, instinctively to play second fiddle to her. And when we suggested that our wife could measure swords (or, shall we say, forks) with her as a cook, she giggled and remembered some white man's proverb about the proof of the pudding being in the eating. After the harrowing experience of the previous week, during which we were forced to see our fellow-beings hounded out of their homes, and the homes broken up; their lifelong earnings frittered away by a law of the land, their only crime being the atrocious one of having the same colour of skin as our own, and finding ourselves suddenly landed on an oasis, the farm of a kind Dutchman and his noble wife, on whose property, and by whose leave, little black piccaninnies still played about in spite of the law, it can be readily understood with what comfort we sat down and did justice to the good things provided by Aunt Mietje. In the course of her preparation every step of hers suggested that she entertained no sort of misprised opinion about her superiority over her compeers; and nothing pleased her better than when she dazzled her husband and family connexions with deeds which proved her superiority over her contemporaries, in everything that tends to make the virtuous and industrious house-wife. She gave a dramatic ending to her husband's narrative when she said -- "Who would have thought that Hannetje, naughty little Hannetje, who was so troublesome when my sister used to nurse her -- who would have thought that she would ever prove to be the salvation of our people? Who ever anticipated that all the strong Boers, on whom we had relied, would desert us when the fate of our whole tribe hung in the balance? Natives have been moving from north to south, and from south to north, all searching at the same time for homes and grazing for their cattle. During the last few weeks the roads were hidden in clouds of dust, sent up by hundreds of hoofs of hundreds of cattle, their owners with them, vainly seeking places of refuge; but in the case of Dashfontein, we reclined on a veritable Mount Ararat, by grace of naughty little Hannetje, whom God in His mysterious foresight had raised up to be Mrs. van V., proprietress of Dashfontein. If my prayers are of any value, God will appoint in heaven a special place for her when she gets there, though, for the sake of our people, I hope that time is very far distant. However, I hope to be somewhere near: in truth, I should like to accompany her, when Elijah's chariot comes for her soul, so as to render her what little aid I can on board, when she soars through unknown tracts of space to the spirit world on high, so that if there be any uncomfortable questions about her maiden vagaries, I may be there to attest that she has since atoned a hundred fold for each, and thus accelerate her promotion. No no, Hannetje is not a Boer vrouw, she is an angel."
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This work (Sol Plaatje, Native Life in South Africa) is out of copyright, but see the Project Gutenberg legal notice.