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A Dry White Season
By Andre Brink
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Andre Brink
All right reserved.
It all really began, as far as Ben was concerned, with the death of Gordon Ngubene. But from the notes he made subsequently, and from newspaper cuttings, it is obvious that the matter went back much further. At least as far as the death of Gordon's son Jonathan at the height of the youth riots in Soweto. And even beyond that, to the day, two years earlier -- represented in Ben's papers by a receipt with a brief note scribbled on it when he'd started contributing to the schooling of the then fifteen year old Jonathan.
Gordon was the black cleaner in the school where Ben taught History and Geography to the senior classes. In the older journals there are occasional references to "Gordon N." or just "Gordon"; and from time to time one finds, in Ben's fastidious financial statements, entries like "Gordon -- R5.oo"; or "Received from Gordon (repayment) -- R5.00", etc. Sometimes Ben gave him special instructions about notes on his blackboard; on other occasions he approached him for small personal jobs. Once, when some money disappeared from the classrooms and one or two of the teachers immediately blamed Gordon for it, it was Ben who took the cleaner under his wing and instituted inquiries which revealed a group of matric boys to be the culprits. From that day Gordon took it upon himself to wash Ben's car once a week. And when, after Linda's difficult birth, Susan was out ofaction for some time, it was Gordon's wife Emily who helped them out with housework.
As they came to know each other better Ben discovered more about Gordon's background. As a young boy he had arrived from the Transkei with his parents when his father had found employment in the City Deep Mine. And since he showed interest in reading and writing from an early age he was sent to school -- no cheap or easy undertaking for a man in his father's position. Gordon made steady progress until he'd passed Standard Two, but then his father died in a rockfall in the mine and Gordon had to leave school and start working to supplement his mother's meagre income as a domestic servant. For some time he was houseboy for a rich Jewish family in Houghton; later he found a better paid job as messenger for a firm of attorneys in the city, and then as an assistant in a bookshop. Somehow he managed to keep up his reading and the manager of the bookshop, pleased by his interest, helped him to continue his studies. In this way he eventually passed Standard Four.
At that stage Gordon went back to the Transkei. A traumatic experience, as it turned out, since there was no work for him back home, apart from lending a hand with the paltry farming activities of a great-uncle: planting maize, scouring the veld with a lean dog in search of hares for meat, sitting in the sun in front of the hut. He'd left the city because he couldn't stand life there any more; but it proved to be worse on the farm. There was something fretful and desultory in his blood after the years he'd been away. All the money he'd brought with him had gone into lobola -- the dowry for a wife; and barely a year after his arrival in the Transkei he returned to the only place he really knew, Johannesburg, Gouthini. After a brief unsettled spell he landed at Ben's school.
One after another his children were born: in Alexandra, then Moroka, then Orlando. The eldest was Jonathan, his favourite. From the outset Gordon had resolved to rear his son in the traditions of his tribe. And when Jonathan turned fourteen he was sent back to the Transkei to be circumcised and initiated.
A year later Jonathan -- or Sipho, which Gordon said was his "real" name-was back, no longer a kwedini but a man. Gordon had always spoken about this day. From now on he and his son would be allies, two men in the house. There was no lack of friction, since Jonathan obviously had a mind of his awn; but on the main issue they agreed: Jonathan would go to school for as long as possible. And it was just after he'd passed Standard Six and secondary school was becoming an expensive business, that they turned to Ben for help.
Ben made enquiries at Jonathan's school and the family's church and, finding everybody in agreement on the boy's intelligence and perseverance and promise, offered to pay for Jonathan's school fees and books for as long as he continued to do well. He was quite impressed by the youngster: a thin, shy, polite boy, always neatly dressed, his shirt as starkly white as his teeth. In exchange for the financial support, Gordon saw to it that Jonathan agreed to help out in Ben's garden over weekends.
At the end of the first year there were smiles all round when Jonathan produced his school report, showing an average of over sixty per cent. As a reward for his achievement Ben gave him an old suit that belonged to his own son Johan -- the two boys were roughly the same age -- as well as an almost new pair of shoes and two rand in cash.
But in the course of the second year Jonathan began to change. Although he was still doing reasonably well he seemed to have lost interest and often played ,he no longer turned up over weekends for his stint of gardening; his attitude became sullen and truculent and a couple of times he was openly cheeky with Ben. According to Gordon he was spending more time on the streets than at home. Surely no good could come of it.
His fears were soon realised. One day there was trouble at a beer-hall. A gang of tsotsis -- hooligans -- attacked a group of older men, and when the owner tried to throw them out they ran amok in the place, smashing everything in their way. The police arrived in two vans and carted off whatever youngsters they could lay hands on in the vicinity of the beer-hall, Jonathan among them.
The boy insisted that he'd had nothing to do with the commotion, that he'd been on the scene purely by accident when the fighting broke out; but the police witnesses testified that they'd seen him with the gang. The trial was very brief. Owing to a misunderstanding Gordon didn't attend: he had been told it would take place in the afternoon but when he arrived at the courtroom it was all over. He tried to protest against Jonathan's sentence of six cuts, but by that time the flogging had already been administered.
Excerpted from A Dry White Season by Andre Brink Copyright © 2006 by Andre Brink. Excerpted by permission.
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