THE MAN WHO SPOKE FOR THE BOERS
While most well-read people have at least heard of Olive Schreiner, Laurens Van der Post, Nadine Gordimer and Roy Campbell, not one in a hundred knows even the name of the man whom Campbell called `the only literary genius that South Africa has produced'. This was a reference to Herman Charles Bosman, whose catas- trophic and violent life ended in 1951, when he was 46, and still at the height of his comic and sinister genius. Although Bosman is now well known to the South African public thanks to the dramatisations and readings given by actors, as well as the publication of some of his work in paper- backs, he is still disliked by the English- speaking literati, so that you cannot find a copy of Bosman at some of the best bookshops in Cape Town or Johannes- burg. For although he wrote in English, and he was steeped in English, French and American literature, Bosman took his in-' spiration almost exclusively from his fellow Afrikaners, out in the Transvaal country- side or in Johannesburg, the garish but vital metropolis, sprung from the high veld. As far as he had any politics, Bosman shared the prejudices of those Afrikaners who came to power in 1948, and have ruled South Africa ever since.
In Bosman's life-time, the South African `racial problem' was taken to mean the hatred against the English-speaking ascen- dancy felt by the Afrikaners, the Boers who had lost a bitter war, and lived in poverty on their farms, or were driven to look for work in alien cities like Johannes- burg. Bosman wrote as well about the relationship of the Afrikaners and the blacks, what we would today call the `racial problem'; but it was not in his nature to look at the blacks or anyone else as a `problem', still less as an object of pity, guilty conscience or indignation. The char- acters in his stories, especially the Afrikan- ers of the Marico, the poor western Trans- vaal, appear with a clarity and a truthful- ness that can make one gasp. These are the opening words of a story written in 1930, in which the narrator `Oom' (Uncle) Schalk Lourens describes a raiding party against some Africans in the 1890s:
`Kaffirs? [said 'Oom' Schalk Lourens] Yes, I know them. And they're all the same. I fear the Almighty, and I respect His works, but I
could never understand why He made the kaffir and the rinderpest. The Hottentot is a little better. The Hottentot will only steal the biltong hanging out on the line to dry. He won't steal the line as well. That is where the kaffir is different.
`Still, sometimes you come across a good kaffir, who is faithful and upright and a true Christian and doesn't let the wild-dogs catch the sheep. I always think that it isn't right to kill that kind of kaffir.'
Those two paragraphs, when I read them first, gave me a double shock. In modern South Africa, more than in Britain or the United States, there is now a prudery about race relations comparable to the prudery over sexual matters in the Victo- rian age. Yet Schalk Lourens's refections were true of the way that a simple Afrikan- er thought of the blacks in the 1930s, and may well be true of his thinking today. But in modern South Africa, few people of any race are honest enough to say what they think of the others. The whites are espe- cially guilty of humbug. Many prominent black and Coloured authors defend Bos- man's use of derogatory words like kaffir, as being appropriate to his characters.
The second shock I received when I read those two opening paragraphs of `Maka- pan's Caves' was linguistic. It was the first English prose I had read that was clearly and unmistakably South African, quite apart from the use of such words as `biltong', `kaffir' and `rinderpest', although these and others more obscure are com- mon in Bosman's tales of the Marico. His writing is South African in its syntax, construction and almost its voice. You hear the words spoken with a South African accent. For, as somebody once observed, Bosman wrote Afrikaans in English. The undertones of Afrikaans both flavoured and enriched his English, just as the Irish adds charm and elegance to the writing of Yeats, O'Casey or Kavanagh. But just as the best Irish writers have shunned whimsy or blarney, so Bosman never indulged in Afrikaner folksiness. 'Oom' Schalk Lourens and the other Marico Boers are shown without sentimentality. Bosman is harsh and sardonic. For instance, in `Makapan's Caves', Schalk Lourens's father gives this parting advice to the men going to battle:
`Don't forget to read your Bible, my sons,' he called out as we rode away. 'Pray the Lord to help you, and when you shoot always aim for the stomach.' These remarks were typical of my father's deeply religious nature, and he also knew that it was easier to hit a man in the stomach than in the head; and it is just as good, because no man can live long after his intestines have been shot away.
After the massacre of the Africans in Makapan's Caves, `Oom' Schalk acciden- tally shoots dead a `good kaffir' who had attached himself to the white man's party.
Even Bosman's funniest stories are touched by sadness, often with horror as well. Some are literally gallows humour, for Bosman himself spent four months in a condemned cell. One apparently trifling story describes a young woman during a church service trying to catch the eye of her boy friend, the schoolteacher. We think she is merely lovesick until, after church, she sadly reflects that she will now have to swallow sheep-dip for an abortion. This was another subject on which Bosman wrote with expert knowledge.
Bosman's writing was pitiless and amor- al. He viewed the racial and other pre- judices of the Afrikaners with neither approval nor condemnation; simply with laughter. When a third-rate troupe of actors arrive with Uncle Tom's Cabin, the director gets a black eye and decides to make some changes: He made Uncle Tom into a much less
kind-hearted negro. And he also made him steal chickens. . . .
After a few more misunderstandings with the public, Andre Maritz so far adapted the play to South African conditions as to make Uncle Tom threaten to hit Topsy with a brandy bottle. . . .
True, there were still one or two little things, Elder van Zyl declared, that did not perhaps altogether accord with what was best in our outlook. For instance, it was not right that we should be made to feel so sen- timental about the slave girl as played by Hannekie Roodt. . . They said that when Hannekie Roodt walked off the stage for the last time, sold down the river, and carrying the bundle of her poor possessions tied up in a red-spotted rag, a few of her mistresses's knives and forks could have been made to drop out of the bundle.
The narrator of Bosman's early stories, `00m' Schalk Lourens, grew up in the 19th Century and fought in what we British call the Boer War. His children had died in a Concentration camp, so that 'taken all in
all, we who had trekked into the part of the Marico that lay nearest the Bechuanaland [Botswana] border were very bitter against the British'. The Marico people feel un- couth compared with the English, who Carry handkerchieves, wear socks and bathe each morning. In spite of their sneering, they are impressed by the En- glishman, Webber, who studies agricultu- ral science: 'When his cattle had the heart-water, or his sheep had the blue- tongue, or there were cut-worms or stalk- borers in his mealier, Webber would look it all up in his books. I suppose that when the kaffirs stole his sheep he would look that up, too.'
At the outbreak of the 'Second Boer War' the burghers, or citizen soldiers of the Marie°, go to join a commando outside Mafeking. We had to go and shoot there a man called Baden Powell. . . . We made a fine show with our horses and wide hats, and our bandeliers, and with the sun shining on the barrels of our Mausers.' Their officer, the veld-kornet, gets them to Mafeking, after frequently stopping to ask the way from Africans, and there they are routed. 'And the stars shone down on the road that was full of guns and frightened horses and desperate men. The veld throb- bed with the hoof-beats of baffled com- mandos.' As a burgher of the Republic, `Oom' Schalk knew what his duty was 'and that was to get as far away as I could from the place, where, in the sunset, I had last seen English artillery'. These Boer War stories are told with such exquisite delicacy that even we the readers are never quite sure whether Schalk Lourens is con- scious of his own timidity as well as the cowardice of his fellows. These stories also reflect the bitterness of the Afrikaners against those, like Paul Kruger, who led them into defeat and captivity. At the end of `Mafeking Road', Schalk Lourens re- calls: 'Our veld-kornet was the first to be taken prisoner. And I often felt that he must feel very lonely on St Helena. Be- cause there were no kaffirs from whom he could ask the way out of the barbed-wire camp.'
The Bosman stories are partly responsi- ble for the many South African jokes about Van der Merwe, the archetypal Boer hick, who is ignorant, stupid, lazy, sly and dishonest. `Oom' Schalk Lourens always complains of the hardship of farming: `There is the ploughing, for instance. I used to get aches in my back and shoulders from sitting on a stone all day long on the edge of the lands, watching the kaffirs and the oxen and the plough going up and down, making furrows. Hans Koetzee, who was a Boer War prisoner at St Helena, told me how he got sick at sea from watching the ship going up and down, up and down, all the time.'
Although the Marico Boers accuse the blacks of stealing cattle and sheep, they themselves rustle across the border: mean, the Bechuanas as far as Malopolole know how broad-minded Oom Koos Ger- ber is to this day about what brand-marks there are on the cattle that he brings back to the Transvaal. That is why the Bechuanas have given him the name of Ra-Sakeng. It means "He-Who-Walks- Too-Near-The-Cattle-Kraal".' Although the Marico Boers are Calvinists who de- spise African superstition, they sneak off to the witch-doctors to hear their fortunes. `Oom' Schalk Lourens is furious to be told that his sister had asked after his safety during the war:
Especially as the witch-doctor said to her, `Yes, missus, I can see Baas Schalk Lourens. He will come back safe. He is very clever, Baas Schalk. He lies behind a big stone, with a dirty brown blanket pulled over his head. And he stays behind that stone until the fighting is finished — quite finished.' ... I think I have said enough to show you what sort of scoundrel that old kaffir was. He not only took advantage of the credulity of a simple girl, but he also tried to be funny at the expense of a young man who was fighting for his country's freedom.
With Bosman fact and fiction tended to merge. His novels, two of them unfinished, were toned down accounts of his own career, which included murder, blackmail, abortion, three unhappy marriages, with chronic debt and drunkenness. His journa- listic reports were often as wild and hila-
rious as his fiction. Apart from the Marico stories, almost everything Bosman wrote was about Johannesburg. Nobody else has managed to catch so well the verve and charm of that overgrown mining camp, which sprang from nothing in 1886, and even in Bosman's time had almost com- pletely replaced its original buildings with others, even more hideous. Although Bos- man spent seven years in Europe, mostly in London, he never, as far as I know, wrote about anywhere outside the Marico and his beloved Johannesburg. Whereas most South African writers have aimed for audiences in Europe and the United States, Bosman wrote only for and about South Africans. He was a learned man, steeped in the classics, English, French and American literature, but he wrote about people whose own mental horizons stop- ped at the boundaries of the Transvaal.
Since Bosman's writing about Johannes- burg is autobiographical, it is time to
examine his life-story. There are now published memoirs by Bernard Sachs, who was at school with him; by Aegidius Blignaut, a journalistic colleague, as well as a life by Valerie Rosenberg, who has found much valuable information. We still have not got the full story, because there is much about Bosman that modern South Africans fear to contemplate. His life-story is not for the squeamish any more than his writings, and they can be embarrassing for South Africans as Dorothy Driver admits: `For who has not squirmed at that slander- ing in post office and voorkamer [front room], at his riding roughshod over some sensitivity or other, at that canny tongue, that sharp ear, those circles he runs round our white, English-speaking consciences?'
Herman Charles Bosman was born on 5 February 1905 to Jacobus Bosman, a mine labourer, and Elisa, née Malan, at Kuil's River near Cape Town. They moved to Johannesburg, where Jacobus Bosman got a job as a waste packer, down a gold mine. Although poor and Afrikaners, the Bos- mans managed to get Herman a place at Jeppe High School, which had been found- ed on English public school lines. His schoolfriend Sachs says that the young Bosman was studious, undisciplined and contemptuous of authority, and that he wrote an essay defending Goliath, 'an easy-going, well-meaning giant who minded his own business but was being pushed around till he met his sad end at the hands of the cunning David'.
From Jeppe Bosman entered the new University of the Witwatersrand. Under the influence of Sachs, he briefly joined the Young Communist League, 'but when he discovered that it was only trying to replace the present social order by a more rigorous one, he soon opted out'. By this time Bosman was a devotee of Edgar Allen Poe, Baudelaire and Verlaine.
In the year Bosman qualified as a teacher, 1925, his father was killed in a mining accident, and his mother married an Englishman with a grown-up son. At the beginning of 1926 Bosman married Vera Sawyer, a bank clerk. Apparently the marriage was not consummated and later was annulled by Vera's family, against the wishes of Bosman, who stayed on good terms with Vera till the end of his life. Two days after the marriage Bosman took up a teaching post near Zwingli in the Zeerust- Groot Marico district of western Trans- vaal. He lodged with an Afrikaner of Irish descent called Flattery, who greeted him every morning with the unusual expression `Die beste van die more', which Bosman eventually realised was 'the top of the morning to you'. Bosman was often in trouble during his six months in the Mari- co. When he was teased by Flattery's daughter, a girl of his own age, Bosman hurled a knife which lodged in her back, narrowly missing the kidneys. Soon after- wards he bought a hunting rifle and took it down to Johannesburg on his winter holi- day. On 18 July 1926, Bosman returned home late to find his younger brother fighting his 23-year-old stepbrother David Russell. He went for his rifle and shot Russell dead.
After four months in custody at the Fort, almost the only. Johannesburg building left from the 19th century, Bosman stood trial for murder. He showed no sign of remorse. When a woman spectator stared at him in the witness box with fascinated horror, Bosman winked, causing her to collapse in hysterics. His friend Sachs believes that Bosman wanted to know what killing felt like. He was sentenced to hang and placed with one other prisoner in the condemned cells of Pretoria Central, whose many distinguished former inmates include Win- ston Churchill. Bosman's experience is recalled in Cold Stone Jug, a novel all the more grim because he could not stop clowning:
`You condemned men mustn't laugh so loud,' he [the night head warder] com- plained. 'The hard labour convicts got to sleep. They got to work all day. You two don't do nothing but smoke cigarettes all day long and crack jokes. You'll get in serious trouble if the Governor finds you keep the prisoners awake at night, romping about, and laughing in the condemned cell.'
In reality, Bosman recalls, 'we were afraid to trust our heads to the hard pallet, in case when we woke up in the morning it would be to find the sheriff standing at the door, with the death warrant.' Bosman's companion was hanged but he was re- prieved.
On leaving prison in 1930, Bosman published the first and almost the best of his Marico stories, `Makapan's Caves'. He also contributed, under the name of Her- man Malan, to scandal and blackmail sheets. According to Sachs, Bosman would `feature some leading luminary of the city in the Sjambok posters and then go along to the victim and promise to desist if he coughed up'. One of his targets was Sachs's brother, Solly, a prominent left-winger and head of the Garment Workers Union, then engaged in a strike: 'Herman approached the clothing bosses about using the Sjam- bok against Solly. For a consideration of course. One morning Joh'burg awoke to find about one hundred Sjambok posters placed at strategic points with the wording "Solly Sachs Dances With Kaffir Girl".' Sachs sued for criminal libel and won.
At about that time, Bernard Sachs spoke at a meeting outside Johannesburg City Hall, supporting his brother: 'To my great surprise and consternation I found Herman leading the hecklers in their assault on the platform with eggs and tomatoes. And then I suddenly saw one of our harridan female comrades plaster him across the forehead with a mineral water bottle.' Bosman was knocked out. The next edition of New LSD, for 5 February 1932, carried the headline: `Blignaut and Malan fight 300 red scum'; but Bosman took it all as a joke. He told Bernard Sachs next day: 'You know, Ben, when I looked in the mirror this morning, I could read on my forehead "Australian Mineral Water Works".'
Bosman tried all kinds of journalism. He approached a rich Jewish radical for £100 to start an anti-Nazi newspaper.
'And if I don't give you £100?'
`Then we'll start a pro-Nazi paper.'
He was sentenced for blasphemy after printing a pornographic story, 'A Nun's Christmas'. He was had up on 13 indecency charges after a poster appeared saying `Joh'burg girls stuffed ... more than one way'. Witnesses for the Crown included the President of the Johannesburg Branch of the National Council of Women, and also the Bishop of Johannesburg, who said he did not know what 'stuffed' meant, but thought that the posters were foul and lowering to the prestige of white women, because they were carried by blacks. A photograph of Bosman at this time is well described by the poet David Wright: `... striking, light-coloured eyes — person- able — an Afrikaner face; elegant trilby hat — a smile part sardonic, part rueful a precipitation of gaiety and intelligence'. He wore two-toned shoes, to look like a Portuguese gangster. Women were hypno- tised by his brilliant blue stare. He took up with and married a neurotic pianist, Ella, who Sachs believes was a lesbian. Ella was crazed with hatred of Bosman's mother, Sachs recalls: 'It is quite stunning to listen to her describe, with all the necessary mime, how when Herman's mother visited him she had hit her about the ankles with an umbrella and made her hop — "like this and like that". All this in front of Herman. And when my wife told Herman that his mother had died of cancer, she sent up a hurrah, kissed my wife and then kissed me.'
The Bosmans left in 1934 for England, where they remained for over six years, including stays in Brussels and Paris. Throughout this exile Bosman wrote for South African magazines, on South Afri- can themes. He earned his bread by writing for seedy publications such as the Sunday Critic, subsidised by the Empire Move- ment. It was padded with fake advertise- ments, and Bosman wrote under pseudonyms like 'the Dowager Lady Rag- lan'. He and Ella lived at the top of Shaftesbury Avenue, near the British Museum, where they founded a publishing house under the names of Arnold and Eleanor Roosevelt Godbold. The records of the Crown Estate Commission show that 'Mr Godbold had been using residential premises for business purposes, was in arrear with rent and had made unautho- rised decorations to the landing' apparently pictures of Adolf Hitler. He spent 3 September 1939, the outbreak of the second world war, in a pub in Lamb's Conduit Street, doubtless the Lamb, which has always been a haunt of Bohemia. The Bosmans were sent back to South Africa in 1940.
After two years in Johannesburg, Bos- man in 1943 obtained the editorship of the Zoutspansberg Review and Mining Jour- nal, a bi-weekly newspaper at Pietersburg in the Northern Transvaal, a centre of Afrikaner nationalism. The Journal sup- ported the pro-British Union Party. Here Bosman met Helena Stegman, a school- mistress, and made her pregnant. He found a syringe and the right ingredients for an abortion, from which she almost died. The National Party newspaper pub- lished hints of the scandal, and Bosman was taken in handcuffs from his editorial office. He sat in court with the African prisoners, wearing sandals to show off his carefully crimsoned toe-nails. The prosecu- tion failed because the syringe was not found, but Bosman was sacked. He mar- ried Helena. Meanwhile his divorced wife Ella got pregnant by Bosman's successor as editor of the Zoutspansberg Review and Mining Journal. There is a picture from this time of Bosman, with stetson hat at a rakish angle, strolling along through Johannesburg with second and third wife on either arm. Shortly after the picture was taken, Ella died from an abortion. This time Bosman was threatened with trial for manslaughter; but once again the police lacked evidence.
From the end of the second world war to his death in 1951, Bosman wrote well and furiously. He was happy to be in Johannes- burg after the years in jail, in London and Pietersburg. He loved the drab streets of Johannesburg, where all of a sudden `blazes of colour reflect from the silvery grey scales of the fishes, from the dusty windows and the dirty wet pavements. Down the street a Hindu in a red fez comes striding along after his cart which is laden with fresh veld flowers.' He loved street processions. In London he had marched with communists, Mosleyites, Scotsmen on their way to the Cup Tie, unemployed Welsh miners and the Peace Pledge Union. Nothing compared with joining a line of marchers going down Jeppe Street, to boo at the Rand Daily Mail, the symbol of British capitalism. The marchers swigged Jerepigo wine, to the fury of their leader: `Drinking wine like that out of a bottle, and in the street. And in front of the Rand Daily Mail, too. What if they had taken your photographs, drinking wine, when all the boys were booing.'
When the National Party swept into power, in 1948, Bosman jumped three times on his hat for joy. These were his People. Although he undoubtedly disliked the English-speaking ascendancy, as sym- bolised by the Rand Daily Mail, he was not against blacks. But neither was he a sentimentalist. There is a passage in one of his unfinished books that no one would dare publish today. It describes a third-rate Johannesburg bakery which boasts that its products are untouched by hand. But when the electricity fails, the dough for the slab cake and cream cake is pounded under the bare black feet of Big Jim Fish as the sweat pours off him as from a shower-bath.
Although Bosman never won fame, or critical recognition, or even a good living, he did at last make enough money to rent a home of his own. He and Helena his wife threw a house-warming party on 13 Octo- ber 1951. The next day, Bosman woke with a hangover, and died the same evening.
THE life and writings of Herman Bosman help to explain to outsiders the two pecul- iar and baffling features of modern South Africa: the character of the Afrikaners, and what one can only call the Johannes- burg phenomenon. These two things large- ly comprise the problem of South Africa, a problem with no solution. They are both undefinable in the terms of the rest of the world because there is nothing like them anywhere else in the world. They are best comprehended through works of imagina- tion, like Bosman's stories.
Bosman expresses the thoughts not just of the Afrikaners but of the backveld Boers who would not themselves write down their ideas and feelings. Although he wrote in English, lived a few years in London, and came under the spell of the French decadent poets, he was almost immune to the ideas of modern Europe. Because of his own experience, he was opposed to capital punishment, yet did not believe it was wrong to take life. He felt none of the guilt so typical of the English middle classes: guilt over the poor, over the oppressed or people of darker skins.
Most South African writers, including some Afrikaners, have taken aboard a cargo of modern ideas and attitudes. Peo- ple like Smuts and Van der Post, of earlier generations, and Brink and Breytenbach among moderns, look at the world, if not as Englishmen, as West Europeans. The Dutch Reformed Church has now, with its abandonment of the endorsement of apar- theid, come back into line with the Calvin- ist churches of Holland, Scotland and France. The set books for English students at Stellenbosch University include the works of such fashionable authors as Sal- man Rushdie. Even the National Party government and its press and the SABC have a body of attitudes much like those of a rather conservative part of Europe Bavaria, for example, or Belgium. The Afrikaner establishment has rather reluc- tantly moved with the times.
Bosman wrote of the humbler Boers, the kind of people who today no longer vote for the National Party but for the Con- servatives, and who may even support the paramilitary right. He wrote of the farmers in the Marico; of political roughs in Pietersburg who carved up their opponents with bicycle chains; of miners who mar- ched down Jeppe Street to boo the Rand Daily Mail. The same people today are in angry mood, posing a worse threat to Botha than the most angry blacks. At the general election of 1987 they overtook the Progressives as the main opposition party. In two by-elections in the Transvaal in 1988 the right wing hugely increased its major- ity. They could, in the near future, replace the National Party in office. As the Marico farmers in Bosman's stories thought they had been betrayed by old Paul Kruger, so their descendants think they have been betrayed by Botha. The young roughs of Pietersburg may soon be wielding their bicycle chains or the modern equivalent against the candidates of the National Party. The poor whites of Johannesburg go to meetings, not to boo the Rand Daily Mail (it ceased publication years ago) but calling for the enforcement of the Group Areas Act. These are all Bosman's people.
This extract is taken from The Diamonds and the Necklace by Richard West, pub- lished next week by John Curtis, Hodder and Stoughton at £14.95.