Helen van Pletsen – the Nightingale of Natal

March 16, 2008 at 11:13 pm 11 comments

Roon LewaldBy Roon Lewald, son of Helen van Pletsen, author of “The Van Pletsen Saga

In a personal twist to the old show-biz saying that “you haffta be Jewish”, my Afrikaner mother had a stock diagnosis of people she considered too humourless to appreciate the funny side of life. Irritated by an encounter with some particularly dour, self-righteous grudge-bearer, she would shrug and say: “His / her problem is a lack of irony in the blood.”

I am deeply grateful to her for passing on this insight to me at an early age, for only a sense of the absurd has helped me to sort out the bewildering contradictions and conflicts buried in my muddled Prussian, Jewish and Afrikaner ancestry. Helen Lewald, author of the only known history of that vast South African tribe of jolly, blarneying Boers who variously call themselves Van Pletsen (with an s) or Van Pletzen (with a z), was a story-teller of Homeric qualities; a larger-than-life, occasionally rather theatrical personality who loved nothing more than a good belly-laugh and a neat, witty turn of phrase. She started life on a farm in the remote eastern Cape district of Barkly East as Helena Susara van Pletsen, a long-legged, barefooted Boer “plaasmeisie” (farmgirl) with strong, raven-black hair and gentian-blue Van Pletsen eyes that betrayed her originally East Prussian tribe’s Baltic ancestry. In her Pietermaritzburg school-teaching days, her romantic yearning to do great things in the faraway European hub of the western world, plus the discovery that she had an unusually rich, dark-soprano voice, led her on to regional eisteddfod and concert triumphs and inspired the local press to nickname her “die Natalse Nagtegaal” – the Nightingale of Natal.

These omens and portents at the remote southern end of Africa, then an exotic never-never-land of wild beasts and murderous savages (but hardly of cultured singers) to most Europeans, wafted my hopeful mother in the 1930s to Berlin for advanced singing lessons in what was then the Valhalla of central European opera and concert music. Sadly, World War II cut short her studies at a time when she had already concluded that she lacked the musical sophistication and iron will to beat the highly trained, brilliant rivals from the musical capitals of the world who were fighting tooth and nail for opera and concert engagements there. Instead, her ebullient nature and “treu-deutsche blaue Augen” (true-German blue eyes) captured the heart of a fellow-student named Albrecht Lewald, penniless scion of a once-prominent, partly Jewish-descended Berlin family. She in turn fell hook, line and sinker for her handsome admirer’s resemblance to movie idol Rudolf Valentino, his classy background and his romantically questing German soul. She became his “Goldmädchen” (golden girl) and he her “Rudolf” until death did them part 48 years later.

Helen and Albrecht in their Berlin student years

Albrecht and Helen in their Berlin student years.

And that’s where my problems with my mixed bag of ancestors started. For cultural square pegs like me, the round holes in local societies all over the world tend to be equally uncomfortable in youth. For the conformist standards of the kids in your neighbourhood and the gangland ethics which rule school playgrounds between classes tend to classify you as either good or bad, for or against, one of us or one of them, and those who have no protective networks to back them up are easily singled out for ostracism or bullying by the pack.

This was certainly true in my case. When I was born in the heavily pro-British, predominantly English-speaking stronghold of Durban in the wartime year of 1942, my sort of people were politically well received – albeit always suspected of lax foreign morals! — by the tiny minority of conservative Afrikaners among the local whites. But even after the war, my father’s proud insistence on speaking German to me in public sometimes caused us to be cursed loudly as “bloody Germans” (or Huns, or Nazis) by the British Empire super-patriots who ruled the roost. That was hard for me to understand, since it was the partly Jewish, anti-Nazi background of my officially well treated and later smoothly naturalised father which had forced him to emigrate to South Africa on the eve of the war. My dad never turned a hair on such occasions. To a heckler sitting behind us in the bus, he turned round and said in very creditable English: “I was accepted as an immigrant by (Prime Minister) Jan Smuts. If I’m good enough for ‘Oom’ Jannie, I’m sure I’m good enough for you.” His opponent collapsed and other passengers raised a cheer at that, which proves once more what good sports the English are.

The shock of professional and social ostracism by the Nazi regime as a non-Aryan (his great-grandfather was Jewish) forced my mother’s downcast German fiancée to emigrate from his beloved Germany around the time of the Munich crisis and join her in South Africa. And so, as Hitler wolfed down the twitching carcase of Czechoslovakia he had just wrenched from its faint-hearted British and French protectors at Munich, a few close relatives and friends witnessed the marriage of “Ernst Otto Albrecht Lewald, jonkman” and “Helena Susara van Pletsen, jonkvrou” one blazing December day in Pietermaritzburg town hall.

For a child in the remote South African periphery of the western world they represented, trying to understand and assimilate the cultural contrasts and contradictions of their combined backgrounds was like following tangled skeins of wool along the branches of a maze. The uncomfortable facts I unraveled in the process culminated in my later acceptance that my melange of German, Jewish and Afrikaner genes had transformed both of the two most monstrous culminations of racist dementia in western history into matters of lasting personal concern to me. As the son of a German immigrant and an Afrikaner mother, my youthful conscience was doubly burdened by Hitler’s genocidal mania in my father’s remote birthplace and the personally witnessed inhumanity of the Apartheid system my fellow-Afrikaners had imposed on South Africa, just as my identity was doubly riven by the simultaneous need to love what was so eminently worth loving in both my parents’ imperfect heritages.

Since music was all that really mattered in life to them, they were too apolitical to resolve the contradictions in the traditions they imposed on me and my sister. My father was uncritically proud of his father’s illustrious record as a senior civil servant of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s German empire, and gloried in his mother’s direct descent from Albrecht Count von Roon, my great-great-grandfather, whose surname was bombastically foisted on me as my first name at birth. My father greatly honoured the noteworthy entrepreneurs and civic dignatories, nationally famed literati, courageous lawyers and other Jewish notables who also graced his family tree. But he left the impression that their early 19th century merits had been deliberately obscured while their descendants burrowed into safe Prussian middle-class identities and purposefully scaled the heights of Wilhelminian imperial society as ultra-conservative, monarchical super-patriots of the deepest dye. My arch-Prussian grandfather, who never mentioned his half-Jewish status in his own house until the Nazis came to power, lived to see the Nazis’ Nuremburg race laws rid the nation’s history books of all references to a century of distinguished service to the fatherland by assimilated Jews. And yet he remained a loyal Prussian from head to toe long after his beloved Kaiser abdicated in 1918 and fled to his comfortable exile as a guest of the Dutch government at De Doorns. To me, my grandfather seemed a kind of Dreyfus. Just as an anti-Semitic cabal ruined the French colonel, the Nazis declared loyal part-Jewish Germans like my grandfather to be non-Aryan scum. Just as my grandfather saw himself until his death as His Excellency, the State Governor of Hessia, all Dreyfus could think of after the hell of Devil’s Island was to retrieve his honour and his shoulder tabs as an officer of La Grande France.

His Excellency Moritz Otto Fidelio Lewald and his wife Margarethe

My grandparents: His Excellency Moritz Otto Fidelio Lewald, State Secretary in the Prussian Home Office and capable governor of the large Prussian province of Hessia, and his wife Margarethe, a high-society beauty who was a flower of Wilhelminian Prussia’s cock-of-the-roost soldier aristocracy.

As the last war minister of the Prussian kingdom, it was Grandmother Margarethe’s grandfather Count Von Roon who raised the old Prussian king’s decaying army to an unheard-of peak of efficiency with his radical logistical reforms. He then manoeuvred an obscure fellow-plotter named Bismarck into power as the kingdom’s chancellor. When Von Roon’s reforms allowed Bismarck’s field-grey troops to forge the iron of a united German empire in the blood of the defeated French at Sedan, they started a march of destiny which was finally halted only by the horrific world wars of the 20th century. My gentle, pacifist father’s eyes would gleam with pride when he showed me the old Berliner Tagespost newsphoto of the great occasion when the Kaiser himself unveiled a large statue of Von Roon. It still flanks that of Bismarck beside the Siegessäule (victory column) traffic circle, the central Berlin landmark commemorating the 1871 Prussian victory over the French.

Count Von Roon

Von Roon’s statue with his surname (my first name) on the pedestal.

To a child in pro-British Durban so soon after the World War II apogee of German militarism, the old Prussian hero seemed a cause for embarrassment rather than pride. The fathers of many of my friends had fought against Rommel in the Western Desert and pushed the retreating Wehrmacht out of Italy. Gordon Wishart, an older boy from next door who was the first Jew I ever consciously met, wouldn’t let me look at the wonderfully detailed Spitfire model he was showing off to the kids on my block.

“But why, Gordon?”

“Because you’re German, because of what Hitler did to the Jews”.

When inebriated, his alcoholic old man would shout anti-German epithets at us across the fence and raucously parody the scales my father practiced with his singing pupils until the police showed up to quiet him down. Nevertheless, Gordon later became friendly long enough to con me into swapping my valuable Cape Triangular blues for a gaudy mess of worthless foreign stamps.

“Who is Hitler, daddy?”

“He’s dead now. He was a very evil man who killed a lot of people called

“But why….? But how…?”

My feelings about Germany became increasingly complicated once I started to grasp the reasons for my father’s own inner conflict about his German heritage, and indeed as my increasing grasp of history revealed to me the full extent of the horrors caused by those who transformed my namesake ancestor Von Roon’s militarist tradition into an instrument of unmitigated evil.

Tensions in Durban’s white community between the English-speaking majority and my mother’s Afrikaner people added another set of cultural complications. Later came my increasing awareness that there was something very wrong about South Africa’s racially compartmented society. I have since come to regard myself as a kind of parliament of cultural identities owing final loyalty only to mankind as a whole. The distinct cultural personae who constitute my inner House of Commons include a German self, my maternally endowed Afrikaner personality, a moderator who speaks the English global language and a shadowy Jewish back-bencher who is capable of speaking up quite forcefully for his interests. Remote as I am from the last fully Jewish generation of the Lewalds, this Jew is an attempt to reincarnate traditions that were lost without trace when my progressive-minded family turned its back on traditional Jewry in the early 19th century. Instead, they consciously hitched their star to the liberal patriots then seeking to build a great, united German fatherland in which even Jews could live in democratic peace and prosperity. I call my Jewish self ‘David’ – der Dov, das Dovvidle – in honour of the poet-king who slew a giant and danced and sang before the Lord of Israel, and in memory of my first recorded Jewish ancestor. That David who was my great-great-great-great-grandfather was an enterprising barge skipper who arrived in the Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) region of Eastern Prussia from somewhere beyond the Polish border in 1770. He settled in the village of Wehle (later spelled Wehlau and presumably given a Polish or Russian name since then) to ply his big freight barges along the adjacent Pregel river to Königsberg and into the Baltic coastal waters beyond. He borrowed the name of his new home as a surname and was duly entered in the parish registry as David Wehle.

A “Keitelkahn” freight or fishing barge

A Keitelkahn” freight or fishing barge of a type that was until World War II a common sight on the rivers and Baltic coastal lagoons connecting the bustling seaport of Königsberg with the trade-rich Central and East European interiors and the entire eastern end of the Baltic seaboard. Similar vessels helped turn the northeastern seaboard corner of Prussia into a major turntable for the Baltic and river-borne trade flows which speeded the great German industrial revolution of the 19th century. Among them were the heavy-duty barges that David Wehle dispatched from Wehlau on the Pregel after settling there in 1770. A picturesque feature was the lovingly hand-carved mast-top decoration which each vessel sported to identify its home port – Gilge on the Baltic coast in the case of this model of a “Litauer”-type Keitelkahn.

I associate the “irony in my blood” with whatever intuitively sensed traces of the Jewish sense of the absurd I have reincarnated in my David creature. I can sense his wryly observant presence in me right now as I make this claim. Of course, the simple arithmetic of my paltry 12.5% share of Jewish genes, coupled with Judaism’s traditional requirement of matrilineal descent, would disqualify me as a Jew in the eyes of any synagogal congregation. But what is the wider meaning of the word Jew today? Someone who has passkeys to every culture but an abiding home in none. In that loose sense, there are many more of us Jews around than you others might think.

My Speaker of the House thinks and writes in English and his command of the global lingua franca and Anglo-Saxon sense of proportion make him a natural choice as a moderator. Yet the Afrikaner persona inherited from Helen van Pletsen is a more vital character, who makes himself felt strongly and impatiently whenever needlessly petty obstructions arouse his normally easy-going nature, or when I miss South Africa’s vast horizons and the spontaneity of my homely Afrikaans language. These things are all useful correctives to the romantic German awareness that is a major component of my nature, because that is very heady stuff indeed. It requires careful handling, ranging as it does from extremes of beauty, profundity and sensitivity to their negative opposite poles, from the minute, crystalline structures which Rilke’s poetic microscopy conjures up before the mind’s amazed eye to the peasant vulgarity of Martin Luther’s recorded table conversation: “You have eaten and drunken well – warum furzet und rülpset ihr denn nicht?” – then why do you not fart and belch?

Having spent my first 28 years in white-ruled South Africa and worked there as a radio news compiler and U.S. news agency correspondent, I am perhaps overly obsessed with the racist paranoia exemplified by the historically interlinked workings of the bygone German and Afrikaner race dictatorships. The insanity of the Apartheid experience, like the xenophobic paranoia which still occasionally re-echoes on the fringes of modern German society, has honed my abhorrence of all forms of ethnic prejudice

I turned my back on South Africa and my mother’s Afrikaner folk in 1971 when I discovered that the western half of Germany was determinedly grappling with the ghosts of Nazi terror at last. World-wide praise for Willy Brandt’s East-West reconciliation policy, the sight of him kneeling in spontaneous, bareheaded atonement before the Warsaw ghetto memorial and the enthusiastic response of young Germans to his challenge to “risk more democracy” offered a profoundly inspiring contrast to the ominous police state atmosphere of John Vorster’s Land of Apartheid. I was therefore glad to throw in my lot with the people of my paternal ancestors. As the last male descendant of my particular branch of the Lewalds, it is modern, democratic Germany to which I render whatever dues and duties I consider just and reasonable; and it is this same well-reputed German republic whose civic rights I claim, since they are rightfully inherited from a long line of forebears who contributed richly and variously to the historic emergence of the modern German nation-state.

Concerning my mother’s people, her “Van Pletsen Saga” is a good departure point from which to consider my feelings about and experiences with that vast tribe of Boers founded by Carl Johannes von Plessen. He was born in East Prussia in 1795 (not so very far from the Lewald ancestral home of Königsberg, in fact) and arrived in Table Bay in 1820 as a stowaway after many colourful adventures as a mercenary in the services of Napoleon. At the time she finished her “Saga” manuscript in January 1974, various clans of the tribe were concentrated in several different regions of South Africa. The Van Pletsens (with an “s”] remained in the Eastern Cape; Helen herself was born in Barkly East and there were other communities in Aliwal North and Graaff Reinet. Another bunch fanned out over parts of the Transvaal, whereas eastern Orange Free State farming communities like Zastron, Wepener and Brandfort housed substantial numbers of Van Pletzens (with a “z”).

The “Saga” is told in the breezy, anecdotal style of the old Van Plets/zen storytellers I remember so well. As my mother used to say with a chuckle, “hulle vertel tog so graag en so lekker, en as hulle feite beginne skaars raak, dan dink hulle mos niks daarvan om sommer ‘n strokie by te lieg” — they yarn so well and so enjoyably that when their supply of facts starts running low, they think nothing of adding on a fib or two.”

The “Saga” offers vivid glimpses of an archetypal tribe of Boer farmers in the rural outback of long-bygone days. My mother’s entertainingly droll collection of anecdotes conjures up a time which many Afrikaners nostalgically idealise as an age of pastoral innocence, long before their existential fear of the overwhelming African majority made them clutch at the ominous salvation gospel of Apartheid.

Her “Saga” is certainly no serious historical study and does not pretend to be. Afrikaner politics (the two main issues being the historic confrontation between Boers and Britons and the Afrikaner obsession with white ethnic supremacy) surface only indirectly. These form the unspoken context of, for instance, one bushy-bearded old militia commander’s punitive campaigns against troublesome Basotho tribesmen in the old Boer republic of the Orange Free State. This ancestor, a great-uncle of my mother named Commandant-General Frederik Senekal (originally a French Huguenot family from Dieppe named Sénéchal) was killed in battle at Winburg in 1858. This shadowy episode gains colour when you consider that my mother’s contemporary readers still remembered very well how local Boer farmers loved to hate the Basotho, merrily sallying forth from their impregnable crags in the Drakensberg massif overlooking towns like Zastron and Wepener to steal Boer sheep. The Sotho nation had been founded around 1850 in the mountain fortress of Thaba Bosiu (Mountain of the Night, or The Mountain by Night] by the wily King Moshoeshoe I [pron. ‘maw-shweh-shweh’ ]. This brilliant leader was himself such a gifted sheep-rustler that his very name was an onomatopoeic vernacular evocation of the shweh-shweh sound of a sharp blade hissing through the stubble at a sheep’s neck. There are many true and legendary tales about Moshoeshoe’s wit and sagacity. The one I like best relates to the historic calamity of the difaqane or lifaqane, an early 19th century period when the old tribal structures of central South Africa were shattered and thousands of tribesmen were indiscriminately butchered, driven off into inhospitable terrain or left to die of starvation and disease -.a disaster so comprehensive that large tracts of the Orange Free State and Transvaal were left virtually depopulated for years. This was the result of a chain reaction of inter-tribal conflict set in motion by the military expansionism of the Zulu warrior nation under the great king T’chaka and several related warlords. Moshoeshoe, a minor non-Zulu chieftain, conceived the notion of gathering homeless difaqane victims into his newly founded Sotho nation, housed on the impregnable summit of Thaba Bosiu. He was impatient of objections by tradition-ridden advisors, ordering his elders to accept all and any refugees who came begging for shelter. While straggling through the ruined veld, one such band had survived only by descending into cannibalism. The king’s advisers were horrified at the idea of living with such impious criminals. “Shelter and respect them,” ordered Moshoeshoe, “for they are the graves of their ancestors.”

The Saga also evokes the obduracy of diehard Cape Afrikaner supporters of the two Boer republics in the north, with Van Pletsens to the fore in several incidents of resistance to the British Empire’s war against their fighting kinsmen in the north. The British summarily convicted the alleged ringleaders of high treason against the colonial Cape government and interned or – in some cases – hanged them. A century-old set of sepia-tinted studio portraits in my possession shows a group of these scowling “rebels” in an incongruous Victorian studio setting, flanked by a group portrait of their likewise interned wives.

Barkly East district “rebels”

The upper cutout from a larger group photo shows some of the 16 Barkly East district “rebels” who were convicted by a special travelling court in 1899 of high treason for sympathising with their fighting brethren up north. They were interned until after the Anglo-Boer War in 1902 at Tokai in the Cape. Those shown here include (left, bottom row) Karel van Pletsen, whose nephew Jan is unseen here in the back row. Lower photo shows their womenfolk with “Boeretroos” (home comforts) brought to the courtroom for their family’s sustenance, including (see white cross) Karel’s wife Frederika (Frikkie) and Jan’s spouse Bess (inset).

By far the most engaging figure presented by the “Saga” is the enormous Van Pletsen clan’s common progenitor, Carl Johannes von Plessen (who later adopted the Cape Dutch spelling “Van Pletsen”). Born in Eastern Prussia in 1795, and possibly (or possibly not) related to the aristocratic German family of that name, he seems to have been a young scamp who scarpered to Belgium to dodge the Prussian authorities for some reason. He then enlisted in Napoleon’s Grand Army as a mercenary and probably survived many of the major battles including Waterloo. “Hy was seker sommer ‘n pêrde-dief!” – he was probably nothing but a horse thief, was the joking verdict of my mother’s “Oom” Koot (Uncle Jacobus), whom the family regarded as a great wit. Carl Johannes arrived in Table Bay as a young stowaway in 1820 and thankfully shackled himself to Anna Susanna Sauer, a no-nonsense Boer descendant of earlier German immigrants. While bearing his vast progeny in the Eastern Cape outback, Anna Susanna would snap (in another triumph of the Boer penchant for deliberately mauling exotic-sounding names): “What’s this foreign “von” business, hey? It’s van – van Pletsen!” And so her crippled version of the family name took root.

Johannes Francois van Pletsen

Carl Johannes’s second son, Johannes Francois van Pletsen, Helen’s great-grandfather and thus my great-great-grandfather. He was born on 17 August 1835.

Old Carl’s frequently related tales about life with Napoleon were similarly distorted by succeeding generations of Van Pletsens, notorious as a tribe of blarneying raconteurs who never let the truth spoil a good story. Thus, one is asked to believe that the great emperor shared a bottle of champagne with the lowly private Carl Johannes on the battlefield after one victory. “Child, that Napoleon, he was as brave as a lion, maar sy hartjie was SO klein!” – but his heart was SO small (tender)!, an aged grandson of Carl’s told my mother when she was a girl. Carl supposedly witnessed Napoleon coolly writing dispatches in front of his tent amid a hail of bursting shells, and later “crying like a baby” among the dead on the battlefield. When Napoleon’s men bedded down on the frozen ground in winter, the old family grîot claimed, they had to “lepel-lê” (lie nestled like spoons). At intervals, officers would shout: “Omdraai! (turn over)”. Then the entire Grande Armée would instantly roll over and take up new front-to-back positions to keep warm…

The lesson that people with confused ancestries should confront and accept the entirety of their complex background to blunt possible nasty surprises was brought home to me at an early age by my father’s oft-related account of the lasting shock he suffered as a young man, when the rise of the Third Reich painfully confronted him and his brothers with the Lewald family’s previously sublimated Jewish origins.

My half-Jewish grandfather (who felt and acted like the arch-Prussian senior civil servant he was) kept the cloven hoof of his Semitic origins well hidden until the Nazis rose to prominence. Only then did he warn his sons that they might well run into “trouble with the brownshirts”. My father was deeply shocked by this tardy admission, which upset all his previous assumptions about his ethnic and social status as a member of a prominent, super-patriotic Berlin family with supposedly impeccable Teutonic credentials. And sure enough, under the subsequent Hitler regime’s Nuremberg race laws, my father’s paltry one-quarter share of Jewish genes excluded him, along with all others of fully or partly Jewish ancestry, from what the Nazi race ideology termed the “racial community of the Aryan people” – the arische Volksgenossenschaft. This officially negated their German ethnic identity and revoked all their civic rights.

Politically naive as my unworldly father was, he may have failed to grasp the full consequences of this until 1938, when he applied for a promised teaching post at a Berlin music academy after completing his studies there. A job interviewer with a swastika button on his lapel disillusioned him: “Ohne Arier-Ausweis? Was bilden Sie sich ein! Raus hier!” – Without a certificate of Arian purity? Who do you think you are! Out!”

No Lewald I know of ever suffered anything remotely approaching the fate of the millions consumed by the Shoa. But the wreckage of my father’s career hopes and the prospect of utter civic and social marginalisation threw his entire life into disarray and left him with a permanent rejection trauma. The most immediate danger was that the Nazi race-law enforcement bureaucracy might now start taking a closer look at him. Also, Helen van Pletsen, who became his fiancée while he and she were studying singing under the same Berlin teacher, had meanwhile returned home and was waiting for him in South Africa. So, as the Munich dicate threw war shadows over Europe and whispered rumours circulated among Germans about the existence of mysterious death camps for Jews and Nazi opponents, my despondent father sailed away to marry his Afrikaner bride and bring German Musikkultur to the presumable cultural wasteland of sub-tropical Durban.

Stowed in the freight hold of the Woermann Line’s S.S. Usambara were: his beloved Bechstein grand; annotated musical scores by the dozen; wooden crates filled with operas, Lieder and symphonies on thick 78-rpm shellac discs; a selection of German early-edition classics; inherited paintings; a few pieces of monogrammed family silver and other small heirlooms; and patent-leather evening shoes that were très chic in the Berlin of 1938 but never worn in South Africa until they were thrown away 40 years later. The unfortunate Bechstein soon warped fatally in the moist heat, but my father’s great dedication, sweet-natured charm and the old-world patina of a Central European classical education finally secured him a comfortable income, some renown and considerable local popularity as a private singing teacher and music examiner. He learned to love his second Heimat and speak both English and Afrikaans fluently.

Until his death, his mind conserved in a kind of protective time-warp a great repository of the nation’s bygone philosophical, musical, artistic and literary genius. To this dematerialised Germany, where the clock had stopped in 1938, he clung when Hitler’s war ended in 1945. How the British movie newsreels must have horrified and grieved him as they panned over the silent rubble of the great cities he had loved, or zoomed in on the nudging bulldozers of Bergen-Belsen as they made the heaped-up dead tangle and untangle their stick-like limbs and fix surviving humanity with huge, undead eyes before flopping into their mass graves. Years later, he poetically addressed these mourning lines to his old “Heimat” (home country):

Verdammt und gerichtet lagst du; Damned and convicted you lay;
Verteilt, zerschmettert, divided, shattered,
Den Feinden ein Raub, a prey to your foes,
Verhungert im Staub… starved in the dust. . .

It was his inviolable Heimat of the mind whose doors he opened for me in my youth. Lying on the carpet of a darkened room with our eyes closed, I listened for hours with him and my sister to the music of the great German composers. The Magic Flute was the opera we loved best. “In these sacred halls / vengeance is unknown,” boomed Mozart’s priest-king Sarastro. He reminded me of my father, forever sifting every known religious and philosophical system to find the nirvana of ultimate harmony and insight. Sarastro’s implacably earth-bound counterpart, the Queen of the Night, seemed to echo my mother’s efforts to enlist me in her assault on the temple walls behind which my father pursued meditational detachment from what he once described to me as “this illusory world of Hanuman”, the Indian monkey god, who symbolizes the amusing but empty, monkey-chattering vanity of the physical world. That obviously referred also to the earthy Nightingale of Natal’s perennial attempts to nag and cajole him into the kind of practical, down-to-earth mate her Boer traditions demanded. Her frustration seemed to shrill out at me through the Mozart stage queen’s command to slay the Priest-King – my own father! – on her behalf:

“If not –
by you –
Sarastro shall be vanquished –
hear, hear, hear, avenging gods!
Hear this mother’s vow!”

Yet aided by the deep affection flowing underneath the discordant surface of their relationship, they nevertheless passed down to their children a Magic Flute of love, decency and integrity which later guided us – like the Mozart figures of Prince Tamino and Princess Pamina – through our own fire-and-water trials of adulthood.

My father told me once he always knew when I was returning from school because I would loudly and accurately whistle opera and oratorio arias while biking home. I must have been a rather odd boy. Letta Shabalala, the impish Zulu housemaid who was my sister’s bosom friend, gave me an affectionately mocking Zulu name: Ma-khô-khô-sele (He-who-walks-with-lowered-head), which aptly portrayed my eyes-to-the-ground gait as an introspective teenager. My mother, whose Grecian braided-up hairstyle was her trademark throughout her mature adulthood, was dubbed Isitholo – “she-with-the-braid”. To Letta, my sister was Inyoni, the Songbird, because she sang so sweetly all day. My father had no Zulu name. I guess Sarastro was the one which fitted him best.

Especially in Durban, where I spent my first 8 years of life, I gained indelible impressions of the human interaction across the colour bar of racist-era South Africa which no amount of official or social-peer pressure was ever able to suppress. I like to believe that I am to some extent a Zulu, having spent more time with my Zulu nanny than my own hard-working mother in infancy. I never knew Ellen by any other than her mission-given first name, but she has left me with vivid memories of the sound, sight, touch and smell sensations in which Zulu mothers bathe their infants. Encouraged by my own instinctively non-racist mother, Sister Deanne and I are said to have started speaking Zulu before we learned Afrikaans, English or German. This may well have been true, because Ellen liked to show off our language skills as we sat with other black nannies on the great lawn in Durban’s rambling Jameson Park. I know of one occasion when Deanne won great applause from the story-loving Zulu women for her grammatically correct rendition of the tale of Little Red Riding Hood. When I look back to the Durban of 60 years ago, when I was about five years old, I re-experience a kind of easy-going little-boy’s wonderland:

I see a heat-flushed town beside a luke-warm sea
where moist heat fosters jungle growth
and mildew blooms on white men’s values
and their shoes.

Why, there’s the backyard of 109,
Montpelier Road, with my sandpit
underneath the avocado tree!
That’s Ellen’s kaya
by the twin papayas!
And there we go – big she and little I –
to Jameson Park, where dervish hordes
of vervet monkeys
shriek and clatter through the trees.

On the lawn below, Ellen
seats herself majestically
amid a group of younger,
humbler Zulu nannies.
Soon, the women settle down
to the kind of lazy talk you hear
on such a hot and clammy day.

“Sleep now, we-Tinizaan; sleep, we-Lollozaan,”
Ellen murmurs.
My nose is hidden, small and white,
between the grainy, malt-brown pillows
of her breasts. They smell like putu,
that crumbly maizemeal staple
that comes steaming hot
from a black, three-legged pot,
with an added, dusky note
I’ll associate in later years
with Mother Africa.

The women gossip on, their rhythm varied
by the grace-notes of their laughter
and a syncopated carillon of clicks.
Like Alice, nodding off to Sister Dinah’s reading,
I barely hear the words.
Their voices blur, as intimate as Zulu bees,
murmuring their summer song
amid the nectar-dripping trees…

What a beautiful language isiZulu is, what gorgeous sounds and intricate rhythms emerge from those ebony throats when they sing! Back from a trip to the Welsh-green hills of KwaZulu, where he was asked to musically adjudicate a massed choir at a mission church, my father was abashed. “Never before did I hear the Hallelujah chorus from Messiah sung so impressively”, he declared. He subsequently ignored racist barriers and took on several Zulu, Coloured and Indian singing pupils in his private studio, declaring that their innate musicality and sense of rhythm was far superior to that of most whites he dealt with.

My father preserved a childlike love of certain German traditions, notably the carols, hushed rituals and glittering candles of Heiligabend (Christmas Eve). Year after year, gravely seated beside the candle-lit tree, he read Luke’s tidings of the Nativity to us from the Gothic script of his old Lutheran confirmation bible. Then we all part-sang “Mary through a thorn-grove went, Kyrie eleison!”, “A rose hath blossomed from a tender root” and “Silent Night” to his piano accompaniment. At a very early age, his art books introduced me to Riemenschneider, Dürer, Grünewald, Velasquez, Goya and the flowering of western architecture from Bysance to Bauhaus. I was too young to know then that some of the buildings shown in those pre-war books had been obliterated a few years previously by the night-and-day carpet bombing of the Third Reich.

As a product of the romantic Wandervogel hiking movement of his youth, my father was a keen nature rambler. Chivvying us children off on his day-long hikes, he would take along a favourite classic to read under some inviting thorn tree: Rilke, Eichendorff, Hesse, Mann, Goethe, Meister Ekkehart. But any discussions about the Nazi era, modern Germany or the German people were apt to revive the painful memory of how his own countrymen had spurned him. Then he would invariably exclaim: “Wie einen räudigen Hund hat man mich verjagt!” – they chased me away like a mangy dog!

In thanking the kindly fate that had sent him to the remote southern rim of Africa to find a congenial new home, my father often reflected on what he felt to be the prophetic truth of a folk-song couplet that was engraved in Gothic letters on a silver art nouveau mug, a baptismal gift to him which I now treasure:

Wem Gott will rechte Gunst erweisen Whom God would truly favour
den schickt er in die weite Welt… he sends into the wide, wide world …

Newly arrived in stimulating Europe with a young wife I loved and alluring career prospects, I felt that the prophecy applied to me as well. A trick of fate had created a curiously inverted parallel between my father’s emigration and mine. Each of us had abandoned a native country at the peak of its particular fever curve of racist dementia to settle elsewhere in what we variously found to be a more agreeable, decent place. Both migrations involved the same two countries, albeit in opposite directions at an interval of 33 years. During that gap in time, however, cataclysmic events had finally blasted my new German abode into greater sanity and material prosperity, whereas Apartheid had meanwhile transformed South Africa into an ostracised pariah state with a more negative foreign image even than that of the Third Reich of the mid-1930s, when my father knew it.

Indeed, the racist police state into which South Africa degenerated under successive Afrikaner Nationalist regimes after 1948 (i.e. a decade after my father’s arrival there) contained more than casual analogies to the Hitlerian Germany of his day. No wonder: some of the early Afrikaner ideologues of Apartheid were ultra-nationalist disciples of the Nazis. They borrowed from the Nuremberg race laws to draft their own labyrinthine system of racial compartmentalisation, and the morality of the “Christian Nationalist” mumbo-jumbo they invented to justify their fascistoid race bureaucracy and ever-expanding, paramilitary establishment was as elaborately hollow as the pseudo-scientific reasoning of the Nazi race philosophers.

Apartheid admittedly stopped short of systematic pan-genocide, even when the burgeoning security establishment was clandestinely harassing, locking away, torturing and liquidating Africans by the thousands in the last years of the regime. But it pursued its own goal of segregating, dehumanising and economically exploiting a permanently subjugated black majority with a methodical single-mindedness that was at times reminiscent of an Eichmann’s soulless administration of death. Civic and psychic rather than corporeal death in this case. But which of the two kinds is more lingeringly cruel to the victim?

Loyalty and fairness to my nevertheless eminently likeable fellow-Afrikaners compels me to pay tribute to those courageous Afrikaner individuals who braved ostracism by their own close-knit community to excoriate Apartheid during the worst years of the regime. Though white opposition was at first limited mainly to English-speaking liberals, dissent became such a powerful force inside the Afrikaner laager during the 1980s that it finally prodded the last white president, F.W. de Klerk, to accept a new strategy to secure what will always be Afrikanerdom’s highest priority – self-survival of Africa’s only white tribe amid a numerically overwhelming majority of black Africans. Instead of trying to achieve this through permanent, forceful subjugation of the majority, the new mission statement required Afrikaners to rely on their key role as a vitally needed technocratic elite in accepting the challenge to help build a new, colour-blind society with equal rights and opportunities for all under majority rule.

Though it was the combination of mounting domestic turmoil and international pressure which eventually made white South Africans see the writing on the wall for their minority-rule system, high tribute must be paid to the white electorate for finally accepting the new dispensation negotiated by de Klerk and Nelson Mandela. Their entire history had conditioned Afrikaners to see themselves as a scattered little agrarian community, forever compelled to fend off faceless hordes of black savages. In their eyes, moreover, the notion that their Calvinist God had chosen them to subjugate the “lesser” races was sanctified by the rough-hewn talon law and ethnic particularism of the Old Testament, which decreed that the black sons of Ham were divinely ordained to remain no more than “hewers of wood and carriers of water“ for all time.

But it was the NEW Testament message of man’s equality before God and his Son’s commandment to show Christian charity to all mankind that inspired modern dissenters like the Rev. Christian Beyers Naudé, as well as the businessmen and young Stellenbosch students who defiantly flew to black African capitals for epoch-making fraternisation talks with outlawed black opposition leaders on the eve of the New Era. Long before then already, the 1961 police massacre of African township inhabitants at Sharpeville and elsewhere produced heart-felt condemnations of Afrikaner racist brutality from within the laager of the Volk.

It was the brilliant young Afrikaner poet Ingrid Jonker who graphically described a small boy lying on a mortuary slab “met ‘n koeël deur sy kop” – with a bullet through his head – at Philippoli township while the armoured troop carriers, machine guns and rifles of his murderers menaced surviving ghetto-dwellers outside. Jonker reflects that this boy, like all Africans, had to carry a humiliating “pass” (Africans-only ID) at all times when still alive. But a time will come, she prophesies, when nobody will be able to stop “die kind wat ‘n man geword het” (the child-who-has-become-a-man) from walking tall all over the globe – ”sonder ‘n pas” (without a pass).

The world has already forgotten all but the most obvious excesses of Apartheid – the police massacres of demonstrators including the Soweto 600-700 schoolchildren mown down whole protesting compulsory Afrikaans-medium school teaching, the ruthlessly bulldozed squatter townships created by large-scale regional segregation, the secret regime agenda of deliberately fomented assassinations, racial conflict and foreign destabilisation. But to those who experienced its routine application, Apartheid was a daily succession of smaller horrors. Those were the days of a racist bureaucracy gone mad. A lone male employer couldn’t drive a black woman servant across town if she sat beside him because the next cop they encountered would pull them out of the car and accuse them of conspiring to break the Immorality Act against white / black miscegenation. In the labyrinthine application of the Group Areas Act, a white Bantu Administration Board official could callously shrug away a domestic servant’s existentially critical work permit problems by passing the buck to crooked black stooges of his own system in the so-called homeland regimes. The use of phrases like “democratic rule of law” was apt to be misread as a sign that the speaker was a closet “communist” or (worse still) “liberalist”. A day on the beach might be scarred by the sight of police dog-handlers ruthlessly chasing Coloured fishermen off the suddenly “whites-only” beaches from which they had cast their nets for so many generations. And bulldozers steadily chewed Cape Town’s vibrant District Six quarter out of the city’s living heart in order to spirit away its Coloured residents to soulless suburban ghettos, leaving only a gaping, empty wound in their place.

In the fear-paralysed Afrikaner mind of those days, Ingrid Jonker was a rare glint of gold in a murky pan; a tragic young person of great promise who was so beset by emotional conflicts that she drowned herself in the chilly Atlantic off Cape Town’s rocky Sea Point shore, only a mile or so away from where I lived at the time. How I wish she could have seen her grown-up manchild walking wherever he wishes in Nelson Mandela’s Rainbow Country – sonder ‘n pas.

My mother and I were very close until the end of my early adolescence. She was a wonderful companion in those years – a straightforward man’s companion with a handyman’s practicality, a singer of soothing bed-time lullabies and jolly Afrikaner folk ditties and above all, a fabulous teller of tales. Born 8 June 1904 on Cloverly, a Van Pletsen family farm in the Barkly East district, Helena Susara (Helen) van Pletsen was the oldest of the five children of Johannes Francois (Frans) van Pletsen, born in Graaff Reinet on 21 November 1877, and Dina Johanna, born Crouse.

Helen van Pletsen as a baby

Helen van Pletsen as a baby.

According to brother Carl and her three sisters, Frederika Petronella Magdalena (Frikkie), Dina Johanna (Dulcie) and Reinet Seneschal (Renée), big sister Helen was their unquestioned pack leader, active as an inventor, exponent and adjudicator of the kind of group entertainments pursued by imaginative farmyard children with few toys to play with.

Helen as a long-legged farmgirl, with brother Carl and sister Frikkie

Helen (center) as a long-legged farmgirl, with brother Carl and sister Frikkie

Those were the days when even in the Cape, which remained a British Crown Colony until 1910, Boers in remote farming districts like Barkly East often had only a sketchy command of the two official languages, English and High Dutch. Before South African Union in 1910, the colonial authorities pursued the “anglicisation” of school education with the hard hand of imperialism by banning classroom use of either High Dutch or “kitchen Dutch/ Cape Dutch”, the common lingo whose efforts to become an independent written language were scorned until it became the officially recognised language of Afrikaans in 1925. Infants born before or immediately after the 1902 end of the Anglo-Boer War often made to stand before the class wearing a dunce’s cap and a cardboard sign reading “I am a fool. I spoke Dutch.” These conditions inspired one game Helen played with the younger children. Called “Speaking English,” it required a circle of kids to take turns at demonstrating their command of English. The way my Ma told the story, little brother Carl won no linguistic honours but gained full marks for imagination when he recited this little self-invented speech: “Ah sin’ mah boy for a pos’ orfis, in tee-ah, in tee-ah.” The first bit clearly meant “I sent my boy to the post office”, but what on earth did “in tee-ah, in tee-ah” signify? When questioned, he replied: “Don’t know”, then disarmingly added: “but it really sounds English, doesn’t it?”

At the age of 7, I admired her as a glorious Tamara Lempicka goddess of the automobile age on the momentous day when her high-slung, 1936-vintage Oldsmobile hit a deep erosion gully veering at a deceptive slant across a badly worn dirt road. The art of smooth dirt-road driving is to minimise the bone-shaking impact of the regularly spaced transverse corrugations by finding and holding a pretty fast lick that lets the wheels plane over the ridge-tops without entirely losing contact. If spotted too late, however, an irregular erosion gully will break wheel contact with the surface and send you all over the place unless you can skid back into control by juggling the gears, brakes and accelerator. Ma was a better seat-of-the-pants driver than most women of her day, but she then lacked that level of expertise. Wilhelmina, as we called the stately black Olds, went into a vicious spin when she jammed on the brakes ahead of a sharp corner. But she grimly held onto that big, bucking steering wheel and we slithered to a rest in a huge cloud of dust and clattering stones, pointing back the way we came and thankful to be alive. With perspiration glistening on her brow, she blew a wisp of damp black hair from her face, gave a bravely comical sigh of relief, grinned broadly and said: “Soe, maar dit was broekskeur, Boetie!” (Wow, that was close, Sonny!) Then she coolly manhandled big old Wilhelmina around and finished the rest of the 300-mile trip to sister Dulcie’s home in the remote hamlet of Memel, Orange Free State in fine shape.

Her driving teacher was my uncle Malcolm Vincent, a favourite of Helen’s whose broad Pictish physique, square hands and love of all mechanical things typified his Scottish ancestry. They were kindred natures and great buddies. The proverbially canny Malcolm, who claimed kinship with the Highland clan of the Bells, was a hard bargainer. He searched the auto marts of Durban for a bargain in the shape of an ancient but sturdy car he could buy for a song and knock into a ship-shape family chariot for my mother with his capable hands. We kids would cower on the oldster’s shabby back bench and giggle nervously at Malcolm’s professional driving-instructor’s patter as he briskly put my mother through her paces: “Now Helen, there’s a stop street coming up, so what do you do? Dead easy – stick out your mitt (i.e. hand-signal intention to stop), slap her into second, foot off the petrol, let her slow down and dab at the brakes – och NO, Helen, I said DAB them, not SLAM them!”

I too was a great fan of my genial Scottish uncle. He was not only a generous host, a fine woodwork craftsman and a good sport, but also a man with an accurate eye for a sensible, good-looking woman. He proved this in my eyes by methodically courting and capturing lovely Reinet (or Renée, as she was called), my youngest and favourite aunt, who was then boarding with us at 109 Montpelier Road. Deanne was lovely as a bridesmaid at the wedding while I scoffed down so much rich cake and trifle that I got sick. Renée van Pletsen had previously become my first love at the age of four, when she took me to South Beach one gorgeous Indian Ocean day. Slim as a wand in a 1947 two-piece costume, she held my right hand as we waded into the high breakers, with surfers barrelling in perilously close all around us. The sun behind her head made a halo around her flying brunette mane, and my heart gave itself to her forever when her blue eyes and broad mouth smiled that wonderful, girlish smile she still has at the age of well over 80.

Renée also witnessed the sad failure of my grimly Calvinist old Ouma (Grandma) Dina’s efforts to save me for her old-time Calvinist religion. As a Sunday School teacher at the local Dutch Reformed Church, Renée included me among her charges on Ouma Dina’s instructions and later joined me in the church for the adult service. Not only did I shame her and annoy my pious elders by repeatedly dropping and retrieving my loudly tinkling collection penny, I also proved impervious to the Bible teachings of the solemn Dominee (pastor). When questioned later about his sermon, I quoted him as stating that “’n gehoorsame meid is beter as ‘n slak” – an obedient maid is better than a snail. “Than a what?” asked Ouma sternly. What he actually said, she finally established, was the euphonious lesson, drawn from Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac, that “gehoorsaamheid is beter as slagoffer” – obedience is better than sacrifice. Ouma Dina gave up on me after that and abandoned me to the Devil.

My mother held and practiced some rather original notions about my education. Some of them worked, as when she encouraged my taste for good English literature by making me learn Shakespearean monologues and passages of Miltonian verse by rote as a punishment for stealing cookies. I can still recite “All the World’s a Stage”, “The Quality of Mercy” and “On his Blindness” to this day. Some stratagems didn’t work, as when she caught me smoking and urged a whole package of cigarettes on me, imagining I would soon feel sick enough to kick the habit. I didn’t, of course. Since she was a liberal Cape Boer who had fallen in love with the quintessentially sane, civilised heart of the English even before teaching in London County Council schools in the 1930s, my childhood contacts with more fundamentalist kinsfolk were confined to some of the rural types I met during our frequent trips to the remote farms of her brother Carl Johannes and brother-in-law Francois (“’Cois”) Johannes.

With his wry humour, genial hospitality, love of nature, leathery toughness and an obstinacy that easily escalated into irate bloody-mindedness, ‘Cois (one of the Zastron/ Wepener bunch of Van Pletzens with a “z”) was a mixture of the berserk, incredibly pig-headed and touchingly gentle, kindly traits that coalesce so oddly in a certain kind of rural Afrikaner personality. As a sheep rancher in the Orange Free State, the annual “wool cheque” he received after shearing was so big in the last wool-boom years of the 1950s that he bought a new American car every year. As the primitive farm roads soon played havoc with the soft American suspension of the spanking new Chevvy or Ford, the shortness of the replacement interval was inversely proportional to the number of bits and pieces that had broken off by the time he bought a new car. When chemical fibres ended the global wool boom, ‘Cois had to weather leaner times. Outwardly, he often appeared to be a harsh, bitter man – “sommer verkeerd”, as the Afrikaners say, i.e. “wrong-headed” or “plain bolshy”. His famous rages occasionally made him beat insufficiently servile black farmhands (“cheeky kaffirs”), and he bore a silver plate in his skull from the one who bashed him back with a pickaxe when he turned his back one day. With hardly a helper left, he would mount his chuffing Fordson tractor at dawn with only a bottle of black, sugarless coffee beside him for nourishment, then return in the evening after ploughing his vast maize fields non-stop in a glaring, 40°C sun — a tall, gnarled Viking of a man with a furrowed, brick-red face as leathery as the wind-dried beef jerky the Boers call biltong.

Yet I once came upon this same “kaffir-basher” having a long, amiable conversation in fluent Sesotho with an induna (tribal elder) from across the nearby border with Basutoland (Lesotho), where the sheep-raiding Basotho of King Moshoeshoe’s day would blithely retreat to their mountain strongholds and roll huge boulders down upon pursuing Boer commandos. ’Cois was a model of consideration and good manners to the stately old tribesman, observing all the traditional Sotho courtesies of gesture and speech. But when the mission-educated old gentleman politely drew me in by swapping a few words with me in his excellent English (he knew no Afrikaans), ‘Cois saw red. He rudely broke in to berate me in Afrikaans for speaking that “verdomde rooinektaal” – damned redneck (i.e. English) lingo. The courtly induna and I looked at each other dumbly in equal embarassment.

On a later occasion, when I was working for an English-language opposition newspaper in Cape Town, I dropped in on his farm with an English colleague who was a close friend of mine. ‘Cois was clearly out to get us both for siding with – or actually being one of – the “rooinek” Britons. Speaking with the peculiar, gently guttural “r” that is typical of his region, ‘Cois lashed into me: “Why are you always so vergggdomd strgggoom-op (damned against-the-stream), Rgggoon? Why work for the vergggdomde Cape Argus instead of Die Burger?” My friend Denis came in for his share of rooinek-bashing when ‘Cois pointedly vituperated at length against the vile English, knowing full well that his quarry couldn’t speak Afrikaans. Denis parried this assault very diplomatically by insisting he was Welsh, not English, and that the Welsh didn’t have much liking for the English either. Later, an embarrassed relative buttonholed me and explained that ‘Cois shouldn’t be taken too seriously – he was simply in one of his “bloody” moods and was goading me to see how I reacted. Knowing ‘Cois, I had suspected this all along and, seeing the confirmatory twinkle in the old ruffian’s eye, I never begrudged him his little joke. Denis was as shocked as a barely escaped pogrom refugee from a sacked Polish shtetl. But then, the English simply aren’t equipped to understood the bloody-minded, poker-faced humour that descends upon a really bolshy, backwoods Boer when he is feeling his oats.

Under easier circumstances, nobody could be as kind or as courteous as ’Cois. When my dog died, he brought me a beautiful little black Spitz puppy on his next visit to town. His love for all creatures great and small was so deep that the only time he ever shouted at my mild Aunt Frederika (“Frikkie”) was when she sounded their Chevvy’s hooter at a flock of totally unimpressed sheep to clear the road: “Jirre, pop (Lord, dolly), you’ll ruin their nerves!” I too got it in the neck once for daring to kick a termite hill with my city-slicker shoes: “You know how long it takes those tiny little creatures to build that?”

My mother’s beloved brother Carl was a contrasting product of the more civilised, liberal Cape Afrikaner tradition who lacked ’Cois’s brand of rage-driven racism and real or pretended hatred of the English. Unlike the pro-German ultra-nationalists, to whom the fellow-Boers fighting against Rommel in the Western Desert were “traitors”, Carl answered Prime Minister Jan Smuts’s call to arms because he recognised that Hitler was a menace to humanity. His ancestral Wintersvlei and Nachtwacht farms in the green hills of the eastern Cape’s East Griqualand region were spick-and-span operations, regularly praised by the Farmer’s Weekly as model farms. His sleek dairy herd won many awards. Carl was a frequently taciturn figure of great fairness, good sense and responsibility who deeply believed that the paternalistic care he and my highly capable Aunt Joan lavished on their large community of Ama’mPondo farmhands and domestic servants was the only feasible model for South African race relations.

He was convinced that only white leadership could maintain stable conditions for the benefit of both whites and Africans. My naively apolitical father’s colour-blindness irritated him so much one evening that he flung a typical Afrikaner question at him: “Come on, Albrecht, now you tell me – what are you going to do when a big buck kaffir bursts into your house with a machete and starts raping your wife and daughter?” “I would throw my body between them,” my father said mildly. Carl shook his head in disgust and dropped the subject. Yet he was reasonable enough to concede that the paternalistic system which seemed to work so well on his farms was fast being eroded by forces including the growing sophistication of the better-educated, detribalised Africans in the restless urban townships. Though he was locally respected for his role in community affairs, his commitment to the Afrikaner National Party was not strong enough to make him accept repeated invitations from party friends to stand for election to the all-white national parliament in Cape Town.

Carl was greatly admired by my mother, who tactlessly and unwisely held him up to her impractical husband as a shining example of all the sterling qualities of traditional Boer manhood. But when she died of a painful lung disease at the age of 80 after several years of increasing suffering, during which my father devotedly comforted and cared for her, all the old divisive arguments between the Nightingale of Natal and her Rudolf Valentino lover were forgotten. Borrowing a line of German poetry from her mental treasure house of Famous Quotations, she told him shortly before her death in 1984: “Dass ich dich gefunden, dafür danke ich Gott alle Tage” ( for allowing me to find you, I thank God each day).


© Roon Lewald 2008


Entry filed under: Afrikaans, Afrikanerskap, Apartheid, Boere, Genealogy, Lewald, Race and Culture, Reunions, South Africa, van pletsen, van Pletzen Genealogy, von plessen.

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11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Carl Johannes van Pletsen  |  March 18, 2008 at 9:41 pm

    Well well. Small world and getting smaller. I never had the opportunity to meet “Oom Roon” but wish I had.

    Our generation grew up as “Vaaljapies” in Pretoria and Boksburg. My Father Jurgen and his siblings Carlie, Heloise & Erika were “Plaasmense”, displaced from Belfast to the city by an economic war of which we as kids understood little. My dad would never stop trying to rear chickens in town or to have a little “Groentetuiin” in the backyard.

    I for one would have loved a farm life. Young boys in Boksburg could do just about two exciting things with a lazy Saturday afternoon. You could carry your bikes up the ERPM Mine dump and come down in a hurry amidst a flurry of cyanide dust – took about a 1/2 hour to get to the top and a few quick minutes to get to the bottom. Or you could go to the “vlei” or the Cinderella Dam and swim between the”fluitjiesriet”. Never saw a fish there, thousands of tadpoles though.

    We used to visit the “Familie” in Pretoria many a Sunday afternoon. After Church “the little van Pletsens” (all five of us) would pile into the back of our 2-door Opel and stop only when we reach Pretoria. Sometimes we would go to Oom Jurgen and Tannie Francis close to the University, other times we would go to Aunt Helen in Parkstraat. Your Father used to be absent as he would go walking on Sundays. I think I met him in real life only when I went to study at Tuks in 1971! Your mother was larger than life and it was fun for the kids to be treated to a story!

    We knew about the “Van Pletsen Saga” and your Mother relished showing and talking about the story. She also showed us a document that was some kind of “Oorkonde” from Adolf Hitler? I may be wrong there.

    Thanks for the very nice article. It fires up my imagination and gives me a few roots to explore. My Dad Jurgen, when he retired the second time, wrote up our family history and gave each of us a bound copy. He was very into such things and also had a “Familiewapen” designed and produced.

    Our famlily have been living in Western Australia for the past 5/6 years and my elder sister Jeanete is in the USA. So we have all had our own “trek” to do.

    Our grandkids would probably try to rear chickens and plant ertjies at the kitchen door one day soon.

    Johan van Pletsen

  • 2. Roon Lewald  |  March 18, 2008 at 11:59 pm

    Liewe neef Carl Johannes,
    Hoe aardig om só van jou te hoor! Sounds as if you’re a bit younger than me, which explains why we didn’t meet during your family’s visits to my mother (I left Pretoria in 1962 and studied/worked in Cape Town and Joburg until I left for Germany in 1971). But I remember your father, Heloise and Erika very well since my mother was very fond of them all we often saw them. I know that your dad was into family history and in fact have a copy of an amusing little book by him about Florida in the early days of Johannesburg.

    The “oorkonde” you mention is a letter (now in possession) from Hitler to my great-uncle Theodor (Theo) Lewald, formally thanking him for organising the highly successful 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

    (Theo organised substitute national Games when Germany was barred from the Olympic movement after 1918 and, when his incessant diplomatic lobbying caused Germany to be readmitted, he became president of the reborn National Olympic Committee in 1932. As such, he persuaded the IOC to vote for Berlin as the next Games site. Since Hitler saw this as a heaven-sent opportunity for the Nazis to whitewash the Reich as a land of peace and good sportsmaship, he had no choice but to let Theo run the show even though the old man was half Jewish.)
    I was always uneasy about the way Theo naively let the Nazis use the Games to fool the millions of highly impressed foreign visitors, and wouldn’t want to hang the Hitler letter on my study wall.

    But History – in the shape of my Ma – added a fitting comment on the episode. A little cockroach scurried over Hitler’s letter one hot night and she quickly squashed it with her thumb. Now, the spiky signature of the “GRÖFAZ” (Greatest Führer of All Times), as his adoring followers called him, is half obliterated by the yucky, Nazi-brown innards of the little roach.

    Hope you’re doing well in Australia. I loved Oz when I visited there a few years ago and found the brash, kind-hearted Aussies to be a kind of English-speaking Afrikaner (great compliment). Want jy moenie sukkel met ‘n Aussie of ‘n Boer nie, jong, jy sal mos op ‘n plek land waar jy nie wil wees nie!

    Roon Lewald

  • 3. Helen van Pletzen  |  March 19, 2008 at 1:07 am

    Son Blane sent this on to us and what an interesting read. Strange that I have the same name as your mother except for the Z. You certainly have an interesting genealogy and what a great writing talent you have. I look forward to reading the story a few times to be able to digest and remember it all. Thank you for recording it and sharing it.

    Kindest regards to you and yours.

    Helen van Pletzen

  • 4. Inyoni « Blane  |  April 22, 2009 at 11:42 pm

    […] we became old enough to sense the low-key tensions that divided our parents, serious-minded Deanne naturally gravitated towards my metaphysically preoccupied father while […]

  • 5. Retha-Louise Malherbe Hofmeyr  |  May 4, 2009 at 9:10 pm

    Dear Roon
    I ejoyed reading your memoirs. I have just been visiting my parents, Joubero and Etienne Malherbe in Pretoria. They were close friends of your parents and still remember both, Helen en Albrecht with great fondness and high regard.
    Their house is an archive that reflects SA’s music life – just like your parents’ home must have been. In a attempt to sort out the letters and docs (en om die koring v.d. kaf te skei) I came across quite a few cards from your parents and an envelope with poems written by your father. The envelope also contained a pic of the Meintjies painting (harlequin with peacock feather) which still hangs on their lounge wall at 404 Marais Street, Brooklyn, Pretoria.
    Feel free to make contact. They are both still sharp and witty and I can be contacted at this address. I have been in Namibia since 1983.
    Kind regards
    Retha-Louise Hofmeyr

    • 6. Roon  |  May 4, 2009 at 10:50 pm

      Dear Retha-Louise,
      Dis nou ‘n riem-onder-die-hart kontak en kommentaar, hoor! I remember you parents so well – my goodness, they must be very old by now! – and still have tape cassettes of a few of the SABC “praatjies” in which your mom egged my old man on to tell all his familiar stories about the musical titans of pre-war Berlin. Good friends like Joubero really helped to keep my father feel alive and appreciated in the lonely years after my mother died. I shall certainly contact both you and your parents when I’ve digested this unexpected encounter with the past. In fact, I’ll look up your folks in Pretoria when I visit SA in September. I’ll ask Blane to pass on my e-mail address to you and will ask him for yours.
      Thanks so much for your comments!

  • 7. Patricia Pitman  |  March 27, 2010 at 4:42 pm

    Could you please tell me the name of the Wife of Albrecht Von Roon and his children’s names
    I have read your article and enjoyed it ,
    I have Roon heritage in my family tree,
    and have been told That Albrecht Von Ronn was a family member
    my Great Grandfather was a Baron in Germany married to Whilhelmina Von Roon,
    Thank You

  • 8. A Christmas Crèche « Blane  |  December 8, 2010 at 8:01 am

    […] 8, 2010 By Roon Lewald And she brought forth her first-born son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a […]

  • 9. The Van Pletsen Saga « Blane  |  August 14, 2011 at 5:48 am

    […] by her son, Roon Lewald […]

  • 10. Memoirs of Otto Albrecht Lewald « Blane  |  March 19, 2012 at 10:19 pm

    […] his son, Roon Lewald Otto Albrecht […]

  • 11. RATEAU Michel  |  August 17, 2015 at 12:11 am

    Hello ! I am a French linguist and I just read your most interesting story… Bravo ! Please, I read that existed Jouberto or Joubero Malherbe : do you know if these people ever owned a farm called Jouberos Fountein ? I am studying these types of place-names. Any data on this name would make me most happy ! Thank you so much.
    Michel A. RATEAU, in France
    00 – 33 (France) 553 22 56 08


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