BROTHER IN BLOOD
The birth of the prodigy. 1994.
25 years before my wakening.
On any other blue-skies winter’s evening on a rural plot just outside of Polokwane, then called Pietersburg, when orange dust blurs the horizon into a smoggy sunset mash of bouncing white bakkies and pot-holed dreams, I was born. Screaming, she said. And why the hell would she have lied to me? She was my mother after all and mothers don’t lie, unless of course, as I found out years later, it was for my own safety. Which, it was, very much so. So I suppose I can only thank my mother for what she did and who she was. And who she was, was her: Patricia — a remarkably kind and skinny black woman of a light brown complexion, which before she died had leathered into friendly smiling lines beneath her white doekie, which she wore always. She was gentle, religious, and for as long as I can remember, concerned about me. Love you Mom.
My father was white and dead she told me only once. That’s all I knew about him and I never really cared to ask much else because when I did my mother would say nothing about him anyway. When I was older, I could only assume that my very conception, much like the conception of the new South Africa, was one conceived in the force of hate between people here, so who was I to dare enquire about the rape that had clearly traumatised my mother into silence? Well, I could only imagine that that’s what it was — rape — because only that could warrant for such sad and frightened unanswerables. So, what it all meant then, I used to think, was that I was the truest child of our new country because I was, in a sense, born just like it, forced into being by a whiteness that didn’t want me and a blackness that had no choice but to have me on white terms. This was the new South Africa and with it, came me.
Soon after I was born my mother, with me in her arms, left for Joburg to find work so I never got to know much about the Pietersburg we left behind except for my holidays with Uncle Moses. He was not my real uncle, but a man close enough to my mother that he acted like one. I wasn’t sure how he was weaved into my family, just that he was, and because I didn’t have a father, his influence over my life was always paternal. Whenever I visited he was always ready to instil what he thought was good black education despite his disability: He was wheelchair-bound all the time that I knew him and even without the use of his legs, he insisted I kept the ball down and round. That was his rule. Our rule. Soccer, never rugby. So, as a boy, I spent much of my Pietersburg days awkwardly playing wheelchair soccer with a man who called himself my uncle. That was Moses.
Things were a lot different in Joburg though. Well, at least in the white part Joburg where I grew up. There, my best friend Frans Van Vuuren always insisted that balls were meant to be held and run and only kicked when gaining possession, attempting a sneaky up-and-under or, of course, kicking for posts. This was rugby — and in that oval, white world, round balls were “fokken broken balls, hoor jy?” That’s what Frans Van Vuuren used to say.
Frans Van Vuuren was born just two days after me to a kind woman called Henriette, kind in the parenting sense that the genetics of colonialism had sewn to her, which to be fair was a whiteness she never asked to inherit. What she did for my mother and me she always assumed was in our best interest but never really cared to ask our opinion about anything, which my mother only accepted because of the all-accepting servitude that colonialism had bound to her, which of course, she too never asked to inherit but adopted in her blackness. That was the truth of it.
Frans’ father however, was not so kind in the earlier years — the man would often shout and scream and chase us, Mom and me, from our room, which only he could do because he had the power to do so. As my mother worked for their family, washed their dishes and cleaned their sheets, there wasn’t much that she could say when he decided to rampage through our dignity in the early hours of the morning searching for money that he himself had no doubt spent on countless tots of brandy at a hotel not far from there.
My mother was their maid. So, it meant that I was brought up in the confusing space between two families in Johannesburg: A white one of three in the main house and a black one of two in the outdoor room where I first lived with my mom. At least until Henriette insisted that I, for the benefit of space and opportunity, move into the main house with Frans and them when I was just five years old. So I did. But not into the all caring arms that such a sentiment might suggest. Instead, it seemed that Henriette used me to spite her husband as if my very presence in the main house was a proclamation of her wifely presence and independence, as if my very presence was enough to heighten her own in his eyes. It didn’t really work. Although my move angered him when he was around to see it, truth was he was never around enough to let me bother him. So, whatever my move did for them in the end actually did more for me: With it, Frans Van Vuuren became my new white brother, and I, somewhere on the spectrum of black and white, became his.
We were just a stone’s throw from Rietfontein Road, all shackled up in a small yellow house albeit larger than any I had ever lived in before. It smelled of moth balls. Here, white skin was burnt yellow like mine dumps; it reeked of cheap cologne and brandy, a white world that didn’t share in the benefits of Verwoerd’s trust fund. It was the world of working class Afrikaners, an African world more African than you’d dare believe but more removed from the black Africans around it by what was the curse of apartheid that it meant racial mixing was far rarer here than it was within richer English communities. So, as it was, I was quite the oddity around these East Rand Afrikaner blocks.
Time passed. And as time passed, I grew into that whiteness and became more and more a part of that white family with my new brother Frans Van Vuuren. Not because my mother was weak but because the institutions that raised me were white — whatever my brother got, Henriette insisted that I got too. So my schools, my friendships and my sports turned paler over the years and that which was learnt by Moses was inevitably lost to what was to become my new, whiter identity.
As the years went on, I spoke less and less Sepedi to my mother; it was inserted here and there between an Afrikaans that was to become my own. Because, when school came, it was an Afrikaans one with Frans, which my mother seemed to accept with a sad touch of inevitability. You see, she believed in the benefits of what the language could offer me. As mom cared little for the honour of blood, of culture, for who we were and where we had come from, it was easier for her offering up the blacker side of me for my own sake; it was, after all, still a white country as she saw it and for ordinary men like me, the blacker side of me would offer me nothing in the real world. That’s what mom would say. She was a victim of circumstance and no amount of freedom talk in her late teens could convince her of the value of resolutely maintaining my blackness. She believed that better jobs and a better life came to those who were better equipped in whiteness and diluting my blacker side, which living in the main house did, was better for me as I aged, she thought. And perhaps she was right. That was the reality for ordinary children like me despite Mandela and his freedom.
What it all meant was that I had to explain to those around me as I grew, those who boxed me, that I wasn’t less black than white but looked considerably whiter on the surface of my soul, its depths still as black as white, as white as black. But much like the new South Africa around me, as in the older one, the darker of my sides was suffocated out of necessity, for what was required for living comfortably in that white world.
Colour, no doubt, the anxiety of it, tore at me. In South Africa, in a place that needs identity like a druggie mother needs her heroine, it became the crisis of me. Black and white fought through me for presence, for relevance, for who I was and what I should be — the crisis of me! As a young boy, it left me shaking in its limbo, unsure in the ugly shadow of its meaning. I wasn’t sure who I was or who I was meant to be, just that I was, a boy of both, something in between — the crisis of me!
‘What crisis?’ Mom would say, ‘You are just a South African!’
And then to comfort me as I aged she would insist that I was the most South African of us all with enough blackness and whiteness to make everyone jealous. How’s that for a mother? How’s that for a South Africa?
Certainly, it was very convenient growing up in the same house as my best friend and newest brother, Frans Van Vuuren. He and I did everything together, and that everything — for as long as I can remember — was rugby. Day after day, we ignored homework and played rugby. On weekends, we would watch Super Rugby or Currie Cup and afterwards we would pretend to be the players on screen. I was always the super fly winger, the number 11, in no small part down to the fact that most great wingers of the time looked like me, coloured that is, and although I wasn’t coloured in the identity sense, in the apartheid sense of it, in the ‘cultural’ sense of what we understand coloured to be, I always identified as such because it was just easier for those around me that I did so. People here battle without identity tags and how was I to break free from that which South Africa insisted that I was? So I didn’t. I just went with it, naturally, casually, like everyone expected me to.
As for Van Vuuren, he was always the number 10, the super-kicking flyhalf that dictated the rugby around him, which suited him because he always liked to be the boss, always and forever the leader of his own world. How frighteningly twisted and true those words would become will reveal itself in this journal, but before they do, before any of that happened as it did, there was just a boy, a most extraordinary boy who loved rugby.
Growing up, Frans broke so many windows trying to develop his fly half ability that eventually we were banned altogether from playing rugby in the backyard. It was for the best because the patch of grass was too small to be enjoyed anyway and the freedom of the fields at our local primary school was far better for us we aged. On weekends, the park was more than okay for touch and together on a team, we drew much satisfaction from destroying our opponents on the dry beige veld that defined the parks of the Highveld. That was South Africa at its best, dry and coarse beneath the feet, with rugby ball in hand. Highveld rugby was the harshest, driest and most beautiful rugby in the world and those who said it wasn’t, well, what did they know about rugby? “Niks ‘ie”, Frans would say, “niks!”
Now, before I go any further and give you the impression that Frans Van Vuuren was just any ordinary boy, it is important that I explain now that he wasn’t. You see, Frans was unusually gifted, gifted beyond ordinary measure, so everything he did he mastered with exceptional ease. He was almost robot-like how he learnt things, still and without mistake. At rugby he was far better than the rest of us, unusually so, prodigy-like, but where talent overflowed, as it always did with Frans, it was laced with a spiteful malice that he seemed to have no control over. Some called him a horribly vicious child and I suppose he was. Disgusted by others’ inadequacies and mediocrity, it seemed he could not help, in uncontrolled fits, to ridicule anyone to tears who did not meet his high standards of talented being. In those moments, any signs of an ordinary boyhood would disappear as he, like a demon-child, would drain the dignity from his victims; the other kids found him plain scary so as the years went on they avoided him more and more until eventually I was left as his only friend.
It was unusual that a very sporty child was unpopular like he was. But it went hand in hand with an academic ability that was nothing short of a phenomenon. A phenomenon which, like his gift for sport, was held firm by an evil-type maturity. He once made a teacher cry when he was eleven. He told her that he wasn’t sure how she got the job, ‘the over-privileged whore’, but that her husband ought to punish her for being that inadequate. This was moments after he corrected her maths and demanded to see her qualifications.
His perpetual disgust with the world seemed to spare no one: When we were twelve I clearly remember when he hit his mother, a slap across the face for being late. He accused her of being an inconsistent mother who battled to understand the concept of time. She was late that day to pick us up, minutes only, but you can be assured that she was never late again. She was afraid of Frans, her Lucifer child, and in response, she developed an unhealthy praise for him over the years and became somewhat of his servant, his almost-slave in the bizarre hope that she would impress him and his intellect. She never did.
Is it strange that I felt sorry for Frans Van Vuuren despite himself? Yes it is. But, not only was he my brother and not only did I love him, but I knew somewhere deep down, well at least I thought I knew as much, that he was better than who he was. I was there when he spent countless evenings crying to himself, angry with himself for what he had done or what he had said. No matter how hard he tried, he just could not help his nastiness, and the more he alienated people with it, the nastier he became. The uglier version of him scared him as much it scared others and because of that, it never seemed to lessen the love I had for him. Well, not until that fateful day at least. Because up until then it seemed that only I — well, his father too as he was desperately afraid of Pa — was the only person he ever he spared from his savagery. And perhaps I felt special because of that, that the boy with the intense talents would kindly spare me. Maybe my love for him was buried in fear. Maybe it was choked in admiration. Regardless, it was a love that one has for a brother, unchanged until it all changed, unchanged until the nastiness that truly was him could spare me no longer. But I will come to that.
Frans Van Vuuren truly was my brother in those years. Any sin he seemed to harbour was always balanced with the warmth I needed. It was he who comforted me when my mother died. It was he who let me cry when I had no one.
I was thirteen. It was the start of a Highveld winter. Bitter cold evenings were announced with the smell of veld fires and on the inner ring of the East Rand, a grey haze lingered above the squatter camps, smoke and dust that had settled in for the dryness of the months to come. My mother would never see rain again. Cancer, as it does too often, steals people from us earlier than we believe is right, and we are left to pick at the memories they leave behind. Before I really knew she was sick, she was dead, and during that time Frans, and only Frans, pulled me through it with the words of comfort every grieving child needs. His maturity had no limits, and like a father almost, like a dad with his son, he comforted me and I grew closer to him.
I’m not sure now how I would have coped without him and I used to thank God he was my brother. Uncle Moses was far from me, by then a family somewhat removed. Henriette was a mother, but not mine. So, it was only Frans I had and only Frans who seemed close enough to really care when she died. And for that reason, if that reason is reason enough, it was difficult to cope when Frans Van Vuuren changed, when he changed from my brother to my enemy, from a human to a devil.
For here is the start and the end of it all.
Khaki shivers and Khaki suits.
Khaki men in Khaki boots.
One afternoon I was alone in the backyard playing rugby when a long black Mercedes with tinted windows pulled up to our gate. Surprisingly, the thirteen-year-old boy who stepped from it was Frans, smiling, and his mother rushed to him and swore at the man that had dropped him there. He was an old man in a khaki suit with a neat khaki tie and his driver, dressed the very same, remained entirely still as Henriette bombarded the two with words not fit for this page. The Khaki Man, however, was undisturbed by this and said only one thing in the purest of Afrikaans:
‘May I have a word with your husband please, Mrs Van Vuuren?’
‘My husband isn’t here,’ (He never was), ‘What’s this about?’
‘May I have a word with you then please, Mrs Van Vuuren.’
‘Who the hell are you?’
‘A word. Now. Asseblief.’
Something in his tone frightened Henriette and she quickly invited him in. So, they left for the kitchen and Frans was left with me. I passed the ball to him and asked who he was.
‘Just some man,’ he replied. ‘He did an IQ test on me at school and said that I’m the cleverest boy he has ever met. Then he brought me home. So here I am. Nice man.’
Inside, Henriette and the Khaki Man chatted for a while about something until it seemed she had heard enough. Then, nervous, she stood and lit a cigarette and stared blankly at us through the window. There was a silence between Henriette and the man, a silence of thoughts that would never be illuminated until years later. It was a silence full of questions. Their answers would tear at the very fabric of time and what it would achieve was this: A war that would destroy us all. Such was the significance of that silence, a silence that screamed.
[Email to Van der Stel from Van X, Wednesday, 27 August 2008, translated from Afrikaans]
Van der Stel,
I believe I have found him. Never in all my years have I met a child so suited to his destiny and the vision we have for our people. He is truly extraordinary, the purest showing of Afrikaner excellence. He will be perfect for us.
There are a few issues though I must sort through before I can bring him with me. He seems to have a love for an adopted brother, a coloured boy, which will blind him in moments of decision. We cannot have this. I asked his mother to remove the coloured from his life but she has refused.
I am not sure what to do for now. I will be in contact soon.
For now, I will leave the child.
Just then, as quickly as he had arrived, the Khaki Man stood and left. Henriette’s eyes were glued to him as he walked by Frans, the son she loved, the son who clearly terrified her then more than ever.
‘Keep up the good work, Frans,’ the Khaki Man smiled. Then glancing at me he said, ‘Maybe when your mother stops hanging around with the blacks so much I will come back and get you.’
Then, he left.
Nothing more was said or seen of him.
By the time we were sixteen, Frans and I had both cracked first team and rugby, as it had always done, kept us glued together in an oval brotherhood. In those good years, even Frans’ outbursts had gotten better; he seemed to be more in control of what he said and did and perhaps that had something to do with his father being a better parent in those years, more of a presence then. And, as I was then as much a part of that house as Frans was, as I was his brother as Henriette had made me, I enjoyed the presence of his father too, who strangely felt more like my own father than Moses ever did.
After a rugby match one afternoon, I clearly remember when we spent the evening around the braai and his dad shared stories with us about when he was younger, about the South Africa of the past and how it had changed. For a moment then, just a moment — with my mother gone and Uncle Moses far from me — it felt oddly as if the transition to whiteness was complete, as if the move to that family was whole and done. It frightened me — and to comfort myself in the deep-breathing of the mirror, I remembered Mom and what she used to say, that I, even in crisis, was the most South African of us all. In those moments, it’s all I needed to calm me. Mom then, even gone, had left me content with how things were unfolding, with how life with Frans and the white family was evolving, pleasurably and perfect. Perfect it until it all changed.
Khaki shivers and Khaki suits.
Khaki men in Khaki boots.
It came like knives when it came, deep and cold in the chest. It came with the terror that South Africa always promised it would. I will never forget the fear of it all, the sheer panic of deadness. It was just the three of us that day — Frans, his dad, and me. School had just finished, timely, and as usual, Frans’ dad arrived to pick us up. He was sober and cheerful when he greeted us. Our bags were thrown into the boot — he especially hated bags on the seat. He would often say that seats are for people, bags are for boots. So, as people we sat in those seats and drove home like we had done a thousand times before, like we expected to do a thousand times again.
Our road was quieter than usual, but not any quieter than it should have been when we pulled to the gate. Africa was its usual day that day and the leather seat beneath me was warm from its sun. Its trees were newly green from its spring and its sand was still dry from its winter. Its tar, greyed and broken from its leaders, was usually bumpy; its scars, deep still and sensitive, were unhealed from its past.
As we came to a stop, a man approached our window — a black man, a black man like any other, like the countless I knew, like my Uncle Moses, like the half of me that lived in the mirror, contently in the depths of my soul. And the fact that he was black is important for this journal, for the understanding of how life here unfolded from that moment, from the normality of that South Africa to the war-torn bits that were to come. As Frans Van Vuuren was to become the most important cog in the white side of the race war, it is significant that the violence and rawness of what unfolded is not withheld. For it was then, in that moment, that the war took it most significant of turns. It was then, in that moment, that I lost a brother.
Now, of that man’s face that stood at the window, I remember nothing. But, of his gun and how it was used, I remember everything. Frans’ father was pulled from the car, violently, and as he dropped to the floor, that gun, that deadly thing, was taken to his head and its trigger squeezed. Once. Maybe twice. And with it, brains, in red bits, red chunky bits, spewed across the driveway and blood pooled beneath the dying father. In one never-to-be-forgotten moment, Frans’ father went from alive to dead, from breathing to not, and in one never-to-be-forgotten moment, the history of South Africa changed for all of us. The boy who was meant to be Springbok never became a Springbok and what he became instead only the devil can describe — and that devil wears khaki.
It is difficult to understand why people become who they become. Born in them is a nature that is theirs, but what nurtures that nature is circumstance and decision, coincidence and happenings. Frans Van Vuuren was always disturbed, but the disturbance that chewed at his soul after watching his father die was uglier than any.
In an instant, his universe split down the middle and his life bled red. I could see it in his eyes: The boy who was my brother was no longer my brother. I was his bitter, black enemy, ripped from him that day like skin from bone, like a screaming child from her druggie mother; our brotherhood was abandoned then as hollow screams between us. Frans Van Vuuren had taken on a new destiny, one that was built on the loss of a father that possessed him like a demon tearing at his flesh. Dead. White. Flesh.
He never left the house after that except for long and lonely walks, which, I imagine only allowed the memories to fester. Where I, in a shorter time, got back to my life, Frans remained in his bitter world and twisted it ever angrier by re-living every last moment of his father’s last. No matter what I or his mother said or did, he seemed to be stuck in the silent anger of depression, in the depression of those angry moments. He didn’t say a word for months. Instead, he seemed to devote all his time to studying me. He would stare at my eyes as I watched TV, my mouth as I chewed food. He would stare at my nose as I breathed, my face as I slept. Slowly, powerfully, forcefully, he was learning to hate me, every ounce of my black being, every drop of pigment in my flesh. For months it went on, long and mad months of stalking silence and what could I have done? What could I have done to break his stare; how could I have stopped the madness that unfolded, the scenes that then played out?
Those deadly scenes.
A warm afternoon was cooling quickly when he finally spoke, softly from the darkness. The curtains were drawn and it was difficult to make him out.
‘Hello Victor,’ he said, buried in the blackness.
‘Frans, what’s going on?’ I asked as I prodded the wall for the light switch. I had just arrived home and my eyes were not yet adjusted to the light.
‘You have to stop this,’ I said, ‘You have to move on and make your father proud.’
‘Don’t you speak about my father you black bastard,’ he seethed.
They were the first real words I had heard from him in months, words I wish I had never heard.
‘Frans, please, you’re better than this.’
Only then, finally, after what seemed an age of prodding, the light above finally gave light to his madness. And what I saw that day I can sadly never forget. Never. No matter how much I wish I could.
The “V”s of Van Vuuren were everywhere, as deep slashes in the couches. In pain, they were cut into his skin and with his blood, they were drawn to the walls, in fury, everywhere. They were the Vs of his name, the springbok-shaped swastika of his Africa, the very same symbol I would see scarred into Yolandi’s mother in photos years later. As a demonstration of purity, of arrogance, of everything he was and would become, his signature and his deed would be remembered by them: His mother never forgotten. For there she was — the truest horror of the scene — in the middle of the floor and dead still, stabbed into silence. Like Yolandi’s mother, she too was scarred with the Vs of his name.
‘What have you done, Frans?’ I asked, almost casually. Then, in pure desperation, I collapsed beside her, ‘What have you done, Frans Van Vuuren?’
He dared tremble with his own tears as I cradled his mother’s head.
‘What have you done, Frans?’ I cried.
Then, I stood suddenly, unsteady, and stumbled backwards. I was afraid of what he might do to me.
‘It’s your fault,’ he said to me. ‘It’s your fault she’s dead’.
‘Frans, you need help.’
‘I don’t need help, Victor. I need purity!’
Then, from nowhere, from the calmness of his seat, he rushed at me with a knife and I dodged it.
‘Fuck, Frans! Stop this!’
But again he swiped for me trying to do to me what he had just done to his mother — and again I dodged it. He swung wildly, like a bowler. And I, in a reflex-trance jumped from corner to corner of that room avoiding my death. In slow motion, he came again and again and every swipe at me seemed to slice the air between us. From its wounds, our brotherhood bled dry.
Finally, I got my break. He slipped in his mother’s blood — the sick irony of it — and I rushed to my room where I retrieved a cricket bat. Then, in slow motion still, as he chased around the corner to find me again, I swung at him and knocked him out cold.
That day, like all others, ended. But, as history would have it, I didn’t notice the long black Mercedes drive off behind the mortician that drove his mother away, behind the police van that took Frans away, behind the cavalcade of vehicles that were sent to our house to make sense of the boy who had gone mad, the boy who scarred the world in hateful and bloody Vs.
As it always did, that Mercedes held within it an old man wearing a neat khaki suit and neat khaki tie. His business with us was done. The Khaki Man in the black leather seat got his boy in the end.
Months later Frans’ body was found in a veld not far from us, his throat slit. It wasn’t clear if he was murdered, or if in a self-rage he had slit it himself. To describe the emotions I felt is difficult. My brother was dead. My brother who hated me and had tried to kill me, was dead. So why was I sad? Why am I still strangely sad?
There was no funeral. No one would have attended anyway. So one evening, alone, I spoke and I cried about a Springbok lost beneath the rugby posts of his heart. Afterwards, a silence haunted that field, a silence so loud that it screamed his name in every corner of it.
Frans Van Vuuren!
That was six years ago.