Burning the Grass

Wojciech Jagielski
Burning the Grass
  • Znak
    Kraków 2012
    140 × 205
    256 pages
    ISBN: 978-83-240-2255-7
    Translation Rights: Znak

This is an account of a country which – fortunately – no longer exists in this form. But the whole concept of the way it was organised was so obnoxious, and the lives of its citizens were so meticulously ordered that while the regulations went in one direction, everyday life went in another; every-thing seemed to have changed, but in such a way that almost nothing really did change at all. As proper changes take far more time than anyone would suppose, they cannot be dictated, and arbitrarily appointing a date for the changes to begin does not determine the point when they really start to take root.

We are in the Republic of South Africa, in a town called Ventersdorp in Transvaal province. It is run by Eugene Terre’Blanche, a Boer, the descend-ant of Calvinist settlers from Holland, a populist and poseur, most certainly
a fervent speaker and mythomaniac, above all an ardent advocate of the concept of apartheid, which forbade inter-racial love, communal schools, hospitals, beaches, sports fields, park benches or bus stop to be shared by blacks and whites, not to mention the actual buses. The rules relating to people appear to have been applied to animals too – Friesian horses could not be cross-bred with Arabs. So writes Wojciech Jagielski in this book, Burning the Grass.

Although he did not perform any official function in the town, Terre’Blanche was its king. He had a large number of supporters all over the country. His dream was to have an independent Boer republic where the racist rules would be kept in force forever. He was battered to death by some black workers from his own plantation, but the reason for the killing was a quar-rel over wages. The day on which the white tribune was murdered is the starting point for Jagielski’s book.

However, it is not a murder mystery with a social slant, nor is it reportage of the kind for which Jagielski is famous. Here he has set himself a more ambi-tious task. His highly detailed analysis of apartheid shows up the sinister aspects of human nature which on the one hand bid one to despise others, and on the other never to forget about revenge. It is more a study of ideo-logical madness based on an erroneous understanding of the truths of faith than classic reportage. But the language of reportage is ideally suited to this sort of study.

Paweł Smoleński

Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

All afternoon Martha Terre’Blanche kept trying to call her husband. Eugene had always led his own, separate life to which she had no access. He was capable of vanishing for days at a time, or shutting himself away in his own thoughts. They even lived separately, he on the farm and she in town. She was accustomed to solitude and silence. She herself was surprised by the alarm which her husband’s absence prompted in her that par-ticular day. With every telephone call that he failed to answer it was growing, becoming stifling and incapacitating.
Through the window she had seen some black men waiting by the fence. She had recognized Chris, whom Eugene had hired six months ago to graze the cattle on the farm and to do the gardening at the house in town. He was standing by the gate with a boy whom she had also seen on the farm.
Then Eugene had driven up in his white pick-up truck. He had told the blacks to sit in the box, behind the driver’s cab, and gone back to the farm at Ratzegaai, about twelve kilometres out of town. Since when he hadn’t picked up any more calls.
Towards evening, now seriously worried, she decided to call the van Zyls, who lived at the neighbouring property across the road from the Terre’Blanche farm. Dora answered the phone, Eugene’s beloved sister.
“No, I haven’t seen him today,” she said. “But he’s meant to be dropping by this evening.”
That evening, on the Saturday before Easter Day, the feast of Resurrection and Redemption, they were holding a party to celebrate their oldest son’s birthday.
“He’s probably gone out on horseback, and left his phone at home,” said Dora. “I’ll tell Dan to go and check what’s happening over there.”
On the veranda Dan van Zyl glanced at his watch. It was coming up to five.
The shadows were gathering and growing denser in the valley. Dan van Zyl sat down on the veranda outside his house to watch the dusk fall. It wasn’t how he usually spent his evenings – he had no time for such things.
But that day he sat down and watched, just as if he felt he ought to.
From his house on the hill he had a good view of the field road in the green valley and some thick copses growing on the farm situated on the opposite slope. It belonged to his brother-in-law, Eugene Terre’Blanche. In recent years Eugene’s farm had badly fallen into decline. Van Zyl sat on the veranda and mused on what was happening to that piece of land. How if you don’t have the heart or the head for it, it won’t be kind to you either, and it’ll stop producing.
Eugene’s life was filled with major politics. His world consisted of never-ending debates about how appallingly things were going in the country, and how they would get even worse when the blacks finally took power. He would summon his supporters to meetings and marches, and rack his brains over how to deal with it and how to prevent the blacks from taking over. Meanwhile the land had been going to seed.
Eugene’s world involved nocturnal rallies with flaming torches. He would arrive at them on horseback, dressed up in his best uniform, and amid flutter-ing flags he would deliver fiery speeches and threaten war. Could people like him take care of the land?
Eugene was flattered when the newspapers referred to him as a Boer com-mander, a general, the last defender of the white race. Although he did not hold any official post in his home town of Ventersdorp, he was regarded as its most important citizen – immune, not subject to any laws apart from the ones he established himself. He inspired real terror in the blacks, and the whites did not dare to oppose him either.
“What a waste,” sighed Dan van Zyl heavily, as he cast a glance at the Terre’Blanche family farm, which Eugene had inherited from his father. From year to year the weeds had grown to form tall, uncut grass, on which Terre’Blanche had his cattle grazed, and here and there on the pastureland clumps of young trees and bushes had sprouted.
Lost in thought, Dan van Zyl gazed vacantly at the shifting shadows in the valley. He didn’t even shudder when the phone in the parlour rang. The ring-ing stopped, but a little later it rang again, even louder and more insistently.
He heard his wife’s voice. Terre’Blanche’s wife Martha had called. She didn’t live on the farm, but in town. She didn’t feel safe at the farm, which was in an isolated location. In the last few years there had been an increasing number of attacks and killings at the farms scattered around the town, and many of the farmers had bought houses for their families in Ventersdorp. Each morning they drove to their farms as if going to the office, and at night they came back to town.
The sun was starting to set, and Dan was ready to go back to town, when a black horse appeared from the direction of Terre’Blanche’s homestead on the hill. It crossed the meadow that lay on the hillside, cutting a trail through the tall yellow grass, galloped up to the fence along the dirt road, then turned around and raced back towards the house.
Van Zyl knew that horse well, and that was why he immediately knew some-thing bad had happened.
Chris Mahlangu and Patrick crept into the bedroom through a half-open window. The room was shrouded in semi-darkness. The farmer was lying on his back on a large bed, with his arms spread wide, in his clothes, but with his trousers undone. He was asleep.
For a while they stood there, staring at the snoring man. The very first blow, inflicted by Mahlangu with a metal bar, deprived Terre’Blanche of conscious-ness.
Chris Mahlangu went on hitting, over and over again, putting all his strength, hatred, rage and fear into each blow as they rained down on the farmer’s head, arms and chest. Mahlangu heard the crunch of breaking bones, and could smell blood in the air.
When he ran out of strength, he handed the bar to Patrick, who was just standing there, watching the killing. Now without a word he took a swing and struck the white man three times on the head and chest. Each blow made Terre’Blanche’s body jerk upwards, as if restoring it to life.
It was almost dark and very stuffy in the bedroom. Panting heavily, they stared at the blood-soaked corpse, which looked nothing like the terror-in-ducing white farmer. Completely smashed, his face was unrecognizable; one of the blows had shattered his jaw, perforating his cheek and his tongue. There seemed to be blood everywhere – on the bed, on the pillow and the victim’s body, on the walls, ceiling and floor, on the killers’ hands and clothing, on their faces and in their hair.
Chris Mahlangu took a knife from under his belt. He was leaning over the exposed corpse when from the pocket of Terre’Blanche’s loosened trousers a mobile phone and some car keys fell to the floor. The metallic jangle broke the silence alarmingly. Mahlangu shuddered. He took another glance at the mutilated face, but then without a word he put his knife away in his trouser pocket and bent down to pick up the phone and the keys. The phone rang the moment he touched it. He stuffed it deep into his pocket and signalled to
“Let’s get out of here.”
As they left, they slammed the kitchen door behind them.

Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones