It was a Friday afternoon in 1980.
The poet Gerald Edwards was driving through the rural settlement of Suurbraak in the Overberg region of the Western Cape.
Just like the writer and journalist Dana Snyman felt when he entered Jacobsbaai, Edwards instantly recognised, “There is no other place on earth where I feel more at home.” That at Suurbraak – which was initially called Xairu and then baptised to Zuurbraak – there would be space enough for him.
“Our dear Lord in his wisdom made sure that this would happen. At that stage, I knew nobody in Suurbraak, but I knew I belonged in Suurbraak. Never saw the place before. I was blessed to be able to drive into and experience Suurbraak in that way.”
According to Edwards, Suurbraak is an old-style rural hamlet. “Everybody knows everybody. They know everything about you. The people are very close-knit.”
The mission station of Suurbraak is located on the Buffeljags River at the foot of the Langeberg on the R324 between Swellendam and Heidelberg. It is 5 km to the west of the Tradouw Pass.
Suurbraak was established in 1812 on a piece of land 5 000 hectares in size, with the Rev Johannes Seidenfaden as first commander.
At Suurbraak, approximately 300 to 400 remaining members of the Hessekwa and Attakwa Khoi tribes were placed under the protection of the then London Missionary Society.
Among the Khoi residents Suurbraak was originally known as Xairu. This was a reference to the scenic beauty of the environment. The 1891 census in the Cape Colony showed the small town to have 1 100 residents.
The majority were descendants of the Khoi, who would later be legally reclassified as “brown” or “coloured”. Today this community comprises about 93,2% of the population.
This is a God-fearing community, where nearly everything is still guided by Biblical beliefs. “Suurbraak is a place of prayer,” says Edwards. “All meetings are still opened with prayer.”
The spirituality of the community is so profound that Charles Flaendorp wrote his doctoral dissertation about it, titled “The Coloured people of Suurbraak: 200 years of spirituality development through a marginalised identity (“Die bruin mense van Suurbraak: 200 jaar spiritualiteitsvorming deur ŉ identiteit van gemarginaliseerdheid”) (Unisa, 2007).
The purpose of this dissertation, according to Flaendorp, was, among other things, to provide coloureds with a way to overcome their marginalisation through healthy spiritual development.
Flaendorp ultimately also wanted to show that the marginalised state of the brown people of Suurbraak also applied to the brown people of South Africa as a whole.
That the life of Gerald David Edwards was at one stage reversed by the marginalisation of his community is certain, but his life is also testimony to a new spiritual paradigm – a rejection of a spirituality of martyrdom or self-pity.
Edwards’s life in Suurbraak began in June last year when he moved there from Cape Town – precisely 35 years after he had driven into the town for the first time.
In his poem “Suurbraak / A place called Xairu” Edwards describes his beloved adopted hamlet as a paradise:
My roots run deep going left and right
the road going around like a river bend out of sight
leading to where my father swam
a little taller than the rickety kitchen table
in the Duiwenhoksrivier
My mother running in the fields
amongst springflowers of Swellendam
A flower born in Swellendam
My soul was generated here in their hearts
capped by their love sighs and the look of love
in their eyes
I am blessed
I have come back with my soul intact
to Suurbraak in fact
to bathe in the Buffeljagsrivier
the green valleys
for my roots
To walk these paths without boots
with grass growing under my heels and through my toes
Hold the “I am home” feelings close to my chest
leaning into my silence and feeling
the embrace of the baptismal rain
To have and to hold a clump of fertile soil that grew both of you
Join me at my welcome table and raise your cup
Spilling the moerkoffie
on my tafeldoek
on my agterstoep
Sheltered by shadows
of trees growing in the fertile soil
with my hopes echoing
sounding like hallelujahs
On a late Saturday afternoon in September we sat in the parliamentary village of Acacia talking about Edwards’s barefoot childhood years on the Cape Flats; about his family; about his passion for poetry and his endless love for the fertile soil and the people of Suurbraak.
He reached a long way back in telling his story.
“I think I am simply an ordinary person hell-bent on making a difference. That is what life is all about. To make positive changes in your own life; and also in the lives of others. You must share with others that which is inside of you.”
He emphasised, “There is nothing special about me. I simply try to do something good every day.
“Every night, before I go to sleep, I reflect on what I did wrong or right that day. It’s important for me to do something good every day. Also, to have achieved something.
“I am an open person; I need to share how I feel about things. This makes me a free person. I feel the need to share my feelings, also my feelings about myself, with other people.”
Then he shared the story of his family.
“My father and mother both came from the platteland. My mom was born in Swellendam – not far from where I now live at Suurbraak. My dad was also born not far from here, at Heidelberg.”
Edwards said that the Edwards children were raised with a healthy dose of strong rural values. “Respect, hard work and all the sound ethical values were ingrained into us in good country style.”
Edwards was born in Cape Town, but emphasises, “I was raised to have good values. I can remember my parents like yesterday. Bless them! My parents were not wealthy, but they were always rich in spirit.”
Edwards spent his childhood days barefoot. “I don’t mind telling you that I received my first pair of shoes when I was in standard 7.”
According to Edwards there were no real streets in Athlone on the Cape Flats where he was born. “We always walked barefoot through the open veld to school. Often, the layers of frost were so thick that I had to urinate on my feet. Crazy!”
Edwards has two sisters. As the middle child – the only son – he had many domestic chores.
He added that his family did not have any sense of deprivation. “Things were what they were. We were taught to appreciate everything we had. I had to take very good care of the one pair of shoes I got later in my childhood.
“I used to take these shoes off after school and polish them immediately and then went out to play barefoot, because those shoes had to be ready for the next day of school.”
According to Edwards his mother washed his school shirt every day, “because I had only one; also only one school uniform.”
He again emphasised that his family was never aware of their poverty. “There was no need to compare what you had with others. At any rate, what criterion would you use to compare?”
Edwards said that his parents “always supported us, but were strict disciplinarians. As the only son in the family I was disciplined if I did wrong. I had to go out and cut off with a knife the quince-stick with which I would be punished!”
He added that he had to do all kinds of odd jobs around the house: “I knew which type of chores I had to do on which specific day.”
His mom worked as a domestic servant after her relocation to Cape Town from Swellendam. “However, she was never trained as a servant. She was from an affluent family in Swellendam, who owned a lot of land.”
His mom later simply became a housewife, “while my dad worked as truck driver for his father, my grandfather, here in the Cape. You can imagine that it was quite an unusual thing in the ’50s and ’60s for a coloured person to own his own transport business.
“Interestingly, my grandfather – my mother’s father – was a white man from Swellendam.”
Edwards said that his grandfather was given the option to be declared as either white or coloured.
“I read the letter addressed to my grandfather in which he was given the choice. This was just after DF Malan came into power. He had to choose what he wanted to be – white or coloured - seeing that he was married to a coloured woman. He chose love above everything else. This is what love does to some people: you look beyond the external.”
According to Edwards, the majority of his uncles on his mother’s side in the Swellendam district were “affluent white farmers”. “I made a promise to myself when I went to live in Suurbraak. That promise was to trace the house in which my mother was born. And I did find it – in the hub of Swellendam which was later declared a white section of town.”
Edwards completed his school career in Athlone: initially at Thornton Road Primary School and later at Spes Bona Secondary.
“I attended Spes Bona school. Because the school had a hostel, I got to know quite a number of pupils from other provinces. Even from Namibia, which was still called South-West Africa in those days. Suddenly, I met people from Windhoek, Keetmanshoop and Upington. The best thing about this is that many of those people are still my friends. I visited Windhoek in May and met up with an old friend I had not seen in many years. The years fell away, and we simply took up where we left off all those years ago.”
After completing his matric, Edwards entered the adult world, referring to that stage of his life as “the good old days”. “At that stage, the Western Cape was a ‘coloured labour preference area’. Work was plentiful. You never had to look for a job. So I could simply walk into a job.”
Edwards had a number of jobs before he joined Telkom. He did not receive tertiary education, but studied for 12 months at the then Hewat Teacher Training College in Athlone.
“This was at the height of the apartheid era. I left because I could not see myself in the classroom. My heart was not in education. I moved on and accepted a job at Telkom. There I progressed to the level of electrician, but in September 1992 I resigned.”
Edwards then established a property/landscaping business, without a vehicle like a bakkie. “Initially, I worked predominantly for state enterprises, but I ended up in the corporate world, working for companies like Old Mutual and Sanlam.”
According to Edwards he co-owned the business for years, working as far as Alexander Bay and Port Nolloth.
“One day, I suddenly asked myself why I was chasing after money. So you drive a new car every year, but what of it? It was simply another car. That was when I decided, ‘That’s it!’ Right there and then, at that moment, I decided to go and live in Suurbraak.”
Edwards says he already started writing in primary school, “because I always received good marks for my compositions. For many years, I did not write anything, but I always read extensively. In 2012, I started to write poems and plays. I then resolved to sit down every day to write something. I am also a little scared that the words that come at such speed may dry up. I sometimes don’t know where the words come from. At the back of my mind is always the fear: what if it stops?”
Edwards stated that the next logical step would be to publish his poems in book form – he has already written more than 4 000 poems. He is also intimately involved in the artistic community of Suurbraak. The aim is to start an arts festival for the town.
“I was recently elected as chairperson of the Arts and Culture Society of the Overberg region. We plan to do everything in our power to start the festival in order to expose our rural communities to the arts and to make the festival part of the social calendar.”
As far as the issue of identity is concerned, Edwards is not evasive and holds a definite view on this sensitive issue.
“I am quite comfortable to see myself as a coloured, because that is where my roots lie. Suurbraak is rich in not necessarily coloured heritage, but Khoi and San heritage. I carry all these people’s genes inside me, and I have to acknowledge it. It won’t be any use denying it: I am made up of a number of local and overseas influences. I don’t have a problem with being called a coloured.
“However, if you call me a coloured and thereby label me as inferior, then that would be a problem for me.”
Edwards stated that if he had to have an anchor in any place, he would take his African side as an anchor. “I am not a leaf, but a root, I have deep roots in Africa. I’m from here, I’m an African.”
Edwards’s poems talk mainly to universal themes like 9/11 and the international conflicts in Israel and Paris, and acknowledges that his poems do contain strong social commentary.
“I don’t like politics, especially South African politics. It depresses me. So I tend to steer away from politics.”
However, he does not shy away from strong political commentary. (He has an active Facebook Page called “Upstart Poet” which showcases some of his poetry exclusively.)
“Our current political problems can be attributed to the fact that the revolution has never been completed. During the multiparty negotiations, the ANC had the moral higher ground. That was all. Just that.”
According to Edwards, the National Party invited the ANC to a party. “However, there was no cake. The NP did not share the cake with the ANC. Hence our current dilemmas, such as the #FeesMustFall campaign. The ANC was hijacked by the capitalists.”
In his poem “Sit” he offers further sharp and incisive social commentary:
You storm into my house
Proceed to tell me where to sit
Watter gode om te aanbid
Simply because jy was gebore
Met die goue slit in jou valse gebit
Los daai gedagte dit werk nie hier
want hier binne van my
brand nog steeds die vryheidsvuur
Daar is mos so ŉ ding
soos ’n afrekenings uur
Oh yes jy kan maar die ossewaens
In ’n kring trek
As julle nie verander
Is dit hier waar jy gaan vrek
Nog lank voor jy dood
In Africa we are used to hearing
The biggest lion roar
Where we follow the eagles
As they soar
From your guns and history
Tied to our memories
With blood that was spilt
Long before Rome was even built
We had kingdoms that stretched
Way beyond where the water was being fetched
In hollow ostrich eggs
For we had strong hunters' legs
Know your place
Specimen of a supposedly superior race
With a twisted tongue
You who my ancestors from a tree hung
While all around you hymns were sung
I am from the soil which still boils
While I am surrounded
by barbed wire coils
then along came the year 1994
When we shouted
We don’t have to struggle no more
There was no one telling us
We were at the wrong door
The sky was promised
Was the new limit
We were told we are no longer stuck
On the bottom floor
Vote for me
I will set you free
I will set you free
Even rewrite your history
Toe druk die nuwe ruler
Vir ons ’n nogge drie
On the unkind Cape Flats
Tata is no longer here
To resurrect the dream
Die kinders het van oor af
Begin te scream
Oh no not again
Ooo nee oo nee
Hier sal ons beslis moet keer
Gaan haal die drug merchant se haelgeweer
Ons was ’n better life gepromise
Die politicians het op die Freedom Charter gesweer
Moet maar gou
Vir die kinners die liberations songs
Die kleure is nou weg uit die landsvlag
Ons soek nog steeds
die rainbow nation
van generation to generation
Alle colours knitted together
- Jason Lloyd is a freelance journalist, columnist and social commentator
- Photo provided by Gerald Edwards