Remembering and forgetting: Reflections on Francois Smith’s novel Kamphoer

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On the Launch of the Research Project, “Wounds of History: Transgenerational Transmission of Trauma in South Africa.”

The following transcript is from a symposium organised by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela and her colleagues in the Department of Afrikaans and Dutch and Modern European Languages at the University of the Free State. The aim of the event was to launch a three-year research project titled “Wounds of History: Transgenerational Transmission of Trauma in South Africa” led by Gobodo-Madikizela as its principal researcher, and funded by the NRF under its Human and Social Dynamics Funding Instrument. The choice of the book Kamphoer by Francois Smith as the subject of discussion for the launch of the research project was appropriate, given the book’s focus on the case study of the trauma of rape during the Anglo Boer War, or the South African War in contemporary parlance. Chris van der Merwe from the University of Cape Town, who has published widely on the narration of trauma in South African literature, was invited to talk about Kamphoer, while Francois Smith would add his comments on the novel; comments were also invited from the audience.

 The concept of “transgenerational transmission of trauma,” a central theme in the “Wounds of History” research project, describes the repercussions of experiences of trauma not only in the victims who experienced the trauma directly, but also its impact on descendants of survivors in subsequent generations. When traumas and humiliating injuries are shared collectively, the narrative of this victimisation establishes an imprint in the group’s identity, and may become a theme in the group’s identity in subsequent generations as if they experienced the trauma first-hand. The “Wounds of History” project will involve a close examination of these reverberations of history through the generations -- the continuities of troubled pasts into the present. The focus of the project will be on two violent historical contexts in South Africa – the brutal British concentration camps during the South African War (Anglo Boer War) on the one hand, and the mass violations of human rights of the apartheid era on the other. The complex interplay of the historical past and present, the individual and collective, and the personal and cultural dimensions of historical trauma will be explored in the study. A close reading and reflection on the traumatic experiences described in Kamphoer provided an important platform for the launch of a project that aims to examine the traumatic repercussions of the British concentration camps in South Africa across generations.


Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela (chair):

We thought that the book by Francois Smith, Kamphoer, is really a remarkable book that positions the project for us. Very meaningful for me, because of the nature of the topic that Francois Smith deals with in Kamphoer. But also because the issues that the book deals with are issues of trauma, issues of healing, issues of narratives in the aftermath of trauma. It carries all of these interests of ours. So we really are hoping that our meeting today will help us envision in a clearer way where we want to take the project. So ladies and gentleman, without further ado I give you Chris van der Merwe, emeritus professor from the University of Cape Town, who will be responded to by Francois Smith, who as most of you know, is a lecturer in the Department of Afrikaans and Dutch Literature, and he also leads seminars on Creative Writing.

Chris van der Merwe:

  1. Introduction

What I’m going to say today is based on an article I wrote, published on LitNet, Die Verhaal van ‘n Kamphoer, the story of a camp whore. I think there are many themes in Francois Smith’s novel Kamphoer which are highly relevant to working through trauma. And what I’m going to do this morning is not to focus, as the novel does, on an individual working through trauma, but rather on the novel’s relevance for the healing of society, because I think that our society is a traumatised one.

Most of you probably know the novel, but I’ll tell the story for those who don’t know it. It is about a young Afrikaner girl, Susan Nel, who was raped in a concentration camp during the Anglo Boer War. She flees from the camp and is then attended to by two Sotho’s who play a vital role in her physical and mental healing. She later becomes a nurse, and after many years, while nursing in England, she meets one of her rapists again, a British officer with the surname of Hamilton-Peake. Now the big question is how she will react to this encounter. What happens then is quite illuminating. She takes him on a ride in a motorcycle; she is in the driving seat and Hamilton-Peake sits in the sidecar. After a while she takes his finger and lets him feel the scar where he hit her with a whiskey bottle before he raped her, because she wants him to remember what happened. Hamilton-Peake dies shortly afterwards, maybe of shock. One has the feeling that that is more or less what she wanted – to get him back.

This is just a very brief summary. Maybe I should also mention that at the end of the novel, she returns to Winburg, where her concentration camp was situated, but she doesn’t find the place where the British soldiers wanted to bury her. She does find the grave of her friend Alice Draper, but she only looks at it for a moment and then she says to the driver of the car: "Sal jy in vadersnaam net ry." Let’s just get away. This story about Susan Nell working through her trauma of being raped during the Anglo Boer War I want to apply to the traumas experienced in our country at the moment.

 St Augustine said society is the individual written in capital letters. So in this discussion I want to write Susan Nell in capital letters. After our discussion it is desirable that we should put some of our thoughts into practice so that we don’t just discuss a number of ideas without doing anything about them afterwards. You may think I’m a bit too idealistic, I’m placing my hopes too high. My reply would be a quote from Robert Browning: "Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp. or what’s a heaven for?" So when my reach is maybe a bit high for our reality, I’m hoping that reaching for the heaven will at least lift our grasp somewhat higher.

So let’s talk first talk about the Anglo Boer War[1], a war which traumatised our society. It left a scar in the Afrikaner psyche, with about five thousand of the Boer soldiers dying in battle, and more than five times that amount of women and children dying in concentration camps. The war caused a lot of bitterness, especially with the scorched earth policy towards the end of the war. About twenty thousand Africans died in the war as well, on the battlefield and in concentration camps. They were also left with scars in their remembrance. So it was a war that left a divided society in its wake, with Afrikaners against English-speaking people; among the Afrikaners, a division between the Bitter-enders and the Joiners, and general African bitterness through suffering from a war which had little to do with them.

I remember that in 1998, when the commemoration of the Anglo Boer War started, I read a newspaper article by Professor Setlawane, who said: "I don’t want to know anything about commemorating the war, least of all celebrating that war, because for us as Africans it was just bad news. There was an amount of harmony before the war, but that was destroyed by the war." I also think of the novel by Christoffel Coetzee, Op soek na generaal Mannetjies Mentz, which contains suggestions of inter-racial harmony before the war, a harmony which the war destroyed.

  1. Narrating our healing

Pumla and I wrote a book titled Narrating our healing – Perspectives on working through trauma. The work that we did together was based on ideas which have been expressed by many philosophers and psychologists – the fact that, if you are someone searching for meaning in your life, you tend to transform the data of your life into a narrative, into a story. What does that mean? It means that you create a story firstly by distinguishing between things of importance and things unimportant. One cannot remember everything, one can’t notice everything. So you focus on the things that are important for you and ignore the things that are unimportant, or things which are perhaps too painful for you to ponder on. We select our data to form a meaningful narrative, a comprehensible story, a story to fit into our memories, which have narrative structures.

To fit into your memory, you also transform your data into a story with a sequence – this happened, and then that, and then that. As you become wiser, you detect patterns of cause and effect – this caused that, and that caused that. It’s a way of understanding your life, of finding coherence. It’s also a way of acquiring an identity, because we play the role of main characters in our stories, with a specific place and function in the narrative. Narration is furthermore a way of discovering ethical values, because every choice you make as you create the story is determined by your sense of values. I don’t know whether you knew it, but we’re all creative writers, we could all attend Francois Smith’s course for Creative Writing.

Paul Ricoeur, the French philosopher, affirms what Socrates once said: "The unexamined life is not worth living." True, says Ricoeur, but he adds that the examined life is a life narrated, a life transformed into a story. So what Ricoeur maintains is that the person looking for coherence and meaning in his or her life is consciously or subconsciously creating a life narrative. However, when a severe trauma strikes, the narrative falls apart. Trauma, on an individual as well as a collective level, is characterised by the shattering of coherence, the loss of meaning.

Nations, like individuals, create historical narratives to find a meaning and an identity for the nation. They select their data, they detect a pattern of causes and effects and find heroes and villains for their story. The Afrikaner story focuses on certain events: the trek to the North, the Anglo Boer War, the transformation of 1994. From the Anglo Boer War, a contrast between heroes and villains was distilled. The Bitter-enders, those who fought till the end of the war, are the heroes; the Joiners, the Afrikaners who joined the British Army – they are the traitors, the villains.

During the South African civil war between 1960 and 1990 the Afrikaners also created their own narrative in which that war was depicted as a threat to Christian civilisation. It was a war in which Afrikaners had to protect themselves from the threat of the villains: the terrorists and Communists. On the other side, the Africans also formed their narrative. They generally had a totally different view of this war. They also had their Bitter-enders, they also had their Joiners, but from a different perspective. The villains of the white side were often the heroes of the African side. For Africans it was a war of liberation, a war against the white oppressor. So here we find two groups (I’m simplifying), creating two opposing narratives about the same historical event.

And then 1994 came, and it seemed as if a miracle happened, with the two narratives moving together and merging into one. Nelson Mandela, the former "terrorist", became the hero of the nation. There was hope for a while that a rainbow nation, to use Bishop Tutu’s term, would come into existence, where all would be connected and we would all be reconciled. But we have to confess that reconciliation is heavily under threat at the moment. There’s a return to the old familiar narratives, which is often the easiest way to react – if life becomes difficult, return to the old familiar narrative. So, on the white side we hear: "Aha! I always knew these Africans can’t rule a country." Their picture is one of dark Africa and inferior Africans. And on the other side we hear: ‘Blame the whites, kill the settler.’ These divisive narratives are stimuli for hatred, violence and racism.

So that is a point which I wish to emphasise: divisive narratives are at the root of our social problems. We had a decade or so of reconciliation, but there’s a dangerous tendency now of returning to the old destructive narratives. Our wholeness is being threatened. The psychologist Carl Gustav Jung spoke about healing as individuation – a process through which, in the psyche, the opposites are brought into harmony and you become whole. And these ideas of Jung, of individuation and wholeness, could also be applied to society in general. We need wholeness and harmony, a reconciliation of opposites. Maybe it is a bit too idealistic to say, let’s go back to the rainbow. That rainbow has more or less melted away by now. But Max du Preez once wrote something which struck me; he said: "Maybe we should forget about the rainbow nation, but we could perhaps create a social mosaic where there is an acknowledgement of the different identities without the wholeness being threatened by them, so that we can find a balance between diversity and unity."

Francois Smith:

I believe this discussion is not only about my book, but also about the larger topic, the topic of the reminiscences of trauma in our society, and my book is a mere eyepiece, as it were, for the telescope to look at a much wider picture. And after having listened to Chris’s introduction, what I will do is to latch on to the scar. Put my finger out in the manner of that particular scene in the book, where Susan and Hamilton-Peake are on the motorbike, and try and feel the scar, touch it. And with the question in mind, what is it about the scar, what is the significance of the scar; not only in the book, but for our discussion as well, because we are talking about scars. We are also, haltingly, approaching the scar with that double reaction of recoiling as well as with the intimacy which is implied when one is allowed to touch the scar – the abhorrence of it as well as the intimacy.

Susan Nell was part of a program in this particular hospital where they used alternative, for that time unconventional, unorthodox healing methods for treating what was called "shell shock" in those times, and what we would nowadays call post-traumatic stress. And totally in line with the program, she decided, for very complex reasons, that she would take this patient whom she, by that stage, had recognised as being her rapist, out on a motorbike for a ride in the countryside – the countryside which she had experienced, up to that stage, as invigorating. This scenery, the wetness – she had a very sensory experience of the countryside, and especially of going on a motorcycle ride through the countryside. She took him out, and in writing it, my question was: How will she react? What is going to happen now? Why is she doing it? Is she trying to heal him, because it’s very plausible that this is an attempt to invigorate him, to get him out of his stupor, to get him out of his trauma, because he is demonstrating the typical symptoms of post-traumatic stress or shellshock. But then she stopped, and she took his hand and she brought it to her scar. What is that? What is that gesture? What is she doing now? Does she want him to remember, or does one truly sense something intimate, something almost erotic in that moment?

Maybe that is what I had to deal with. What is it that’s happening in that particular moment? How did I want her to react? My own reaction was informed by my history in a particular community, in a particular society, in a particular group that was involved with exactly that history of the Anglo Boer War. What did I want her to do, and should I let my expectations dictate what’s happening in that moment? What was happening in that scene, as far as I can say now with hindsight, is that it was ambivalent, it was a mixture of abhorrence and intimacy. And maybe that approach to a scar is still meaningful today. We should recognise the scar. In the wider sense of the word, the scar in the community is still soliciting these ambivalent emotions of abhorrence as well as intimacy.


I would like to add this about Susan’s narrative, that she says on page 229: "Ek weet nie wat die woorde is nie, ek sal nog hier by Tante Marie moet bly (that is Marie Koopmans-de Wet) om die woorde te leer en hoe dit in sinne pas sodat daardie sinne, dit wat ek in my kop sien en hier binne voel, kan toewikkel sodat dit iets is wat ek voor ander mense kan neersit en sê, kyk dit is wat dit was." Susan’s story is the narrative of the search for a narrative, and to find a kind of a home in her narrative. The interesting thing to me is that her trip on the motorcycle looks like retaliation; however, when she looks at him there is also a moment of erotic attraction. And that links up with what Francois said about the ambivalence. There’s a desire, if I read it correctly, of retaliation and of killing that man, but also a feeling of attraction to the man who raped her.


I find this image really fascinating. The idea of touching this guy, and in a way it relates to the idea of acknowledgment and recognition – here’s my pain and you caused it. You’re seeking recognition and the person who did it is the one who really should give the recognition of the pain which he caused. And that becomes the beginning of a journey. But of course, there are always contradictions on this journey; it doesn’t mean that I am healed because now you’ve recognised my pain. The contradictions remain. I find that just the image itself of the touch, the wish that you should physically feel my pain, draws us to the notion that victims of trauma often want that recognition; unless that happens, victims struggle to move on. They don’t heal. That is the first step that they need. The irony is that the perpetrator is the one to empower victims to make that first step towards healing, and that in itself becomes a contradiction; that the very person who caused the pain is the person who has the key for the victim to take that first step.

So it’s a very powerful image. Just the physicality of the intimacy, it’s not just about let’s talk about it in public, like a TRC, but touch it, feel it.

Man from the audience:

I just wondered about the whole scarring process, because it’s a kind of disfigurement at the individual level. And that disfigurement results in a society, in many instances, reacting with abhorrence and stigmatisation; the individual may be able to bridge the gap between abhorrence and intimacy. But my question would be: How do we take that from the individual level to the social level, to triumph with intimacy over the abhorrence that we may feel for either being or having been scarred.


That is to me a very central and difficult question and I can only say that in the circles in which one moves, one should try to begin a process of caring that hopefully could be infectious. There’s no way of instantly, in one go, transferring wholeness from the individual to society. But what I’m hoping for is a gradual spreading. Some of you may know the poem by the Dutch poet JH Leopold titled ‘Oinou hena stalagmon’, which means ‘a drop of wine’. He uses an inspiring image: the image of a drop of wine falling into the sea when a ship is launched by the breaking of a bottle of wine. According to the poem, that drop of wine spreads and spreads without ever stopping, until it is absorbed into the wide ocean. Our thoughts and feelings are like that, Leopold maintains – spreading endlessly. And that is the best answer I can give to the question: Let’s add a few drops to the ocean and see what happens.


What crossed my mind immediately after you asked the question is the notion of "scarred for life" – how, even in that expression, you could find a positive meaning as well. "Scarred for life" we generally take to mean that you are crippled for life, but isn’t there a possibility of saying that it is actually your being scarred which enables life in a particular way. My novel is about a woman who had to learn how to live with the scar, a woman who, for a large part of her life, internalised this scar and made it the symbol of her life; and she had to learn how to live with it, so that she could be scarred for life in a positive way.


The psychologists tell us there’s a movement among disabled people not to hide their scars, but to almost exhibit it. The scar is part of me, take me like that or leave me.


In the book there’s a scene where Marie Koopmans-de Wet notices that Susan is hiding something under a hat which she wears constantly, and she asks Susan to take off the hat. She says that is one way of getting your life back, one of the very first steps is to take off that hat. To let go of this constant attempt to hide something.


So there’s a way of living with the scar; the scar could become a meaningful item in your identity. Jung spoke about the wounded healer; the scarred person can perhaps become a scarred healer.


Yes, a doctor, Dr Hurst, plays a central role in the book. One of the theories about his success was that it was due to his speech impediment. All those people who were scarred by the war actually related to this scar in him, and that is why he was so successful. He exhibited a woundedness on another level which enabled those soldiers, the scarred people, to relate to him.

Woman in the audience:

I see Susan’s scar on two levels: a physical level and an emotional level. She is showing a perpetrator her physical scar that is now healed, but it is still there. It is her emotional scar that she wants to show him, to show him how that is still not healed. And now he is also scarred on a psychological level by the war, so there are only losers in a war.


  1. Remembering and forgetting

The next section of my talk is about remembering and forgetting. If you are a deeply traumatised person, it is painful to remember the trauma and difficult to tell what happened. There’s a wonderful book by Charlotte Delbo, the English title is Days and memory, it was originally written in French; it’s part of a trilogy with the English title of Auschwitz and after. She says in the concentration camp the language was split in two. If you tell people afterwards that you were thirsty in Auschwitz, they think they know exactly what you mean. Delbo says you don’t know, you need another word because the thirst that I experienced was something so different that it needs another word. Furthermore, after the Holocaust many people who suffered in the camps felt they could not tell their story because their story could not fit into any narrative structure that was generally known. So there’s always, in individual narratives and I think also in collective narratives, a difficulty to recollect and to communicate, especially that which is painful.

In Kamphoer there’s a long process of recovering memory. Just after the rape Susan doesn’t remember a thing. There’s one big hole in her memory. That is typical of trauma, there’s a big hole, a dark hole that you cannot penetrate. When she is searching for a narrative, it is a dual process of remembering and putting the remembrance into words, into a narrative. That is what we, on a societal level, also have to work on. Normally we tend to link remembering to retaliation, when people say: "Ah I remember, I won’t forgive and I won’t forget, I will get you back." And we link forgiveness to forgetting, to "vergewe en vergeet" – forgive and forget and go on to the future. But what I want to plead for is the difficult challenge not to choose between, on the one hand, "forgive and forget", and on the other hand "remember and retaliate", but rather to remember and then to forgive. Forgiving is a process, one of remembering and forgiving, and remembering again, and forgiving once more. Pumla has written much about the fact that forgiveness is something which liberates not only the one who receives forgiveness but also the one who grants it. What one of the characters in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice says about mercy is also true of forgiveness:

The quality of mercy is not strained
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
blesseth him that gives and him that takes

Revenge is easy but takes its toll; forgiveness is hard but liberating.

Susan, when she meets Hamilton-Peake, remembers – but will she forgive? She has now become a nurse and Hamilton-Peake is in trouble and looks like somebody who really needs to be nursed and cared for; but Susan feels the desire to retaliate. What she experiences is a reaction found in most communities: The traumatised people of the past become the oppressors when they obtain the power, the previously oppressed turn into perpetrators. The reason for this, Pumla, I learned from you – if you are raped or oppressed there’s a feeling of helplessness. So afterwards you want to return to that place where you were wounded and you want to reverse the roles so that you have the power, you are in control. That happens on an individual level, as with Susan Nell in the driving seat of the motorcycle, but it also happens on a societal level. And that, Pumla, I believe is part of your research project – the fact that the Afrikaners experienced the Anglo-Boer War without being treated for post-traumatic stress syndrome afterwards, without working through the traumatic past. That made it very attractive for them to change the roles and become the oppressor. That is a typical cycle, a cycle that we should try and avoid at all costs.

After the Anglo-Boer War there were two sections among the Afrikaners. The one said "vergewe en vergeet", forgive and forget. There were lots of divisions in society, as I mentioned before, but many Afrikaner leaders realised they all had to work together for a better future. So they said, let’s forgive and forget and move on to the future. But in the long run it just did not work; the wounds of the past needed to be remembered. Therefore there were also people who said, don’t forget – like the poet Totius, who wrote a poem with the ironic tittle: "Vergewe en vergeet". As motto he used a Biblical text with the instruction not to forget what you have seen. And in 1913 a novel by D F Malherbe was published with the title Vergeet nie – don’t forget.

In the long run the Afrikaner past was remembered; and I think the past has to be remembered. It cannot be worked through without being remembered. That applies to the African past as well – the pain of oppression through not only decades but centuries. We tend to say so easily, forget about the past and go on to the future; it just does not work. The real challenge is to remember, perpetrators as well as victims, to remember what needs to be worked through and what needs to be forgiven. And then try and work against the natural tendency of continuing the pattern of oppression, with only a reversal of the roles from time to time.

Remembering should open the way for reconciliation, and also for restoration. Talking about restoration, we should remember that it’s easier to forgive when things are going well. There’s a wonderful story in the Bible about Joseph and his brothers. In the end Joseph forgives his brothers for all the harm they’ve done to him. It’s not so difficult for him then, he’s now the second in command in Egypt, he can easily tell his brothers, the Lord was with me, you can see how well everything has turned out. But if Joseph had remained in jail, it would have been much harder for him to forgive his brothers. So we must remember that there is a link between people’s living conditions and their ability to forgive. We must remember and forgive, but also remember and restore, because we all know that the increasing gulf between rich and poor is a major cause of conflict in our country at the moment.

aanslag250A last thing I want to mention about remembering or forgetting is that we need to re-remember and rewrite South African history, not by replacing one exclusive history with another exclusive history, but by trying to write an inclusive story – an inclusive history with openness and understanding towards all parts of the mosaic, and without evading what is unpleasant to remember. It’s illuminating to take Germany as an example here. Germany is the one nation who did not shrink from confronting their guilt. It remains remarkable to me that, if you go to Germany, you find a monument to remember the wrong they did - the Holocaust Museum. In re-remembering the past, literature can play an important role. In Dutch literature, for instance, the easy stereotypes after the Second World War, of villainous Nazi’s and heroic people of the resistance, were increasingly questioned, until in 1983 a remarkable novel was published – De aanslag by Harry Mulisch (The assault in English translation), which exposed the real ‘villain’ as the war that left no one unharmed. So what I’m saying is that we have to re-remember and re-write the past in historiography and in literature. It is a never-ending process, but we must work on that, not just take the easy way out and say, that was an exclusive history, let’s have another exclusive history, then we have two exclusive histories. I’m hoping, with Charlie Brown of Peanuts, for a better past.


 Yes, maybe I’ll respond to that by saying that one of the discoveries of the book for me was that forgiving is a continuous process, it’s not something that gets completed at a particular stage in life, and maybe by the same token you can’t say that you are ever able to leave the past behind. Susan Nel, when she arrived in Europe during the First World War, was a totally empowered, enlightened woman who thought she had left her war behind her. What happened to her was in the past. She felt invigorated, empowered, enlightened, strong enough to bring the light, to bring healing to those who were suffering so badly in the Great War. But the moment she set foot in Britain, it was as if something toppled inside her, she was unable to know exactly what happened to her. She was moved by a strange and mysterious force that made her react in unpredictable ways and made her feel that she wasn’t herself anymore. Something came from deep inside her subconscious and she had to live with that. She had to live with that constantly, with that scar. I think that was what she experienced at that moment, without being able to explain it to herself. But she lived her life with the scar in a most positive way, playing a positive role right to the end of her life when she returned to South Africa. She had to return to her past, which was ironically also her beginning. The beginning and the end get together here, but I don’t think it leads to a very clear-cut conclusion. Is it ever over? Is the past ever left behind? Is trauma ever healed or do you have to live with it? Are there ways of just living with it, and what are these ways?

When I was working on the book, I saw a video clip by an amateur historian, Abrie Oosthuizen, who lived close to where I grew up. Almost all his historical work has been about the Anglo-Boer War. He told me that he grew up without any knowledge of the Anglo-Boer War. Nobody told him any stories about it, he didn’t get any information about it at school, but he remembered something which made a great impression on him while growing up with his grandparents at home. His grandparents were living with his parents, and he remembered the huisgodsdiens, the devotions that they used to have every evening, and how his grandparents would get up after the Bible reading and the prayers, and they would always sing the same hymn: Uit dieptes, gans verlore … And he remembers their voices. His grandmother’s high-pitched voice that was fluttering up and down, almost like a bat, and his grandfather’s deep dark notes, how they would sing, stand up and sing this hymn with tears streaming down their faces every night; just standing, singing, crying. Those were his images. And much later he asked his parents, but why are Ouma and Oupa so sad? Why are they crying every night? And his father said, ‘Dit is die oorlog.’ It is the war, and that was all they could do at the end of every day – sing and cry. They were never able to say anything, never able to talk about it. They just stood up and they cried.

Nico Luwes from the audience:

I know an old man who fought in the Second World War. I’m very nuuskierig. I wanted to find out about his war experiences, but he never told me anything. He said, "I just want to forget it. I’ve never talked to my wife or to anybody else about it."

When 2001 came, there was a renewed interest in the Anglo-Boer War. And I know of a lot of my friends, there’s one sitting here, who are going back to the past. This whole idea of going back to the original place, to sort of meet the reality again, is very interesting to me. For so many years nobody’s talked about the Anglo -Boer War, but in 2001 everybody started talking about it again. I don’t want to talk about my own work, but I wrote a play called Skroot during those times. It was just after the graves of the black people had been discovered here at Brandfort, and I had to go back there and I walked around there. And I went to the Winburg concentration camp where my forefathers had been. I had to go and revisit this whole thing and remember the stories that my grandparents told me. But somehow, without even thinking, I took a black woman to the concentration camps near Winburg, and she said, "This is the place where it happened". And this is how my play starts, in the present, but then it goes back. I didn’t even think about it then, but it becomes very clear to me now that you’ve got to go back to the past and try to re-imagine what happened, and then go on from there; this revisiting is very interesting to me.


In 1998 Rolf Wolfswinkel and I compiled a book, A century of Anglo-Boer War Stories. I then went to visit a distant relation of mine, born in 1900 during the Anglo-Boer War. She began by assuring me that she was a verlofbaba; she wanted to make sure I understand that her father was not a Joiner but that she was conceived by her father while he was on leave from his commando. Then I asked about her father – did he and his comrades get together after the war and talk about their war memories? So she said they would get together once a year. And I asked, what did they talk about? She said, they mostly told jokes and spoke about funny things that happened. The really painful things were avoided by telling the amusing stories of the past.

And I think what we’re saying about the Anglo Boer-War also applies to the so-called Border Wars. I think there are many people walking silently with scars because of these wars.


Yes, a similar thing that I can remember about the Border War, is what we in those days called "GV stories". GV stands for "Grensvegter", one who fought on the Border. But the term "GV story" was denigrating, for these stories were told by people who never actually experienced anything severe. They would be the ones who would be telling GV stories, people who never actually experienced anything really traumatic. The underlying assumption was that those who experience real trauma never speak. They remain silent. Those who were able to tell stories, exaggerated stories in most instances, were those who were unscathed.


We should be careful – an outsider can assign meaning to trauma too easily, we must remember that it can be offensive to a traumatised person to hear about meaning ensuing from trauma. The immediate after-effect of trauma is usually not the discovery of meaning; you just find nothingness. So I think we must all be careful not to talk too glibly about trauma if you haven’t gone through it yourself.

  1. Two kinds of people

In the novel Susan Nell says there are two kinds of people – those who kill and those who care; there are soldiers and nurses, soldiers who kill and nurses who care. And generally in her society the killing was linked to the aggressive male, and nursing was linked to the female who cares. But the interesting thing about Susan is that she discovers both tendencies in her: the so-called female side which led her to become a nurse, but also the soldier side. Although she is a woman, there’s something in her that feels, I want to get rid of the men who are in control all the time. I want to be like a man, captain of my destiny. There’s a scene on page 36 where she is on the motorcycle with Jacobs driving, she’s sitting in the sidecar, and then she sees a number of women in men’s clothes. It leads to two reactions in her, both equally interesting. The one is that she has a feeling of excitement, thinking how exhilarating that must be – to be like these English women, wearing men’s clothes; "om die baas te wees", to be the boss. But when she has had these thoughts, she blushes. She thinks, I’m not supposed to have them. In my society it is not allowed.

That’s very interesting, that conflict in her between the caring nurse and the aggressive soldier. And it is also interesting that, just before she meets Hamilton-Peake, there’s a scene where she’s sitting in the bar with the senior nurse Anne Maxwell, who is a hard woman, hard as nails. And she says to Anne, tell us those funny stories about the trauma patients again. For her it’s a way of becoming unsympathetic; she is using Anne as a role model to give her the strength to confront Hamilton-Peake with what he has done. The important point here is that Susan is not just a nurse who cares, she’s also not simply a soldier who kills; there is a conflict in her between the two.

At the moment our society has a greater need of carers than killers; we have enough killers. But as we’re striving to get more carers, we must remember through the story of Susan Nell how easily the carer can become the killer. Don’t be too self-assured, because there is perhaps something of the killer lurking inside all of us. I read in a newspaper a little while ago, that last year almost a million births were registered, but in 61% of those registrations no father was mentioned. Those are horrible statistics; we are turning into a fatherless society. Maybe it’s partly due to the male feeling of having lost his narrative. We always were a patriarchal society, but now that is falling apart. And the easy way to react is to assert your male dominance by using violence. For a society, it is extremely harmful if you have such a fatherless society, if fathers are absent or violent or abusive. Won’t it be wonderful if we could create a different kind of society, of mothers and fathers who are present; if we could create a truly meaningful alternative narrative of involvement and care. In his book translated from the German as Man’s search for meaning, Viktor Frankl explains how important it is to have a meaningful narrative in your life. And I am pleading for a meaningful narrative of caring and being involved.

Here I want to take the Afrikaner as an example. We all know that Afrikaners are not always good examples, but I want to say that sometimes we can all learn from the Afrikaner past. Early in the 20th century the Helpmekaar movement was initiated to help Afrikaners who were poor and couldn’t afford education. What I’m pleading for is to extend that idea of "help mekaar", help each other, to include all who are in need, not only members of your own group. That is the collective narrative which we should strive towards.

Furthermore, the Afrikaners cared for their language and literature, and also for mother tongue education, which was essential for the intellectual and economic upliftment of the Afrikaner. I’m hoping for the extension of Afrikaner mother tongue education to include other indigenous languages as well. I know there are many practical problems connected to this ideal, but I am reminded of what a Dutch professor said to me many years ago. We spoke about the future of Afrikaans and the difficulties linked to the development of Afrikaans in all its functions. Then he said in Dutch: "Het hangt alles af van het woordje 'willen'" – it all depends on how strong the will is. Won’t it be wonderful if we could put all our efforts into creating a language model of accommodation and reconciliation, because for the development of all our people that is of central importance. I often think that if I had to have my education in Sotho or Xhosa I doubt whether I would have been able to make matric. We must never forget the close connection between mother tongue education and the intellectual and economic development of our people. In the 1980’s when most South Africans were sure that we were heading for disaster, the conflicting parties came together and at CODESA a model of reconciliation was developed which inspired the world. Can’t we do something like that about languages and create a model of inclusion and reconciliation instead of domination?

At the moment I’m busy translating some letters of President Steyn, the Free State president, and I’m really impressed by that man’s integrity and wisdom. There are two related points I want to mention about him. The one is his very strong involvement in mother tongue education and in the protection of the rights of the Dutch language; the other is his involvement in the education of his people. He worked hard for the establishment of schools for Afrikaner girls orphaned by the war, and he was a key figure in the establishment of the Oranje Meisieskool in Bloemfontein. At the moment we have a severe educational crisis, and again I want to plead that what Steyn did for his own people, we should extend to all the young people of the country.


Miskien moet ek net sê dat dié van julle wat in Afrikaans wil reageer, baie welkom is, want ons het tolkdienste. En dis eintlik vir ons departement ook taamlik belangrik. ’n Beginsel wat ons ondersteun is dié van veeltaligheid. So neem asseblief die vrymoedigheid. Ons het die tolkdienste en as jy gemakliker is in Afrikaans, wat ek self ook is, dan kan jy gerus in Afrikaans reageer.

I just wanted to say, in reaction to Chris’s latest delivery, that I think rape as a sexual crime is a man/woman problem. Not that it is exclusively a man/woman problem, but in my book particularly, it is one. It’s one that haunted me to the very end of the book. At the end of the story – and by that stage I think it was clear that Susan was approaching the end of her life – she is looking for her grave, but not finding it. And there she was with two men again, travelling in a car from Bloemfontein to Winburg, going to the remains of the cemetery where she was supposed to have been buried years before, where her grave was supposed to be, because she was declared dead after her disappearance. She was going to find that particular spot. She was travelling with an old friend, Perry, one of the men who helped to rescue her from the camp after she got back to life again, helped her to reach Cape Town, and with an Afrikaner man who made his car available and drove them to Winburg. They travelled together, Susan Nell with these two men. And writing that, I had to find out what would happen in that instance. I was confronted with the man/woman problem again and with the particular question of the need to be forgiven.

In that closing scene with Susan in the car, an accident almost happened. Both men very caringly reached out for Susan to console her, to calm her down, just to be kind. Not as men, but as friends, as caring people, to reach out to her and say to her, oh it’s fine, you are okay. I was confronted with the problem of how should she react. How will she react? The desire to accept this gesture of kindness, of caring – whose desire is it, hers or mine? Do I want her to forgive the men? Did it matter that they were in a particular way representing the perpetrators and that the perpetrators, on my behalf as well as on behalf of men in general, want to be forgiven? It was a question which forced me to sit still and think. I had to let something slowly dawn upon that scene, trying to make the distinction between Susan Nel’s desire and my own desire.


Thank you very much. I find that such a poignant statement. The story itself is a story based on a real story, but it is fictionalised. And then there’s you as a writer and how you reflect, these reflexive moments that you go through as the author, inserting yourself into this story, and now sharing with us these real moments of connection to this story in the book. But then, how your story is actually located within the larger political story, the historical story as we live it. And that really captures for us just what books do, they invite us to be reflective, they invite us to think about the unspeakable, the difficult issues of life, how we relate to one another.

And this is the power of literature, and we’re hoping that these conversations will lead us towards these kinds of questions. What did this book inspire in us and especially what are the complicated questions that they raise for us, living at this time in our country? Although the story is situated in a particular historical moment, how does it speak to the present? I think that’s where the power of this kind of research lies. I want to reiterate a point that you made, Francois, and invite people to ask questions and make comments in Afrikaans. This is why we’ve arranged for the interpreters, so please feel free to pose questions and make comments in Afrikaans.

Woman in audience:

Ek wil die stelling maak, en ek sal graag die reaksie daarop hoor. In die oorlog is Susan se liggaamsruimte met die verkragting binnegedring waar sy in ’n hulpelose staat was. Met Hamilton-Peake voel dit vir my of sy hom in ’n sekere sin ook verkrag deur hom op die motorfiets te neem en aan haar litteken te laat vat. Met ander woorde, dit is amper asof sy hom binnedring en op dieselfde manier verkrag. Dit is die een stelling wat ek wil maak. En dan ook, sy gaan soek haar graf. Sy vind nie haar graf hier heel teen die einde nie, want sy is nie dood nie, maar ek wonder of sy regtig daardie besef het. Sy is wel nie fisies dood nie, so daar is nie ’n graf vir haar nie, maar sy is miskien op ’n ander vlak dood en dit is dalk hoekom sy nie ’n sterk reaksie toon op die empatie wat die twee mans vir haar wil gee en wat sy nie regtig aanvaar nie.


Kom ek begin deur te sê ons moet besef dat verkragting ’n seksuele misdaad is. Toe ek die toneel geskryf het waarna jy verwys, waar sy vir Hamilton-Peake op die motorfiets vat, het ek nie geweet wat gaan gebeur nie; dit moes ek ontdek. Daar was al vir my die skemering van ’n besef dat haar verhoudings in die algemeen en spesifiek met mans permanent besoedel is. Seks het vir haar besoedel geraak. Seks het vir haar ’n vermenging van intimiteit met geweld geraak. Daardie gewaarwording het toe ’n rol gespeel, maar wat ook ’n rol gespeel het, is dat daardie toneel aanvanklik anders gelyk het. Sy het teruggekom na die hospitaal en het bloot afgery op Hurst die dokter en Jacobs die ordonnans wat vir haar gewag het. Maar ná die manuskrip voltooi is, was een van Dan Sleigh se reaksies daarop dat daar darem vir hom te min geweld in hierdie boek is, te min slagvelde, dat daar darem te min van die oorlog gemaak word en dat hy tog so een of twee oorlogstonele in die boek sou wou sien.

En ek het teruggegaan en ek het gewonder, en ek het geweet, nee, oorlogstonele hoort nie in hierdie verhaal nie. Dit het ek seker geweet. Ek kan nie oorlogstonele hier inskryf nie. Dit is my boek, dit is nie oor die oorlog op daardie vlak nie. Maar ek het tog probeer agterkom wat hy wou sê, ek het dit aangevoel as kritiek, maar ek het vir myself gesê, sê hy eintlik iets anders? Wat bedoel hy daarmee? En toe ek daaroor gaan sit en dink het, toe het ek weer teruggekom na daardie toneel, en toe het ek dit herskryf met die afloop van die toneel as iets anders, waar sy eintlik haarself verbeel as ’n lansier,’n Britse lansier. Uit my blootstelling, uit jeugverhale oor die Anglo-Boereoorlog, het ek min of meer ’n idee in my kop gehad dat die Boere ontsettend bang was vir die Britse lansiers. Daardie soldate wat op sulke groot perde met stomp sterte gery het, wat eintlik nie galop het soos die Boere se ponies nie, maar sulke katagtige spronge gee, en die lansiers wat dan in ’n linie gestorm het en die lanse so laat sak het om die Boere te deurboor. Dit was absoluut skrikwekkend vir die Boeremagte om teen so ’n linie lansiers te staan te kom. En Susan het dan op daardie manier afgestorm gekom en haar lans laat sak. Daar is natuurlik seksuele simboliek in die toneel, sy het afgestorm op die linie Britse soldate wat vir haar ingewag het, ingewag het daar. So simbolies het sy oorlog gemaak en simbolies was daardie oorlog ’n seksuele oorlog.

Sy het teruggekom na haar graf, wat dan paradoksaal ook haar geboorteplek was. Dit is waar sy eintlik weer in ’n seker sin gebore is. In ’n stadium het ek agtergekom dat daar twee verhale is. Die een verhaal begin waar sy voor ’n deur in die hospitaal staan en die naam op die deur herken as dié van haar verkragter. En sy staan daar, op die piek van haar krag, op die toppunt van haar verligting, en dan word sy ingesuig in die donker gat wat nog steeds in haar is. En die ander verhaal begin waar sy uit hierdie donkerte wakker word en na die lig toe gaan. So hierdie bewegings van donker na lig en heen en weer tussen donker en lig is eintlik verstrengel deur die hele boek, en dit is eintlik wat ek agtergekom het, dit is wat lewe is, hierdie verstrengeling van donker en lig.


Francois, there’s something that I would like to understand about the grave, the looking for the grave. She’s looking for the grave, and then you refer to the grave as the place of birth. So can you explain a little bit more the symbolism of the grave, can you just explain the scene in the context of the book?


She got raped and almost killed during the night when she went looking for help for a very sick inmate, a fellow inmate of the tent where they were kept in the concentration camp, one of her friends with the name of Alice Draper. English name. (This was a matter of interest to me, initially inexplicable, why people with English names were kept in the concentration camps. I got the answer later on, but I won’t bore you with now.) But to come back to your question, what happened was that she disappeared, and that often happened during the war, and she got buried under the name of Alice Draper, the girl who died during the night, the girl for whom she was going to search for help. And while she was out there searching for help, soldiers grabbed her and dragged her into another tent, dragged her and raped her, and threw her onto the hearse which collected corpses every morning and every evening. Susan disappeared. The girl who was buried that night was Alice Draper. You can still go to the cemetery in Winburg and see the tombstone that was erected for Alice Draper.

Susan Nell escaped and managed to reach Cape Town under the name of Alice Draper. She assumed the name of that girl who died, and that was her new identity, Alice Draper. She came back in the end and she found the tombstone of Alice Draper that was actually supposed to be hers, but she knew that next to it was an open grave site, an unmarked grave. She assumed that was hers, the unmarked grave.

Woman 2 from the audience:

Ons is die karakters van ons eie lewensverhale, en my eie ervaring is dikwels dat mense ook nodig het om die held te wees van daardie eie verhaal. Jy moet die held wees van jou verhaal. En ek wonder net hoe skakel dit met daardie onderskeid tussen soldate en verpleërs. Die insident van die motorfiets, die uitstappie waar sy die aggressiewe soldaat kon wees maar tog is sy nou die heldin, want sy was sterker as haar verkragter.


Tolkien het gesê: "If you want to know the news, read literature", en dis vir my ’n wonderlike idee, Pumla, that literature has a way of initiating discussion. Susan sê êrens, ’n goeie verhaal het altyd iets van ’n ambivalensie, en dit vind ons ook in Francois se roman oor haar lewe.

Francois het gesê die lewe is ’n verstrengeling van lig en donker. Alhoewel mens nooit kan sê nou het ek die punt bereik waar ek volkome die held of heldin is nie, dink ek wel dat jy volwassenheid, maturity, kan bereik deur jouself te leer ken. En te weet jy is miskien nie heeltemal so goed soos wat jy gedink het nie, maar miskien ook nie heeltemal so sleg soos wat jy gevrees het nie. Die rit op die motorfiets is ’n toneel van wraak, maar as dit verby is, dan voel Susan ’n aangetrokkenheid tot hierdie man. Dit is soos dit dikwels gebeur met dogters wat deur hul vaders misbruik word. Hulle haat die vaders, maar voel ook aangetrokke tot die vaders, en iets daarvan kry ons ook by Susan. So ek wil eintlik maar net pleit vir ambivalensie en ironie, vir verstrengeling en kompleksiteit. Want dit is wat jy in die lewe en in ’n goeie roman kry. Jy het nie ’n politikus se toespraak wat ’n simplistiese waarheid gee nie. ’n Oortuigende roman gee iets van die kompleksiteit van die lewe weer, van mense wat selde net skurke of net helde is.


Maybe I can try to answer the question by referring to the fact that this book of mine is also about making stories, and the reasons why we need particular tales. My book is actually a rewriting of a book by Nico Moolman about Susan Nell. In that very first story about Susan Nell, she encounters one the rapists during the First World War and the other one during the Second World War, during one of the military tribunals when she was employed as an expert witness.


Is that a true story or not actually?


I don’t know, I can only give you my version of it, how it’s been portrayed in my novel, how I have used that particular story. I decided if Nico Moolman’s story is the truth, then it is too strange for fiction. Maybe it would work in real life, but not in a book. Not in a novel, the coincidence is just too big.

Man in audience:

You can’t lie in fiction.


The very first story was discovered by Moolman, and he decided to write his book, The Boer whore, in English, because he wanted the English people to know what they did to us. I took over the story and decided I want to retell the story for literary reasons. I became aware of the fact that two authors, two men again, used the story of Susan Nel, took the story out of her hands and used it for our own purposes. What does that make of us? So in a certain sense I wanted to give her story back to her, wanted to try and put her in a position where she can demonstrate that stories are not necessarily factually true, but that we need stories for particular reasons; and she wanted to have her story back for her own reasons. She wanted to claim her story back even if it was as a myth. The myths that we live by are not necessarily factually true, but they are important stories. That story, in the way she retold it, was her narrative. It was important to her. She wanted to live by that rendition of it.


  1. Healing persons

There are two wonderfully attractive characters in the novel, two Sotho’s who meet her and help her. In many ways their treatment of Susan provides us with a model of healing. It’s almost as if the wisdom of the Sotho’s is embodied in them. They give her the sympathy she needs; they know about the therapeutic value of music and stories; and they know the importance of rituals, of ritual purification and the ritual sharing of a meal. They are, to me, symbols of hope. And when I sometimes feel disgusted about the government and about the leaders of the nation, then I realise that we need healing from the bottom upwards, because if we’re going to wait for the top we may have to wait for a long time.

The British soldiers wanted to bury her in a grave, but she lands in a cave, and that cave is almost like a mother’s womb which makes new life, a rebirth, possible. What is important for our topic is that this cave of rebirth is a meeting place between an Afrikaner girl and two Sotho’s. We cannot remain, as we used to sing as children, "jy in jou klein hoekie en ek in myn" – "you in your small corner and I in mine". There’s no healing like that, no communal healing. We have to create caves as it were, caves which can be meeting places for healing to take place. Because we all need healing – the rich as much as the poor. The privileged often have to be healed from their egocentricity. So we should work towards the creation of various caves where people from different backgrounds can learn to know one another. Some of you may have seen the play written by Dana Snyman, Die klaagliedere van dominee Tienie Benade. It ends in a wonderfully positive way. The play is about the miseries of an Afrikaner dominee, but it ends where dominee Benade gets the message, "Tienie, you must cross the railway line, because there, on the other side, you’ll find a real challenge and a real meaning."

  1. Guilt and shame

In psychology a distinction is made between guilt and shame. Guilt is linked to something you did that was wrong, an obnoxious deed. You must admit that wrong to be healed. Shame goes deeper. Shame is about who you are, not what you did. Shame makes you think that you are deplorable. And the sad thing about rape is that very often it is not the perpetrator who feels shame; the transgressor transfers his feelings onto the victim and says: "You’ve made for it, you looked for it, you are the kind of person who will always be raped." That’s why the title of the novel is Kamphoer, because that is the concept which is haunting Susan. Am I a kamphoer? Am I a prostitute? Because that’s what they called me. And the first word that she mentions when she starts talking again is "kamphoer". I think the deepest wound that Susan Nell has to be healed from is the wound of shame. On page 190 she considers the fact that people who have been raped and abused have a stain which sticks to the victim in a strange way. Towards the end of the novel (on p 196) she confronts her deepest wound. She thinks of the night when she danced with Hamilton-Peake, when he said, "Jy is monate, jy is lekker" – you are nice. She feels stained by what happened, as if she was partly to blame.

And I think that is something we also have to confront in our society, the fact that we have been stained by the way people have been looking at one another. The Afrikaner found after the Anglo Boer War that the arrogance with which English-speaking people looked at the Afrikaner created a feeling of inferiority and humiliation. How much more the Africans, through centuries of being looked down upon, must struggle with feelings of inferiority and humility and shame. What we really need, on the deepest level, is that the gaze of superiority should be transformed into a look of acknowledgment, of compassion and care.


Oh gosh, I fear everything that I was going to say now is going to take away some of the weight and significance of what Chris has just said, so I can just say thank you. Thank you so much.

  1. Empathy and moral imagination


But we do have another round before we end our conversation. We do have a little bit of time for more questions or comments.

Man 2 in audience:

One of the problems I have, in the whole process we are talking about, is the fact that decent male role models are lacking. And I wonder to what extent we should be deeply disturbed by the male narratives that young people are pilfering, I think, from America and deeming as admirable instead of looking at their shortcomings as well. Maybe that’s an area where we need to offer education and a reappraisal.


Is there a second question?

Man 3 in audience:

Earlier this year we had a lecture where Dr Butlezuma said something very significant. He mentioned that we are over the romantic phase of democracy now, it’s a time for questioning those wounds that perhaps lots of people have been living with, a time for going back to the wound and feeling the scar. The question that I have is how quickly or how suddenly should forgiveness take place, considering the wound that was caused?

And then about the issue of guilt and shame. I know Prof Pumla is looking into the notion of empathy as a substitute for the concept of forgiveness. And my comment is or my question would be, could one say that we can forgive when we’ve come to the point where the perpetrator comes across as truly empathetic towards the victim?


Goodness me. Those were some interesting questions and comments. What has been said about role models is deeply disturbing. Ek sal maar ’n bietjie Afrikaans praat ter wille van die veeltaligheid. Dis iets wat my baie bekommer, hoe oppervlakkig ons geword het met ons rolmodelle, maar wat ons nie moet minag nie, is die rol wat sport tog bly speel. Suid-Afrikaners is mal oor sport, en ten minste kry jy iemand soos Jean de Villiers wat ordentlik is, en jy kry Roger Federer wat ’n gentleman is, en Lucas Radebe wat ’n wonderlike voorbeeld stel. Maar oor die algemeen is dit ’n simptoom van die oppervlakkigheid van ons samelewing dat ons sulke flenterfigure as helde neem, dat ons celebrities beskou as helde van die gees. Dit is iets waaroor ons ons regtig diep moet bekommer.

As far as the other questions are concerned, they are very significant indeed. How quickly can forgiveness take place? We must be wary of pushing people into forgiveness when they are not ready for it. Honesty is perhaps more important than forgiveness. Don’t try to be better than you are. Forgiveness is a long process. But I’m hoping for progress, not regress. There was a lecture that Pumla and I heard a long time ago. It was given by a professor from Israel, a woman who spoke about regular discussions which she organised between Palestinian and Israeli students. At the beginning the students have to commit themselves to continuing to attend the discussions. A regular pattern emerged over the years. When the students get together, they’re all smiling, confirming their common humanity. And then something happens in society, something politically significant which deeply divides them. And the professor said, very often the Palestinians fare better in the ensuing debate, because the oppressed mostly know more about the oppressor than the other way round. After a while the debate becomes so heated that all dialogue stops.

Then there’s a period of silence; but after a while they remember their commitment and they get together again, but without those easy simplifications of before and the pretence of loving all people. That’s something we should remember, not to be too smiling, not superficial and hypocritical. And also remember, and I’m preaching this to myself as well, that a period of anger is necessary. It’s part of the process. But hopefully that is not the final stage. If we just keep being angry we’ll get nowhere. From there we should work towards a more meaningful dialogue.

I fully endorse what you said about empathy. I think that the basis of all morality is empathy – when you look at other people through their eyes as well, not only through your own eyes. What we must avoid is narcissism, looking at the whole world through our own desires and our own fears. What we must strive for together is empathy. Empathy is the moral basis for justice, because if you have empathy, you grant the other person the same value and the same privileges which you grant yourself. If you find empathy, forgiveness will come more easily.

I want to return to what I said before, that in a way we’re all creative writers. Francois, you mentioned how you had difficulty in imagining certain things. But we all have difficulty in imagining, in finding what Pumla calls the ‘moral imagination’ to put ourselves into another person’s position and act accordingly. In the process of reconciliation, that is the heart of the matter.

[1] When I talk about the "Anglo-Boer War", I obviously don’t mean that it was a war in which only the Afrikaners and the British were involved. The term refers to the two parties who declared war. The alternative term, ‘South African War’, is slightly misleading; it has a British flavour to it. It makes a distinction for the British between that war and the many other wars in which they were involved. But in South Africa there were a number of wars which could be called a "South African War". Furthermore, the entity "South Africa" did not exist when the Anglo-Boer War took place; the Union of South Africa only came into existence in 1910.

  • 5


  • "Maybe I can try to answer the question by referring to the fact that this book of mine is also about making stories, and the reasons why we need particular tales. My book is actually a rewriting of a book by Nico Moolman about Susan Nel. In that very first story about Susan Nel, she encounters both of the rapists during the Second World War, during one of the military tribunals when she was employed as an expert witness."
    In The Boer Whore ontmoet Susan Nell haar verkragters meer as 30 jaar uitmekaar uit. Liewe ouers ! Waar het ek ooit sulke str.....t geskryf ... dat sy beide gedurende die 2de wêreld oorlog raakgeloop het? Dit maak 'n helse verskil aan my geloofwaardigheid.
    En Hierdie: “And while she was out there searching for help, soldiers grabbed her and dragged her into another tent, dragged her and raped her, and threw her onto the hearse which collected corpses every morning and every evening. Susan disappeared. The girl who was buried that night was Alice Draper. You can still go to the cemetery in Winburg and see the tombstone that was erected for Alice Draper.”
    Nie deur my geskryf nie. Susan het toe nog nie eers geweet Alice sou ’n paar dae later sterf nie.
    Susan is nie deur soldate na die tent geneem nie, maar deur 'n Joiner-kamp Polisiewag.
    ...en o ja, dis Whisky, nie Whiskey nie ... en dis Nell nie Nel nie.
    Nico Moolman. Skrywer van The Boer Whore.

  • Kamphoer was ons leesklub se boek van die maand - September 2019. Puntsgewys was my vertolking van die boek as volg:
    * Die feitelike raamwerk vir die boek is die verkragting van Susan Nell in die kamp, haar herstel in die grot en daarna vertrek na na Kaapstad en toe oorsee, alles met die hulp van die fotograaf en die Koopmanssusters. Opleiding as en diens as 'n psigiatriese verpleegster wat na Engeland toe is om meer van 'bomskok' te leer. Waar sy een van haar verkragters in die hospitaal gesien het.
    * Om hierdie redelike bar raamwerk het die skrywer twee verhale gevleg wat myns insiens sy persoonlike vertolking van die verhaal is: een is Susan se verhaal van kort na die verkragting en haar herstel totdat sy uit Kaapstad vertrek. Die ander is haar sukses in Europa - as vennoot in Reymaker se praktyk wat na Engeland gaan om saam met dr Hurst te werk.Die twee verhale dek verskillende tydvakke, maar verloop parallel in die boek wat verwarrend kan wees, maar noodsaaklik om die ontknoping waar Susan die eerste keer regtig besef wat die aard van haar toestand is teen die einde van die boek te plaas - dit is waar sy op bls 215 " . . . geleer om na my lewe te kyk asof ek van buite daarop afkyk." en kort daarna haar mus afhaal en haar van terugkry vir "'n nuwe begin".
    * Die styl tusen die twee verhale verskil hemelsbreed - veral die 1e persoon teenoor die 3e persoon - kort staccato sinne teenoor baie lang wentelende sinne; ou name vir diere en voels en omgewing in die een en nie die ander nie
    * Haar kantoor, steriel skoon waar sy werk en 'n mengelmoes met Afrika inhoud as agtergrond teen die muur - tiperend van die twee persoonlikhede wat haar kop bewoon; die een uit die verlede wat steeds (aan nagevolge) ly en die ander saaklike vasberade en soms aggressiewe een wat wil opmaak vir die lyding en ervarings van die ander.
    * Hierdie aspekte en gebeure soos wanneer, " . . . Nadat Jacobs haar by die hospitaal afgelaai het en sy skeeu van Rundle se huis en hy sy bril afhaal: “. . . dit is asof daardie argelose gebaar al was wat nodig was om haar los te maak van haarself. Dis asof sy toe eers, en op ‘n afstand, hoor wat sy gesê het en haarself daar sien staan, in ‘n nuwe wêreld sien staan . . . " (bls 25) laat my sterk vermoed sy is op die glyskaal van dissosiatiewe identiteitsversteuring (DIV), maar nog kort van die toestand waar die twee persoonlikhede herkenbaar verskillende is - die een is histories en die ander het nadat sy na Europa is oorgeneem. Dalk kan 'n mens dit vergelyk met toe Susan Draper weer Susan Nell geword het. Daar is ander instansies wat so 'n gevolgtrekking ook steun.
    * Hierdie vertolking dat die Susan in die eerste verhaal 'n 'slagoffer van die oorlog was' met al die skade wat dit vir haar gebring het en dat sy dit daarna in Europe nà haar epifanie by die Koopmans te bowe gekom het en 'n 'normale' lewe gelei het afgesien van haar onvermoë om 'n (intieme) verhouding met 'n man aan te knoop." kom vir my so sterk na vore dat ek gedink het die skrywer het doelbewustelik iets soos DIV in gedagte gehad toe hy die boek geskryf het - 'n boek wat veel minder met die werklikhede van wat gebeur te doen het as met 'n beskrywing van wie en wat Susan presies is of was. Want toe sy voor die deur staan (Hfst 1) smelt die twee persoonlikhde weer saam en moet sy van nuuts af die helingsproses deurgaan; wat sy met die motorfietsrit en die wys van die litteken doen en toe sy die implikasies hiervan besef en die verkragter se dood aanvaar en verwerk kon sy met haar lewe voortgaan.

    Vir my 'n baie besondere boek en ek was half verbaas om die voorafgaande gesprek met o.a. Francois Smith lees en besef dat ek dalk dinge mistas in my vertolking van wat ek gelees het. Dit is nou tensy, soos dikwels met skryfwerk gebeur, die karakter die beheer oor die verhaal oorneem en dinge stel soos dit moet hoort nie! Die boek verdien 'n veel meer volledige bespreking as net hierdie paar opmerkings.

  • Ek lees nou vir Kamphoer vir die derde keer. Dis asof ek dit nie kan klaar lees nie; alhoewel ek dit van tyd tot tyd moet neersit, bly dit my boei. Die voorafgaande sprekers met hulle toeligting en verwysing na die tyd van van die Anglo-Boere-oorlog en die huidige tydsgewrig hier in ons land, het vir my baie lig gewerp op die omstandighede en die persepsiess van die verskillende groeperinge,wat hier saamwoon. Ek hou van die begrip mosaiëk om ons klomp mense hier te beskryf.

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