Politics wasn’t something separate from my daily life growing up. It was pervasive. The schools we went to, the abuse my brother and I received at the hands of other little white boys for being k*****boetjies, the bullets from which we took cover in the back of our father’s bakkie on the way into Edendale, and the neverending hot-plastic-scented meetings in dusty places – these were as much a feature of our early lives as wandering around the farm hunting for pigeons with a .22 rifle or searching for crystals in the perilous cliffs on the way to the river.
Politics was why we were in Ulundi, that week exactly twenty years ago. It was the last weekend of our short Michaelmas holidays, and we had the joy of spending it in another hot and dusty place with no airconditioning or entertainment, all because the newly elected ruling party in KwaZulu-Natal was holding its AGM at Matleng camp near Ulundi. So of course we were there. We sat through the first day, having xhawula’d our way respectfully through all the great and good and not so good, under that stretched white firmament of plastic, transfixed by the rhetoric of Mntwana kaPhindangena’s speech and longing for something cold to drink.
Politics had almost nothing to do with the next day’s trip to the newly established Ophathe Game Reserve along the banks of the White Imfolozi, entering through a private gate on the R66 and walking with a single guide through the humming heat under the acacias, following my brother’s footsteps through the loose sandy soil. I remember nothing of what the guide said, and I’m ashamed to say that I don’t even remember his name. He wasn’t speaking to me, in any case. Tom soaked it all up.
That evening we (all four of us) ascended the hill, rising past the legislature to the mansions of KwaZulu-Natal’s ministers and amakhosi, stopping at the house of Mntwana kaMinya, a senior prince of the Zulu royal house. It was some time after his daughter’s marriage, at which I’d been the solitary white page-boy. Needless to say, politics had everything to do with it. I ended up eavesdropping on adult conversations as I usually did, and hearing the occasional spatter of acronym (CODESA, ANC, IFP, KZN) over the jokes and laughter. It was Saturday night. The AGM was ending the next day, and so was the household’s stay in Ulundi. We were invited for breakfast – just the boys. On our way out, Tom peeled slowly away from the leather jackets and aftershave of the bodyguards, a swagger in his step. 12, going on 13.
The slow trudge of my BMX up that hill the next day was murderous, only made good by the love and hospitality of Mntwana kaMinya’s household, and especially his daughter. Tom sailed up, no problem. An 18-speed mountain bike will do that for you. When I finally crested the hill and arrived at the gate, he was already back among the leather jackets, chatting and listening.
The slow trudge of my BMX up that hill the next day was murderous, only made good by the love and hospitality of Mntwana kaMinya’s household, and especially his daughter. Tom sailed up, no problem. An 18-speed mountain bike will do that for you. When I finally crested the hill and arrived at the gate, he was already back among the leather jackets, chatting and listening. I remember wandering around the cavernous place, Ukhozi FM playing in the background. I remember eating freshly butchered steaks for lunch, chunks of meat so thick you had to saw for hours just to cut a bite. And I remember that politics wasn’t involved at all.
Just before noon, the household stirred and started to pack things away. We retreated, saying goodbye, and ending up outside with the leatherjackets once more. The moment is crystallised, for me. The sun is directly overhead as we stand there, the driveway sloping up to meet the road that winds down towards the less affluent parts of Ulundi. The sky is a clear dry blue, longing for rain. The drivers and bodyguards smile and laugh one last time.
If I could bottle that loop of time, if I could capture that crystalline moment, I don’t know what I’d do. Tell him to wait? Make him slow down? Nobody listens to his younger brother. There’s no way to go back there, except like this, through memory.
In the end, politics had very little to do with my brother’s death. It was an accident, on the final day of the October AGM of the IFP, that occurred in a road that ran along the edge of the Legislature, just 500 metres from the flat in which we were staying. The leatherjackets were driving the way they usually did, and didn’t account for the exuberance of a 12 year old boy on a newish 18 speed mountain bike.
Blame must be attributed, though. And for the past twenty years, watching our country grow into something unimagined in 1994, I have blamed politics. In my mind, my brother was a sacrificial offering of some kind, a suntenbok or scapegoat to satisfy a malicious deity called Politeia. And his offering seemed to work – my father served two terms as an MPP, and we prospered. And so I have stayed away from it, associating all of it with that moment, content to sit on the sidelines and watch it play itself out – first from the cold comfort of boarding schools esiLungwini and then from my ivory turrets and chalk-dust classrooms.
But that time is over. It’s not anybody’s fault, what happened.
There was a boy, on a bike, without a helmet. There were the leatherjackets, in their Nissan Sani, racing round the only bend in that entire road. And there was the ten year old boy who held his brother’s head in his lap as he prayed, already too late.