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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Sibling love and rivalry

Odiel, Trusy and Berend pioneering in bath tub, Freddies Mine Camp 

Sibling loves and rivalries

This picture of the four siblings was taken in the backyard of the Freddies mine camp in 1947. The year 1947 is a memorable year for a number of reasons. First, it was prior to my mother taking ill and being hospitalized in Johannesburg, with the four of us being boarded for a year at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, in Klerksdorp. The second reason is that it was a year before the elections of 1948 which would significantly change South Africa as well as the way in which our lives developed. And the third most important reason is that it became a year ofg trauma for sister Trusy. So 1947 gives a good time-fix as it were, for a few very crowded and tumultuous events that influenced all of us in the growing contradictions, suppressed under the mantle of "development", in the class and race relations on the boil in South Africa. Leaving the silent alienation aside for now as to how our blindness to the existence of many thousands of people locked up in concentration camps, the true providers of our material welfare, let me deal with the trials and tribulations mainly of my sister Trusy who became victim of the circumstances of the family as influenced by contradictions of the pioneer days of the Free State goldfields. The iniquities of the Apartheid social system was not invisible, but hardly counter-actionable as children growing up and having our minds warped by it.  

Odiel was born on the 18th of February, 1939; I was born on the 24th of July, 1940. That is as close in age as two siblings can get, besides being born as twins which we were not. Trusy was born shortly after I was and with a similar closeness between dates of births. In the photograph she appears to be firmer and bigger in body build than myself. But this is deceptive. I was maybe, well, let me say, the runt of the litter and smaller for my age than either Odiel or Trusy. But I stood taller than she did all the same. But next to Odiel I was definitely a second best. He had a most beautiful body build and posture. His eyes were windows of innocence while I was always considered to be the naughtier of two, in fact the maverick of the sibling stable. That is until the last addition to the siblings, Etsko born in 1959 who proved to be a competing maverick. Thea, also a late addition born 1950, proved to be a saint in the order of Odiel.

Odiel and I were very close but as the years progressed, especially during and after our Convent years our paths seemed to diverge with distinct differences in our seeking out peer friendships and interests. I was also very close to Trusy and as a sister she adored her older brothers. Odiel and I were joined together as at the hip in our infant years and deserves a chapter in its own right. Trusy and Jerry were lagging behind us as infants and only gradually crossed the borders of the alliance that was constructed by the two older siblings. Jerry, the youngest of the brood had a more difficult time in breaking this barrier. Odiel and I had to “keep the cry baby at home” for what exact reason I do not recall. As often we got into mischief that my mother should not hear about he was like an unwelcome nosy shrew better to shoo off from our regular, daily adventures. Sometimes my mother would bribe us with treats to have Jerry tag along. If such petitions succeeded, Jerry would be sworn to secrecy and not to spill the beans with my mother. Not that anything extraordinary was on the agenda of adventure other than some of the regular items being highly dangerous. Such as climbing to the top and sliding down the inclines of the mine’s rock dump. 

Presto, our pet Alsatian dog from Benoni days was still with us in Freddies, but not for long. The split-pole fence seen in the photograph was constructed shortly before the photograph was taken. It made the fun of dishing it out to one another from a tub, or chasing one another with a squirting hose pipe unseen to the neighbours or passersby. These split-pole boundaries between cottages in the mining camp were erected to the great satisfaction of residents. Not only did it allow for privacy preventing neighbours snooping on one another, kids doing even worse and becoming the gossip hoppers of the camp, but it also allowed for pets and animals to be kept safe and sound within the terrains of the cottages. 

We had the Oosthuizens as neighbours. My mother and Mrs. Oosthuizen had become firm friends both feeding one another’s frustrations about their men folk and the poor conditions of living in the camp. While my mother could not complain of physical violence in the home, her lot being more of the psychological kind, Mrs. Oosthuizen was a battered woman regularly demonstrated by cuts and bruises to her face.  This sight of battered women was fairly common in the camp. The Oosthuizens were a family with two sons. The younger, named Sarel, was at boarding school in Bloemfontein; the elder, Johan, at Stellenbosch University. Mr. Oosthuizen was the mine electrician. They had a pet Fox Terrier which became a regular member of a hunting pack with Presto included. 

One morning, after Odiel and I had accompanied Oom Ferreira from his farm doing deliveries of milk from a horse-drawn cart in the camp, we had to inform her of the terrible news from this selfsame Oom Ferreira. He had spoken to us about a Fox Terrier dog he had shot dead during the night. As Mrs. Oosthuizen’s Fox Terrier was missing we had to convey to her our suspicion that her dog had been killing Oom Ferreira’s sheep at night and was to be found shot dead in the open veldt. She was terribly distraught. A few weeks thereafter Presto showed signs of poisoning and was coughing up blood. The only recourse possible for advice and assistance was to call on my mother’s confidant, Father Piet van Velde. Father Piet was the itinerant Catholic Priest who visited the mine camp twice a month. He diagnosed that Presto had been fed broken glass and would have to be put down. That is where our dear Presto ceased to be the constant companion of the siblings from times of their birth. He was taken by car with Father ten Velde to be put down by the Dominican Friars in Winburg.

After Presto’s death the trauma compounded a bleak period and depressive happenings. Mr. Oosthuizen became more violent than ever and forbade either Odiel of I to have any further friendhsip with Oom Ferreira. My father socialized more often with his underground colleagues and sometimes came home in an inebriated state which infuriated my mother. Odiel and I would readily do my mother’s biddings to impose on him during his inebriating sessions and call him home from whichever cottage where the partying was taking place. But we as often ended staying at theparty being entertained ourselves by the manly stories being bandied about with the flow of alcohol. Above all the telling of stories of gory happenings down in the mine shaft of mine brought a sense of reality to our environment as so much was going on unseen in the mine and unspoken of at home. This would be fun for us, even though we also were in for the scolding by my mother when we eventually returned home. My mother then resorted to sending me off alone while Odiel was kept at home. This sort of situation readily replicated itself and gradually I became my mother’s knight in shining armour, called to her side and listen to her lengthy outpourings of what a terrible deal life had given her. She considered herself a sophisticated European city women ensnared first for years on the farm in Rynfield, and now in the middle of a veritable Wild West. This placed both Odiel and I in the firing line in the screaming and going on between my parents. My relationship with my father went from bad to worse. Sometimes he took to punishing me for no reason at all.

But the real victim of the sibling love and rivalry drama placed Trusy in a very unenviable situation. It was clear that there was not too much love lost between my father and my mother. While my mother, far less able to socially interact in the new Mecca, the new miners’ paradise which so animated my father, she had to take recourse to her older children, mainly myself, to keep her abreast and informed about the world out there outside of the family home. My father started taking a primary interest in Trusy which soon became the cause for further division in the family. I could never fully understand, nor did I have the maturity to do so, what the actual issue was. That my father showed great interest in her to climax what might have been a highly frustrating shift at work purely for her company is the lighter side of the relationship. Indeed no great difference to what my mother was abusing me for – a conversation point in a family starved of communication between the parents, and the parents to the children. There was no a welcoming ear with my mother for my father and she made no bones of it that she detested him and was only waiting for the children to grow up and leave him. Which, in later years she did.

A catastrophe intervened which amplified the emerging family pathology. The Oosthuizen’s sons, Johan and Sarel, had come home from their respective boarding schools. Johan, being already over 18 years old, took a part time job at the mineshaft as onsetter (lifts man) to give signals for the raising and lowering of the multi-purpose kibble. He peered down at the shaft while the safety doors were open and rang the bell for lowering of the kibble. At that very moment a pipe dislodged itself from the kibble and hit Johan hurtling him down the shaft. He was instantly killed. This was a terrible thing to have happened for both the Oosthuizen and the Schuitema families as my father felt himself partly responsible for Johan’s job at the mineshaft. The Oosthuizens blamed my father. But the issue was also much more complex. Sarel and Trusy became sweet on one another. This riled my father. But the age difference was a mere three years so both my mother and Mrs. Oosthuizen smiled their approval. The children were playing after all. In later life I came to understand that this relationship was very real for Trusy and its bust up caused her severe trauma.

One night my father came off shift and was in the room where Trusy and Jerry were sleeping. My mother was awake and confronted him. She went ballistic and had literally hit the deck fitting. I ran to Mrs. Oosthuizen next door informing her that my mother was in desperate need of a doctor, “she is dying!” My mother was made comfortable and Father Piet ten Velde was called and arrived from Winburg a few hours later. Events tumbled from that night on, my mother was flown by light aircraft to Johannesburg and through good offices of the Friars in Winburg the four of us, Odiel, I, Trusy and Jerry ended boarded at Klerksdorp Convent. While our stay at the Convent could not have been longer than a year, my perception of life there, with its beautiful gardens and compassionate care givers, seemed of much greater duration than it actually was. Trusy and Jerry were housed in the girls section, and Odiel and I in the boys’ boarders section. It was at the Convent that Odiel and I seemed to square off as part of rival friendships. I had a boon friend Charlie Cooks, a day scholar at the Convent, same age as myself but very athletic and larger than myself. Odiel had his boon friend in Leonard Brophy, also a day scholar, who led a little gang of “Pirates” in Klerksdorp. 

While later our sibling rivalry resolved and we became the adventurous mates again, there were some nasty incidents, or at least one nasty incident that showed the extent of the rift. The two rival groups became involved in what we called a “clod fight” on the slimes dumps of the gold mine abandoned since the early 1900. Clods are of course solid cakes of slime, soft enough not to inflict serious damage. But for one or other reason Odiel and I came face to face in a horrific confrontation. As we were trying to clobber the other into submission, I let fly with a hard rock and hit him square in the forehead. He was hospitalized for a week. At his hospital bed I profusely apologised and we agreed that my mother should never get to hear what actually happened.  Then one day I arrived home to run into an unexpected clobbering meted out by my mother. She beat me with an empty tomato box saw splinters fly. Odiel had told her of the incident, by then months belated. He told me: “sorry, Berend, I did it for your own good. I did not want you running around with a guilty conscience”. Odiel showed himself the saint more often, before and since this incident.

The endgame at Freddies was the saddest news for Trusy. According to Father ten Velde it would be for her own best interest to be permanently boarded at Klerksdorp Convent. This did restore a measure of peace in family relations but none of us, mother and siblings alike had any doubt of who the victim was of the turbulence which spooked the Freddies household. While at the convent in Klerksdorp she became rebellious and was moved by the Dominican sisters to the Good Shepherd home for girls in Johannesburg. She became alienated from us. I cannot say that any of us, neither Odiel, I or Jerry missed her. But her alienation and our acquiescence in her fate was also our own alienation which expressed later in the life and times of the siblings as parted members of a nuclear family.  It left a numbed sorrowful hollowness I in any case found difficult to work with. Giving thought to a development a few years on, when I was in a major conflict with my father, I have often wondered how Freudian theory could pronounce a verdict on this form of social pathology. Did I have a self-destructive Oedipus complex? Where there is smoke there is fire: my understanding today is more complex. Oedipus had sisters who in fact were his daughters. That places Trusy’s tragedy as the real victim more accurately. Were all four of us, and especially Trusy, victims of a dysfunctional family? If so, yes – but is was so under the circumstances that only the Free State goldfields in the pioneering days could create. A dysfunctional family in the social barbarity of the early Freddies mine camp, including the pathology of denial of the broken families and social survival kits going on behind the compound walls of the mass of black mine workers, renders the verdict: dysfunction all round that eventually saw the dissolution of the Apartheid social system. What has been sown however is also reaped. Today South Africa is one of the most crime driven violent societies in the world. The lighter side of the personal experience of dysfunction in a dysfunctional social system was that at least I could understand and counteract these in my later years.