Oom Gert’s story December 8, 2009Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, poetry.
Tags: Boer War, Cape rebels, Hein Viljoen, Louis Leipoldt, Oom Gert's story
Please see addition at bottom.
“Oom Gert vertel” is C. Louis Leipoldt’s narrative poem about an old man who explains to a young visitor what happened in his small town during the Boer War, 1899-1902. As part of the British Cape Colony, the town was subjected to martial law so that its residents would not rebel against the British crown or provide aid to the Boers, who were fighting to preserve their independent republics, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. The Dutch-speaking Cape residents often had family ties to the Boers.
I do not speak Afrikaans, but I know that even just the title of the poem is hard to translate. “Oom” is roughly equivalent to “Uncle,” but it is a term used with a distinct combination of affection and respect to refer to an elderly figure in the community. The word somehow makes me think of a big, old, whiskered walrus with long tusks.
The title is really “Oom Gert tells,” using a verb rather than a noun, but it is generally translated into English as “Oom Gert’s story.”
In the poem, two young fellows in town had made up their minds to join the Jan Smuts commando, which had been fighting across the Cape for months in conditions of severe hardship —they were known to be camped nearby just then. Oom Gert had allowed the headstrong boys to take his two horses, which the authorities had not gotten around to confiscating. But the two young men were captured and sentenced to death, and everyone in town was forced to attend their hanging. Bennie, Oom Gert’s godson—one of the doomed pair—bravely refuses to be blindfolded for his death. We understand that Bennie had been the suitor of Oom Gert’s daughter, Gerrie, and that she is still wracked by grief over his death.
The poem gives no details of the hanging, only small sad moments when the young visitor tries to comfort Oom Gert by taking his hand; and Gert asks Gerrie for a handkerchief:
No, boy, let go!
Why do you grab my hand again? Let go!
Confound it! How can I tell you the story
When you will put me off my stroke like that?
And, blow your smoke out the other side!
My eyes have got too old for your tobacco.
(Sweetheart, fetch me a handkerchief.)
There’s nothing more to tell. We came on home
And here in this same room we all knelt down.
The minister conducted a short service
For us on our knees—then—it was finished.
That night, though, Cousin Piet and Cock-eye Louw
Left town and set out for the nearest farm,
And afterwards they joined up with our people.
(Sweetheart, just pass me back the sugar-bowl,
And pour another cup for Cousin Klaas!)*
A whole world is painted in these details. Cousin Piet—Cousin Klaas—they are not cousins by blood any more than an Oom is literally an uncle, but they live in a world where everyone is felt to be related. Cock-eye Louw: typical of these people, who gave everyone a nickname: familiar, blunt, rude. “And afterwards they joined up with our people.” That is the real last line of the poem. A cold wind can be felt off the page just then, because the cause of “our people”—the descendants of the Dutch in South Africa—was a hopeless one.
People have been playing tug-of-war with this poem for a long time. I found a long and very thoughtful essay about it, written by Hein Viljoen, a professor at the University of Potchefstroom. His major conclusion is, “Appropriating the poem for Afrikaner nationalism is a misreading.”
The problems of that particular form of nationalism and its defining connection with apartheid are far too obvious for Viljoen to need to go over them—by the time he wrote (1999), Afrikaner intellectuals had already gone through endless refinements of discussion and lamentation and counterdiscussion over the decades.
Viljoen finds in the poem a portrait of Oom Gert as a man with divided loyalties rather than one who is solely aligned with the Boers: “Leipoldt gives us a subtle and moving portrait of a loyal Afrikaans-speaking subject who sympathises with the Boer republics. His inner conflicts and divided loyalties would have resonated powerfully for Cape Afrikaners and Cape rebels who suffered under the War and under martial law… but whose suffering was overshadowed by the suffering of women and children in the [concentration] camps and the heroism of the Boer bittereinders [bitter-enders].”#
But in my reading of Leipoldt’s poem (and I am admittedly very much an outsider), I see too many lines in which Oom Gert speaks resoundingly of “our people,” “our death,” “our nation,” for me to be able to see him as divided in his loyalties. I find no lines in which he is pleased to be a British citizen. Oom Gert seems quite singleminded in his loyalty: it is only that he is forced to hide that allegiance. Viljoen argues that Leipoldt passed over in various silences the divided loyalty of the Cape citizens, because the poem was published in 1910, a time of reconciliation with the British, when it seemed pointless to dwell on the conflict. But Viljoen also describes how Leipoldt had written for a pro-Boer newspaper in Cape Town during the war and attended many treason trials followed by executions that people from the community were required to watch. Leipoldt’s newspaper condemned the executions; the young man continued producing the paper after his editor was jailed for treason, but eventually the South African News shut down.
I am thinking, not by any means that Leipoldt in later life was a conservative Afrikaner with a nostalgic view, but that he may have refashioned himself over the years immediately following the war. As a young man during the conflict, he seems to have identified idealistically with the cause of the Boers. But he decided after the treaty of Vereeniging to embrace Louis Botha’s policy of reconciliation with the British. He may have felt it was useless to live in the past. And perhaps he felt some repugnance at the platitudes of the Afrikaners: as a complex and intelligent man, he would have recoiled at any self-righteousness. The Boers’ proud sense of nationhood was mutating into something grotesque. And the Afrikaners’ increasing fixation on race must have repelled Leipoldt, for this was a man interested in the culture and values of the Cape Malays, a man who chose to have his ashes placed under the delicate rock art of the San at a windswept pass near Clanwilliam.
Leipoldt was not a man easily defined. The descendant of Rhenish missionaries at the remote post of Wuppertal in the Cederberg, in the area of Clanwilliam, he left South Africa toward the end of the war, after his paper was silenced, and went to London to study medicine. He travelled widely and eventually returned to South Africa to become a pediatrician in the Cape. He wrote novels, plays, poems, children’s books, and even cookbooks, having a keen interest in food and wine.
Leipoldt was born in the big spaces of the dry western Cape and happened to come of age when many around him were riding off with their Mauser rifles to fight “the English,” but his identity was never circumscribed by coming from that world. I am interested in that identity because I came from another world entirely and yet became fascinated by those spaces, that conflict, the Boers’ fierce attachment to their doomed notion of an independent republic; yet I do not by any means embrace the whole of traditional Afrikaner values. Reading Leipoldt shows me a particular way of inventing a life that defied categories.
I have written about my first encounter with Leipoldt’s world in another post in this blog, “The grave of Louis Leipoldt.”
Added December 18: I have received an insightful communication about this subject from my friend Roon Lewald, who has written himself about Leipoldt here . (You will find translations of other verse by Leipoldt in Roon’s piece, including a bit about Scheepers.) Roon says: I agree that Leipoldt’s attitude to the Boer War mutated from the shocked impressions of a young patriot in the thick of those tragic happenings to a desire for integrative nation-building as opposed to particularist nationalism. As for Oom Gert’s attitude, I don’t see his sympathies with neighbours who joined the Boer raiders as a programmatically “political” stance against the Cape authorities. I don’t think he is capable of analysing the political “rights” and “wrongs” of his situation: instead, the blood ties he cannot deny force him blindly and almost passively to choose sides in an emotionally overwhelming conflict which robs him of initiative action. This is no hate-inspired rebel against the crown: even in his grief over the shootings, he does not rail indiscriminately against the British authorities but depicts them as more or less decent or unpleasant individuals. Perhaps this is Oom Gert’s tragedy: as a decent, reasonable man who wished to live in peace with his neighbours, he naturally sympathised with the freedom struggle of the Boer republics but did not feel strongly enough about their cause to oppose British rule in the Cape colony, so that the execution of the brave young rebels may have added a sense of self-reproach over his indecision to his grief over their death. A reasonable man who blows neither hot nor cold has no place in a conflict which sweeps all reason away, and may easily end up being seen by himself and others as a moral coward.
* Translation by C.J.D. Harvey. Available in Michael Rice and Chris van der Merwe, A Century of Anglo-Boer War Stories, Jonathan Ball, 1999.
# Hein Viljoen, “What Oom Gert does not tell: Silences and resonances of C. Louis Leipoldt’s ‘Oom Gert vertel.’” Proceedings of the Poetics and Linguistics Association Conference, Potchefstroom University, March 1999.