By Tertius Kapp
On the very first Heritage Day that South Africa celebrated, I wrote a little essay for a school competition. It described a young man taking to his inherited sheep with a shotgun. I am sure Shaka, the absent father of Heritage Day, would not have approved. Nevertheless, the piece won the competition, and I was called to the stage to accept an outdated sports bag from Volkskas as my prize. The logic of being rewarded for a creative writing competition with a sports bag was overshadowed, to my mind, by the irony of receiving branding from Volkskas — the quintessential Boerebank, the house that the Bond built, if not the right hand then at least the conduit of Afrikaner empowerment — for the story that I wrote. But at that stage I was still new to the many ambivalences of South Africa, and South African heritage. Today, 13 years later, another big one slaps me through the face. I board a plane for Europe, just before midnight, on the 24th of September.
Some might say I go “back where I belong” (for the first time). Some might say I “escape the hell that our country has become” (guess I was surfing on a lake of fire, then), and to some I am “betraying the cause” (I seldom love one if it’s not lost already). Everyone seems to get it wrong. The truth is, I am not escaping, I am not returning. I am driven by a keen sense of adventure, and up to my neck in the double relationship that almost all SA citizens share with our country. We painted a rainbow, and when we got to its end we found that all the gold had already been claimed. We negotiated a peaceful transition, to live in “the most dangerous city in the world”. And while Afrikaans is fighting a trench war at tertiary institutions, next week I start teaching a course in Afrikaans literature at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Poland. That’s right. Poland. Their average of 20 students per class is more than the same courses get at the University of Cape Town. Put that in your bottle neck and smoke it.
What to expect on the other side? I have no idea. All I know is tomorrow I land in Warsaw, a city that was utterly destroyed and rebuilt sixty years ago. From there I travel by train to Poznan, half-way to Berlin, a university city and apparently the techno capital of Poland. To be honest, I’ve kept myself dumb on what awaits me. Perhaps because of the very South African experience of words always falling short of the actual experience. Perhaps because I want to mirror the last-time experiences here with first-time experiences there. Perhaps because I’ve just been lazy.
In any case, the last month offered little time for reconnaissance. It has been occupied exclusively with preparations for leaving, not arriving. Cutting loose, saying goodbye, selling, selling, selling. Even though I’ll be back in a year, I wanted to get rid of everything — if only to experience that apocalyptic sense of letting go, cleansing and unclenching with a strange enthusiasm. By contrast, my personal relationships have become deliberately cauterised of all emotion — surgical conversations with loved ones, clinical plans for electronic relationships.
But today, as I say goodbye, it all rushes out. Joy, tryst, melancholy, ecstasy, coalesce into one big realisation: value. While the nay-sayers in my mind were bitching, the yes men were building, and between the two of them they’ve put together a democracy of meaning that can administrate the shit out of this life.
The last round of drinks go down sweet and swift. We leave for the airport. Tomorrow promises a clean slate. When we speak again, the angles will have shifted, the perspective changed. Why do the Polish want to study Afrikaans? I’m going to find out. And I’ll let you know.
Tertius Kapp is a Visiting Senior Lecturer in the Department of Dutch and South African Studies at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan.