ALEXANDER – A Highveld Farm in the Old Transvaal

I Googled the name of my cousin Stephanus Venter, or ‘Fanie’ as we knew him and the name of our family farm ‘Alexander’. I had been trying to contact him on a mobile number that I had for him – this had been in vain. I was hoping that I could find his number on the internet. What came up however, was a post which read – ‘Farm Murders – On the Increase’, with a name in the post – ‘Fanie Venter’.

With disbelief I read the post, which featured an extract from a newspaper report. It went on to describe how Fanie, an elderly bachelor living alone on a farm in the Bethal district in South Africa with his mother, Aunt Hannetjie, was brutally murdered. Disbelief turned to dismay as I read about the events that had occurred. There was no mistake about it, my cousin had been the victim of a brazen farm murder! Somehow my aunt had managed to escape a similar fate.

‘Could this be true’, I questioned – ‘there on Alexander’?

Pensively my thoughts turned to the farmhouse veranda where I would stand as a child, early in the morning viewing the grand orderly sweep of the green corn fields, neatly separated by the tractor tracks. Next to them, the sunflower fields, would mimic the early morning highveld sun above. From these fields, the land gently sloped down to the creek in the west, and then, in a northerly direction, to the stone walled paddock or ‘kraal’. The crisp, early morning air would be punctuated by the call of Turtle Doves from the many Blue Gum Trees within the farmyard.

Within the kraal, the red-brown Afrikaner cattle could be seen, with their great horns curving downwards, lazily jostling each other, bellowing to be let out, awaiting a leisurely day in the veld.

I gathered that Fanie may have been busy somewhere near the paddock when he was murdered!

Visits – long, long ago

My thoughts went back to visiting Alexander – a highlight for us city kids – our only holiday that my parents, with a large growing family, could afford in the post-war 1950s. Our arrival in a Ford Prefect car was an occasion for great excitement. The farm track descended from the crest of a knoll down to the farmhouse in the distance.

With a laugh, I recalled that my anxious mother would, without fail, hysterically advise my father to avoid the road down to the farm coal mine, as plunging down into the mine workings would result in dire consequences for all! As the car bumped along the uneven track, figures would emerge from the farmhouse in the distance as soon as the sound of the car was heard – aided by the blaring of the hooter.

Led by Fanie, cousins would suddenly emerge from the front gate, running wildly to meet us, arms flailing, shouting repeatedly – ‘It’s Aunty Kotie’ – it’s Aunty Kotie’. As the car ground to a halt in front of the gate, the kids would be joined by my Oupa and very large Ouma, my Aunt Hannie, the African servants and a cohort of growling and snapping dogs. Bloody hell, they were vicious! We could never work out if the bared teeth were signs of overt affection or a desire to rip us to shreds! The dogs would be driven off whilst Aunt Hannie would shout to someone to call my uncle, Oom Thys who was always somewhere else on the farm. There would be tears from my mother as she hugged and kissed all and sundry. Aunt Hannie would affectionately greet us all with a few epithets and benevolent profanities – she was the only aunt that I had that could swear like a trooper without missing a beat!

But Fanie was always there to lead us into adventure and high-risk activity!

After all the elaborate greetings were over, all the children, under his instigation, would madly head for the barns, the stone walled cattle and sheep pens and farm machinery sheds, in that dizzying order. Usually, the first port of call would be the cattle pen, which we all would enter with shouting and great gusto. If we were early enough, we would rush into the milking area to ‘assist’ with milking, where we would be greeted good naturedly by the African farm hands, and invited to try our hand at the exposed teats squirting streams of milk into buckets. Tails swished, heads moved; bovine eyes, not so dull, sized us up with hooves clanking against the milking bucket. Ah – I can still feel those teats, with milk shooting into the bucket making a ‘swish-swish’ sound!

We could, and did explore every nook and cranny of the farm. Hours were spent climbing onto old disused ploughs, rakes, tractors, trailers, rusted trucks and combine harvesters. These were all stored under Blue Gum trees some distance from the farm house. We were out of sight and out of mind, as far as the adults were concerned.

Fanie knew how we needed to behave with all the farm hands, particularly with ‘Aasvoel’ (the vulture), who, it was well known on the farm, had an ‘attitude’. Aasvoel terrified us. He would show his mock displeasure at seeing us in the farmyard, threatening ‘instant death’ if he saw us again! He would look up at us, flash his white teeth in a mock smile and put his finger to his throat, telling us what he intended to do to the annoying little city ‘bana tsoeu’ (white kids) running wild and upsetting everything!

A feudal society

Fanie and I would furtively sneak up to the shed next to the farm house and peer through a crack between the locked doors, when justice was to be delivered. In the 1950’s, much of rural South Africa resembled a feudal society; it was common practice for justice to be summarily meted out in these areas. Here at Alexander, offenders were tried, convicted and sentenced to a good thrashing in the shed. The tribunal consisted of my Oupa, Ouma, Uncle Thys and other farm workers – who supported the system of instant justice. Theft, insubordination or loitering on the farm could result in a thrashing. Sometimes, farm workers appealed to my grandfather to teach members of another tribe or clan a ‘good lesson’. A sjambok (heavy leather whip) was used for this appalling punishment.

Never will I forget the cries of the young African, between the methodical crack of the sjambok.

I return again to Alexander

My thoughts turned to another era – years later I returned from Australia for a visit to the farm, after the release of Nelson Mandela, which saw the demise of the apartheid regime.

I drove up to the huge padlocked gate and the farmhouse surrounded by towering barbed wire security fences, disembarked from the car to inspect the gate, only to be greeted by a pack of snarling, barking dogs which appeared from nowhere. They kept jumping up against the gate, the snarling cacophony and bared fangs ensuring that we maintained a good distance from the gate.

The din was interrupted by distant shouting. A khaki clad figure emerged from the farmhouse and walked to the gate.

It was Fanie, lashing out at the dogs with a ‘kierie’ (walking stick)!

The dogs retreated, protesting and snarling, led by a bitch with the largest teats I have ever seen. ‘They won’t bite, I assure you”’, he said – a huge grin on his face. ‘They only bite kaffirs they don’t know’. I winced at the obvious subconscious bias he still displayed towards fellow African country people. Many of my Afrikaner relatives and friends in South Africa at that stage were anxiously trying to adapt to the new milieu and to expunge such bias. Nevertheless, we shook hands, hugged – again he was the enthusiastic cousin I had always loved to visit and follow. I introduced him to my father and mother – in – law, Dirk and Dina Beukes who had accompanied me. He beckoned to us to follow him. We were thankful to get into the car, looking in all directions to be sure that there was sufficient distance between us and the dogs!

Industrialisation

I recalled my disappointment at seeing a monstrous building on the horizon which now obscured the once pristine, rolling green veld. This was the Kriel Power Station – I was to learn. On the way to the farm, we had passed the huge SASOL petrochemical and synthetic fuel plants and the informal growing settlements of African industrial workers. It was as if Alexander itself cringed in the shadow of these industrial monstrosities. This experience proved to sully all idealistic memories I had of the Alexander of old!

We all entered the house from the verandah. It was still the old farmhouse that I remembered -modernised here and there. Inside we were greeted with laughter, hugs and kisses and the expected profanities from Aunt Hannie. My Oupa and Ouma, long since gone, stared down somberly from the oval frames, still hanging from the wall.

After lunch, Uncle Thys and Dirk, my father-in-law, launched into a heavy right wing political discussion, which rapidly degenerated into an unpleasant mudslinging match. To prevent an all-out feud, I suggested that we all visit the farm cemetery; always a mandatory diversion during visits. It took some effort to calm everyone down again and usher them out by the back door to the cemetery located amongst magnificent Blue Gum trees, as handsome as any found in Australia.

Gravestones tell their stories

As I remembered the inscriptions on the gravestones, stories about our family came to life again, stories passed down by my mother. Stories about the treatment of women and children during the Anglo Boer War, the wanton destruction of the farm, burning of the farmhouse and burying of precious crockery and jewelry in the bed of the creek that ran through the farm, were always tinged with sadness and resentment. The stories also told of the exploits and capture of my great-grandfather and grandfather at the battle of Berg-en-Dal and skirmish at Vlaklaagte – followed by their internment in the Standerton concentration camp, together with all the residents at Alexander – some 53, according to the well documented records in the British archives!

The story of the horrific death of Uncle Trompie, my grandfather and step grand-mother’s only son, resurrected again in its full detail. On returning from a hunting trip in Swaziland, he pulled a shotgun from the back of a truck, by the barrel, which then discharged as the trigger hooked onto something. The helplessness and panic of all as he lay dying in front of the farm gate.

The story of my grandmother who died in childbirth, when my mother was only four years old. An old lady at the funeral gave her a peppermint when she repeatedly asked when would her mother be returning from hospital. My mother always wept when she told us this story.

That was the last time that I saw Fanie, just after migrating to Australia.

The murder report

The report, from a local tabloid, gave a graphic and sensational description of the events that unfolded on that fateful Sunday morning. The heading read: ‘Executed Bethal Farmer Fanie Venter’s mom Hannetjie Venter, 79 – walked 4km to get help’.

The details were: ‘BETHAL – February 7th, 2010 – An elderly Afrikaner Bethal farm woman had to walk four kilometers to get help after three farm attackers had killed her son, execution-style on Sunday-morning – a popular time for farm-attackers – and stole her mobile phone so she couldn’t call for help. Hannetjie Venter, 79, didn’t see them kill her son Fanie, but did hear the single shot the robbers had fired into his head. A friend of the family, Sakkie Pretorius, says her ordeal started at about 08:30.

He says Hannetjie saw the black gunmen – apparently three of them – and tried to warn Fanie who was busy elsewhere on the farmyard.

He probably didn’t hear her. One of the men put his hand over her mouth. Fanie, who always carried a firearm, was caught unawares and was shot in the head.

When she got to him, one of the men said her son was ‘just sleeping’. But there was blood everywhere and she could see that he was dead, according to Pretorius. The robbers held a gun to her head and forced her to unlock the safe. She asked: ‘Why don’t you shoot me as well?’

The farm attackers could have looted all the contents of the homestead at their leisure – but they only stole a shotgun, mobile phones, money and Hannetjie’s handbag. Francois van Dijk, a neighbour, said ‘because the robbers stole the Venters’ cellphones and Hannetjie can’t drive, she and their dog walked about four kilometers to Van Dijk’s house to get help. ‘She got here at about 10:00. She walked all the way. It was very traumatic for her.’ Van Dijk immediately alerted the police and neighbours, but the men – who’d arrived in a car – were long gone’. So, the report ended.

After reading the report, I attempted to contact the local police in Bethal to obtain some information regarding the murder and the whereabouts of my aunt – to no avail.

In a recent visit to South Africa, I was able to establish that the farm lies abandoned with gates padlocked and secured with heavy chains and that the farmhouse is slowly succumbing to the onslaught of mining operations, vandals and the environment.

Alexander – I will never forget you. Fanie – we’ll explore the meandering Alexander Creek again and run wild where the cosmos flowers forever bloom, our faces young and spirits free.