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Menings | Opinion > SeminaarKamer | Seminar Room > English > Essays

On Freedom Day we celebrate ... and also remember the place of suffering we come from ...

Carl Niehaus - 2007-05-03

My friend Franz Marx told me the following story out of a bygone time in the history of our country. A time when, for a short while, the Republic of Lydenburg existed. This Republic was no more than a small town founded by the trekker leader Louis Trichardt, who called it Lydenburg (literally meaning “place of suffering”), because so many of his followers fell ill with malaria and died on their way there.

On one of the farms of this rag-tag Boer Republic a love triangle played itself out. Two young farm labourers, one a Swazi and the other a Pedi, fell in love with the same woman. So intense was their rivalry that one day things went beyond verbal aggression and the Swazi suitor dealt his Pedi challenger a fatal blow over the head with a knobkierie. Having realised the gravity of what he had done the young man fled across the border into the Kingdom of Swaziland and declared to his king what had happened. Relations between the Swazis and Pedis not being exactly friendly, the king decided to shelter and protect his kinsman.

A tense stand-off followed, during which the Boers of the Republic of Lydenburg saw their chance to try and improve relations with the Pedis, who were demanding their ancestral land back and were threatening their safety. It seemed an easy way of placating the Pedis to send a Boer commando into Swaziland to abduct the young suitor who had killed his Pedi competitor. This is exactly what they did.

And so unfolded a remarkable story about racism, religious dogmatism and warped morality. A story that still seems to say so much about the history of our country.

Two of the main protagonists in this story were German missionaries: the one an old hand who had been with the Lydenburg Boers for years, and the other a young man freshly from the religious seminary, who had only arrived in Lydenburg days before the young Swazi suitor was brought back, muzzled and tied up, on the back of a horse.

Legally, it seemed a simple matter. There was overwhelming evidence of how the crime of passion had been committed. Even for the inexperienced magistrate that the Lydenburgers borrowed from their neighbour republic, the Zuid-Afikaansche Republiek (ZAR), this was not a challenge. The man was clearly guilty as charged ... and the death sentence a foregone conclusion.

But then the matter became complicated from an unexpected quarter. The old missionary declared that the murderer could not be executed until he had converted to Christianity. It was right then that the inexperience of the borrowed magistrate came into play, because being a devout man himself he accepted the missionary's position, apparently not understanding the consequences this held for the legal system.

In theory the execution could be delayed indefinitely ... and we all know the maxim: "Justice delayed is justice denied". Having belatedly realised what he had agreed to the magistrate started to put pressure on the old missionary to get his job over and done with. The missionary himself realised that having convinced the magistrate was a rather hollow victory. The burgers of Lydenburg were not known for their patience, and the political advantage that they gained with the hostile Pedis would quickly dissipate if the execution did not go ahead. He and his assistant were working on no more than borrowed time.

The burden of what became long sessions of trying to get the death-row prisoner converted came down on the narrow shoulders of the young missionary. Night-long sessions of Bible teaching and prayer followed. At some point in the small hours of one those frantic conversion sessions, the young missionary either realised how flawed the exercise was that he was engaged in, or he just became too tired ... Whatever the situation was, he simply left the prison doors open and allowed the prisoner to escape. It must have been a case of true love, because instead of fleeing back to Swaziland, where he could have hoped for some protection from his king, the young man went straight back to the woman whom he had killed for. The Boers must have suspected as much, because the next morning they rearrested him in the bed of his lover.

As one can imagine, the pressure was now truly on the missionaries. For the sake of their own futures they had to pull out all stops. The onslaught of Bible readings and prayers was relentless. Something had to give, and after another long night the prisoner, in a state of delirium brought on by exhaustion, declared that he could see the white light of God behind the missionary and that he accepted Christ as his saviour.

The magistrate immediately summoned the Boer leaders of the "Republic" and informed them that the execution of the prisoner could proceed. Their patience had already worn thin and within hours almost all the residents of Lydenburg were gathered around the hastily erected gallows. A wagon was pulled underneath, and the new convert made to stand on it with the noose hovering above him.

But one more thing had to be done before the noose could be lowered over his head: the man had to declare his faith publicly and be served Holy Communion. It was then that it became clear how deeply flawed his forced conversion was. When he started speaking it emerged that he literally thought that the old missionary was God, and the younger one Christ. He declared that his conversion and devotion to them had made him immortal, that when hanged he would not die, and thus their power would be demonstrated. Suddenly the horrible nature of what they had done, and the pathetic powerlessness of these so-called men of God, were relentlessly exposed under the bright and merciless hot sun of the Lowveld. In a state of embarrassed confusion they hastily served him Holy Communion and immediately withdrew. The execution proceeded, and the hapless body of the young man who had loved so much was thrown into a pauper’s grave without any funeral proceedings.

Days later the old missionary suddenly left Lydenburg and returned to Germany. He left his young assistant behind, but he too left shortly afterwards, never to be heard of again.

The burgers of Lydenburg did not seem to care. What had happened served their worldly purposes and avoided, for the time being, further conflict with the Pedis, while they could still claim to have delivered a soul from eternal damnation.

Somehow this terrible true tale of love, power politics, proselytisation and racism tells the story of a large part of the tortured history of our country.

I thought I would tell it on the occasion of our Freedom Day celebrations, so that we can remember what we escaped from as recently as only thirteen years ago.