Siddhartha Gautama, or Buddha, said “Better it is to live one day seeing the rise and fall of things than to live a hundred years without ever seeing the rise and fall of things”. We have seen the rise and fall in our own fortunes, reflected in the rise, fall and arising again, of our homeland, South Africa.
It has been a long journey, since our Afrikaner forebears left Europe to settle at the Cape of Good Hope in the middle of the 17th century, participate in a migration out of the Cape Colony to wage battle with the indigenous peoples – all to escape the tentacles of the British Empire. But the empire would never accept the republics they established – would ultimately put close to a million soldiers in the field to add another jewel to the crown – the Union of South Africa.
They were staunch supporters of those republics initially established in the interior. They participated in forging the Republic of South Africa in the 1960’s. This foreshadowed a mighty fall. ‘Apartheid’ and control by a minority of white people, such a fall was inevitable. There was always was an ‘elephant in the room’; a vast black majority, poised to bring the entire edifice down.
When Nelson Mandela walked, we could only see new beginnings from afar; the phoenix of the ‘Rainbow Nation’ rising from the ruins of the Afrikaner Republics. Just before this walk, we had undertaken another ‘trek’, just as our ancestors had, but, this time, not by ox-waggon.
We jetted into Melbourne to begin a new life down under!
What prompted me to write such a story and delve deeply into the history of our Afrikaner family?
The idea occurred to me during a walk in Melbourne, along tracks by the Yarra River, during late winter and early spring. These delightful tracks pass through unspoiled bushland, in the middle of the Melbourne CBD. They tell stories of a Victoria of the past and the ruin of the Wurundjeri people, an Aboriginal Australian nation who occupied the Yarra River Valley before British colonisation of the area, around the present location of Melbourne.
The Yarra is also known as ‘Birrarung’ or ‘river-of-mists’, by the remnants of the Wurundjeri people. On a misty, windy, rainy, early spring day, we rounded a corner on the muddy path, and stumbled onto a flowering wattle; flowering so prolifically that the feathery, purply-grey foliage was almost hidden beneath the yellow-gold flowers; mirrored perfectly in the reflective brown water of ‘Birrarung’. This, whilst all else was still slumbering along the river bank.
Among the dull and grey winter landscape, this spurt of brilliant yellow-gold, filled with delight; but reminded me of another place which I still love, but will always mourn for – the Transvaal, or Gauteng and Mpumalanga – as it is known today. There, on the farm Blouboskraal, in Mpumalanga, the unwelcome and destructive black wattles would unashamedly burst into the most delightful display of yellow-gold flowers!
I could not help but think of the lines that D.H. Lawrence wrote: ‘all at once, in spring, the most delicate feathery yellow of plumes and plumes and plumes and trees and bushes of wattle, as if angels had flown right down out of the softest gold regions of heaven to settle here, in the Australian bush’.
As spring advanced, and visits to the Yarra became more frequent as the weather improved, we’d take paths that meandered through a carpet of wildflower which spread under the eucalypts and wattles. There were the chocolate lilies; the white ‘milkmaids’; the blue ‘pincushions’ and the purple ‘coral-peas’. This would take me back to that farm Alexander, in Mpumalanga, where we would, as children play amongst the cosmos flowers that provided a never-ending tapestry of white, pink, crimson and red along the farm roads and tracks.
Along those Yarra paths, I would imagine the Wurundjeri people sitting partly concealed between the wattles, gums, flowers and the rocks on the riverbank. They would smile, revealing their stunning teeth and nod their heads as I pondered the flowering wattle flowers. The golden sunlight would reflect on the still water, on which floated myriads of these blossoms, deposited there by the brisk, chilly wind.
Like them, I could see that the flowering wattles heralded the coming of spring, emerging from a gloomy and grey winter. I could not help but think of the legacy of John Batman, one of the founders of Melbourne, who met with Wurundjeri leaders to draw up a treaty in 1835 near Merri Creek, somewhere along these paths.
It was here, within two years of that non-binding treating, that more than 350 people and 55 000 sheep had landed, and the squatters had firmly established themselves on the land of the Wurundjeri. At about the same time, my ancestors, trekking across the Orange River towards the Transvaal lost about the same number of sheep and cattle to the Matabele!
Letters and journals of those settlers tell of a vastly different ‘Birrarung’. Then, the shores were lined with gums, next to open woodlands, wetlands, and grasslands, with creeks and falls joining the river, and falls frequently breaking its flow. Across the river, where city skyscrapers now abound, the bush was alive with birds, turtles, frogs and insects. The country resembled a beautiful park.
Who would have foreseen that colonial settlement would spawn a process that would wreak havoc on such an environment? It is hard to comprehend that settlement would spell a death knell for much of ‘Birrarung’ – in such a short time! The land was occupied, sold and the bush cleared to make way for roads and buildings and the wetlands drained in the blink of an eye.
Soon many factories and industries lined the banks of Birrarung. That delicate balance that had existed between the systems of the earth, the trees, the plants, the animals and – the Wurundjeri – was forever gone. Sadly, I would reflect on Alexander and Blouboskraal, our family farms in Mpumalanga, just ruins now – and the ruined Transvaal highveld – our ‘paradise lost’.