That’s life

go! Platteland - - CONTENTS -

Don’t be fooled, says Tom Ea­ton, life on the plat­te­land isn’t nearly as idyl­lic as city slick­ers think

Dreams of an idyl­lic life­style lure many ur­ban dwellers to go ru­ral. But don’t be fooled – the plat­te­land isn’t all it’s made out to be, cau­tions Tom Ea­ton.

Coun­try life. Liv­ing in the coun­try. For city slick­ers those are magic words, a spell that con­jures woodsmoke-scented tran­quil­lity. A lit­tle cot­tage, a small patch of gar­den, a pond, some­where out there…

Out where, ex­actly, is vague: the spell doesn’t give di­rec­tions. Maybe that’s be­cause “the coun­try” isn’t so much a place as a way of liv­ing. For many city peo­ple, it’s some­where where shaggy, dirty grazing an­i­mals wan­der, low­ing, into your kitchen. But that’s ba­si­cally a house with teenagers in it, so per­haps that’s not a great yard­stick. For oth­ers, it’s some­where where the soli­tary shop only stocks things you don’t need to re­frig­er­ate, like those flavoured milks or lo­cally pro­duced garlic polony called some­thing cheer­ful like Laugh­ing Ot­ter, which might con­tain ac­tual ot­ters.

Those are good yard­sticks, but for me the true test of whether or not you’re in

the kon­trei is the mag­a­zines for sale at the lo­cal filling sta­tion. I don’t care how many rusted Peu­geot 404s you’ve seen ly­ing up­side down in dry river beds: if the cov­ers on that mag­a­zine stand are glossy and writ­ten in English you’re still in the sub­urbs. But don’t be fooled by Afrikaans mag­a­zines ei­ther. Some may have re­as­sur­ingly old-fash­ioned ti­tles and chaste-look­ing ma­trons on the cover, but they can still con­tain pure filth about women who have ca­reers and who en­joy sex. No, only when the mag­a­zine rack con­tains just two pub­li­ca­tions, Land­bouweek­blad and a copy of the all-in-pic­tures Grensveg­ter from 1986, that you know you’ve truly ar­rived in the heart of the coun­try.

This is usu­ally the mo­ment when most city peo­ple are sud­denly over­whelmed by the de­sire to leave the coun­try at once. It is a nat­u­ral and healthy re­sponse. Liv­ing in the coun­try is aw­ful. We have known this for mil­len­nia. Ten-thou­sand years ago we all lived in the coun­try, and what did we do? We in­vented ci­ties. Let’s not kid our­selves: most peo­ple who live in the coun­try wish they could live some­where else. Their dreams are neon-lit, a pro­ces­sion of strip malls and traf­fic jams and elec­tric fences and su­per­mar­kets, the de­lights of Baby­lon…

But for those with enough time and money, the very things that tor­ture ru­ral peo­ple prom­ise an es­cape. Where lo­cals see iso­la­tion, in­ef­fi­ciency and de­pri­va­tion, city wan­der­ers see wideopen spa­ces, slower rhythms and a re­lease from ma­te­ri­al­is­tic pres­sures. And so they linger, and some­times their lin­ger­ing be­comes more per­ma­nent. They be­come res­i­dents and let the coun­try creep into them like the roots of a wil­low slowly punch­ing through the mud­guard of a long-for­got­ten Stude­baker ly­ing crum­pled in a ditch.

Of course, they will never truly be­come coun­try peo­ple. The plat­te­land is kind to the or­phans of the ci­ties but they al­ways re­main foster chil­dren – loved but not blood. Blood is im­por­tant out here. You need to have bled into this soil to be­long. True, some­times that’s sim­ply the re­sult of stand­ing on a bro­ken 7-Up bot­tle while walk­ing home drunk one night – but still, the myth is strong. To be­long, you need a pedi­gree of suf­fer­ing. You need to have lost a great-great-grand­mother to a Bri­tish fir­ing squad, or an un­cle to an os­trich stam­pede, or a fin­ger to the frost of ’96. Or, at the very least, your vir­gin­ity be­hind the town hall after a par­tic­u­larly fren­zied lan­garm ses­sion.

The myth of coun­try life would have us city slick­ers be­lieve that coun­try folk are the salt of the earth. I’ve never un­der­stood that ex­pres­sion, see­ing as how when you add salt to earth you get crop fail­ure. But there are cer­tainly salty ones among them, and pep­pery ones too: rich and poor, wicked and kind… Scratch the whole­some sur­face and you find the full spec­trum of hu­man mag­nif­i­cence and murk­i­ness. Mother hens live along­side con artists. Crum­bling relics, lost in nostal­gia for a golden age that never ex­isted, shake their heads at the young­sters des­per­ate to leave the farm for the dorp, or the dorp for the city. Am­a­teur politi­cians hold court in the ho­tel bar, while se­cret po­ets look up at the stars…

Which is not to say the small towns or farm­ing dis­tricts are packed with in­ter­est­ing ec­centrics. Some­times the widest hori­zons en­cir­cle the small­est of souls. South Africa’s farm­ing dis­tricts are home to just as many bor­ing peo­ple as any­where else: the shop­keeper who will tell you about her best friend’s di­vorce un­til you buy a fake Chi­nese-made Swiss Army knife and stab your­self in the thigh just so you have an ex­cuse to leave; the slow-talk­ing farmer who wants to ex­plain to you, over the course of two hours, the dif­fer­ences be­tween the 1974 S-Class Mercedes and the 1975 S-Class Mercedes...

There isn’t a lot of money flow­ing around th­ese parts, but luck­ily talk is cheap. Maybe that’s why there’s so much of it out in the coun­try, and why so much of it is gossip. Where lives are twisted around one another like the doughy coils of a koek­sis­ter, idle chat­ter be­comes a kind of syrup that binds the whole thing to­gether.

I was go­ing to sug­gest that the ru­ral ru­mour mill is a par­tic­u­larly pro­duc­tive one, but the truth is, it’s not a mill. Mills are slow, grind­ing, labour­in­ten­sive con­trap­tions, a hope­lessly in­ad­e­quate metaphor for the speed with which plat­te­land ru­mours start and flour­ish. Out here it’s a ru­mour Molo­tov cock­tail with a short fuse and a shaky hand on the Zippo.

Con­sider the Satur­day morn­ing church bazaar on the vil­lage’s mar­ket square. The dom­i­nee’s wife drops her packet of tis­sues. A lo­cal chicken farmer picks it up and re­turns it to her. She smiles; their hands touch briefly dur­ing the ex­change. Be­fore the ic­ing has har­dened on the Widow Fourie’s car­rot cake and faster than you can say, “I al­ways sus­pected he had wan­der­ing hands, the dirty chicken-wran­gler,” every­body knows that poor Dom­i­nee has moved into the church of­fice to es­cape the wreck of his mar­riage and is putting on a brave face for the con­gre­ga­tion as his wife and the poul­try pimp ca­vort in broad day­light.

For­tu­nately, though, there is sel­dom any last­ing dam­age or ill-feel­ing. Coun­try peo­ple know that noth­ing lasts – not roofs, not lei­vore, not shock ab­sorbers, and cer­tainly not ru­mours. Life picks up its skirts and walks on to­wards the next drought, the next har­vest, the next mi­nor scan­dal, as pre­dictable as heart­burn after that fourth chop for break­fast.

So it al­ways has been. So it al­ways will be. Well, un­til they run out of Laugh­ing Ot­ter polony down at the Hy­per-Save-o-Rama on Kerk­straat. Then all bets are off.

You need to have lost a great-great-grand­mother to a Bri­tish fir­ing squad, or an un­cle to an os­trich stam­pede, or a fin­ger to the frost of ’96. Or, at the very least, your vir­gin­ity be­hind the town hall after a par­tic­u­larly fren­zied lan­garm ses­sion.

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