In A Bekkersdal Marathon
by Herman Charles Bosman
A fence between the Union and the Bechuanaland Protectorate, At Naudé said – according to the wireless, the two Governments were already discussing it.
‘I hope they put gates in the fence, though, here and there,’ Chris Welman said. ‘Otherwise, how will we get to Ramoutsa siding?’
‘Yes, with a fence there,’ At Naudé agreed, ‘goods we had ordered from Johannesburg could lie at the siding for years, and we’d be none the wiser.
‘And as likely as not, we wouldn’t even notice the difference,’ At Naudé continued. ‘We’d think it was just the railways being a bit slow, again.’
There was one queer thing about putting up a fence, Oupa Bekker said, that he himself had noticed, long ago. And it was this. When you erected a fence around your farm, it never seemed to keep anybody out. All you were doing was fencing yourself in, and with barbed wire.
In the meantime, Gysbert van Tonder, with his somewhat extensive cattle-smuggling interests, had been doing a spot of thinking. And when he spoke, it was apparent that he had not been indulging in glad, carefree reveries. His reasoning followed a severely practical line – a line as straight as the five-strand, theodolite-charted, course of the fence that would provide the Union and the Bechuanaland Protectorate with official frontiers.
‘There should be a proper sort of a border – that I do believe in,’ Gysbert van Tonder announced, somewhat piously. ‘It makes it a lot too hard, smuggling cattle from the Protectorate into the Transvaal, when there’s no real line to smuggle them over. I’m glad the Government’s doing something about it. These things have got to be correct. I’ve been discouraged more than once, I can tell you, asking myself … well, what’s the good? You see what I mean?
‘Either you’re in the Marico, or you aren’t. And either you’re in the Protectorate, or you aren’t. When there’s no proper border, you can be standing with a herd of cattle right on the Johannesburg market, and not be feeling too sure whether you’re in the Transvaal or in Bechuanaland. And even when the auctioneer starts calling for bids, you don’t quite know whether they’re going to come in pounds or in rolls of brass wire.
‘You almost expect somebody to shout out: “So many strings of beads”. So I can only say that the sooner they put up a decent kind of fence, the better. The way things are, it’s been going on for too long. You’ve got to know if an ox is properly smuggled over, or if it isn’t. You’ve got to be legal.’
The years he had put in at cattle-smuggling had imparted to Gysbert van Tonder’s mind an unmistakably juridical slant. He liked arranging things by rule and canon, by precept and by code. And the next question he asked bore that out.
‘In this discussion that our Government is having with the Protectorate Government,’ he asked, ‘did the broadcast say rightly what kind of fence it is that they are going to put up? Is it the steel posts kind, with anchoring wires that you cut? Or will it have standards, that you pull out, and bend the fence down by the droppers, for the cattle to walk over on bucksails? That’s a thing they should get straight before anything else, I’m thinking.’
At that point, the conversation – naturally enough – took a technical turn. The talk had to do with strands, and surveyors, and wrongly positioned beacons, and surveyors, and rails, and the wire snapping and cutting Koos Nienaber’s chin open in rebounding, and gauges, and five-barb wires, and the language Koos Nienaber had used afterwards, speaking with difficulty because of all that sticking plaster on his chin.
‘And so the surveyor said to me,’ Chris Welman was declaring, about half an hour later, ‘that if I didn’t believe him about that spruit not coming on my side of the boundary, then I could check through his figures myself. There were only eight pages of figures, he said, and those very small figures on some of the pages, that didn’t look too clear, he would go over, in ink, for me,’ he said.
‘And he would also lend me a book that was all just figures that would explain to me what the figures he had written down meant. And when I said that, since my grandfather’s time, that spruit had been used on our farm, and that we used to get water there, the surveyor just smiled, like he was superior to my grandfather. And he said he couldn’t understand it. On the other side of the bult, in a straight line, that spruit was a long way outside of our farm.’
‘What the other surveyor, many years ago, had been up to, he just couldn’t make out, he said. With all his books of figures, he said, he just couldn’t figure that one out. Well, naturally I couldn’t go and tell him, of course. Although it’s something we all know in the family.
‘Because my grandfather had had the same kind of trouble, in his time, with a surveyor, more years ago than I can remember. And when my grandfather said to the surveyor: “How do you know that the line you marked out on the other side of the bult is in a straight line from here? Can you see through the bult – a bult about fifty paces high, and half a mile over it?” The surveyor had to admit, of course, that no man could see through a bult. And the land surveyor felt very ashamed of himself, then, for being so ignorant. And he changed the plan, just like my grandfather had asked him to do.
And the funny part of it is that my grandfather had no knowledge of figures. Indeed, I don’t think my grandfather could even read figures. All my grandfather had, while he was talking to the land surveyor, was a shotgun, one barrel smooth and the other choke. And the barrels were sawn off quite short. And they say that when he went away from our farm – my grandfather having proved to him just where he had gone wrong in his figures – he was the politest surveyor that had ever come to this part of the Dwarsberge.’
There would, he said, then, unquestionably be a good deal of that same sort of element in the erection of the boundary between the Bechuanaland Protectorate and the Transvaal.
More than one land surveyor would, as likely as not, raise his eyebrows, we said. Or he would take a silk handkerchief out of his pocket and start dusting his theodolite, saying to himself that he shouldn’t, in the first place, have entrusted so delicate an instrument to a raw Mchopi porter, smelling of home-brewed beer.
In the delimiting of the Transvaal-Bechuanaland Protectorate border, we could foresee quite a lot of trouble sticking out, for quite a number of people.