Out of South Africa: A hard way to learn the price of happiness

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The Independent Online
PELANDABA, TRANSKEI - When you're buying a family it is a good idea to establish first whether all the family members want to be bought. Sometimes, in the zeal to make what appears to be a good purchase, this precaution can be overlooked.

I speak from experience. Last Friday morning I drove down to Pelandaba, a hamlet 500 miles from Johannesburg in the black 'homeland' of Transkei. My two companions were Fisman and De Villiers. Fisman, who is 26, is the younger brother of my maid, Henrietta. Until three months ago, he had been living on my premises with his wife Rosie and his four-year-old daughter, Cornelia.

At Christmas Rosie went with Cornelia to her parents' home in Pelandaba. She did not come back. Word reached us in mid-January that she'd had it with Fisman. So we drove down to Transkei to see whether we could negotiate a family reconciliation.

De Villiers, Henrietta's 'ex', kindly came along. He is skilful in tribal matters and knows Rosie's family well. When Fisman entered into the first stages of the marriage contract with Rosie, which involved paying her family 800 rand ( pounds 170) in 'damages' for having deflowered her, De Villiers was present at the signing. Before the wedding itself Fisman paid an extra R1,200 in bride-price.

We set off at 5pm in confident mood. Earlier in the week Fisman had consulted a witchdoctor who had assured him of success. De Villiers, who is an auditing clerk with the Johannesburg city council, was our barrister. I couldn't imagine anyone better for the job. He is tall, handsome, eloquent, grave when he has to be and has a rakish, mannered arrogance about him that's straight out of Oscar Wilde.

One of our strongest cards, De Villiers believed, was that for the last year I had been paying for Cornelia to attend a newly multiracial nursery school just down the road from my house. This worried me. I'm an outsider, a passer-by in South Africa. I resolved I would not take part in the debate.

We made it to Rosie's place at 2.15am on Saturday. I wondered whether it was good politics to pitch up at this time but De Villiers had no doubts. 'We'll wake them up and we won't sleep till it's done.'

At noon I met the two of them, as agreed, in a town near Pelandaba. De Villiers explained what had happened. 'The problem is that Fisman beats Rosie. That's why she ran away. It's true. He doesn't deny it.' (I looked at Fisman, the stereotype of the meek black South African, who nodded and looked away.)

'But I argued with them,' De Villiers said. 'Spoke of the child and her schooling. And by five o'clock in the morning the father and mother were persuaded. Rosie started packing her things. And then everything fell apart. Someone told the old man of the village, the head man, what was happening. He put his foot down. He said Fisman had to pay a new (bride price) as punishment for what he'd done to Rosie. He decided on the price of one cattle, R800.'

When Fisman and De Villiers (whose one lapse in English was the common one of using cattle in the singular) were leaving, Cornelia, they told me, was hysterical with grief. I decided we'd go back and I'd pay the R800.

At the top of a hill we found the old man in question sitting alone under a tree surveying the valley. I approached him slowly, diffidently, head bowed. The old man glanced up and, with regal insouciance, shook my hand.

Softly, behind me, Cornelia appeared. She was happy to see me, but she was thin and a crease of worry marked her brow. She was barefoot and the red nylon dress she was wearing had a tear around the left hip. For the next hour, while we waited for Rosie's parents to come and give their imprimatur to the new deal, Cornelia clung to me like a barnacle.

Rosie's father was small and wizened. The mother, in wide flowing skirts, large and imperial. Three more old men and two old women joined us. They sat down in a circle around the head man, women on one side, men on the other, Cornelia in between.

The head man spoke first. Half an hour passed before De Villiers explained to me what was going on. The head man, it turned out, was all for the R800 changing hands and the family returning to Johannesburg. The problem now, surprisingly, came from Rosie's parents. They wanted three 'cattles' now. Meaning R2400.

I kept my exasperation to myself and decided I would pay what it took. But first I'd break protocol. As far as the parents and company were concerned, if the deal was right Rosie would do what she was told. I'd challenge African custom and do the Western thing - check with Rosie.

She did not want to return to Fisman. She wanted to stay put. Fisman abused and beat her whenever he got drunk, which was often. Life with him had been a misery. She could never trust him again. In no position to argue, I was ready to leave, when she confronted me with the day's biggest dilemma. Did I want to take Cornelia? I thought for a moment and decided no. Henrietta had made it plain to me before leaving that she could not look after the kids on her own and I could not find it in me to play God and part a child from her mother.

I went back to De Villiers, where a new argument was now raging about the price of a cattle, and gestured to him to stop. On the drive back home I thought only of Cornelia.

There's a twist in the tale. As I was half-way through writing this I got a phone call from De Villiers. He was in court. He'd just been convicted on fraud charges and had been sentenced to 18 months in prison. His lawyer had lodged notice of appeal. Bail had been set at R5,000. If he didn't pay up he'd go straight to jail. Could I lend him the money?