Andries Oliphant

Andries Walter Oliphant – born in 1955 in Heidelberg, Gauteng – is a literary scholar, writer and cultural policy advisor. He has worked in the South African Department of Arts and Culture. His writings on South African literature, art and photography are published locally and internationally, and he has won awards for his fiction and non-fiction writing.

In this story, ‘When Scavengers Descend’, Oliphant tells us about a young woman, Nobantu, who is an anti-Apartheid and education activist. She works in a cultural organisation belonging to a textile workers union. Because of her involvement with the labour movement, which became a major source of opposition to Apartheid in the 1980s, she is harassed and eventually detained by the state Security Police. The story begins with her in solitary confinement, while her mind wanders over her childhood memories, as well as the recurring image of a big bird of prey which lands on her neighbour’s roof only to be pelted with stones.

When Scavengers Descend

Author: Andries Oliphant

pervaded To become spread throughout all parts of; to be overcome by. wrest To take away by force; to get by force. excruciating Painful.

‘So, this is it. The end of my first week in solitary confinement,’ Nobantu thinks. The tiny space in which she is held, is pervaded by a tomb-like silence. Except for her own breathing and, on occasion, her restless pacing, there is no other activity to distract her. There is nothing to make her imprisonment more bearable.

monotonous Lacking in variety and difference; boringly unchanging. hurly-burly Noisy disorder and confusion; commotion; uproar; tumult. exacerbated Intensified or made worse. inertia Lack of movement, inactivity, sluggishness.

She makes an effort to wrest her attention away from the excruciating awareness of the slow monotonous drag of time. Seven days. A mere week. Under the normal hurly-burly of her life, a week would flash by. Now it seems like eternity. The uncertainty or her situation; she is held without the prospect of immediate charges being brought against her, exacerbated things. Time became a sluggish beast. The inertia threatened to infect her mind.

unpalatable Unpleasant to the taste. interrogation Intense questioning. excavating Digging up, bringing to the surface. susceptible Likely to be influenced by something. novelty The state or quality of being new; newness, unique. immobilised Unable to move, fixed or stuck.

To fill the dreary hours, between unpalatable meals and interrogation sessions, she strives to enlarge her prison world by excavating moments from her past. She knows, by means of the past one is able to come to grips with the present, and perhaps even anticipate the future. That this is commonplace wisdom, she knows very well. She has learnt, however, not to dismiss the tried and the obvious, as is the habit of those who are susceptible to novelty. She is immobilised right now, but she is convinced that this is only temporary. Instead of allowing her mind to be confined to the dimensions of the cell, she chooses to give it free reign while remaining mindful of her predicament.

confined Limited. dimensions The space or size. predicament A difficult or unpleasant situation.

Between reveries reveries A state of dreamy meditation; a daydream. of her childhood in Tembisa and schooling in the Transvaal, vague and fleeting memories of sighting a great bird frequently enter her mind. She cannot understand this. At times it strikes her that this recurring image seems much less some form of memory, than a fleeting suggestion emanating emanating Being produced by, spreading out from. from some obscured obscured Hidden or unseen. layer of her consciousness.

She remembers the criss-cross of untarred streets. The regularity of the houses in the zone where she grew up. During the afternoons she would play kiddibeka with her friends from the neighbourhood. There was Mona, a skinny girl with big black eyes and hair that always stood on end, as if she was in some constant state of trepidation. trepidation Fear, alarm or agitation. And there was Thandeka, a pudgy pudgy Short and fat or thick. little girl who lived two streets away: her nose was always running. These memories bring a faint smile to Nobantu’s face.

vivid Full of life; strikingly bright or intense, as colour, light, etc. mutations A changed version or form. dexterity Skill and accuracy. parameters Limits. demarcated Marked. latitude Space for interpretation. conformity Obedience to standard rules or values. transgression Disobedience of standard rules and values. immersed Completely involved in something. mingles Mixes.

The three of them would play. Always in their backyard, since her grandmother who looked after her while her mother was at work, refused to let her play in the streets or to allow her to go visiting unaccompanied by an adult. They would gather. In the course of an afternoon they ran through a whole series of games involving a little rubber ball and three little girls with enthusiasm and vivid imaginations. They would create endless variations of linear, square, rectangular, triangular and circular games, with nothing more than a ball, and their abilities to discover new mutations of old set-games at their disposal.

She saw herself darting between Mona, Thandeka. The ball bouncing on the ground. With great dexterity she remained within the parameters of the courts demarcated in the dust. She had mastered the art of fully utilising the latitude between conformity and transgression of the rule-governed games. Recalling all this, the image of a red bouncing ball and three little girls immersed in play mingles with the vague recurring vision of a bird. A sense of wings fluttering.

She oscillates oscillates To swing between. between these recollections of her childhood and her first encounter with the police. She was at high school when they first came face to face. It was during a school boycott. The years of carefree play amid squalor squalor Filth and misery. were behind her. She had, like others, grown into the ongoing struggle to break the oppressive mould mould A stiff frame used to shape liquids. which has been cast around the lives of black people in the country.

Like most of her generation, school was the obvious place to begin. It was axiomatic, axiomatic Self-evident; an obvious truth. she like many others argued that pupils, teachers and their parents reshape the nature of their schooling. It was not enough to demand equal education. It was also necessary to work towards a completely new form of education: one that would not only reflect the longing for justice and freedom, but would also serve as a direct means of realising these aspirations. And there was no time to waste. It was a matter of urgency.

Years have passed since and the struggle has not abated; instead, it has intensified. abated Died down; lessened; diminished.

During the winter term, not long after she had been elected to represent her region on a national educational committee, the police called on her.

It was in the dead of night. An urgent banging rattled the door. The noise rang through the entire house, waking everyone. ‘A fellow student or a relative in some sort of trouble,’ Nobantu thought, distressed, as she got out of bed. She hurried to the door. Her grandmother groaned in the adjacent adjacent Next or neighbouring. room. Passing her parents’ bedroom she heard them stirring. Her father grumbled and inquired who on earth was at the door at such an ungodly hour. Before she herself could pose the question, a voice above the banging summoned: ‘Open! We are the police. Open!’

She unbolted the door. There in the darkness she saw three figures. At the sight of them her first reflex was to shut them out and flee into the safety of the house. She remained calm, however, and asked:

‘What do you want?’ She spoke tersely, and remained standing in the doorway. tersely Briefly and tensely; short and sharp.

The figure at the centre spoke. ‘I’m Captain Koekemoer, from State Security. I have a warrant to search this house.’ He pressed forward, assuming that Nobantu would give way and let him in. She didn’t budge. An urge to resist their intrusion took hold of her. Still blocking the entrance she demanded:

‘Let me see that warrant. I want to make sure I know who I’m dealing with.’

She spoke with a firm and slightly contemptuous contemptuous Disrespectful; Showing or expressing contempt or disdain; scornful. voice. The anger their presence provoked in her was evident. Koekemoer handed her the warrant; even in the dark his gesture was clearly aggressive.

‘Wait here, ‘ she said, ‘I want to go over this. I want to make sure who I’m letting into this home.’ As she moved away from the door, Captain Koekemoer and his two companions pressed in after her, uninvited. This infuriated infuriated Made very angry. Nobantu, but she remained calm.

As she lit a candle she snapped at them: ‘Get out, and wait until I give you permission to enter.’

‘We don’t need your permission. That warrant permits us to enter this place,’ Koekemoer retorted retorted Replied sharply. coldly.

By the time she had examined the warrant they had already begun their search. First the cupboards. Then the bookshelves. They ripped open cushions and mattresses. They ordered her grandmother out of bed. Her father tried to intervene, pointing out her age and frailty. frailty Delicate health, weak or fragile. He was threatened and warned not to obstruct the course of the law. After several hours they left without a shred of evidence. Like predators, predators Any organism that exists by preying, capturing, or attacking other organisms. they had come to gorge gorge To swallow greedily. themselves on a family’s intimate space. They left the house in a state of ruin.

Whenever Nobantu recalls this occasion, and in the past week she has gone over it obsessively, the awareness of some ominous ominous Suggesting something bad is going to happen in the future. bird kept surfacing in her mind without it ever coming into sharp focus. At times she related the sensation of beating wings to the commotion and turmoil of the frequent raids on her home and, later on her place of work. This, however, did not disclose the enigmatic enigmatic Mysterious. nature of the sensation plaguing her.

To distract herself, she gets up, climbs onto the bed in an attempt to peer out of the small window. When she does not succeed, she once again settles herself on the bed, and thinks of the intervening years.

After leaving school she became increasingly involved in the labour movement. Her interest in educational and cultural issues inspired her to become involved with the establishment of a cultural organisation directly related to the life of workers and their families. As could be expected, this resulted in even greater harassment. harassment Repeated threatening and disturbing actions. Koekemoer and his assistants would arrive regularly. They would ransack ransack To search thoroughly, in a destructive way. The act of entering without invitation, permission, or welcome. the house. They would question her on her cultural activities.

She noticed that they tried to vary the times and styles of their intrusions, intrusions The act of entering without invitation, permission, or welcome. but it was not difficult for her to anticipate anticipate Expect or predict. their actions. What they considered a change in approach, remained for her the same old intimidation, abuse and violations for which he and his ilk ilk Kind. have become so notorious. notorious Widely known for a negative characteristic.

On one of the visits, she watched him. A short, podgy man with rusty hair. He and his two helpers sniffed through her belongings. In her wardrobe he came across a new, and still unopened, packet of underwear. He seized on it with such zeal, zeal Desire or energy. one would have thought he had just unearthed some incriminating incriminating Something that makes someone appear guilty. evidence.

‘What do we have here?’ he said, and held up the packet to the amusement of his helpers. ‘Don’t tell me you keep your secrets in such places,’ he added gleefully.

The effort to provoke her was so obvious, it made Nobantu chuckle. If this was supposed to be his form of psychological harassment, then it was not only ineffective but also telling of the man’s stupidity. He must have been told that people are inclined to be perturbed perturbed Disturbed or agitated. crude Simple, rough or basic. when intruders paw among their intimate belongings. However, by seizing on a new and unused packet of underwear, Koekemoer’s crude understanding of this intimate code was apparent.

‘If you want to upset me by pawing at my underwear then you will have to mess among some of the things I have worn, Captain,’ she said sarcastically.

Koekemoer tried to conceal his embarrassment, but Nobantu approached him with her eyes fixed on his face. In a state of mild panic, he dropped the packet and called off the search. He made for the door and his men trooped after him into the night. Nobantu sighed with relief. She was happy to be rid of them so quickly.

After they left, she tried to get some sleep, but it was fruitless. No matter how brazen brazen Shameless or seemingly uncaring. and accustomed she was to such intrusions, no matter how unshaken and self-assured she remained during such raids, they always infuriated and upset her. A disquiet invaded her which persisted long after Koekemoer had left. The deeper effect of this form of intimidation fuelled her loathing loathing Hatred. of the society and those responsible for it.

surveillance Watch kept over a person, group, etc., especially over a suspect, or prisoner.

She had to fight against the impulses which the constant surveillance provoked in her. To tear Koekemoer to pieces, to see the world rid of him and what he represented was a thought she often relished. She had great difficulty containing her anger.

Then, without any reason, she is sharply reminded of the day when she was taken in. It was early on a Monday morning, just a week ago. She was deeply involved in planning for an upcoming festival when Koekemoer arrived at her home and handed her a detention order. She knew, sooner or later they would resort to this.

Hardly giving her time to get dressed or take leave from her alarmed family, they bundled her into the back of a van and sped off. She had to cling to the bars against the window to retain her balance. In the early hours she could see that they were on their way to John Vorster Square. They arrived at the sombre sombre Sad or gloomy. blue building below the freeway which runs overhead. It was quiet with no sign of the traffic which usually speeds along the suspended roads. After a long interrogation session in a bare office, she was taken to the cell by a gaunt, gaunt Thin. unsmiling female warder. There she has been ever since, struggling against her circumstances.

‘I have been here for a week now,’ she recalls once again and gets up to pace the cell. The vague image of some bird fluttering in flight had faded from her consciousness for a while, but suddenly, as she paces the cell, it returns with a renewed persistence. She tries to bring it into sharper focus by closing her eyes. Instead of yielding its enigma, it gives way to thoughts about her work.

‘Work. Work. Work. This is what has sustained me,’ she realises now. Her job as a cultural worker with a large textile union has enabled her to resist the deprivation deprivation Dispossession or loss. which was intended as her lot. Writing poetry, creating plays, composing songs with the everyday experience and the aspirations of working women as a matrix, matrix Something that makes up the place or point from which something else begins, takes form, or develops. and performing these at mass rallies, factories, schools and during cultural festivals have given her the means and perspective to combat the limitations which Koekemoer and the system he serves conspired to impose on her.

She is still in this state of reverie when she hears a noise in the passage outside her cell. The sickening rattle of keys penetrates her mind. A scratching against the door. The crunch of metal as the key turns in the lock. The door swings open. In it stands a wardress wardress A female prison guard. with a gleeful gleeful Happy, or pleased. expression on her face.

The female counter-part of Koekemoer was a gaunt, hook-nosed woman. ‘How they pounce on one, like scavengers,’ Nobantu thinks. Suddenly the image which had been at the back of her mind jumps into focus.

It was a crisp day in June. Almost a year ago, she remembers. She was at home observing a national stay away. That afternoon, she dried some lemon peels, which she often used to flavour some of her meals. As she placed the saucer on the windowsill, where the winter sun fell almost all day long, she looked into the sky and saw a huge bird descending. Its wings spread, its tail lowered to control its descent. It landed on the asbestos roof of the next-door house. She had difficulty identifying it, but its great hooked beak and its small head led her to conclude that it was one or other of the vulture species.

Perched on the apex of the roof, it seemed as if it was still exhausted from a tiresome flight. She noticed its alertness as it surveyed the environment, supposedly for something easy to catch. ‘Where does it come from? What was it doing here?’ Nobantu wondered as she turned from the window to attend to some other business.

Just then she heard a loud clatter of stones on the neighbour’s roof. She turned and saw a group of boys hurling stones at the vulture. A stone struck the bird on the side of its head knocking it over. The boys shouted. They intensified their assault. They hurled their stones with deadly accuracy. The bird, which seemed to have recovered from its first blow, struggled to its feet, but another stone struck it on the chest. Yet another followed, striking its fluttering wing.

Now the stones rained on the incapacitated incapacitated Unable to act or respond. bird, striking it all over. She could see feathers flying from its plumage. plumage The feathery covering of a bird. Once again it was struck on the head and collapsed.

The boys shouted as their prey rolled from the top of the roof and dropped with a soft thud onto the ground. A boy in possession of a stick, struck it several times to make sure it was dead. They tied its legs with a piece of string and left triumphantly. One of them carried the dead scavenger, while the others laughed and shouted around him as they walked off. They had a kill and were proud of it.

‘I’ve come to fetch you for questioning, ‘ the voice of the wardress jolted Nobantu out of her vivid recollection. The wardress, dressed in a prison uniform, gestures to her to leave the cell and to walk ahead of her. As Nobantu walks out of her cell, she passes very close by the wardress. From the corner of her eye she catches a glimpse of the woman’s hawkish profile and she senses a whiff of her body odour. Stepping into the corridor, a calmness settles on Nobantu.

As they walk along the passage, she hears the wardress following close behind. She knows that they are on their way to the interrogation chamber.

‘How remarkable,’ Nobantu thought, ‘the fluttering in my head has completely subsided.’ subsided Gone down, decreased, or become less intense. She smiled at the thought of what might happen when scavengers descend.

Questions

  1. What is the tone of this story? What does it show about the changing nature of resistance to Apartheid in the 1980s? Think about how Nobantu talks to the police.
  2. The story is structured around the extended metaphor of ‘the bird of prey’ – the vulture. Remember that a metaphor is a figure of speech in which a quality that one thing has is used to represent, or stand for, something else. In this story the scavenger, the vulture, is used as a way of describing certain people.
    1. Who are the ‘human vultures’ and what do they do?
    2. Nobantu remembers the boys in her community throwing stones at the vulture on her neighbour’s roof. What does this thought mean to her? Who do the boys represent? And who or what does the vulture represent?
    3. Do you think this metaphor is a good fit? Why or why not?
  3. The story ends with Nobantu calm, and smiling.
    1. Why is this?
    2. What point is being made?
  4. One of Nobantu’s thoughts turns to the relationship between education and freedom. She thinks, “she like many others argued that pupils, teachers and their parents reshape the nature of their schooling. It was not enough to demand equal education. It was also necessary to work towards a completely new form of education: one that would not only reflect the longing for justice and freedom, but would also serve as a direct means of realising these aspirations.”
    1. Do you think the current public education system is working towards realising these aspirations of justice and freedom through education?
    2. What parts of her struggle are still felt by young people today?

Challenge

Nobantu was involved in a cultural organisation working with workers of a textile union during Apartheid. You can do something similar: write plays, poems, songs and stories about the struggle for equal and quality education. Be the next voice in the long tradition of story-telling and fighting for justice.