Niq Mhlongo

The Warning Sign

When a stone hit the roof of his house with a thunderous clatter, Mr Adams knew they had come for him. It was around four in the morning and still dark outside. Panicking, he retrieved the rifle that he always kept under his bed and tiptoed towards the window barefoot. “Kaffirs! What do these monkeys think they would be without us white people?” Pressing his forehead against the cold glass, he looked outside, the rifle ready in his hands. “Lazy bastards! If it wasn’t for us you would still be living in mud huts.” Outside, his dogs began to bark. “Come on, you cowards! I’ll slit your throats! You devils! You scoundrels!” he said with his face still pressed against the windowpane. Mr Adams was a well-built man in his mid-sixties. He was still strong, married with four children – three sons and a daughter. His eldest son, Ben, was in his early forties. His daughter Joan, the youngest of his children, was in her mid-twenties. Joan and her mother, his wife Ann, were on vacation indefinitely in Cape Town, at their holiday home. Mr Adams had insisted that they leave the farm after the family had received a visit from a group calling themselves the Land Redistribution Committee of Mzansi.

For the past five days Mr Adams and his sons had been patrolling the farm. They knew who the intruders were and they knew exactly what they wanted. Mr Adams spoke fluent Shona and always employed Shona-speaking people as his workforce. His favourite were the Zezuru. According to him, they were hard workers. His family had had Zezuru workers on their farms around Gweru some years earlier. That was before they were forced to flee to South Africa, during the land grab in 2000. Mr Adams never paid well, but then there were always unemployed Zimbabweans out there who would jump at an opportunity to come and work for him.

He made sure that every Monday he personally collected his Shona workforce from Beit Bridge. He would then drive back to his farm between Bela-Bela and Thabazimbi with them in the back of his bakkie. Part of the deal was that they got a free place to stay for the week, in the workers’ accommodation that was a couple of kilometres from the main house, but these days they never lasted long. Sometimes a day or two days, but by Wednesday or Thursday they would be gone. They would just disappear in the middle of the night. Mr Adams had no idea where they went, but he suspected that they went to look for better opportunities in Johannesburg. Mr Adams’s trusted farm manager, Knowledge, was the latest to disappear. Of his Shona workforce, he was now left with only three ladies: Patience, Memory and Grace. They stayed closer to the house, in the servants’ quarters just outside the perimeter fence.

The dogs continued barking outside.

Mr Adams peered out onto the driveway. All he could see was the big water tank and a host of shadowy figures created by his own imagination. “You are trespassing,” he heard one of his sons shout out into the darkness. “I will shoot you dead!” Anger welled up in Mr Adams. His chest heaved like that of an asthmatic and he began to blink rapidly to clear his eyes of the water that kept forming from gazing so intently out through the glass. Two hours later, the sun touched the tips of the trees on the eastern edge of the farm. As soon as it was light, Mr Adams and his sons decided to inspect the farm. George, his second born, was left to guard the house while Mr Adams, James, his youngest son, and Ben ventured out beyond the perimeter fence. The three of them took different routes, each armed with a rifle. James took the sweet potato and tomato fields. Mr Adams went to the other side of the stream, where they had planted cabbages and potatoes. Ben covered the orange orchard and the land beneath the mountain where there was a small herd of cattle. They agreed to meet at twelve for lunch at the dam. The dam was near the stream and was fenced to prevent the crocodiles that they reared there from crawling out.

Mr Adams stopped and peered down at the footpath, examining a footprint. He was pale and there were dark signs of sleeplessness beneath his eyes. Suspiciously, he looked around him. All he could see was a ridge of ploughed land with an abandoned tractor upon it. It had been left there by Knowledge the day before he disappeared. He followed the footprints, his boots rustling through the dry leaves, until he came to a pole with a demarcation sign nailed to it reading:

PROPERTY OF THE LAND REDISTRIBUTION COMMITTEE OF MZANSI

The sight of the sign left an unpleasant taste in his mouth.

He pressed his chin into the collar of his khaki shirt, an action that gave his face an expression of displeasure. “Kaffirs!” he said as he began removing the sign. “What the fuck do they know about farming? The only thing they know how to grow is babies!”

Frowning and clenching his jaw, Mr Adams carried on walking, the sign in his hand. He knew that it had been placed there by the group of men and women that had come to his farm uninvited a week earlier.

“If it were not for us white people these monkeys would still be praying to their clueless ancestors. They would have no idea of the vast mineral wealth below the soil.” Mr Adams sat down in the dappled shade provided by an acacia tree, his rifle across his knees. Bees hovered over the brightly coloured flowers that protruded from the tree and the sound of them going about their business began to lull him to sleep. As he dozed under the tree his mind began replaying the events of the previous week. “I’m in charge of the land which Mr Rens, your neighbour, used to own,” one of the men, the one with a limp, had said, “I’m the commander of the land committee.”

“What does that have to do with me?” Mr Adams had asked.

“Your farm is next. My men will come and survey your land next week. Then you will be required to take your things and go.”

“That is not the way things are done here. This is not Zimbabwe. There is a rule of law,” Mr Adams had protested slowly and scornfully. “You can’t simply take people’s land without paying for it.”

“The soil is ours. We have no obligation to pay you compensation. You stole the land from us just like the Americans stole the land from the Native Americans, the Australians from the aborigines.”

“What you are trying to do is illegal and unconstitutional. You can’t just pick and choose which laws to obey. People like Mandela fought so that we could all live peacefully.”

“Mandela was a traitor. You settlers took the land from us without paying for it centuries ago. Why should we entertain any ideas of legality?”

“I paid for this land. Nothing is free in this world.”

“Mandela’s weakness was that he wanted to act morally and legally when your ancestors acted immorally and illegally.”

“But he created a spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness, he created the rainbow nation.”

“Fuck that! There is no black in the rainbow.”

“But I bought this land. I have a title deed. Where do you think I must go?”

“We don’t care!” the commander had said, his gaze unflinching. “This is our land. You white settlers took the land from us without paying for it. We can, in a similar way, take it back from you without paying for it.”

“Can’t there be peace in this country?” Mr Adams had wondered.

“You can’t separate peace from land. No white person will be at peace until the land is returned to the people.”

By that time Mr Adams’s sons had arrived. “What’s going on, Pops?” George had asked.

“We all have the right to live here,” Mr Adams had said, ignoring his son. “Historically, there were no black people here when white people arrived in the early sixteen hundreds. The Ngunis were all in northern KwaZulu, Mpumalanga, Swaziland and Mozambique. The Xhosas were in the Eastern Cape, across the Fish River. And the Pedis were all living in caves around Sekhukhuneland. You have no right to claim this land. Just because you are black doesn’t mean that you have a blank cheque for this entire region.”

“This is the land of our ancestors and we farmed here before you whites came.”

“You can’t blame us for what our ancestors did to your ancestors,” James had said. “We . . .”

The sound of a car passing on the main road to Bela-Bela interrupted Mr Adams’s daydream. Birds had settled in the tree above him and his two ridgebacks had curled up at his feet. As a breeze began to blow the birds took off, filling the air with their carolling, and the two ridgebacks burst out barking. Filled with fear, Mr Adams stood and brought his rifle to his shoulder. “Come get me, you cowards! This is my farm!” His voice was loud and the words tumbled out. “You’re not getting shit out of it!”

The sun was at its height when Mr Adams reached the dam. His breathing sounded forced and the combination of anger and heat had made his face as red as an overripe tomato. “The bastards were here last night,” Mr Adams said, throwing the sign he had taken down at his sons’ feet, his skin glistening with sweat.

“Are you okay, Pops?” asked Ben with concern on his face.

“I will be fine.” His lips quivered a little. “I told you: they’re all cowards, these bastards! They must come during the day and fight like men.”

Mr Adams joined his sons where they were standing at the fence by the dam, watching the crocodiles. The water was muddy and brown.

“Bloody kaffirs!” Mr Adams swore as he looked down on the crocodiles, writhing and tumbling in the dam. That afternoon George called the police. They promised to come and investigate, but by eight in the evening they still hadn’t arrived at the house. After trying to get through to the station several times, Mr Adams was told that the police were understaffed and had twenty or more similar cases around the BelaBela area. Fifteen farms had already been occupied.

That night, around eleven, Grace was woken by muffled screams. Opening her curtain, she saw three figures dragging Knowledge’s wife, Memory, from her quarters.

At about five the following morning Mr Adams was woken by the bark of a jackal. Sitting up, he looked quickly around him, then reached for his rifle that was standing next to his bed. Outside, the trees were swaying menacingly in the wind and the moon was covered by low-hanging clouds. The black wall of the forest seemed closer than Mr Adams remembered, as he peered from his window, but otherwise everything was quiet. Mr Adams whistled to his sons.

“What is it, Pops?” George asked.

“Something is going on,” Mr Adams replied.

“Take your positions, boys.”

As if on cue, the dogs began to bark.

Men and women were surrounding the farmhouse, chanting slogans. All the veins on Mr Adams’s neck stood out as soon as he heard the noise, fear beginning to brew in the pit of his stomach. As the crowd continued to approach the perimeter fence he opened the window and fired off a warning shot. “Over my dead body! You people cannot take my farm!” His voice was full of forced bravery. “We have title deeds.”

Meanwhile George was busy trying to call the police – his cell phone in one hand and his gun in the other – and James was loading his rifle.

As Ben took his position at the back of the house two shots rang out, one of them smashing the kitchen window. He bravely kicked open the back door and started randomly shooting into the crowd. A woman went down, shot in the shoulder. She screamed, rolling her eyes and tearing at the earth in pain. In response several shots cracked out, one after the other.

One of the bullets pierced George’s chest and Mr Adams looked on in horror as his second born fell to the floor bleeding. Clutching his wound, George tried to reach his cell phone, which he had dropped when the bullet had hit him, but he slipped into unconsciousness before he could wrap his hand around it. The sky was already bright when the police finally arrived. Mr Adams’s face was as white as chalk and his hair was caked with blood, which had also stained his khaki shirt. All his sons were lying face down, dead. A trail of blood led from the kitchen, down the passageway and into the lounge, showing the path Ben had taken before he finally collapsed next to his dying father. Meanwhile, outside, the comrades were tending to their wounded and dead, of which there were many. None of the comrades had tried to call the police as they were aware of how the latter operated. They knew that the police deliberately took their time whenever guns were involved. Yellow police tape fluttered in the hot breeze, the colour lurid against the house’s ivy-clad walls. The police had found Mr Adams’s arsenal – explosives and automatic weapons – after questioning Patience and Grace. They had also found the human bones at the dam – Mr Adams had never been able to work out why the crocodiles grew so big so fast.

 

 

Photograph.- Victor Dlamini.

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