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Failing sight

We did not think that the picture in the newspaper that At Naude passed round to us was particularly funny. After all, that wasn't the first time we had known of a Bapedi chief that had got over his troubles with a motor-car that way.

And, as Chris Welman pointed out, so many things had already been said about motor-cars, and about the things that happened to motor-cars, that that sort of picture didn't raise a laugh any more.

"Even at the Gaberones end of the Dwarsberge, where the sand starts," Chris Welman proceeded, a perceptible disdain in his voice at the thought of there actually being so unsophisticated a region, "even there they don't think it's funny, today, when a man takes a car to the garage and they find after two days that why it won't go is because it hasn't got petrol."

"Or through the engine having got stolen out of it by some mine-boys passing through there on their way back to Rhodesia," Gysbert van Tonder supplemented, "the garage taking two days to find out the engine was not there at all."

Generally speaking, yes, we were inclined to agree with Chris Welman. Jokes about a motor-car were pretty stale. There didn't seem to be much point in At Naude having gone to the trouble of cutting that photograph out of the newspaper and passing it round to us in Jurie Steyn's voorkamer. For we all knew that sort of thing. But At Naude insisted that we had missed the true purpose of his having brought that newspapers cutting along. Had we studied the picture carefully, he asked.

"But that's what we've been saying," Jurie Steyn, whose turn it was with the photograph, observed. "We've known of a Bapedi chief doing exactly the same thing before. And it's not so very funny, I don't think. After a person had had a lot of trouble with a motor-car I can quite imagine that he would come to believe that that was the easiest way out - removing the engine because it's just so much unnecessary weight, and inspanning a good team of long-horned oxen to pull the motor-car, instead. There's nothing unusual about it, any more. Another thing, I'll go as far as to say it's sensible."

While there might have been nothing very unusual about the photograph, it was certainly not customary for Jurie Steyn to acknowledge that a Bapedi chief could do anything sensible. It was the schoolmaster's turn to examine the clipping.

"It's not so much that it's an old joke, although it is that, too, of course, " young Vermaak said, "but it's also an old photograph. Take that jacket, now, that that white man has got on sitting in the car next to the Bapedi chief. It's years since they stopped making jackets with that narrow kind of lapel. And look how straight up the white man is sitting. It looks as though he's very proud to be in a motor-car. Or to be having his photo taken. Or to be sitting next to a Bapedi chief.

"And the car - why, I've never seen so old-fashioned a model. And headlight sticking out behind the ox's ear - it's the kind of lamp we used to light to go to the stable with when I was a boy. The only part of the picture that looks up-to-date is the trek-chain fastened on to the car's bumper. And as for the white man's moustache - well, there's an old model-T for you, if you like."

The schoolmaster said that, as far as he was concerned, it actually was a funny photograph. And it wasn't the circumstance of the motor-car being drawn by a span of oxen that made him laugh, either. The real scream was that moustache.

Studying the old photograph in his turn, Oupa Becker said that maybe it was an old joke. But he had nothing against an old joke, himself. Indeed, some of the old jokes were the best, Oupa Becker said. For one thing, they lasted longest.

"Only, Rabusang doesn't look like that, any more," Oupa Bekker added, shaking his head.

"But Rabusang never did look like that," At Naude said, laughing. "It's not Rabusang but some other Bapedi chief. All it has got printed under the photograph is 'Bapedi chief cheerful about petrol shortage'. It doesn't say which Bapedi chief."

At Naude went on to say that it was a bit of showing-up for Oupa Becker, his making a mistake like that. For it was well known that Oupa Becker, while admitting that his hearing might not perhaps be what it once was, always claimed that his eyesight was as good as ever.

"But I've just said that he doesn't look like Rabusang," Oupa Bekker explained, getting petulant. "How do you expect me to say it any clearer than what I've just said it? I've just said that Rabusang doesn't look like that - not unless he's changed a good deal with the years. This Bapedi chief doesn't look like Rabusang any more than that White man there with the silly moustache looks like Rabusang. In any case, the light's not too good."

Oupa Bekker didn't say whether it was the light that he himself was sitting in at that moment, or the light in which the two occupants of the motor-car had sat years ago when the photograph was taken.

"In any case," Oupa Bekker proceeded, quickly, apparently anxious that his failing powers of vision should not be made the subject of a lengthy and detailed disquisition, "I also once travelled quite a distance in a motor-car that a Bapedi chief had taken the engine out of and that was pulled by a long span of oxen.

"It was before day-break. I was travelling by ox-wagon to Ramoutsa. We had started early and there was that thick mist that hangs over the turf-lands by the Malopo on winter mornings. The vorlooper was carrying the lantern to see the road. I was walking by the side of the wagon. And it was in the light of the lantern that we saw a motor-car on the road in front of us.

"A motor-car was a new thing in those days, and so I guessed that it must be the motor-car that Chief Umsufu had bought some time ago. I was surprised that it was going so slowly, though - not even at walking pace. It must be that some part of the machinery wasn't walking as it should, I thought. Or perhaps[s Chief Umsufu had put the brakes on, I thought, since he might prefer not to go so fast in the dark.

"Afterwards, the driver put his head out of the window. Out of curiosity to see how the motor-car went, I had by that time got almost level with the motor-car, so that Chief Umsufu and I both recognized each other by the light of the voorlooper's lantern coming on behind.

"When Chief Umsufu told me I could have a lift I climbed in pretty quickly. It was the first time I had ever been in a motor-car and I didn't want to miss any of the ride. It was only afterwards, when it got properly daylight, that I could see through the mist what it was that was making the motor-car move, and I felt pretty disappointed, then, I can tell you. But I didn't get out then, all the same. For one thing, it wouldn't be polite, I thought.

"And then, for another thing, it was, after all, a motor-car that I was riding in, and for years to come I would be able to talk about it, telling people about how I once went to Ramoutsa in a motor-car. And there would be no need for me to say that it was Chief Umsufu's motor-car and that it was pulled by a team of oxen. What I might mention, perhaps, was that the motor-car was not travelling particularly fast, that time, because of the roads.

"But, in the meantime, sitting in the motor-car on that early morning and not knowing that the engine part of it was rusting by an anthill next to the chief's cattle-kraal, I must say that I got a lot of enjoyment out of the journey.

"I could feel by the soft cushions that it was a very good class of motor-car. And then, also, the motor-car didn't make a noise. I already knew that you could tell it was a good motor-car if the engine was silent. And I don't think there has ever been a motor-car engine as silent as Chief Umsufu's was, on that misty morning. In fact, in talking to the chief, I hardly had to raise my voice at all, to make myself heard.

"Another thing I noticed was that there seemed to be lots of cattle on the road. I saw, a good number of times, through the mist when it lifted slightly at intervals, a pair of horns or the back part of an ox. At times I also heard what I took to be cattle-drovers shouting out Sechuana words. Some time later I began to realize that it was the same words, all the time. And when day broke I saw clearly that it was also the same pairs of horns.

Gysbert van Tonder said, in a nasty way, that it would appear that already in those days Oupa Bekker's faculties had started failing.

"Either that, or -" Gysbert van Tonder said, concluding the remark with a gesture to indicate that, as likely as not, Oupa had been drinking.

"What Chief Umsufu said to me afterwards," Oupa Bekker continued, "was it was because he believed in progress that he had bought the motor-car in the first place. But I would never believe what trouble he had with it, the chief said. And then he found out that what was wrong with an ordinary motor-car was that it didn't have enough progress.

"And so he used his brains and worked out how to remedy it. And since then he had had no trouble at all with his motor-car, he said. And he didn't have to worry any more what the roads were like, either. Where an ox could go, there his motor-car could go, too, now, the chief said. And also where a mule could go. You could see that he was very proud of what he had done. "Engelsman!" - the chief shouted at the oxen. "Witvoet! Lekkerland!" at the same time bringing his foot down on some piece of machinery that, I suppose, would have made the motor-car go faster in the days when the engine was still there, before Chief Umsufu used his brains on it."

Thereupon Chris Welman said that, as he had mentioned earlier, there was nothing funny any more in stories that had to do with motor-cars. The long story Oupa Bekker had just told proved that, Chris Welman said. Since the motor-car had come into the Transvaal, life on the platteland was no longer the same thing.

The only kind of story about the Transvaal that was worth listening to, Chris Welman said, was the story about the Transvaal before there were motor-cars, or before they had that machine on Rysmierbult station that you put pennies in for chocolates.

"Or before they had cameras," At Naude said. Then he asked Oupa Bekker if there was already a photographer at Ramoutsa, the time he went there with Chief Umsufu's motor-car. Oupa Bekker, after reflecting for a few moments, said, yes, he thought there was.

"And did they have your photograph taken?" At Naude asked. "Before the motor-car was outspanned, even?"

After thinking about it for a bit, Oupa Bekker said, yes, he did seem to remember something about it.

"Well, take another look at that, then," At Naude said, passing the newspaper cutting back to Oupa Bekker. "I said that nobody had studied them properly. Who do you see sitting in that motor-car? Don't laugh too loudly, now."

Oupa Bekker examined the bit of newspaper carefully.

"Yes," he said, at length. "Yes, it does look something like Chief Umsufu. In fact, it is Chief Umsufu. I would recognize him from his photo anywhere. But when I said from the start it wasn't Rabusang-"

"Nobody is talking about Rabusang," At Naude interjected, sounding cross. "But who is that White man, sitting there large as life, next to the chief? Don't laugh, now."

Oupa Bekker looked at the picture some more. Then he handed it back to At Naude.

"It's no good," Oupa Bekker said. "It's some White man I don't know. Some White man with a silly-looking moustache. But, of course, that sort of moustache was worn quite a lot, in those days."