Friday, August 19, 2011

Ghosts of the New South Africa

The Karoo – summer 2011

'When I first caught sight of him through my binoculars he was standing right over there - next to that bush.' Hannes November indicated a scrubby stand of cactus on the far side of the road that ran along the base of the koppie. It looked like barely a smudge in the moonlight, hardly the sort of hiding place one might expect for a mythical demon that I had been tracking since childhood.

'What did he look like?

'He was wearing a long white coat and black trousers. He stood still with both hands behind his back whenever cars or people approached. Then he picked up a white sack and took blankets over to the bushes like he was trying to make a bed.'

'And how did you know he wasn't just an ordinary man? A vagrant looking for someplace to sleep.'

Hannes gave me a silent, long suffering look and for a moment I thought my question was too stupid or impertinent to warrant an answer.

'Because he didn't belong there. What he was doing didn't make any sense.'

'What do you mean? What didn't make sense?'

'He turned into a dog.'

'You saw him turn into a dog?'

Hannes November fell silent, shifting from foot to foot as he fingered his harpoon, a double bladed implement fashioned from sharpened sheep shears that he had devised in order to hunt the shapeshifter that he insisted had been prowling the settlement. At length he allowed his buddy, Luzuko, to speak for him.'I first saw him on my way home. He only looked like a dog from a distance. Up close it looked like something I had never seen before. It was so fucking lelik* I hit him with my beer bottle.' ( *ugly )

'Then what happened?'

''I chased after it but it grew wings and flew away!'

I nodded, realizing there was no point in asking any further questions.

Reports like this had been coming in from folk in Steytlerville and the neighbouring towns of Klipplaat and Willowmore for some months now. No-one seemed to be able to agree on exactly what the creature looked like other than the fact that it was reputed to be a black magician' or 'nagloper' – something that 'didn't belong' in any sane or normal world. I had heard tales of these xenomorphic spirits before in both the Karoo and Southern Namibia, indeed had based my second feature film 'Dust Devil' on the myth which in many respects parrallels the European vampire tradition. The 'night walker's were said to be of either gender and roamed the veldt in the company of baboons and owls, often gathering at appointed spots like witches meeting at a coven. Sometimes they were said to strip themselves of all clothing or to adorn their heads with human finger or toe bones before entering the huts of their prey, often walking backwards so their footprints would be pointing away from their destination. The occupants, even the dogs, would fall into a death like stupor so that the night walker's could batten on their life force. These wandering nocturnal spirits could be halted however and even destroyed by the use of a magic kerrie, a carved wooden baton analogous to the sharpened stake favored by Western vampire hunters. If the nagloper could be tricked into stepping across the kerrie which was often left lying across the doorways of huts as a form of protection, he could be rooted to the spot and stripped of its power in the same manner that one might imagine a lightning conductor is used to earth static electricity and hence draw the teeth from a storm.

Above: Image from 'Dust Devil' (1992)

Tales of the nagloper had fascinated me as a boy and perhaps it should have come as little surprise to find that the faceless beast was still stalking the back roads of 21st century Africa. If the demon were really only a myth then it remained a very powerful one, a legend capable of endlessly reinventing itself, changing its colours and details to suit the times. The last thing I had expected was to find myself hot on the trail of the dust devil once more but despite the chaotic and far fetched nature of the first hand reports I'd hoovered up on my way across the Eastern Cape there was no escaping the unpleasant realization that here in Steytlerville the townsfolk were quite literally living in fear of something they could scarcely describe, let alone comprehend.

American's have their 'bigfoot' and Australians their 'bunyip' but despite sharing this neck of the bush with a burdgeoning population of baboons and other primates the South African's evidently felt no need to conjure up their own sasquatch, the more conventional furry humanoid, skin walker or yeti commonly reported abroad. The nagloper is an altogether more protean being, capable of defying the folklorist's attempts to readily contain, categorize or otherwise pigeonhole it's hallucinatory characteristics. While human in at least one of its facets the nagloper seems to be able to transform at will. Others hold that it may be the victim of a curse or even a resurrected corpse transformed by an evil witchdoctor into a bestial familiar sent forth to do his or her nocturnal bidding. All that anyone can agree on is that these beings seem drawn to towns like this one, sniffing out their fears and frustrations from a thousand miles away as a shark scents blood.

At face value Steytlerville is like any other one horse karoo town, with its dusty high street dominated by a white washed church and a central bar/hotel. This sleepy community was founded in 1786 by the Reverend Steytler and now stands at the centre of the Eastern Cape's wool and mohair industry.

Above: The Royal Hotel - Steytlerville
Below: St Paul's church - the oldest building in Steytlerville. The tumbleweed hanging from the ceiling has been placed there to deter bats.

To all intents and purposes the place should serve as a model of secure conservative values and Anglican rectitude were it not for the fact that the settlement stands at the very edge of baviaanskloof, the single largest remaining wilderness area on the subcontinent where previously unknown archaelogical remains and bushman sacred sites, not to mention whole new species of flora and fauna are still turning up on a daily basis.

In the summer of 2010-11 something else, something unimaginable crawled out of the African night to invade the town's collective consciousness.

Hefting his double edged harpoon like some sort of latter day Ahab, Hannes November started warily down the barren slope towards the stand of cactus. Under normal circumstances Hannes ran the local 'gaming store', what amounted to two ratty looking pool tables and a collection of aging video machines that occupied one half of the narrow concrete shed he called home. Hannes, like the other denizens of the sorry looking grey walled settlement that had sprung up on the outskirts of Steytlerville, was the victim of a peculiar sort of post-liberation apartheid. In a fumbling attempt at land reform the African National Congress had passed a plethora of new laws, ensuring that any family that lived in one particular premises for more than three generations would have a legitimate claim to the property. Fearing a situation similar to the one in Zimbabwe where a great many farmers had seen their homesteads confiscated by their labourers the land owners had responded by summarily moving the workers off their property, shunting them into vast, hastily built settlements such as this one. Accordingly the farm labourers were obliged to commute to work by bus, a grinding journey of many dusty miles while their families were forced to live in a squalour every bit as bad as the conditions experienced by previous generations under apartheid rule.

Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised that the sleep of reason had once again given birth to monsters...

"As above, so below: Two fanciful artist's impressions of the 'Steytlerville Monster' currently circulating on the net.

While the white farmers and townsfolk evidently believed in the shapeshifting demon that their Xhosa labourers referred to as 'Bawokazi' ( literally 'father's brother' or 'paternal uncle' – another word for 'big brother' one might say ) it was clear that they still felt reasonably secure behind the ramparts of their Dutch Reformed faith, white washed picket fences and broad, electrified streets. While the owner/manager of the Royal Hotel declined any comment on the affair he did make it clear that a guest at the only other hotel in town, the Theatrical Hotel on the outskirts of town, had seen the beast only a few days ago. He preferred not to think about such things and seemed of a mind to evict me from my room for having the temerity to mention them on his property. Here in the mean, lightless alleyways of the township sandwiched between the freeway and the open desert the dust devil was a living, breathing reality and grown men lay awake in their beds at night for fear of the nameless emanation from out of the wild that stalked their dreams and threatened their sanity.

There was no doubt that Hannes was crazy, of course, at least by any conventional definition of the term - one look in his eyes could tell you that immediately. The locals refered to him by his nickname, 'Bosvark' ( literally 'bush pig' ) and were evidently divided over what had really happened here but I couldn't help asking myself what it was about this stocky, bullet headed, God fearing man that had forced him to make a stand against the nameless nemesis that he believed had infiltrated and infected his impoverished settlement. When I asked him what had driven him to hunt the dust devil all Hannes could tell me was that he had been guided by the power of the Lord – 'die heerde' – to defend the community and his way of life.

'Two of my friends came with me. We came to within 25 metres of the monster,' muttered Hannes, slowing as we warily approached the scene of his previous encounter with the beast.

'Did you challenge it or try to communicate with it?'

'That's when I took my spear and told it 'Jy for my, ek vir jou'*!'

( * literally 'You for me, me for you' – a challenge to one on one combat )

Hannes gestured fiercely at the cactus with his harpoon, speaking the words by rote as if he were recounting something seen in a movie. I surmised that he had told the story so many times to his family, friends, police and local journalists that it had already lost any sense of objective reality to him.

'And that's when you saw him turn into a dog?'

He nodded slowly. 'It was a black dog with white legs. But it didn't bark. It didn't make a sound.'

'Then he ran away. And all the lights in the houses went out as he passed,' added Luzuko, making a sweeping motion with his hand. Behind him Hannes began to poke at an old sack lying at the base of the cactus, cautiously lifting it with the tip of his harpoon. 'That's what he was using to try and make a bed.'

I glanced at the sack disinterestedly. I think Hannes wanted me to take a photograph of it but quite frankly there didn't seem to be any point. There was something faintly pathetic about the idea of this immortal demon searching for nothing more than a quiet place to lay its head and get some rest.

'Do you think he's still around some place?'

Hannes looked past me for a moment, gazing out at the silent veldt.

'I heard he was in Klipplaat. Or maybe Willowmore. We hasn't come back here again.'

On the westernmost horizon a waxing crescent moon hovered above the dusty flatlands like a pair of huge crimson horns while above us the Milky Way shone with shocking clarity as if its stars were bright diamonds spread against the black velvet viewing board of the night.

'You scared him off, huh?'

'It wasn't me. It was the power of the Lord.'

'If you say so.' Reaching for my tobacco pouch I started back towards the dirt road where we had left the car. Beneath that scintillating cosmic panorama the tiny town of Steytlerville looked very small indeed, and not a little vulnerable.

After Hannes's stand off with the demon the police had vigorously searched the surrounding area. While no trace of the elusive 'Bawokazi' could be found Warrant Officer Zandisile Nelani had decided not to take any chances and officially opened a file on the sightings, urging residents who saw the beast to try and get some photographs next time. Thus far no snapshots or any other material evidence to support the 'Steytlerville Monster's physical existence have been forthcoming, suggesting that the answer to what really took place here might be found buried deep within the community's unconscious, in the socio-political tensions that haunted the new South Africa rather than within the realms of cryptozoology. Yet how many identical files lie gathering dust in the charge offices of small towns like this one spread out across the Great Karoo, Namaqua land and Southern Namibia? A great many, I suspect – their details oftimes curiously familiar, the paper trail of the dust devil, the undying shape shifter who will continue to walk these roads until the stars grow dim and the sun grows cold

To be continued....