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James Whyle

James Whyle

Whyle is a South African writer with considerable experience in
acting and writing for the stage and screen. Among his screen credits as
an actor are the films Sarafina and Place of Weeping. He writes radio
plays for the BBC and is a member of the South African Screen Writers
Union. He is married with three children, and sometimes introduces himself
as a writer who earns his living in Johannesburg, inscribing runes on an
electric stone.

And the Dead Watch Over Us is a extract from James Kyle's eagerly awaited Memoirs.

 And the Dead Watch Over Us

In 1981, when I was running away from the army in Swaziland, I came across Nelson Mandela's book, No Easy Walk to Freedom. It was a time when I had difficulty with any literature except pornography and Doris Lessing. All the devils of the military were on my tail and I struggled to concentrate. But I read some of Mandela's speech from the dock and finally realized why he was in jail and why his writings were banned. It came as a shock because it was so simple. So down-home, common sense simple. The lies about why he was in jail were convoluted and gothic and worked on. And I grew up on a gruel of those lies. Fed and fattened we were on the lies about why Nelson Mandela was in jail.

Steve Biko was my first black hero and I only found out who he was after he was murdered by the police. The front page of the Daily Dispatch had a headline and picture of the man. Nothing else. That took up the whole front page. And I had no idea who he was. I had to ask my sociologist friends in the bar.

This is because I spent a happy, privileged youth getting an education in interesting and sometimes useless subjects. Or if not actually useless, hardly relevant. I can still remember a snippet of Virgil. But of Nelson Mandela's first language, Xhosa, all I remember is: Umnqundwakho njanihashi. (Your arse resembles that of a horse.) I grew up speaking Xhosa but when I went away to boarding school in Grahamstown they replaced it with Latin. IsiXhosa was not in the syllabus.

Nelson Mandela was never spoken about at home. Ian Smith, prime minister of Rhodesia, he was an issue. "A bloody fool," was my mother's comment. Kennedy's assassination, the shooting of Verwoed, the first man on the moon, Harold Wilson; these, “grown ups” spoke about. Nelson Mandela, no.

The fact is, the evil laws worked. People disappeared out of history like the politician who is airbrushed out of the photograph in the beginning of Milan Kundera's Book of Laughter and Forgetting. They sat incarcerated on Robben Island and luxury yachts wheeled around them. If you were rich and liberal you could buy Nelson Mandela's book overseas, smuggle it back, and read his banned words as you wheeled around Robin Island on a yacht. You could look up from the book and reach for a Stuyvesant and survey the beautiful view of Table Mountain while you meditated on the meaning of Mandela's words. But for most white South Africans, Nelson Mandela just disappeared out of history.

In spite of these successful suppressions, by the time I was ready to drop out of university something had become clear to me. "The evil racist regime" was in fact just that. It was the inverted commas that were lying. Much of my last year at university was spent worrying about whether I should go to the army or leave the country. Eventually I chickened out. I told myself I was giving up all pretensions to morality and reported for duty in Johannesburg. On July the 4th 1979, I boarded a train and travelled out to a place called Burke's Luck in the Eastern Transvaal.

It was horrible. No 71518757 Rifleman J Whyle would lie in the bungalow reading Michael Herr's Dispatches and wondering what was happening to him. Burke's Luck was far from headquarters in Pretoria and the rank did what the hell they wanted. The perversion of Christianity was awesome. The corporals were brainwashed baboons regurgitating evil and misunderstood philosophies. They'd sit you down in the veld and tell you in all solemnity that the purpose of the R4 Rifle was to kill the enemy. They tell you that you had no rights, only privileges. They'd tell you that the enemy were black evil communist monsters coming to steal your birthright and rape your mother and sister.

To add to my problems Christian National Education had produced a poor crop, brain wise. It took my peers weeks to learn to assemble in a straight line. Every time we did it wrong we had to run up a mountain. Our helmets bounced on our heads like a private rhythm section. Once, someone collapsed with a burst appendix. We carried him up the mountain. When we got back he wouldn't stand up straight. So we bounced that burst appendix to the mountain top once more. Sometimes people died. I think there was a stage when the army killed more people in training than the actual war did.

After six weeks, we were interviewed by a major who would decide what to do with us. He asked my qualifications and I lied, telling him I had a degree, but adding truthfully that I didn't like the army because it protected Apartheid rather than South Africa. My lie gave him the excuse to rid himself of a potential trouble causer and he sent me to the Engineers in Kroonstad. The future President of South Africa was not mentioned. No talk of Nelson Mandela.

I finished the rest of my basic training as Sapper J Whyle of the Young Officers Squadron of the Engineers School. The squadron was made up of graduate engineers. People who could swiftly arrange themselves in a straight line. I started to relax into the pain. If I was going to spend two years fighting a bad war I might as well do it as an officer. Lieutenant James Whyle had a certain ring to. My father fought in the trenches in the First World War as Lieutenant James Whyle. Lieutenant James Whyle went over the top in France and took a bullet in the lung and lived to tell the tale. These romantic justifications were interrupted when Corporal van der Spuit shot Chris Mandel.

Chris Mandel was a bright, young, decent, left-leaning engineer who was about to get married. He slept opposite me in the bungalow. We brewed coffee together. He was a nice guy.

Van der Spuit took it on himself to shoot at us in the safety area of a bush lane shooting exercise. Under army regulations, you were not allowed to have a magazine in your rifle in a safety area. Van der Spuit, who was in control of our lives down to the fine details of how we folded our underpants, started shooting at us because we were tired and falling asleep and because some baboon had shot at him when he was in basic training. He started with plastic rounds. We didn't react. We were tired and somehow that bang and the puff of dust in the bank next to us was hard to tie together with imminent death. So van der Spuit slotted in a live magazine.

That evening a priest came and spoke to us about the death.
"Look on the bright side," he said.


When the major interviewed us at the end of basic training I told him I rather not continue with Officer’s Training Course. I said I was unmoved by the thought of a State President’s commission. They sent me into the base camp to get rid of me. No one mentioned Nelson Mandela, but I was starting to get the measure of the beast. I did not know I was to be Greekly present at the conception of its offspring.

The base camp was full of recalcitrants and misfits, most of them violent. I ended up as a clerk in the visual aids store, cataloguing ancient films on road building and Bailey Bridges. One of the functions of the visual aids store was military shows. We loaded up a Bedford with Mines and a water purification system and put on displays at agricultural shows in small Freestate towns. The Staff Sergeant was artistic and decorated the bombs with tinsel and roses. We would explain to old grannies how a certain mine was activated by a trip wire. It then leaped into the air and killed everyone within fifty yards.
"Oulik," the grannies would inevitably respond, "oulik." The word is Afrikaans. It means "cute."

One of our team was Sapper Willie Eriksson. Eriksson liked breaking things and fucking things. He'd fuck anything. A pile of pipes, a sandbag, anything. One night at the Bloemfontein show grounds he got drunk and disappeared. Eventually our tall, worried, ginger Lieutenant got up the courage to report the disappearance to the military police. It was then that we discovered that the beast had been procreating.

The beast was busy in those times. Still is, I suppose. It was the beast at work when Harris said to Sammy Dickson:
"That's my beer."
"No, it's not."
"That's my fucking beer."
"No, it isn't."
Harris slapped Sammy hard through the face."
"Why don't you hit me."
"No, I don't want to." Another slap.
"Hit me, you fucking woman."
"I'll kick your cunt in you fucking woman."
"Hit me, you fucking woman."
And so on.

Sammy ended up getting his teeth kicked out of his head. He sat on the floor of the bungalow saying "no, no," and his teeth bounced on the lino. I sat, English, on my bed, watching.

Middle class, fence sitting, English, I had sat and watched this evil grow for twenty-four years. It was enough. Not long afterwards, instead of returning from my yearly seven-day leave, I travelled to Swaziland and bought Nelson Mandela's book, No Easy Walk to Freedom.


All this happened a long time ago, and different people are governing South Africa now. I’m not young and stupid anymore. I’m old and stupid. An old fart, smelling, as Kurt Vonnegut said of himself at the beginning of Slaughter House 5, of mustard gas and roses. An old fart searching for a way to tell the story of his experiences in a war and a revolution. The story of how we got here. I know that you will need to be a visionary reader, because I cannot offer you a plot, or a recognizable genre, or a clear antagonist, or any of the techniques of manipulation that I have learnt in ten years of making my living as a writer. I offer you only a story.

So be visionary, reader, and have mercy on me. I want to tell you a whole truth, so I have allowed myself into places where no factual reporter can go. Places like my mother’s head as she was dying in the Frere Hospital in East London. Places like the grim room in Port Elizabeth where Steven Bantu Biko was battered into a coma before the long naked drive to Pretoria in the back of the Land Rover. Places like the minds of two dead men on a mountain above a green valley.

I have sought the truth assiduously in these places, and in others to which no biographer has access. I offer you not, “non-fiction” or “autobiography,” but something hopefully truer. I have ventured into the realm of alchemists and shamans. I have gone into my dreams and my past and excavated a “me” that I no longer am. A young me. Him. I have burnt the herb, Mpephu, and invoked the dead, and listened to their stories. So come with me, and let us start at the beginning, at the entrance to the womb.


On the farm called Highlands which lies between the Amatole Mountains and Rharhabe’s Kop, my first friends were the Xhosa children whose parents worked for mine. I owned the bicycle and the toys and my parents owned the land. In a field behind the chicken shack we wrestled a screaming girl down onto her back and forced her legs open. She wore no undergarment. We were silenced by a gash of coral in the dark chocolate of her groin. We knelt there, awed. What had begun as youthful male violence, ended in a posture close to worship.

South Africa is the southernmost portion of that luminous continent whose forehead rests in the Mediterranean and whose toes dangle in the ten meter swells of the Southern Ocean. The nation was shaped by two human currents. The first, the Bantu, "the people" washed across central Africa and down the gracious curve of her eastern flank. The second, the creaking, wind driven, God-lashed Europeans, lurched down her western coast in competition for eastern spice. These two great streams combined in mutual bewilderment in the Amatole Mountains.

Amatole is a Xhosa word meaning, “the calves”. The Xhosa are a cattle loving nation and the name is a measure of their affection for the range which sheltered their herds before the English expelled them and drove them north across the Kei River. The Xhosa did not give up their mountains without a struggle. No man born and bred in those mountains would give them up without struggle. You can lie down on the green slopes of the Amatole and hear the earth singing. You can lie down there and listen to the conversations of the dead, the conversations between my father and the Xhosa Chieftain, Rharhabe.


In 1954, my mother, Dorothy Douglas, born Viedge, was living at Shandon, twenty-four hilly acres facing the forested slopes of the Amatole at the point where they begin to dissolve into the eastern grasslands and then into the electric hills of EmaXhoseni, the place where the Xhosas are. Dorothy bought the property after the death of her first husband. She lived there with her mother, Beaujolais, and her son, Robert. On the farm next door were her sister, Kathleen, and Kathleen’s husband, Harry Pickering. Harry was a breeder of pedigree Jersey cattle. My father, James Whyle, a man with a bullet scar in his back, arrived to stay with Harry. He was keen to buy a bull.

The purchase was to set in motion the final act of his life. He had been married twice. Four children resulted from the first union. The second, with a lithe sophisticate from Johannesburg, lasted only months. My father was not a man who found it easy to live without a woman. The fact that the property next to Harry’s was owned and occupied by an attractive widow of independent means added zest to the purchase. While he considered the fecundity of the bull, my father took the opportunity to prove his own.

Some months later my mother told him that she was pregnant. He remained silent for a minute. When he spoke, it was with great tenderness.
“We will have a son,” he said, “and we will call him James”.

And so, in the course of time, our protagonist was born. The certificate of birth lists his name as James Whyle. His father’s age is given as fifty-nine, his mother’s as forty-two. His birthdate is October the 5th, 1955.



James Whyle fell into consciousness in a house of leaves. Trees grew around him. The sun shone. The valley between the Amatole and Rharhabe’s Kop was green and steep. Butterflies and clouds danced across it. Butterflies and clouds sailed a blue sky. Sheep and cows grazed on sweet pastures. At night the generator throbbed like the heart beat of God. At nine pm, with the last light, it turned off and the mountains were silent and the stars shone a little brighter.

At the age of three, James Whyle found himself in a battered Ford truck, bouncing along the dirt road towards Hamburg. His father’s son, Robin, was driving. James was puzzled. The words that Robin was using, the words Dorothy had used before she left, skipped across consciousness like stones across the water of the dam. They danced across the surface, shattering the upside-down mountains. The mountains, like James Senior, died. A butterfly veered over the water. The mountains reformed, lived.

Afterwards he sensed an absence. A force was missing. A part of the world, of his mother, had gone dark. There was a hole, father shaped, in all that there was. But there was still electricity in the blue dimensions of the sky. And look, Abel’s father was taking the kittens to be drowned in the dam.

Dorothy didn’t think it was a good idea that he went along.
“James,” she called, “The day old-chicks have arrived.”
She decanted the fledglings into a tin tent in the loft above the generator. They formed a shifting yellow pool. Into which he stared. Examination revealed a shadow. One fluffy bundle occupied a position that shifted in space but was absolute and fixed in fowl society: the bottom of the pecking order. This chick was weak and covered in sores. It was dirty, punished and conspired against. It needed help. He lifted it out and carried it down the wooden steps to the tap by the kitchen door. He turned the tap on and held it beneath the cold gush. It chirped weakly, it’s beak gaping.

“James! What are you doing?”
Dorothy stood in the kitchen doorway, astonished.
“I’m cleaning it. It’s dirty.”
“ You’ll kill it. That water is much too cold. It’s meant to stay warm.”
“But it’s all dirty. It’s sore. I want to clean it.”
She snatched it away, too late.

Like the kittens, it had to be drowned. He knew he was to blame. He stood there, four years old, ignorant and shamed. A South African, a settler, an Englishman. Guilt was his theme, inherited with the money. Guilt and sex and death.


Scrawny as a stick insect, snot nosed and grubby, he explored riven Eden. Abel, his first friend, took him past the vegetable garden, past the rondavels (dead snakes afloat in jars, fragile balsawood aeroplanes), over the cattle grid and up the valley towards the huts which nestled under the northern slopes of Rharhabe’s kop.

The huts, circles of mud and sapling, huddled in a circle encircled in turn by a culture which knew no straight line. Their walls in the sun were warm and comforting as the bodies of strong brown women. Each owned two shuttered windows, too small to pass a plate through, and a stable door. Each sheltered beneath a Huck Finn fringe of thatch.

The AmaXhosa welcomed their guest graciously. They ushered him into the pungent, circular, smoky gloom. Greeting were exchanged.
“I see you. How are you?”
“I see you. I am well. How are you?”
“I am well.”
Squatting on the cow dung floor, he shared the sacrament, taking his food by hand from the communal pot. The fire flickered. Shadows danced on cow dung coated walls. Their sweet, fecund smell was cut by the tang of smoke. They ate in silence, savouring the food.

It was a second world. In the first, he had to eat carefully over his plate with knife and fork. Here you did not mar the pot with your leavings. He chewed soft, salty intestine with dry maize porridge and Morogo, wild spinach.


Our protagonist’s small adventures among the AmaXhosa amused his mother, and she related them to her siblings. The Viedge sisters had been bonded by their childhoods in the big house at Viedgesville, deep in EmaXhoseni, near Qunu, where Nelson Mandela learnt the arts of democracy and negotiation in the royal household of the Thembu people. Princesses of a conquering power, the girls had no peers and few friends. They married Englishmen moving up in the world, and based them in the Eastern Cape so that Viedge siblings could visit with them ease.

Joan, the youngest and most beautiful, married a handsome London Jew, Nico Konyn. It was a marriage achieved against the wind. Nico was disinherited for marrying a shiksa. Joan, although not disinherited, came close. The fruit of the marriage was Virginia and Victoria and Simon. Simon was James’ first white friend.

The Konyn and Whyle families spent Christmases together and the boys always got identical presents. One year they were battery driven cars. A cigarette inserted into a specially designed compartment caused their engines to smoke impressively. On another, their parcels revealed air powered rifles that shot wine corks.

Abel heard news of the visitors and he and the other Xhosa children gathered outside the kitchen to greet their new friend. Simon and James burst into the garden, guns at the hip, firing cork. The children screamed, ran. The boys followed for a few hundred yards before re-joining their parent’s tea in the sitting room. When they entered, the adults quickly changed the subject.

They had been discussing events in the Transvaal. On the 21st of March 1960, a crowd of approximately six thousand angry people had gathered at the Sharpeville police station. Organized by the Pan African Congress, they were protesting against being forced to carry special ID documents or Pass Books. According to Police Commander D H Pienaar, “it started with hordes of natives surrounding the police station.”
The police rank and file, young European boys, panicked and opened fire. Sixty-nine people, including eight women and ten children, died of gunshot wounds.


Kill the farmer, kill the Boer.

Slogan of the South African revolution.

When our protagonist was five, Dorothy sat him down in the dining room at Highlands with a box of letters. She held the mysterious signs before his face and urged him to make the sounds.
“Ay,” she said, “ay!
Outside the French windows were the garden and the hills and the mist. Abel was racing his wire car up the road to the shearing shed. Perhaps he could be persuaded to swap for time on the bicycle. James moaned and whined until Dorothy lost her temper and kicked him out into the morning and the fragrant pines.

Dorothy knew it was time to move from beneath the shelter of Rharhabe’s Kop. Home education was not going to work. And the boy still wet his bed. How could she send him away to be a weekly boarder in Hamburg? Her stepson, Robin, and his beautiful wife Sally, already had two children of their own. They were eager to move out of the small corrugated iron house near the milking shed and into the handsome double storey English home that Dorothy’s dead husband had built at the top of the valley. It was time for her to travel down into the thornveld and along the mountains to Shandon. From there the government school was only five minutes drive away in the village of Stutterheim.

To ease the pain of the move, which was for her the authentication of a return to widowhood, Dorothy planned a new garden. Taking the long view, she envisaged a grove of Sequoias, the North American giant redwood. The plants would not emerge out of their adolescence before two hundred-years were out and she and all her Jameses were dead.

Dorothy ploughed the sloping hill in front of the house to get rid of the Kikuyu grass. The trees that she had planted before her marriage to James’ father were coming into maturity. There were pin oaks, poplars, birches, pines and a large flowering pear that strode out white like a bride every spring. Around these leafy sentinels she dug curving borders. Therein she placed Himalayan greenery which she had grown from seed: azaleas, rhododendrons, camellias, hydrangeas and lilies.

For James the garden at Shandon was a nirvana of cops and robbers and cowboys and Indians and missing birds with a pellet gun. He built Spitfires from plastic kits and Britfix glue and used them to hunt the flying ants which swarmed in their thousands after the summer rain. He owned the mountains and the forest and a dog. A green fuse juiced the world around him.

James and Dorothy were alone at Shandon except when Robert was home from boarding school or the Air Force or university. But they were not alone on the property. Down across the stream and over the first hill was the ikhaya of the AmaXhosa. Twenty-seven people lived in a circle of five huts. Just past the huts was another stream, heralded by a pungent aroma of human shit. It was all the ikhaya owned of water or sewerage or bathroom or latrine.

Dorothy employed eight people. Besides the women who worked in the house, there were two male gardeners and three women who weeded and scythed. For this they earned thirty cents a day. John was the senior gardener. He was an Igqira, a healer or herbalist, a witchdoctor. He tended the vegetable garden, growing, between the broccoli and asparagus, his own magical greens. Jigile, his son, an instinctive mechanical engineer who would never get an education to match his bent, was in charge of the garden and the mower.

Jigile was a man of charm and patience. He could always be prevailed upon to stop his mowing or pruning or mulching and kick a rugby ball. When a tree full of angry birds signalled the presence of a snake, Europeans called for guns. They yelled and swung golf clubs extravagantly round their heads. Jigile took his stick, tapped the snake on the head, and deposited the long, slack corpse in the rubbish pit.

Jigile had no surname. He was a “garden boy”. The women who worked in the house were “kitchen girls.” When Dorothy gave the AmaXhosa lifts into town they always sat in the back seat. James resented the smells of smoke and sweat they brought with them into the car.

Once a man was chased up the hill and across the lawn. James, frightened, warned his mother. Howling, panting, the pursued man took refuge in the kitchen. Blows from knobbed sticks had removed patches of hair and scalp. Blood dripped onto the lino. Dorothy ordered the pursuers home.
“Go to your khaya!”
Owning a Xhosa respect for authority, they retreated without dissent. She drove the wounded man in to hospital for stitching. She paid the bill.


In the west, above Highlands, two dead men stood on the summit of Rharhabe’s Kop, looking down on the valley and the Amatole. It would be difficult to say which of them loved that vista more.
“She paid the bill.”
Rharhabe was thoughtful as he repeated the words. His hand absently massaged the bowl of his pipe. Shadows chased each other across the slopes. Light haloed the edges of his leopard skin cloak. He turned to my father.
“I will start,” he said, “with a murder.”
James Senior nodded. He stood, respectful and at ease, in khaki bush jacket, shorts, and white spats worn over polished, brown boots. His belt was made of lion skin.
“Like the living, we have debts to pay.”
“I understand,” said James Senior.
“Well then,” said Rharhabe. And he began his story.

“Hintsa was the son of Khawuta, who was the son of my brother Gcaleka. He was the great grandson of Phalo, the founder of the AmaXhosa nation. Like Phalo he was, in his time, king of all the AmaXhosa.”
The Chieftain paused.
“Hintsa’s time, unfortunately for him, was also a time when your people, the English, were busy acquiring land in EmaXhoseni.”
James Senior, silent, expressionless, nodded.

“One might call it,” said Rharhabe, dry, “the time when the land ran out. The British invited Hintsa to come to their camp to discuss certain matters pertaining to the Mfengu, who were escapees from violence in the north. The Mfengu had come begging for shelter beneath the eaves of Xhosa huts. They had been given food and work, although some claimed that to reach that food, their hands had to pass through the fire. These malcontents, with encouragement from the English missionaries, took up arms against their hosts.

“Hintsa, as head of state, went to meet the British representatives, Sir Benjamin D’Urban and his dog, Sir Harry Smith. The King wished to explain that he could not stop bloodshed between Mfengu and Xhosa while the British allowed the Mfengu to shelter stolen Xhosa cattle. D’Urban, urbane, guaranteed the Kind’s safety for the meeting. In secret, Harry Smith revealed D’Urban’s real intentions to his soldiers.

For many years, when the Xhosa had difficulties with the English, they had lured their soldiers into the dense bush of the hills which embrace the Fish River. D’Urban's plan was to give this territory to the Mfengu, creating a buffer between the Xhosa and the British settlers. Until that time, the Fish River bush had offered us best vantage point from which to insert a Xhosa spear into an English liver.”

Rharhabe chuckled, delighted with the virility of this image. He paused and observed his European guest. James Senior’s face remained expressionless.

“Fighting between Mfengu and Xhosa, as Hintsa had predicted, escalated. The English, dropping all pretence of hospitality, threatened the king with hanging. Hintsa sent secret messages to his senior chieftains, telling them he had been betrayed and was a prisoner. When the English column moved on, he tried to escape.

“The King was pulled from his horse and shot through the back and leg. He scrambled down a riverbank and collapsed into the water. Royal blood flowed towards the sea. An English scout, George Southey, firing from only feet away, blasted off the top of his head. The matter of his brain spilled forth. His skull filled with water. His body was dragged up the bank. English soldiers cut off his ears. Others used bayonets to dig out his teeth. They were eager for mementos of their time in Africa. Thus ended Hintsa, the son of Khawuta, who was the son of Gcaleka, who was the son of Phalo, the founder of the Xhosa nation.”

The chief lifted his pipe to his mouth and sucked tentatively. The coal had long since died. After a time, he spat with great deliberation onto the grass. Far below, the shadows danced across the foothills of the Amatole.

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