RECENTLY I was on a farm in the Swartland for the annual slaughtering of an ox.
The yard bustled with workers, children, grandchildren and, at a disciplined distance, the sheepdogs. It was winter vacation and the schoolchildren didn't want to miss it. This time there were no infants, but even they are usually placed on a blanket in the yard. The rest of the farm was quiet.
A week after my trip to the countryside, Julius Malema “treated" the country to his version of cattle-slaughtering. The crime reporter Julian Jansen, who can create a horror story from a few streaks of blood, wrote in Rapport: “Nee, Julius, mens slag mos nie só nie’’.
Nine short paragraphs after this sober headline, you felt like throwing up. Neither the report nor the photo were suitable for children. Or any human being with a heart or the slightest understanding of animals.
If Malema is considering a change in profession, he should avoid slaughterhouses, Onderstepoort and all animal welfare organisations. Even pet shops and aquariums.
Not the place for Chelsea boots
When the Swartlanders invited me to cattle slaughter day, they asked me to bring working boots.
Working boots? What are they?
Man, not your Chelsea boots.
When the time came, I copped out for day one when the ox was slaughtered. But I received video clips. One moment the ox was grazing in the camp near the truck shed, the next it was on its knees. One shot. One shooter. Without the seemingly medieval torture apparatus in which Malema clamped the EFF victim.
On the farm, the tollie (a young castrated ox) hung upside down to bleed out. It didn't weigh 580 kg any more because the majestic head was missing by now. I – but not my imagination – was spared this. The large moist eyes on either side of the head were still looking, the eyelashes “ironed" and darkly mascaraed.
During the morning, a man pushed his arms past his elbows into the ox's stomach, the big one. On the video it appeared as if a pile of freshly eaten grass fell at his feet. The whole farm assisted in scrubbing the offal. When it was sparkling clean, it was cooked right there in the yard in an enormous pot.
When I arrive, the meat saw's blade is screeching through the carcass in the meat kitchen. One step down and you are standing inside a cement reservoir, Die Gat, now a cold, dark storage area. The meat kitchen's floor area is comparable to that of a bachelor flat with a view of the Atlantic Ocean. There are more than a handful of workers, every one of them a block man in his own right.
Every now and then one of them slips out of the work row, sharpens his knife and returns to the table. If you squint, the ox now looks like a well-filled, watermelon-red down blanket.
Inspiration for Aram Khachaturian
The body language of the meat workers is intimate, familiar. For a moment Aram Khachaturian stands in the opening to Die Gat, thinking, “Here I might write a sabre dance for slaughtering day in the Swartland. It can work. These guys are no weaklings."
But there is no time for imaginary games with deceased Russian composers. I need to become handy and use my writing skills in the kitchen. The cuts are slipped into plastic bags, each with a handwritten label. You use your teeth to tear the wide adhesive tape that seals the packets.
Things happen fast. Not the smallest blowfly can be allowed to get an inkling of what is happening.
In the dining room next door, a vacuum packer occupies the table. When it is done with the packets, they almost look like meat you would buy in a shop. The journey from the animal to here triggers an appreciation, perhaps a respect, that I cannot yet articulate.
In the meantime, the farmer scorches coriander and other spices. On a counter next to him lies a yellowed piece of paper. In fine writing at the top, one reads about the coriander roaster's grandmother's biltong, then about the sausage and brawn.
On another plate, the enormous pot in which the ground offal turns into brawn is simmering. As morning turns to afternoon, it becomes thick and gluey. The person who is stirring has to drink his tea standing up. Tea break? No ways.
A father’s delight
In my childhood days, Mother would cook offal for my father on his birthday in the spring, and make brawn. With three level teaspoons of Cartwrights curry powder. The non-burning one.
My father, who was born not 10 windmills from here 126 years ago, loved that more than anything. Mother herself did not eat offal. And her one requirement was that the belly and paws be brought to her clean and odourless.
She would place the thinnest sliver of brawn on an Alfred Meakin side plate and turn it over with a cake fork. It looked fine. She didn't put it in her mouth immediately. Attentiveness, gratitude or aversion? Who knows? The ways of a good wife and a complex husband are not to be discussed.
This I remember.
As I will probably also remember the spongy, black snout of the ox, precisely and accurately cut in half. A woman's hand presses the dark flesh firmly into the meat grinder's spout. The spiral blade makes it disappear.
But not before the nostrils look at me intently like eyes. I turn the wooden handle with both hands. It's a heavy task for someone who is used to working on a computer.
♦ VWB ♦
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