When the soldiers go marching in

Alan Weyer’s telling stories in the City of Saints, writes Chris Harvie.

We passed the Big Pineapple but we didn’t linger. I made a note that it was 16.7m high, and therefore 0.7m taller than its paltry Australian equivalent, and we moved on in search of a pub. At the Bathurst Arms, I scribbled that, where the lawn should have been, they were apparently watering the tables in the hope that they might grow and seat more clients. I wrote about the people’s dry, spindly legs and a dry, spindly garden.

I noted that there were dream catchers hanging from the trees and raddled, tanned hippies hanging in hammocks. I think the thick, blue haze hanging on the air had begun to seep into my lungs and affect my balance. The fairy lights began to twinkle in the daylight.

But that was lunchtime. From our early afternoon arrival in Grahamstown onwards, I was so enthralled that I took no more notes. The mist cleared. The mind focused. This was Settler Country. And we were here to learn.

Fearsome Xhosa chieftains, ancient Khoi-Khoi customs, baffled British officers, priests, prophets, colonials and Boet (or was it Swaer? I had never seen a show by comedy duo Boet ‘n Swaer, so I didn’t know which one Alan Weyer was, which may have helped).

Whoever he is on the TV and in the stage shows, he is the opposite at home in the Eastern Cape, tying up the mystical and mythical threads that run deep in the region and bind all South Africans in this most inclusive and intriguing part of our shared history.

It is 1819. The Battle of Grahamstown. A crucial engagement between British forces and the amaXhosa, whose legendary leader Makana regarded by many as the founder of Black Consciousness ¬†employs the ‘horns of the buffalo’ formation to surround the British and colonial forces, a full 60 years before it was used by the amaZulu to such devastating effect at the Battle of Isandlwana. The British squeezed a win at Grahamstown, but not an easy one. The Xhosa casualties were horrific.

Compelling yet impartial, Weyer’s voice rises and falls with the fortunes of both sides.

Around him in deck chairs, armed only with mineral water, perch 15 engrossed souls. He has given us a history of our land going back thousands of years further than our school education and now we begin to see ourselves for what we are: a remarkable people born of a tempestuous history. Whoever says history is in the past hasn’t heard Alan Weyer.

We stand and look out over one of the country’s most iconic cities, oblivious to the wind that’s howling on the mountaintops and the distant smouldering veld fires.

Instead we can all but hear the rattle of the guns and the shouts of the dying and injured.

A year after that battle and as a result of lessons learned here, the 1820 Settlers arrived in their droves to bolster the numbers. It was not going to be possible for the British to keep the amaXhosa at bay forever.

Weyer concludes: “The ongoing convergence of different cultures, African and European, centred on the Fish River, defined today’s South Africa. The Battle of Grahamstown may not have been the biggest or the bloodiest of clashes but it was probably the most pivotal. Had Makana succeeded he might just have changed the course of history completely.”

A little later, after a revitalising guzzle in a bathroom the size of my house, I lay back in an armchair in the elegant sitting-room-cum-library at Grahamstown’s No 7 Worcester Street Guest House, from which Weyer frequently operates. A glass of wine washed away the Zuurveld dust while he made historical links with our current political situation, for the benefit of the newly-converted.

The dinner menu circulated with a promise of fine steak, mashed potatoes and delicious- sounding sauces but we were all rooted to the cushions. Here in the City of Saints we were celebrating our country, listening to the spirits of the past and drinking to the spirit of the future.

We didn’t need a dream catcher to capture that vision; we had Boet (or was it Swaer?) to do it for us.

He was once a pineapple farmer but his pineapples never grew to 16.7m. In fact, they didn’t really grow to his liking at all, so he started telling stories instead.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

If you go…

Tour rates: The half day Spirits of the Past tour is R895. The full day, which includes lunch in Bathurst, is R1250.

Accommodation: No 7 Worcester St, Grahamstown. R895 per person sharing, bed and breakfast (packages also available). Tour contacts: Phone 046-622-7896; e-mailinfo@spiritsofthepast.co.za or visit www.spiritsofthepast.co.za. Guesthouse contacts: Phone 046-622-2843; e-mail info@worcesterstreet.co.za or visit www.worcesterstreet.co.za.