January has stamped itself firmly in the psyche of our lives. We have stopped scratching out or deleting the “3” every time we have had to write the year, and it has become less and less necessary to wish everyone we meet “Compliments of the season”.
The festivities of last month are now a dim memory. The festive season in the southern hemisphere is very different to that in the north. For one thing it is the height of summer. As Jingle Bells and the Little Drummer Boy ring out from every store, radio and TV station we are sweating up a storm inside stuffy malls decked with holly and faux snow! Poor Santa sits in his winter red, his ruddy cheeks rosy as the sweat trickles down his face.
It’s all a little bizarre as the majority of the population have zero link with the northern hemisphere and few will actually decorate a tree and place presents under it or have a taste for turkey.
The bulk of the populace, however, do view this period as the country’s major holiday season. Our summer break stretches from around the 16th December to about the same time in January when the schools open. People use this time to go away on holiday, if they have the means, or go home, to neighbouring provinces or countries. It is a mass exodus out of Johannesburg that leaves it feeling like a quiet Sunday, every day.
Quiet time in the city of gold
We rarely go away over this time, preferring to enjoy the quieter streets and lovely weather. Joburg, shunned by tourists and fellow citizens alike, has the best weather in the country, if not the world. The City of Gold is named as such not only for its mines but also because of its wonderful sunshine. We are lucky to have a beautiful home with a beautiful garden and a sparkling pool so we have no desire to jostle for space on hot beaches.
This year, however, we didn’t have much of a break as we chose through necessity to continue with work. It was mainly video recording that we needed to do while the building site next door was vacated and we were guaranteed no jack hammering, drilling, rubble moving or the general loud volume of voices keeping themselves amused as they toiled.
It wasn’t all work and no play. We found time to finish several jigsaw puzzles (Matthew), read several novels (Chantal) and catch up with many friends who had the time and flexibility to meet for lunch or early suppers.
A lovely place to hang out for the festive season.
A mix up at a catch up
It was for one such catch up that we arrived at an eclectic restaurant called Emzini to meet a couple for an early supper. The restaurant, in a converted house, was busy with end of year celebration groups. The wide verandah bobbed with friendly umbrellas that screened patrons from the afternoon sun.
While Matthew manoeuvred the car into a space on the side of the road, Chantal jumped out and waited on the sidewalk. She watched as the one half of the couple they were meeting got out of a taxi, and strode across to the restaurant entrance.
That’s odd, she thought, why is he here on his own? And why in a taxi when they literally live down the road from the venue? The story she made up was that he must have come from a client and was meeting his wife who had driven here.
As we entered the restaurant, Matthew walked ahead extending his hand in greeting to Nic.
Nic shook his head, “No I’m Chris,” he said smiling the same smile as Nic, “I’m his twin brother.
Identical twin brother, mind you. We knew of Chris but had never met him. It was the oddest thing looking at Nic who wasn’t Nic. The same hair, the same eyes, the same nose, the same beard, the same voice even. The only tiny difference, on looking very closely, was the teeth.
We laughed and sat down as the real Nic, with wife Michaela arrived. They chuckled - this happens all the time for the twins. The conversation, always lively and eternally interesting, swayed from talking about why we were all in town instead of away to favourite travel destinations and road trips.
The summer skies are something to behold and a privilege to experience.
A past fascination
We all share a fascination with history, in particular our own country's very short, very controversial and cruel one. We are aware of how present perspectives can dismiss the more messy and unsavoury, but not unimportant, elements of a past. In the process this can cloud a deeper, more compassionate, understanding of the unfurling of our history.
A few years back a road trip had taken us to Bloemfontein where we visited the Anglo-Boer War Museum.
“The English have a lot to atone for,” remarked Matthew, “what they did during and after the Anglo Boer War, or the South African War, as it is now called, was atrocious and they have never been held accountable.”
During the second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), the English struggled to defeat the Boers, who had adopted guerrilla warfare tactics. In a last ditch strategy aimed to demoralise and destabilise, the English invaded the Boer farms, rounded up the women and children and sent them to concentration camps. They then employed what was known as the “scorched earth policy” and burnt the homes and crops to the ground.
“It is no wonder the National Party came into power,” said Chantal, “It is no wonder they became so protectionist. They were having nobody else taking from them again.”
Chris then told us this story:
Both the one cent coin and the half cent coin were minted with the sparrows.
A tale of two sparrows
The conditions in the concentration camps were devastatingly harsh. The lack of food, little water, no sanitation, scorching dry summers and freezing winters resulted in rampant disease that led to the loss of thousands of lives. The women, at the Bethulie concentration camp, situated in the south of the Orange Free State, were devout Christians who sought solace in the Bible. Of particular inspiration was the verse from Matthew 10: 29-31:
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.
This bible verse assures that all who suffer loss in following Jesus will receive back far more than they lose – both now and in the future. Inspired by this reading, the women vowed that if South Africa ever minted its own coins, they would strive to have the emblem of the lowly sparrow, embossed on the coin of the lowest value.
After the war, Mrs. Marais, an influential figure from the Bethulie concentration camp, requested the assistance of Mrs. Steyn, the wife of President Marthinus Theunis Steyn of the Boer Republic of the Orange Free State in fulfilling their vow. She asked that the emblem of the sparrow be used on South Africa's lowest denomination coin. Mrs. Steyn embraced this cause, and with the help of General Jan Smuts, the Premier of South Africa, the quarter penny was minted in 1923, featuring the emblem of two sparrows. This unique design made South Africa the only country known to symbolise a Bible verse on its coinage.
The significance of the sparrows continued in South African currency as the country transitioned to the decimal system. The little birds were minted on the half cent and later the one cent coin. They remained in circulation until, first the half cent dropped away in the 1970’s and the one cent coin was discontinued in 2001.
A synchronistic gift that made the story all the more real. A 1976 long proof set without its gold coins.
A gift with a story
We are old enough to have held a one cent coin in our hands, rubbing the little birds absentmindedly, and discarding the meagre amount in a pile with our keys on the table at the door. The coins we keep now are of a much higher value. The R2 and R5 coins are quickly used up as tips or to get out of parking lots. Who would even have an old one cent coin lying around to look at and remember?
The very next day an advert appeared on the Linden Whatsapp Second Hand Group: Sets of old South African coins for sale. Inexpensive, missing the more valuable gold medallions. There they were the little sparrows on the half and one cent coins. The serendipity was remarkable. A short message, a trip around the corner to meet an interesting neighbour and back home with a small shiny red box.
A Christmas gift with a story. A story of meeting friends, mistaking a twin, a satisfying supper at a no run-of-the-mill restaurant and a history lesson. Stories bind us, they remind us and make our lives more colourful. One day when one of our grandchildren asks “What’s a coin?” or “What’s one cent?”, or “What’s in that box?”, we will be able to walk down memory lane, pull the bright, shiny red box off the shelf, slip the story out of its pocket and settle in for a warm retelling.
Memories, moments, connections and stories are the ribbons that make our present so much more compelling as a result of our past. They are the gifts that keep on giving.
Until next time.
Yours in feeling,
Matthew & Chantal
About the author
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