Authors: Tom Sharpe
For all those members of the South African Police Force
whose lives are dedicated to the preservation
of Western Civilization in Southern Africa
Piemburg is deceptive. Nothing about it is entirely what it seems to be. Huddled
among the foothills of the Drakensberg and crouching at the feet of a great flat-topped
hill it has few of the marks of a capital city. Travellers whose trains to Johannesburg
stop, if they bother, beneath the rusting sheet-metal gingerbread of its station roof,
or who whisk past on the National Highway, glimpse a tiny town that seems to have died and
been embalmed. For Piemburg is by popular accounts quite dead. Sleepy Hollow they call it,
and an American visitor is reported to have looked at Piemburg and said, “Half the size of
New York Cemetery and twice as dead.” And certainly at a first glance the city’s lack of
animation seems complete. It lies curled in its valley under the African sun and sleeps.
Its red iron roofs and wrought-iron balconies bespeak a distant age of long-forgotten
enterprise. Its roads are lined with jacarandas and its gardens are lush with flowering
dark verandahs. Everything grows immediately and just as immediately stands still.
Time and the climate both combine to growth and growth’s suspension.
And Piemburg grew with the garrison, and with the garrison’s departure died. Or fell
asleep. The capital of Zululand, it sprang up with the British Empire’s conquest of the
Zulu nation. In the first flush of that resounding victory, Piemburg was transformed
from a tiny settlement long deserted by its Afrikaaner founders into a capital city.
Civic buildings multiplied in a rash of colonnade and red Victorian brick. The
Governor’s mansion bloomed with Italian marble floors, Venetian glass and all the
trimmings of Imperial splendour. The railway station, a paragon of metal fretwork and
faience, provided a suitable staging post for the Viceregal trains that passed through
Piemburg on their way to farther and less attractive Imperial dominions in the
hinterland of Africa. And as the great steam engines blustered up the winding gradient
to Empire View, the hill above Piemburg, carrying with them their august burden to an
early death by tsetse fly or malarial mosquito, monocled and moustached men would gaze
serenely down on the capital of Zululand and murmur, “A gem, a gem set in a green and
yellow ring,” and then turn back to study the wholly inaccurate survey maps of their new
Piemburg would salute their passing with a Governor’s greeting on the station
platform and an exchange of statesmanlike admonitions made inaudible by the military
band playing under the iron roof. And Piemburg would pay its respects a few months later
when the Viceregal coffin borne in a carriage draped in black and drawn by a locomotive
adorned with wreaths halted a moment while the band played a death march with a gusto that
made once more inaudible the Governor’s condolences to the Aide-de-camp. And in the
intervals between Imperial progress and Imperial retreat, the capital of Zululand
would adorn itself with new bandstands and botanical gardens and the amusement of a tiny
metropolis. In Fort Rapier the great parade ground would echo to the bellowed commands of
sergeant-majors. Thousands of putteed legs would stamp or turn about, and the glittering
bayonets would eddy to and fro across the brilliant square.
In the town itself the streets were prickly with waxed moustaches. Blanco and brass
polish stood high on the list of life’s necessities. In the Imperial Hotel the
mornings and afternoons were liquid among potted plants and wicker chairs with the music
of a Palm Court orchestra. Sam Browne belts and whalebone waist-pinchers restrained the
officers and their wives who listened to the whine of the violins and recalled the shires
and parishes of England with thankful melancholy. Many would never return and those who
stayed and were not buried in the military cemetery in Fort Rapier would build their houses
as close to the Governor’s mansion as their seniority and overdrafts allowed.
While the garrison stayed Piemburg prospered. Piemburg was even, briefly, gay. The
Garrison Theatre was made brilliant by performances of plays and revues that bred one
great English actor and playwright and charmed the Governor and his wife. Bazaars and
garden parties were bright with the parasols and bustles of wives who had been swept from
the terraced suburbs and semi-detached houses of South London to the grandeur of the
lawns and shrubberies of Piemburg by the surprising good fortune of having married
husbands whose mediocrity won for them the reward of being posted to this distant sliver
of the Empire. The taste of the Victorian lower middle class imposed itself indelibly
upon Piemburg and has stayed there to this day. And with the taste there came an immutable
sense of hierarchy. Viceroys, governors, generals, vice-governors, colonels, down the
ranks swept, broadening as they went, through nuances too subtle to enumerate, where
schools and wives’ fathers’ professions and a dropped aspirate or one retained ‘g’ could
cause a major to step in an instant up above a lieutenant-colonel. At the bottom of the
scale came private soldiers in the pay corps. Below these pariahs there was nothing left.
Zulus competed with Pondos, Coloureds with Indians. What happened down there was simply
nobody’s concern. All that one had to know was that somewhere even lower than the loyal
Zulus and the treacherous Pondos there were the Boers. And so it went until the war. Boers
didn’t wash. Boers were cowards. Boers were stupid. Boers were an excrescence that blocked
the way to Cairo. Piemburg ignored the Boers.
And then came the Boer War and as the Boers shot the monocles out of the eyes of the
officers of Fort Rapier, waiting deliberately for a semaphore reflection of the sun
to signal a suitable monocled target, a new respect was born in Piemburg. The Boer could
shoot straight. The Boer was cunning. The Boer was now the enemy.
And but a moment later the Boer was the enemy no more. The obstacle to Cairo and the
gold mines quite removed, Piemburg began its swift decline. As the garrison departed
and the bands played Goodbye Dolly Gray for the last time, Piemburg fell asleep. Like a
replete puff-adder coiled and bloated it lay under the African sun and dreamt of its brief
days of glory. Only a sense of precedence remained to multiply in the luxuriant
climate of its own mediocrity. The houses stood and gazed at the ring of hills and on their
stoeps the sons and grandsons of the sergeant-majors, quartermaster sergeants and
warrant officers pretended to a grandeur their ancestors had never known. In Piemburg
time stood still, marked only by the dust that gathered on the heads of the stuffed lions
that mouldered in the Alexandra Club and by the drip of snobbery. Piemburg’s mediocrity
was venomous and waited gently on events.
Kommandant van Heerden had few illusions about himself and a great many about
everything else. And it was thanks to his illusions that he found himself in charge of the
Police station in Piemburg. It was not a very onerous position. Piemburg’s mediocrity
was not conducive to more than petty crime and it had been felt at Police Headquarters in
Pretoria that, while Kommandant van Heerden’s appointment might push the city’s crime
rate up, it would at least serve to lower the waves of violence and theft that had followed
his posting to other more enterprising towns.
Besides, Piemburg deserved the Kommandant. As the one town in the Republic still to
fly the Union Jack from the Town Hall, Piemburg needed to be taught that the Government
could not be challenged without taking some revenge.
Kommandant van Heerden knew that his appointment was not due to his success in the
field of criminal investigation. He fondly imagined it had come to him because he
understood the English. It was in fact due to the reputation of his grandfather, Klaasie
van Heerden, who had served under General Cronje at the Battle of Paardeberg and had
been shot by the British for refusing to obey the order of his commanding officer to
surrender. He had instead stayed put in a hole in the bank of the Modder River and shot
down twelve soldiers of the Essex Regiment who were relieving themselves there some
forty-eight hours after the last shot had been fired. The fact that Klaasie had been fast
asleep throughout the entire battle and had never heard the order to cease fire was
discounted by the British during his trial and by later generations of Afrikaans
historians. Instead he was accounted a hero who had been martyred for his devotion to
the Boer Republics and as a hero he was revered by Afrikaans Nationalists all over South
It was this legend that had helped Kommandant van Heerden to his present rank. It had
taken a long time for his incompetence to live down the reputation for cunning that had
been bequeathed him by his grandfather, and by that time it was too late for Police
Headquarters to do anything about his inefficiency except put him in command of
Kommandant van Heerden imagined that he had got the post because it was in an English
town and certainly it was just the post he wanted. The Kommandant believed that he was
one of the few Afrikaaners who really understood the English mind. In spite of the
treatment the British had meted out to his grandfather, in spite of the brutality the
British had shown to the Boer women and children in the concentration camps, in spite of
the sentimentality the British wasted on their black servants, in spite of everything,
Kommandant van Heerden admired the British.
There was something about their blundering stupidity that appealed to him. It called
out to something deep within his being. He couldn’t say exactly what it was, but deep
called to deep and, if the Kommandant could have chosen his place of birth, its time and
nationality, he would have plumped for Piemburg in 1890 and the heart of an English
If he had one regret, it was that his own mediocrity had never had the chance to express
itself with anything like the degree of success that had attended the mediocrity and
muddle-headedness of the rulers of the British Empire. Born an English gentleman in
Victorian Britain he might well have risen to the rank of field-marshal. His military
ineptitude would surely have been rewarded by constant and rapid promotion. He was
certain he could have done as well as Lord Chelmsford, whose forces had been massacred by
the Zulus at Isandhlwana. Stormberg, Spion Kop, Magersfontein, might have been even more
appalling disasters had he been in command. Kommandant van Heerden had been born out of
nation, time and place.
The same could not be said of the Kommandant’s second-in-command, Luitenant Verkramp,
nor of Konstabel Els. That they should never have been born at all, or, if their births
could not have been aborted, that their nation, place and time should have been as distant
as possible from his own, was Kommandant van Heerden’s most fervent and frequent
Luitenant Verkramp hated the English. His grandfather had not suffered as had the
Kommandant’s for the sake of the Boer Republics. Instead he had proclaimed peace and
friendship for the British Empire from the pulpit of his church in the Cape and had made a
small fortune on the side by supplying the British Army with the Basuto ponies it needed
for its mounted infantry. Verkramp’s childhood had been spent in the shadow of that pulpit
and little Verkramp had inherited a marked eschatological bent from his grandfather
and a hatred for all things English from his father who had spent his life trying to live
down the name of “traitor” which had clung to the Verkramp family long after the Boer War.
Luitenant Verkramp brought both inheritances with him to his work. He combined his
inquisitorial tendencies with his antipathy for the English by becoming head of the
Security Branch in Piemburg, a post which allowed him to send reports on the political
reliability of the citizens of Piemburg to his superiors in BOSS, the Bureau of State
Security in Pretoria. Even Kommandant van Heerden was the subject of Luitenant
Verkramp’s suspicions and the Kommandant had taken good care to read the reports about
himself that Verkramp had submitted. In one of these he had detected the innuendo that
he was insufficiently active in pursuit of Communist cells.
In the week following, the Kommandant had sought to rebut the accusation by a
series of lightning raids on likely Communist groups. A playreading of Shaw’s Arms and
the Man at the Piemburg Amateur Dramatic Society had been interrupted by the entrance
of the Kommandant and his men who confiscated all copies of the play and took the names of
all present. Black Beauty had been removed from the shelves of the Public Library on the
Kommandant’s orders. The showing of the film The African Queen had been banned at the
local cinema, as had an article on weather forecasting in the Piemburg News entitled
“Red Sky at Night”.
All in all the Kommandant felt satisfied that he had made significant moves to combat
the spread of Marxism in Piemburg and the public outcry that followed would, he felt, go a
long way to convince BOSS that he was not as soft on Communists as Luitenant Verkramp’s
report had suggested. Besides he had Verkramp’s report on Konstabel Els to fall back
The gulf that separated fact from fiction in all the Luitenant’s reports on political
life in Piemburg widened to a cosmic abyss in the report he had submitted on Konstabel
Els. In it Els was described as a regular attendant at the Dutch Reformed Church, an
ardent member of the Nationalist Party and a determined opponent of “liberalistic
and communistic tendencies to pollute racial purity by social, economic and
political methods of integration”. Since Els neither went to church nor belonged to the
Nationalist Party and was a living exponent of mixed sexual intercourse, Kommandant
van Heerden felt that he had Luitenant Verkramp’s reputation for accuracy by the short
With Konstabel Els matters stood rather differently. For one thing Els constituted
no sort of threat to the Kommandant though a very considerable one to nearly everyone
else in Piemburg. His natural aptitude for violence and particularly for shooting
black people was only equalled by his taste for brandy and his predilection for forcing the
less attractive parts of his person into those parts of African women legally reserved
for male members of their own race. Kommandant van Heerden had had to speak quite severely
to him about the illegality of this last tendency on several occasions, but he had put
Els’ taste for black women down to the undoubted fact that the Konstabel was of mixed race
No, Konstabel Els had his virtues. He was conscientious, he was an excellent shot and
he knew how to operate the electrical-therapy machine which had proved such a boon in
extracting confessions from suspects. Luitenant Verkramp had brought it back from one of
his visits to Pretoria and Els had immediately made himself extraordinarily
proficient with it. It had originally been intended for political suspects only, but
Luitenant Verkramp’s efforts to find any saboteurs or Communists in Piemburg to try the
gadget out on had failed so hopelessly that Els had finally had to arrest a native boy
he had caught early one morning with a bottle of milk in his hand. The fact that Els knew
him to be the milk-delivery boy hadn’t prevented the Konstabel proving the efficacy
of electric-shock therapy and after five minutes’ treatment the boy readily confessed
that he had stolen the milk, while after ten minutes he admitted administering
poisoned milk to fifty European households that very morning. When Els proposed
transferring the terminal from the boy’s toe to his penis, the suspect admitted to
being a member of the Communist Party and agreed that he had been trained in milk
sabotage in Peking. At that point Luitenant Verkramp confessed himself satisfied with the
experiment and the milk-delivery boy was charged with being out without a Pass,
obstructing the police in the course of their duties and resisting arrest, which charges
got him six months hard labour and satisfied the magistrate that his injuries were
justified if not actually self-inflicted. Yes, Els had his virtues, not the least of
which was a deep if obscure sense of devotion to his commanding officer. Not that
Kommandant van Heerden was in the least interested in Konstabel Els’ regard for him,
but it made a change from the abiding dislike that emanated from Luitenant Verkramp.
All in all Kommandant van Heerden felt well satisfied with life in Piemburg. Things
would go on as they had in the past and he would have time to continue his private hobby,
the intellectual puzzle of trying to understand the English, a puzzle he knew to be
impossible to solve but for that very reason endlessly fascinating.
If Piemburg was the garden of Kommandant van Heerden’s soul where he could wander
happily dreaming of great men and great deeds done, Miss Hazelstone of Jacaranda Park was
the key plant, the corner tree of this interior landscape. Not that she was young or
beautiful or charming or even in any sense likeable. She was none of these things. She was
old, ugly, garrulous and abrupt to the point of rudeness. Hardly alluring qualities but
to the Kommandant they were filled with extraordinary attractions. These were all the
attributes of the English. To hear Miss Hazelstone’s voice, high-pitched, loud and
utterly unself-conscious, was to hear the true voice of the British Empire. To be
chided, nay, trounced by Miss Hazelstone for infringing his authority by cautioning her
chauffeur for driving at 80 mph through a built-up area in a 1936 Hudson Terraplane with
defective brakes was a pleasure almost too great to be borne. He treasured her refusal to
grant him any tide. “Van Heerden,” she would snarl from the back of the sedan, “you exceed
your authority. Driver, proceed”, and the car would drive off leaving the Kommandant
marvelling at her savoir-faire.
Then again on the rare occasions that he could find an excuse to visit Jacaranda House,
Miss Hazelstone would receive him, if she deigned to see him at all, at the servants’
entrance and would dispatch him with an economy of incivility and an abundance of
implicit contempt that left the Kommandant breathless with admiration.
With Luitenant Verkramp she was even ruder, and when the Kommandant could endure the
Security Branch man’s insolence no longer he would invent reasons for him to call at
Jacaranda House. Luitenant Verkramp had made the mistake on his first visit of addressing
Miss Hazelstone in Afrikaans and ever since she had spoken to him in Kitchen Kaffir, a
pidgin Zulu reserved only for the most menial and mentally retarded black servants.
Luitenant Verkramp returned from these penitential trips speechless with rage and vented
his spleen by submitting security reports on the Hazelstone family accusing the old
woman of subversion and of fomenting civil disorder. These memoranda he sent to
Pretoria with the recommendation that Miss Hazelstone’s activities be brought to the
attention of the State Attorney.
The Kommandant doubted that the reports enhanced Verkramp’s reputation for
accuracy or for political reliability. He had forgotten to tell his
second-in-command that Miss Hazelstone was the only daughter of the late Judge
Hazelstone of the Supreme Court who was known in the legal world as Breakneck Bill and who,
in a Minority Report of the Commission on Traffic Congestion, had advocated that
flogging be made mandatory for parking offences. With such antecedents, it seemed
unlikely to the Kommandant that BOSS would question Miss Hazelstone’s patriotism.
English she might be, subversive and criminal never.
It came therefore as all the more of a shock when he heard Konstabel Els answer the
phone in the outer office and the strident tones of Miss Hazelstone vibrating from the
receiver. Interested to see how Els would suffer at her hands, the Kommandant listened
to the conversation.
Miss Hazelstone was telephoning to report that she had just shot her Zulu cook.
Konstabel Els was perfectly capable of handling the matter. He had in his time as a
police officer shot any number of Zulu cooks. Besides there was a regular procedure
for dealing with such reports. Konstabel Els went into the routine.
“You wish to report the death of a kaffir,” he began.
“I have just murdered my Zulu cook,” snapped Miss Hazelstone.
Els was placatory. “That’s what I said. You wish to report the death of a coon.”
“I wish to do nothing of the sort. I told you I have just murdered Fivepence.”
Els tried again. “The loss of a few coins doesn’t count as murder.”
“Fivepence was my cook.”
“Killing a cook doesn’t count as murder either.”
“What does it count as, then?” Miss Hazelstone’s confidence in her own guilt was
beginning to wilt under Konstabel Els’ favourable diagnosis of the situation.