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From ‘The Budget’
In Jurie Steyn’s Post Office
by Herman Charles Bosman
‘All the same, in the days of the Republics, you would not find a burgher doing a thing like that,’ Oupa Bekker went on, shaking his head. ‘Not even in the Republic of Goosen. And not even after the Republic of Goosen’s Minister of Finance had lost all the State revenues in an unfortunate game of poker that he had been invited to take part in, at the Mafeking Hotel. And there was quite a big surplus, too, that year, which the Minister of Finance kept tucked away in an inside pocket throughout the poker game, and which he could still remember having had on him when he went into the bar. Although he could never remember what happened to that surplus afterwards. The Minister of Finance never went back to Goosen, of course. He stayed on in Mafeking. When I saw him again, he was offering to help carry people’s luggage from the Zeederberg coach station to the hotel.’
Oupa Bekker was getting ready to say a whole lot more when Jurie Steyn interrupted him, demanding to know what all that had got to do with his post office.
‘I said that even when things were very bad in the old days, you would still never see a postmaster running in the sun with a letter in a cleft stick,’ Oupa Bekker explained, adding, ‘like a Mchopi.’
Jurie Steyn’s wife did not want any unpleasantness. So she came and sat on the riempie bench next to Oupa Bekker and made it clear to him, in a friendly sort of way, what the discussion was all about.
‘You see, Oupa,’ Jurie Bekker’s wife said finally, after a pause for breath, ‘that’s just what we’ve been saying. We’ve been saying that in the old days, before they had proper post offices, people used to send letters with Mchopi runners.’
‘But that’s what I’ve been saying also,’ Oupa Bekker persisted. ‘I say, why doesn’t Jurie rather go in his mule-cart?’
Jurie Steyn’s wife gave up after that. Especially when Jurie Steyn walked over to where Oupa Bekker was sitting.
‘You know, Oupa,’ Jurie Steyn said, talking very quietly, ‘you’ve been an ouderling for many years, and we all respect you in the Groot Marico. We also respect your grey hairs. But you must not lose that respect through … through talking about things you don’t understand.’
Oupa Bekker tightened his grip on his tambotie-wood walking-stick.
‘Now if you had spoken to me like that in the Republican days, Jurie Steyn,’ the old man said, in a cracked voice, ‘in the Republic of Stellaland, for instance …’.
‘You and your Republics, Oupa,’ Jurie Steyn said, giving up the argument and turning back to the counter. ‘Goosen, Stellaland, Lydenberg – I suppose you were also in the Orighstad Republic?’
Oupa Bekker sat up very stiffly on the riempie bench, then.
‘In the Orighstad Republic,’ he declared – and in his eyes there gleamed for a moment a light, as from a great past – ‘in the Republic of Orighstad, I had the honour to be the Minister of Finance.’
‘Honour,’ Jurie Steyn repeated sarcastically, but not speaking loud enough for Oupa Bekker to hear. ‘I wonder how he lost the money in the State’s skatkis. Playing snakes and ladders, I suppose.’
All the same, there were those of us who were much interested in Oupa Bekker’s statement. Johnny Coen moved his chair closer to Oupa Bekker, then. Even though Orighstad had been only a small Republic, and hadn’t lasted very long, still there was something about the sound of the words ‘Minister of Finance’ that could not but awaken in us a sense of awe.
‘I hope you deposited the State revenues in the Reserve Bank, in a proper manner,’ At Naudé said, winking at us, but impressed all the same.
‘There was no Reserve Bank in those days,’ Oupa Bekker said, ‘or any other kind of bank either, in the Republic of Ohrighstad. No, I just kept the national treasury in a stocking under my matress. It was the safest place, of course.’
Johnny Coen put the next question.
‘What was the most difficult part of being Finance Minister, Oupa?’ he asked. ‘I suppose it was to make the budget balance?’
‘Money was the hardest thing,’ Oupa Bekker said, sighing.
‘It still is,’ Chris Welman interjected. ‘You don’t need to have been a Finance Minister, either, to know that.’
‘But, of course, it wasn’t as bad as today,’ Oupa Bekker went on. ‘Being Minister of Finance, I mean. For instance, we didn’t need to worry about finding money for education, because there just wasn’t any, of course.’
Jurie Steyn coughed, in a significant kind of way, then, but Oupa Bekker ignored him.
‘I don’t think,’ he went on, ‘that we would have stood for education in the Orighstad Republic. We knew we were better off without it.
‘And then, there was no need to spend money on railways and harbours, because there weren’t any, either.
‘Or hospitals. We lived a healthy life in those days, except maybe for lions. And if you died from a lion, there wasn’t much of you left over that could be taken to a hospital.
‘Of course, we had to spend a good bit of money on defence, in those days. Gunpowder and lead, and oil to make the springs of our old sannas work more smoothly. You see, we were expecting trouble anyday from Paul Kruger and the Doppers.
‘But it was hard for me to know how to work out a popular budget, especially as there were only seventeen income-tax-payers in the whole of the Republic. I thought of imposing a tax on the President’s state coach, even. That suggestion was very popular with the income-tax-paying group, but you’ve no idea how much it annoyed the President.
‘I imposed all sorts of taxes afterwards, which nobody would have to pay. These taxes didn’t bring in much in the way of money, of course. But they were very popular, all the same. And I can still remember how popular my budget was, the year I put a very heavy tax on opium. I had heard somewhere about an opium tax. Naturally, of course, I did not expect this tax to bring in a penny. But I knew how glad the burghers of the Orighstad Republic would be, each one of them, to think that there was a tax they had escaped.’
Oupa Bekker was still talking about the measures he had introduced to combat inflation in the early days of the Orighstad Republic when the lorry from Bekkersdal arrived in a cloud of dust.
Oupa Bekker left then, for he was expecting neither correspondence, nor a milk-can.