Agnes Lottering (1937-) was born in rural KwaZulu Natal’s Ngome Rain Forest. Her parents were Benjamin and Winnefred Rorke (neé) Nunn, both born of mixed relationships. Agnes grew up in Ngome and attended the Little Flower School, a Catholic mission boarding school in Eshowe. She was forced to leave school after passing Std 6 so that she could help her ailing mother on their farm.
Her first love was Pieter - the son of a white farmer. Her father disapproved of the relationship. She left Nongome to take up residence in Vryheid. Here she met and married the abusive, alcoholic, Lemmy Lottering, a man her father despised. Her marriage to Lemmy Lottering caused her to be estranged from her family.
Agnes and Winnefred took ten years to write - by hand. It is a book about family secrets and the author’s search for identity. It tells the story of Winnefred, who, after having two illegitimate children, is branded ‘spoilt’ by the community. When widower Benjamin Rorke marries her, her life takes an unexpected turn and she finds happiness, albeit temporarily. Her happiness is short-lived when there is fallout with the local Zulu chief and strange things start happening to Winnefred. Her strange behaviour was believed to be the result of the chief practising witchcraft on Winnefred as his revenge against Benjamin. Agnes tells the story of her mother from her own perspective.
The second half of the book is Agnes’s own story: how she grew up and how she fell in love for the first time. It is a lost love and she moves away to Vryheid, to escape her father’s abuse. She marries Lemmy Lottering and has four children – two girls and two boys. After enduring many years of severe abuse at the hands of her alcoholic husband, Agnes is forced to send her children to a children’s home in Durban. Although this decision is painful for her and her children, Agnes realises that it is the only way to shield her children from their abusive father. She rationalises that at an institution they would be fed properly and also get a good education. She triumphs in the end when she moves to Durban and is reunited with her children. She gets a job in the clothing industry. Although the abuse by her husband continues, she eventually becomes free of him when he is institutionalised after being diagnosed with brain damage caused by excessive alcohol abuse.
Agnes also finds new love – the kind she says she never had with her husband. She meets Tom, a policeman who saves her from being nearly killed by Lemmy. For the first time she experiences real romance. But this relationship is also short-lived when Agnes is diagnosed with cancer. Although she is treated and is rid of the cancer, she lives with the fear that the cancer may return. She therefore turns Tom away despite caring very deeply for him.
The book incorporates South African history of the early apartheid era and also gives insight into how the apartheid system thwarted inter-racial relationships. It also highlights the role early pioneers played in South African history.
Agnes Lottering lives in Wentworth, Durban.
Extract from Winnefred and Agnes (2002)
How do we explain this urge, which all the early pioneers seem to have felt? I believe it was related to the fact that they looked at this land and liked what they saw. Imagine what it was like, or what it must have been like in their eyes. It must indeed have seemed a Garden of Eden. The intertwining pathways formed a tapestry of breathtaking beauty; you saw only what the Creator himself had created. It’s easy to imagine that the sensational rare beauty of savage Chaka Land could cause a total delirium. My feeling is that nothing could dampen the pioneers’ insatiable appetite to conquer that which is rare and primitive.
This was a paradise, indeed a land of milk and honey, a land free for everyone to roam and cultivate at pleasure and leisure. There were no roads, no bridges, no railways and no towns. There was simply no one to harass them for any kind of market or industry. They were therefore independent, self-contained, self supporting, and very resourceful. The openness and freedom of choice must have overwhelmed them with a kind of frenzy. Sometimes I think of it in the form of a dream – vivid, grotesque, and yet real. An epic in which people and terrain are indistinguishable.
Even the mystic dongas, wearing their ancient blood-stained cloaks – showing a deeper dent here, and an even deeper gash there, as though a sword had left a gaping wound to bleed forever – never bothered the pioneers. Terrifying ravines, with their broken teeth and stubble beards of coarse briars and thistles, and stagey old parched river beds seemed to whisper in a hoarse thirsty undertone to the mountains who bore such strong, unshakeable granite necks. And they all seemed to turn around and utter a croaking sound: ‘Hey there, brother – give a man a handshake.’
These pioneers were like knights – not in shining armour – in tattered and torn old battered ten-gallon hats, galloping with the wind, leaving a trail of male essence. In stinking riding breeches and far more stinking long-johns, concealed by old soldiers’ uniforms, and smelling worse than their horses’ perspiration, they headed, headstrong beyond all measure, straight down the Tugela, down the Ulundi Valley, across the Black and White Umfolozi, down to Pongola and into the waiting arms of Swaziland where some of them found peace and solace at last.
One interesting story about my grandfather, James Michael Rorke, tells how the Great Chief Myeni of Ubombo got to know about this noble white man and summoned him to go to the rescue of his eldest son, who was being held to ransom in a war in Swaziland. Chief Myeni, who inspired fierce respect among his subjects, summoned his trusted indunas to travel to Ngome where the young James Michael lived with his first Zulu wife, who already had a few children, to ask him this great favour. Would he dare to go to the rescue of the Chief’s son in Swaziland? This was a risky task, but the brave soldier could not refuse the Chief.
The journey to Swaziland took three days on horseback and somehow James Michael succeeded in the rescue. He had to tie the Chief’s son to his stirrup, allowing his weight to hang and float in the Pongola River which was swollen in flood. The safe return home of his son caused great excitement at the chief’s sprawling kraal. It was something unheard of: the whole area was shouting and chanting warrior songs of praise to this gallant white man who had done such a brave deed.
The white soldier had to go back home once the feasting was over, but first the Chief called up the indunas to discuss what reward would be suitable. They gathered in the cattle kraal, as was customary in the Zulu nation – for that is where all big indabas were finalised with the headmen. The chief asked for order, and while everyone was all ears announced that he would give the white man his daughter in marriage, for that was the dearest and most valuable gift a man could have – a gift to make a man of a man!
James Michael could not refuse. It would have been discourteous and disrespectful not to accept such a gift from the Chief. Of course many cattle were also given to him together with the bride.
Bibliography 2002: Winnefred and Agnes: the true story of two women. Cape Town: Kwela Books.