South African children are raised with the tale of little Racheltjie de Beer, twelve years old, but small for her age, whose family had a farm in the foothills of the Drakensberg mountains where it snows in the winter. My late father was raised close to the Drakensberg in Harrismith and I can tell you that people have died of exposure in the Drakensberg even in summer and in winter it is deadly to anyone not properly prepared for the below freezing temperatures.
Legend has it that one wintery day, just ahead of a storm, Herman de Beer, his family and their farm hands were bringing the animals into the shelter of the kraal. Just as the task should have been finished Herman noticed that one calf was missing. Everyone went out looking for it. Rachel and her young brother who had just turned five were instructed not to go far but they were allowed to go out looking for the valuable calf.
The treacherous winter weather broke and the children became lost in the blinding snow which rapidly changed the look of the landmarks that should have led them home. Lost, cold and frightened, Rachel stumbled upon an old antheap, half hidden in the snow. She found a stone and began to carve a ‘cave’ into the antheap. Warm from her efforts, she stripped off and gave her clothes to her brother. After a while there was a place just big enough for her brother, but Racheltjie was exhausted. She put her brother into the hole in the antheap and then leaned against him to gather what warmth she could from his body.
Her parents stopped looking for the calf (perhaps it had been found) and now noticed that their children were missing. Doubtless the parents and their servants went looking for the children, armed with blankets and lanterns, calling into the night and firing shots. Their search was fruitless. When dawn broke one of the farm hands found the antheap and against it, half covered in snow, the naked body of the twelve year old Rachel. Under her body, severely hypothermic, but alive, was her little brother.
Current research shows that this story as I have told it above may not have been accurate and there are all sorts of doubts about its veracity in view of the timing of its first report being about a month after a similar American tale, but it is nevertheless the stuff of which South African women or all colours, all ages, are made and I choose to begin my Women’s Month blog series on some famous South African women with our little Racheltjie de Beer, a model of the sacrificing nature and culture of nurture which makes good women what they are – the backbone of society.