Thursday was meant to be a red-letter day in the history of the Free State dorp of Hertzogville. It was the day the Meintjies family expected their patriarch, Oom (Uncle) Paul, to rise from the dead.
Thirty days ago they gave undertaker Nico Foulds a most peculiar instruction when 74-year-old Oom Paul died after a stroke.
“The tannie (aunt) took me aside and said they didn’t want to bury the oom,” Foulds said. “I told her it was going to cost them R250 a day to keep the old man in the mortuary.”
Anna Meintjies agreed and told him that Oom Paul had to be kept, so to speak, on ice because he was going to rise from the dead.
A mysterious prophet, David Francis, who also fixes leaking roofs in Durban, and who seems to have a strong hold over the family, had told them Oom Paul was going to rejoin them in the land of the breathing.
Foulds took us to the mortuary. I was about to confront that detail I could do without: the dead man. Before I could tell Foulds “It’s okay”, he lifted the white plastic sheet, exposing Oom Paul’s face. Back outside in the street, Foulds locked the extra padlock the Meintjies family had asked him to put on the mortuary. As I drove to the neighbouring township, Oom Paul’s grey, hawkish face was on my mind. He looked quite dead, yet peaceful, as if he was happy wherever he was.
Moruti Joseph Malefane, a minister in the Uniting Reformed Church (the merged black and coloured NG churches), knows the prophet, who once organised a healing service for the sick and disabled members of all the township congregations in his church. Those in wheelchairs were supposed to walk again, the blind to see and the deaf to hear.
Did they? “Well, those who did at that service weren’t members of my congregation,” Malefane said diplomatically. “So I don’t have contact with them anymore.”
My mood did not lift when the reclusive Meintjies family told me later on the phone, after consulting the prophet: “No, we’re finished talking to the media.”
It was Thursday and if Oom Paul was going to rise he had picked a perfect day. A crisp, still and cloudless winter’s morning with birds singing in the trees. After 30 days at freezing point inside the mortuary, Oom Paul could have done with a bit of sunshine.
At the NG church in town, Malefane’s friend, Dr Johan van der Westhuizen, is like most Hertzogvillers: friendly and quite used to being pestered by the media. His rectory is right across the road from the Meintjies residence – Tant Anna, her unemployed son Pieter, and daughter Petro, recently widowed.
“For me the resurrection of Mr Meintjies is not an impossibility for the Almighty God,” Van der Westhuizen said, “but it is highly improbable.”
The petrol attendants at the filling station around the corner had no doubts. “No, he won’t rise,” said Benjamin Sebodi with simple logic. “He’s dead.”
“I think it’s a comedy,” said Lukas Leshoma. “I bet he’s on holiday somewhere and they’re going to smuggle him back to claim it’s true.”
“Is it magic?” asked Pat Modise, who works for a pest control company, as his bakkie was being filled up. “That thing won’t happen after 30 days in the mortuary.”
Back at the mortuary there were about 40 people, from the township and the dorp; a huge crowd for Hertzogville. An oomie told my Volksblad colleague with a wink: “If the prophet comes I’d like to meet him so he can fix this stiff leg of mine.”
Amanda Bothma, a local housewife, had also come to look: “It’s quite funny. If you’re dead you are dead, there’s no chance that he’s going to wake up … and if he does, I want to touch him and say hello and I want to see if it’s real.”
And then there was the wait – for that improbable scoop.
Media types hung out together, smoking, chatting, joking.
Locals drove past and stared. After a last turn at the undertaker’s, where Oom Paul was still lying low, I made another attempt to convince the Meintjies family to talk to me – this time face to face – before heading back to the sanity of Johannesburg.
My kids have taught me the success of persistent nagging. Petro finally gave in. Pieter was ready to talk to me on tape, but there were a few ground rules.
“Don’t mention my name,” said Pieter, “because all glory must go to God. God has had plans with my father for years and it was His decision that my father had to die, and it’s His decision that my father will rise again.”
“Sorry Pieter,” I said.
“No, I said don’t mention my name!” but then the beatific glow returned to his face and he continued in quaint, archaic Afrikaans.
“We don’t even consider the possibility that my father won’t rise, because he will.”
With Thursday gone and Oom Paul still dead, the date for his resurrection now seems less certain, according to his family: they say it’s within the next few days or “when it’s God’s will”, leaving a back door wide open, as wide as eternity.