Grandfather, grandmother and the pope in Lesotho


By Mieke Meintjies

As foreigners, the highlight of our year is when we can visit family in South Africa, or when family comes to visit us. September in the Netherlands brings wind and rain, but this September brought my grandparents. Along with their suitcases, stuffed full of Fizzers and white Lunch Bars, they also arrived with all their stories.

As one gets older, grandfather’s and grandmother’s stories change. At the age of four, my grandfather told about gnomes and fairies, and his favourite: Asterix and Obelix. At 21 years old, their stories carry rebellious humor and irony. Grandma intervenes every now and then to add bits of the stories that grandpa forgets.

Each story begins equally implausibly, and as grandfather continues to tell, and as I research more, the fact emerges that my Free State grandfather and grandmother truly saw the pope. The Roman Catholic Pope. In Lesotho.

The 1988 news announced that Pope Jean Paul II would visit Southern Africa for apostolic work. His journey would take him from Zimbabwe to Botswana, Lesotho, eSwatini and Mozambique.

Like thousands of other South Africans, my grandfather and grandmother spotted an opportunity. While the crowd bought licenses from the catholic church to be allowed to sell plates, mugs, water bottles, T-shirts, postcards, posters and hats with the pope’s face on them, my grandfather and grandmother went to take out licenses to be allowed to sell food in the foreign country. It was predicted that millions of South Africans and Lesotho residents would gather to see the Pope… and millions of people are quickly getting hungry.

Grandfather and grandmother went to buy porridge, and roast meat with it, and with their stall and licenses and all fell in with – what sounds like – the second Great Trek. From Bloemfontein to Maseru.

Lesotho apparently wanted to show that they were not dependent on South Africa, but many things about the trip did not go as planned, and the pope’s flight could not land in Lesotho. He had to drive from Johannesburg to Lesotho, and at the border the South African police insisted that they would not leave his safety to the Lesotho police. SAP therefore followed him into the country, and Lesotho’s so-called independence took a hit.

Pope John Paul II’s warm welcome, as an Afrikaner would say, resulted in a bloody shootout between the police and a group of armed men. They hijacked a bus full of nuns and children and insisted that they wanted to see the pope.

He only arrived in Lesotho eight hours behind schedule, just 20 minutes before the tense hostage drama was resolved. One of the captured nuns died and eleven others were wounded, but the rest were, so to speak, safe.

Amidst all this action, one thing was missing: the expected millions. Grandfather and grandmother say that the only people there were the hopeful South Africans with their own stalls, and a bunch of local residents who didn’t seem like they wanted to spend any money.

Pope John Paul II welcomed a crowd of just over ten thousand people from a specially erected stage before offering a holy open-air mass. Things were less arranged for the crowd than they were for the pope.

Grandma says there were no bathrooms, so farmers did as farmers always do, and made a plan. The “plan” was to dig ditches in the ground, and make partitions for men and women by stretching blankets between the ditches. My grandmother grew up on a farm, but very little of my grandmother’s behavior indicates this lineage. She has always been the most stylish, elegant woman I know, and when my grandmother says she refused to squat there, I fully believe it.

It’s also a good thing the stall makers got a chance to practice digging ditches, because later that day, in the September African sun, the food started to rot. The meat started to stink, the fruit turned brown, there were thousands and thousands of rands worth of leftovers in roast chickens, orange juice and milk coffees. Rather than haul the rotten food back to South Africa, the stall makers decided to bury the remains.

Grandpa says that the Lesotho residents, after everyone had packed up, went back to the ditches (being very careful about which ditches to dig open) and took out the food. Although the Pope’s arrival did not attract millions of hungry people as my grandparents had hoped, it did bring many other things. One of the beings an opinion. According to reports, the religious leader condemned apartheid in South Africa.

“A civilization of justice, peace and love means recognition of the dignity of every human being,” he was quoted as saying. “This means that everyone can exercise fundamental rights without restrictions that are supposed to be justified by racial segregation or by social discrimination.”

The pope also visited eSwatini, which at the time was still known as Swaziland, and was going to give his blessing there. Grandma and Grandpa didn’t feel it was necessary to make the same mistake twice. Grandma says the pope blessed her enough that day.

“Blessed with a R12 000 loss.”

She still has holy water upstairs in her roof storage room in Bloemfontein.

  • At the age of 16, Mieke Meintjies moved with her family from Pretoria to the Czech Republic and a year later again to the Netherlands, where she now lives. With pen in hand, she started working as a journalist while studying in Utrecht. Inspiration comes in many forms in her life, but mostly in the form of her family who still live in South Africa.