I am struggling to deal with and work through the terribly sad news I received late last night.
My good friend Barend J Van Heerden, better known as Barney, was brutally murdered over the weekend.
I woke in the middle of the night and could not fall asleep again, my thoughts returning to him.
Barney and I met each other in 2001, when we worked at Standard Bank in Johannesburg. I was Project Manager and Barney was an allocated resource to the project. I forget the details of the project, but I remember Barney and his sharp intellect and inherent ability to solve problems, especially complicated ones. Another of Barney’s great asset was his people skills. An openly gay man, Barney had the ability to engage with both gay and straight men and women, and simply bypass many of the preconceived silly ideas people had about gay/straight relationships.
Barney was the first gay person I really got to know. I asked openly naive questions, and Barney gave me totally frank answers. About lifestyle choices, about desires, about love and about relationships.
Much of my development as an open minded person over the last 10 years can be attributed to our friendship. I learnt to understand that Barney and his friends were just like me and mine – we wanted to enjoy life to the max, build lasting relationships and grow intimate friendships. Barney taught me that it was possible to be good friends with gay men. Never did he cross the boundaries and never did I feel in any way uncomfortable in his company. Yes, eyebrows were raised at work at our growing friendship, but I was secure enough to smile at the corridor sniggers, Barney simply ignored them. Having had to deal with adversity for most of our lives, Barney and I shared the common theme of being shoe boxed into preconceived moulds, moulds we strove to destroy wherever possible.
Barney was a lifelong student. In his constant desire to make a difference to the world he lived in, he often made choices that most others found bizarre. I remember that when I met him he was driving a gold coloured BMW. A little while later he sold this car and downgraded to something simpler and more fuel efficient. He decided to buy a Citroen, against the common thinking of most of his friends, because he believed that driving a diesel would make a difference to the environment.
Later, he enrolled for university courses at Stellenbosch, in sustainable development and development methodologies. We had many talks about the impact of continued unconstrained development on the environment and he firmly believed in a better world. The tragedy of the unmitigated disaster of global expansion was high on his agenda and I am sure his study partners learned much from him during his time with them. Last I heard he was doing a masters course in something or the other, continually striving to improve himself.
I am especially saddened by the timing of this horrible thing. Just last Friday we talked about the significance of Pride Weekend, to both gay and straight people. He posted saying that we must not forget that not long ago, gay people were not allowed to walk hand in hand in the street in South Africa. Barney used this opportunity to highlight the plight of other gay and marginalised communities in Africa, calling on his close friends to be mindful of this fact. My response was that Julia and I are both aware of discrimination in all forms and make a concerted stand against this sort of thing.
For me, Barney was a friend I never really lost touch with, even after I returned to Cape Town. I will remember my friend as a fun loving warm person, a caring individual who made an effort to really listen and not simply hear, someone I could bounce ideas off, without fear of ridicule. But mostly, I will remember Barney for the easy way he made me understand his gayness, how it never became an issue for us and how over 10 years our friendship grew stronger and stronger. The real tragedy here is that many people will not ever know this about him, never know how much love and caring he had within him, for his friends and even those he knew only fleetingly.
You will be missed my friend, by all who knew you, and those you did not yet meet. Your kindness and compassion will live on, even though you will not be here to see the works through to fruition.