A story about childhood in the Cape of Good Hope by Ian Rakoff
Some people learn to forget the past and move on.
For me to mature and leave my past behind would be the same as smashing my moral compass.
In the Past Forever
The first five years of my life were idyllic. I was the youngest of three. We lived on Welgemeend Street in a spacious one-storey house on the lower slopes of Table Mountain. Our garden was packed with fig, loquat, guava, lemon and pawpaw trees as well as grapes and an abundance of roses. There were chickens until Castles disease killed off the lot of them.
This was near to the end of the Second World War which was too far from Cape Town to impact on us, except that Mom worried about her brothers in the Air Force and the Army. One of Dad’s two brothers serving as doctors gave me a brown cap that could be folded and stuck in a shoulder lapel. I didn’t have a shoulder lapel but I was pleased to have such a military cap. However, I didn’t have it for long. One day I couldn’t find it anywhere and I never saw it again. I probably cried. I was like my mom, she cried a lot. Cousin Eugene said I was a cry-baby.
Our garden was different, not only because it was better looked after, but there were lots of kids to play with from other backgrounds. Gentle Cliffie, who was slightly older, became my close friend. Along with his mother and young sister, Cliffie lived in the lower half of Miss du Toit’s house, around the corner in Hofmeyr Street. Cliffie’s mother was Miss du Toit’s companion though legally a servant. Most mornings and evenings Miss du Toit strode through the neighbourhood swaying like the tall palm trees at the top of Welgemeend Street and showing off her two Great Danes. I didn’t know what to make of Miss Du Toit. She wasn’t friendly like everyone else, not even to Mom who was friendly with everyone.
Dad insisted that no racist or swear words were spoken in our house, and that we were all the same and equal, no matter what colour. Mom, like the name of our street, was ‘well-meaning.’ She was often making tea for visitors. Everyone liked Mom. She preferred the Coloured people to help in the house. The Coloureds were a mixture of European colonials, Hottentots and San Bushmen. About a third of the Cape Town population were Xhosa – the sturdy indigenous tribe referred to as natives.
Mom had never used Xhosa help in the house but when aunt Bertha decided to get rid of Lily Mabusela who was Xhosa, Mom took her in. We all fell in love with Lily Mabusela and the word servant was not used once in seventeen years.
Cliffie and Me
Our parents argued over the hok (shed) at the back of the house where Lily slept. Mom insisted that the hok was not good enough. Dad promised that when he had the funds he’d look into the matter and reminded Mom that Lily’s painted lavatory was real Victorian and better than what we had in the house.
‘Yes, but Lily cannot sleep in the lavatory,’ was Mom’s final word.
My friendship with Cliffie flourished. Barefoot we would chase each other in and out of the front door and around the stoep. It was a favourite pastime. I had blond curls and with Cliffie’s clean-shaven head we were an unusual pair. I didn’t like having long hair but Mom wouldn’t have it any other way. My boyish protest got me nowhere.
The delusion was that we were spared the worst racism by the protection of the granite, flat-topped Table Mountain and the adjacent Twelve Apostles. It was a wishy-washy grab at absolution which over the years got blown out to sea by the ferocious Southeaster gale, the Cape Doctor,.
Now I can’t be sure when it was, but it must have been around the time when the war was over. Mom’s brothers came home safe and sound. I saw some of them in uniform. Dad’s brothers survived the war but I cannot recall them in uniform. Maybe they weren’t around and stayed overseas longer.
Dad summoned me with Brian, my older brother, into the sitting room. He told us that because I was about to start school, things had to change. Dad’s tone told me we were about to be a part of something I wanted no part of.
‘From this day on Cliffie must not enter our house through the front door. He must come in through the side door. Other than that, nothing will be changed.’ Dad trailed off saying that this was our country and that was how it had to be. His glass of whisky was lifted. It was his signal for us to leave.
Sitting with Brian in the hallway, I asked what he thought of what we’d been told. ‘It’s our father’s house,’ he answered. I said to Brian that earlier we’d been told we were all equal. Brian repeated ‘It’s our father’s house.’ I told Brian that I would no longer trust what our father said. Cliffie was our friend. Brian cried out, ‘it’s our father’s house,’ then ran off screaming at nobody. He was prone to that kind of thing. At about that time something stirred in my chest and I began coughing, which brought the first doctor to my bedside.
Whether anyone said anything to Cliffie I don’t know but from then on he came into the house through the door on the side stoep, or by the gate under the mango tree, past Lily’s hok and through the kitchen.
Lily took the three of us to the Natural History Museum, a vast Victorian stone pile shrouded in greenery, opposite the fountains in the Gardens. Inside, the museum was no more welcoming than from the outside. Brian dashed away followed by our older sister Lorna, telling him he must calm down and be quiet.
I wandered off and got lost. I found myself in the middle of a gallery surrounded by glass cabinets. What I saw was troubling and made my breathing laboured. With tears washing down my face I screamed.
Outside the museum Lily was probably scolding Lorna and Brian: How could they leave me behind? As it wasn’t a day for black visitors Lily was not supposed to go inside but when she heard me screaming, or felt it, she ignored the rules. A guard would have chased in after her. Outside of the Cape Province she would have been stopped and arrested.
When they got me outside, Lily massaged my chest and a guard brought a glass of water. The attack that was brought on left me too weak to walk. Lily carried me on her back all the way home. What had triggered the breathing attack was the sight of the big-bottomed, child-size, lifelike bands of Bush people in glass cabinets. It was not possible to ignore the obvious. Those faces were the saddest I have ever seen. They must have been hunted down and stuffed like animals. The extermination of the small people cried out from all the glass cabinets whichever way I turned.
The diagnosis of the attack in the museum was corroborated by a second doctor. I had asthma.
In 1948 the National Party led by the bureaucratic Doctor D F Malan, defeated the incumbent United Party led by the charismatic General Smuts, hero of two World Wars. This political upheaval was not dissimilar to what happened in Britain. Winston Churchill the illustrious war hero was defeated at the polls and replaced by the Labour Party led by Clement Atlee, another man with less glamour and a bureaucratic mien.
Malan’s Minister of Native Affairs Dr Hendrik Verwoerd who was born in the Netherlands was, like Malan, interned during wartime. Verwoerd came to be known as the architect of apartheid.
Not long after the Malan victory the family, including Cliffie and other neighbourhood kids, were gathered on the front stoep. Below, the garden was in full bloom with the scent of roses thick in the air. The wine red petals were like velvet to the touch. These unusual roses were cultivated by Visser, our magical gardener. The roses were much admired by passersby. Carved in stone at the front of the garden was the name of the house, Rose Villa.
Across the street a sleek black limousine was parked outside the Byblos – a residential home for retired Afrikaners. Their stoep was speckled with wheelchairs packed with Afrikaners too old to move by themselves.
A burley man in a black double-breasted suit was helped out of the limousine. He turned our way. I could almost feel Dad’s intake of breath. The man looked old but he had a kind face. The men in dark suits led him up the grassy slope and into the Byblos. Dad explained: that was our new Prime Minister, Doctor Malan, the hope of all our futures.
Mom perked up and said Dad talked nonsense. Malan was interned for German sympathy while her brothers were in uniform fighting Nazis. Dad objected; his brothers also served but many good friends were interned. Mom made a noise as if to say that proved her point. ‘You Namaqualand people stick together too much,’ she moaned and he told her not to be so difficult. ‘Malan flew overseas for the birth of the State of Israel with a ton of kosher boerewors (traditional sausage) announcing that the Afrikaners and the Jews were the chosen people and that what Hitler did was a mistake,’ Dad informed us and lit another Springbok cigarette, which he carried around in packs of fifty.
Mom persisted – once she had a grouch there was no stopping her – ‘Namaqualand was a terrible place, and as for Port Nolloth, no woman should live there, especially as a skivvy to aunty Bertha.’
‘I will never allow that foolish brother’s stupid wife across this threshold,’ Dad promised and Mom felt that was something worth saying.
I liked aunt Bertha who had left Port Nolloth in Namaqualand to live in nearby Orange Street. Aunt Bertha told me that she preferred me to her children. I thought that was a crazy thing to say, but she made the best cheesecake in the world. Her husband sat around like a vegetable in a brown suit. He kept his hat on, read the newspapers and did as he was told. If there was ever a force of nature, it had to be aunt Bertha. She arranged a lobotomy for her husband and so there he sat with half his brains stolen, while I guzzled cheesecake time and again.
Not long after seeing Prime Minister Malan and hearing about the kosher boerewors, I went to Springbok with Dad. Dad’s dispirited sister aunt Ray and cheerless uncle Philip were the last of our family left in Namaqualand.
It was a two-day journey with a stopover in Bitterfontein, the end of the railway line. Dad drove all the way without the stopover. Dad’s Pontiac was good for it and coped with the dirt roads for hundreds of miles. I loathed Springbok but got sent there often because the dry desert air was good for my chest.
While I was heading for the bleakest spot in Africa, Brian and Lorna got driven up the wonderful Garden Route for their holidays to stay with Dad’s twitchy-eyed brother who had a thriving medical practice in Port Elizabeth, played golf and collected art. This was the uncle who had given me the fold up cap that had disappeared. His tall, strident wife with a German background, aunt Appel, was also a favourite but wasn’t loopy. They had a daughter younger than me. She inherited her Dad’s twitch.
Dad seldom went back to Namaqualand so I asked Brian what was going on when I learnt he was taking me there. Brian answered and laughed his head off even though he hadn’t said anything funny, unless saying Dad wanted to meet a friend who was in an internment camp with the Prime Minister was a joke I could not understand.
I thought Dad might tell me about the friend he was hoping to see. He didn’t say anything but I already knew that the person was like a wartime enemy in a Captain America comic-book.
Dad switched off the engine and we bounced off the road. I had been asleep. When I woke we had parked. Dad was standing outside very still and smoking a cigarette. I sat up. We were floating in an endless sea of uninterrupted yellow gold. I got out carefully. The sight of so many flowers called for silence. Once we got underway, I was told about the rarity of such a gousblommetjie (daisies) blossoming. By tomorrow, after only a few days of life, the flowers would all be dead. We had made it just in time.
For the next hundred miles not a word passed between us. I was fast asleep when I was carried up over the huge boulder on which uncle’s house was built. I made myself stay awake while we sat in the glass enclosed veranda overlooking the street below, and one of the many Dutch Reformed Churches in Springbok. On Sundays the town would come alive with the ox drawn carts bringing in the Doppers (churchgoers) in tails and bonnets, dressed in black, carrying their shoes until they reached the church. It was like being in the heart of the platteland (hinterland) where the seminal ideas for apartheid first took root.
Dad was slicing off slivers of moist, cured Springbok. I could eat it forever. Everyone was laughing at me chewing and chewing, but I didn’t mind. Next to aunt Bertha’s cheesecake the best thing in the world was Namaqualand biltong. Nobody could slice a boudtjie (hindquarter) as expertly as Dad.
I should not have been standing on the road outside uncle Philip’s store. A fleet of sixteen wheel trucks from the copper smelting works in Port Nolloth came belting past. Dad put his handkerchief over my nose and mouth as the gravel surface churned up.
A barefoot giant in tight khaki shorts appeared out of the dust and crossed the street coming towards us. It could only be one person; Hitler’s friend, Robbie Leibrandt. During the war Robbie was landed from a U-boat on the coast near Port Nolloth, arrested as a spy and sentenced to death. It was a sentence that kept on being delayed.
Looking at the imposingly big man was like no one I’d seen before. Dad and Robbie embraced and spoke in that guttural Afrikaans peculiar to Namaqualand. Mom would not have approved of my meeting Meneer Leibrandt.
Dad introduced me. I was scooped up and sitting on his massive hand I was lifted up in the air. Some barefoot adults waved and applauded. Robbie and my Dad waved back. It was apparent that the ex-spy was more than welcome in Springbok. Robbie lowered me to the ground.
I was happy to have my bare feet back on earth. Robbie told Dad how well he was doing with his butcher’s shop, and he sold kosher boerwors. They both laughed at this. Robbie looked up at uncle’s place towering over us, whispered something to Dad, winked and squeezed the top of my head. The dust had almost settled by the time Robbie was out of sight.
Years later I was at the Goethe Institute in Exhibition Road, Kensington when I saw a photograph of Adolph Hitler with Robbie Leibrandt and Oswald Pirow the prosecutor for the 1956 Treason Trial which put Mandela on Robben Island. The photograph was taken in 1938. Robbie had competed in the 1936 Olympics when he was a light heavyweight contender.
During the next few years I often didn’t know what was going on. Constantly I was sequestered to my sickbed as the asthma worsened. I was too heady to be aware of what was happening. Life was a stream of gasping for breath with doctors coming and going, and mom at my bedside weeping. Brian complained about sharing his bedroom. My nightly groans and moans, coughing and spitting, with Mom in and out kept poor Brian awake all the time.
One day when everyone was out I rang the silver bell close by in readiness but nobody came. I reached under the bed but the pot to bring up in was gone. The phlegm was gathering and the floorboards were freshly polished. I slid out of bed. I slipped and fell. I held my hand over my mouth but that way no air could get in through my blocked nose. Like a broken crayfish I slithered and crawled. I got up and bumped into a hallway wall recently done. I could feel the pointed bits of plaster of Paris sticking into my shoulder. I almost didn’t make it in time.
Lily found me sprawled on the bathroom floor crying but I’d got all the phlegm into the lavatory. I was happy that it was Lily who found me first. She flushed the loo, washed my face and carried me back to bed. By the time she tucked me back into bed I had passed out, soothed by Lily’s smell of soap. No one else in the family smelt as clean as Lily.
For the next few years I was in and out of the sickbed. Mom carried on crying. Sister Lorna said my ill health was tough on everyone. Dad hardly spoke to me or looked my way. I got relegated to the dark room at the back of the house. Once I was out of his room Brian became solicitous. He boasted about opening his own gym and by the time he was eighteen, he’d pulled it off.
Brian subscribed to the monthly Ring Magazine, the bible of boxing. We followed the heavyweights avidly. We had our favourites and argued over who could outbox who. My opinion was that Jack Johnson was the best heavyweight ever. The only one who stood a chance against him would have been Joe Palooka the world champion in the comic books.
Illegally, Brian ran a gym in Skotches Kloof with Eddie Mathedis who was a bantamweight, ex Cape Province title holder but he was past his prime. With his tight coils of hair, his flattened features and his bum that stuck out, he was partially of Khoisan descent, or Strandlooper. His dream was one more crack at a National title.
Brian was the only white in the Cape Malay quarter. Cliffie and I would sneak in to skip and shadow box. The punchbags were sacks filled with sand. The equipment was minimal but it was building up. Most of the guys training in the hope of becoming professional were Xhosas. There were a lot of big guys, heavy-footed but strong and determined. The boxing ring was a makeshift arrangement of low benches shoved into a square. The floorboards were rotted, the plaster falling down and the single water tap was shared with the weightlifters in the other half of the rundown colonial Dutch YMCA building.
Inside the gym apartheid was a million miles away. We were openly welcomed by everyone except for stern kingpin heavyweight, Atwell. Brian was a fanatical trainer but he wasn’t much of a boxer. Brian was getting into promoting and dreaming of finding a world-class contender.
On the edges, apartheid was a leaky sieve. It was impossible to keep the holes plugged all the time which was probably how Brian managed to keep going in the boxing game without getting locked away. He wasn’t worried about the law but he had the sense not to look for trouble. Things were getting worse, especially up in the north of the country. Maybe it was the benign Cape Coloured influence that made it seem so laissez-faire, so looking the other way.
At our ‘white’ school, SACS (South African College School), colour was not as pure as the law demanded. The junior school had a tall, stooped, balding principal – Mr Hunter – with an oval shaped face and an anti-racist permissiveness. He had allowed a number of St John’s Orphanage boys into SACS, many of whom were borderline white. Hunter disregarded what the PTA (Parents Teachers Association) and the members of staff felt; apparently to the approval of parents who did not want to be known.
Hunter’s conscious oversight was continued into senior school because the St John’s boys were good scrappers. They provided some of the best hopes for the Lukin Shield, the boxing competition against Bishops, the highfalutin Anglican Church school.
Everyone was to some degree or other, proud of being at SACS. This went for the staff as well as the boys. SACS, the oldest white school in Africa, was founded by the arch buccaneer of the British Empire, Cecil John Rhodes of the Rhodes scholarship. All the boys in the Rakoff family went to SACS. Brian left senior school just before I started. He had failed his matriculation and was enrolled in a ‘crammer’ where he’d get the extra help he needed. Brian failed his exams repeatedly, which was more than Dad could tolerate. I did not want to follow in Brian’s footsteps.
Dad did not approve of my interest in the arts. I liked to make plasticine models and draw, especially when I couldn’t go out and play with the other kids. My showing interest in art was as abhorrent to Dad as Mom putting me in girlie clothes and her refusing to get my hair cut. As for my bouts in and out of the sickbed that was something he never discussed. Dad used to stand in the doorway watching me lying in bed while he was smoking though he knew it wasn’t good for my chest. He made it seem as if I became unwell to spite him.
In junior school I was supposed to have a flair for acting. I did a few school plays which Mr Hunter the Principal praised. He said I should become an actor. I suspect that had something to do with the fact that he got on so well with Mom. She was pretty. People were always saying that.
The roles I got given to act were girl parts. I accepted them because Miss Beaumont, our elocution teacher, was beautiful and I had a crush on her. She was always nice to me.
In the pit under the stage the other boys tried to look up Miss Beaumont’s skirt when she climbed the ladder. Stopping them, I nearly ruined my best dress for the part of the Queen. In class the boys brought mirrors to hold low to see under her dress. There wasn’t much I could do about that. Miss Beaumont kept me behind after class and asked what the fuss had been about. I couldn’t say anything, but I did blush. From the look on Miss Beaumont’s face I could tell she’d not seen anyone blush like that before. When I was younger, neighbours used to talk to me to see me blush. Mom never stopped them and there was nothing I could do. I was a walking light bulb. I never knew when I’d get switched on, or how to switch it off. Anyway, I wasn’t much good at protecting Miss Beaumont’s virtue.
Mom & Dad going to Namaqualand
We were told to look the other way. One did not need to see. You could feel how wrong it was. That’s why I followed the other, less travelled path
A Couple of Contenders
I was twelve years of age and Dad was worried that I’d never be capable of earning a living. So when it came to senior school I was put in a class with non-Latin learning boys which Dad thought was arty and unnecessary. I was frightened of Latin. I did not want to learn a dead language from a dry book. I put up no fight for Latin. I should have. Losing out on Latin was a mistake.
In our year the St John’s orphans got lumped into the same class as me, along with other potential roughnecks and dummies. It was soon apparent that our class was a vocal, irreverent bunch and in the running for banning orders. I got bullied but that turned around when it got known I knew about boxing.
We got saddled with a class Master who could not stand us. The feeling was mutual. Master Brown had been a teacher at a prominent boy’s school in England and felt he deserved better than us. He was an accomplished athlete, which didn’t rate as highly as rugby and cricket or even boxing, not with our lot.
Our unhappy Master Brown complained: Couldn’t we do anything that’d make our class distinctive other than boxing, which was a dead loss anyway because so many St John’s boys got disqualified for fouling. To mollify our class Master someone suggested we raise money for a charity. That, Master Brown thought, was good thinking. Ideas got bandied about. I suggested we do a magazine to sell for charity.
Brown liked the idea but he didn’t see how dunces like us could pull it off. This we ignored and someone said I’d have to be the editor. Suddenly I was the force behind The Hofmeyr News.
I placed the first issue The Hofmeyr News on Master Brown’s desk. He walked in, glanced at it and flipped it into the wastepaper basket, saying nothing. I tried to catch his eye. He was not looking my way. Stretching his arms he leant against the blackboard and adjusted his black teacher’s robe. Master Brown was a taut blowhard. He pontificated: ‘There were funny ideas about English literature going about. A novel just added to the curriculum will remedy that.’
His chalk screeched as he printed ‘Sir Francis Younghusband’ on the blackboard. The book was available at Millers in Adderly Street. None of us had heard of Younghusband.
I thought it might be a respite from Jane Austin and Shakespeare who were both looming ahead. I changed that hope when informed the book was about the failure to climb Everest in 1924. A book on mountaineering hardly sounded like literature.
It was a tricky line the senior school Headmaster Whiteford navigated. Our school was based on the English tradition but somewhere along the way had acquired a liberal reputation. It was not clear to see but it suggested that Whiteford had little sympathy for apartheid. It needed an exceptional Headmaster to keep SACS afloat in such harrowing political times. Whiteford was the man for the job. He was hard but he was respected. He sailed a tight course above it all.
Whiteford with his jutting out jaw and his cement like cheeks was a veritable force of nature. Everyone backed away when we heard the scratch of his walking stick. As he limped past we held our breath until his billowing black cape disappeared from sight. Whiteford nodded here and there but seldom stopped to converse with anyone, except William the aged bell ringer and janitor.
William had worked at SACS forever and to see him shuffling about was like watching history with the colour system in suspension. William might have been black but he was no one’s servant. He exuded something not dissimilar to what came off Lily Mabusela. The boys never treated William with anything less than respect, no matter what their white or off-white backgrounds might have been. I used to chat with William a lot. He was not slow in telling me off. He could see through me, he said and it was true. But deep down, he was on my side.
With his chin William pointed at the hexagonal mounted sundial in the centre of the cobblestoned quadrangle. A solitary senior sat on the top step with his hands clasped between his knees and a sad look on his face. Anyone who knew him swerved aside as they rushed past. No one greeted him or stopped to chat.
William looked back and forth between us. I shook my head. ‘I’m not like him,’ I told William. He said he understood that, but I was much younger and who could say what would become of me. ‘William I am not a communist,’ I insisted. William’s hand rose and fluttered. Communist was the one word no one was supposed to even think, let alone say. ‘I know that too,’ William muttered, ‘and sometimes you manage to be likeable.’
I could never tell if William was joking or smiling as he ran circles around me. It was when he started to sigh that I knew it was time for me to go and leave William alone. I skirted the quad to avoid eye contact with the solitary senior, not that eye contact was possible with him. To have him on my side could ruin everything – whatever that might mean for the future.
Back inside the classroom: Brown was thumping the blackboard. Anyone not taking Younghusband seriously would be punished. Brown stared at me. He often did that, as if to remind me how much he disliked me. Brown was the dimmest member of staff which, for me, meant the most dangerous. Under my desk, I clenched my fists. Sitting next to me, bandy-legged Nel, a St John’s bigmouth, prodded my foot and winked. I smiled and Brown shrieked, ‘pay attention.’
Brown could not help but notice how everyone kept on looking at the wastepaper basket on the floor beside his feet which when he was annoyed he was inclined to tap. It was a nervous reaction indicative of his wanting to be somewhere else, anywhere else. Brown was often spotted out on the track running alone in the dawn light. Athletics was his metier and he had an aversion to a smart alec type like me.
Nel sometimes teased me, calling me ‘Genius Jones’ which was a lot kinder than being called ‘fatty.’ On hearing ‘Genius Jones’, Brown sucked in his breath with a whistling noise, but said nothing. I tried not to alienate Brown, but I could never pull that off.
The bell went. As soon as Brown left the room we gathered round the wastebasket and stared at the corpse of The Hofmeyr News. Young Billy – as he was nicknamed – was disappointed. He’d put a lot into making up the crossword puzzle and was already busy with one for another issue. The Bland twins were equally upset. They’d written about running and had thought that Brown, the fervent athlete, would appreciate it. The Bland twins were the fastest in the class and making a reputation on the track. The one twin was perky and good-looking. The other was sloppy and a bit slow upstairs, but fast on the track. Which of the two was the fastest was anybody’s guess.
Nel disliked Brown more than most of us did. It was clear that Brown enjoyed making digs at Nel. It was unfair, but Brown seemed unable to stop himself. Nel took it on the chin. Nel was gutsy and game but there was something shifty about him, and possibly lascivious. I’d heard the word used to describe the Cape Coloured people. It was what white people did not have. The other word was hedonistic which was also used to describe the Coloureds. Lascivious and hedonistic: Those were words it would be foolish to speak or write down. One could end up sitting alone on a stone step in the quad.
Nel asked me without any beating about the bush: Was Brown’s attitude towards him anything to do with the fact that he had a dark complexion? I told Nel to forget it. I couldn’t bring myself to say he was misreading Brown, because I did not think he was.
I saw English immigrants to SA as coming with readymade prejudice, keen to take advantage of being white and advance their position. Brown was one of them. People like that knew what they were coming to. The benefits were obvious, unless you had no conscience.
My opinion on the English stemmed from our infamous neighbour, the elegant bachelor, Tommy Boydell. He had migrated from England. He had become a trade union leader and subsequently a Member of the Cape Parliament. He had an off-putting manner. His career was packed with rebuttal.
When we were kids we used to sneak into the Boydell grounds and scale the walls to steal apricots and loquats. Sometimes, a servant would appear out of the rundown house and chase us but they never set the dogs on us. Tommy was well-spoken and a bit of a dapper Dan. Finally in his retiring years which was when we used to see him parading around the neighbourhood, he’d become an apologist and publicist for the apartheid regime. Boydell was an equivalent to the British Lord Haw-Haw on the wireless during the Second World War. Boydell declaimed the righteous cause of apartheid, harping on bible based Christianity.
Boydell always stopped to admire our roses. Visser often gave him one, but not my father. Dad knew what Boydell stood for and why he was always going overseas. Tommy Boydell was the most English of the English that I met.
We all mucked in typing in the stencils for the mimeograph machine. We Roneod twice as many copies for the second issue of The Hofmeyr News and sold the lot. A copy of the second issue duly reached the wastepaper basket and nothing was said. Nonetheless, Nel put it about that the third issue was in the pipeline and he looked forward to the development of the hatred in my serial on Jack Johnston, the boxing champion. Nel asked if there really was a black champion, or was it made up? I said there was and suggested Nel ease up on going around talking up the boxing serial, but he reckoned that it needed to be spoken about.
Nel did not extend the hand of friendship, not really, but he was The Hofmeyr News’s best publicist.
I thought everything was going okay but something did not feel right. What concerned me was what would Brown make of The Hofmeyr News when he got round to reading it. The magazine was produced under his official jurisdiction. Like it or not, we were his boys. He’d have to read The Hofmeyr News sometime. If he had I was sure he’d have had something to say.
Meanwhile we read Younghusband’s book. How a teacher of literature could describe the ramblings in a colonial favour as a novel was really pushing credibility to extremes. Did they reach the top? How did they die? Did I care? Everyone in class loved it with the exception of fat Cyril. He called it tosh, but not in front of Master Brown. Fat Cyril was too shrewd and self protecting for that.
When Brown got round to me I mumbled my way out of saying anything, but that didn’t satisfy him. Leaning with his knuckles on the edge of my desk, Brown labelled me a sorry case and asked why I was the way I was. I promised to improve. What else could I do? ‘You have no idea what I mean!’ He shrieked and slapped his wooden ruler between my hands saying that’s precisely what he was getting at. Moaning with disgust he gave up on me. Brown turned away with a smirk of triumph. That was what I considered a relatively easy escape.
The third issue of The Hofmeyr News also sold out. I’d done the editorials, writing what I wanted, without rubbing noses into anything, or so I thought. Eulogizing over the most hated black man of the 20th century might have ruffled some feathers; that is if anyone in white South Africa knew about Jack Johnson winning the world heavyweight boxing championship in 1908, becoming the first black man to do that. Across the States rioting and lynching followed.
Generally in that society, and certainly at school, anything not approved of, tended to get swept under the carpet. There was a strong underlying tendency to protect the school’s reputation from going to the dogs which went double for anything to do with the law. Communism was the big red demon of white South African dreams. Communists were suspected of hiding under every bed. It was similar to the paranoia sweeping the United States driven by the witch-hunting Senator Joseph McCarthy. Pinko orientation was taboo. It was a subject not discussed.
Dr Freund, our music appreciation teacher, was a big man with thinning red hair, a thick German accent and a benign sentiment. More than other Masters he came across as cultured. I liked to think I had something in common with him. He was unusually friendly and curious about my artistic leanings which had led to my weekly visits to Rondebosch Girl’s school. I’d won an art talent award which was set up by the junior school principal, Mr Hunter, before he was suspended, possibly for not applying the segregation laws strictly enough. That’s how Nel had slipped through the net and got placed in a white-only school (slegs blankes).
Attending art classes at Rondebosch Girls made me a gender anomaly but I never minded being a boy amongst girls.
Dad didn’t like my having ‘special’ art lessons with girls but it did prompt him to get me in with an American art teacher who lived round the corner. Miss Lusk drove a battered ex US army jeep and wore a white leather jacket. She was an attractive woman of mature years. She was stout and hard living with a penchant for driving fast and a liking for alcohol. She reeked of booze more than Dad. I liked her and she liked me. I don’t know if I learnt much but I looked forward to my afternoons with her for years until she vanished under a cloud.
Freund approached me. Did I have plans for another issue of The Hofmeyr News? I replied I wasn’t sure. He thought I should join the Civic Society which he was in charge of. I’d have time to spare when The Hofmeyr News was closed down, wouldn’t I? What did Doctor Freund know that I didn’t? What was he getting at? If there was something going on that I didn’t know about, it was bound to be known by William who would be in his alcove beneath the stairs.
I asked William what he knew. He knew nothing about The Hofmeyr News but there was the latest issue lying at his foot which was shaking. Initially I thought that sporadic foot shaking had some significance but I’d long ago decided that it didn’t mean anything. He’d obviously read The Hofmeyr News but so far I had not managed to draw an opinion out of him. I asked him directly. In reply he asked why I’d written about the most hated black man in American history. Was I stupid?
Master Brown was furious. Spluttering, he called me a thief. He told me to shut up when I tried to speak, shook the third issue of The Hofmeyr News and slapped it on his desk. Again he told me to shut up, though I hadn’t tried to say a word. The long and short of it was The Hofmeyr News was over, and I was branded a thief. Nel called out. He was the treasurer so if there was anything wrong it was his fault. Master Brown reminded Nel that the editor was in charge. Nel persisted, he was sure there was no money missing. Brown, showing his mouthful of overcrowded teeth, snarled, he knew that there was too much cash in the kitty, which was even worse than too little. The veins on Brown’s forehead seemed to take on a life of their own.
Nel opened his mouth but nothing came out. Brown shouted for him to keep his nose out of it. It was the editor’s responsibility. I felt squashed between Kafka and McCarthyism – under investigation with no defence and no way out. Brown thumped the blackboard, and spun round. Sweat dribbled down his temple, slithering over magnified veins. Brown was a portrait of disintegration. He was sweating everywhere. His features were straight out of a silent German film, with expressions larger than life.
Van Schalkwyk, a cheerless fellow with a pallid complexion asked if closing down included the Afrikaans version. Brown’s eyes nearly popped out of his skull. He threw a piece of chalk. It was a good throw. Holding his cheek, Schalkwyk whined.
I often walked home with van Schalkwyk. I never would’ve thought he’d have the wit to invent the idea of an Afrikaans version of The Hofmeyr News. Schalkwyk lived around the corner from Welgemeend Street in a grey house with grey parents. His father worked on the railways.
Nel called out that the Afrikaans version of The Hofmeyr News was going to be bigger and better. Brown lunged. Nel fell back and leapt aside. Brown lowered his hands and turned towards me. Gasping for breath, he said he’d always thought I was dishonest and too clever for my own good. Someone scrunched up a piece of paper and flung it. It ricocheted off the back of Brown’s neck. The boys began stamping their feet. Brown started shouting and the bell went.
Everyone charged out. I couldn’t move. I had to stop myself from bawling. Brown slumped in his chair and buried his face in his hands. He waved me out and I left.
Out in the corridor the boys were waiting. Someone asked me what we’d do next. The seeds were sewn. Something had been unleashed; a blow against authority had been struck. Hancock held his clasped hands over his head and shook them triumphantly. I thought he was unusually reticent. He’d thrown the scrunched paper that struck Brown. Hancock was one of the biggest guys in class. If there was a malevolent leader in our class, Hancock was it. He wore glasses with the thickness of a windowpane. I felt uncomfortable around Hancock.
It was early on a Saturday morning. I hadn’t seen Dad but I smelt his cigarette smoke. Dad appeared from the side stoep. Tipping ash between the rose bushes he asked why I kept on with that comic book nonsense. Didn’t the boys at school laugh at me? I answered that none of them knew about my Saturday morning habit. I kept it to myself.
Dad took a deep puff and told me that he wasn’t driving me to Signal Hill on Sunday to swap more comics. That was all over, no matter what I thought. I said I hadn’t expected him to drive to Signal Hill but he was not listening. Saying I was a lost cause, he lit another cigarette and strolled indoors. I couldn’t hear anything but I knew it was the whisky calling.
All week I’d been looking forward to going to the Saturday morning bioscope. I took plenty to swap but not as many as when Brian helped me to carry them. He always left the swapping to me.
I reached the Coliseum hours before it opened. There were a few boys already in the queue. It was some time since my last Saturday morning visit. By now I was one of the oldest along with another fatty, Peter Boxall who lived on Signal Hill. He was at the head of the queue, as ever. The two of us were all that remained of the old crowd. It was still only American comics. No one collected or swapped the English comics. Some things had not changed.
In the past on Sunday mornings Dad used to drive me to Peter’s. His aunt’s home was set apart on the slopes above Skotches Kloof below Signal Hill. Peter lived there with his grey-haired spinster aunt who needed a stick to walk with. It was big with no servants. There were lace curtains worn with age, frayed carpets and threadbare sofas. There was a musty dryness about the double storey Victorian monolith. The wind whistled around the house. When the seasonal Southeaster – the Cape Doctor – was blowing, the windows rattled and something always seemed to be creaking. It felt as if the place would fall apart. When leaving I held my comics tight so that if I got blown over the last thing to go would be my grip on the comic books. I didn’t want them blown out to sea.
The tea was tepid and too milky and the biscuits dried out. Nothing could dispel the strange atmosphere. None of it mattered as sprawled on the carpet we were surrounded by comics. Peter had more to swap than me because after the morning at the Coliseum he’d spend the afternoon at the Marine bioscope in Sea Point, adding more swaps with his stash. I never liked the Marine bioscope but I couldn’t say why. It might have been that I was always eager to get home and read my latest swaps. By Sunday morning I was ready for more.
I knew this would be my last visit. With my health improving I would no longer be able wriggle out of Saturday morning cricket in summer and rugby in winter. I was scheming to get out of rugby which was so emblematic of the Afrikaners. I wanted to play hockey instead. Whoever said it was a girl’s game had not played hockey on gravel instead of grass.
Peter and I had closed in on a couple of younger boys. The swapping was going well. The kids wanted Disney which I was keen to get rid of. I liked Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck but that was it.
I heard a whistle and knew it was meant for me. I left Peter haggling with the kids. Standing on the corner was a gang of familiar skollies. I approached them and asked about absent faces: Some had been picked up and put in reform school. Others got shot making a run for it. It went on like that – all unhappy endings. None of the skollies stood close to me. At a glance I looked like a passing stranger. It would be assumed that a white boy had nothing to do with the skollies. I heard the kids start screaming. The bioscope gates were being pushed open. I ran to join the throng, squeezed in behind Peter and bought several tickets.
Peter hurried away. He wanted no part of what I was up to. That was the last time I saw him. I never went back to the house on Signal Hill.
Returning to the street corner I dished out the tickets. One by one the gang slipped inside as best they could. If they made it in without being stopped for not being white enough, I sat with them, four rows from the back. It was a dark spot where their colour had a good chance of going unnoticed. They had taught me how to smoke dagga. They’d started me on it when I was eight years old and my brother wasn’t around.
The time came. I agreed to join the Civic Society. I was set to do a talk about 1950s America through the comic books. Freund was chaffed because there was a good turnout. I laid some comics on the desk in front of him. He deferred to me with politeness. He pulled the chair out for me and sat himself at a desk in the front row facing me.
I compared the comic books to Hollywood and Jazz; the American 20th century cultural holy trinity. Master Freund scowled. He had little interest in any non-classical music until I reminded him that Hitler hated jazz. That got a laugh. Freund was a survivor from a concentration camp though he seldom referred to life in Germany.
I began with the Superheroes who first featured in comic books before the Second World War. They were massively popular but there was always a snobby attitude towards comic books.
The comic book creators were young and many of them were from immigrant and refugee backgrounds. None came from the WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) elite who since the end of the 19th century dominated the newspaper comic strips. It was Superman who led the way in 1938.
I had a 1951 Captain Marvel Adventures with an obtuse relevance to the hatemongering activities of anti-Communist Senator Joseph McCarthy. I showed the comic around and read aloud about the town of Perfection and how Captain Marvel, without his superpowers, got the idealistic bigots to laugh at themselves and defeat social prejudice which I related to race prejudice. The Captain Marvel vignette was chilling, but presented in a jokey fashion to appear innocuous. Otherwise it might never have seen the light of day in American publishing.
I was asked about Superman. I answered: ‘He might have been banned or too busy suing Captain Marvel for plagiarism.’ This got a laugh because everyone thought I was joking. I wasn’t.
Freund started clapping. He’d never thought comic books could be so grown up. It was an interesting meeting and he looked forward to the next one, but who was Senator McCarthy? I started to speak about the witch-hunt against communism.
Within seconds the classroom was empty and I was alone with Freund. He tried to say something more. His mouth hung open for a moment, then flapped shut and he walked out. No one liked to hear any reference to communism, good or bad. The subject was too hot to handle. I gathered up the comic-books wondering about Freund. Was he serious when he implied that he did not know who the Senator from Wisconsin was?
He was my hero, but the law said he was a criminal.
I wanted to follow in his footsteps.
I too would become a criminal in the eye of the law.
A Couple of Contenders
Fat Cyril was waiting for me in the corridor. He wanted me to visit him at home. This was said with an air of mystery. Cyril lived with his mother on the far side of the reservoir. It was not a pleasant walk alongside the choppy water in a windblown winter. It was a brooding stretch of water. It was daytime but the greenery of The Gardens looked dull and the sky was dark.
The front of Cyril’s house was obscured by a sagging tree with broad leaves and heaving with ripening figs pecked by the birds and infested with ants. I kicked some of them off the pavement and into the gutter.
Settling into the living room I was given hot tea and homemade biscuits. Cyril carried it in, not his Mom. I never got to meet her. Cyril was edgy. I asked what he’d got me over for, had another biscuit and drank more tea. He didn’t answer. He peered out into the street, shut the window and closed the curtain in spite of it being a hot day. Then he stood on a chair and reached behind a row of jazz records, stepped down and held out an LP sized package with Canadian stamps.
Cyril drew a vinyl LP out of a blank white sleeve with a serial number on it. I thought it must be smut. ‘It’s not something dirty,’ Cyril assured me, placing the record on the turntable. He refilled my cup. I added sugar. I suffered from a sweet tooth. I munched another biscuit.
The arm dropped and the needle scratched. The voices sounded American but not quite. It was a play for wireless produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. It started innocuously enough: A plane crash was presented as news documentary set in the States. The infamous Senator, known as the investigator or inquisitor, was amongst the dead. No one had survived. It took a moment for me to realize it was meant to be the infamous, witch-hunting, Senator Joseph McCarthy. Only he would have the gall to interrogate and accuse St Peter at the gates. It was hilarious from then on and it didn’t let up for a moment. I had read about the witty Canadian radio satire in foreign magazines as it was banned in South Africa. Titled The Investigator it was never aired in the States but was circulated on the underground network selling 100,000 copies. I was glued to the play as it spiralled into a scurrilous lampoon about Senator Joseph McCarthy dishing it out in Heaven and in Hell, outdoing the most iniquitous Inquisitors in history. Torquemada of the Spanish Inquisition paled into insignificance alongside the Senator.
Cyril, listening for the umpteenth time, was also shaking with laughter. The Senator spoke with the same nasal whine we’d heard in the newsreels. Finally, the Senator accused the big Chief himself – God – of being a subversive. The Senator was rejected by Heaven and Hell and despatched back to earth to plague America. Lastly, he was accusing the army of being unpatriotic and was aiming to nail the President.
Without much ado, I told Cyril what I had in mind. He was appalled, ‘its commie propaganda,’ he protested, ‘it’s been banned. If I was caught with it, I could be thrown in jail!’
Freund was going to be busy and could not be present so I was getting a free rein to conduct the next meeting of the Civic Society.
I introduced The Investigator, saying our national censor was thicker than a policeman and we could all be rebels together. I held the door open. No one stirred. I shut the door and dropped the needle on the record. Cyril slipped in. He’d said he wasn’t going to come but there he was. I hadn’t told anyone who I got the record from.
At the end, the boys were exhausted from laughing so much. I had to be prodded to lift the needle and put the LP back into its blank white sleeve. I unplugged the record player to return it to Freund’s office. No one was looking at anyone. They were all equally guilty of listening, condemned by their own laughter. One by one they looked at me. I was smiling. My smile spread. I glimpsed Cyril’s face. He looked relieved and slipped out before anyone had a chance to move.
The hulking Wilhelm Steenkamp pretended he was going to strangle me. Then he flung his hands down. Steenkamp’s response did it. He was hardcore Afrikaans, a solid fellow who usually kept to the background. The other boys filed out. A few gave me a mock salute and a couple gestured the pulling of a zip across their mouths.
What report could I fabricate for Dr Freund to keep him on my side? It would have to be a convincing whopper. I was not a natural born liar but it was impossible not to be a liar in our country. If there wasn’t a law one could be made up. All the time one heard stories that never reached the newspapers. The slightest whiff of anything suspect and I’d be in big trouble. However, I was not worried about being caught out for playing The Investigator. I didn’t think any of the boys would snitch on me. If it had been a bigger gathering with boys I was less familiar or friendly with I definitely would have been worried. I could not have felt safer. I didn’t feel threatened, not on this occasion.
I was at Steenkamp’s place, a comfortable fortress up the mountainside in Tamboers Kloof. We sat on a balcony overlooking The Gardens below us. He handed me his binoculars. Welgemeend Street looked greener. One could see the heat rising. Welgemeend Street must have been like an oven.
Wilhelm went rigid. Reggie, his stepbrother, had come in. He stood behind us in the balcony doorway. I turned and nodded. Reggie had been at SACS but was moved to another school. Reggie was blond, fair skinned and slight. By contrast, Wilhelm was built like an ox and moved as if he was in the middle of a scrum. Reggie, looking out of place as he always did, left. Not a word had been spoken.
Wilhelm and I moved into the cool of the sitting room. A maid in a white apron brought tea. Wilhelm got up and took the tray. He told her that I was from Namaqualand she had nothing to worry about. I spoke to the girl in Xhosa. From her features I’d assumed that’s what she was but she answered me in Afrikaans. She could not speak that language she said softly and left the room. Wilhelm had not told her she could go.
Wilhelm couldn’t see any point in knowing native languages. I said Xhosa and Zulu should be on our school curriculum but instead the government was promoting Afrikaans. Steenkamp held up his hands. He did not want to discuss politics. I was about to say why not, but thought better of it. I asked about the maid’s situation. Wilhelm replied that they’d thought she was indigenous to the Cape but she’d been reclassified as native. So unless his Senator father could pull strings she’d be deported to the Transkei. They had issued her a Pass Book and her time was running out.
Wilhelm opened a photo album. I saw his father and grandfather graduating in medicine in Holland and then later when they both became senators. Two men stood on top of an elephant they had shot. It was both our fathers in Namaqualand. I’d seen Dad with wild animals but only on 16mm film.
Wilhelm wanted to know what had made me play that record to the Civic Society. Was it part of a plan? I said it wasn’t. Wilhelm said no one would tell on me. We were juveniles but that wasn’t much protection and I needed to bear that in mind.
I returned The Investigator to Cyril. He had found out more about the banned LP. When the Canadian author, Reuben Ship, was working in Hollywood he was summoned by HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) to betray his colleagues but he refused to blab. Afterwards, when he was in hospital the authorities came, handcuffed him and deported him to Canada. If he’d been an American citizen he’d have been imprisoned.
Cyril didn’t want the record back. He wanted me to keep it. I didn’t want it. We stamped it to smithereens, and dumped the bits.
Early on a chilly winter’s morning Lorna bundled me up and took me to the parking lot on The Parade. She spoke to the driver of a battered, mud splattered coach. He instructed me to sit at the back. Lorna walked away to where she’d parked her grey Morris Minor.
The other passengers wore suits and ties and smoked as much as Dad. They could have been students from the University of Cape Town who probably lived in nearby District Six, a melting pot of race diversity. A church faced a mosque. Sailors on docking went straight for District Six and the pretty Malay girls with no front teeth. The Xhosa on the coach didn’t look like servants or houseboy types and were probably in Cape Town illegally. The passengers were travelling, like me, to see Windermere before it was too late.
A Xhosa lady waved at me and pointed. I dropped in my seat as two policemen in brown uniforms strolled by. They banged the side of the coach. The driver made an announcement. The passengers turned and smiled at me. As we drove away I saw the policemen aiming with their fingers and shooting at us. Rocking with laughter they stamped the ground.
The Xhosa lady came to the back of the coach and sat with me. She told me not to be worried. She knew Lorna from the Health Clinic. She scooted back to her seat leaving me less frightened. What Health Clinic? Where? I had no idea what she referred to. I was sure Lorna would have told me if I needed to know.
We drove through Clarendon Square past the central police station and out of Cape Town.
Walking through the cardboard and corrugated iron tin shacks I was kept in the centre of the tour group. Some sandwiches were passed around. I shared the pakkie Lorna had made for me. The Xhosa lady caught me as I slipped on a wet plank over slushy ground.
We were shown inside the shacks and when there was anywhere to sit, we sat. Sometimes a candle was lit. Outside it was too bright and inside it was too dark. In one shack a couple from the tour group handed out pamphlets. One of our group leaned over the candle to write something. The Xhosa lady shook a finger at him and he stopped writing. Brushing the flies away we carried on. I made no attempt to write anything down. Lorna had advised me not to.
We gathered around a standpipe with a tin mug dangling from the locked tap. Women and kids with plastic buckets formed a queue. A man with missing teeth and ragged short pants stepped around the puddles and swayed towards the standpipe calling out; A penny for small buckets and tuppence for big ones.
I sipped from the Xhosa lady’s hand. It was cold and tasted clean. My penny was shoved back into my pocket. I got a whiff of the nauseating spillage drunk by the penniless. I noticed the Xhosa lady eyeing some skollies following us but they drifted off without making trouble. Further on it was tsotsis (Township gangsters) following us with their eyes and stepping round the puddles to avoid anything messing their smart suits. The Xhosa lady shouted at kids and passers-by watching us with suspicion. Slight breezes were a warning to hold our noses. The stench was overwhelming. I worried that I might feel unwell, but it didn’t happen. Some of those on the tour held a hanky over their noses but most of us did not do that, no matter how vile the smell became.
The driver was kicking the tyres to check them. As we left the squalor of Windermere behind us there was a feeling of relief all round. It wouldn’t do to be in Windermere after dark for any of us. I had asked about the Clinic where Lorna was a volunteer and looked to see if I could find it, but saw no sign of it. I didn’t think I should ask again.
The Xhosa lady asked why I came on the tour. I told her about a talk I planned on race. It was the first time that I had articulated the idea. It’s why I wanted to see what Township life was like and Windermere had been in the news. My idea for this talk had been simmering for sometime but it hadn’t surfaced till I mentioned it to the Xhosa lady.
She was disapproving: I was too young for politics. Did I want trouble? I answered I didn’t want anything. She found that reply amusing.
I’d been to Brian’s gym a few times. I skipped and shadow boxed. Sometimes I got a go with a pair of mitts on the punchbag – a hessian sack filled with sea sand. I kept to the sidelines, trying not to get in the way of the training. Brian left me to my own devices but Eddie gave me pointers on stance and how to punch. Equipment was in short supply. Brian had plans to scrounge a proper punchbag and more boxing gloves. These things were expensive but it was building up. It was better going to the gym when Cliffie was there which was when he came home for the holidays. His school was too far away to just pop in like I could.
When Cliffie was back at home, he’d meet Brian every day to go running. They’d set off early morning and run for miles getting as far as the Green Point Lighthouse. When the police stopped them Brian did the talking. As long as those jaapies (rural fools) didn’t find the gym, Brian was not complaining.
Atwell the heavyweight was sullen and a bully. He was strong, with a good punch but ultimately he was too slow for Eddie and Brian to see him as a contender. However, there was no one else in the gym who could stand up to him. Atwell’s dominance was not good for the gym. Eddie and Brian reckoned the only solution to put him in his place was to get him into the ring against someone he wouldn’t be able to push around. Brian was working at it.
One day, I arrived when Atwell was pummelling Cliffie in the makeshift ring. He outweighed Cliffie by a couple of stones. Over the last few years Cliffie had filled out but he was no match for a heavyweight, though he knew when to duck and was fast on his feet. Brian reckoned that if Cliffie trained fulltime, he had the makings of a champ.
Atwell plodded around inside the ring. Cliffie was smart enough to see the blows coming. Atwell was puffed but not badly. He had Cliffie on the back foot. Cliffie couldn’t keep backpedalling forever. It looked like Atwell was going to nail him, but taking his time. Eddie and Brian tried to intervene but Atwell wouldn’t have any of it. Cliffie would not turn tail even though there was no shame, given the disparity in weight.
‘Why doesn’t somebody do something?’ a voice I didn’t know asked me. I turned to face a well built fellow in an expensively tailored dark suit, with billowing trousers tight on the ankles. He was a tsotsi and incensed by Atwell bullying Cliffie. Hurriedly the tsotsi stripped to the waist whilst watching the unfair fight. Atwell was pummelling a cornered Cliffie who had a good defence but it was sagging.
The tsotsi held out his hands and I snatched a pair of gloves and laced him up while walking backwards towards the ring. ‘Kid Kussie,’ the tsotsi introduced himself to me, then stepped over one of the low benches comprising the ring and shoved himself in front of Cliffie. Atwell did not stop the swing he already had underway but all it caught was empty air. Eddie and Brian stepped over a bench behind Cliffie and bundled him unceremoniously out of the ring.
Atwell took another swing and connected with the side of Kussie’s head. Kussie did not flinch. He thrust both hands straight ahead and Atwell stumbled backwards. Kussie jumped forwards, swinging wildly. Atwell effortlessly deflected every blow. Atwell kept out of harm’s way easily. Rolling his shoulders and winding himself up to get going, Atwell put on an ugly smile. Whoever the newcomer was, Atwell reckoned he was going to wipe the floor with him.
Standing in the middle of the makeshift ring, Kussie lowered his arms. Atwell unleashed a flurry of blows, striking Kussie on the torso and on the face. Kussie appeared completely impervious to the assault. He swayed slightly. He flicked his head, but nothing managed to rock him or seemed to affect him in the slightest. He was indifferent to every blow Atwell landed. Everyone stopped training and watched. Brian covered his face. Veteran Eddie shook his head. Gasping for breath Atwell stopped and dropped his arms, staring at Kussie with disbelief. Kussie threw one punch right from the shoulder. Everyone heard the sound of bone crunching. Atwell fell backwards with blood spurting from his face and sank onto a bench. He tried to stand but couldn’t lift himself. The gym was silent.
Kussie was already out of the ring. He heard a piercing whistle from outside. I unlaced him faster than when I had put the gloves on. I wiped him down with my towel as he got back into his shirt and his jacket. He patted me on the cheek, called me whiteboy and smiled. I waved but he had his back to me and couldn’t have seen it.
Brian and Eddie called out and chased after Kussie but they weren’t fast enough. I held my towel to my face and inhaled. I could smell him. I would not throw that towel into the wash at home. I’d hold onto it. I had just encountered my first superhero in the flesh. I knew he’d come back. He had to. I had nothing else to live for. That’s what it felt like.
Brian and Eddie had to shout to get everyone back into training. They’d all noticed the expensively tailored clothes and the voluminous trousers narrow at the ankles for running fast. The style meant tsotsi, the most feared habitués of Township life but that didn’t matter. The mysterious tsotsi was without question a real contender. All he needed was to learn how to box.
However, Brian and Eddie reckoned that whoever he was he would not return. I told them his name and insisted that Kussie would come back to the gym. Brian asked why I was so sure but I had no answer.
For the rest of the week I got to Brian’s gym most afternoons but there was no sign of Kussie. The following Monday, Kussie strode into the gym.
He trained hard but he did what he wanted to do. He made a joke out of everything Brian and Eddie tried to tell him. He was his own master until Eddie put the gloves on to give him a few pointers. It seemed like a joke. Kussie was so big and Eddie so small. Eddie seldom put the gloves on but there he was running around the ring striking at will and deflecting every blow. Nothing that Kussie threw could penetrate Eddie’s defence. One blow got through and though only a glancing one, had Eddie reeling. Brian stepped between them. He could not afford for Eddie to get damaged. Brian had arranged a match. Eddie was stepping out of retirement to fight Jake Tuli, the Commonwealth flyweight title holder.
Brian said something to Kussie and after that the contender listened to every word that Eddie had to say. Eddie did not put the gloves on with Kussie again. Brian warned me not to get attached to Kid Kussie because he was what he was and anything to do with him was going to be a lost cause.
I didn’t care what Brian said. I knew what I felt. Kussie was the most inspiring person I had met. I knew he could have killed or murdered. It’s what a tsotsi did. Kussie called me a white boy. I couldn’t deny it. Kussie was my hero who’d stepped out of a comic. He was a contender. He was the nearest thing to Jack Johnson that I was ever likely to meet.
Like Kussie, I too was in the running for becoming a contender, though not in the ring. I might become a white tsotsi but not a boxer. I was fourteen years old, going on fifteen. Of course I wasn’t really a contender or likely to ever be one, but Captain Marvel certainly was. Come to think of it there was a similarity, in shape and in stance and in general demeanour to Kid Kussie.
Feeling superior is bad enough but to see others as inferior is worse.
Speaking any kind of truth guarantees nothing, not when minds are set.
Against the Tide
I was sprawled on the side stoep. I waved my hand, playing with the shadows cast by overhanging grapes. The ruby bunches were almost ripe. It’d be a race to get to them before the birds. Whenever Visser sprayed insecticide I was kept away because of the asthma. I reckoned that no longer mattered. My illness was a thing of the past, but Mom wouldn’t hear of it. I didn’t like to argue about anything with Mom. At the drop of a hat she could burst into tears. I’d found that more frightening than my wheezing.
I heard Visser turning on the sprinklers for the lawn. Mom always wanted me to keep away from the lawn as she believed my playing on grass could bring on an asthma attack. Whenever I thought Mom was nowhere near, I would play on the grass and she’d be proved right.
Whilst at school I’d started playing rugby and nothing asthmatic happened, but we practiced more on mud than grass. There wasn’t much attention given to religion at school which I felt was a good thing. Rugby was the religion. I did not like playing rugby but I participated. I liked going to school and I made sure I would not be left behind in anything, no matter what. I wanted to make up for the things I might have lost out on when I’d been in bed with poor health.
For the moment I wanted to discard thought and enjoy my favourite part of the garden. I was tempted to take off my socks and shoes and scramble down off the stoep and find out if I was still good at climbing the lemon tree. Its drooping branches creaked with every breath of wind. In younger years the challenge was to scale the branches, stepping barefoot between the thorns, pluck a lemon with thick pulpy skin and devour it before the tears blinded, and my features scrunched up with sourness.
The wind moved through pawpaw trees, taller than the fig trees and dwarfing the lemon. The branchless pawpaw swayed ominously. I had my eye on one which I thought might be the first to go if the wind got strong enough. I could smell Visser’s pipe tobacco. If the pawpaw had branches climbing them would be some feat. I’d tried hugging the trunk and drawing myself up, but I never got far off the ground.
The rising wind swayed the pawpaw. Like secret whisperers the trunks creaked and I wondered if it was the beginning of the Southeaster coming. I saw Visser with his pipe held aside going amongst the pawpaw rapping his knuckles, listening for hollow sounds to mark the rotting innards that could splinter the trunk and topple a tree with the first hard gust. I’d often ask Visser which pawpaw would be the next one to fall. It was not a game he would play.
I smelt cigarette smoke and saw Dad moving along the stoep watching Visser observing the pawpaw and trying to read the wind. Abruptly it subsided and Visser disappeared to another part of the garden. Dad strolled out of sight and the pawpaw stopped swaying and creaking. All one could hear was the sun sizzling and the scratching of insects. A black and yellow spider the size of a child’s fist gave me the willies as it descended an invisible thread and vanished into the greenery below the stoep.
The wind stopped completely and the soothing silence was resumed. I could think again. I’d been moving on automatic pilot trying not to dwell on the Civic Society venture looming closer. I climbed over the stoep wall, lowered myself onto the path and strolled round to the front of the house to smell the roses and look at the mountain nearly on top of us. Even that granite giant wasn’t enough to keep my mind occupied.
Whenever I had qualms about what I was planning to present to the Civic Society I locked onto thinking about my newly found friend and fellow contender. Kid Kussie was ready to take on the world which is what I aspired to. It’s not as if he said anything in particular. It was just what I felt he was. He wanted me to pull my socks up and I wasn’t going to let him down. Kussie wasn’t part of a gang. He didn’t belong to an association. At least it didn’t seem like it. He was alone, but he’d go down with his fists flying and his spirit undimmed.
I hoped the attendance for my talk would not be too big. I thought I could be more at ease with just a few people. So far, the biggest number of boys attending any Civic Society meeting had been fourteen. This time I’d be proposing a lot more contentious ideas, closer to home than Captain Marvel had been. I’d be stepping out with my fists up. I would not strike as hard a line as I was inclined, but it would be hard enough. An announcement for the meeting had gone up on the school notice board, which did not mention anything political. A few days before the talk I might let slip what I was going to speak about. I hadn’t written anything down. That would have been too stupid.
I had considered opening with the formation of the Nat Party in the Second World war internment camps. I tried that approach out on Mom. As soon as she realized where I was taking our conversation she called me a liar. That brought home what I could be up against. I tried confiding in Lily but she didn’t want to know about political matters. At school I tried discussing the topic with William but I cut myself short. I couldn’t risk putting William in such an invidious position but also it seemed that he didn’t want to hear. He called me a fool who’d get nowhere, and achieve nothing. I was taken aback. William had never spoken to me like that before.
‘You can’t break down a stone wall.’ He grumbled. Was he a mind reader, had he anticipated something like that from me? I felt giddy with confusion. ‘You’ll end up in hospital or prison, or maybe something worse.’
That must be it. He knew what sort of person I was. He’d put two and two together and come up with five which was accurate enough for the kind of things happening out beyond the stone walls of SACS. Did William have such incredible insight? Did he possess such prescience?
I was shaken up by what William had said but I wasn’t going to back down or change my plans. So what if I was going to be punching above my weight? That’s what Kussie did every day of his life. That’s why he could be a contender. I also had to think like that in my war against the system.
Slugging it out ahead of me was Captain Marvel in issue number 113. Equally morally sound according to my reading of things, was Kid Kussie. There was no turning back for me.
Fanned by a soft breeze wafting through the vines and lulled by the repetitive hum of the garden sprinklers I dozed off. I was awoken from an uneasy sleep. I sat up and rubbed my eyes, wondering what I’d heard. My snooze was troubled which was understandable. There was not much time left. Closer to the date of the talk I became more than frightened. I hated the way I got so scared about things and struggled not to turn tail.
My thoughts turned to when I was about eight and I was trapped in a situation which told me more about myself than I cared to know. My first cousin, aunt Bertha’s son Eugene said things I should not have taken notice of. He needed someone to listen to him, especially his Mom. He wanted her admiration but she didn’t like him and would never listen to him, so I felt I had to. I liked Eugene. He was always in the centre of things. He was witty and played the bugle in the cadet band. I thought he had more than I had going. He was a year older than me and when we got to Clifton beach on the weekends all the girls went for Eugene. All I got was to console the prettiest ones because Eugene had said such nasty things to them.
It was winter and a bunch of us kids were on the other side of Kloofstraat, off the road winding up to Kloofnek. Our playing field had been gouged out of the mountainside. We were kicking a ball when I tripped, or got pushed over and landed badly. The pain in my wrist was excruciating and I burst out crying. Eugene called me a cry–baby and said that I was going to run home to tell mommy like I always did. I sucked my lip and continued with the game.
The pain did not let up and later I ate supper with difficulty. My father asked what I was playing at. Nothing, I answered. Alone in bed I cried. In the morning Dad saw the bone splinters sticking out of my wrist and took me to the hospital. Dad asked no questions. It’s a funny peculiar story and I don’t know why it popped into my head.
I realised the sound that woke me was a memory from about the same time. It was the whine and smell of our dog Jock’s last days. I walked round to the front stoep and it came flooding back. Of course Jock was no longer there. Faithful Jock had a touch of Rhodesian ridgeback with no pedigree. In his last days Jock liked to sprawl on the stoep, basking in the sunshine, twitching with bad dreams. The smells of his dying competed with the scent of the roses. Jock, half blind and deaf, stumbling everywhere, making ugly noises and shedding hairs, no longer served a purpose. Mom wanted him put down but Dad would not hear of it: Jock had served faithfully for seventeen years and had a right to rest and do nothing. I was on Mom’s side. Looking back I guiltily saw my intolerance towards Jock as shameful. When I came home and saw the men carrying a blanket with Jock’s lifeless body sagged in it, I was devastated. Mom was wiping her eyes with her apron and being comforted by Lily.
Brian had pulled off a miracle. He’d got three of his fighters on the promotion bill at Cape Town City Hall. I met the other promoters. They had the boxing scene in Cape Town all sewn up. How Brian manoeuvred his way in was hard to figure out. They didn’t think much of him with his secret gym and he couldn’t have liked them, but he said not a word. They wanted a good gate while Brian wanted opportunity for his boys.
Kussie and Atwell were signed for the preliminaries. They had not become friends but were civil to each other. Atwell had had one more go at Kussie and then had taken great care to avoid him. Kussie’s skills were rudimentary and easy to avoid but he was learning fast. The art of backpedalling became essential whenever Kussie got the gloves on. The third fighter from the Skotches Kloof stable was none other than Eddie Mathedis featuring in the main bout against the South African and commonwealth flyweight champion, Jake Tuli. Eddie was coming out of retirement and losing weight to stay under the limit.
At the end of a training session I followed Kussie out. I couldn’t see him anywhere. I thought I’d missed him when he appeared out of a shadow cast by the setting sun. He squeezed my shoulder and we ambled along the upper reaches of Skotches Kloof, where only the hardiest of vehicles could manage without keeling over. If we heard gears changing that high up, it was probably the police.
We leaned against a low wall out of the sun. Kussie got a whiff of something and edged along a wall. I slid around the corner, close enough to have a whispered conversation. One had to turn the corner to catch sight of both of us.
A gang of skollies saw me and thought I must be alone. As they drew nearer Kussie stepped into view thrusting his hand into a side pocket. The skollies melted away. Kussie resumed his perch against the wall and continued filing his fingernails with a piece of sandpaper. He asked what was troubling me. Why was I looking for him outside the gym? I said I didn’t want my brother to hear what I was up to and told him about the talk and waited for his comment. The way he worded it was a good enough answer. He asked what William thought. Kussie had liked the sound of him. I said he was like Kussie – he’d say nothing and tell everything. He gave a nice laugh for that one.
We changed the subject. I learnt that Kussie was a Matebele from Rhodesia, descended from naked night fighters. His ancestors could see in the dark. His tribe learnt the secrets of invisibility from the Bushmen hunters. I felt inclined to ask Kussie if he was spinning a yarn or telling true, I didn’t. Kussie was in hiding from the authorities and who knows what else. I didn’t know what to believe and I don’t think he expected me to believe anything. He was a wondrous storyteller. He hoped to live long enough to see Natal and get back to Johannesburg, the city of gold. He grew concerned, we had been talking a long time and it was beginning to get dark. There were spies everywhere, or potential spies, even in the gym but he didn’t think Atwell was a spy type. As for a ring career, he was still thinking it over.
Kussie said he hadn’t known any whites other than figures of authority, or churchmen or guards and police. Kussie hoped I’d stay friendly with Cliffie. I told Kussie how good Cliffie had been to me when I was sickly. We strolled on.
We hadn’t heard the engine idling before we turned the corner. Kussie vanished and I carried on, hoping I did not look as frightened as I felt. I approached the policemen in their high-wheeled vehicle with wire grids over the windows. The officer on the passenger side rolled down his window. What I was doing in Skotches Kloof when it was nearly dark? Did I realise where I had strayed? They spoke a mixture of broken English and a Malmsbury accented Afrikaans. I spoke in Afrikaans and admitted I had strayed.
‘You lucky that gang of skollies didn’t catch you,’ they said and I shrugged. They looked at the silvery badge on my barathea blazer. One of them said his nephew was at SACS. I pretended to recognise the name. The other one rattled on about my being where it was illegal. I said I was writing a school essay about the old quarters in Kaapstad.
The officer told me to get in. I got in. They’d give me a ride to the bottom of Kloofstraat but I better not stray into non-white areas or I could be in for the high jump. They both laughed. It was supposed to be a joke. I promised I wouldn’t. They were pleasant enough but suggested that if I had to study anything I should use the school library and not break the law. Skotches Kloof was no place for a white boy, especially after dark. The driver wanted to write my name down. The officer waved his finger and told him it was not necessary. He looked at me and I nodded as I got out. Shaking I walked straight to the bus stop.
I talked with Dr Freund about the next Civic Society meeting. His face was more pink than usual, which, combined with his balding ginger crown made him look somewhat devilish – as if designed by Disney. He regretted to tell me that he would not be at my talk. He said he knew he could trust me and hoped I got a good attendance. I was opening the door when he called out. He’d had an afterthought: As long as I wasn’t going on about American comic-books, he didn’t think he had anything to worry about. It might have been a joke but I had difficulty associating humour with Dr Freund. I promised not to discuss Captain Marvel.
I was relieved that Freund was not going to be present. As to who would appear was anybody’s guess. I was worried that no one might turn up.
A couple of days before the date of the talk, Nel pressed me to know what the talk was going to be about. Why was I being so nondescript? He could tell something was brewing. He knew me – like a glove knows a hand – Nel grinned pulling on an invisible glove. As soon as I told him something – vague though I was – I knew I had made a mistake. He scuttled away shaking a hand as if to get rid of something nasty. Watching him skitter between the columns supporting the gallery I almost laughed and that would’ve been unforgiveable. I had forgotten how bandy-legged he was. One thing was for sure; he’d put the word about but if nobody turned up, that might be the best thing that could happen.
Telling Nel as much as I did was blabbing to the wrong person at the wrong time. Luckily, nobody took Nel seriously.
I was leaning against the wooden stairway over William’s alcove, waiting for him to finish ringing the bell. He had beckoned to me earlier. I watched him shuffle across the cobblestoned quadrangle coming back to his hok. It was as if he was deflating with every movement. His legs were going. He could no longer manage to ascend the stairs over his hok. He could barely cross the quadrangle to ring the bell but his mind was as alert as ever and the glint in his eyes remained irrepressible.
As William sank into his seat I bent into the alcove. His sunken cheeks were flapping disconcertingly and his yellowing eyes were looking past me. I still hadn’t told him about the talk. He didn’t need to be told. Everything that went on William knew about.
William had warned me not to trust Nel. Mind you, William had repeatedly urged me not to trust anyone and not to be as open as I was. Did I learn nothing from the setback of The Hofmeyr News? William came straight out and asked me about the talk, ‘how political are you going to be?’
I said I couldn’t say, after all he’d practically accused me of being a self-destructive blabbermouth. William made a derisory snort, and rattled his ill-fitting teeth. It might have been a laugh. I could not tell. But the way he inhaled said plenty; he knew there’d be no stopping me but he also knew I was capable of talking my way out of trouble. One day I’d find I didn’t have the right words, and there was no way out. William, the revered caretaker, sometimes addressed as the janitor, was surpassing himself. Usually I got snippets from him but this was full deluge. He set out to shake me up and he’d succeeded. He must have interrogated Nel thoroughly.
It turned out that he had. Nel had spoken to a number of people but he didn’t say that he would be at the talk or that any of the St John’s boys would be there to support me.
The night before the talk I lifted my mattress. There was nothing there. Lily came in and shut the door behind her. Lily had the booklet I was looking for. It was a banned UNESCO publication that Lorna had got for me. Lily sat on the bed and handed me the booklet, shaking her head. She asked if anyone else in the household knew what I was up to. I told her that no one did. Lily said that I better learn to hide things in less obvious places if I was starting a secret career. She had prayed that her bossie (me) was not going to go that way like some others whose names she had better not mention. Lily had stopped calling me bossie years ago. It had been her name for me from when she first came to Welgemeend Street – when Mom still treated me like a girl. Nowadays, Lily only recalled that childhood name when she was worried about me. Lily shook her head. She could not know what I was really up to. She could only guess from the hidden booklet.
What Lily did know was that if she had it in her power to stop me she would. She saw it was something at school, and happening the next day. Getting up she said that if I had a bad asthma attack I would not be able to go to school tomorrow. I begged Lily not to involve herself. I had no doubt she could call back the asthma as surely as I believed that the doctors and growing up had little to do with getting rid of the asthma. The cure was Lily’s doing. Whether it was her psychology or herbal medications and inhalations, I could not say, but it was her doing that healed me.
Very much on the back foot, I pointed out that it’d been years since my last asthma attack. My illness was a thing of the past, all the doctor’s had said so and claimed that it was their attention that brought it about. She stood up and we embraced. I kissed her and held onto her. I wanted her blessing but she said that was not hers to give.
Dropping off to sleep I felt uneasy. There seemed to be a rattling in my chest and the hint of a wheeze. I was still biting my lip when I fell asleep.
No matter how hard I tried I could never have imagined that such violent hatred existed.
The Taste of Blood
I was alone in the classroom waiting, worrying that no one would turn up. I shut my eyes and went through some of the things I intended saying. I should have made notes instead of being so cautious. Notes made things different. I wasn’t giving a speech. I was going to say what I thought and what I felt. That had to be enough unless I got agitated and brought on an attack. I couldn’t discount the possibility, not after what Lily had said last night. The spell of wheezing before sleep might have been prompted by her power of suggestion.
A few minutes before the allocated start time the trickle of boys began. I detected furtiveness. It had to be expected with a clandestine gathering. Nel, in putting the word around, probably bent a few ears and gave them the works. It’s a good thing he had so little time. Given more time, who knows what he might have construed to bring in a small army. More boys ambled in. They took their seats silent and solemn. No one spoke to me. I said nothing.
Nel came in, scooted past and took a seat at the back. I tried to catch his eye but he was avoiding eye contact. The room was filling up. Still no one spoke. My mouth felt dry. I sipped from a glass of water. Every seat was taken.
Richmond, a boy from another class came in. He had a strange walk and a funny way of talking. He grunted and snorted and believed everything he said was witty or intelligent. No one agreed with that assumption but it hardly stopped him. He spoke my name then lumbered across and perched on a window sill. He was not used to the studied silence.
I went to close the door. Jones, in line for captaincy of the first ruby team and likely to be head boy when we reached our senior year, hurried in and drew the door shut behind him. He said sorry for almost being late. He had two cronies close at heel. The door opened a crack and a perplexed face peered in. He was mouthing something and waving a finger. He did not come in. He vanished, closing the door.
I took another sip of water. With his deep commanding voice, Jones called for silence though nobody was speaking.
I picked up a piece of chalk, printed WINDERMERE on the blackboard. I described how people lived there and what they could expect. The average national infant mortality rate in Townships was twice as high as in impoverished India: a known fact but not according to our Government.
I spoke about access to drinking water, and the population squeezed together. I went on until I got to saying that there was no such thing as ‘separate but equal.’ Combrink, a pasty faced boy in the front row raised his hand. I sat on the edge of the teacher’s desk with some apprehension. Combrink said they were going to demolish Windermere and re-house all the residents and that was a good thing.
I went on. The government didn’t like Coloured and Xhosa living side by side because if they got on that would undermine the principle of separation. They only wanted to get rid of the slum town and bulldoze it flat because they were building a road for the new airport and they would not want the tourists catching sight of Windermere. It was the usual cover-up mentality. The boys were shuffling in their seats. The temperature was rising. I was calmer than I thought I would be. I was less nervous than when I started.
I was no orator or debating society star but I thought I was doing well enough keeping tabs on the facts as I rattled off detail after detail. I had got most of what I’d needed to know from the coach tour and also from Lorna who seemed to know everything I wanted to know.
I suppose Lorna might have felt indebted to me. I used to hold her hand and guide her around the block a few times a week. She had glasses specially made with lenses that turned everything permanently around, switching left to right and right to left. It was part of her thesis for her doctorate in psychology. I couldn’t ask questions all the time. She had to concentrate or fall over.
For the second part of my address I printed Gregor Johann Mendel on the blackboard. He was a 19th century Austrian botanist monk who experimented with peas. The microscope had been sufficiently developed making such studies possible. I wrote ‘dominant and recessive’ on the board. I referred to ‘chromosomes and genes’ and brought in the word ‘hereditary.’ I then moved onto ‘superiority and inferiority’. It was a somewhat tenuous connection to bible-based apartheid. No one interrupted until the pieces began to fall into place.
The attitude to segregation and race were widely reassessed under the impact of Mendel. His discoveries and his principles only became known worldwide posthumously. However, bigots and racists hardly cared for such niceties as truth. I referred to the ignorance of the Dark Ages coming back under the Nazis which was then suitably reconfigured in our country using the Christian Bible.
The silence exploded. Almost everyone was on their feet, screaming and shouting repetitively – liar, liar, liar.
I glimpsed Jones trying to move forward to the front but he was completely hemmed in. He tried to call out above the mêlée but even his strong voice got swallowed up by the foot stamping and bellowing. Some boys clambered on top of the desks and surged forward: a pink faced mass of mob rage was sweeping towards me. Boys fell down as desks toppled over. If this wasn’t madness I did not know what it was.
I was surrounded and the way to the door was blocked. I got kicked and would have fallen down if everyone wasn’t packed so densely. The mass of bodies was all that held me on my feet. Someone spat at me. I managed to get my arms up to protect my face. I deflected some of the blows but I could taste blood in my mouth.
Suddenly, the door was open. I charged and managed to reach the door but someone jumped on me. Another boy was punching me and trying to head butt me. I swung a few blows but it was hopeless. I felt my legs buckling, but got my arms over my head. I was thrown out of the room. I struck the gallery balustrade and slumped down. I was petrified. They were going to throw me over onto the quadrangle paving stones. Then I was on my back with more boys on top of me, going completely berserk. They did not stop.
The voice of the Deputy Headmaster ended the pummelling. The boys were pulled off me. I couldn’t move – I didn’t dare. I had a childhood record of broken bones. My right arm had been operated on three times. I didn’t want to shift before I was sure nothing was broken. I was gasping for breath but I had not had an asthma attack and it didn’t feel like any bones were broken.
Bending over and peering down at me was the face of the Deputy Headmaster. Out of all the staff he was probably the most feared. There was a rumour that he was a member of the Broederbond (Brotherhood), the secret society which ruled the country and had a strong following in Namaqualand. Dad said that there was no such thing as the Broederbond. I could never believe that.
I was asked if I was alright. I said I was not well. The Deputy tilted his head back sharply as if I had a bad smell. I sniffed. No I hadn’t done anything to be embarrassed about. I looked at the Deputy and tried to figure out what he was thinking.
The Deputy Headmaster had one of the ugliest faces I’d ever seen. He had tight scrunched up coils of hair that resembled a badly fitting wig. His canings were legendry – they were not just canings. He used a sjambok, the short whip made from rhinoceros hide. My father had one.
The question was, would I lie if asked what had been going on? Or would I have the guts to tell the truth? I was shaking with fright and indecision. But no questions followed and none of the boys volunteered anything. The Deputy was not interested in what was going on. He clapped his hands and pointed. The two nearest boys grabbed me. I was dragged along the gallery.
In the Deputy’s office all three of us were ordered to bend over. The other two objected but the Deputy was already in full swing. All three of us bore witness to the fact that his legendary beatings fully deserved their reputation, but we saw no sign of a sjambok. The cane was bamboo. That was bad enough.
It was the slowest walk home I’d had. I dawdled. I thought I glimpsed Eugene in the crowd at the talk but afterwards he was nowhere to be seen. Crossing Orange Street by the entrance to an avenue of palm trees leading to the exclusive Mount Nelson Hotel I paused to rub my bum and I shut my eyes with momentary pleasure. I didn’t seem able to walk far without stopping to massage my backside.
‘You little shit!’ Eugene cried as he stepped out from behind one of the fluted pillars marking the driveway into the hotel grounds. He’d been waiting for me, hiding for who knew how long. He was almost blubbing. How could I say those things out in public, for everyone to hear? People knew we were cousins. What was I trying to do to him?
I thought; what an astonishing reaction. I was hardly thinking about Eugene during the talk. I said what I did was nothing to do with him. Eugene turned and ran off as if he had met the devil.
I backtracked past the Labia Theatre to take the other way home. It was still early enough to run into Celia. After seeing each other at the bus stop for ages we’d recently started talking. I wanted to meet her somewhere else but hesitated. I think she felt the same. I was almost fifteen and what I knew about girls was very little. The closest I’d got to a girl was in the back of Dad’s car when Cousin Sharon sat on my lap. She was pretty but sad. Her mom was Aunt Topsy, who was beautiful and never sad. Mom did not approve of her pretty sister, who was on her fourth marriage.
I caught the number four double-decker bus up Kloofstraat. I sat upstairs which was meant only Cape coloureds. I got off outside the Afrikaans school at Van Riebeeck High. Across the street I saw Celia in her ground floor front room window.
As I drew nearer I noticed she did not look as cheerful as usual. She came outside and stood behind the low wooden fence like she always did when she spotted me and I stayed on the pavement. I imagined that we could meet at the top of de Waal Park. We could sit on the grass and talk. The park had separate entrances but so far that was as far as apartheid went. The way things were going they’d eventually allocate some days to Natives and Coloureds, and most days to whites.
Celia was slender and tall with smooth brown skin and a cheerful disposition so common to the hedonistic Cape Coloureds. That was why Mom liked them so much. Celia was part of the Coloured community speckled about the area. Coloured families had lived locally for generations but now one by one the families were being relocated under the Group Areas Act. Once it was okay to live in the areas, but not anymore, especially not with the new Afrikaans school across the street.
Celia and I always chatted while I waited for the next number four into town. Sometimes I dawdled in order to miss the bus and wait for the next one to be with Celia for longer but the low white fence in front of her house was always between us. She never invited me inside. All we did was stand and talk, careful not to lean too close to each other as we were probably being watched by prying, spying eyes.
At any moment Celia and her family could be evicted. They could end up in a hellhole like Windermere or out on the bleak windswept Cape Flats. Abruptly, with moistening eyes, Celia backed away and hurried indoors. A couple of police vans drew up and uniformed officers sprang out, closed the front gate and kicked open the front door though it was not locked – and went inside. The waiting was over. There was no escape. Where Celia was born and had been her home all her life, she no longer belonged. There was no appeal to any authority.
After the talk I thought that I might be ostracised – especially after word got round – like the senior who made a political statement. Nonetheless, whatever badge I might have worn, it was not a red one.
Caning was a rarity. To get the full complement from the Deputy Headmaster was considered by the boys to be admirable. My criticisms of white supremacy were like water off a duck’s back. A few classmates wanted me to bear them in mind for any future trouble I was plotting. Hancock wanted to shake my hand. Wild suggestions came up such as burning the school. My classmates did not care one jot for politics.
I noticed the Headmaster with William. Whiteford glanced at me, his features impassive and hard. I thought they might have been talking about me.
Dr Freund heard about the talk and the subsequent caning. He was outraged. He felt betrayed by me. Expecting to be kicked out of the Civic Society I offered to resign. He said that was not necessary. I would have to sit like the others for the annual Civic Society photograph.
Master Brown too had heard something. He mumbled about troublemakers and turned his back on me. Nel appeared, tiptoed behind Brown and pretended to stab him. I couldn’t stop laughing. Brown spun round. There was madness in his eyes. Nel and I stood still. The bell went. The class distracted Brown while Nel and I escaped. It was teamwork.
As soon as we got out into the corridor we had a good laugh. The others followed and bunched round us. As soon as Brown turned the corner they all applauded.
Nel would not reveal what he’d said to bring so many to the talk. I asked around. No one would say a word. I cornered Richmond and asked him. He guffawed and sniggered but said nothing. Even Cyril refused to say. When I asked Jones he patted me on the shoulder and told me not to worry.
My attempt at a rebellious statement was a big nothing. The helplessness of my situation was depressing until Duncan Middleton (the boy who’d appeared at the door of the talk mouthing something at me, then vanished without staying), approached me. He was nervous. I’d heard a rumour about something happening with his home life. He wanted to have a word with me.
In the lunch break, Duncan and me went across Orange Street and joined the queue at the unofficial tuck shop, grabbed some scoff and went for a stroll in The Gardens. Duncan didn’t want anyone to see us together. It was all quite mysterious. He wanted to tell me why he couldn’t attend my talk on... He faltered and continued. He’d discussed it with his father who was under House Arrest and who didn’t think it a good idea if my talk was political. Duncan assumed it was before Nel ran round putting out that story.
‘What story?’ I asked and Duncan said he had to get back. Duncan rushed away. I noticed some boys nearby. Were they close enough to listen in? It was a chilling thought.
Days had passed and my backside still ached. Dad asked me why I was squirming at the dinner table. I blamed it on the dormant asthma. Anything to do with that, he did not want to hear about.
William beckoned me. He had a question. Had I learnt anything? I had nothing to say. ‘I thought so,’ William rattled his teeth and waved me off.
VIOLENCE WAS EVERYWHERE. IT WAS IN THE AIR. ALL IT NEEDED WAS A SPARK.
Drowning but still Breathing
The talk and the ensuing violence were forgotten. But it was remembered that I got caned by the hard-hitting Deputy Headmaster. This made me an okay guy after all. My criticisms against the racist system were brushed under the carpet. It was a bizarre conundrum.
I was mucking about with some of my classmates going down the Gardens Avenue. A few of us ducked into the shrubbery to share a puff, keeping a lookout in case a Prefect passed by and smelt the smoke.
In the middle of the smaller group was Hancock. Any disobedience and Hancock was the instigator. The teachers disliked him and I was never that fond of him. He had been in the forefront of the boys that attacked me after my talk. I was often tempted to take a swipe at Hancock.
No Prefects appeared and we regrouped to amble on keeping to the shade of the tall trees. None of us took off our blazers or ties; that would have been as bad as being caught smoking if a Prefect spotted us.
Through a gap between the trees, crouched in the middle of a flowerbed, I saw our part-time Welgemeend Street gardener. The posture, the brown hat and overalls might have belonged to someone else but as soon as he moved without dislodging a single petal, I knew it could only be Visser.
I traipsed alongside the flowerbeds and at the end of a row moved across nearer to Visser. I could’ve called out and he would have come over but taking the route around meant I’d observe him handling the plants and flowers for a bit longer which was always edifying. Visser was a master with a rare graceful form. I frequently watched him when he arrived at Welgemeend Street. It seemed that the whole garden responded when he opened our front gate, which always creaked. It was a fanciful idea. Usually the movement was caused by the wind, or a breeze sweeping off the mountain. Often Dad would be waiting for his arrival. Then, on the gravel path, side by side they’d stroll along deciding what needed doing; Visser pointing with his pipe and Dad listening carefully, a garden trowel in one hand, a cigarette in the other.
Now with my classmates nearby, I was watching Visser in his fulltime job at the municipal gardens which extended from the Sir George Gray Library in the shadows of a green canopy of trees, to the water fountains between the National Art Gallery and the Natural History Museum. I’d heard it said that the City Garden in the heart of Cape Town was the finest garden in the centre of a city anywhere. Its unparalleled magnificence was due to Visser.
Drawing nearer to Visser I watched him pause, turn the soil and pat it with the back of his trowel. His rhythm was interrupted. As he got up off the ground his demeanour stiffened. Stomping through the plants was the newly appointed Head Gardener, the official who had deposed Visser.
The sight of Visser, who knew more about plants, flowers and trees than anyone, taking orders from an oaf whose only qualification for the top job was the whiteness of his skin, was sickening. Almost overnight a white gardener had been appointed to run the entire shebang which for years had been created by Visser’s skilful hands, and his older brother before him. I could not bear to watch. I hoped Visser had not caught sight of me. I felt ashamed of the law and of the colour of my skin.
Years later when Visser passed on, there was an obituary in the Cape Argus. My mother sent me the clipping. It said that if Visser had been white he would have become world famous. My sister said that Visser was Dad’s only friend.
I paused to compose myself before rejoining my classmates. What would they have thought if they’d seen me weeping over someone like Visser? There is a derisory Afrikaans word for a person who weeps over a coloured person but it’s too vile to repeat.
Attending cadets every week prayed on my mind. I’d have to spend an hour at the backyard table polishing boots, belt and buckle. The only good thing was that I could chat with Lily through the open door while she pottered about in the kitchen. Between chores she’d step down to check on my polishing. If she didn’t approve, she’d do the polishing properly.
The casement window above me swung open. Leaning out was Sina the Malay ironing lady. She was holding my cadet shorts and matching shirt. I thanked her. She drew back. Lily stood in the kitchen doorway, drying a dish and shaking her head. Everyone in the house complained about Sina’s slapdash ironing but Dad refused to get rid of her. She had a family to support. He used to say her ironing would get better, but it never did and she’d been with us almost as long as Lily.
As soon as Sina had left for the day, Lily ironed my cadet uniform again. Lily wanted me to keep on the good side of Major Spencer-Smith, our teacher in command of cadets. I couldn’t bear to tell Lily how much I hated cadets. I watched Lily admiringly as got an extra gloss on my belt, buckle and boots.
I was marching well enough, pleased that Major Spencer-Smith had not found fault with my dress during inspection. I had Lily to thank for that. However, marching past I glimpsed the Major staring at me. That was not good. From way up in the front I could hear Cousin Eugene stretching his bellows for all he was worth, leading the parade playing the bugle. With the next right wheel I’d get a glimpse of him. I was pleased that the bugling had turned out so well. He needed that accolade.
As we swept past, the Major called a halt, and ordered me out of ranks. I stepped forward and snapped, ‘Sir!’
‘You are ruining my parade,’ the Major berated me loudly. He was quite indignant. I had no idea what I done to upset him. I looked at the Major blankly.
‘It’s your right arm – it’s crooked and it’s spoiling the parade – put it out straight.’
I answered that it was not possible. My right got broken in a fall when I was a kid and it had never mended properly. It had been operated on three times. Nothing could be done. When I was ordered back into rank, I did not obey. I had something to say and I felt a great urgency. Though I was frightened it had to be done. I asked permission to speak and announced that I objected to being part of the military.
Taken aback, Major Spencer-Smith asked if I wanted to be a conscientious objector. I said I did not want to be a conscientious objector. What I objected to was being a part of the white military. I waited. I was quivering. I had not planned anything. It just came out. I had to speak out, irrespective of the consequences – I knew what the inevitable would be. Spencer-Smith taught us history.
Somewhat startled, the Major dismissed me as rapidly as possible. Briskly I marched off the parade ground. As expected, my marks in the Majors’ class plummeted. History went from being my best class to my worst.
I never imagined I would be induced back into a uniform but it did happen. Again it ended disastrously on another parade ground.
I was keen to tell Kussie about my stand against white militarism. Much to my surprise he didn’t approve. He told me that I had a lot to learn. If I was to survive, Kussie warned me, I better learn how to deal with right and wrong and when to take a stand.. I might win my personal battles and get minor satisfaction but it wasn’t the way to go about things. I should to stay in the shadows and choose the moment of when to act. I couldn’t be so upfront about my feelings. I tried to remember his every word. I had not realised how articulate Kussie really was.
Kussie’s body language seemed to alter while he spoke and then, as if a switch had been pulled, his shoulders slumped and his tone changed back to the streetwise fellow I believed was my pal.
I admitted it might have been foolish but I could not stop from declaring myself to be what I was. I needed to announce some protest. Kussie had nothing more to say on the subject. But he was right. It was probably only by the skin of my teeth that I was not expelled. SACS was probably a special place given the circumstance under which we were governed.
We shook hands and I told him that I wished I could be in his corner on the night of his fight but Brian had already told me that was out of the question. He said I was too white and I wondered what he thought his own colour was. As it was, Brian worried that Kussie’s past might catch up with him before he stepped into the ring. Though nobody knew anything about what Kussie might have done he was an avowed tsotsi which said it all.
Brian reckoned that when it was proven that Kussie was championship material, things could be arranged and he’d get whatever Kussie had on his slate wiped clean. Brian’s strong attitude was persuasive but not wholly convincing. The truth of the matter was Brian was driven. He’d find his champion, no matter what, and that’s as far as his thinking went. The strength of that conviction swept everyone along, including me.
Master Brown was appalled while examining my extracurricular reading list: There was too many adult titles and he had to ask where I’d got hold of them. I answered that my older sister provided most of them including that she had been Head Girl at the Cape of Good Hope, our sister school and now she was a lecturer in psychology.
Brown and I were standing in the library facing each other throughout the encounter. By the end he was spluttering and once more practically showering spit on me. I watched him talking with other boys but it was only with me that his mouth leaked like sieve. Nothing moist had actually struck me but I wiped my face with edge of my jacket sleeve anyhow. Had he understood the gesture who knows what he might have done? In all the years there had been no reconciliation between Master Brown and me. We were still at loggerheads as much as we were from day one. I was no less frightened of him but I had grown and beefed up a bit. I didn’t have it in me to stop goading him. I remained an irredeemable smart Alec, but only with Master Brown. My classmates liked me for that, particularly Nel and Hancock. Generally I drew the ire of most teachers but usually it was witty banter that I strove for. There was no malicious intention which some of the boys brought out deliberately.
Master Nichols was the member of staff I got on with the best. He was witty, sarcastic, slippery and smart. He walked with a curve and in a surreptitious manner ,coming in from the side.. He had rubbery lips and wore his teacher’s robe as if it was armour plating, swishing and sweeping it about like Batman in the comic books. I thought I might bear all to him and take him into my confidence, but I never did. I had taken Kussie’s advice.
William remained an ongoing source of comfort but I thought it would be unfair to subject him to being my confidante. I was neither happy nor unhappy but frustrated and needed to do something about that. I dispelled my ongoing agitation in the school gym and at Skotches Kloof ; hammering on the punchbag and skipping ferociously.
My winter sports were boxing and hockey. Both were violent and both brought problems. Sparring in the school gym I was accused of damaging the spirit of the game, using a foul. I’d delivered a rabbit punch; slamming the back of my opponent’s neck had left him reeling.
At a Saturday morning hockey match in Belleville against the local team we played on a gravel surface which was a lot faster and more dangerous than playing on grass. Pent up anger and resentment bubbled over. The English Afrikaans divide got out of hand. We went berserk. I got cut off and the opposing team ignored the game and ganged up on me. I got clobbered to the ground. By the time my side reached me and the teachers intervened I was a bleeding mess and barely able to stand.
On the train going home the teacher in charge noted that the core troublemakers came from E2, our class. Eugene, also on our team, had kept away from the pocket of trouble. I could see he had disapproved. The match was declared null and void. All the teachers agreed that it was the worst display of unruliness in the history of the game. I had to be helped off the field but nothing was broken. A fortnight later, Eugene was promoted to the first team. He was pleased to get away from the E2 bunch.
At school practising, our E2 lot played carefully because Headmaster Whiteford was in charge. Hockey was once his favourite sport but he seldom participated because of his gammy leg. Going at full speed the spinning ball smacked me right in the mouth. I stumbled back a few paces and keeled over.
‘Are you all right?’ Whiteford asked bending over me. I mumbled something quite indiscernible and couldn’t move. I had to be carried off. Nothing was broken but almost all my teeth were loose. Hockey and boxing came to an abrupt end. For months I lived on mush drawn through a straw. The E2 ruffians were devastated. Hancock occupied the lead in all chicanery on the hockey field and became the Captain of the second team. Though I subsequently got back to hockey, I never again played on gravel.
However, the worst play on gravel I witnessed was a game of rugby on the outskirts of Springbok. Once again I’d been shipped to Namaqualand to breathe the dry air so good for my ailing chest. I was almost nine. There was nowhere to sit but no one wanted to sit on the hot bare ground. There was no shade but the sun was starting to go down. Gathered around the field with goal posts at either end were locals who had come to watch the giant Boere playing on gravel as it was as soft as grass which of course it wasn’t, far from it. Why I was there was anybody’s guess but there was a bunch of kids I’d come up from Cape Town with and we all knocked about together and went to anything that was going on. There were some objections to kids being allowed to watch rugby. I thought there must be something sexual about playing rugby in Namaqualand but it wasn’t that.
Halfway through the game a player placing the ball got his thumb kicked. Holding his hand, the player charged to the sideline where I was standing. Practically in front of me he ripped off his thumb. Mesmerised I stared at the spurting blood. Someone wrapped a bandage around the wound and the player ran back into the game. In the end every player was grazed or cut by gravel and splattered with splotches of blood.
Lorna celebrated her 21st birthday in Welgemeend Street. Brian was not around and our parents were going out for the night. I was going to help handling the drinks. I was looking forward to meeting some of the student politicos who would be coming. Many were admirers of Lorna and others supporters of her fiancée Toffee, the chairman of NUSAS (National Union of South African Students). Most of the representatives came from the handful of open universities which were exempt from the apartheid laws and had black staff and black students.
As the evening progressed the draconian apartheid laws got flouted left, right and centre. Black danced with white. Everyone shared the facilities. Hard liquor was shared equally. What went on in the garden I couldn’t see but I was sure everyone was warned to be careful of the plants and flowers.
Trapped serving drinks from inside the ironing room I caught sight of Lily collecting empties. She did not look happy. She didn’t approve. As a devout churchgoer she never drank and didn’t like drunkenness.
Toffee was everywhere and always in the middle of whatever was going on, propelling and coaxing conversation. He had big lips, flabby features and thick rimmed glasses. A small group out on the stoep were listening to one of the latest escapades of Toffee. He’d been at a demonstration outside the Houses of Parliament which was situated between the City Gardens, where Visser toiled, and Clarendon Square, where the police headquarters was located. Toffee had broken through a police cordon and got to the car of a pro apartheid parliamentarian and shouted that when he was circumcised they threw the wrong piece away. The partygoers hooted with laughter. Toffee was a huge presence but I never felt I got the measure of him.
Out on the stoep Lorna was standing slightly apart from the others, looking stylish in slacks and smoking a cigarette. She was self-assured and calm, seeming to know everything that was going on. Around her was a mixture of school and university friends. She never seemed to talk much but everyone deferred to her. Toffee kept on glancing her way searching for approval.
I moved about collecting empties, stepping aside as guests lurched about more as the evening wore on. I propped a fellow up on the edge of a bench. I fetched drinks for others. I caught a chap as he vomited off the stoep onto the edge of a rose bush. I helped a chap to the side stoep and slid him onto the bed on the side stoep. He was a senior representative and, too drunk to make sense. He passed out in midsentence.
Lorna’s most beautiful friend was edging closer to Cousin Vivian, who was Eugene’s brainy, older brother and,, a Rhodes Scholar. Toffee was agreeing with whatever Vivian said. I could not take my eyes off my sister’s friend and she could not take her eyes off Vivian.
I found it difficult to see that this was the up and coming cream of political opposition in the country. Toffee brushed past and praised the good work I was doing. I never seemed able to get him into a proper conversation. I thought he might have some answers which I wouldn’t find elsewhere. I wanted to ask him about my own political aspirations. When it was all over in the small hours there was a lot of cleaning up. I was surprised at how Lily managed to stay up and keep going. I could barely keep awake. Looking at the bodies slumped about the place I was glad I wasn’t a drinker. I was barely fifteen. Some boys at school drank secretly but not many.
There was always a good turnout for the boxing promotions. The white promotions had been doing well with a world Bantamweight champion on the cover of Ring Magazine. On the black side, the rising star, Jake Tuli, was from the Johannesburg Townships. Tuli already held the Commonwealth Flyweight title. The local Townships had turned out in full force.
A cloud hung over the ring, like steam emanating from the overhanging lights. The mood was sombre and sober. Boxing was taken far too seriously to succumb to frivolity. Boxing was more than boxing. It was the best chance to transcend apartheid. Boxing and jazz were Brian’s ruling passions. He was fiercely fit but he wasn’t much of a boxer. He played the piano atrociously but he was constantly arranging jazz sessions with black musicians separated by the colour divide.. Boxing and jazz were the twin pillars of freedom. Both lifted skin colour free of apartheid. It was the music of rebellion and equality.
One had to admire Brian. He was politically unattached but he was doing something. Most whites did nothing.
The City Hall was packed to capacity. Eddie being in his home town and a previous holder of Western Cape titles had a fair chance. The betting odds were even-steven. Word had got round. People would be crowded around their wireless sets waiting for the commentary and wondering if Jake Tuli was still as great as he was. My seat was not near the ringside but if things got excitable I’d be able to stand on the chair. Uniformed policemen strolled unobtrusively along the back of the hall.
The opening preliminary was lacklustre. A couple of tanks punched away with indifference until the crowd started booing. Someone at the ringside tried to get into the ring but was pulled back down. The referee warned the boxers to fight properly and indicated the angry crowd. The two boxers got the message. While one of the boxers was looking away the other one saw his opening and swung, catching him unawares on the back of his neck. The boxer reeled and spun against the ropes. The bell went but he had been wronged. The referee had to push one fighter to his corner while warning the other one to fight fair. The referee was a big enough bruiser to shove anybody around. I was near enough to be able to make out a pair of monstrous cauliflower ears.
The next round saw some action but soon turned into a shambles. I can’t recall how many rounds were due but there was blood at the start of the fourth round and the first knockdown. The one left standing tried to kick the other one who had just managed to get onto his knees while the ref shoved the offender into the ropes. Groggily he stumbled to his corner, stepped through the ropes and dropped from sight. A white towel fluttered from his corner onto the canvas. I enjoyed joining in with the booing.
A man in a white shirt and bow tie took the centre of the ring to announce there’d been a last minute replacement. Everyone groaned but when the name came up there was an outburst of cheering. The fighter was a seasoned veteran with an infamous reputation. Opposing him was a newcomer to the ring referred to as Kid Jonathan who was about to receive a valuable lesson in the art of fisticuffs. Someone shouted for the announcer to get on with it. The microphone crackled and the ref stepped forward to chivvy things along.
A monstrous, oversized brute of a specimen stepped up into the ring amidst loud cheering. He raised his arms. The crowd roared for the infamous favourite: an opponent of his had died in the ring.
I barely noticed Kussie, aka Kid Jonathan had appeared. He was perched on the edge of a corner stool. Rising to his full height he seemed to expand in size. His opponent faltered as if the light had played a trick on his eyes. The fighters touched gloves and retreated to their corners. Kussie’s opponent stood tall with his arms spread out as if to accentuate his size. The bell went.
The big man hunched his shoulders and slowly lifted his arms. By the time he reached the middle of the ring, Kussie was already there, swinging wildly and lashing out in any direction. A wild blow clipped the big man on his shoulder and before his fists were fully up a right hook clipped the side of his jaw. Thrown by the relentless whirlwind the big man stepped back to get his defence in order. Easily he deflected the deluge with his forearms and pressed forwards but Kussie did not retreat. He shrugged aside every blow. Both fighters had simple strategies. The big man was in no hurry. He’d let Kussie wear himself out and start planting his meat cleaver fists on that jaw which looked about as strong as a feather. So far Kussie had been hit on the head mostly. The big man reckoned he had Kussie all sorted. All that was needed was a clean blow to the jaw and to follow it up with a knockout right from the shoulder.
A left swing clouted Kussie on target but there was no glass in that jaw. It didn’t faze Kussie in the slightest and he kept on swinging with no hint of retreat, but few of his blows connected. Things did not look good for Kussie. The bell went. Kussie, with no apparent shortness of breath retired to his corner whilst looking at his gloves as if they had let him down.
From his corner Kussie kept on looking around and beyond the audience. I saw some policemen keeping a firm eye on the ring. A few of the black policemen slipped into the crowd and tried to reach the ringside but it was slow going. Everyone was standing and people from behind were pressing forward. No one knew what was going on in the ring but something was going to happen and everyone wanted to be as close as possible.
The bell went for the second round. Kussie sped out of his corner. He looked faster and fresher. Ignoring a couple of blows to his head and shoulder, Kussie slammed a left into the midriff. The big man shuddered and slumped forward, falling onto a right uppercut to his jaw that lifted him off his feet.
There was what could have been a bone shattering noise. Gasps of surprise swept through the crowd. The big man’s limbs wobbled like pieces of rubber as he collapsed in a heap on the canvas. That gladiator would never fight again. In a fleeting moment he’d entered the ranks of the punch-drunk and he’d never lace up again. He would probably also never speak clearly again. He’d be a round shouldered shuffler for the rest of his life. It was a pitiful sight.
The ref gawped at the shape sprawled at his feet. He didn’t bother to count. He bent forward with his arms stretched out behind him and shouted, ‘down and out!’ Two men in white climbed into the ring with a stretcher. The referee looked round for Kussie to raise his hand in victory but he was nowhere to be seen.
Kussie had vanished and that seemed to be the end of the Kussie story. No one from the gym saw him again. Guys from the Townships who trained at Skotches Kloof found no trace of Kussie. The police came looking for him but found nothing. There were rumours but few facts. It was as if he had never existed. For a while, even I wondered if I’d imagined it all - I needed such a figure like Kussie in my life so I had invented him, or at the least, exaggerated him. But it wasn’t like that – not at all.
Some weeks later I received a letter. The handwriting was exquisite. It was an apology for not seeing me again but he hoped all would go well for me. It was kindly and well written. It was the finest letter I was ever likely to receive. There was no return address. It was signed K.
As for the rest of that momentous evening; Atwell’s fight went the distance but it was a dull bout. I know he admired Kussie and I wondered if it was the ending of Kussie that ended his own boxing hopes. Atwell must have known. In his first and only professional fight Atwell had shown a glimmer of promise. Brian and Eddie thought he could go places. Nevertheless Atwell did not become another tsotsi. He wasn’t cut out for that sort of thing.
Thirty years later, post Mandela, I visited my parents. I got a phone call. I recognised the voice of Atwell sounding suave and cheery. He’d survived the apartheid years, and thrived in New Brighton near Port Elizabeth. It was a fine conversation. Atwell had certainly kept all his marbles and he did make me laugh. A few years later he suffered dementia and whilst visiting his cousin in Cape Town he wandered off and was not seen again. An appeal went on television but a body was not found.
As for Eddie Mathedis, he nearly went the distance in that title fight. He put up a game show but he was too old and the strain of losing so much weight to make the limit was too much. Brian and Eddie carried on and together they created some winners and champions but I don’t believe they came anywhere near to that great night ever again.
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