Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The spirit of PJ van der Bergh finally dies.

 I live in Randfontein, a town that during South Africa's apartheid-era was a bastion of conservatism.
 The town owes its existence to gold mining although, nowadays, most of the mines have shut down, leaving abandoned offices and buildings, many of which are occupied by squatters.
 The mines may be closed, but a rough, mining spirit still lives on in some quarters.
 The white miners that lived and worked in this town in the 60s, 70s and to some extent 80s had a reputation for being hard-drinking, quick-fisted, fiercely conservative characters, who punched first and asked questions later.
 Predominantly Afrikaans-speaking, most belonged to the Mine Workers Union, headed by the neo-Nazi-like, Arrie Paulus whose dream was to unite all white South African wage-earners and to do everything possible to keep non-whites isolated and out of the mainstream.
 "You have to know a Black to realise that he wants someone to be his boss. They can't think quickly. You can take a baboon and teach him to play a tune on a piano. But it's impossible for himself to use his own mind to the next step. Here it's exactly the same," he told the New York Times, of 3 June 1979.

PJ van der Bergh

 Apartheid and white supremacy was deeply-rooted in this community as illustrated by an incident that took place deep underground in the workings of Randfontein Estates Gold Mine in December 1962.
 A shaft timberman, PJ van der Bergh, was working in a blocked orepass. He was attaching cord to a fuse when the plank he stood on dislodged, sending him tumbling 60 metres down the orepass where he ended up on a pile of rocks on the level below.
 Van der Bergh's boss boy, a Shangaan man named Gaumine Quibe, without hesitation, climbed down a rope and helped van der Bergh reach the level above. He knew that, at any stage, new rock could be dropped down the orepass from the levels above that would instantly kill both of them. For this Quibe was awarded the Chamber of Mines Golden Hat Award for bravery, as well as a gold watch.
 But, at the ceremony, van der Bergh, who owed the man his life, refused to shake hands with his boss boy, while posing for a photograph. He said 'it was against his principles!'
 There are many of PJ van der Bergh's ilk still in Randfontein and I thought I had come face-to-face with one recently.
 I was in the bank, standing in a line, waiting to be served, when a giant of a man came in and stood behind me. He was the living version of what I imagined PJ van der Bergh must have looked like...a real-life, cartoon character of a racist, conservative Boer.
 He probably stood around 6' 5", sported a moustache, had nicotine-stained fingers, wore white PT shorts, rugby socks and velskoens and had on a faded, slightly tatty, red T-shirt with a white slogan on the front that read:

Fuck the Rhino
The White Ou*

 I couldn't believe it, it was as though I'd been sucked back into South Africa 1972 except, back then, he would probably have been arrested for sporting a T-shirt with the "F-word" on it.
 I tried, with some difficulty, not to stare at him and noticed some of the black customers and tellers were decidedly uneasy.
 Then his wife came in. She too fitted the image perfectly. She was fat and her old-fashioned floral dress did little to hide the two rolls of blubber surrounding her midriff. These were poor Afrikaners, no doubt about it. Conservative, nigger-hating Afrikaners.
 But what made the whole incident bizarre and surreal was, hung over her left shoulder was a large, pink, diaper-bag and on her right hip she held a baby. A black baby!
 The youngster must have been about six months old.
 She passed the child to her husband while searching for something in the diaper-bag.
 And, this giant of a man held the little girl gently in his arms then kissed her on the cheek and tickled her with his sausage-like fingers.
 Her squeals of delight and giggles produced another flurry of kisses from him.
 At that point his wife took his position in the queue and he went and to sit on a chair where he cradled the child while she hungrily sucked on a bottle.
 That's the thing about South Africa. Every time you think you have it sussed, it does something to surprise and astound you. It has a way of shattering long-held prejudices and beliefs. Here, truth, really is, often stranger than fiction.
 The fact is, if government and sleazeball politicians would just fuck off and leave us ordinary folks alone, this country probably would truly become the Rainbow Nation and the spirit of PJ van der Bergh would finally die.

I've been asked if this story is true. Yes! Absolutely! 100%! The people are described exactly as they were on that day -- that is what made it so noticeable.

* In South Africa, a white ou is a term that means "white man" or a "white guy."

Monday, June 4, 2012

A Middle-age Malady

 It was obviously some dumb youngster who first said 'age is just a number'.
 Anyone with more than two brain cells knows that is nonsense.
 As you first edge towards, then reluctantly embrace middle-age, things happen. Bad things!...that creep up on you unnoticed, like the mould behind the basin that your wife nags you to sort out -- but I digress.
 Let me give you an example.
 Some parts of my memory are starting to fade. I can't remember how many times (see what I mean?) I find myself standing in a room in my home, wondering why the hell I went there in the first place. I know there is some reason but I can't remember what it is.
 My head starts to throb and often I have to sit down, as I rack my brain, trying to recall but, inevitably, it's a lost cause and I will be forced to retrace my steps in the hope something along the way will jog my memory.
 It could be that I am easily distracted, cursed with uncontrolable thoughts that flit from stimulus to stimulus. For example, I'll be standing empty-headed and bemused in the kitchen and decide I need to go back and start again but then I spot the kettle and decide I should make a cup of tea and a snack first.
 That is immediately followed by the idea that I should find and read the newspaper while I wait for the water to boil which sends me off to the lounge.
 An hour and thousands of jumbled thoughts later, Mrs White Ou, my dear, long-suffering wife of thirty-plus years, will come looking for me and ask: "Why is there no water in the kettle and a mug with only a teabag on the counter?"
 Of course I'll have absolutely no idea.
 She'll shake her head sadly, like a school teacher who knows the very best the slow kid at the back of the class can hope for, is to some day earn a living as a car-guard.
 In my defence I have at times found her alone, wild-eyed and confused, muttering: "What the hell am I doing here?" But perhaps she's questioning her life with me rather than grasping for a memory-trigger.
 If I can remember, I'll ask her.


 However, there are some compensations, as I age, my long-term memory seems to improve and I get many opportunities to bore people with it.
 A rare and simple pleasure in middle -- and I am sure old -- age is, absolutely every story you tell, need ever be simple or brief.
 Let's be honest, it is an intoxicating rush to see the growing fear and panic in victims' eyes as they realise there is no escape and you are going to make sure you prove there 'ain't nothing wrong with my memory'.
 It usually goes something like this:
 To keep the conversation going all I need to say is: "I too, once owned a Renault motorcar."
 That's it, seven words that say it all and it's all I would have said 20 years ago.
 But not now, oh no:
 "Yeah a Renault is a nice car. I had one too. It was back in 1975. I bought it with my army danger pay.
 "Jeesh can you believe all we got paid was 97c a day and R5.50 a day danger pay but I saved up and paid cash for the car...a white one with an engine in the back.
 "In those days, we more frugal and careful with our money. Not like people today where everything is bought on credit and no-one wants to save. Easy credit is the reason we're all in the situation we are today.
 "The banks are out to screw us. When I was a youngster, banking, and life in general, was much simpler. They used to hand out piggy banks to kids. I got a black one in 1969. The black ones were more stylish but they also had silver and gold.
 "I remember it was 1969 because my teacher was a Miss Thompson, although maybe I'm wrong...maybe it was 1968 and, come to think of it, it wasn't Miss Thompson, she was a teacher at high-school. She was the hot one that we guys all had a crush on. That reminds me of my first girlfriend...
 "Gee, we had some fun in my first car. It was a Renault. A white one, with the engine in the back..."

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Friday, June 1, 2012

Renewing my Passport

At the beginning of the year I realized my passport had expired and a trip to the local Home Affairs Department was imminent.
 Based on previous experiences of inefficiency and unpleasantness, it was not a prospect I relished.
 Memories of standing in long lines for an hour or more, only to have the window get shut in my face, just as it was my turn to be served, or being told I was in the wrong queue and "should be in that line over there" that hadn't moved for the last two days, are still vivid.
 For days I hesitated, trying to find a way around it. Perhaps I should use a service that does the queuing for me, I thought.
 "Don't be silly," said Mrs White Ou, always the voice of reason. "We're not millionaires and it's not as though you have much else to do any way."
 I couldn't argue on either of those points.
 "In any case, I've heard things are a lot better and while you're there, get renewal forms me and also for Kevin (my youngest son.)"
 And so it was that I found myself, early on a Monday morning, at the beginning of the year, at the offices of the Department of Home Affairs in Randfontein. The doors had just opened but the queues were already significant.
 I joined the line waiting to be served by a man behind the "Enquiries" counter.

Building true unity

 It is claimed that the Soccer World Cup, held in South Africa in 2010 will turn out to be that country's greatest-ever unifying force. While I agree the whole affair put us in party mood and, for a while, we forgot our differences and banded behind the national team, it cannot compete with the unifying experience of visiting a government department.
 Now that really builds true unity. People from all levels of society, who normally would not give each other the time of day, become bound by shared suffering, induced by inept officials and a system designed to screw you around.
 Linked in our common misery, we individuals rapidly become a common mind, swapping stories of previous experiences at the hands of not-so-civil servants.
 It becomes a competition to see who has been screwed-over worst.
 A coloured woman, with a toddler that hung on her skirt and peered at me from between her legs, struck up conversation.
 "How many times have you had to come back?" she asked.
 "It's my first, I just have to get some forms for a passport," I replied.
 "This is my fourth. They've been fucking me and my husband around every time. First it's this and then it's that. Then they want something else. My husband can't come any more, he's got to work. You know how hard jobs are to find these days..."
 By the time my position in the line had advanced two yards I knew pretty all there was to know about her family... how her husband enjoys a drink or six on the weekend, that she'd voted ANC but probably wouldn't do so again in the next elections and a lot more.
 If we'd thought of it, we probably would have exchanged telephone numbers and even ended up going on family outings together. (The last part is not true, I just said that to impress foreign readers.)
 She, in turn, knew about my kids, how difficult it was for them to find work and my solutions for South Africa's problems and world hunger.
 When it was my turn to be served at the "Enquiries" counter, I felt all warm and cuddly -- new South African!

Can't take them out of the building

 "I need three sets of passport application forms, please," I said to the guy manning the counter.

 "You'll need to fill them in here," he said. "We no longer allow people to take them out of the building."

 I was taken aback. Surely he was joking.

"But I need to get photographs done and I'm sure there are other details that must be filled in," I responded.

 But he was not joking.

 "There's a man outside who'll take the pictures and you only need complete a few details, the rest we'll get from the computer system."

 "But what about my wife and son?" I asked.

 He stared at me with a look usually reserved for people who lick their car seats to clean them. It was just so damned obvious and I couldn't see it.

 "They'll have to come in," he sighed.

 "But they work and can't take time off."

 "We've thought of that too," he replied, "that's why we're open on Saturday mornings."

 Behind me the people in the line were growing restless.

 But I was not easily swayed.

 "This is ridiculous," I huffed. "Tell me why I can't take the forms home, fill them in and bring them back."

 "Because people don't bring them back," he replied. "And, because of that, I get given a set number of forms in the morning and a reconciliation is done in the afternoon."

 "That is simply nonsense," I said, in the most indignant tone I could muster. "I'm not like that. I will fill them in and be back."

 I scooped up the forms and marched defiantly out of the building, expecting at any moment to be beaten senseless by the bemused security guards but nothing happened.

 Earlier this week, while watching television, Mrs White Ou suddenly turned to me.

 "Did you ever get those passport forms?" she asked.

 I thought for a moment.

 "I did," I replied. "They're sitting on my desk, I just haven't got round to giving them to you yet."

 "We really should fill them in," she said, and turned her attention back to the television.

If you enjoyed this short piece you may be interested in reading my new novel: "I Can Hear Them Singing Now" available in ebook format at Amazon.