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."

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