I am not going to tell this story in the Queen’s English. I know that many English speaking South Africans get very annoyed with us when we don’t pronounce or write things as they ought to be written and pronounced in the Queen`s English. Having travelled a bit during my life, I have met many English speakers from England and discovered, to my surprise that they also do not pronounce, or speak or write in the Queen’s English. They have different accents and pronunciations and ways of writing and speaking depending on which region of England or from which ex-colony of the Empire they derive. My story is a dusty, dirty, hot and sweaty South African story, salted with gems like a dry riverbed in the old western Transvaal or the Northern Cape. Most of it happened, more or less in the way I will tell it, on the grassy plains of the Free State, or the boomtowns of the Gold Fields.
My birth certificate spells my name as ‘David’, the English version of ‘Dawid.` This was an accident. I was born on the couch in the living room of a mine house occupied by my parents in the Free State town of Welkom. My mother did not like Jewish people, she had a soft spot for Hitler, but she implicitly trusted Jewish doctors. In her opinion Jews were corrupt and exploiting shopkeepers, communists or damn good doctors. Our house doctor was doctor Cohen, our house dentist was another doctor Cohen. It is to the first doctor Cohen that I owe the spelling of my name on my birth certificate.
My mother was a product of the twentieth century. She liked strong men. Her heroes included Napoleon, Hitler and Fidel Castro. She liked Fidel because of his beard, his nose and his cigars. Perhaps it had to do with the Lexington news advert which followed the English news at lunchtime on Springbok Radio. My father always listened to the news in English at lunchtime. The Afrikaans news was reserved for the evening broadcast at seven. Neither my mother or father smoked but the closing refrain of the advert was ‘After action, satisfaction! Smoke a Lexington!’ and this somehow caught her imagination.
As a white South African born ten years into formal Apartheid, born into an Afrikaans family in the mining town of Welkom, Christianity has always played a major role in my life. My first encounter with Christianity occurred when I was in standard two or three; I was roughly nine years old at the time. I suspect my parents, who were not churchy types, sent my brother and me off to Sunday school with a distant uncle, cum Sunday school teacher, because they wanted to sleep in on Sunday mornings. I am convinced that my sister ten years younger than me owes her existence to my brother and me being carted off to Sunday school.
My parents were not overly religious. My father progressed rapidly from being an apprentice miner to being a mining engineer. In the 1950s it wasn’t necessary to go to university to become an engineer. We moved steadily from being an upper working class family to being middle class.
‘Pa’ as I called my dad all my life, came from a prolific family of fifteen children, eight boys and seven girls. My grandparents decided on an innovative strategy to name all their children. They decided to call them after the major political figures of the mid 20th Century. There is Abraham or Abe in recognition of all the Jewish people who perished in the Nazi death camps. Douglas after general Douglas Macarthur, Rommel after the Desert Fox, Sheila in recognition of the contribution of the Aussies to the war, Pierre after the French general Pierre Laval and so on.
‘Oupa’ as we referred to my stern grandfather was a tall, strong, handsome man, who had made his living from building houses. He often told, how, as a builder he was never unemployed, even during the Great Depression of the early 1930s, when men with ‘high degrees’ were walking the streets. He also claims to have built most of the houses in Brakpan. He had fought in East Africa in the First World War, a loyal and avid supporter of Jan Smuts, dismissive of Afrikaner Nationalism. He only had three years of formal education. I never saw my Oupa drunk, alcohol never passed his lips.
He also never swore, well almost never. I do remember him swearing once and throwing stones at my father’s two youngest brothers because they were not ploughing properly. When they came to complain to their mother about the stone throwing incident, my Ouma merely laughed and offered an aside in my direction, ‘Jou Oupa is so mal soos n fokken haas!’ which translates, ‘Your Grandfather is as mad as a fucking rabbit!` I think the expression derived from the English ‘ as mad as a hatter!’ but I`m not too sure of this. This happened during one of Oupa`s very unsuccessful attempts at farming. He tried his hand at farming after retiring in the Eastern Free State. He ruined several farms in the Petrus Steyn area of the eastern Free State. Oupa firmly believed that agriculture was an ingrained genetic trait of being an Afrikaner.
I often heard Ouma cussing though. She would stand at the kitchen door and yell at the top of her lungs for him to come for breakfast. ‘Kooitjie! Kooitjie (this was her pet name for him) come and eat!’ she would call. When he did not respond she would utter an aside to me, ‘Jou Oupa is so doof soos n klei-os se gat!’ The proper Afrikaans expression should be ‘Jy is so toe soos n klei-os se gat!` Translated roughly she meant my grandfather’s ears were as closed, or blocked, as a clay-oxen’s arse. Clay-oxen were the favourite toy of Afrikaans children since the days of the Great Trek. I am sure that a clay-oxen`s ears were also blocked, but an expression as lame as that would not have sufficed for Ouma. I was only four or five years old at the time! While I was in exile she apparently modernized the expression and shouted ‘Jou Oupa is so toe soos n Barbie dol se doos!’ (‘Your grandfather is as dense/closed as a Barbie dolls cunt’).
Ouma also spent time teaching me more colourful words and phrases in Afrikaans, not commonly part of the school curriculum and not contained in any Afrikaans dictionaries. One favourite little rhyme was, ‘Ouma en Oupa sit op die stoep. Oupa gee n harde poep! Ouma vra ‘wat maker?’ Oupa se ‘my maag is seer!’ Ouma se ‘Eet n peer.’ Oupa se ‘Nee, dan poep ek weer!
Oupa’s only vice was gambling on the horses, this I knew for as soon as I could read I had to read the horse results for him, and one chore I hated was going to the ‘tattersalls’ (the tote) and placing his bets on Saturdays and Wednesdays. Even though children were not allowed into the tattersalls the managers made an exception in my case because they knew I was placing ‘oom’ Kooitjie’s bets. Fortunately this unpleasant task only occurred during school holidays when I would often spend time with my grandparents. To Ma’s chagrin, Pa inherited Oupa’s passion for the horses. To be honest I also spend many school holidays with my father’s oldest brother and his family, ‘Oom’ Andries, ‘Tannie’ Mara and their six kids.
‘Ouma’ Pauline, as we called my grandmother, had a bachelor`s degree in music, from the University of the Free State nogal. So I learned, many years after she passed away, on reading a clipping of her obituary, which my mother had kept. Ouma was the matriarch of the family, sharp, witty, hard working, hard drinking and hard cussing.
Except for weddings and funerals, my Oupa and Ouma never, as far as I can recall, went to church. Being a very robust family, funerals happened rarely, and then only because distant relatives or in-laws passed away. My father’s brothers and sisters were a rough, tough, hard drinking, hard fighting working class bunch. Oupa rejected the broederbond and everything associated with it, including the civil service. He was determined that all his sons would become either farmers or apprentices in the gold mining industry and learn an artisanal trade, particularly through Anglo American.
Most of them first went to the mines, almost like it was a coming of age ritual for passing into manhood. Welkom and Odendaalsrust, the new gold fields of South Africa drew Pa’s family like a magnet. These were frontier towns of the mining industry during the 1950s and Pa and his brothers revelled at the opportunity. The excessive energies of these young men were channelled into sport and Pa played rugby, with his brothers they were half a team. He played cricket, with his brothers they were two short of a team. Later, having qualified as an engineer and rubbing shoulders with all the English managers, he took up the gentlemanly sport of golf. My brother and I always tagged along to either the practice sessions or the sporting events he participated in. Pa can even boast that he played rugby with Louis Luyt before the latter became a fertiliser multi-millionaire!
There are many stories of Pa’s brothers disrupting, or even bringing a rugby match to a grinding halt because of an unpopular refereeing decision and chasing after the referee who would depart the scene in a cloud of dust.
When my cousin Karools got married the reception took place at the Stateway hotel in the main street of Welkom. ‘Oom’ (‘oom’ is Afrikaans for Uncle) Douglas did not like the country and western singer and decided to teach him a thing or two, which meant taking to him with a fist. The singer dressed like a cowboy had a real, instead of a toy gun, in his holster and drew the weapon and fired a shot in self-defence. The bullet missed ‘oom’ Douglas and hit poor Karools in the foot. He spent his wedding night in hospital. The wedding reception ended in a brawl with the hotel registering a huge bill for damages and the riot police having to intervene.
Oom Douglas married Liefie when she was sixteen years old. He bought a farm near Carletonville, where the two of them settled. He was banned from the annual farmers Christmas ball because his presence always ended in a brawl with everyone fighting with everyone else. Oom Douglas had a penchant for sleeping with the wives of the other farmers in the area. Before Ouma and Oupa moved to Parys the family Christmas gatherings were on Oom Douglas’ farm. All the brothers and sisters would gather with all their children. It was a time to catch up with all the new additions to the extended family and to find out who got married, and who divorced.
My cousins, nephews and nieces spent Christmas playing on the farm, until they became sexually conscious and active. Once a state of sexual maturity was reached at around age 12 or 13 years the farm offered lots of possibilities around the stables, sheds and various outbuildings where all kinds of experimentation took place unbeknown to the adults. No one I know of ever fell pregnant by a relative. Many cousins and nieces did, however, fall pregnant from the local mechanic or some or other local artisan, often before matriculating.
Oom Douglas’ attempt at farming was almost as pathetic as those of Oupa, except Douglas was more innovative. Come planting season he would call on all the different brand manufacturers of tractors and ploughing equipment to demonstrate their equipment, creating the impression that he would consider purchasing such equipment if it proved suitable and up to the required standards. Thus Ford, Massey Ferguson, Landini etc. would all come and plough and prepare a piece of land, only to be told that their equipment was unimpressive and the next manufacturer would be called and so on until all the required ploughing was done. Needless to say, the trick did not work for many seasons before the suppliers worked out that they were being taken for a ride!
I must say that I have never seen Pa drunk in his life. I know that he liked his milk stout beer and his rum and coke, but he never drank excessively. I supposed he took after Oupa in this regard. Ma was also very strict with him, and I sometimes overheard his brothers saying that he was ‘hen-pecked!’ But they would never say that to her face, as she had a short temper and a sharp and insulting tongue.
Having obtained middle class status my mother never liked visiting her in-laws, she felt scandalised by them. Most of them also worked on the mines in Welkom and stayed in close proximity to where we lived. But Pa was an engineer, I suppose, while my uncles were all boilermakers, fitters and turners or blasters. Ma was also God fearing, and couldn’t stand Ouma’s sharp, colourful tongue or her energy in the kitchen.
In raising 15 children Ouma was, shall we say, dexterous, in the kitchen? She made her own jam and butter; she could pickle fish, onions or any vegetable. She backed bread and biscuits. She smoked meat, made polonies and salamis. She sewed and knitted, made soap. There was very little that Ouma could not do. Fuelling her energy was a bottle of brandy, always handy, in the bathroom or a kitchen cupboard. The more she drank, the harder she worked. The harder she worked the more she swore and cussed.
She had a high contempt for the lack of skills displayed by her daughters-in-law. She would drop little hints all the time as she scurried about her daily routine whenever we visited my grandparents. She liked to needle and tease them in a good-humoured kind of way and they always got angry and puffed up. The most appreciated Christmas and birthday gift she could be given was a bottle of brandy. She dismissed anything less with contempt.
Ma had little choice in the matter of our frequent visits to her in-laws. Pa was extremely loyal to his close-knit family. Since he was economically successful he operated like a mafia don. He found jobs for his brothers in the mining industry, and many of them stayed in our house at one time or another while they were doing their apprenticeships. Nowadays people call family loyalty nepotism. He lent money where there was need. We took in the children of those who were struggling economically. He visited and counselled and cared. His relationship with his brothers and sisters was always the biggest cause of friction between him and Ma. He was the anchor of his family, even buying his parents a big riverside house in Parys next to the Vaal River.
This contrasted greatly with my Ma’s family. They were staunch nationalists and Church- goers. Ma’s mother had been an intern at a British concentration camp for Afrikaner women during the Anglo Boer war. My grandfather on my mother’s side, de Winnar, died very young from a vein bursting in his head, after a farm worker had caused his prize bull to die. I never got the exact details, and I never had a chance of meeting him, but the event I am told plunged my mother’s family into poverty and they were forced to become ‘bywoners’.
My grandmother, ‘Ouma’ De Winnaar, remarried to a sour old man, ‘Oupa’ van Rooyen, who read in an endless drone from the bible by candlelight in the small zinc cottage they occupied in the tiny village of Reitz in the eastern Free State. I cannot recall how he looked, because I was always too scared to look him in the eye. One always had the feeling that he was convinced that children were sent from Hades to torment him. My brother and me spoke in whispers when we visited there; it was like being in the presence of an avenging angel of God.
Ma had eight or nine brothers and sisters. I don’t think I met them all. Ouma de Winnaar was a kindly person, soft-spoken person, but she passed away in the mid 1970s. All in all I don`t think my Ma’s side of the family were quite as hardy as those on Pa’s side. I think they perceived of themselves too much as victims of English injustice to take advantage of the opportunities offered to whites by 20th Century South Africa. They were mentally stuck in the concentration camps of the Anglo Boer War.
I got to know three of Ma’s sisters fairly well. Her oldest sister ‘Tannie’ Nettie was born with the curse of being able to see Ghosts. ‘Tannie’ is Afrikaans for aunt. Afrikaners say that someone with this ‘gift’ was ‘onder die helm gebore!’ Tannie Nettie was born with the skin of the placenta over her face, or so I am told. Anyone born like this, almost smothered to death at birth, automatically could see and communicate with those from the other side!
She was a chain smoking rake of a woman, always nervous, always reading the bible and praying. But, she told a mean ghost story! No Hollywood movie had a patch on her stories. Whenever we visited her place in Heilbron we would gather around the kitchen table and implore her to tell ghost stories. She would tell the story of the English soldier, whose head was blown of by shrapnel, who galloped past the cattle kraal at night; or the story of the Boer soldier who came into her kitchen to tell her where they had buried a treasure of Kruger gold pounds in the garden of the very house they were staying in. When she went out to dig in the indicated spot the next morning the landlord evicted them for digging up his garden and she never had opportunity to return to the spot.
Tannie Nettie was old and sickly when I was still a toddler, and she was still old and sickly when I turned twenty one, and she remained old and sickly when I turned forty.
She once almost scared a nurse to death at Kroonstad hospital. The doctor in Heilbron referred her. On arrival she did not know where to go, and ended up quietly sitting down for a rest on a chair just inside the swing doors to the morgue, an unfamiliar room she had just entered. Two nurses wheeled in a corpse, and Tannie Nettie reached out with a shaking hand, her hands were always shaking, to touch the behind of the nearest nurse so as to enquire about the whereabouts of the doctor! I leave the rest to the imagination.
Tannie Kerrie, the other sister, considered herself a beauty queen and a catch for any deserving man. Like Liz Taylor she married and divorced five or six times. There was ‘Ouboet’ Willie Liebenberg, tall and dark with almost Arabic features, followed by a millionaire maize and cattle farmer from Winburg. I only remember these two husbands. Ouboet’s complexion was so dark that in later years I often wondered how he passed the race classification tests of the 1950s, which separated people into different races. Kerrie, her husband and two daughters always occupied the front benches in the church and always entered last, just before proceedings commenced thus ensuring that everybody would observe their Sunday best.
Tannie Kerrie and Ma visited each other all the time, ‘teasing’ one another’s hair, doing perms, giving one another manicures and pedicures, making dresses, spending a lot of time in front of the dressing table and mirror, or baking cakes and ‘koeksusters’, all the while discussing the latest fashions in ‘Rooi Rose’ magazine. Both belonged to the ‘Vroue Liga’ the Afrikaner or National Party version of the ‘Women`s League.’ Both were also keen tennis players. Both firmly believed that playing tennis was an essential trait of being middle class. Both were housewives with ‘maids.’ Both had plenty of time to pursue their hobbies and interests.
Then there was Tannie Malie from Henneman. I remember her because her husband died from cancer. I am also reminded of her son Stoffel who made it with the Broederbond and became a senior manager with Volkskas Bank. Her daughter Marsou scandalised Ma’s family by buying Percy Sledge and Elvis Presley records and wearing a bikini at age 14.
Ouma Pauline van Wyk was worldly wise and had no time for politics or religion, after moving into the Parys home which my Pa had bought for them, they were graced with a visit from the Dutch Reformed Church Dominee’ (pastor). The ‘huisbesoek’ or house visit by the pastor tending to his flock ended in the usual reminder that congregants had to pay their tithes. The Dutch Reformed Church received an annual subsidy from the Apartheid state under the 1911 Dutch Reformed Church Act, but still demanded contributions from congregants in line with the teachings of the bible and as a demonstration of their loyalty to ‘Kerk.’
It is a miracle that the pastor of the church managed to get to this point in his visit, given its close ties to the National Party and to Afrikaner Nationalism.
Oupa, a couple of years later, already an octogenarian, had an altercation with the local National Party Member of Parliament (MP) while fishing on the banks of the Vaal river which flowed past the house, about how much better a leader General Jan Smuts had been when compared with the current National Party Government. It ended in the MP and Oupa having a fist fight. The matter was reported in the local newspaper, and the National Party officially apologising.
As soon as the pastor started asking for their contributions to the church, things took a turn for the worse. The two old pensioners summarily ejected the pastor from the house. Ouma`s parting shot ringing in his ears, ‘I can use my money better on the horses than wasting it on your church!’