Looking back on my childhood in South Africa.
I have lived in South Africa my whole life, and that encompasses a period from 1961 until March 2013. I have seen so many things change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worst. I have lived through periods of strife and progress. I was born a few days before the birth of a republic, the oppression by a minority, the sheer lunacy of apartheid, the joys of freedom, a new change of government and the rebirth of a nation. I have only lived in Johannesburg, in the blue collar part of town, went to school there although the chances are that I may not die there one day. The old “City of Gold” as I knew it is only a memory, there is very little of what I remember still around, and alas I feel that things have deteriorated for the worst. Much of what I have written here is pertinent to me, they are my memories, and are as I recall them, and often I cannot put a date to what is written. I apologise, its ages ago. Opinions expressed here are not necessarily official policy of any organisation or person, most are my own humble opinion. Many of the photos here come from publications which I cannot recall, and copyright for them resides with the copyright holders. I also welcome any additions, clarification, or relevant material.
These pages are also dedicated to classmates:
Fernando De Jesus, Cheryl Hext and Steven Amory.
I was born a few days before South Africa was declared a Republic (I was born in the “Union of South Africa”), and I spent my first years as a toddler living in Sinclair Street in Belgravia, and consequently have very little memory of that period; I do know that I fell down a lot, and that could have something to do with it. I do recall odd fragments of neighbours and the feeling that something was not quite 100% “right” in the house we lived in. There are strange 8mm movies of those early years of mine, and I did seem to ride around in circles on a tricycle (which could explain the falling down).
I still wasn’t in school when we moved to Robinson Road in Mayfair, possibly this was in 1965. In those days, Mayfair was a working class area with a reputation for gang violence, shebeens, alcoholism, poor whites, even poorer Africans and run down houses. Our new home was a 3 bedroom house in the block next to the railway lines, with Grosvenor Station around the corner. The mine dumps of Crown Mines were about 2 kilo’s away on the other side of the railway line, as was the Blue Dam in Homestead Park.
When the wind blew strongly, the streets would be covered in fine yellow sand from the dumps. Trains, often pulled by steam engines, would thunder past at regular intervals, and at night the police would patrol the area, looking for Africans who never had passes. This was the era of the dreaded “Pass Laws” and the police were ruthless in their pursuit of offenders. Trams had been withdrawn from service in Johannesburg a few years before and new fangled trolley buses were used on the route to Mayfair and Homestead Park, but not to Brixton or Crosby. South Africa was decimal and I still don’t know how to work in inches and feet or how pounds, shillings and pence were used although, I would recognise a “tickey” a mile away. (MENU)
As far as I know, my brother had gone to nursery school for a very short while when he was a toddler, but that never seemed to work very well, so I was spared this agony; spending my preschool days blissfully playing with invisible and visible friends. I started primary school in 1968, attending EP Baumann Primary School in Queens Road, at the top end of Mayfair.
Founded in 1934, it was considered a very good school (and it probably still is), although there were other primary schools like John Ware, Brixton Primary or even Jubileum, the local Afrikaans primary in the area. Like most schools though, it had its good points, and its bad, and yet we had a certain pride in it. In fact, most ex pupils seem to remember it with a certain amount of pride and fondness. We had 4 “houses”, I was in “Holcroft”, and I know there was a “Swemmer”, “Oppenheimer” and “Webster” house as well. Holcroft (represented by the colour blue) always won the wooden spoon for coming last on sports day, but that could be because I was in it. The sports day was usually held at the local police recreation grounds (Arthur Bloch Park) in Mayfair and the whole school would participate in cheering on the participants in events such as beanbag races and short distance sprints. The big playing field in the school was known as the “Ben Swemmer” and the school itself was named after Dr EP Baumann, a famous Paediatrician, I believe.
It is probable that somewhere along the line we would have to recite “The Pledge”. Strangely enough I do not recall this, however, when I finally saw a copy of it I could recognise the words, or rather, I could recognise the sing-songness of it. However, nobody really explained to us what some of those big words actually meant.
“The Pledge” went along these lines:
I pledge to remember that at all times
and in all places I am the School’s representative.
I will therefore strive to refrain from any word
or deed which may bring discredit upon it.
I will endeavour to be always loyal to the Staff
and to all my Schoolfellows.
I would ever seek to be worthy of the School,
to add to it’s lustre, and to cherish its highest traditions.
I will try to play my part in passing it on to others,
not less but greater and better than it was passed on to me.
The school motto was “Aut Viam Inveniam Aut Faciam” (Either find a way or make one).
I don’t recall much of Grade 1, our classes were in the prefab classrooms at the far end of the school where the grade classes were housed, and much of what went on around us was mostly misunderstood. We finished school an hour or 2 earlier than the “big school” and my mother would walk me to and from school until I eventually ended up doing the trip on my own. I do recall endlessly sharpening pencils, and trying to jump the gap between the 2 sets of classrooms; a skill which came easier as I progressed up to Standard 5. Our teacher in Grade 1A was Mrs Venter, and she has left no impression on me at all.
Next to the Ben Swemmer was a large empty stretch of veldt which today is the parking lot of the Garden City Clinic, and just over Queens Road (which becomes High Street) is the Brixton Fire Station, while the Brixton Tower (Originally the Hertzog Tower and now known as the Sentech Tower) dominated the top of hill about 500 metres away.
I was promoted to Grade 2A in 1969, and to the class of the formidable Mrs MacDougall, a legendary teacher at “EP Peanuts” (as we fondly knew it). This teacher was beloved of all those who passed through her hands as she was a wonderful, caring teacher, prone to outbursts and ruler flinging. She would guide and nurture us through Grade 2, teaching us to read, write and spell. I entered her class full of fear, starting out at “bottom section” and working my way through the ranks until I reached the lofty heights of “top section” by year end. However, leaving Miss Mac’s class was something we all dreaded and many tears were shed on the last day of Grade 2. (In primary school the first 2 years of schooling were known as Grade 1 and Grade 2, whereas from then onwards to high school they were known as “Standards”, abbreviated as Std (Std 1 – Std 10) as opposed to “forms” or “grades”. Our final year in school (Std 10) was known as “Matric” )
Std 1 was taught by the equally formidable Mrs Shirmir, who had always taught Std 1. She ruled with an iron first and we spent a lot of time sitting with our fingers on our lips or hands on our heads. She was a very good teacher who taught us a lot and who nudged us in the right direction when it came to things like discipline, homework and studying. In Std 2 we were under Miss Cole’s hand, a benign teacher who was very popular with her students. Std 3 we fell under Mrs Van Der Merwe (not to be confused with our library teacher), a teacher who stifled creativity and who loved to use the ruler and wooden spoon on our outstretched hands. She was a misandrist and she treated the boys in her class like vermin. She was also nominally in charge of “music” but I am afraid she was really a poor teacher. I came to dread her class, and oddly enough there is only one thing that I can say she taught me that I have never forgotten.
Nobody loves me, everybody hates me,
I’m gonna eat some worms! Long thin slimy ones,
short fat fuzzy ones, worms, worms, squirmy, little worms,
long thin slimy ones slip down easily,
short fat fuzzy one stick.
Short fat fuzzy ones stick all around your teeth, they make you go pppft ppppfft”
Things were made even worse by our arithmetic teacher, Mr Botha. He was an emotionless, easily irritated, impatient, pipe-smoking Afrikaaner who instilled fear wherever he went, and he had a reputation for being one of the teachers who was fond of the cane and who never smiled, and I was unfortunate enough to have him warm my rear-end a few times. He drove one of the first Toyota Corona models around and we always prayed that we wouldn’t see his car on the day we had arithmetic. Alas, Mr Botha was very punctual, and when that car arrived we knew we were in for it, the smell of his pipe preceding him wherever he went. Mr Botha is also partly responsible for the fact that I struggled with maths right through high school.
Most Fridays, the whole school would file into the school hall where Mrs Mac would preside over the assembly. The youngest children started out in the front rows and as you progressed through the next 7 years so you ended up sitting nearer to the back of the hall. Then we would sing, and woe betide us if we did not produce perfection because Mrs Mac would shout “NOOOOOO!!!!” and fling the ruler across the stage. When it was over we would be quivering wrecks and would sing “The Happy Wanderer” on our way out of the hall
“I love to go a wandering,
Along the mountain track,
And as I go, I love to sing,
My knapsack on my back.
Val-da-ri Val-da-ra Val-da-ri
Val-da-ra ha ha ha ha ha ha
My knapsack on my back. “
The school hall had very high windows and was also used for film shows where we would eagerly watch such educational 16mm films as “Road Safety, It’s Your Duty,” or “The Slug, Natures Silent Partner.” We never sat on the wooden chairs in the hall, instead these were stacked along the sides just waiting for somebody to touch them; once disturbed they would slide majestically onto the floor like a stack of dominoes. Poor Jan, his job was to close the curtains using a long tree branch, a very slow process which often took half a period. There was also a motorised screen which came out of the ceiling, and in the projection rooms at the back of the hall 2 paraffin lamp projectors rusted gently away. They were real antiques and in my time at the school were never used. In Std 5 we used that room as a storage area for the new fangled overhead projectors, and found an ancient black and white copy of a Flash Gordon short which soon became a firm favourite with all of us. The hall also saw the periodic school plays and once hosted Springbok Radio for a recording of “Pick a Box.” I recall we had a few school plays and one year I was roped into playing a teddy bear in “The Teddy Bears Picnic.”
“… For ev’ry bear that ever there was
Will gather there for certain,
today’s the day the Teddy Bears have their picnic.”
I was able to wriggle my way out of that one with some adept sneakery, but in Std 4 was roped into the play once again. This time around I was supposed to dance “The Hora“, but fortunately my dancing skills were non-existent and I ended up doing a little penny whistle march to the tune of “Yankee Doodle Went to Town”. We spent days practising our singing under the guidance of Miss Miller, and even today I remember many of the songs from that play. Our Std 4A class skit was entitled “Around The World in 80 days,” and ran for 2 nights. We were also going through a poker-playing mania at the time and we spent much of the time in between the various acts making very small playing cards and playing poker. As a direct result of that school play I know the lyrics to a number of strange songs that often pop into my head.
The Transvaal Education Department (aka TED) was very concerned about our health. And every year the school dentist would come along and probe our teeth, either saying “yes” which meant the dreaded School Clinic (and years of phobias), or “no” which meant you were let off the hook. This ancient dentist was a relic from the previous age of dentistry and had advanced halitosis and we dreaded his arrival.
The school doctor would call once a year and give us a physical, and when we reached Std 5 all the girls were given the dreaded German Measles injection (I am not too sure about this, it may have been the chicken pox inoculation). Those inoculations were seen as necessary by the authorities and our parents; seeing as childhood diseases were not all that rare. At any rate, we complained and cried and did our best to get out of having an injection but to no avail. It was a small price to pay so that we did not end up with Diphtheria or Polio.
The Citrus Board, (aka Outspan) would also come along each winter and give us a show. This was an eagerly awaited event because of the free oranges and grapefruit which we received in a cardboard suitcase. We also got a small juice extractor which we used to get at the juice inside with (image found on the internet).
And, each day in winter one of the workers of the school (Jan or July), would bring around enamel jugs of steaming hot cocoa, and even today the smell of cocoa in a plastic mug can drive me into fits of nostalgia.
On Children’s Day (5 November) we would collect money for child welfare and the class which collected the most would be taken to the movies in town. I went twice, and remember seeing “101 Dalmatians” at the 20th Century bioscope in town. When I was in Standard 1 the optician that visited the school discovered that I had weak eyes and from then onwards I wore glasses and endured the torments of my peers who used to traditionally call all spec-wearers “4 eyes”. The glasses did improve my eyesight, but they did nothing for my game-playing ability, and as the glasses were prone to broken frames I had to be very wary of what I played. The temples of the glasses could set my parents back the princely sum of R12, which was a small fortune considering that the bond repayments on our house were about R70 a month. My optician in Mayfair was Harold Levy, and in 2012 he was still practising, albeit in Kensington.
All round us, life went on: men went into space, the Cold War got colder, apartheid grew more ridiculous, the Cape to Rio Race would be founded, and Springbok Radio was the only real entertainment. TV had not come to South Africa yet and we were still in the dark about many aspects of life outside of South Africa. If anything the world around us was something we heard about, but didn’t really understand, we just dutifully coloured in the maps that we were dished out with in school and recited the countries and capital cities without actually knowing where any of them were. As English speakers it was assumed that we came from the UK, and the Afrikaners were always telling us to go back, although it was difficult considering that most of us were born in South Africa as were our parents.
In winter and summer we trudged or caught the bus to school in our black shorts, blue shirts and striped tie, the only concession to the weather being a jersey in winter and a balaclava on our heads. The classrooms were theoretically heated via steam radiators, but the reality was that they were just slightly warm and we would all crowd around them while we waited for school to start. When it rained we got wet, and I do recall having a raincoat, but we preferred using it as a superhero style cape rather than for the purpose it was designed for.
On our backs we wore grubby Sea-King Haversacks which grew more despicable as the term progressed, they were preferable to the cardboard schoolcase that I started out in school with. Inside our haversacks we stored our precious wax paper wrapped sandwiches (sarmies) which we would swap with our friends at first break. EP Baumann did not operate a tuckshop when I first started school, but towards the end of my school career there they did have a limited tuckshop with the usual offerings of chip ‘n chocolates. To our dismay the grubby haversacks would get washed at the end of each term and would lose their “character” and we would literally have a new slate to write on.
Our hair was shorn “short back and sides” and what was left was plastered with “Brylcreme”, and our games during break were frenetic bursts of energy. In our final year in primary school baseball fever broke out and every break we would play amongst the old grizzled trees which formed part of our playground. Our ball was a piece of rolled up silver paper, our bat, an 18 inch ruler. I expect the girls, in their part of the playground, had their crazes as well, skipping, netball, and other mysterious games which involved clapping hands and giggling. There was no mixing of genders during break. The boys toilets were in a block in the quadrangle and they reeked to heaven and during break there was always a rush to empty the bladder. Teachers were loathe to allow us to go to the toilet during class as they knew we would drag it out for as long as we could. When the bell rang at the end of break we had to run, otherwise the prefects would close the gates and we would be dragged in front of the principal for some rear end warming. (MENU)
Going to the Bioscope
The movies or “Bioscope” as we knew it, played an integral part of my growing up. In Mayfair we had 2 movie houses, or “bug houses”. “The Mayfair”, which was an “upbeat” sort of place (the building is still standing), and “The Ritz”, which was THE place to see movies. They specialised in “B” movies, with screenings of Elvis, Tarzan, cowboy and war movies for all the blood-thirsty hordes of young children in the area. Entrance fee was 25 cents, and we always had 25c for a bottle of orange juice, a packet of chips and a piece of biltong. The main feature was always accompanied by a comedy, forthcoming attractions, a serial and endless interruptions when the bottle flinging got too much for the manager. Up in Brixton they had “The Roxy” which was even more upmarket than The Mayfair, but we hardly ever frequented it.
Going to the bioscope in town was more of a social event, and we would dress up to the nines and on a Saturday afternoon catch a bus into town to go to the Colosseum, 20th Century or His Majesties. These wonders of old time cinemas were renowned for their décor, especially the old Colosseum, with its interior done up like a castle courtyard with little globes set into the ceiling to represent stars. All of these bioscopes had a balcony, and usually a liveried usher would take your tickets at the door and add them to his string. An usherette would show everybody to their seats (in either the “Stalls” or “Circle”) with calls of “excuse the patrons”. In later years we would frequent Kine Centre (auctioned off in 2003), Highpoint in Hillbrow, and Ster City up near Doornfontein. The Colosseum bioscope was in the block next to what was to become the Carlton Centre, considered to be THE shopping centre in JHB, it boasted an indoor skating rink, 5 star hotel, 50 story office block and numerous shops and boutiques. Due for completion in 1971, a 5 acre hole was excavated, and over a million tons of rock was removed. Throughout the construction of the centre we were able to view progress at the site when we paid our periodic visits to the bioscope in town. At the time it was one of the biggest construction projects in the world.(MENU)
Our family never owned a car, and we used buses or trains wherever we went. In the early years the buses were trolley buses which would turn around in Homestead Park, or the London routemaster style buses with the platform on the back and with a real conductor. The platform style bus was eventually withdrawn and they were converted for non conductor working, In later years they would introduce double deckers painted in advertising logos, and a single decker which was often used during the day. Many of those double deckers were only retired in 2000 and gave long and sterling service.
The Mayfair/Crosby/Homestead Park terminus was in Loveday Street, right next to the old Union-Castle Building, with its 12 foot display model of the SA Vaal and other wondrous things inside. Naturally, we were not privileged enough to travel in TJ1, the Mayoral car, which we occasionally saw when visiting town. The Johannesburg numberplate in those days was TJ, with TSN (Terrible Snobs of the North) being Sandton, and TP being Pretoria. The “T” designating the province “Transvaal”.
As we lived close to Grosvenor (later Mayfair) Station we often caught trains when we needed to go to the doctor (who was in Denver), or the Children’s Hospital at the top of a long hill in Johannesburg. Like everything else in South Africa, trains were segregated by race and class and there were separate entrances, subways, bridges and waiting rooms for whites and “non-whites”. Many of the older swing door suburban trains were still in service in “3rd class” and were hopelessly overwhelmed by passengers eager to get home or go to work.
We would occasionally make a trip down to Bethlehem by train, usually part of the way the train would be pulled by a steam engine. The earlier trains were still wood panelled clerestory coaches with balconies on either end. They had a smell of old leather and wood which was unique to them. When we did go away on holiday we would go by train as well, a momentous event which was planned months in advance.(MENU)
Off to the seaside
We seemed to go to Durban every 7 years, and we stayed at the “Coogee Beach Hotel” which was if I recall in Gillespie Street. The overnight train trip was part of the holiday, and about 6 weeks before we were due to leave my father would go to Park Station to book our compartment on the Trans-Natal. It was a very formal occasional too, the bookings for main line trains was run almost like a travel agent, and you bought the tickets as well as bedding tickets and meal tickets there. Then the long wait which would involve endless imagination, careful choice of clothing and end of year exams. Eventually the big day would arrive and we would pack the red samsonite suitcases and head off to the station and down to the main line platforms and wait for the electric units bringing in the train. My father was a firm believer in being on time and we would leave very early to stand on the empty platform to catch our train, The smell of those old coaches was something to be experienced, and the glowing woods and green leather was never really surpassed by the formica clad coaches of later years. Then we were off…
We never ate in the dining saloon of the train, but always had a huge hamper of sandwiches, boiled eggs, tea and fruit to munch on, naturally we were hungry immediately after leaving Johannesburg. Then the ticket examiner would call, and then the “bedding boy” who would make up our beds in the traditional blue SAR blankets. At Germiston they would shunt on coaches from Pretoria and we would be able to watch the steam engines in action. Then the journey would commence and we would trundle towards Durban. As daylight faded my parents would pack us all off to bed, my brother and I always in the upper bunks. Alas, sleep never came to me on those trips and it would be a long night of listening to the unique noises of a train and feel the swaying motion as we journeyed to Natal. The next morning would see us meandering down the long hills of Natal, calling at sleepy stations along the way. Marianhill and Pietermaritzburg being especially remembered, and finally Durban.
The heat was memorable and the hot sticky week in December was always too short. We would go play in the sea and suffer the indignity of formal suppers at the hotel, visit the docks, Mini Town, the beach again and try cram as much into our long-awaited holiday as we could. We had relatives in Durban and would invariably end up meeting up with them. I could never understand why there were no shells to collect on the beach and no matter how many holes I dug the sea would always fill them in. My love of ships was evident even then, with endless trips in the motorised boats by the beachfront, and an imitation nautical cap my favourite headgear. I clearly remember HMS Eagle calling at Durban, arriving on 22 December 1971, and watching her come in through the channel, crammed with Matelots who would flood Durban with unfamiliar accents. This was the last commission of this great ship and a huge thrill for a ship-mad 10 year old. Sadly our holiday was only a week long and soon we would be at the station once again, finished with Natal for another 7 years. I know I always wished that the long train trip back to Johannesburg would never end, and getting back home to our normal life was a major downer after our week at the seaside. We went to Durban 3 times when I was in school, and only jerky 8mm films and strange black and white photographs remain of those trips.
I was last in Durban in 1997, and most of those trips we drove down or flew. The toll fees to Durban for a class 1 vehicle in 2017 are:
|N3 De Hoek||N3 Wilge||N3 Tugela||N3 Mooi River||N3 Mariannhill||Total|
In 2006 the Sunday Times did an investigation on travel within South Africa and the following was discovered: To travel on 6 December 2006 between JHB and Durban (650km) would cost you:
- Greyhound bus: (7 hrs) R250
- Translux bus (7 hrs) R180
- Train: (13 hrs) Seater coach R95, Sleeper R190
- Own car (excluding tolls) (6 hrs) Between R360 and R590
- Minibus taxi: (5 hrs) R110
- Flights: vary from R169 to R849 (Mango, 1Time, Kulula, SAA)
Initially we did our monthly grocery shopping at the Eloff Street branch of OK Bazaars. In those days they actually delivered and we would stock up for the month. This was another occasion, as it often resulted in a trip to “The Tempting Tray”, a cafeteria in the OK Bazaars building which is where I got my love of “pie, gravy and chips” from. Usually on these end-of-the-month jaunts into town we would also call at the rates hall in town to pay the rates and taxes, as well as go to the big department stores like “The Belfast” and “Greatermans”, which was about 3 blocks from the bus stop in Market Street, or “Leydens”, which seemed to sell almost everything from furniture to clothing.
The closest grocery shops were in the area of Mayfair closest to Fordsburg. There was a Checkers and a Spar there and when we moved to that area that was where we shopped. Pick ‘n Pay had a store up in Brixton and it must have been amongst the earliest P’nP’s in Johannesburg. School uniforms were bought at Maytex in Mayfair, Burgers (since moved to Cresta) or Ekspa (since closed down) in Fordsburg. Our friendly chemist was Smith’s Pharmacy on the corner of Church Street and Railway Road. Furniture was purchased at Lubners, Rudicks, or Geen and Richards. Our first TV, which was a Telefunken B/W, we bought on hire purchase, I recall it cost about R300. Meat was bought fresh at a butchery, and in later years we invested in a chest freezer and would stock up on a hind quarter. I would not even try to price one of those today, it is bound to be very expensive (Jan 2017, roughly R70.00 p/kg).(MENU)
This is the news
As mentioned previously, when I was young TV did not exist in South Africa, so we grew up listening to the wireless. There were 2 main stations that interested me: Springbok Radio, and The English Service. They dished out a plethora of often Eurocentric radio drama and entertainment which kept us glued to the edge of our seats. Every morning we woke to the sounds of “Clakkie” MacKay and Dana Niehaus with their morning show, and at night the last thing we heard was the closing of our favourite radio show. Of course we all had our favourites, and I suspect “Taxi” was one of the most popular, with “Squad Cars”, a close second. Other favourites included “The Men From The Ministry, Inspector Carr Investigates, High Adventure, My Name’s Adam Kane, Father Dear Father, Consider Your Verdict”, and of course that late night favourite “The Creaking Door”, and a host of so many others which were unique to our individual tastes. On Sundays we ate lunch to the sounds of “From the Bell Tower”, and after doing the dishes silence would reign for at least 2 hours while my parents had their afternoon nap. It was a very frustrating 2 hours too, because we couldn’t play or listen to the radio, virtually all shops and businesses closed at 1 pm on Saturday and only re-opened on Monday morning. In affect South Africa came to a grinding halt at 1 pm on a Saturday.
In later years I could take stroll up to my friend’s place, or take my bike and go for a ride up to Brixton or a walk to the Blue Dam. It was reasonably safe even in the midst of a rough and tumble suburb like Mayfair. When TV did come to our country it was of very limited duration, and broadcast in both official languages. Programming was limited, as the Equity ban was in force and we could not source British TV shows. I remember that the Afrikaans Drama department did a fine job, producing light humour like “Willem”, and “Dokter Dokter”. Somehow though, our local English series “The Villagers” just could not compete. When “Dallas” hit the screen businesses shut down for the evening, but oddly enough most people preferred “Rich Man Poor Man” with its scheming Falconetti being everybody’s favourite villain. Sadly though, the emergence of television was also the death knell of the radio drama and in particular of Springbok Radio which closed its doors on 31 December 1985 . I do recall hearing the static laden sounds of LM Radio, the only station that seemed to cater to the youngsters, its demise saw the rise of Radio 5, and later Capital Radio and Radio 702 (Celebrated its 30th birthday in June 2010). Radio Highveld was a popular music station, playing mostly middle of the road type oldies, with request programmes running in the evenings, drawing a younger crowd of people.(MENU)
and the ever controversial “Rand Daily Mail” which shut down many years back. My father would buy the Daily Mail to read on the train while The Star was an afternoon paper. The papers were usually priced at 5c, with the Sunday papers running to the unheard of price of 25c. Sundays we used to get the “Sunday Times”, which is still running, as well as the “Sunday Express” which has also gone. The English language press has always prided itself on being liberal, and during the height of Apartheid did much to keep the public aware of what was going on. Alas, as a child I expect the funnies were of more interest to me. I do know that Prince Valiant has been running in the Sunday Times as long as I can remember, and the same goes for Dagwood and Blondie. It was my job to buy the paper every day on my way home from school or later in the afternoons if I hadn’t been able to find a copy, a habit I got into and which I only broke in the late 1980’s when the papers got too thin, too expensive and the contents too controversial. However, I no longer buy the Sunday papers, by 2005 it cost R8.50 and by 2009 it was up to R14-00 and is nowhere near as thick or as interesting as it used to be. I gave up on reading Prince Valiant years ago as I felt its credibility had really diminished and he really should have been pensioned off years ago.
My brother and I were also comic fans, collecting and swapping large piles of Harvey, DC, Charlton, Dell and Classics Illustrated with lots of other comic fans throughout our neighbourhoods. If only we knew what they were worth today we would have horded them instead. Part of the thrill though was looking at all those ads in the comics, ads which ran for years and which advertised gimmicks like Sea Monkeys and plastic soldiers. I also used to get Beano on an irregular basis and enjoyed reading the endless escapades of the soldiers who were re-fighting World War 2 in the pages of Battle Picture Library, and War Picture Library. These provided endless entertainment and gave a very skewed look at warfare in general, where all Germans went around shouting “Schnell” and “Achtung”, and the Japanese used “Banzai” in every other sentence.
I was fortunate in that I was always encouraged to read, and I was a member of the Mayfair and Johannesburg public libraries right until we left Mayfair. In those days one could also go to the “book shop” and swap paperbacks, “1 for 1 and 5c” was the usual going rate, although back then a packet of Simba or Willards Chips cost 5c. My library teacher at school, Mrs Van Der Merwe, did much to encourage my love of books and I am still grateful for that today. I revisited Johannesburg Public Library in 2012 and it was so familiar, yet so different. You can read about my experience at the blogpost I did about it. (MENU)
My brother and I were born 6 years apart, and as such were never really playmates, so I grew up amusing myself. I never had a bicycle for many years and the only real friends I had were those I met when I went to school. It was reasonably safe to play outside in those years, there was not the constant fear of crime which is so prevalent today. Our games were simple, and seemed to be always tied in with war, radio shows, spies, movies and all permutations inbetween. Our foe was usually always German too, and any conveniently shaped stick made a suitable gun to fight the hordes off with. We rode our tricycles, played endless games of “cowboys and crooks”, “hide and go seek”, “running red rover” and lots of unnamed spur of the moment inventions.
Many of the games we played then are only remembered by those of my generation, some were intensely physical and we were more fit than fat as a result. I do not recall names as much as gameplay: “Stingers”, where one person throws a tennis ball at somebody else, and if it hits them then they have to throw the ball and try hit somebody else. “Running Red Rover” where two lines were formed up opposite each other with linked arms, one person is then chosen from the opposition who has to then try and break through your line. If they are able to they are allowed to return to their line and if they don’t they join the line that caught them. “General Knowledge” where categories are chosen (eg. cars, animals, colours, names, countries), then a letter from the alphabet is chosen and you had to find a corresponding entry starting with that letter in each category. Many of these games didn’t really have names, they just sprung up spontaneously wherever 2 or 3 kids were gathered and would swiftly become a huge mass of participants. When one moved to high school play suddenly died down and small groups tended to form on the playgrounds where everybody seemed to boast or brag or even smoke (if they were that way inclined).
Not surprisingly, our play was often shaped by what we heard on our favourite radio serials or movies, or what we read in our beloved war books and comics. Occasionally we would make a surreptitious trip up to the Blue Dam and play amongst the dunes of the mine dumps, always on the look out for the ever feared security guards who were supposed to lock away any people caught on the mines property. Many children lost their lives amongst those dumps and many girls lost their virginity there too; either as unwitting rape victims or as willing participants of a secret meeting.
Like most other boys I used to buy Matchbox Cars (They cost 25c each) with my pocket money (a whole 60c a month), and they would be driven around the house. yard, street, wall and everywhere else. We wore them out! Today those cars which I so often abused are collectors items. I still have my original red Matchbox Mini which managed to escape being thrown/given away/lost after so many years. By sheer fluke it ended up in the display cabinet at home along with various ornaments, souvenirs, plastic models and fancy glassware.
You could still get tin plate toys too and at the height of the space race the shops were flooded with space-related toys which we all coveted (but very rarely got for a present). We used to collect bubble gum cards as well, but usually they were seasonal, along with fads like dingbats. marbles, hula hoops, yo-yo’s (the Russel yo-yo being considered the “Rolls Royce” of yo-yos) and everything in between.
Having a keen interest in aircraft and ships meant that invariably my own private 1-72 scale airforce soon festooned the ceiling of my room collecting dust, while various badly built ship models would gingerly last a few weeks on the bookcase before graduating to experiments in the bath.
About a year before we moved house we bought a go-kart from friends for the princely sum of 50c, and used to ride this very unsafe contraption down a hill next to what we knew as “The Ash Veld”. It was a very dangerous game which we played because a main road (Proserpine Rd) crossed at the bottom of this hill and we would ride blind down it. Kids would create carts using ball bearings and often they would loose their wheels half way down. Naturally there were no brakes! In fact the whole area around the ash veld was a great playground, because there was a small playpark and rugby fields as well as the steep hill that we would toboggan down using a “volksie” (VW Beetle) bonnet. Sometime we would venture over the road to “The Groot Gat” which was a hole where the storm water drains used to meet each other. Once again many children lost their lives in this area to murderers and rapists and dangerous conditions.
When we lived in Hanover Street, there used to be a toy store near the Ritz Bioscope called “Livingstones”, and every month I would walk up and down those packed aisles looking at what I couldn’t afford. I used to buy chalk a lot because we had this concrete backyard and there my imagination flew. I spent many hours drawing elaborate ship layouts in that yard, sailing off on my own adventures for many hours. When the rain came so my ship would sink and I would have to start all over again. In later years I rediscovered the old ball and claw bath which had been removed from our bathroom and transformed it into my version of a “craft”, complete with hatch and imaginary controls and weaponry.
Every year we counted the days until Guy Fawkes, and the sale of fireworks (or crackers as we knew them) was restricted to 2 weeks before the event. We would save all our cents and bum a few more and then buy Tom Thumbs and Sparklers, Roman Candles, Catherine Wheels and bottle rockets for the evening of 5 November. We would also watch the weather as traditionally it always rained on this evening. As we had to be in bed early we only really had a short time to enjoy the bangs and swishes, and the next morning the streets would be littered with spent fireworks and squibs which we would collect. That evening the last fizzes would be heard and fireworks would disappear off the shelves for another year. In later years they banned it altogether, and while it has come back again, the control over fireworks sales has lapsed. The real irony is that very few of us actually knew who or what Guy Fawkes was or what it represented.
As children we somehow picked up all sorts of odd rhymes and ditties though our interaction with adults or friends. Many are long lost in the cobwebs of my mind but some stick…
“Inky pinky ponkey daddy bought a donkey. Donkey died daddy cried. Inky pinky ponkey.”
“Skinny malinky long legs vrot banana feet, went to the bioscope and couldn’t find a seat, he sat on a lady and out popped the baby, skinny malinky long legs vrot banana feet.”
“Here comes the bride, all fat and wide, slipped on a banana peel and went for a ride.”
“I’m the king of the castle and you are the rascal.”
“One potato, two potato, three potato, four, five potato, six potato, seven potato more.”
“Finders keepers, losers weepers.”
“Ask your mother for a sixpence to see the big giraffe with freckles on his nose and pimples on his…ask your mother for a sixpence.”
“What’s the time? half past nine, hang your broekies on the line.”
“Touch your head and touch your toes, I never want to go in those”
“Eenie meenie mynie mo, catch a ****** by his toe, if he hollers let him go, eenie meenie mynie mo!”
“Jack and Jill went up the hill, to fetch a pail of water. Jill forgot to take the pill and now she has a daughter!”
The roots of many nursery rhymes can often be traced back to the days of yore and disaster, and I do suspect that many of these strange sayings are common to South Africa and the UK. Being an English speaker I do not know what the Afrikaaners would have sung or shouted (any contributions to my usual address please).
I must have gotten my bicycle when I was in Std 4 or 5, I know we were living in Hanover Street and my father ran behind me for ages as I struggled to learn on a bike that was just a bit too big for me. The preferred bicycle of choice by the kids was the Raleigh Chopper, a very “modernistic” bike which was notorious for “popping wheelies”, both voluntarily or involuntarily.
My parents erred on the side of caution and I ended up with a black Raleigh Rapier instead. In later years we all craved a “28 Dukwiel”, which was a very large, very heavy robust bike which was very popular as a delivery bike. I wore a groove between our house and College Street where my best friend stayed, and crossing Church Street in Mayfair was a challenge to be endured on my way home from playing war and similar boyhood games. However, as I got through puberty so my interest drifted more towards reading and pop music, the bike went out less and less and by 1978 I had my own music centre and started on my record collection. Radio 5 had just started out and I was a regular listener to the request programmes. I had also been dabbling with long distance radio listening on an old valve receiver dating from the 1940s, heady days of hearing “Radio Peace and Progress” broadcasting from Moscow which loved to harangue “The Pretoria Racist Regime”. (MENU)
Religion definitely played a part in my life as a child, we were members of the congregation of Christ Church in Mayfair which dates from the late 1800’s, and went to Sunday School at St Giles; the chapel which was in 7th Avenue. Father Wallace was the parish priest with his sidekick Mrs Linden who played the organ and ran the Sunday School at the chapel. Sunday school was one of those things we accepted as a necessary part of life whether we liked it or not. I do recall meeting one of my oldest friends there and getting a lift home with his parents on the back of their bakkie which we called “the hair dryer”. Naturally every year we would don our sheets and bedspreads and participate in either an Easter Play or the dreaded “Nativity Play” in December. The amateur theatrics of this play are well known to every child who has seen it performed or who took a part in it. Of course the Carroll singing which we endured has left an indelible mark on me, I doubt if I even know the correct words of “While shepherds washed their socks by night.”
For many years my brother volunteered to give a puppet show at the church fete, and I was roped in to help provide an extra 2 hands and voice. We would have endless rehearsal’s and plan and build puppet boxes and make “The Queen” a new crown and Mr Plod a new truncheon. My brother was famous for these shows, the pinnacle of his career as a puppeteer was when he did 2 shows for SAA and Barclays Bank in 1979. Guess who was roped into that??
Eventually though, we graduated to the Church which is at the top of Langerman Street near Crown Mines and when we moved to Hanover Street would walk the few blocks to take part in the Sunday services. I was even confirmed in this Church.
We would regularly attend Communion on Sunday and sometimes we would go to Evensong but it was generally very poorly attended. Unfortunately when Father Wallace retired the Church went down and so the congregation became less enthusiastic about attending services. There was also a natural attrition as families moved from the area and joined churches elsewhere.
I revisited the church in 2011 and it was familiar, but not familiar. The biggest change was the security measures that had been erected around the church and it was no longer safe to leave a church standing open. The tree lined street that we used to walk down had been closed off and I don’t know what happened to the old mine houses that used to line it.(MENU)
The fairer sex
When I was young, girls were taboo. They were people who inhabited the planet, who were sisters of other boys and who supposedly would kiss you and cause you to die a grim death. Being dumped next to a girl in Standard 3 was not very good for my already fragile psyche, and I endured the agony of teasing for many months as a result, I suppose my poor desk partner must have felt pretty much the same (Sorry Naomi, it was the teacher’s fault). Our primary school had segregated playgrounds, the girls doing their thing in what was known as “the quadrangle” while the boys had the run of the rest of the school grounds (and woe betide anybody who ventured into the wrong playground). I never had a sister so I never really got to know any girls. Two of my friends had sisters and somehow they seemed to lead complex lives involving dolls, dresses, ballet, houses and tea sets. They sure dressed differently and were always running to their mothers crying. I guess we often tried to exclude them from our games and they just never seemed to understand the intricacies of fighting the Germans war-book style. As these girls grew up so our interest in them was renewed, but now they didn’t want to even know our troubles. In Standard 5, I was seated next to the prettiest girl in the school, and in our sudden discovery of girls was actually considered a privileged person. She was blonde and pretty and suffered from the jealousy of her not-as-pretty classmates, as well as the unwanted attentions of some of the bolder boys. She also gave me my first kiss; ok, it was a peck on the cheek, but to me, it was the first.
The high school I attended was a boys only school, so that put a dampener on my discoveries about girls. In 1978 I attended a SCA (Students Christian Association) camp and suddenly met a girl there who became a “telephone friend”. Alas, she stayed in Sandton and I was stuck out in the poorer part of town so nothing ever developed. I know I marvelled at her seemingly busy life of tennis and parties and seemingly endless jaunts on holiday. I am sure she never even remembered my name most of the time.(MENU)
Pets and animals
When we first moved to Mayfair I had a fear of dogs. If I was walking down a street and saw a dog 5 blocks away I would try head off into the opposite direction as quickly as possible. My parents couldn’t really understand this and would often have to drag me screaming and kicking in an effort to escape the dog.
It all changed when one of my grandfathers brought along a small black Schipperke pup to our house in Robinson Road. The poor pup was suffering from distemper, an illness that wasn’t always treated successfully in those days. I expect my phobia melted at the sight of this miserable ill dog and I tagged along as it was taken to the SPCA and treated. It was touch and go, and the pup survived to become a boisterous, energetic and very good friend to me.
I don’t recall how long we had him, but shortly before we moved house he was run over after escaping from his leash and chasing after a dog in Central Avenue in Mayfair. I was devastated and eventually we decided upon another dog. By now we were in our new house and my parents settled on yet another black skipper (they were all named Blackie for some obscure reason). This dog had been used for breeding and was incredibly possessive about his food. He would only eat it if somebody came to visit, and in between biting their feet would gulp down his food with an intensity never seen before. My brother and I would take this dog and his huge bladder for a walk at night after supper and these walks would go on for quite a distance. When my brother went to the army the job fell to me, and I did it grudgingly. The dog and I had never struck up a rapport and if anything we only just tolerated each other. We had to put him down eventually after he suffered a heart attack at Guy Fawkes. Our next dog my brother bought as a misguided pet for my mother, but he was too big and clumsy and we had to give him away. Besides the usual strange blue budgies, I also had a hamster for 2 years when I was in Std 6/7 and it caused me many sleepless nights with its insistence on eating its way through the cage bars.(MENU)
A visit to the Doctor
As a child I suffered endlessly with my tonsils, and my mother and I made endless trips up to the Children’s Hospital. To get there we would catch a train to Park Station, then walk up the long hill which made up the top of Rissik Street. Past what was then the Schlesinger Building, past the Gold Miners statue, and onwards till we reached the hospital itself. I remember that the hospital had endless grey lino floors and we always ended up in waiting rooms. Eventually though it was decided to take them out and I was booked in for the op. It was usually a 4 day affair, the op being done on the 2nd day. I don’t remember much about it though, except on the evening after the op my parents coming to see me, having made that long train journey and walk at night. I was still very much under the influence of the anaesthetic so it was all a haze. I never did get the sherbet which was supposed to be given out while healing. I was fitted for glasses at that hospital, and chances are, went there for inoculations and a variety of other childhood ailments too. We always used to pass what was then known as The Fever Hospital, and like most children I had a morbid curiosity about what went on inside it. Up the road was the “Queen Vic”; the maternity hospital where most of the babies in Johannesburg were born (myself included).
Our family doctor was in Denver and when we lived in Belgravia would actually make house calls. These were an occasion, with clean linen, pyjamas, combed hair and a spoon in a glass of water next to the bed. Once we moved to Mayfair it meant a long trip to Denver, often having to change trains at Park Station, and then a long walk up to the Doctor who was in Jules Street. Then a longer wait to see him (and our doctor was a good one, but a terrible time keeper so a late appointment could drag out for hours) and then you still faced a long trip home. It was not really fun if you were ill, and invariably the whole escapade would take the whole day, but at least you were guaranteed a day off school. Even today I do not understand why we never went to a doctor in Mayfair.
In 1976, I was involved in an accident at school in the welding workshop (through no fault of my own), and suffered lacerations to my right hand and three of my fingers. It happened just after 1st break and the school bandaged the wound and sent me back to class. By the time I finally got home I was in extreme pain and my mother dragged me off to the doctor in Denver, a trip that would take at least an hour and a train change as well as a long walk. We then sat in the waiting room until the doctor saw his last patient before he looked at the mess my hand was in. He then proceeded to give me 3 stitches with no local anaesthetic and I screamed the building down. I had been walking with that untreated wound since roughly 10 am so had enough reasons to be screaming. We then had to head back to Denver station, and catch a train back to Mayfair, getting home probably around 8 pm. Every second day we went back to Denver to have the stitches checked and the wounds cleaned, and it took a whole morning to accomplish. It was a long healing process and I lost quite a lot of school time as a result. The irony is, on one of my tests at the workshop where the injury had happened I hit almost 100% but the teacher docked me 10 marks because my handwriting was untidy. Considering I had 3 stitches in it as a result of one of his class favourites horseplay I think I did a pretty good job even writing my name! This incident really illustrates the stupidity of sticking with the doctor in Denver, and the callous uncaring attitude of the school.
Many years later I returned to the same doctor following an undiagnosed condition that my current house doctor did not understand. My old doctor recognised it immediately and I was finally aware of where the problem was. I used him for a number of years because he was a good doctor of the old school, but he was still an awful timekeeper.
Specialist medical care could also be found in town, mostly in Jeppe Street, and Harley Chambers seemed to be where the doctors and dentists gravitated to. Oh, and for some strange reason many doctors lived in Greenside. The closest hospitals to us were the JG Strydom and of course the General or Children’s Hospitals in Hospital Hill. My father passed away in the JG Strydom in 1981. (MENU)
The Rand Easter Show
One of the regular features of life in Johannesburg was the Rand Easter Show, which was usually held over the Easter period at the Milner Park Showgrounds. I believe it was originally known as the “Witwatersrand Agricultural Show” but that changed when it moved to the Easter period. My brother and I were regular attendees, catching a bus to Milner Park, or as in later years, walking the few kilos up the hill. During the show the SADF would have searchlights running and they would slowly swing through the sky. We never went at night so I don’t know what it must have been like to see those lights in action. The show was a day of intense activity, collecting pamphlets, samples, information and blisters on the feet. We would end up walking the place flat, even going so far as to go into each caravan, stall and pavilion. The beauty of the showgrounds was that each country/municipality/organisation had its own custom pavilion, many built at enormous expense, many were famous for having beautiful displays and many were just mediocre. Favourites included the Gold Pavilion with its fake gold mine, and the Defence Force stand, as well as the huge commercial pavilion with its smaller exhibitors. In the year that the Jumbo Jet came into service in South Africa, SAA had a mockup 747 fuselage that you could walk through. The “Tower of Light” was the biggest landmark and the cableway ran from there almost to the other end of the showgrounds. It was traditional that many of the show days were rained out, and each year it became more unaffordable and less interesting. After many years of wrangling the showgrounds were handed over to Wits University and they moved the show to Nasrec and it was never really the same. The showgrounds also had a sinister secret, it was here that most of the National Servicemen were mustered on the day they started their service in the military, my own sojourn would happen in January of 1980. (MENU)
A New Home
In 1970 we were forced to move from our home in Robinson Road as my parents had had to sell the house when my father was offered a new job in Pretoria. But, as luck would have it, the company burnt down and we hurriedly ended up having to make a plan before we ended up on the streets and we were reduced to buying a house in Hanover Street. This was in a run down portion of Mayfair, between Mayfair and Braamfontein stations. On one side of the Queens Road bridge was what was then known as “Fietas” Or Vrededorp (later known as Pageview), the predominantly Indian area with its colourful 14th Street Market area. The house was the only single house in that block, as the rest were old run down semis, mostly populated by “poor whites” or welfare cases with their heaps of grubby children. I believe we paid the princely sum of R7000 for that house, with bond repayments of roughly R60-00 a month. Living in “Hangover Street” was interesting, these were the days when Johannesburg was declared a smokeless zone and coal stoves were not allowed. When milk, cream and fresh orange juice was delivered in glass bottles which were left on the front gate post. My life involved going to school, coming home, doing homework, playing till 4 in the afternoon, supper at 5, bath at 7.30 and bed shortly thereafter. My parents did not believe in us being in the streets after dark and once my father came around the corner from the station with his safari suit and suitcase; supper would follow in short order. Our neighbours, especially those in the semis were often a dismal crowd of poor whites. Often a drunken husband with his equally haggard wife, at least 6 children, a broken down car and the welfare propping the whole shebang up. They would live from day to day, often selling the fittings from the houses to buy drink with. On Saturdays they would strip the car, re-assemble it on Sunday, and then have to start from scratch again the following week. The luckless maids and their families which lived in the yards were exploited to the fullest, the police providing a quick way to get rid of the maid that you didn’t want to pay. I saw so many of these “families” come and go over the years that they never really made much of an impression, often arriving and leaving in the middle of the night. I never mixed with the children either, usually I was too old or because I spoke English, but they were like a small rugby team, thin barefoot knock kneed boys with big ears, grubby little girls carrying the family babies on their hips, stuck in a hopeless situation which often would see them perpetuating their parents lives when they reached 16.
We would put a lot of work into the house over the next 10 years, trying to cure the drainage problems, sorting out damp rot, rewiring and re-plumbing, painting and fiddling. My mother’s pride and joy being the closed in stoep which was wonderfully warm in winter and which was more of a sitting room than the lounge was. I had my happiest moments in that house, and the area, while very run down was conveniently close to most amenities.
I would now catch a bus to school and shared a bedroom with my brother, I would also make new friends, learn to ride a bike and do so many things which I hadn’t experienced previously. There would also be times of strife and tears, and questions without answers.(MENU)
A New School
In Std 5 (1974) we all were given aptitude tests, and it was found that I had a more technical than academic leaning. My own “career choices” were computer programming or joining the Merchant Navy, but neither of these came to pass. The English academic high school in our area was Western High. My parents were dissuaded from sending me there because of the reputation of the school, while the parallel medium technical school; Langlaagte Tech, was known as the “Donkey Tech”. John Orr Tech was the other alternative but it was not within travelling distance. After much humming and haa-ing my parents enrolled me in Langlaagte Tech, the school where I would be miserable for the first 3 years. The only consolation was that I wouldn’t be alone, many of my friends from EP Baumann would be coming along as well. The school, situated at the end of Langlaagte near the station, was reached by a municipal school bus, and ran from 7.45 till 2 in the afternoon. Our uniform, was a maroon blazer and tie, with a blue shirt and grey long or short pants with black shoes. For our workshop period we had white boiler suits which we changed into and had to carry each day. We left Std 5 feeling that we were on top of the world, the seniors who everybody was supposed to look up to, we had no inkling of what lay ahead.
The day we arrived at “Lallas” it was evident that we were in for a hard time. The school was predominantly Afrikaans and there were no girls in it at all. The boys were tall, big-eared, strapping, no-necked, rugby playing clones who made it very clear to us that they hated us because we were “Rooineks”. Most of us could speak Afrikaans so were not really totally oblivious as to what went on around us. Our class was called 6.2 and there were 18 of us, there were 2 English classes and 4 Afrikaans ones. Sport played a big part of life at “Lallas”, with athletics commencing on the 2nd day. I was dumped into the “Springbok” house, famous for being the losers in everything. Some of the teachers were mediocre, with our the science teacher, Mr Henning, being the worst. He was also in charge of athletics and in later years never seemed to have a class of his own. Often we would traipse around the school looking for a class to be taught in. He also liked to teach through intimidation, and the first thing he said to us when we got into his class was “If there are any tigers in this class they must come forward because I kill tigers.” He used to call us “Kassie” and was obsessed about uniform book covering which reached ridiculous proportions. His science class had huge drawing desks in, and most of us were shorter than the desks, and science period became like a sentence of death. Discipline was strict, the cane ruled supreme and was used without compunction and with enjoyment. Talking in line, doing badly in class, speaking out of turn, long hair, wrong school bags, not walking in line; all were considered a caneable offence, and we soon were marking stripes on our ties to prove what they were doing to us. We were also introduced to 2 new subjects: technical drawing and trade theory. The technical drawing classes were very enjoyable, inspite of having to purchase a special drawing set for the princely sum of R12.00 from the tuck shop. Our science teacher, Mrs Wessels loathed our class and attempted to have our whole class expelled after her lab rat went missing. We were accused of stealing it but it turned up under the platform under her desk. The library teacher was the exact opposite of our primary school library teacher, I doubt whether I took more than 10 books out of the school library in the 5 years that I was in the school. Fortunately not all our teachers were sadists and over the next 5 years we were taught by some very good teachers who cared for and nurtured us. Our Afrikaans teacher was especially noteworthy, Mrs Kotzé was a rare gem, a wonderful teacher who we adored. The strange thing is that she really enjoyed having us in her class, and when we were in Matric she even hosted a farewell party for us. Our maths teacher was wonderful too, and the English speaking classes had some really awesome teachers. The Afrikaans classes were not as fortunate.
In Std 6 We took the usual subjects like English, Afrikaans, Maths, Science, Biology, History, Geography, Religious Instructions, as well as Technical Drawing. We were also shifted between sub workshops, learning basic skills in plastics, metalwork, woodwork, and sheet metal work. It was a lot of work which was compounded by the constant harassment and abuse. It just made us all closer and we presented a united front wherever possible.
In Std 7 we spent time in each of the main workshops, the worst being motor mechs which was ruled by 2 sadistic English haters (Yes you Mr Venter and Mr De Beer), and the welding workshop was equally dreaded, although it was very interesting. Mr Bezuidenhout was the resident tyrant and one of the teachers I learnt to fear and avoid. Later that year we were told to choose which trade we wanted to follow, and like most of the boys in Std 8 I ended up in the electrical workshop, where “Rooibaard” ruled his domain. This teacher was a legend, renown for terrorising boys outside of the workshops. However, he became one of our favourite teachers, guiding us through the intricacies of what is a very complex subject. In our time there we would build a battery charger, 2 and 4 pole motors as well as an arc welder. Unfortunately the first 3 years in this school were agony, there is no doubt in my mind that we were singled out because we were English-speaking and that serious cases of abuse by cane were rife. Many of the teachers in that school were not fit to teach and their joy at using the cane was of serious concern. It is understandable that strict discipline was required in a school where pupils did work with lethal machinery or dangerous equipment, but that excuse did not hold water when I consider how matric boys were reduced to tears of pain after being caned for failing a test. The Transvaal Education Department allowed abuse like that under the pretext of discipline, and it is shocking that the principals allowed it to happen. Parents were not really able to do anything about it either, short of moving their child to another school. In my case this was not an option and I was forced to stick it out.
One subject that was introduced towards the end of my time in High School was “Youth Preparedness”, and even to this day I still have no idea what it was supposed to be about. I don’t think we even had a regular teacher for it and we ended up doing homework in that long 30 minute period. I would have thought they would have taught stuff like opening a bank account or how to apply for a job or a loan. I think that the object of the exercise was really about pumping us full of pro-government propaganda, but it did not happen.
In preparation for our forthcoming National Service, we had to endure a weekly session of “Cadets”. Clad in our shit brown uniforms we were marched up and down like misguided missiles, totally out of step and with the only intention of getting it over with and going home. In Std 8, myself and 3 others in my class were sent for higher grade maths lessons and so cadets became just a loud noise in the background. However, cadets were a precursor or what waited for us the moment we left school. Every white male in South Africa was called up to do national service. Initially it was 9 months, but by the time I reached matric it was 2 years. We registered in 1977 (which is why my army number starts with 77), and from then onwards it was just a matter of time. (MENU)
Fads and fashions
It is probable that fashion from the 1960’s and 70’s has made a return quite a few times, and the same goes for fads. As children I expect that we were followers as well, and strangely enough many of the fads from my day are still around in another form. Yo-Yos, Dingbats, Marbles, Hula Hoops, trading cards, superhero’s and karate movies will always be with us whether we are aware of them or not. There always seemed to be a new promotion going on at the local service stations, whether it was space-race related, or sporting heroes or even airlines, we tried to collect them all. Not having a family car made things very difficult and we often had to rely on the generosity of friends or petrol pump attendants. Occasionally there were trading cards available with an educational bent (Naturama springs to mind), and our parents would buy trading cards for us to complete an album with.
Clothing in its various permutations, never goes out of fashion, it just seems to slide in and out. As a family we were not rolling in money, and I often had my brother or cousins hand-me-downs to wear. I recall that after each term your school shoes would be worn for play and new shoes would be bought for school. Most of the children seemed to be barefoot most of the time though and in the area where I lived the school uniforms were the best clothes that many children had. Personally I loved turtle neck shirts as a boy, and really gaudy long pants. The mania for lace up flies occurred one year and I ended up in hideous orange pants with white laces at the fly. Polyester track suits in green and black were popular during winter and there was a mania for fleece-lined jackets too. I know my first pair of jeans were made by “Hey Joe” and were bell-bottoms which I wore with miniature platform shoes.
My preferred takkies were North Stars, they were tough and looked good and were quite popular, competing with those strange black takkies which resembled baseball boots (Hightops?). At some point they were no longer available, but I saw some for sale in 2012, but they were cheap Chinese rip-offs.
My father was a firm believer in safari suits and hats, and I am sure my mother went through the crimpylene phase as well. Men routinely wore proper hats, and when one went to the “bioscope” in town you did not attend looking like you climbed out of the dustbin, dressing up was the norm and not the exception.
Every year the grand “Price of School Uniforms” debate would break out and there were the same old pro’s and con’s. That debate still happens every year, and I bet the arguments are still the same. In high school they were incredibly anal about our uniforms and infringements were dealt with strictly and without mercy.
While looking for information on the fashions of this era, I found that there was heaps of information on girls clothing and fashion, whereas for boys there was very little to be found. I expect that as boys we were not really followers of fashion, whereas girls or sisters were; or maybe there was a much larger variety available for girls? Back then the girls still tended to gravitate to frilly dresses with long socks and bar shoes on a Sunday for church, while we would attend in our best safari suit in summer or even a miniature jacket with a clip on tie (which we always lost). Of course there was always the fear that your mother’s dress or hat would be the same as that of the Minister’s wife in which case frosty glares would result and said hat and dress would be consigned to the “never wear to church again” list.
Way back then wrist watches had “winders” (I believe they call them “crowns” in the trade), every day you wound your watch, or, if you had an “automatic” it wound itself as your arm moved. The beauty of those manually wound watches is that they actually ticked! My first watch was a hand-me-down and I got it at quite a young age and proudly wore it even though I did not know how to tell time. The watch on the left was made by Lanco and it went to the army with me and was a windup watch. I finally disposed of it in 2017. It probably still worked.
My father, being an early riser, used to have a manually wound alarm clock (I seem to think it was a “Zobo”) and every night before he went to sleep you would hear the familiar “croink croink croink” as he wound it. You barely heard it go off though because he would instinctively wake up before the alarm went off. Then the LED watch came out (as opposed to the LCD watch) and everybody wanted one, even though they were kind of lousy when it came to battery life. My brother had an LED watch but I never bought a pure digital faced watch and even today I still have a watch with “hands” even though it has an electronic movement. When your watch went haywire you were loathe to take it to a jewelers for repair because rumour had it that they would “steal the jewels” inside (referring to the “jeweled bearings” (many watches were advertised as having “17 jewels”). Somewhere in my stuff I still have a manually winding el-cheapo pocket watch and I am kind of proud of the cheapness of it (Only R5.00). (MENU)
My mother was what was known as a “housewife”, I do know she did work for a period at Woolworths in Eloff Street at one point, but don’t recall when that was. Eventually though she had to give it up and from then on was a stay-at-home mum, something for which I am grateful. My father on the other hand worked his whole life at a succession of badly paying jobs. He was a shoemaker by trade and I recall worked at the Cuthberts factory which was situated in Polly Street in Johannesburg. For a period he worked in Vereeniging and used to be home late every night following a torturous train journey which got him home long after the sun had set. The job offer he was made at Drake’s Shoes in Pretoria would have seen us uprooted from our home in Johannesburg and living in Pretoria. Unfortunately (or was it fortunately), we had already sold our house when the company burnt down and we hastily had to find a new home back in Johannesburg.
The longest employment he had was at Advanced Laundries and Stork Napkin Services which were in Bez Valley. He would get up really early in the mornings and catch his train to Jeppe Station and then walk to the premises come hell or high water 6 days a week. Some mornings I would wake up and see the kitchen light on and go there to find him reading his book and eating his Pronutro. He would make me coffee and we would sit in silence before I would stumble off to bed to sleep for another 2 hours before heading off to school. This routine of his carried on for many years, and when I got older I would sometimes go with him to work on a Saturday morning and it was only then that I could see what a terrible routine he really had.
In those days cloth napkins were the only option available for babies, and when a family signed up with Stork they would be delivered freshly laundered nappies and the soiled ones would be collected by a large fleet of vans. The factory was outfitted with massive industrial washing machines and sterilizers that would churn through the piles of soiled nappies. Parts of the factory reeked and it was a very unpleasant work environment. The writing was on the wall though and the disposable nappie and poor management killed the business.
When I was in matric (1979) my father was retrenched but he was fortunate enough to find a job close to home at a laundry in Fordsburg. Unfortunately, like most employers of his day he was exploited to the fullest, working long hours and weekends. By the time I was in the army he had been poached to work at a company in town again, this time at a decent salary and for somebody who appreciated what he did. But it was too late, and years of stress and overwork had taken their toll and he passed away on 7 November 1981. My father was buried from Christ Church and his ashes are in the Garden of Remembrance. The photo of him alongside this paragraph is the image of him that I treasure the most. It shows him at his desk, loads of responsibility and overworked and underpaid. With hindsight it appears as if heart problems do run in our paternal line. My Father and his brother died of heart problems, as did my one cousin and my brother has heart problems too. The odds are he has beaten the odds, although I will probably end up dieing of heart problems too (unless my bladder kills me first).
Following the death of my father in 1981 my mother returned to the world of work in an effort to restore some sort of sanity into her radically altered life. With my father gone she did not have an income so it was really a case of not having an option. She eventually found work as a saleslady at Garlicks in the Carlton Centre and worked there until she went on pension. It was not easy coping with the really nasty supervisor and she often returned home in tears until my brother paid the supervisor a little friendly visit and then things changed considerably. I had moved out of the house in 1984, so she really stayed in the family home on her own until she sold the house in 1985, and moved to Hillbrow. As at April 2017 she is 87, but her health is poor. (MENU)
Food and Drink
Food and drink was much cheaper in “the good old days”, whether it was healthier or not I cannot say, they never seemed to load everything with msg and other preservatives. I do know that you bought your meat at your local butchery, whole hind quarters or half a sheep at a reasonable price. Today, these are budget account items. My mother, being a housewife used to cook us a full meal every night, and I recall such things as dumplings, stock fish, samp, bobotie, bean soup, ginger beer, leg of mutton, corned beef and all permutations inbetween. My father loved his Pronutro, while I preferred toast for breakfast for many years. Saturday afternoons was toasted sandwich day, and occasionally we would splurge out and buy 25c slap chips and viennas for the 4 of us. The red viennas, which were supposedly coloured with cochineal, cost 5c each, while the “Russians” were a bit more expensive (not easy to explain what it is, I believe they are very close to a Saveloy). The Portuguese cafe owner would invariably drown the chips in salt and vinegar and it was a race to get this smelly package home without burning your arms on the hot parcel and sneaking too many along the way. Sundays was sit down roast, always with 2 veg, spuds and gravy. This was eaten promptly at 12 midday, to the tunes of “From the Bell Tower” (The bells ring out their welcome, inviting you to spend the next half hour listening to music which is warm, comforting and uplifting). I don’t recall eating pizza as a child, it was something that I read about in “Little Lotta” comics but never actually saw. I suspect the first “real” pizza I ate was when I came out of the army in 1981 and that was at Pizzaland in Hillbrow.
Coke has been around since I can remember, but somewhere along the line we used to get “Groovy” and “Hubbly Bubbly” as well. Pepsi never really took off in South Africa and tried many times to make inroads into the soft drink market to no avail. Fresh milk, cream and orange juice used to be delivered to your front gate in glass bottles, and the milk actually had a layer of cream on top. Butter was the all purpose spread until the price increased spectacularly and people made the change to margarine. At first only white marge was available but then the yellow margerine became the rage and they now outsell butter. Simba chips used to cost 5c , and the half litre coke cost 25c when they came out. Perks and Ma Wagner Pies were popular as were Fray Bentos products. Many stalwarts are still around today, having used many different packaging and gimmicks to sell. All Gold is still THE tomato sauce (although it is pricing itself out of the market), and Black Cat is still THE peanut butter (except now it’s all healthy and no longer has any oil in it), Redro fishpaste is still going, as are most of the teas which were available then, although they were not always in bags.
However, as kids we all had our foibles, and I was thinking about how we always found that piece of pastry that had overlapped a pie dish so tasty, or the leftover juices and crunchy bits at the bottom of a roasting pan, or the ritual of breaking the chicken “wishbone”, or those well done small crispy chip remnants that always seemed to be in each packet of slap chips. I used to enjoy eating gravy on bread and tomato sauce on French toast. What about the leftover egg from making French toast? That always ended up as scrambled eggs and was just as enjoyable. Beans or sweetcorn on toast never dies out, and my late father would often cook us up bully beef and beans in a frying pan which he called “Skilly”, and which was reminiscent of the bully beef rations he had in the army (and which I would have in the army too). Back then vetkoek were made with live yeast, not instant yeast in a packet, it gave them a different texture and slightly doughy smell that is just not the same in modern vetkoek. My aunt used to bake bread using live yeast and the loaves were huge, and best eaten while warm. Baking was a commonplace occurrence in our households back then, bakery bought cakes were a luxury best left for special occasions. Even the simple bread roll was not an everyday purchase, it was something we had as a treat, or when making hot dogs or hamburgers. There were no real equivalents to McDonalds or Burger King in South Africa when I was young. The closest would have been the Wimpy Bar and even those we did not frequent all that often. It really came down to how much disposable income we had, and frankly that was not a lot. (MENU)
Manners and Discipline
I come from the age when children were seen and not heard. You were aware that any transgression could result in a clip across the earhole, or a sore rear end. At school, “cuts” were always looming on the horizon for anybody that broke the rules. Later, in high school cuts were dished out willy nilly; it really depended on the sadism of the teacher involved (and we had way too many of those). We were taught to give up our seats on public transport to women, the elderly or any other adult. We opened doors for women, carried parcels for those burdened with too many, we were supposed to be polite and respectful to our elders, we were not supposed to talk back and we got out of the way when people approached us. There were consequences for our wrong doing, you did the crime, you did the time! The “weapon of choice” in our home was the “Wooden Spoon” and I know my mother broke quite a few of them.
Somewhere along the line these things went wrong in society and suddenly nobody really gives a hoot, leaving us with conundrums of how to behave, everything we had drummed into our heads is no longer applicable or sexist. I do think that it is bad thing, because the youth of today (and they said this about our youth too) are an undisciplined mob with no sense of right or wrong or responsibility. The PC mob have frothed at the mouth about spanking children for years and have now succeeded in creating a whole generation of people who have no understanding of “consequences”. The schools have become a free for all and many teachers will say that trying to do any teaching is almost impossible due to the lack of discipline. When these “learners” (whatever happened to scholars and pupils?) leave school one day to enter the market place I fear they may end up with a massive shock and, whether we liked it or not, those 2 years in the army did a lot of good because it taught us self discipline and responsibility.(MENU)
One ominous period loomed in the future of all white males – the dreaded “National Service” in the South African Defence Force. The compulsory two year military service was something that was only avoided by ill health, studying until you were 50, migration, rich parents with powerful friends or an overseas passport. Sadly I fell into neither category, so when 1977 came I was duly registered with the Defence Force and one fine day in mid 1979, I received one of those infamous buff envelopes wherein your future resided. Being in a technical school I assumed that I would end up in a technical type of unit, either signals, technical services (Tiffies) or similar. However, my famous luck would be working flat out as per usual, my call-up papers were marked “3 South African Infantry Battalion (aka 3SAI) – Potchefstroom! January 1980 intake.”
I could not believe it, most of my classmates had been called up to the Tiffies, in fact most of the matrics in our school had been posted there, those that had not were all July intakes with postings to the dreaded 8 South African Infantry Battalion in Upington, a camp renown as an “afkakkamp” where troops died from heat exhaustion and the ill treatment was legendary. There was not much to be done though, perhaps suicide or self mutilation or even faking insanity or homosexual tendencies. The problem was I still had to finish matric and work at my new job with Transnet for two weeks before starting out on this two year agony.
By the time I was finishing school it was time to start getting all the required stuff to take with you to the army, these were many and varied, most of it having been gleaned from other guys who had gone before and by hearsay. I remember filling my suitcase with such things as Brillo pads, Brasso, chains and padlocks (to lock your washing on the line), toothbrushes (cleaning teeth and rifles), shoe polish, pantyhose (cleaning boots, hanging oneself), methylated spirits (to harden feet), soap powder, an iron, writing material, torch, toilet rolls, ad nauseum. The orders had stated that I, 77******bg Rifleman (insert name here), had to report to Milner Park during the third week of January, early in the morning for transportation to Potchefstroom. I had been through this before, previously my brother had left from here on his sojourn about 6 years ago and I remember the tears and drama that surrounded the event, frankly I was dreading every single moment. Time passed rapidly from being a schoolboy, to an apprentice to going to bed one night with my suitcase all packed and a lump in my stomach, tossing and turning and wondering throughout the night whether I would even survive the next two years. That night felt like two years and I was almost relieved when my mother came into the room to wake me. Bidding my newly found freedom farewell and turning my back on civilian life was not easy. We never owned a car and the walk to Milner Park showground’s in the early morning was quite an event. My father and I carrying the suitcase between us, he hopefully proud, my mother more than likely worried. Me? Personally I was scared shitless! I had seen this all before, on TV and in real life, however what happened after those trucks left or that train wound its way out of Milner Park was a mystery.
I knew Milner Park well, after all this was where the Rand Easter Show was held in those days, the main line trains were made up there and of course the majority of troop trains left from it en route to the camps. As expected there were a whole lot of other people there as well, boys with long hair, no hair, fat, thin, overdressed, underdressed, in fact a microcosm of young white South Africans. Their parents and brothers and sisters were all there as were their girlfriends who pleaded undying faithfulness over the next two years, it was like a scene from some crazy bad movie. Mingling among this crowd were the soldiers, men with two stripes, demigods called sergeant majors, remote figures with stars on their shoulders and each one had an all pervading forced smile, reassuring worried parents, helping with a bag here and there and generally making everybody terrified with their seemingly benevolent attitude.
We were marshalled into some resemblance of order, told to make our goodbyes and form up into threes. Having had some sort of idea of what threes were by five years of school cadets this was accomplished reasonably well, however you could see that many of those brown clad people were really champing on the bit waiting to vent their much suppressed emotions on us unwary souls. The “squad” started moving up towards where we would board our train and amongst the mob of waving civilians I managed a glimpse of my own parents heading off on the long trek home. The one consolation being that Potch was not too far away and that if all went well I could be coming out on pass in about 6 to 8 weeks.
The train was one of the old style wood and leather main line trains that I loved so much, although crammed in with 5 other guys it somehow lost much of that magic for me. We were provided with a lunch pack to eat on the trip and with much clanking of buffers the train slowly wound its way out of Milner Park into the marshalling yard in Braamfontein where it immediately ground to a halt for about an hour. It was rush hour in Johannesburg and all around us people were packed into trains heading their respective ways. Brown jobs hung out of every door of our train, eagerly scanning the train for any soon to be troepie who decided to make a duck for it. Then we were underway again, heading through Braamfontein towards Mayfair, I tried desperately to catch a glimpse of our house as we passed and I hoped that all was well over there.
By the time we had reached Langlaagte many of my fellow conscripts had opened their lunch and decided that the famous army blue eggs made excellent missiles and every person on the station a suitable target. I just glimpsed my old high school and detected a flash of maroon blazer as an errant schoolboy ducked into one of the station buildings, cigarette in his cupped hand. I then realised that those were the good old days and I was now on my way to hell.
The trip was reasonably uneventful, we all talked and tried our hand at various bits of bravado, I was unfortunate in that I had no friends from school going to Potch with me, and so it was quite lonely and frightening all at the same time. Occasionally we could hear somebody shouting orders and as the train neared its destination its passengers became strangely subdued. Our train ground to a halt at Cachet station, just before Potchefstroom itself. This is where the brown jobs decided that that it was time to drop the facade and that they needed to vent that frustration. With much shouting and posturing they ordered us to get off the train and form up into threes again. To the tune of “Voorwaarts Mars!” We all started our shuffle towards the camp which was almost around the corner. Our first glimpse of 3 SAI being a wire fence with tents next to it, with lots of very thin brown overall clad boys with bad haircuts. There were long brick buildings, brown trucks and lots of tough looking corporals everywhere, there was an almost concentration camp look about the place and I knew that this was going to be a rough 2 year ride. but that’s another story. (MENU)
Looking back over the years has been interesting, and in the course of writing this webpage many old and odd memories were dredged up. I would like to stress though, I did not keep a diary and they are my memories, and many of the opinions here are mine alone. I lived in an age which has seen the computer go from something seen in sci-fi movies right up to the modern fast machine on my desk that was out of date 2 months before I bought it. Telecommunications have changed, our first telephone was a “cricket” style phone and our telephone number only had 6 digits (35-5451), cell phones were the thing of dreamers. Entertainment has changed too, there was no such thing as hiring DVD’s, a movie was hired with a 16mm projector, cinemascope lens and 6 reels of film. The early video machines were Phillips P2000 format and they were like 8 track tapes but with pictures. Even the early camcorders were accompanied by separate video machines and battery packs. Broadcasting in South Africa has changed so much from the early state controlled single channel, now we have pay TV, satellite TV, MPEGs AVIs and all permutations in between. Yet, the quality of programming is still dismal so that hasn’t changed much. Radio drama died in South Africa to be replaced by rehashed bubble gum music, short-skirted bimbos, plastic rehashes and commercialism which is enough to drive anybody away from it. Even movies have changed, our perception of what constituted horror and violence has been tempered by too much of it on TV, the days when I used to get scared witless of simplistic black and white Dracula movies on 8mm have long gone, and blood and guts in the movies does not even trigger a response (except that of “Not more blood and guts”).
It is interesting to view various prices of objects and services through retro eyes; and while I do not have as much information as I would like I can make the following observation: In February 2006 I bought a new car, and at that time the petrol price was R5.39 per litre of 93 octane, and the last price in my old log book is R10.83 pl (14/08/2012). It has spiked and dropped between then now and at the time of writing on 24/03/2017 it was sitting at R13.31 pl. Incidentally I paid R69 000 for that vehicle (an entry level Hyundai), and in the early 1980’s the most expensive car was a BMW635csi that cost R69 000!
A recent article provided another insight in how prices have gone mad since the 1970’s:
A Spur Burger which would have cost 30 cents in the 70’s will set you back R72.90 in 2016.
A Cheddamelt steak would have set you back 50 cents in the 70’s and now will empty your wallet at R114.90
750gr Ricoffy cost 25 cents in the 70’s, in 2016 your morning slurp would cost R81.99
A tin of Nestle Condensed Milk in the 70’s cost 10 cents. In 2016 it cost R22.99.
A R1000 bag of groceries today would have cost R94 30 years ago.
A midsize family sedan (1600cc) could set you back R260 000. In 10 years that vehicle could cost as much as R455000
On my recent trip to South Africa in March 2017 I grabbed some data on prices. It will be interesting to relook these in 5 years time.
Have things really gotten better? We have conquered childhood diseases that were considered fatal many years ago. We have seen the collapse of the former Soviet Union, the death of Apartheid, the conquest of space, the internet and the growth of technology, our small cloistered world has become much bigger and much more dangerous and as much as I hate to admit it, I do like the age of knowledge and enlightenment. But, a part of me still prefers the age of innocence that I grew up in, and the wonder of making new discoveries when I was young.(MENU)
© DRW 2000-2017. Tweaked 05/06/2011. Menu added 05/01/2017 and new images added to some posts, also changed to full width layout. Trade names and brands are copyright to their respective copyright holders. Some images come from old postcards. Moved to blog 08/04/2014