There wasn’t much on offer in the line of entertainment for children when we lived in Tamboerskloof, a Cape Town suburb overlooking Table Bay, during my early years at high school more than fifty years ago. As we had few toys to play with we had to invent our own games. Television did not arrive in South Africa until more than a decade later and radio broadcasts accounted for our entire experience with the entertainment media. You would often find one or more of us huddled by the radio, listening to crackly Rock and Roll music on Radio Lourenco Marques, or to broadcasts of rugby or cricket test matches.
Friendship groups amongst children were mostly based on one’s street or neighbourhood as transport was not readily available. Our local group of boys included my brother Charel, two years my senior, his classmate Rouan who lived down the road from us, Kloppie from a nearby block of flats, who was adept at fisticuffs, and the quiet and low-key Johannes, Rouan’s cousin, who was in the class below me at school.
We also knew David Moon, who was a few years older than us. He owned the only rock music recording in our neighbourhood, Bill Haley’s “Rock around the clock.” One of us would say, “Let’s go and listen to David Moon’s record” and off we would go to his house where he would play his one and only 78 speed vinyl record for us four or five times.
Occasionally Kloppie would lend us one of his Lone Ranger comics. These prized items were unobtainable in Cape Town and Kloppie refused to divulge his source of supply, no matter how much we pleaded with him.
A major pastime was to go to the disused quarry up the slope towards the mountain known as Lion’s Head, where we would play kleilat (clay stick). We would each break off a green bough, about a meter in length, slightly springy and green. We would squeeze a small ball of doughy clay onto the thin end of the bough and whip the clay in the direction of one of the others. The ball of clay would fly off at high speed, causing a whelp of pain whenever it struck someone.
For us city kids the street was our playground. Charel once found an old discarded roller skate. We would take turns balancing a meter long plank on top of the roller skate, hopping onto it and going flying down the slope of Woodside Road where we lived, using our bare heels to brake when necessary.
Sometimes when we were bored we would lounge outside the neighbouring double-storey block of flats where the D’Ambrosios lived. It wouldn’t be long before old Granny D’Ambrosio, who disliked us intensely, would spot us and appear on the balcony, screaming abuse at us in Italian to our great merriment. At other times we would go to a small park and playground down the road. It was supervised by ‘Parkie,’ an elderly coloured gentleman who wore a khaki uniform and cap. We would climb into the kaffir plum trees, which was forbidden under the park rules, to pick the small fruit and he would chase us ineffectually around the park.
Apart from Johannes, we all smoked intermittently from an early age. None of us could afford to buy cigarettes, so we nicked them from the smokers in our families. As neither of my parents were smokers my grandparents, who lived two doors down from us, were Charel’s and my source of supply. I can vividly recall the seductive aromatic smell of the Woodbine cigarettes when we found them in one of the drawers in my grandparents’ house.
We were just an average group of white South African city kids of that era who were sometimes naughty, but never really evil. And yet, a germ of evil must have lurked in the heart of one amongst us, unnoticed by the others.
Fifty years later, when I was told about a criminal case involving someone I had known, I looked it up on the Internet. The headlines told the horrible story: “Mom tells court of sex assault by surgeon,” “Surgeon found guilty of rape,” “I wanted to vomit while he raped me,” and so forth. A surgeon had raped one of his female patients during a medical procedure in his surgery. His victim had testified in court that, after he had finished raping her, “he then held me and twice said ‘I’m sorry’.”
There were a number of other similar charges against the surgeon. He was eventually convicted of one charge of rape and 14 counts of indecent assault on nine women over a period of many years. His attorney argued for a lesser sentence for various reasons, including his advanced age and the fact that he was suffering from a degenerative brain disease, but most of the assaults had occurred before he had contracted the brain disease and he was sentenced to a term of eight years in prison.
Looking back now I am unable to equate the quiet, happy boy that was our friend and playmate all those years ago with the rapist that he had become. Of all of us, Johannes had been the best behaved and the least assertive or aggressive.
Now I wonder uneasily whether we ever really know what someone else is truly like, or what they are capable of.