Helderberg Hostel 1965

During my first year at university in 1965 my brother Charel and I shared a room at the Helderberg Men’s Student Hostel in Stellenbosch, a university town in South Africa. My parents had been very strict with us as we were growing up. It is therefore not surprising that we were disinclined to exert any sort of self-discipline when we were let off the leash and living away from home. 

We were frequent binge drinkers and the row of empty wine bottles on the pelmet above the window in our hostel room attested to our predilection for alcohol. On the rare occasion that our parents rang to tell us that they would be driving over from our home town 14 miles distant to bring us some cake or other treat, we would hurriedly hide the bottles in a cupboard. 

Once in a while there would be a promotion for Lieberstein wine at the hotel near the hostel. Lieberstein, affectionately known as “Liebies”, was a cheap, fruity white wine which was favoured by cash-strapped students such as ourselves. For an hour from 5 pm on the day of the promotion one could drink as much Lieberstein as one wanted, free of charge. The news of a Lieberstein promotion would spread like wildfire and many of the Helderberg Hostel students would rush to the hotel at 5 pm, crowd around the bar and gulp down glasses of the disgusting liquid as fast as they could. I was usually slumped on my knees over the toilet well before the Lieberstein hour had run its course. 

Returning to the hostel after one such Lieberstein promotion, we were informed that the men from our hostel had to join the female students at Minerva, one of the female hostels, for dinner. We arrived there with some of us lurching and slurring our words. During dinner a few of the students were overcome with nausea and had to rush off to the toilet. One fellow did not quite make it to the toilet door in time. I attempted to conduct myself with dignity, doing my best to appear sober, trying to speak clearly and grimly hanging on to the seat of my chair so that I wouldn’t fall off. 

One day Charel set off for his Chemistry practical class immediately after lunchtime, when we had spent the morning drinking cheap wine. Picture a 205 cm bloke in a white lab coat getting on his bicycle and wobbling drunkenly towards the exit of the car park in front of the hostel. He did not get far, toppling off the bicycle and crouching on his hands and knees. He was unable to get back up, so I rushed outside to help him back to our room. 

We were both keen snooker players. To use a snooker table one had to feed the coin machine to turn on the light above the table. Our problem was that we were chronically short of cash. What little money we did have was spent on alcohol and on feeding our nicotine addictions. The hostel had its own snooker table, so Charel opened the windows facing the adjacent tennis court to allow the light in so that we could play snooker without having to pay for the light. 

This practice eventually got us into trouble. One of the other students had walked in on us and had reported us to the hostel’s Student Representative Council (SRC). We had to appear before the SRC, comprising four unsmiling, ultra-conservative senior students. Charel was a master of bullsh*t, so I left all the talking to him. He earnestly protested our innocence, claiming that the light had gone off mere seconds before the informer had entered the snooker room. The SRC let us off with a stern warning. 

A week later we were once again reported to the SRC for the very same misdemeanour, this time by an anonymous informant. Charel told the SRC that we were innocent and that we had always paid for the snooker light. Raising his voice, he exclaimed that he was getting sick and tired of people accusing us falsely when we had done no wrong. It transpired, however, that we had been spotted playing snooker without the light by someone who had been on the tennis court at that time. Charel’s defense crumpled. That evening the president of the SRC announced in the dining hall to all the Helderberg residents that the Bruwer brothers had been banned from the snooker room for the remainder of the year. “That’s the Bruwer Youth Gang!” some wit shouted gleefully. 

Undeterred, Charel checked out the snooker tables at the hotel down the road from the hostel. He had somehow discovered that the coin mechanism for the light had a hidden switch, which one could turn on and off with one of those aluminium combs which were in fashion at that time. He tried it out and, lo and behold, the light came on. From then on we were able to play snooker at will, with Charel switching the light on and off with his comb. 

My brother had his deep philosophical moments, as befitted a second year university scholar. During one binge drinking session in our hostel room he told me earnestly, “If I die you must put a plate full of food and an empty wine bottle on my coffin, so that people could see that a died of thirst and not of hunger.” 

He had always been a rebel at heart who resisted any efforts to discipline him. His Physics 1 professor once ordered him to leave the lecture room because he was not wearing a tie. In those days a tie and jacket were compulsory attire for attending lectures. 

“Don’t bother returning to my class unless you are dressed appropriately,” the professor shouted crossly at Charel as he was leaving the lecture hall. 

The very next day Charel went back to attend his Physics lecture, which would commence once the bell pealed. When the professor entered the lecture room, he spotted my tie-less brother and glared at him with venom. Charel looked at this watch. Just as the bell was about to peal, he whipped a tie out of his pocket with a flourish and put it on, smiling triumphantly at the professor. 

That year I did not pass a single subject and I was refused accommodation by the hostel for the following year. Charel failed Physics 1. He failed it again the following year, before eventually scraping through with a pass mark in his final year at university. 

I suppose we were as unsuited to life on the campus of an ultra-conservative Afrikaner university as nomadic tribesmen would be to city life. The fact that we each acquired a master’s degree in the fullness of time is incontestable proof that miracles do happen.



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