Tag Archives: Apartheid era

Stop the boats

This was written in 2013

I can picture the scene quite clearly. The horrified shouts of the refugees as their boat capsizes are in the Tamil language, but the fear in their voices has a timbre that is universal to all tongues. A woman surfaces and shouts desperately for her child, who has disappeared under the water. Sometime afterwards she is also silenced by the waves, her floating body one of the specks in the vast expanse of the ocean that these refugees were trying to cross.

I know a little about the fear and desperation that drives one to leave the country of one’s birth and to seek safety and a new life elsewhere. Even so, I can barely imagine how desperate today’s boat people must be to embark on highly dangerous sea journeys with their children and with young women in tow, subject to the possibility of drowning, or of attack, robbery and rape by ruthless pirates.

I was also a refugee and a boat person of sorts once. During the Apartheid era in South Africa I was a “person of interest” to the Security Police. At that time any perceived enemy of the state, including anyone who espoused views in support of the country’s oppressed non-white population, was deemed a “communist” and could be held in detention without trial for extended periods under the Suppression of Communism Act 44 of 1950.

The injustices of the Apartheid system preyed heavily on my mind and on a couple of occasions I was angry as well as foolish enough to express some of my views to fellow Afrikaners. I was aware that someone had reported me to the Security Police for being a communist because my boss had called me into his office and told me so. It was 1970, I was 23 years old and I was scared.

During the following year I drove to Signal Hill in Cape Town one night to visit and to express my support to Reverend Bernie Wrankmore, an Anglican Priest. He had gone on an extended hunger strike to show his outrage at the death of a Muslim cleric who had been beaten to death by the Security Police whilst in detention. A few days later I read in the newspaper that the Security Police had been keeping watch and had noted the registration numbers of all vehicles that had parked there. I had been found out once again and my anxiety escalated.

When you live as a dissident under an authoritarian regime it is impossible to tell whether the authorities view you as a minor irritation or as a more serious threat who need to be dealt with in some way. Despite the fact that I was not involved in any acts of violence or sabotage or in conspiracies to overthrow the government by force, I lived in trepidation during my last four years in South Africa. The authorities were aware of my opposition to racism and to the government’s Apartheid policies. I knew that some opponents of the Apartheid regime had been blown up by letter bombs, beaten and tortured by the Security Police, shot dead by anonymous gunmen as they were leaving their houses, had “jumped” out of windows of high rise buildings “to escape interrogation by the Security Police”, or had simply disappeared.

My parents were worried that harm of some sort would come my way if I remained in South Africa. I was scared and desperate to get out. Unlike the refugees coming to Australia by boat nowadays, there was no need for me to jump the queue to enter this country. After all, I had the benefit of highly regarded university qualifications from a university that was inaccessible to my non-white countrymen and I had work experience in a senior position that had been reserved for white people only.

When I travelled to Australia In 1974 it was in the relative comfort of a Greek migrant ship, the “Australis”, along with three thousand Ten Pound Poms. As I saw Cape Town’s Table Mountain disappear over the horizon I experienced immense relief and my fears dissipated. I could now stop looking over my shoulder or panicking every time someone knocked on my front door after dark.

I settled comfortably into Australian life in one of Melbourne’s safe, leafy suburbs. One of the first Australians that I met in Melbourne, an electrician named Peter, had a T-Shirt made for me with “Aussie Tim” printed on the front. From the beginning I was made to feel welcome and that I belonged, very unlike the reception given to the boat people of today.

Last year, as I went to pay for my fuel at a local service station, I was served by a black African man in his mid-thirties. No-one else was waiting behind me, so I introduced myself, told him where I had grown up, and asked him where he had come from. He was a Zimbabwean who had been in Australia for three years, having fled with his wife and two small children from the deadly violence meted out to his people by President Mugabe’s supporters.

“Isn’t this a fantastic country to live in?” I enthused. “Most Aussies would not have any idea of what it feels like to live in fear of your life every day.”

“Yes, it’s a wonderful country,” he agreed. “Here people know nothing about living with terror.” Tears welled up in his eyes. “Thank God my family and I are safe now.”

Many Australian voters are worried about our fortress island being swamped by refugee boats. Increasingly a siege mentality is developing, akin to that of my own people, the Afrikaners, whenever they had felt under threat by others from a different culture. During the previous months the politicians have continued to argue about the most effective measures for stopping the refugee boats with their queue jumping occupants from heading to Australia. They talk with grave concern about saving the lives of refugees by deterring them from coming here illegally on small boats. No-one mentions the terror that drives so many of them to risk their lives on shonky boats on the open sea.

It is Christmas time, the season of peace and goodwill to all. Having done some last minute Christmas shopping, I am waiting to pay for my purchases at a local store. There is some problem at the checkout and the line of customers has come to a standstill. The elderly man in front of me has become bored with the delay, so he turns around to engage me in small talk.

“They should sink those bloody refugee boats, you know,” he says to me in a thick European accent. “Just sink them!”

I miss my mum

To this day I become angry when I think about my mum’s treatment by her parents when she was a young woman.

She was the eldest of five children and the only female child. Her father should have known better, I tell myself. After all, he was someone who was passionate about the value of education, a professor of literature at the University of Cape Town and later the Superintendent-General of Education for South Africa. His four sons were all sent to university to pursue their areas of interest. Boet (Dr M C Botha) studied medicine and was the immunologist on Dr Chris Barnard’s team who performed the world’s first heart transplant. Paul became a corporate accountant, Jan a journalist and André a lawyer and eventually an appeals court judge. Sus, however, was not given a choice of what she could study. Her parents simply enrolled her in a Domestic Science degree course, an area of study in which she had no interest.

This occurred at a time when women were generally not afforded opportunities to pursue a tertiary education at all and I am sure that her parents meant well in sending their daughter to university. It nevertheless angers me that her parents had been so constrained by society’s cloistered view of women’s roles at that time that they had shackled a highly intelligent woman, who would no doubt have excelled in any course of study of her own choice. Her interests were in subjects like astronomy, botany, art and literature, rather than in the Domestic Science studies into which she had been corralled.

These shackles dragged her back for the remainder of her life. She only lasted at university for a few months before dropping out and, at the age of 21, married a school teacher fifteen years her senior. I know that she had married for love because I have read a couple of the love letters that she had written to my dad at the time. I suspect, though, that she must also have realised that marriage was the only ‘career option’ that had remained open to her.

 Sus in 1941 (2)

 Sus at the time of her engagement in 1941

My mum had an enquiring mind. She was an avid reader of books on a great variety of subjects and she enjoyed doing the newspaper crosswords, which she generally completed with little trouble. Although she was a good cook, she lacked enthusiasm for cooking. Fortunately my dad, having been a bachelor for many years, was adept in the kitchen and he willingly shared the responsibility for preparing meals.

*        *        *

On completion of my final year at high school I was conscripted for military service. As I said goodbye to my parents on the morning that my brother was driving me to the Cape Town railway station, where I had to catch the train to the army training camp in Oudtshoorn, my mum suddenly started weeping. I had not expected this and I told her not to be silly, because I was only going to be away for a year.

“You don’t have any children of your own”, she said. “You have no idea what it’s like for a mother. You were inside my tummy for nine long months and during all that time I was so excited that I could barely wait to see you. Now I won’t see you again for a whole year.”

Eleven years afterwards I said farewell to her once more. This time I was leaving South Africa permanently to emigrate to Australia. My mum knew about my opposition to the government of the time, with its abhorrent Apartheid policies and its merciless treatment of anyone who dared to criticise or to oppose them. I realise now that it was a measure of her concern for my safety and of her love for me that she never said a single word to discourage me from leaving.

My parents, who had never travelled overseas during their years of marriage, visited us regularly in Australia and also in Papua New Guinea, when my wife and I worked there in the early 1980s. Because I only saw my mum intermittently, the times we spent together were always special to both of us.

There was little to do in Port Moresby, so I took my parents to a coral beach to go snorkelling. As my mum and I swam over the coral towards the edge of the reef she became agitated and told me that she needed to get back to the shore. Back on the beach she told me that she had become exhausted. “I’m an old lady, you know,” she reminded me. “I’m 62.”

A few days afterwards she sheepishly confessed that she had not really been tired, but that she had lost her nerve. I was having none of that, so I took her back to the coral beach, where we took our time moving away from the shore. I got her to stand on a submerged rock every now and again, where she could look around for a while. We eventually made it to the edge of the reef, where the coral dropped away sharply and large tropical fish cruised through the deep water. She stood on a submerged rock and looked around in amazement at this colourful wonderland of coral and fish.

After a while I said, “Let’s go back to the beach. I’m getting cold.”

“You go along,” she said. “Don’t wait for me. I’ll just stay here for a bit longer.”

A year after my parents’ visit to Papua New Guinea my dad rang me with the news that my mum had developed a cancerous lump in her thigh muscle, which had been surgically removed. I was horrified, but the surgeon appeared to have removed the lump all in one piece and we were optimistic that it would be the end of the matter. However, the virulent cancer reappeared a few months later, spreading rapidly to her lungs and other organs.

In August 1984 my mum and dad visited me in Australia so that we could say our final farewells to her. At that time I was unable to travel to South Africa due to my anti-Apartheid activities in Australia. When time is running out, one values every minute spent with a loved one. I clearly remember the small slivers of happiness, like how she had beamed with joy whenever Pavarotti, our friendly magpie, had come to warble on our balcony and how she fed him by hand every day.

Sus, August 1984

 Tim’s last photo of his mum, August 1984

My mum died a mere four months later, shortly before Christmas Day. She was 64. Even though I was well aware that her illness was terminal, the actual news of her death ripped my heart open.

In time I got over the pain of losing my mum. Our kids were born, my job kept me very busy and life went on. More than a decade later I had a very vivid dream one night in which my mum suddenly appeared. She looked as real as if she were standing there in the flesh.

“I thought you had died!” I exclaimed.

“No, I’m still here,” she replied.

“But why do you never come to see me anymore?” I asked.

She just stood there, smiling at me kindly.

“You’re not real, are you?” I asked.

She instantly disappeared.

I woke up. My pillow was wet with tears.

I miss my mum.

ANOTHER POINT OF VIEW, by Robert Jaentsch

Robert Jaentsch and I belong to the same creative writing group in Eltham (in Melbourne, Australia). Over time we have become good friends. Robert has kindly given me permission to publish this piece of his on my blog.

I am certain, that like me, all of you have enjoyed Tim Bruwer’s accounts of his native South Africa, always well constructed, informative and entertaining. But the thing you have to remember is that Tim was a renegade, run out of town by a hostile political regime.

At the time of Tim’s departure, our family had taken up residence in Johannesburg and I would like to present you with an entirely different point of view – a glimpse of a South Africa you may never have known existed.

Did you know that this year South Africa was declared the most beautiful country on Earth? For over a decade now, Cape Town has been the most favoured tourist destination of the most affluent countries of Europe. One of its first public relations benefactors was Francis Drake, who described it as “the fairest cape in all the world.”

When Tim departed that land, South Africa was one of the world’s most stable economies, with a high level of foreign investment and a robust exchange rate. In those days, one Rand (the local unit of currency) would buy US one dollar and 20 cents. Today one Rand will buy you US eight cents!

By any measure of prosperity, white South Africans had the highest standard of living in the world, by a fairly large margin. And let it not be forgotten that though black South Africans had nowhere near the same standard of living, they were vastly better off than in any other African nation that had gained independence from their European colonisers, and they did not rely on international aid for their existence.

A benefit of living in South Africa we greatly appreciated was its education system – quite possibly the finest in the world. Mrs J and I are eternally grateful that our daughter received all her education there and our son most of his. We were able to place our 15 year old son in a well regarded private school in Melbourne. On his first day he stood up when the teacher entered the classroom, as he would have done in South Africa. When the classroom full of boys booed and jeered at him he thought we had brought him to a land of barbarians. Attitudes were different in South Africa.

Back then the only universities in the southern hemisphere that were ranked in the top one hundred were UCT (University of Cape Town) and Wits (University of the Witwatersrand).

Medical systems and facilities were also on par with the world’s best. At the age of 13 our son had open heart surgery in South Africa. When we came to Australia and he had to go for a check up the cardiologist said to him, “That’s a fine piece of surgery. Who did it?” Karl replied, “It was done by Mr Kingsley and his team in South Africa,” to which the cardiologist said, “You were extremely fortunate. Mr Kingsley’s team is one of the best in the world.”

Everyone knows that Dr Christiaan Barnard performed the first human heart transplant at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town. As a point of interest, an uncle of Tim’s was the immunologist on that occasion. But did you know that the uranium enrichment process was developed by the Atomic Energy Board at Pelindaba in the Transvaal? Or that South Africa still leads the world in oil from coal technology and also deep level mining? Back then they were extracting gold bearing ore one mile below the earth’s surface and were confident they could extract from a depth of two miles, though it would require a leap in the gold price to make it workable.

Back then, too, South Africa was the only African nation that was a net exporter of food. Also it became a major manufacturer and exporter of armaments, driven to this by trade embargoes because of its apartheid policy. It manufactured or assembled more different makes of motor car than any other country. In fact, today, if you buy a Mercedes Benz or BMW automobile in Australia, chances are it will have been made in South Africa.

At the end of last week’s class Tim, Bruce and I stood chatting on the pathway to our U3A classroom, blocking the thoroughfare, as blokes will. I happened to mention Franschhoek, as pretty a small town as anywhere on the planet. Tim told us his Huguenot ancestors settled there in the seventeenth century. He said, “Don’t say any more, you’re making me feel homesick.” As he turned to say goodbye, I fancy I saw the glint of a tear in his eye.

A dangerous fanatic

I used to think of my great-grandfather, the Boer General Paul Roux, as the old General. It was only recently that I found out that he was only 48 years old when he died. I never knew him personally, as he had died long before my birth, but my grandmother—his eldest daughter—talked about him sometimes and this gave me a sense of the kind of person that he was.

He originally wanted to become a journalist, but after being exposed to the sermons of Dr Andrew Murray, a Dutch Reformed missionary whom had been sent from Scotland to South Africa, he decided on becoming a church minister in the Dutch Reformed Church.

On hindsight I can’t really blame my great-grandfather for hating the British. At the outbreak of the Boer War in 1899 he joined the Boer forces and fought as a guerrilla fighter. He was considered to be exceptionally brave and clever and was soon promoted to the position of Fighting General (Veg-Generaal). During the war he was caught by the British forces and banished to Ceylon where he remained for two years until the end of the war. He was held there in captivity for eight months before anyone in his family found out what had happened to him.

General Roux’s wife, Hettie, was sent to a British concentration camp in Winburg in the Orange Free State along with her two young children and their fox terrier, Vix. General Lord Kitchener, the British military commander, became so frustrated with the Boers’ guerrilla warfare tactics that he embarked on a strategy of flushing out the Boer guerrillas by clearing the countryside of everything that could possibly sustain them—farmhouses and farm buildings, horses, cattle, sheep, and even the women and children. This caused enormous bitterness amongst the Boer folk, which in some quarters has not entirely dissipated to this day.

Hettie was told at 6 pm that they would be leaving shortly after midnight for the concentration camp. Her one young daughter, Marie, was very ill from typhus, so she immediately appealed to the British officers to be allowed to stay at home until her daughter had recovered. Her pleas fell on deaf ears and the child was taken along in an oxwagon in her sick condition. Because the disease was so contagious, Hettie and her two daughters had to live for more than a month in a small tent well away from the women’s concentration camp.

When news of his family’s fate reached General Roux in Ceylon, he appealed to Lord Kitchener to let his family leave the concentration camp and be permitted to go and live with his wife’s family in Paarl, near Cape Town in the Cape Province. Lord Kitchener personally intervened and their move to Paarl was allowed.

After the war a small town in the Orange Free State was renamed Paul Roux in the General’s honour. Today it has a population of 5,722. Initially there was a divergence of opinion as to what the town should be named. To decide on the final name, the contending names were painted on a boulder, which was rolled down from the hill above the town. The boulder came to a standstill with the name “Paul Roux” face up.

According to my grandmother, the General was a “bitter-ender” who detested the British with a vengeance for going to war against the Boer Republics and for their brutal tactics during the war. He was a crack shot and he told his children with pride how he used to shoot the British soldiers neatly between the eyes. Despite this, my grandmother had a great fondness for the English. When I asked her about it once, she told me how the Boer guerrilla fighters would come to their house in the middle of the night to stock up on provisions. They stank and wore rags and their manners were uncouth. The English soldiers who came by, on the other hand, had lovely manners and always looked smart in their khaki uniforms. A glint appeared in her eyes when she spoke of the English.

Roux eventually became the minister of the Dutch Reformed Church in Beaufort West, a large country town in the Cape Province. He loved the outdoors life and regularly went fishing and hunting, two of his favourite pastimes. In 1910 he travelled to Central Africa with a friend on a hunting trip. This is where disaster struck. He was stung by the feared tsetse fly and contracted sleeping sickness. As my grandmother put it, this was quite ironic because he had suffered from severe insomnia ever since he had contracted typhus fever while he was a university student.

His wife Hettie travelled to Nyasaland to join her ill husband. The Governor of Nyasaland provided a warship to transport the couple across Lake Nyassa, from where they travelled by boat down the river to Chinde on the coast of central Mozambique. The Portuguese government arranged and funded the couple’s travel back to Beaufort West, where he died on 8 June 1911.

A few years ago when I travelled in South Africa with my English wife, Gill, we stayed overnight in a hotel in Beaufort West. The next morning, having cleared a thick layer of frost from our rental car’s windscreen, we drove to the Dutch Reformed Church to look at the plinth that was erected in General Roux’s memory in the church grounds where he is buried. I whispered to Gill: “Do you hear that rumbling? That is the old General turning in his grave because his great-grandson had married an Englishwoman.”

I was actively involved in the anti-Apartheid movement and anyone with my views was generally considered by the Afrikaners as a traitor to the nation and called a kafferboetie (an offensive term which equates to ‘brother of the kaffirs’). My mum and dad knew about my views and I had many arguments with them about South African politics during that period. Whilst acknowledging my opinions to be valid in some respects, they considered my anger about the injustices and institutionalised racism in South Africa to be somewhat extreme.

In 1984, while I was a persona non grata in South Africa, my parents visited me in Melbourne so that I could say farewell to my mum who had terminal cancer. I had just finished reading Thomas Pakenham’s book The Boer War, in which General Roux is mentioned.

“Just listen to what they say in this book about your grandfather,” I said to my mum, and read the following passage to her:

(Captain Bromley-Davenport wrote) “I had a long talk with Roux, the fighting parson of Senekal, a very dangerous fanatic … I am glad we have got him.”

My mum gave me a knowing smile and remarked drily: “It must run in the family.”

THE CREATOR OF FLOODS

When I visited South Africa in 1992 after a prolonged absence I found that my brother Charel had changed into a different person during the intervening years. His job as a scientist with the Department of Water Affairs required him to spend about three months of every year in remote rural areas. We had both grown up as city boys, but he had morphed into a real bushie.

He invited me to go with him on a work trip to Zululand. On the way there he told me that the government had built a dam on the Phongolo River nineteen years earlier that had affected the ecology and the black villagers living along the flood plains downstream from the dam. During the wet season the river used to flood and the entire subsistence economy of the local Zulu villages had revolved around these floods. They had their cattle, but their main source of food was the maize, pumpkins and other vegetables that they would plant in the rich soil on the riverbank as the floods subsided.

The dam was constructed to provide irrigation for white farmers and recreational activities such as water skiing and fishing for white holiday-makers. In those days the needs of black people counted for nothing in the minds of the white government. The consequences of damming the river on the Zulu villagers downstream along the Phongolo River were completely ignored.

When the Phongolo River first attracted Charel’s attention as a limnologist he found that there were no roads that would allow him to get to the river and to the flood plains, so he asked a university in Durban to undertake a flight over the area and to take aerial photographs for him. He used the photos to locate cattle tracks along which he could drive his 4WD to get to the water. I was amazed at how easily this different version of my brother could find his way around in the remote bush.

“I’m going to show you the flood that I’ve just organised,” he told me. He said that he had discussed the absence of floods with the local Zulu chieftains, with Clive, an anthropologist friend who spoke Zulu fluently, acting as his interpreter. Clive had told him how outraged the chieftains were because the floods had stopped, with devastating effects on their crops.

Charel set up a water committee comprising himself and the local chieftains. At the first meeting of the committee he asked the chieftains when they would prefer a flood to occur. They negotiated a date that was acceptable to all of them. He told them that he would see what he could do about the floods.

Later, back in Pretoria at the Department of Water Affairs, Charel managed to convince his boss to allow him to arrange a flood by opening the sluice gates and letting water out of the dam for a limited period of time. The problems experienced by the Zulu villagers would not have swayed any white bureaucrat at the time, but he based his argument on the negative ecological effects downstream due to the lack of normal seasonal floods.

On the agreed date the sluice gates were opened and the first man-made flood on the Phongolo River occurred, to the amazement and delight of the Zulu chieftains downstream.

                                                                       *

Charel and I arrived at a Zulu village along the river. There were no mod cons such as electricity or water taps. The women would peer around carefully for crocodiles before quickly filling their buckets from the river. Afterwards they would boil the water on their open fires to kill off any water-borne parasites before using it for drinking water and for washing.

We slept on old mattresses on the ground under a stretched canvas that Charel had rigged up. The nearest pit toilet had no door. I asked him what to do if someone approached while I was sitting on the toilet. “When you hear anyone coming, just clear your throat to let them know you are using the toilet and they’ll keep their distance until you’ve finished.”

He opened a large metal trunk in the boot of his vehicle. It contained a great variety of foodstuffs, including delicacies such as tins of smoked mussels. “Good grief,” I exclaimed, “this is amazing!”

Charel grinned and said, “Just because we are in the middle of the Zululand bush it doesn’t mean we have to eat like the bloody blacks.”

That night I could hear the beating of drums somewhere in the distance and smell the smoke from the villagers’ fires. I could hear the click sounds of the Zulu language as the villagers conversed with each other. The stars were incredibly bright in the night sky. My heart soared.

The following day we drove to the dam wall and watched as the sluice gates opened at the pre-arranged time. A deafening torrent of water escaped from the dam and thundered down the riverbed.

Charel had asked one of the villagers to take me out on the river in a canoe the following day. Early that morning we were dropped off downstream with the canoe and spent the whole day paddling back up to the village. Only the tops of some large trees protruded above the water, which had risen by at least seven metres because of the flood. At one stage I suggested that we should row towards the top of a tree that was protruding out of the swirling water to have a look, but the villager said, “Au, that’s not a good idea. Every snake in this whole area will be up in that bit of tree.” We eventually arrived at the village just on dusk.

My brother is an old-fashioned Afrikaner who still clings tightly to his people’s original racist views in a country that has been governed by the black majority for more than twenty years since the end of Apartheid. During a recent visit I was appalled to find that he still used the old offensive Afrikaans racist terms when referring to black or coloured people.

But then, one morning, I asked him if he had been back to Zululand in recent times. He said that he had recently visited the same village where I had stayed with him. “I’ve told my family that they must send some of my ashes up there after I’ve died,” he told me. “The chieftain insists that a part of me must be buried in their village, because I was the one who had brought the annual floods back.”

BLACK MAMBA

The black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) is a highly venomous snake that is endemic to sub-Saharan Africa

 My heart sank when I spotted Black Mamba, a man in his forties, waiting at the bus stop as my bus was approaching it. With his nasty, thin moustache and round face, and wearing his black bus inspector’s uniform complete with cap, he could easily have passed for Heinrich Himmler’s twin brother. His nickname amongst my fellow Cape Town City Tramways bus conductors was “Black Mamba”, which befitted his reputation.

The inspectors would board our buses without prior warning to check that all the fares that we had issued had been charged correctly and that everyone on board had a valid ticket.

The bus conducting job was the only one that I had been able to secure for the three months’ university holidays. As an immature nineteen year old I was not coping well with the stresses of the job. I lacked the skills to deal effectively with the challenging behaviours of some of the passengers, who would from time to time spit on me, swear at me, refuse to pay their fares and physically threaten me. I also had to enforce the white government’s Apartheid laws, which I loathed, on the buses. I cringed every time I had to ask a black or coloured passenger to move because they were sitting in the area of the bus that was reserved for white persons only.

The so-called pickpockets who robbed passengers with impunity and would draw a knife if anyone, including the conductor, tried to take them to task, terrified me. One of my fellow conductors had already had a knife stuck through his hand, through the meaty bit between his fingers. Nevertheless one couldn’t help but be impressed with the way that the pickpockets could jump off a double-decker bus as it was still slowing down, pirouetting gracefully like ballet dancers in the process to show off.

I had come to the job with a lot of mental baggage from my year in the army; I had been conscripted on finishing my final year at school. For the duration of that whole year I had been subjected to a daily barrage of abuse and punishment from the psychopaths whose role it was to mould us into mindlessly obedient soldiers. Instead of succumbing to the brutally enforced discipline, I had developed a rock hard core of rebelliousness. Long after I had returned to civilian life I would still react with an immediate flash of anger if anyone so much as raised their voice at me.

I was close to a breakdown on the day that Black Mamba boarded my bus. I had seen him around the bus depot and had been told how mercilessly he persecuted any conductor who had made a mistake. I knew that if he found an incorrectly issued fare or someone without a valid ticket on my bus he would report me and I would have to appear in front of the bus company’s disciplinary panel, where I would be given a fine or be temporarily suspended from work. Mamba was known to consistently urge the panel to hand down the severest of penalties.

On that day I had issued a ticket to a boy who had told me that he was 13 years old. A higher fare applied to boys of 14 years and older. When the inspector checked his ticket the boy panicked and confessed that he was 14. Mamba took out his notebook. He was going to report me.

I was outraged at this injustice. “You can’t report me for that,” I told him. “When I asked him how old he was he told me that he was 13.”

“You’ve under-charged him. You gave him the wrong ticket,” he snapped, dismissing my objection out of hand.

Something instantly snapped in me. “That’s bullshit!” I snarled, advancing towards him. “You get off this f**king bus before I throw you off!”

He backed off, stomped towards the exit door and got off at the next stop.

I was beside myself, knowing full well that I would be dismissed for my outburst. I would not find another job before university resumed. How was I going to pay for my cigarette addiction and other vices for the duration of the academic year?

After a sleepless night and feeling sick with stress I fronted up at the bus depot as usual the next morning, expecting to be pulled off the job for which I had been rostered. Nothing happened, so I did my rostered shift. Perhaps Mamba was away sick, I thought.

Nothing happened the next day either, or the day after that.

Nothing ever happened.

Gradually it dawned on me that Mamba had not reported me.

At the time I was so relieved to discover that I had gotten away with such an unforgivable misdemeanour that I never wondered about Mamba’s behaviour. Now, many decades later, it is clear to me that he must have realised that I was just a kid who had lost the plot due to stress.

And that he had felt sorry for me.

At the time none of us conductors would ever have suspected that Black Mamba was not all snake.

It’s not easy being a feminist

I became a feminist of sorts long ago in a country where male chauvinism was traditional in both the white and the black communities. Not that South African women were left entirely outside the loop of male-dominated affairs. As early as the 1980s South African Airways had at least one female pilot. I know this for a fact because I was on the short flight from Johannesburg to Harare during that time when a woman’s voice came over the intercom, introducing herself as the pilot and welcoming us on board. The three redneck Afrikaners in the seats behind me sniggered derisively. “I hope she doesn’t have to go and have a pee while she’s supposed to be flying the plane,” one of them said, to the great amusement of his fellow Neanderthalers.

I first became aware of my feminist stirrings three years before Germaine Greer’s The female eunuch was published. At the time I was a mere twenty years old and working as a junior clerk in the Administration for Coloured Affairs in Cape Town. I had dropped out of university earlier that year and had unsuccessfully applied for jobs as a cigarette company rep (with company vehicle), trawlerman (I loved the sea), waiter on the Cape Town/Johannesburg train (I enjoyed traveling), and ladies’ underwear rep (don’t ask!). At long last I managed to secure a junior clerical position in the Misconduct Section of the Administration for Coloured Affairs. Our job was to punish misconduct by Coloured teachers.

There were seven of us sitting in desks positioned in two rows, with a glass wall at one end of the room beyond which our boss, Mr Van Deventer, sat and kept an eye on us from his office. Teacher misconduct embraced a wide range of misdemeanours. One of the most common of these, apart from unsatisfactory work, chronic absenteeism, drunkenness and making sexual advances to schoolgirls, was sexual relations between unmarried male and female teachers. The Administration for Coloured Affairs punished such behaviour under the provisions of Section 16 (i) of the Coloured Persons Education Act of 1963. Our job as clerks in the Misconduct Section was to write letters to offending teachers, advising them of the action that the Administration was taking against them under the provisions of the Act.

When an unmarried female teacher became pregnant to a male teacher, the standard penalty for the male teacher was a fine of sixty Rand, which was equivalent to three months’ salary. However, the female teacher’s appointment was immediately terminated without benefits and she was banned from teaching for a period of three years.

As a naïve twenty year old I took it upon myself to write a submission directly to our big boss, Mr Du Plessis, who had a large office on the floor above ours. In my submission I pointed out the inequity between the severity of the punishments that were meted out to female and male teachers in these circumstances. I suggested that this should be redressed by allowing a female teacher to return to teaching three months after her baby had been born.

I was summonsed to Mr Du Plessis’ office. I had barely had time to admire the size of his public service floor mat when he started berating me, his little moustache wobbling wildly on his upper lip with anger. “How dare you, a junior clerk, try and tell the Administration that its policy is wrong? Who do you think you are that you can write to me and comment on things that you know nothing about? Senior people set the policy, not junior clerks!” He raged on in this vein for a while longer before telling me to get out of his office and that he did not want to hear from me ever again.

Later, having emigrated to Australia, I worked for five years in the late 1970s at the Glen Waverley Library, which had a staff of 13 people. I was the only male staff member. During that time that I became better acquainted with women. Having had no sisters and having married young, the only women that I had known reasonably well until that time was my mum and my wife of the time. It was here that I realised that the majority of men of my age treated their wives and girlfriends pretty much as doormats.

One young woman, married to a plumber, complained to the others how her husband never cleared up anything or helped in the house, apart from fixing the odd thing. His clothes would lie on the floor wherever he had taken them off, the dirty dishes would be her responsibility to wash up and she did all the washing, cooking, ironing and cleaning. I thought that this was outrageously unfair, taking into account that she and her husband were both working fulltime.

“Just leave his clothes where he left them, and leave the dirty dishes in the sink,” one of the other female staff members, who was single, advised her. “That will soon make him sit up and take notice.”

The woman with the plumber husband reported a week later that it had taken her a whole weekend to clear up the mess. The clothes had just piled up higher and higher on the floor and the dirty dishes had merely increased in number, until she could stand the mess no longer.

On a very hot January day in 1980 I went with my fellow staff members from the library to have lunch at a pub in Clayton. On the way back to work afterwards I stopped at a red traffic light in my battered old Holden station wagon. Four of the women were in the car with me. My window was wound down because the Holden did not have mod cons such as air conditioning.

Unexpectedly someone said to me through the window: “Hey, mate, how do you do it? How do you pull all those women?” It was a bloke who was working on the road. His mates were consumed with mirth at this witticism.

I was quite embarrassed at this exhibition of male sexism in the presence of my female workmates and apologised to them for it. “You know, I don’t even think of you as women,” I said.

None of them responded to this and for the next couple of weeks there was a distinct chill in the air towards me from the women at work.

It’s not easy being a feminist.