Tag Archives: Cape town

Cape Town’s bio cafés

“Bio” is an abbreviation of “bioscope” (the term by which cinemas were referred to in South Africa)

In the late 1950s, when I was in my early teens living in Cape Town, there were a number of so-called bio cafés in the city. Cape Town also had its full-sized cinemas like the Colosseum, the Metro, the Alhambra with its twinkling stars on the firmament of its high, dark blue ceiling, and the Van Riebeeck. By contrast the bio cafés were small, narrow, dank places with the air thick with swirling cigarette smoke. Their popularity stemmed from the fact that they always showed a double feature and one could sit there all day if one wished to, watching the same two films over and over again. As an added bonus, you were served a free, sweet Kool Aid soft drink.

There were three bio cafés that my brother Charel and I frequented. They were called the Pigalle, the Elstree and the Roxy. It was in one of these cinemas that I had sat in my seat frozen with fear as I had watched a black and white horror movie about zombies. I had shut my eyes tightly in terror as the zombies, having risen from the dead, stumbled amongst the trees through a thick fog on their way to visit some unimaginable horror upon an unsuspecting victim.

I had a love-hate relationship with horror films, but that did not stop me from also going to see the 1956 movie “The werewolf” in a bio café. The lead character in the movie had been lost and had ended up in a remote village, where someone had injected him with a serum that contained wolf’s blood. This had caused him to sprout thick fur and to turn into a bloodthirsty werewolf whenever the moon was full. It was a scary film. I was a little surprised at the time that it had not been nominated for an Oscar, as it was a far better film than “Giant” or “The Ten Commandments”.

Another movie that sticks in my mind from the bio café days is “Reach for the sky”, the story of the British World War 2 fighter pilot Douglas Bader, who had kept on flying despite having lost both his legs in an aeroplane accident. And then there were my favourites, those American Western movies featuring Audie Murphy.

Charel, two and a half years my senior, is very tall. Even in his teens he could easily pass for someone much older than his actual age. He could therefore bypass the “No persons under 18 years” restrictions where they applied to films when he was no older than 14.

He told me in detail about “The fly”, a 1958 horror film which he had seen, but from which I had been excluded because at 13 years of age I couldn’t beat the 16 years age restriction. His mere account of the film’s storyline freaked me out so much that I was relieved that my bluff had been called and that I had been refused entry. It was about a scientist whose atoms had mutated with that of a fly during a scientific experiment. Terrifying stuff!

When I visited Charel in South Africa recently, we reminisced about the old bio cafés in Cape Town and how much we had enjoyed going to them. It transpired that he had other fish to fry in his mid-teens besides horror movies, when it came to going to the bio cafés. The object of every teenage boy’s fantasies in those days was Brigitte Bardot, a super-sexy French movie star.

“You know,” Charel told me, “the best show that I ever saw at a bio café was a double feature of two Brigitte Bardot movies. I rocked up as soon as the place opened in the morning and I stayed there the whole day, watching the same two movies over and over again. And you know what? The next day I went back and did the same thing again!”

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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.

TAMBOERSKLOOF BOYS

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.