Tag Archives: South Africa

Laura meets the judge

When our daughter Laura was fourteen years old she spent the first half of the year at the St Cyprians Boarding School in the leafy suburb of Gardens in Cape Town. She enjoyed the experience so much that she badgered us to send her back there for the duration of the following year. Laura generally gets her own way and it was no different on this occasion.

My wife and I travelled to South Africa in June of that year, accompanied by my mother-in-law and sister-in-law. We spent some time in the Kruger National Park before driving south to Cape Town, where we lingered for a few days.

When the other family members travelled on to England I remained behind with Laura. The two of us went to stay with my brother Charel and sister-in-law Marlien, who live near Hermanus, a picturesque coastal village on the east coast 120 kilometers from Cape Town.

At that stage Laura had not met any of my relatives in South Africa, apart from Charel and Marlien and their children, so I decided to take her to meet my uncle André Botha, a retired judge, and his wife Mara, who lived in a house named Langbaai in Hermanus. Their living room overlooked Walker Bay and during the whale watching season one could see the whales frolicking in the ocean from their porch.

My mum, known by the family as Sus—an abbreviation for the Afrikaans term for “sister”—was the eldest of five children. My uncle André was the youngest of her four brothers and was one of my favourites. In common with his other siblings he was highly intelligent. He was also a soft-spoken and gentle person, unlike one of his brothers who would be quite moody and aggressive at times, and another who was, in my view, just plain nasty.

We arrived at Langbaai on a lovely, crisp winter’s morning in time for morning coffee. André and Mara made a big fuss over their young Australian niece, whom they were meeting for the first time. Mara had baked a scrumptious cake, which we enjoyed with our coffee while we did the normal catching up and gossiping that families do when they had not seen each other for a while. It was all very pleasant.

Since I had last seen André he had developed a serious eye condition that was impairing his vision and rendered everything he looked at a vague blur.

“Could you please do me a favour and describe to me what Laura looks like?” he asked Mara.

“Well,” she replied, looking Laura up and down, “she has dark brown hair and brown eyes, and she definitely has Sus’ nose. You can clearly see that she that she is related to the Bothas.”

We chatted for a while longer before Laura and I got ready to depart. My uncle André looked in Laura’s direction and asked her, “Would you mind very much coming really close to me so that I can try and see for myself what you look like?”

“Yep, that’s fine,” she said and walked towards him.

My uncle stretched out his hands, cupped her face and gently drew her very close to himself, peering at her intently.

“Oh, yes,” he mused, “she definitely has the Bothas’ features.”

Then he turned towards Mara and said to her in a slightly accusing tone of voice, “But when you described her you didn’t tell me that Laura is so beautiful!”

Laura and I said our farewells and reversed out of the driveway to head back to my brother’s house. As we were taking off, Laura said dreamily, “I really like your uncle André, Dad. He is such a nice man.”

The Jewish violinist

I was introduced to Ron by Audrey, my mother-in-law, at the aged care facility in Doncaster where she was living at the time. He was a psychologist who regularly visited the oldies to entertain them by performing with his violin. When Audrey discovered that Ron had grown up in South Africa like her son-in-law, she insisted on introducing us.

On meeting each other, Ron and I did the usual two-step that former South Africans in Australia do when they first meet. We skirted around in conversation until we had each established what kind of South African the other person was—cultural background, racist or anti-racist, economic or political migrant and suchlike. I learnt that Ron was Jewish and that, like me, he had no tolerance for racism. Once it had been clarified that we were both generally on the same page we compared experiences of growing up in South Africa during the Apartheid era with its legalised racism.

Ron told me that he had regularly played the violin in an orchestra in the early 1980s to earn some cash as a nineteen year old university student in Durban. On one occasion the orchestra had been engaged to perform in the town hall of a small town just outside Durban. The orchestra’s performance was paid for by the town Council and entry was free of charge to the public.

Ron had travelled to the venue by train. As the audience began arriving Ron noticed that the venue staff on duty were refusing entry to a family of coloured (mixed race) people that had come along to hear the orchestra performing. Ron walked to the entrance and asked a staff member why some people had been refused entry. He was told that the hall was a “Whites Only” venue and that the law forbade the races to mix at performance venues.

Ron was horrified. He immediately approached the conductor of the orchestra, a man of Afrikaner background in his fifties, and told him what he had witnessed. “This is outrageous” Ron declared. “We should cancel the performance.”

The conductor frowned and replied that it was the law of the land. “We are not here to dabble in politics, Ron. We are here merely to perform as an orchestra and that is what we are getting paid for.”

Ron took his violin out of its case to get ready for the performance, then hesitated and put it back. He went up to the conductor again. “Whether it is the law of the land or not, I really don’t think we should allow anyone coming to our performance to be humiliated like that. This is just disgusting and I feel very strongly that we should all just pack up and leave now.”

The conductor became visibly annoyed. “Listen to me, Ron,” he said, “just forget about the politics and get ready to do what you are getting paid for—to play the violin.” Ron returned to his seat, took his violin out again with shaking hands, but then put it back.

He went to confront the conductor once more and said, “I cannot in full conscience play in this hall after what has happened. Does it really take a Jew to tell a Christian how to behave like a Christian, sir?” Then he grabbed his violin case and angrily hurried off into the night.

The next few days Ron was racked by anxiety. He was convinced that he would be sacked from the orchestra because of his behaviour and with that his only source of income would be lost.

The next rehearsal was due a few days later. Ron was in two minds about attending, but he reluctantly decided to turn up and to have the matter over and done with. He anxiously wondered at what stage the issue would be raised and whether he would be held to account in front of the other members of the orchestra, or privately.

On arriving at the rehearsal neither the conductor nor any of the others made any reference to what had transpired. Once the rehearsal had finished Ron got up to leave, bracing himself for the conductor to call him aside. But the fellow simply picked up his things, said “Bye” with a slightly awkward smile in Ron’s direction and with a wave of his hand left the building.

Afterwards, the episode was never once mentioned by anyone, just as if it had never happened.

 

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!”

2016 Elections

I was one of a handful of Australians who was elated on hearing the news that the Australian Prime Minister had called an early Federal election, to be held on 2 July 2016. The reason for my elation was that the stars appeared to have been aligned in my favour on this occasion. By sheer fortunate coincidence I had already arranged a trip to Southern Africa for the five weeks leading up to the election. This meant that I would miss out on most of the pork-barrelling, false promises, accusations and counter-accusations, as well as those cringeworthy ‘photo opportunities’ of politicians kissing babies and having friendly conversations with “ordinary Australians”.

In South Africa, where I am now traveling, politics and crime usually dominate the headlines. Here they are also leading up to an election. The municipal elections for all districts, local municipalities and provinces, which are held every five years, have been scheduled for 3 August 2016.

In this country, the political aspirants exhibit less restraint in their verbal jousting than their counterparts in Australia. Julius Malema, the controversial leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters political party, had recently claimed publicly that “if you’re not sleeping with an African National Congress (ANC) person, you can’t get work”. Malema is a former ANC Youth League president who had been booted out of the ANC in 2012 for sowing divisions within the party. The Deputy Speaker of the Gauteng Provincial Legislature struck back at Malema, demanding that Malema declare whether he had slept with women in exchange for tenders during his term as the ANC Youth League president.

Unlike in Australia, there is a distinct undercurrent of violence as the elections are approaching. “The Citizen” reported on 31 May that Michael Zane Phelembe aged 32, the ANC branch deputy chairperson in Ward 23 in Pienaar, Mpumalanga, had been shot dead on the previous Friday night outside his home.

His friend, Jealous Nyalunga, was quoted as saying:

I know Zane was killed within the political realm. He has always indicated to us that some people were after his head. Not so long ago, he had to hide from his home and his car was burnt.

He was a selfless leader who stood for principles and his political enemies clearly did not like that.

And on 23 June the “Cape Times” reported that “there is a battle to the death in many of our towns and cities as we edge closer to the August 3 local government elections”.

Three ANC members were buried in Pietermaritzburg on Sunday in what those close to the issues accept has to do with the process of choosing potential councillors. On the same day an ANC member in Pretoria was shot dead also in relation to who should represent the ANC in local government.

On Monday, ANC chairwoman in eThekwini , Zandile Gumede, was on the front pages of the newspapers saying she fears for her life. Gumede says some of the fears emanate from her own party …

I am due to arrive back in Australia a couple of days before our own Federal election. Mercifully this is likely to be a fairly sedate affair in comparison to the South African election.

On my return all I will have to do is avoid the Australian newspapers, television news and talkback radio programs during the last two days. Afterwards I will have to lie low until the election results have been analysed to death and until the post mortems and recriminations by the various parties have been done and dusted. Then I will hopefully be able to resume my normal life with some semblance of peace.

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!”

Charel’s less than triumphant entry into Napier

At the towering height of 6 feet 9 inches my brother Charel is a sight to behold at the best of times. You could never miss him in a crowd. These days he sports long, thinning hair and a longish grey beard. To say that he looks a tad eccentric would be somewhat of an under-statement.

When I visited him last year Marlien, my sister-in-law, told me about his less than triumphant entry into the country town of Napier in the Western Cape region of South Africa a few months earlier. She had received a call on her mobile phone from him, asking her to drive to Napier because his motorbike had conked out along the road, a few kilometres before arriving at the town. When she arrived there an hour or so later, he was still stranded.

He rang a service station in the town. The manager told him that he would send someone out to transport Charel’s motorbike to Napier and Marlien could then take him home. They could go back on another day to pick up the motorbike once it had been fixed.

A little while later the driver from the service station arrived. He had brought along a black youth to assist in getting the motorbike on to the trailer. What he had failed to take along were ties to secure the motorbike.

Annoyed at this oversight, Charel ripped off his belt once they had manoeuvred the bike onto the trailer and used it to tie the motorbike to one side of the trailer. As this would not suffice to keep the bike secure all the way to Napier, he hopped on to the seat of the bike, planted his feet firmly on the floor and told the driver to get going. By this time the reader would appreciate that the road rules in South Africa are considered to be rather rubbery when the circumstances require it to be so.

Just before the driver took off, the black youth jumped onto the trailer and climbed on to the seat of the motorbike behind my brother, hanging onto him tightly with his hands around my brother’s chest.

They set off for the town with Marlien following them in her car. When they arrived in the town it was at the hour of day when most people had just returned home from work. Some of the townsfolk were sitting on their verandahs drinking cups of coffee and watching the passing traffic. As the trailer with Charel and his dark companion went by, they stared at this spectacle in amazement. The black youth grinned from ear to ear and waved at the townsfolk as if he were a real life celebrity. Charel, hugely embarrassed at this turn of events, tried his damnedest to look invisible. His sheer size ensured that his attempt was doomed to failure.

On the evening of the day that Marlien had told me this story, I said to my brother, “That was a pretty amazing entry that you’d made into Napier with your motorbike on the trailer.”

He glared at Marlien and growled accusingly, “Why did you tell Tiens about that damn incident?”

Marlien responded with a bare-faced lie. “I wasn’t the one who told him about it. Someone had taken a photo of you that day and they’d put it up in one of the shop windows. We stopped in the town for coffee this morning and Tiens spotted it while we were there. He asked about it and then the whole story came out.”

“Bloody mongrels,” Charel grumbled. But I could tell that he was secretly quite pleased at the thought of having achieved a moment of notoriety on the main street of Napier.

133 Tim, Marlien & Charel

Tim, Marlien and Charel

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.

A moment’s hesitation

Anyone with a modicum of common sense knows that you should never point a firearm at anything that you are not willing to destroy. But try telling that to an immature 17 year old boy in South Africa in the 1960s, especially one who had been conscripted to the army against his will and who had made a point of breaking the military’s rules whenever he could get away with it.

It all started with the lock on my metal army trunk. We all had to have locks on our trunks, but I kept mine unlocked because I had lost the key. While I was in the shower early one morning, one of the other blokes in my barracks had noticed this and locked it. When I returned to the barracks and saw that my trunk had been locked I panicked because I had yet to polish my boots and my shoe brush and polish were inside the trunk.

Only a few minutes remained before we would have to assemble outside on the parade ground for the morning inspection.

“Hey, Ewald,” I pleaded, “come and help me open this bloody lock quickly!”

Ewald was a guy with many talents, one of which was picking locks. He picked at the lock with an unbent paper clip and it sprung open just as we were ordered to assemble outside for the inspection. There was no time to polish my boots.

Tim (aged 17) in the army, August 1964

 Tim, aged 17, sitting on his army trunk and polishing his boots

Our sergeant strutted along our squad with his swagger stick under his arm, malevolently looking each of us up and down as he did each morning. He came to a halt in front of me and my heart sank.

“Bruwer,” he screamed, “your boots are dirty!”

“Sergeant, what happened was …”

“Shut the f*ck up!” he howled, shirtfronting me. “Did you hear me asking you to open your bloody mouth?”

That morning we embarked on our usual routine of drills, taking apart and reassembling our 7.62mm FN rifles at speed, and setting off on a route march. At lunchtime, somewhere out in the bush, we were allowed to sit down to have our lunch of dried biscuits and coffee.

“Not you, Bruwer!” shouted the sergeant. “You get your rifle and come over here!”

He told me to lift my rifle above my head and to run around in a wide circle which included scaling the earthen wall of an old disused dam, about three metres high. After a while I was so exhausted that I could barely move my legs and I struggled to keep the rifle lifted above my head, but he kept spewing a stream of invective at me and I had to keep going. I ran up the dam wall for the umpteenth time and as soon as I crossed it and was out of his line of sight I just rolled down the other side, totally exhausted, throwing the rifle recklessly ahead of me.

My rifle must have struck a rock in the process, because the metal plate above the trigger had acquired a few dents and scratches. I survived this harsh punishment, but its dents on both my rifle and on my psyche remained. During the months that followed I could easily identify my rifle by these dents and scratch marks whenever we had to retrieve our rifles from where we had propped them up during a break.

Towards the end of our year of military service we were stationed at an army camp outside Cape Town, where we were on guard duty. For us it felt as if we were on a holiday because we only had to do a minimum of drills each day and there was none of the daily grind of route marches and field exercises. Our guard duty consisted of a four hour stint, followed by an eight hour break.

We were required to have a full magazine of bullets on our rifles at all times, but I had emptied my magazine and always carried the bullets loose in my coat pocket.

During a break in guard duty on an icy cold, sunny, early spring morning we propped our rifles against the wall of a storage shed. Later, I got up and retrieved my rifle, which I recognised by the small dents.

A couple of soldiers were chatting to each other about a hundred yards from me. I lifted my rifle and carefully aimed at one of them, with my finger curling around the trigger. Knowing that there were no bullets in my rifle, I was just about to pull the trigger when I hesitated at the last moment and pulled the slide back just to make doubly sure that there was no bullet in the chamber. A live bullet was ejected from the rifle and fell at my feet. I stood there frozen, looking at it in stunned disbelief. I had picked up someone else’s loaded rifle which had similar dents to my own one by mistake.

*     *     *

Over the subsequent years I have replayed this incident in my mind many times. I have no doubt that if I had pulled the trigger on that day I would have shot the soldier dead, as he was within easy range and the FN rifle was a very powerful firearm. But for that short moment’s hesitation, my life would have unfolded entirely differently from what it had. I would have been imprisoned for years in a military prison for manslaughter.

I cannot even kill spiders that venture into our house. Instead, I catch them in a glass jar and deposit them alive outside in the garden. I have no illusions about the severe mental scars that I would have carried all through my life, had I killed another human being.

With such a blot on my record it would have been impossible to secure any job that required even a minimum of responsibility and I would never have been able to emigrate to Australia or to anywhere else.

That one moment’s hesitation determined the future course of my entire life up to, and including, today.

JOYEUX NOËL

When I write about an issue that I feel particularly strongly about, my natural inclination is to use words as rocks that I would hurl at the imaginary glass pane between myself and the reader and render it into shards. Then I have to remind myself that a heavy-handed approach would only alienate the reader, so I back off and attempt to use less extreme language and imagery. This is the approach that I attempted when I wrote about Christmas, although perhaps not entirely successfully.

Christmas-time is a period of celebration, of catching up with family and friends and for exchanging Christmas cards and gifts. It is a time for having fun, for eating and drinking. Call me a party pooper if you wish, but I must confess that I find it hard to engage enthusiastically with all these joyous festivities and celebration.

The thing that brings me unstuck is the sheer excess of it all. The shops are bursting at their seams with consumer goods and the cost of the Christmas decorations alone could feed an army of homeless people. Hordes of desperate people shoal around the shops looking for presents that most of the would-be recipients do not need and that many would not really want.

Here in Australia presents are unwrapped. There are expensive toys like hoverboards, bicycles and electronic gadgets for the children and DVD box sets, clothes and much more for the adults. Meanwhile, in Kgubetswana, a small settlement down the road from the rural town of Clarens in South Africa, a Christmas Party was held for 150 less privileged children.

“As we get into the spirit of giving and sharing with our loved ones, we must reflect on how privileged we are to be surrounded by our precious family and friends. We need to remind ourselves that there are little children who are affected by HIV, who do not have a Mom and a Dad to love and feel loved by and this time of the year is a sad and desolate time for them. We cannot fill this void but we can ease their sadness by showering them with gifts and a fun filled day,” said Ntsebe Mofokeng, Director of Phaphama Youth Development.

“We took it upon us to replace the brick that the little boy is pushing as a toy car and to give a gift to the little girl whose eyes are shining bright and who made her doll out of ragged cloths.

One couldn’t contain one’s joy at seeing the excitement on the children’s faces. They were glowing with joy and they kept on singing and dancing as a celebration of the precious gifts they received.” 

Manana, one of the beneficiaries, said that it was her first time receiving such a wonderful present. She said she will treasure it for a very long time. “I can’t wait to show my friends that now I have the same doll as theirs.”

Back in Australia there is the Christmas meal. There is such an abundance of food that much is left over, even after everyone had eaten far more than they usually would. I cannot help thinking of my friend Suenel’s recent email, sent from the small rural town of McGregor in South Africa:

“I am back in the Kindergarden at the Waldorf school and a new little girl wept bitter tears today – she was terrified of the flush lavatory as she had never experienced one before. We give them porridge as they arrive because some pass out from hunger. It wipes me out that the bigger ones always immediately give some of their food to the smaller ones.”

My mind also reaches back to the image of a homeless man that I saw in Cape Town earlier this year. As he was walking down the street he spotted a discarded mango peel on the ground. He picked it up and chewed at the remaining strands of fruit inside the skin, before throwing it away and striding purposefully to a nearby rubbish bin for something else to scavenge.

For the sake of my family and friends I play my part in the Christmas ritual every year without giving voice to my angst. I participate in the sending of Christmas cards and in the giving and receiving of presents. I drink a glass of champagne and load my plate with Christmas turkey, roast potatoes, green beans and carrots. I wear the paper hat from the Christmas cracker and read out the silly joke that comes with the cracker. Then I have some Christmas pudding and a slice of pavlova.

I do not wish to cast a pall over others’ enjoyment of the Festive Season. But, deep down, I sometimes struggle to contain my tears.

The hyena’s breath

Most of my friends’ eyes begin to glaze over as soon as I mention the Kruger National Park. This is because it’s such a wonderful place that I enthuse about it far more than I should.

I first went to the Kruger, as it is affectionately called in South Africa, when I was a primary school child. The first day there we spent peering into the bush to spot animals through the window of my dad’s 1949 Pontiac Silver Streak. I became so over-excited that I vomited ceaselessly the entire next day and I had to stay behind in the campsite with my mum.

I remember little of my next visit to the Kruger, because on that occasion I floated about the place in a romantic haze. We were only there for two or three days, when I took my fiancée Gill to South Africa to introduce her to my family en route to England, where we were due to get married. My parents, my brother Charel and his wife Marlien took us there to showcase the beauty and variety of their country to the English bride-to-be.

I can only remember a single animal-spotting incident during that visit. We came across a white lion, the rarest of rare beasts in the Kruger. Although a small group of white lions had lived in the Timbavati area for decades, there are so few of them in the Kruger that they are seldom seen. The others were breathless with surprise and excitement. Then Gill, unaware of the momentous significance of the occasion, asked my brother, “Do you think we’ll get to see any normal lions too?”

Many years later, when our children were small, I ran into our orthodontist friend Paul at a social occasion.

“I’ve visited your old country earlier this year,” he told me. “We went to this place called the Kruger National Park.”

“How did you like it?” I enquired.

“You know, Tim, I’ve done a lot of travelling in my time, but I haven’t been that excited over any place since I was a child.” I recalled my own excitement in the Kruger as a child. There and then I decided to visit the Kruger Park with my family.

A few months afterwards we flew to South Africa for a visit to the relatives and to visit the Kruger. I left the traveling arrangements in South Africa to Charel, who picked us up at the Johannesburg airport and took us to his house in Pretoria. He told us to have a quick shower before we set off for the Kruger.

“Today?” I asked in disbelief, having just spent twenty plus hours in an aeroplane.

“Yes,” he said, “and get a move on. The camp gates close at 6 pm”.

We arrived at the camp in time. Charel pitched two tents right next to the perimeter fence, one for him and Marlien and one for our family. Darkness descended in the blink of an eye. He set about barbecuing meat and boerewors (the traditional South African farmer’s sausages) on a grill over the glowing coals.

After we had eaten, looking somewhat furtive, he told us quietly: “We’re not allowed to feed any wild animals here, but I brought along an old T-bone so that we can attract a hyena for your Aussie kids to see.” He took out a huge bone and threw it over the fence.

Hardly a minuted had passed when our son Neil whispered to me, “I think the hyena is here, Dad.”

“Rubbish.” I said dismissively. “He won’t just appear that quickly.”

But Charel passed his torch to Neil and told him to have a look. Neil pointed the torch at the fence, switched it on, and there, not two metres away from us on the other side of the fence, stood a large hyena who proceeded to crush the bone in its mouth as if it were a mere rice cracker. I could see why the hyena is so renowned for its strong bite, proportional to its size.

I rather like hyenas, despite their loping gate and ill-proportioned bodies. They have lovely dog-like eyes, in stark contrast to the icy cold and merciless yellow eyes of lions, which send a shiver down your spine when you see them close to your car.

But my brother is less fond of them. When he told me that a hyena’s breath is one of the foulest-smelling in the animal kingdom he spoke from personal experience. Hyenas are consummate scavengers that will feast on putrid meat with as little effect on its constitution as if you and I were to eat a piece of toast with marmalade.

154 Kruger - Hyena with carcass

When I went back to South Africa last year, Marlien told me about their recent visit to the Kruger. Accompanied by Marlien’s friend Willana, they erected their two tents next to the perimeter fence as usual. After dark they had a braai (barbecue) and drank a fair quantity of wine. When Marlien and Willana decided to call it a day and go bed, Charel, who was quite merry by this stage, decided to stay behind at the fire and have another glass or two of wine.

Close to midnight Marlien and Willana were woken by a series of unearthly howls. As they emerged from their tents in bewilderment they saw Charel lurching about, wildly wiping his shoulder-long hair with his hands, and screaming incoherently. It transpired that he had kept on drinking until he had passed out right next to the fence. He had been brought back to consciousness by the awful smell of rotten flesh and by something tugging at the hair at the back of his head. It was a hyena that had tried to bite his head through the fence.

Marlien ended her account by asking Charel, hands on her hips, as is often her stance when she has a point of importance to make to him: “Now tell us, Charel, what lesson have you learnt from that episode?”

Without missing a beat he responded, “Well, in the Kruger you should never pass out right beside the fence.”