COMING AND GOING, NEVER KNOWING
WHEN we came to South Africa in 1974, we didn’t know what was waiting for us. In those days SA didn’t feature much on the television so all we knew about it was from the pictures in the immigration brochures my dad brought home for us to see.
Arriving in South Africa 1974
I was expecting to arrive in a stark environment and live with black people in villages of straw huts. I thought animals roamed free and concrete and bricks were a thing of the past. My grandparents even told us we were going to a place that was so hot we wouldn’t use carpets or curtains. They told us we wouldn’t have to go to a proper school and we would learn in the open air at our village.
At only nine years old this was going to be the biggest adventure of my life. We left Southhampton harbour on the SA Oranje ship for a 13 day trip on the Atlantic Ocean, a trip to our future.
My mom was sea sick for much of the journey so my sister and I were left very much to our own devices while our dad spent most of the time with friends and in the bar.
I learned to swim on the ship in the pool filled with sea water. I spent most of the time in the pool, getting out only when they emptied it or when we had to go to the dining room or to the entertainment centre.
The celebration of king neptunes day, celebrated when the ship crosses the equator, remains in my memory forever.
Visits to the ships bridge were on the entertainment list for kids so when the Bridge list went up on the notice board I put mine and my sisters names down. It took my dad a while to explain to the man who was looking forward to his challenging game of bridge (cards) that we were only 9 and 7 years old and had made an error. The ship journey was something I will hold in my memory forever. I remember one night when the sea was so rough that the waves were so hight they covered our porthole. My dad made light of it, telling us to run up to the top end of the cabin when the ship tipped one way and back when it tipped the other – it may have been very frightening otherwise.
We arrived at Cape Town harbour around 4.30am, just before daybreak. Everyone went out onto the deck to view table mountain with its cloudy tablecloth draped over it.
As we neared the port on December 12, 1974, I could have cried, I was so disappointed to see buildings, real buildings – just another country like the one we just left?
Whilst disembarking, a man coming to collect cargo recognised by dads strong Geordie accent and invited us to his house for lunch. We did go but had to go back to town to find Cape Town train station as we were catching (used lightly) the Milk train to Johannesburg at 11pm. A train which stops at every single rural station on its two day trip. This was another trip I distinctly remember too, we had our own carriage with beds to sleep in while the crickets chirped all night long.
This, I remember being my first encounter with black people. There were not a lot of them, but for someone who had never in her life seen a black, it seemed to be a lot.
It was rather amusing seeing these dark people who spoke a strange language and had such flat noses and fat lips and big fat buttocks. Big fat black women with babies tied to their backs with blankets, carrying boxes and bags deftly on their heads. The men were all slim and all looked the same, differentiated only by their clothing.
In those days I knew absolutely nothing about apartheid. Even my folks were very in the dark about how prevalent it was in this beautiful land.
We were amazed to find blacks and whites toilets separated. To find that black people moved out of your way on a pavement and wouldn’t look you in the eyes. This we saw as being shifty, not realising it was just them behaving how they were expected to behave – subservient.
Not knowing Afrikaans confused the issue more. We didn’t know that “Blankes aleenlik” meant whites only. We thought it meant “blacks only” and suffered the strange looks from passersby.
Everyone referred to blacks then as “Kaffir’s”or “munts”. My mother wouldn’t here of this, she wouldn’t let these word be used in her house, along with fart, pig, stupid and liar.
The South Africans called black people boys and girls regardless of their ages and they, in turn, called all adults boss and madam.
When we arrived in Johannesburg we were whisked off by the company my dad had come to contract with for the next two years. In Kempton Park, a town very near the airport, we were dropped off at a flat we would be staying in for a while.
We always lived in a flat in England, but the huge ground floor flat at 7 daleen hof in Long Street with windows opening out to a swimming pool in the complex was not a flat to us – it was a mansion.
The guy from my dad’s company had left us a box full of food. I will always remember the little tin of mixed fruit jam. The label was Afrikaans (konfyt) and the picture on the label misled us to believe it was tinned fruit. We realised the mistake when we opened the tin months later.
We went shopping one Saturday afternoon in Kempton Park, walking to town since we had no transport. Fresh from England, on a blistering hot December afternoon, we were so hot that we dived into every bit of shade we could find. We were very dismayed to find that there was not one shop open and the streets were deserted.
Our first Xmas in SA was celebrated at our new house in Northrop Road, Impala Park. A three bedroomed mansion with a garden all the way round the house.
My parents who were officially broke . They had bought a bed each, a fridge, a lounge suite (top of the range in SA in those days), and a coffee table. Xmas that year Santa brought us only a doll each and a paddling pool and game to share but this is one of the most memorable Xmases ever.
During those early years my memories are very sketchy but I do remember we didn’t have very much exposure to blacks. They lived in different areas to whites, areas we learned were referred to as locations.
The most blacks I saw at one time would be at the café on a Friday afternoon. They would mostly be hanging around outside the black’s bottlestore. Yes, in those days the white people had huge fully stocked bottlestores and stuck on the side would be a tiny store for the blacks, stacked with beers and wine and cartons of Magau, what we used to call kaffirbeer.
The blacks would sit outside the shops playing dice, gambling away their meagre wages. They didn’t pay us much heed. It wouldn’t be long though until the police vans would pull up and pile them all inside and drive them away. We never questioned this, it was just the way things were here in this strange land.
A land where everything closed at midnight on a Saturday until Monday morning. A land where our Afrikaans neighbours dressed up in suits, crimpolene dresses, and hats to go to church, then come home and barbecue (braai), drink lots of brandy and coke, which was very cheap at that time. Our early experience of Afrikaans families followed this routine, many of them ending their Sunday’s in huge fist fights with the aggressive men shouting at and abusing their wives and children. So not only the language barrier, and the behaviour of the white Afrikaaners set a paradigm in which the white immigrants stuck very much together. The animosity between Afrikaaners and immigrants was antagonised by the cruel way the Afrikaaners treated the black people. Most Afrikaans households had at least one servant, a black woman, working at the house. Many of these women were verbally, physically and sexually abused by the adults and they had no-one to turn to for help. This much I remember, I think the barrier between the Afrikaaners and Immigrants protected us from seeing more.
Most houses had a“servants quarters” which was a tiny square brick and concrete room and an old fashioned toilet adjoined. This was a building separated from the houses and the servants would live in them to be able to come into the house at the crack of dawn and stay until the food was cooked and dishes were cleaned at night. Blacks were subjected to curfews and were not allowed to be seen in the streets after 9pm if they didn’t want to be loaded into the police vans and taken away for days, sometimes never to return.
My folks tried a myriad of times to employ “servants” but it just frustrated them, they didn’t like them living in the tiny room and my folks didn’t like the highly spiced food they prepared. My folks always treated what they called the “maid” well. The hours were reasonable and they wouldn’t allow them to wait on them, or serve friends when they visited.
Some maids used to take care my sister and I with them during the day when my folks were working. This was fun because we used to go with them to visit their friends in their “quarters”. We got to go out and meet other kids, we didn’t realise when we told our folks and the maid was fired it was due to this.
I remember one of our maids wanting to take us to a friend who lived miles away. She wanted to catch a bus there but in those days whites and blacks travelled on separate buses. We were too scared to catch the whites bus all by ourselves and the maid wasn’t allowed to take us onto her bus.
The first time I actually heard about the curfew was when I was a teenager and we moved to Atlasville. Due to the curfew and in a bid to keep the blacks out of the area, there were no servants quarters built on the houses. Here one had to employ daily/casual maids who would come from home in the morning by bus and leave as soon as they could in the afternoon to catch the bus home again. I only remember all of this because I thought the term “white by night” was rather poetic.
During the days one would see what I thought very frightening. Ten to twenty black men, shacked together with bars and chains, dressed in green overalls would walk the streets. They were, however, supervised by a white Afrikaans male who would watch them cleaning pavements, digging and mowing municipal land. These gangs were prisoners and we were warned not to go anywhere near them. I am not sure if the warning, the sight of them or the aggression of the supervisor was more scary.
Black pupils and teachers didn’t attend white’s schools so we had very little exposure to or relationships with any black people, apart from the maids.
The only black face at school was the ice cream “boy”. He would ride a thick wheeled bike known as a bike with kaffirtyres I used to buy a banana boy icelolly for 5c every afternoon from my tuck money. The other 5c I had used to buy a packet of crisps (simba chips) at the school tuck shop.
In June 1976 my sister and I were put in a plane and sent to England. We weren’t told why or informed about anything going on in SA so we were happy to go knowing our folks were selling up and coming to join us as soon as they sold the house. They changed their minds though and brought us back in December that same year.
We had no idea that it was the lead up to the Soweto Riots that made my folks decide to send us back to England. We didn’t have a clue that people and places were being bombed up by the black political freedom fighters. We didn’t learn about all of this until the Wimpy bar in benoni was bombed. I guess this was too close for comfort and the schools started to teach us how to drop to the floor and hide under our desks if we hear loud noises. Things settled down and although nothing seemed to change in our little lives, an uprising was happening among the blacks that we were totally unaware of.
At school we sang “die stem”, South Africas very beautiful national anthem. We sang it in Afrikaans yet I still to this day get goosebumps when I hear it.
English, Afrikaans and mathematics were compulsory, if you failed any of these subjects it would fail you for the entire term. We didn’t learn any African languages.
We were so protected from the black people, their ways, their cultures beliefs and traditions, we were also taught not to question this.
I remember someone at high school (early 80’s) telling me that you would be put into jail if you said the word “Mandela” – I didn’t know what the word meant, let alone that it was the name of one the future presidents of South Africa.
Although there were no blacks at high school either, there were some at the private schools we used to compete against in athletics. Some time during my high school career the word Kaffir also became illegal. I also remember being told in high school that it was illegal for three or more people to stand together in conversation – we took this all very lightly since we didn’t really have a clue what they were talking about. We just did as we were told, and asked no questions, we never knew otherwise.
The only blacks we ever learned about at school were the Hottentots and the reknowned Zulu chiefs and kings. We were never given any education about politics or apartheid. I actually hadn’t even heard the word apartheid the early 80’s when SA was hammered by the rest of the world with embargo’s. Television and radio broadcasts never mentioned anything about what was happening politically until the embargo’s started to affect the economy. Newspapers were monitored and reading material which was thought to be contentious was banned. Even Noddy and Big Ears was taken off the television because they were friends with a golliwog. The government of South Africa then were trying to manipulate the minions with the tunnel vision, mind washing control of media.
We didn’t, for one minute, have any idea that we were a minority race and subject to the black’s wrath over the apartheid they were experiencing.
We actually didn’t have a clue, we lived our youth in absolute ignorant bliss.