The weekend looms. Nothing serious to say about mining. Thus here is something I found last night in my e-files while cleaning things up. It is a mere set of personal recollections fo growing up on a mine in South Africa in the 1950s. Enjoy it for what it is.
I never enquired about my paternal grandmother’s birth surname or sought to establish when her parents came to the Transvaal, or how they became farmers, called Boers when we were growing up. I will never know if their origins were Dutch or French Huguenot. Ester was her name, and I remember that she was a small woman with gray hair. She spoke only Afrikaans to her second husband whom we called Pappie Myhill. I see the cheap corrugated iron house where they lived in Brakpan and recall Pappie incessantly smoking a pipe. Her parents were farmers in the Transvaal when gold was discovered. Then the British came to take the country and the mines from them, and her father fled the farm to join the commandos. The British rounded up the women and children including my grandmother and took them to the concentration camp at Taba Nchu. That is why she would never speak English for to her it was the language of the enemy. When peace was declared, she was released, and she met my grandfather.
He was the son of bakers in Londonderry. He left home as did many Irish patriots to go to South Africa to fight the British; they hoped that defeat there would lead to freedom for Ireland. It was a family joke that he landed in Cape Town the day peace was declared and so decided to go to the Transvaal to seek his fortune and en route in Taba Nchu he met my grandmother. How they communicated I do not know; maybe it was a much more complex love story than they ever told their two children.
When my father was six or so, my grandfather was killed in a mine accident. My grandmother made money by sending him and my aunt to the local landfill where they gathered tin cans and in the tin cans she planted seed and sold the young plants. This activity made little money and instead of going into standard seven (grade nine) my father took a job at Woolworths cutting meat. At sixteen, the war began and in desperation to get from behind the counter he faked his age and joined the army for adventure. Little did he or anyone else anticipate the horror of the five years that followed: he told us only once how he survived El Alamein—by clinging to the underside of a fleeing vehicle.
My maternal grandmother was the youngest of twelve children of a farmer in German South West Africa, now Namibia. The only description she left me was of the time Jan Smuts and his troops encamped on the farm during the Boer war and some vegetables hanging from the rafters fell with a loud clatter and set the soldiers to their guns. Her father tried contracting to build a new rail line, but when all his donkies died, he went bankrupt and he himself died and she was placed in an English-speaking orphanage.
She married my paternal grandfather, and all I know of him is that his surname was Brett, and that he worked on the Transvaal mines and died when my mother and her two brothers were young. To earn a living, my grandmother opened a boarding house in Brakpan and took in as borders the local miners. She loved cooking and cleaning and for twenty years Ma-Brett’s boarding house was famous. When my mother finished school, my grandmother married a ginger Irishman who had lived in the boarding house and had courted her for ten years. Joe Roney was a silent man, an armature winder in the local mine and he was the only real grandfather I knew.
After the war, my parents moved to Springs and the East Geduld mine house. My father became a mine captain and my parents spent their spare hours paying lawn bowls and whist at the mine club. We had no money, and my parents always seemed to be fretting over debt payments. Yet we lived a kind of colonial life style: I never saw my father yield a paint brush or even replace a light bulb. That was done by the mine maintenance staff. I am not sure my mother could cook; that was done by Mary, a Swana, who was also our nannie and the person who kept the house clean. The garden was tended by a series of proud and competent men who acted as my father’s aide de camp (called picanin in those old days). They accompanied him underground in the morning to carry his equipment and run his messages and in the afternoons, when he did office work, they came to the house to garden and clean the car.
Of the many aides, I recall Simon best, for over many years he came back again and again to work with my father. The system was that the recruit would come from his home area (Matabeleland is the name I remember) for a six-month period to work on the mine, and then would return to the home area for at least six months before he was eligible to return for another stint. Simon would be there for six months and gone for six months and back again for six months alternating with the faint seasons of the highveld. One year he persuaded my father to let him take my father’s old bike back home, promising to return with it in six months. Two year passed and my father bought a new bike and we had almost forgotten Simon, when one sunny day there he was with the bike telling tales of a demanding new wife. My father gave him back his job, gave him the bike. He stayed six month and left and we never saw him again.
When my father’s health failed, my parents moved to the new mine town of Evander and my father stayed on the surface in charge of the mine school that trained the recruits for underground work. I hated Evander where small, new houses were built on wind-swept milie (corn) fields and no trees grew. My father took to keeping pigeons and tending koleas—I still delight in the colors of the koleas that grow untended in profusion in my Vancouver garden.
To continue my schooling I lived weekdays with Aunty Molly. Her husband had been the mine compound manager and her son and I were best friends. Every Friday, Gog-gog, their manservant took Christopher and me to the compound arena where from the projection room we were allowed to watch a western movie. The noise from the assembled men in the arena who knew no English drowned out all dialogue, but the movie action kept us all enthralled. Gog-gog means something like loud drum in Zulu and he was very proud of his name. When Uncle Bill died, Gog-gog decided to stay with the Missus and look after her, so he lived in the servant’s quarters at the back of the house and cleaned and cooked and did elementary gardening. We rode single-speed bikes to school. Bike repair was expensive, and Christopher and I knew almost nothing of bike repair, but Gog-gog was a genius and always got the right tool and the right action to get our bikes up and running again.
I went to University on a scholarship from the Mining House, Union Corporation, for which my father had worked. My first job on graduating was with Union Corporation on the Hendrik Verwoerd Dam where Union Corporation was responsible for the underground tunnels and concrete placement. Two shift superintendents who had worked for my father took me under their wings and the three of us manned the three round-the-clock shifts placing upward of 2,000 cubic yards of concrete a day. It was exhilarating and I came to see how men worked in the harsh conditions of construction and the tunnels that perhaps were representative of the underground mines of my father’s days. I returned to University bent on learning how to design big dams, but I was way-laid by the failure of the Bafokeng tailings dam: as a post-graduate student I helped investigate the failure that killed thirteen, and as a young consulting engineer I designed the replacement dam, that to the best of my knowledge is still in use.
We lived in No. 77. The house faced east with the three bedrooms along the south side accessed by a long passage at the end of which was a single bathroom. On the north side were the living room and dining room. Stuck somewhere on the west side was the plain kitchen with it green walls, battered wood table a coal stove, and a simple fridge. There were no cupboards like those considered essential in the modern kitchen. A large pantry that seldom had much in it separated the kitchen from the dining room where we ate all our meals, for the kitchen was where the servants reigned supreme and even my mother seldom went there except to agree on the food to be cooked for the next meal.
Dirty fine-wire mesh screens mounted on old wooden frames enclosed the large porch and its concrete floor kept shiny by constant application of red polish. We never used the porch either for sitting or for accessing the house. The garage was at the back of the house along with the servant’s rooms. All entry and exit from the house was through the back door to the concrete-paved back yard where our bikes were parked along with the wash line where every Monday the hand-washed clothes would get in our way. In the garage was the car: a small green Austin. I can picture is with its square back and straight upright seats. It had no power. I recall a drive to Hillbrow in Johannesburg with my father and sister and grandmother to see my mother in a hospital. My father tried to drive up a steep hill in this loaded car. The car got half way up but would go no further; it could not make it. My father had to let it roll backwards down the hill and we had to take a round-about route along flatter streets. I recall my mother driving the Austin up Majuba Hill in Natal. We were coming home from the coast, Margate, where we spent a few weeks every year enjoying the beach. It took an hour and more to get up the long steep hill with many stops along the way to avoid overheating. Thus the trip that is now made in a few hours on highways took two full days of hard travel in that little car.
As with all the houses on the mine, the garden was large and dreary. A few fruit trees and expanses of rough kakui grass that cut your bare legs and feet and which we avoided. In winter the grass would become brown and hard and even less attractive. We lived next door to the Dickson’s house, number 76. He was the junior resident mine doctor and his daughter Carol was my best friend over the years until nursery school. She and Hilton Ackerman who lived over the road in house number 88 were the only other children in the area and hence we played together. All I can recall is climbing over the fence to Carol’s house and being cut by the grass which grew on either side of the fence.
When we started kindergarden in the mine club house, one of the servants would pick up Carol, Hilton, myself and Rosemary McDonald who lived somewhere off the mine to the east of us, and we would ride our tricycles along the sand paths under the wary eye of the servant. Nursery school was held in a small room in the club house which was in the center of the hundred or so houses that ringed the mine living area in two rows of houses. All I can recall is paint and clay and plaster of Paris—that lovely chalky white substance that you mixed up into a runny white fluid and poured into a rubber mould, let set, and then an hour or so later rolled out ready to color and varnish and post around the house.
Then I went to primary school. I have no recollection of taking the bus the two miles to school; all I can remember is riding wild on a bike with Hilton to the local café where we met up with Alex and hence on to school and back. I cannot believe I was allowed to ride to primary school at first and I cannot work out when I may have been allowed to ride the public roads. I still, however, dream regularly of the speed and freedom of riding past the eucalyptus trees and the Dutch reformed Church which with its tall spire and vaulted windows was the grandest building we had ever seen.
Then we moved to number 13, and Carol moved to number 99; Hilton never moved from number 88. Carol’s new house was numbered 99 as there were already 98 houses on the mine. The house was built for her father as the senior resident mine doctor and what a fabulous house it was: new with a modern layout and a kitchen that had built-in cupboards. It had five bedrooms but still only one bathroom and one separate toilet. Everybody on the mine knew that her mother used one bedroom as her own study where she read incessantly.
Now the number of your house was an immediate and absolute measure of you father’s status on the mine and hence of your mother’s status and hence of the children with whom you were allow to play. Ever the rebel I became friends with David Pretorius whose father was the mine secretary and thus lived in house number 2 and with Christopher Rawlinson whose father was compound manager and who lived in number 10 and with Brian Fraser in number 56. My friendship with Hilton waned as he became better and better at sport and I got worse and worse as my eyes grew weak but nobody realized I needed glasses. He became a professional cricket player and moved to England.
Believe it or not, I never saw house number 1 which was inhabited by the mine manager and which was hidden down a long driveway behind high, dense trees. I spent a lot of time in house number 2 in spite of living in house number 13 because David and I were the only ones in class who could work out percentages from fractions, a process that seems to have eluded our class mates. I recall the detailed discussion that cemented our friendship over the problem of turning 1/3 into 33 percent. Hence I met his mother, a kindly plump lady who taught maths at the local girls’ high school. She subscribed to almost every magazine available in those days and David always had the best projects for he was always able to cut colorful pictures from the huge pile of old magazines that littered the room his parents used as their reading room. I went to the local boys’ high school and he went to a private boarding school/ I lost touch with him and know only that he became a mechanical engineer on a mine somewhere in South Africa.
For many years Carol and Christopher and I rode our bikes down to the stream that ran about a mile south of Carol’s house. For us this was a magic place: one of the few water bodies for miles, it was in reality but a little trickle probably fed by water discharged from the mine. We were forbidden to enter the water because of bilharzia and probably because the water was polluted by modern criteria. We avidly read the books in the mine library which was run by Christopher’s mother, Aunt Molly. All the books came from England and in all of them, Enid Blyton’s child heros and heroines were forever in and around streams and rivers and ponds and lakes. Thus this little stream represented a reality that we did not see in the arid highvelt we inhabited and we believed that adventure would come from around the corner at us like it always did to our book heros. Adventure never came, but we still returned again and again to thrill to the reeds and the willows and the long grass and the cows in the adjacent fields.
When we were alone, Christopher and I indulged in our favorite activity: attach a string to an old wallet, lay the wallet in the road, and bring the string to the storm drain. We hid in the drain clutching the string and watching the locals who walked past the drain from the compound to the shops. Some would spy the wallet, look around furtively, and grab for the wallet. As they bent down, we pulled the string and the wallet would disappear beneath a pile of leaves and into the drain. Inevitably there would be a cry of “tokolosh” (which we knew meant mischievous spirit) and they would turn tail and run and run as we laughed and laughed.
Our only enemies lived in number 15. There was no good reason for the enmity other than that they were Afrikaners, and we were trained to taunt each other. We went to different schools and different churches and we spoke different languages. They would call us Souties and we would shout back Rooi Nek. This was silly as my own grandmother spoke only Afrikaans, the language of her ancestors who had come to farm the Transvaal.
A Personal Recollection Of Zambia
Long ago there was a country called the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. My parents drove us up to Northern Rhodesia in 1953 in a large 1949 Mercury. I recall the roads were mostly two strips of asphalt; when there were no oncoming cars, you used both, but had to pull over to just one to allow oncoming cars to pass.
We drove forever through the sand and scrub bush. The only break was a brief visit to the Zimbabwe ruins and its magnificent stone buildings. In those days, the ruins were ascribed to mystical origins; only much later as a post-graduate studying archaeology, did I learn the true story of their origins as the center of a vast gold mining industry and trade with the east coast.
We went to the copper belt, for my father was considering going up to work on the mines with an old school friend. We kids spent hours sliding down the high ant-hill just besides our host’s house. My parents took the ultimate trip across the border into the Congo, and came back with many bottles of Bolls. My daughter still has on prominent display the stone-like bottle that once held a fine liquor.
My mother decided we would not go up to the copper belt but would return to Springs and the gold mine where we already lived. She proclaimed she could not drink enough to fit in the hard-drinking culture of Northern Rhodesia.