In 1971 as a second year student in Bulawayo I was recruited to take part in a dance drama set to the music of Jesus Christ, Superstar. The only criteria were that I was available for rehearsals, had longish hair and had all my limbs intact.
I was oblivious to the fact that Gary Burne, choreographer and principal dancer, was famous in dancing circles, having spent 10 years with the Royal Ballet company, dancing lead roles. But here he was in quiet Bulawayo with a tight deadline to produce 3 performances (all that Lloyd-Webber would allow). There were plenty of ballet girls – a fact not unnoticed by the 15 raw male students recruited. But he drilled us in all the moves until we could move in our sleep. An energetic Nicholas Ellenbogen played Judas and I don’t remember any other cast members. I was a soldier, with my friend, Stuart and Chris Stones and had to whip Jesus and then arrest him and nail him to the cross, after which he was bodily hung on a corner of the stage, where the cross fitted into a socket. Those who remember the LP (it had a yellow cover) will know there are sound effects in the recording and because the whole dance was choreographed to the record, all the timing had to be exact. Gary Burne was inspirational, endlessly patient with the gormless young students with two left feet. When we arrested him he trusted us to manhandle him and went totally limp. He was damn heavy and slippery with sweat – one night we barely made it to lift him into the socket in time. I stayed on one knee as if planned to hold the cross in place.
The experience of watching Gary Burne dance the Garden of Gethsemane scene sung by Ian Gillan was a life-transforming experience. Every performance of the solo was different. The Bulawayo City Hall was packed for every performance and there were rave revues. The cast party was memorable. (Donna Rae where are you now ?)
No, this not an extract from a tawdry sex manual. “Going Down South” was a very common expression when I was growing up in landlocked Rhodesia.
That magical phrase conveyed to us all the excitement and joy of the annual holiday, usually to the sea. It meant a trip to South Africa and the glittering and balmy delights of the sea.
Only those who have grown up in dry, flat hinterlands will understand how we longed for the sea. In the 1950’s and ’60s when I was a kid our annual holiday was 3 to 4 weeks long and was eagerly planned. The car was packed to the hilt. My dad would unpack and repack the boot until every tiny squeak and rattle was suppressed. Even a new car of that era was not perfectly reliable and the tyres were prone to injury during the long 1500 kilometer journey to Port St Johns, where we holidayed. It was a 2 to 3 day trip and my nervous mother fortified us with hundreds of sandwiches and flasks of sweet tea. She would also make a tin of her famous crunchies and cupcakes. We never stopped at a restaurant because there weren’t any. Instead there were plenty of lay-bys, which were safe areas to stop next to the road, sometimes with benches and tables.
My dad loved to take the path less travelled and would consult the map to find interesting shortcuts. Many roads were not tarred so the trip became sometimes a bone-jarring experience. By today’s standards the cars were highly unsafe with thin tyres, no seatbelts and dodgy brakes. There were no dual carriageways and the chances of having head-on collisions was quite high. However we survived.
As we wound through the hills approaching Port St Johns we would have a competition to see the sea first. Then across the bridge and through the town to Second Beach. We had a ritual visit to the beach to feel the sand beneath our feet before finding our cottage. My dad was not a demonstrative man but as soon as he reached his old stamping ground he could not stop smiling.
In the middle of Zimbabwe, in an area fittingly called Midlands, is the town Gwelo, now called Gweru.
I lived there from the age of about 6 to 12 which does not sound like a long time but it is a very important time in the development of young consciousness and I have such rich memories of that time I will try to describe some of them.
In that short time we lived in 5 different houses as our first house was burned down in a riot (described in another blog).
our next house was in a suburb called Riverside and as a result I had to move to another school, called unsurprisingly, Riverside School. I was in Standard 3 (Grade 5). On the day of moving in to the new house in Hurrell Road I went exploring and climbed a rock which has been left in the road as it was so big. I have just checked on Google Maps the rock is still there – the road splits around it. I was enjoying this when the neighbour about my age sauntered over and offered to hit me with his belt. This hurt my tender soul and I ran home blubbering. It was an introduction to a tougher world than I was accustomed to. I quite soon became a visiting friend to the neighbour but I do not remember very much about the school: except boisterous games of ‘Open gates’ on the field where you were in the middle and had to nominate someone. If he managed to avoid you and get to the other side then he would shout ‘Open Gates’ and everyone would run at you. There were also lots of whispers about went on in the rushes on the riverbed close by between the older boys and girls!
In a short space of time we moved to another house in Riverside in Peter Falk Road. It was a much bigger house with a long driveway and it was there that I was given a much anticipated bicycle. I was about 10 and given total freedom to ride anywhere. Gwelo is very flat and streets very wide with many cycle paths so it was very safe. This is a sense of freedom which is hard to imagine in our neurotic and dangerous world. Speaking of neurotic, my mother was the most anxious mother you could imagine but even she was happy to let me ride to any of my friends. My folks were wonderful with Christmas – they always made it fun – and to this day I remember the joy of walking into the lounge and seeing my new bicycle next to the festooned Christmas tree. I had made new friends by then and we had free rein to play anywhere but I think my parents became a little worried when I returned home with a lead pellet from an airgun buried behind my knee. We had been shooting at each other in the bush. I still have the scar. Perhaps this prompted them to move me back to CJR School.
Our next house was a pise house – constructed out of clay walls and asbestos. Built during the war, there was a shortage of bricks so some houses were built out of clay – its walls were thick and somewhat irregular walls of clay. It had a long passage in which endless games of cricket were played.
I was given a chemistry set and spent many happy hours playing with some pretty dangerous stuff. I had a pet rat which broke my heart by eating a plastic flower and dying while we were at church. I was given a No2 pellet gun and set up wonderful scenarios on the driveway and shot up some of my model airplanes and Dinky cars. The next door neighbours had a pet baboon which was chained to a pole with its cage right at the top of the pole. More than once it escaped from the chain and terrorised us all by stalking around our house.
I used to love cycling along the pathways through the bush. On one of them I came across a deep mine shaft which had no barriers or warning – the pathway simply divided around it. We lay down and peered
over the edge and dropped stones which took a long time bouncing down before ending in a distant splash.
We had some wonderfully rough neighbours who were a large Afrikaans family. They taught me how to throw a half brick with a sling about 50 meters and all about the destructive force of clay laaitjies – a clay ball shot from a flexible stick. We had a gang, meeting under a bush with a password ‘Bernadene’. They were going to show me what the oldest boy got up with his girlfriend but eventually I was excluded for being too young. In the meantime I had returned to my previous school, Cecil John Rhodes Junior School. My dad let me change gears in the Land Rover which he took to work. Round about that time at the age of 11 he let me drive on the bush roads the other side of The Kopje (the only hill in the area).
We moved again to School Avenue, which was right opposite the entrance of CJR, where we spent a couple of happy years. That has many memories and deserves a separate story.
My dad must have enjoyed assisting his brother, Hugh, on a farm near Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia because after dad returned from the war they both moved to adjoining farms close to Umvuma, a small mining town in the Midlands. My dad was still single and in his early 30’s and set about with great energy working on his tobacco farm, called Vosges. The area is very sandy,having been the bed of a vast lake in ancient times but was supposed to be good for tobacco.
Managing the hotel in town were a couple, Bill and Stella Toubkin. As happens in a small town dad got to know them and when he mentioned he was going to visit his family in Port St Johns, Stella asked for a lift to see her family on a farm near Elliott, which is a couple of hours drive out of the way. Naturally when they arrived my dad was asked to stay on the farm overnight. The overnight stay extended to three weeks after my dad met Stella’s blonde sister, called Hillary, who was 23, shy and gorgeous. Before the three weeks was up dad had proposed and been accepted by my future mother.
They were married in East London and returned to the farm, my dad very proud of his beautiful young bride. He was so anxious however to see how the farm was doing that he dashed off straight away and neglected to open the car door for his wife. My mother had a very stubborn streak and she waited twenty minutes for the door to be opened for her. My dad was gentle and kind but no pushover and also as stubborn as they come so I am sure there were a few tussles for power in the marriage.
It was not an easy life on the farm. Furniture was made from crates. Food was not in abundance. Although Rhodesia was renowned for its tobacco there was a lot of competition and quality standards were high. It was imperative that when the green tobacco was tied in sheaves and hung in the curing shed that the temperature and humidity had to be perfect else the entire crop could be lost. I can still remember the incredible, rich smell of those sheds as my cousin also had a tobacco farm, which I visited as a teenager. My dad was working long hours as the furnaces had to be kept burning all night. Once he returned to the barn to find the furnace nearly dead and in his subsequent rage he broke a toe on a hapless worker.
My oldest brother, Walter, was born on 1 April 1950, and I am sure was feted and welcomed. I never met him because he died on the same day that I was born, on 12 July 1951. He had a congenital heart problem and in an effort to save him my dad flew with him in a private plane to Johannesburg. I can only guess at the grief and trauma suffered by my gentle parents. To the very hour when my father was reconciling to losing a son I was being born in Gwelo, a nearby town.
And so I grew up on a farm for the first few years. I had my own nanny who looked after me all day long. Vestigial memories of dark rooms, playing in the sand, making an oven with sticks, the smell of tobacco tease my mind. I have a clear memory of the PK (Picannini Khaya – the small house) which was the outside toilet, made up of a deep hole with a boxed seat and a creaky door. It was the stuff of child nightmares which was not helped by the fact that it was smothered in a huge bouganvillae creeper in which a black mamba lived.
My sister, Cathy, was born in 1953 but my constant playmate was my cousin Barbie, Stella’s daughter, born the same year as me. Apparently she used to chase me round the house calling out ‘Peta, kissa me’. Then one day I took her behind a door and kissed her enthusiastically so the chasing stopped.
The farm was not a financial success. Things were so desperate that one day my mother was in tears and my dad took her for a walk. In a glade they found enough mushrooms to keep them going for a few days. But my dad had to look for work in Gwelo and found a job in a commercial tobacco curing company. He worked such long hours that once when he came home unusually early, I said to my mother with big eyes, “Hoodat man, mummy?”
I was a student at the University of Natal (now called University of Kwa-Zulu Natal) from 1970 to 1975. Durban was a long way from home in Bulawayo (about 1500 kilometers) so after only one train trip – a long, hot 3 day journey – I opted to hitchhike home.
Hitchhiking was socially acceptable, although marginally risky, and the roads often had queues of students and soldiers standing with their thumbs extended and winning smiles. The public were generous with their rides but the waiting could be very dispiriting. I had developed a fairly modest thatch of long hair, barely below my shoulders and looked a little too close to being a ‘hippy’ to win total approval. On one memorable occasion I found myself outside Pretoria, the bastion of right-wingers, at morning rush hour, and began to count the number of haircut gestures I got (an exaggerated scissors gesture out the window). Anyone with long hair was automatically a Communist and had to be suppressed. On another trip I was outside Pietersburg, another hotbed of Afrikanerdom, late at night on the outskirts of town. A car screeched up and the two girls sitting in the back shouted that if I cut my hair they would give me a lift. The guys in front just said “Los hom, man!” and roared off into the night. I was so dispirited I trudged off to sleep in the garage toilet which was carpeted and warm.
So eight times a year I hit the road, except for one trip with my loyal friend, Dale Wilcox, alone. The folk lore was that nobody picked up more than one person and I think it was generally true. There were no mobile phones to phone home and so nobody knew where I was for the 2 to 3 days I took to hitchhike home. I don’t remember having much to eat either, a few rusks or apples. As my pocket money was R20 a month I had very little money but I felt as free as a bird.
I usually went home the most direct way via Loskop Dam, Warmbaths but the downside of that route was the lack of traffic, so I spent many hours throwing stones at any target I could find and waiting for the hum of an approaching car. There is no feeling like the sheer frustration of seeing a driver with an empty car hurtle past when you have been standing in the sun a couple of hours. On the other hand the joy of a slowing car and the gesture to climb in was very welcome.
I had some memorable people pick me up. Like a real old Oom and Tannie in the Transvaal, she with long plaited hair. They could not speak much English but gestured for me to climb in to their DKW. I could see they were nervous but I did my best to appear harmless and friendly. My heart went out to them for stopping at all for this long-haired ‘betoger’ (agitator).
There was a guy on the hot road going past Loskop Dam who made his wife sit in the back of a packed Beetle and who flicked his lights and cheered at every VW he passed – and there were a lot of them.
There was a driver of a heavy truck who picked me up to keep him awake. He kept an open bottle of brandy next to him for the same reason and he kept on muttering that if the brakes failed we had 30 tons behind us and we were doomed.
I was picked up near Warmbaths by a guy in a big V8 with a whole cockpit of dials on the dashboard. He was driving at lunatic speed and would overtake on the left on the dirt shoulder. ‘Watch that dial’ he shouted and changed down. The dial shot around, ‘Gearbox pressure!’ he was very proud of that.
Once I was dropped off at Paulpietersburg late at night. The wind was howling through the pine trees on the outskirts of town and I did feel spooked. Because of petrol restrictions the garages closed at night so there was very little traffic. I trudged about 5 kilometers into town with my heavy bag and sleeping bag and asked the police if I could sleep in a cell. They gruffly told me that the cells were full but I must have looked pretty dejected so they let me sleep under the table in the charge office. I slept well, oblivious to the heavy boots and loud voices.
I could sleep anywhere. Once I fell asleep on a bench outside a hotel in Loius Trichardt. At some stage in the night I was aware of being scrutinised but I slept on!
In retrospect I feel horrified at the risks involved. But I suppose I was protected by a curious kind of innocence.
One scary night I was quite spooked. I had chosen to go via Johannesburg and I was dropped off late at night in a dark industrial area on a road bordered by high fences. I didn’t even know which way to go and I was just standing there trying not to panic when a huge car went swishing past, stopped and reversed at a rate of knots. I thought I was in trouble but the driver just said “Jirra, man what you doing hitchhiking here! I’ll take you to the main road.” And he did.
The best was getting a ride on the back of a bakkie as then there were no social pressures and you could doze off and enjoy the wind on your face.
The longest wait was an excruciating 5 hours in Zimbabwe. I had barely left home and there was very little traffic and I was stuck, stuck, stuck in West Nicolson. I nearly crossed the road to hitchhike back home!
Partly because he was a poorly paid Civil Servant but mostly because he loved it, my dad was a part-time prospector his whole life.
Zimbabwe is ridiculously rich in mineral diversity. Everywhere you go you will stumble over agates or quartz crystals in the sand and, of course, if you were lucky, you would come across something a whole lot more valuable, like gold or emeralds.
My father lived with the dream that he would hit the mother-lode and we would tramp through the bush for an entire weekend, searching. In Rhodesia times (I don’t know about current Zimbabwe law) any citizen could purchase a prospectors license for a nominal amount. Then you had the right to look for any sort of mineral on any farm. It was generally the courteous way to announce yourself and get permission from the farmer or the headman of the district. But he could not prevent you from exploration. Then if you thought you had something worthwhile you were allowed a ‘claim’, which was about 1000 yards by 300 yards, I seem to remember.
The claim had to be marked out with ‘pegs’, usually a cairn of stones with a stick and on one of the pegs you had to put up the notice, stating the name of the claim, your name and all the details of the claim. It all had to be drawn on a map with exact positions.
If you did it all correctly you had all mineral rights for the claim, provided that you paid the annual fee. The only coercion was that you had to fill all holes dug if you abandoned the claim. The two exceptions to the rights issue were emeralds and gold. These you had to declare to the government who would compensate you but you weren’t allowed to proceed any further.
My dad would follow leads, once people knew he was interested he would be told about potential finds. And so we would pack up some food and set off in our Vauxhall Victor.
There was no fancy SUV or even truck. We had a map and compass and my dad didn’t worry about niceties like tents. We used to sleep under the stars next to a camp fire. If there was no road my dad would make one. We had Thomas and Elias, our gardeners, with us and they would clear a path in front of the car.
Zimbabwe is for the most part pretty flat so it was not impossible to drive though virgin bush.
And so we would end up in really in the middle of the bush. We found an artesian well in Buhera which was pumping out thousands of litres of water every hour and had been for year. It was full of salts and had made salt pans from evaporation. My dad was thinking of bottling it for humans to drink but it was found to be unsuitable. We searched for emeralds in Tel-El-Kibir and got as far as finding a reef of biotite (a glistening, flaky soft stone) which contains emeralds and there were indeed a few small emeralds. That place sticks in my memory particularly. We were completely alone in the vast msasa plains – there weren’t even villages nearby, just the shimmering bush.
My dad was completely fearless and always knew where he was, so I never felt neurotic, but if he had been injured and had fallen down a hole for example there was no rescue plan. But I never worried because he didn’t show any concern. My poor mother stayed at home and worried.
The memories tumble together. There was a farmer living like a recluse. He walked everywhere barefoot and had the most incredible calves. I saw a gold nugget being prized out of a granite rock. Once we lay next to the campfire looking at the stars and listened to “What a wonderful world” by Louis Armstrong playing on the transistor radio which my dad hung on a tree. Trudging through some thick grass we paused to allow a massive mamba to get past us – it was moving so fast it was surfing through the grass.
I feel immeasurably enriched by those experiences. At times I was a typical truculent teenager but I never turned down the invitation for a trip to the bush.
In 1960 when I was 9 years old, we lived on the outskirts of Gwelo, Southern Rhodesia. We lived right next to a ‘township’ as it was called – a suburb of low-cost houses where black people lived. We lived there because my dad was a ‘superintendant’ of the township. He managed welfare projects, made decisions on rentals and the many administrative tasks required for a busy township. My dad planted many trees and loved the hands-on jobs. As an ex-farmer he was always aware of nature and he made a wonderful garden for us at that house.
The plot was about 5 acres in extent and perfectly flat. We had a lawn the size of a football field and a massive garden, complete with huge compost heap, a chicken and duck compound and several outbuildings. The main house was quite small with wooden floors.
Because the land was so flat my dad made his own pyramid shaped garden structure built up with roof tiles and about 5 levels of soil. My parents had given me a bow and arrow set with metal tips on the arrows. One day I was looking at my dad standing on top of the pyramid and without too much thought I wondered whether I could hit him with an arrow. The arrow fortunately hit him on his pith helmet which he habitually wore. He was quite hurt I think that I should have shot at him, but being my dad he made some joke about my being a crack shot and saved me the embarrassment of apology.
Rhodesia of course was practising a kind of separate development. Blacks did not live in white areas, unless they were servants living on premises. It was a more benevolent, patriarchal system that the brutal apartheid enforcement found in South Africa but nevertheless discriminatory.
I attended a whites only school across town called Cecil John Rhodes Junior School but of course was oblivious to the rightness or wrongness of the situation. The fabric of our society was generally harmonious and there was no concern about security. The very fact we lived close to the location is indicative that there was no worry about security.
In 1959 the Sharpville uprising and bloody confrontation had repercussions throughout the region. In 1960 some of the agitation reached quiet little Gwelo. My parents has some friends over for supper. The police phoned and said there was trouble and we had to wait for them.
Then we heard the noise of the crowd. All these years later I can still hear it. It was a the same kind of sound as the roar of water on sand, a low murmur like pebbles in a storm. We were huddled in the passage of the house with one revolver and my dad’s shotgun in the men’s hands. Then the police arrived in an armoured car and they instructed my dad to follow them in his car. We were not allowed to gather any possessions so I walked out in my school clothes. My mother was holding my 2 year old brother and clutching my 7 year old sister.
We slept the night at the friend’s house and in the morning my mother gently woke me with the news that our house had been burned down.
Later that day the house had cooled down enough for us to visit it. The walls remained but even the glass in the windows had melted into shapes and the roof had collapsed. The floor of course had disappeared. I spent a long time looking for my marbles and my mother raked through the ashes looking for her wedding ring which she had left in her wardrobe. The inferno consumed everything – my parents lost all their memories, photographs, furniture, clothes.
At school I was sent out on a pretext and the class was asked to bring spare clothes so the next day I was inundated with packets of clothes.
My dad went straight back to work – he was besieged by crowds of crying people who begged his forgiveness, some of them saying they were in the crowd but dared not run away. My father never bore a grudge as he could saw real people and not skin colour. He continued to work for another 16 years improving living conditions and later built a stadium and Olympic-sized pool. He was taken from us by a sudden heart attack and my mother was inundated by well-wishers as he was such a respected man.
My father died in 1976, when I was 24 years old. He was only 63 and I had barely begun to know him as an adult. In fact, just looking at the cold figures which I have just written, I realise that this year in June he will have been gone 40 years; a long time to be without a person who shaped your being.
We didn’t talk much as a family. There was exchange of news and a wonderful caring atmosphere at home but personal issues were seldom discussed. Implicit sensitivities were the rule and my dad was a master at gentle guidance and patient understanding. As a result I grew up with a curious combination of anxiety and inflexible strength.
My dad was born in Port St Johns and grew up close to an idyllic beach named unimaginatively as Second Beach. It is 7 kilometers from the village to which he had to trudge every school day. In winter it was still dark when he and his brother, Sidney, set off and there were some very scary dark corners which had to be run past at full speed. The beach bush is particularly tangled and shadowy along the small road which wound its way around the contours. A particular steep bit was called ‘Test Hill’ as most of the cars in the 1920’s did not have enough power to chug up and had to use the extra power of reverse gear to get to the top.
All other conscious moments were spent by my dad, swimming, canoeing and fishing in the rivers and the sea. His companions were mostly young Pondos and as a result my dad spoke Pondo (a dialect of Xhosa) before he spoke English. He continued this linguistic fluency throughout his life as later on he spoke Shona and Ndebele so fluently that he used to astonish everyone.
He loved the sea and was miserable when sent away to Dale College for high school when he was 12 years old. He could draw the shape of the Point – the ‘sleeping dog’ shape of the Second Beach headland from memory and used to get terribly home-sick.
The Great Depression of the 1930’s had a terrible effect on everyone in South Africa as well as the rest of the world. Because the family business was running a holiday resthouse above Second Beach, called Bellevue, when the money for leisure pursuits ran out, the household sometimes only had their own produce to survive on. The planted as much maize as they could and sometimes had to live on it.
Some time in the mid 1930’s older brother, Hugh, asked my dad to join him in Southern Rhodesia as a farmer. (When I refer to the country of my birth I will simply follow a time-based continuum and use the name of the time.) So my father moved to Southern Rhodesia and at some stage joined AECI as a bookkeeper but for the rest of the time assisted my Uncle Hugh on the farm near Salisbury.
Having been born in 1914, my dad would have been aware of stories of the Great War and so when the time came for South Africans to volunteer he did so with alacrity. Being from Rhodesia he joined the RAR Rhodesian African Rifles and was sent to OCTU (Officer Cadet Training Unit) based in Aldershot, England.
After that he was posted to Burma with his regiment of RAR and was on active service on the front line with Japanese forces.
I wish I knew more details. Like many ex-servicemen my dad talked very seldom about the war. He did tell me once that the Japanese soldiers would shout from the jungle, “We coming to kill you, Yankee!” They were often under mortar fire but my dad came away unscathed. He was there long enough to organise a piano to be moved into the officers’ mess. He played piano by ear and was very pleased with himself to have a piano again.
When Japan surrendered my dad was the most senior officer in region and was ceremonially given the Japanese commander’s sword. He kept the sword and a Japanese flag. He also kept his own issue revolver – a Smith & Wesson .38.
During this tumultuous time my dad met and fell in love with a nurse called Adele – I think her surname was Brown. They married but like many wartime marriages it ended in separation and eventual divorce as she returned to England and he returned to South Africa.
He returned home to Second Beach – undoubtedly battered and bruised before he made his way to the farm again.