Tag Archives: History

Somerset West – of rabbits and woodwork

My stepfather’s name was Cyril Williams and from now on, I will refer to him by his first name.

Cyril was born and brought up in the coal-mining area of the Rhondda Valley in Wales, in the UK. From what I can gather, it was a mostly rural area but at about the age of fourteen, which would have been in about 1936/37) he was enlisted into boy service in the Royal Navy where he completed his schooling to GCE O level I believe.

He served in the RN during WWII and I think spent time in the middle east but I am not really sure other than some of the few times he spoke of his service he mentioned that region, the heat and having to accompany shore parties into the desert.

Cyril had been brought up in an area where game such as wildfowl, some deer and rabbits were part of the normal fare along with mutton, pork and beef.

The Rabbits – I have written briefly about this in my first article but, just to enlarge on it…

I think the rabbits – two black ones that we got – were bought for, or given to, me but Cyril decided that we should breed them. Accordingly, with the help of Marikane, our general factotum from the Transkei, he built an enclosure of split logs on our plot in Helena Heights.

In spite of his supposedly KNOWING about rabbits, Cyril forgot that they are burrowing animals but, at first, the burrows that we saw in the enclosure were just curious and interesting. Within a day or two, we realised that they were ESCAPE tunnels and we were chasing the bunnies all over the plot. He then built new enclosure that had a wooden floor topped with about a foot of soil so that the rabbits could burrow but not escape.

…and we waited. After several weeks, our very happy little bunnies were still playing house but showing no sign of breeding. Having befriended a chap named Bill Prince in the village, and knowing that Bill had a number of rabbits himself, Cyril asked him what he thought the problem could be. The bunnies (my mother and I had probably given them names by this time), were examined by Bill who with great amusement, informed us that the rabbits had not been breeding because we had two does (girls).

A buck rabbit was introduced to the mix and the stage was set for him and Cyril to start the commercial supply of rabbit to the local butchers and specialty restaurants. (There were none of the latter in the area although they did exist in Cape Town – I think).

Cyril was very good with his hands and particularly good at woodwork. He bought a supply of timber and built some very professional cages that were about six hundred millimetres deep by about a metre wide and perhaps six or seven hundred millimetres high. They had mesh front, back and sides and a mesh floor so that droppings could fall through. Under each floor was a slide-in drip tray the size of the cage, that he had had made out of galvanised steel. I think there were about 12 cages in all.

As our two girls started to produce offspring the cages soon filled up (and Cyril added some new livestock I think) and it fell to me to clean the cages. As a city-raised child of nine or ten this was not something I took to with relish and there were often some vigorous exchanges about the poorly cleaned cages and drip trays. Cleaning was more difficult because the bunnies, usually two to a cage, produced prodigious amounts of droppings – mostly in one corner of the cage where all the droppings would clump together and stick in the mesh like tar. I was not strong enough to wield the wire brushes to good effect nor tall enough to get into the higher cages. My mother would then get stuck in and clean the cages out. Cyril would come home, see how well mom had done the job and come looking for me. (This may have occasioned the lone pine tree incident that I spoke of elsewhere).

I mentioned before that my mother and I would not eat rabbit, if we had raised the creature, but if it came from Bill as ANONYMOUS meat we condescended to consume the meat – rabbit is delicious by the way.

As to the commercial viability of the venture I seem to remember it fizzled out…The pelts were meant to be a by-product of the venture but I only remember a couple of pelts ever being properly cured while the rest turned hard and ugly. I think Marikane did cure a few pelts for himself and he got the odd rabbit to slaughter for his own consumption.

I believe that Bill Prince ended up with all the rabbits and their cages because, unlike Europe and Britain where rabbits are largely regarded as livestock, in South Africa the white people tended to think of rabbits in the category of domesticated pets. Black and coloured people would have gladly eaten rabbit but not at the kind of prices that these were being offered.

Cyril was very good with wood, and I picked up many ideas and some technique from him but because of his impatience with me, the experience was sporadic and came to be something that I would avoid.

Having decided that we should fence the plot Cyril bought a huge pile of raw pine split logs and made up sections of fence that looked roughly like this.

Each section was about 2 to 2.5 metres long with the ends about 1,800mm high and the middle about 1,400mm high. Each pole was about 100mm wide and 100mm apart and he nailed it all t0gether with 100mm nails which, for the first couple of prototypes he did not drive all the way in – leaving the rather big heads projecting for about 5mm. The sketch I have created is NOT to scale of course. The fence needed quite a few of these sections. In a 2 to 2.5 metre section there would have been twenty to twenty five uprights – a considerable weight of timber.

In order to be able to see these sections while getting the pattern right Cyril needed the sections upright and I, still aged nine, was roped in and made to sit on the ground and hold a section so that it could be viewed to see the effect.

One section of fence was MUCH heavier than I was so all I was doing was precariously balancing it in an upright position. I was taking some flak from Cyril as usual, not getting anything right according to him. My arms were getting tired when an errant gust of wind caught the structure.

I valiantly tried to hold the section but it pivoted to the horizontal on my outstretched arms. For just a moment I was supporting the entire weight of the section before my arms collapsed.  The structure fell on me, driving one of the protruding nail heads into the centre of my head. There was pain, surprise, a not-inconsiderable amount of blood and, I was nine, remember, howls of pain as I lay flattened under the section of fence.

“Bloody fool, why didn’t you hold the bloody thing up…useless idiot.” …words to that effect were directed at me but I think he had a fright because he soon had the thing off me and my mother was out with a cloth and warm water – and some words for Cyril. I think we went down to the hospital where they determined that apart from a sore head and a severe, shaved, bump – accompanied by a wound that was soon to scab over I would be OK. I was young enough, and my skull was still flexible so there was no skull damage. I do have a slight concavity on top of my head though, that perhaps might not have been there otherwise.

The finished front fence (I think Marikane was pressed into service – or someone was hired to complete it) was quite smart looking.

Somerset West childhood memories

Somerset West recollections from 60-plus years ago – I was asked to write about my memories of the place and it has turned into rather a long post…

When my mother married my stepfather in about 1953/54 they went to a place called MOON RISING on the road that ran from Helderberg college up over the shoulder of the mountain and down into Pérel Vallei (Silverboom Kloof Road, according to Google Earth). When they had been there a day or two a friend took me to visit and I stayed with them for a couple more days after which we all returned to Sea Point where we were living.

In about 1954 my stepfather and my mother bought a plot on an area called Helena Heights, situated on the flanks of the Helderberg Mountain. It was about four or five miles from the then village of Somerset West on the Stellenbosch road. We were in Irene Avenue – the fifth road to the left after turning off at the Cylnor Hotel (in those days Irene Avenue did not carry on to the right towards Pérel Vallei, as I now see it  doing on Google Earth). The Cylnor Hotel was on the corner of Old Stellenbosch Road and Helderberg College road where I see some shops are now located. In the fifties, and beyond I suspect, it was a very popular place.

Below, taken from Google earth – where we lived with my comments

Somerset West in the mid-fifties was considered true country living – thirty miles from Cape Town it was something of a sleepy hollow. On returning to the town in 1982 I was not too surprised to see the extent of development on Helena Heights but the town, with the new highways to get one there, seemed like a suburb of Cape Town! What did surprise me after having left, as a child 24 years previously was that I was able to take the Paarl turn-off and, via Stellenbosch, drive straight to our old house.

Anyway, 5 Irene Avenue was our plot and we were to build THE VERY FIRST HOUSE ON THE NEW ESTATE. My stepfather first built a wooden cabin that we lived in at weekends until they had enough to start building the house. The plot was just over an acre in extent and Cyril made it a stipulation that, apart from what would be absolutely necessary to build the house, NONE of the protea bushes was to be cleared so we had these magnificent, huge protea bushes dotted around all over the property.

We probably moved into the new house some time in 1955 when I was still at boarding school but I started Standard 3 at Somerset West Primary School in January 1956. I would have been nine years old. We used to get the school bus on the Stellenbosch road where it intersected with the Faure/Firgrove road, which I think was still a dirt road.

In summer they allowed us to go to school barefoot, (the reason given for this was so that poorer families could save some money). My stepfather very firmly told me that he would NOT allow me to go barefoot and I was always to wear shoes and socks to school.

Some of the children came from fairly well off families many of whom farmed in the area – grape farms had become a big thing with the wine industry starting to go full out. One of my classmates, with whom I was friendly, was a chap named Basil Boer whose family had a farm a couple of miles on the Stellenbosch side of where I used to catch the school bus. Basil used to go barefoot in summer, as did many other children who were in no way underprivileged so I was determined to do the same. For a while, I got away with it too.

I would take my shoes and socks off as soon as my parents had dropped me at the bus stop and driven off and I would hide them in a culvert to be collected when I returned after school. One day I stayed late at school and was given a lift home by a friend’s mother. It was only the next morning that I realised I had no shoes and socks to put on! The confrontation with my stepfather was not pleasant but at least the shoes and socks were where I had left them. I still went barefoot as often as I could but was a lot more careful with my shoes and socks.

I remember only a few teachers from my school days but Miss Melville, who was my teacher for quite some time at Somerset West Primary School, is one such. She was strict, with a forbiddingly upright demeanour but (and I began to realise this many years later) she was a teacher because it was her VOCATION – it was not just a job, it was her life’s purpose…and she was not that strict, either. It just seemed that way. Miss Mellville had a broad leather strap cut to form three tails that she used on the boys’ bums and the back of their legs – the girls only got it across the back of their legs. Not viciously or very hard and, I think that because family values were the way they were in that era, it was more the embarrassment and shame of being singled out for punishment rather than any lasting pain.

Certainly, my recollection of that time, of those punishments, is of a benign era of honour and decency and I doubt that ANY of Miss Melville’s pupils will be carrying emotional scars, as today’s PC folks would have us believe we should.

The school was dual medium and classes were streamed as Afrikaans medium or English medium but I think we all, certainly most of us, spoke both languages – using them quite unconsciously depending on who we were playing with.

It was a long time ago but some of the lessons taught by Miss Melville stay with me to this day – you may gather she made a big impression on this little boy. Miss Melville who we thought SO OLD, who rode an upright bicycle with mechanical brakes that had a basket in front and a carrier over the back wheel. The back wheel had a screen over it to prevent her skirts or dresses from catching in the spokes. …and she had a briefcase and a basket that came to school with her.

Yes, DRESSES AND SKIRTS – no such thing as trousers for a lady such as Miss M – even on a bicycle!

Calling children KIDS had started by then but Miss M overheard us using the term she would admonish us that we are CHILDREN and HUMAN young and that KIDS are the offspring of GOATS!

In 1957 at the end of Standard 4, a couple of us decided tat we would hide Miss Melville’s strap. The classroom blackboard was fixed to the wall and we got the strap firmly wedged up behind it. Lo and behold, next year Miss Melville took over Standard 5 so we were back in the same classroom! Miss M grumbled quite a bit about her missing strap but a few weeks into the new term, she became somewhat agitated with someone and banged the blackboard with the duster to make her point. There was a sound of something moving and, with a loud clatter, a very dusty leather strap tumbled out from behind the board. Holding the strap in her hand, she gave the class a triumphant glare – but said nothing.

My stepfather’s name was Cyril Williams and he was the kind of person who came to know everyone. In our time in Somerset West, he soon DID know everyone it seemed. He was friends with the butcher, the hotel owner – Barney Teperson (?), the hardware store owner even members of the police.

We used to have some wonderful braais at our place. It was before transistor radios and other personal devices and there would always be someone who had a guitar or piano accordion who came along and I have great memories of how popular my mother, Enid, was and what a fine singer too. She was always asked to sing the popular songs of the day – Moonlight and Roses, Memories are Made of This, Send Me the Pillow that You Dream on are just a few that come to mind.

Some people may not be aware that South Africa was VERY Calvinistic in that era and at about 1200 or 1300 on a Saturday all retailers closed. On Sundays, hotels could only serve liquor with a meal. Cinemas (or bioscopes as we knew them then) did not open on Sundays. If it was decided that we were going to have a braai and it was after closing on a Saturday Cyril would make a couple of phone calls, go for a drive and come back with meat and drinks and bread and the party would get going. Of course there was only one other house near us by 56/57 so no neighbours to worry about, as invariably they would be at the party.

In about 1956 a couple – who I only remember as Ginger and Iolanthe – built a house on the plot just in front and to the right of us (on Montrose Crescent directly opposite the end of Pierneef Street) – you could say at one o’clock from our plot and sharing a short bit of boundary in the corner. They had a baby named Cynthia (I think?). We kept rabbits and one day when Cynthia was a toddler, they came over and my stepfather gave the child a baby rabbit to hold. No one was watching the child as she hugged and hugged and hugged the little bunny. After a while I noticed that the little creatures head was lolling unnaturally – quite innocently, the little child had hugged the bunny to death!

The rabbit saga, that was to cause much strife for me and my mother, started when Cyril, bought a PAIR of rabbits with a view to breeding them for slaughter but they steadfastly refused to breed. Enter Bill Prince, a friend Cyril had made in the village who was from rural England. Bill determined that we had TWO FEMALES and after he had introduced a buck, we had something of a rabbit population explosion. My mom and I determined we would NOT eat OUR rabbits so the only ones we ever ate were the dressed-out-ready-to-cook ones obtained from Bill who was also breeding them.

My mom and I did that with every animal brought to the plot for breeding and eating. We made pets of them. The sheep – my mother cooked a leg of it but neither she nor I would eat any. Cyril was livid with us.

Enter the pig. When it came time to slaughter this creature Cyril decided that it was to be carried out in our big kitchen yard that was of steel-floated concrete with good drains. One of his less well-known friends, who claimed to know all about slaughtering and butchering, came along to assist. The calibre of pistol they used was too small and the wounded pig squealed and thrashed around the yard spraying blood while these two men tried to put it out of its misery. This was, I think, achieved with another bullet and slitting the now-stunned animal’s throat. My mother and I were periodically peeping out of an upstairs window, horrified by this obviously amateur debacle in the yard that was now awash with pig blood.

When the mess was cleared up and the butchering completed a few days later (I suspect some of that was done by the butcher friend in the village), some of the meat was brought home. Mom said she would cook it for him but she was buggered if either of us (mom or myself) would eat any of it. That bad vibe lasted for some time.

I was good friends with Andy Becket, a classmate whose grandparents had a small farm a short way up the road and spent many holidays and afternoons over there (it was only a short walk across a field to get there). I helped to turn the handle on the separator and I would get a glass of milk, still warm from the cow, for my trouble. Scones fresh from ouma’s oven with FRESH cream and FARM butter that I sometimes helped to churn.

Climbing Helderberg and almost getting stuck on the mountain. Going there again, caught by bad weather, stumbling around in the mist. We survived all that stuff and more and no one seemed to get into a panic at us actually packing some food in a school satchel and setting off for a day of adventuring.

Tree houses, amateurish and probably unsafe, built in trees on the farm. We swam in ponds of black water with soft squishy mud on the bottom: scaring each other with fanciful stories of monstrous creatures in the murky water.

The Cylnor was the local watering hole and although my stepfather was friends with Monty at the Helderberg Hotel the Cylnor was far enough out of town that they would close the doors after hours and the party would continue behind the closed doors. Not so easily done down in the town.

Does anyone remember playing WA WIEL (Wagon Wheel)? Never came across the game after I left SW. It was a children’s farmyard game played on a roughly 30-metre wagon wheel marked out in the sand. There was a big family on a large property on what I see is now called Future Road just next to the Old Stellenbosch Road. I became friends with the family and it is where I played Wa Wiel.

One time I was in town and playing cowboys in the grounds of the Helderberg with Monty’s son, Barney and a few others and I ran through a drainage ditch with some black waste water in it. I felt a tickle on my foot and a few minutes later one of the boys commented that I was bleeding. Sure enough, there were big splotches of blood where I had been moving around and, after I raised my foot, we saw a big cut in the ball of my foot, just behind my big toe.

No panic, Monty or one of the other adults, just got the cheerful coloured delivery bike rider from the off sales to put me in the basket on the front and run me up to the doctor – about a block away – leaving big splats of blood every couple of metres. At the doctors I sort of hopped up to the door only to be shooed away by the receptionist who made me go to the back door (where the coloured people used to enter) and I had to go in that way to be treated. Laws or regulations around the colour of one’s skin notwithstanding they were NOT about to let someone bleed on the floor of the practice!

I still have a faint scar from that cut. They did not stitch it and it healed quickly – we were real little animals!

I could barely keep my head above water when it came to swimming – let’s face it, I couldn’t swim. I learned though, in the Lourensford River a few hundred metres from the Helderberg Hotel when a friend chucked me into the river one day. Talk about sink or swim…

Stealing fruit was a rite of passage. No one needed to raid orchards or vineyards but we did it because they were there. On one occasion, on Lourensford estate, we were being chased – I cannot remember what fruit we had been helping ourselves to but probably grapes – and we rode off as fast as we could on our bikes through the pine trees where a vehicle could not go. The deep pine needles hid something else – stumps. After hitting one of these little stumps, I went flying over the handlebars. I bounced to my feet, grabbed my bike and joined the rest of the fleeing robbers. One friend also came off his bike, somehow landing up on his chest, which meant he had a lot of squashed fruit in his shirtfront!

I did not get along famously with my stepfather and one evening he came after me for some transgression or other. I jumped out of my first floor window onto a ledge and swung down off that to land in the garden. Then I took off. As I crossed the road in front of the house, I heard the front door open and he bellowed for me to stop. I ran faster but I was still small and I knew I would be caught so I had to make a plan. I ran along the footpath that went towards the Becket’s farm and when I got to the lone pine tree by the path I shinned up it as fast and as far as I could.

After yelling at me to come down he climbed up the tree but, when it bent alarmingly, he realised nothing was to be gained by both of us falling some 15 or 20 feet to the ground. He climbed down, all the time demanding that I come down. I stayed. After a bit he left and went home where I heard him shouting at my mother after which he drove off in the car in the direction of the village. Still I stayed. After some time I heard my mother calling from the corner, assuring me it was OK to come home and have my supper…

At our house the front door faced the street and around the back of the garage, where the maid’s room was, we had a door into the kitchen yard, which the maid could use. We had a big coloured woman as our housemaid and a rough one she could be – especially when in the wine. She was married to a very gentlemanly black Nyasalander (today he would be a Malawian).

The doorbell was wired so that the front door had a double ring BING-BONG, BING-BONG while the tradesman’s, or servants, entrance had a single tone – BONG, BONG, BONG. Both of these rings only chimed ONCE at each push of the button.

One Saturday night the tradesman’s bell started its monotonous BONG….BONG….BONG and no amount of cursing and swearing out of the upstairs window would stop it. In high dudgeon and with all of us awake, Cyril went down to see what the hell was going on. Before he could start yelling, the husband fell forward through the door, bleeding rather profusely and superfluously informing us that he had been stabbed.

After packing old blankets and stuff around the man, I went with to the village hospital where they removed about seventy millimetres of broken knife blade from his back near the spine and the heart. I do not remember if they kept him in but he had bled right through the padding we had wrapped him in in the short time it had taken to get to the hospital. He recovered quickly and was soon seen around the garden where he helped from time to time.

It turned out that he had been to a farm compound to FETCH his wife who he believed was buggering around with someone. After receiving considerable abuse, he had decided to leave when he was stabbed from behind while simultaneously being told to bugger off by all present.

The stabber was identified and deemed to have been drunk; he was sentenced to only three months in jail!

This has turned into something far bigger than I had expected it to be when I started but I will finish with two more anecdotes…

In early 1958 the new cinema (bioscope) opened in SW at the top of the street as you came into town from the Stellenbosch side – it was about a block up from the road where the Primary school was.

Elvis Presley’s JAILHOUSE ROCK was the feature film, showing for the first show in the new cinema. It was a black and white film and probably the only B & W movie he ever made…?

I so dearly wanted to see this movie (I was not quite eleven and a half) and managed to cobble together the one and sixpence (about fifteen cents) that was the normal ticket price and walked from Helena Heights into the village. When I got to the ticket office the price had been put up to one and ninepence – or about eighteen cents!!

I knew my parents had gone to Gordon’s Bay for the afternoon so, figuring to come back for the late afternoon show, I started to hitch hike to GB. I did not get many lifts and was standing on the road about halfway between G B and the Strand when a family friend stopped to ask what I was doing. I said I was trying to find my folks so that I could get the extra tickey (threepence) to get into the Elvis movie in town. I think it may have been about that time that my parent’s happened along and Cyril was angry with me while my mother was quite aback taken – she just wanted to help me sort this out.

I don’t remember WHAT exactly transpired except that I ended up getting into the movie. Every time old swivel-hips came on screen and started to sing all the girls SHRIEKED (and there were a LOT of girls in there) and no one could hear a thing. The manager turned off the sound, the screaming stopped, sound on – screaming, sound off – quiet, sound on…. Eventually the manager came out and said he would restart the film but if there was any more screaming he would stop the film entirely and it would be the fault of the screamers.

So I watched, and heard, Jailhouse Rock and the very start of any screaming became muffled as boyfriends shushed their dates and groups of girls managed to keep themselves in check.

At New Year there would be a New Year’s Eve dance-cum-ball in the town hall. I and a few other children were able to attend if we kept quiet and sat upstairs in the balcony. The town hall had also been the town cinema before and there were comfortable seats upstairs. There would be a huge net with coloured balloons suspended from the ceiling and a bar going like the clappers – not sure if there was food but there probably was…

Below: My mother, Enid, on the right, Cyril (holding Teddy the maltese) and a friend of theirs.

I remember sitting upstairs watching the grown-ups and, even as a youngster I was aware of how good-looking my mother was and how much attention she received – both good (from the men mostly) and bad (from some of the women!). Looking back as an adult I know I was right when I often thought my mother the most beautiful woman at any gathering.

At midnight the balloons would be released and there would be singing of Auld Lang Syne and other songs and my mother might be asked to sing along to the piano. Next thing I would know would be being carried to the car or woken up to go home and perhaps a bacon sandwich.

Above: My mother at around age 20

If more comes to mind I will add to this post…it was the best of times in many ways and a few years later perhaps the worst of times. After we went to Rhodesia in mid-58 my stepfather’s fortunes changed for the worse and we lost the house in SW and, to a large extent, our way of life and standard of living. He died in a car accident in June 1961. My mother remained in Rhodesia with me and my much younger brother and sister, who had been born there, and our little dog, Teddy. She made a home and a life for us and we were all OK.

UDI – The day it all happened

11 November 1965 

Many people have over the years asked the question “What were you doing on the day UDI was declared?”

For those of tender years and those ignorant of the affairs of the world some 52 years ago this refers to the Unilateral Declaration of Independence declared by the tiny country of Rhodesia in the face of the intractability and dissembling of the western powers and in particular the British government of the day. See the following links…

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhodesia%27s_Unilateral_Declaration_of_Independence

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f6fof-8r0kM

I had been in the Rhodesian Regular Army since the beginning of March 1965, having already completed national service between October 64 and end February 65. After an initial posting to Army Comcen I had been posted to K Troop, the signals unit for HQ 2 Brigade. The day had started as a normal warm early summer day in Africa. Another beautiful day.

In those days the concept of the brigade signals squadrons had not yet been discussed – certainly none of us in the rank and file had any idea of what was to come as far as our Corps was concerned or even how the composition of the Army itself was to change and grow.

We, the operators in K Troop, had been sent out in detachments to carry out a local signals exercise – sending and receiving messages and generally practicing our Corps of Signals role.

The exercise proceeded in desultory fashion for most of the morning. My detachment was at the balancing rocks about five or six kilometres from camp while others were variously spread around the suburbs – probably about six detachments in all I think.

At around 1100 we all received a message recalling us to base with immediate effect. We packed up and were back in camp by 1200 hours where we were told to immediately prepare our vehicles for possible deployment with the Brigade Headquarters. We were also told that there would be an important announcement made at 1300 hours and that we were ALL to attend in the Troop lecture room.

On entering the lecture room, we found a commercial radio had been set up and we were told to take our seats and be quiet for the Prime Minister’s announcement. At 1300 hours the Prime Minister, Ian Douglas Smith, came on the radio and the Unilateral Declaration of Independence was made.

I have often wondered about the timing of the declaration that coincided with armistice day in 1918 as at 1300 hours in Rhodesia it would have been 1100 in the morning in Britain. This is significant for those not familiar with the WHY of this…

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/0/what-is-armistice-day-why-do-we-wear-poppies-and-when-is-remembr/

There was a sense of relief mixed with foreboding – how would this now play out? Would we be invaded by the British forces or the United Nations. Would there be war, fighting in the streets?

Everyone in the Army was put on immediate alert and confined to barracks. HQ 2 Brigade only had single and married quarters for the African soldiers and the rest of us had to go home or to our barracks at KGVI and collect kit including our webbing and bush gear.

Accommodation was wherever you could find it and I think I ended up bunking down in the lecture room with several others. A field kitchen was set up to feed us and we were regularly briefed by our Officers – not that there was much to tell us of course. It was a sort of phoney war, this twilight period of uncertainty about what was to happen in the immediate future.

We soldiers – whether infantry, quartermaster, signals, engineers or whatever – grumbled at the confinement and inactivity, chafing for something, anything, to happen to relieve the tension.

After about ten days the emergency status was brought down a notch and we were allowed to go home or back to our normal accommodation barracks at night but still no leave was permitted.

The entire situation eventually sort of fizzled out and we got on with the day-to-day activities of a peace-time army although border patrol was under way and there were stirrings that, with hindsight, were portents of the dramatic events to come.

Our brave defiance was to end when our allies left us – the Portuguese capitulated in 1975 in both Angola and Mozambique leaving us totally dependent on South Africa for materiel and trade. When that country was driven to the wall financially they were forced (it is claimed) to withdraw all assistance from Rhodesia. The terrorists never won – financial interests and political expediency saw the country handed over to black majority rule and we all know how that turned out (if you do not then just google Zimbabwe economic history and Zimbabwe, atrocities).

UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES

When the government of South Africa sought to protect the labour force from unfair labour practices, it was no doubt a laudable intention.

However, what becomes apparent to me, a mere layman, is that the new dispensation went so far to swaddle the baby that they choked off the oxygen to the parent – that is to say the employers of said labour.

They gave the labour unions huge power out of all proportion to the good that should have been achieved, creating a situation where labour effectively dictates to employers.

Industry, the education system, the police and army are all so unionised as to make them ridiculously ineffective a lot of the time.

When one trains in the army (make that a good, well-disciplined army) one has to do drill and weapons training. Many, many people are under the impression that all the square-bashing and shouting and associated hard-arsed training is just unnecessary bluster, breaking their darling children down.

Thing is though that when real action occurs all that training kicks in. Nobody questions when a member of the patrol, leader or otherwise, yells DOWN! The training kicks in and you get DOWN. Why do you do that? You do it because your TRAINING and your own instinct for self-preservation, and the good of the team, kicks in.

It is generally accepted that in a good army the leadership is well trained and professional and that by its very nature the military should be an autocracy of sorts. Precisely the same should be the rule in industry and commerce – perhaps less rigid?  The bosses, the employers, the leaders should be in charge not the workers and cleaners who lack the experience and training for such positions.

MOST IMPORTANTLY those who think a job is just another name for the security of a monthly stipend should be rudely awoken to the fact that WORK is the means by which that remuneration is EARNED. An unproductive workforce is something that employers should be able to rectify quickly and easily.

The lack of will to break the power of the unions speaks directly to the government’s lack of will to chance losing even a portion of the huge, union-controlled, vote. As long as that is the case they will be unable to even try to properly run the country.

I have no doubt that among South Africa’s vast population, and even among the ANC, are people of integrity and great ability but they will never come to the fore where ineptitude rules because of that feudal mentality that gives privilege and power to the least capable and most sycophantic.

Should capable people, under such a bad dispensation, actually find themselves in a position to achieve anything, through hard, disciplined work, they will not last. Stories will appear to discredit them. They will be threatened and then, to appease voters who do not want to pay for services nor follow the rules, those good people will quietly be redeployed to positions of neutrality or dismissed – if they are not already (suspiciously) dead by that time.

Sadly, that is the feudal village mentality – calling for loyalty to the chief at all costs.

Corruption and ineptitude

Some time ago, and while still resident in South Africa, I saw an article about the corruption in that country’s government and how the people in charge seem to think all government monies are there for their personal gratification. I wrote some comments to a friend intending also to write to the press. It never happened and I recently dusted it off and added a few words here and there because the subject remains relevant.

When the current dispensation took over in 1994 there was plenty of aid available with the world’s governments falling over themselves to contribute to their new darling, Mandela, and his supposedly rainbow nation. Having taken over a working, albeit skewed in places, world class country they then proceeded to plunder and divert money to themselves and allowed the infrastructure to slide into disrepair and dysfunction with service to the citizens becoming a passing interest – just about enough to keep people quiet – not happy but, most of the time, quiet – all the time playing to the apartheid bogeyman to scare the majority into voting for the ANC – for more theft and ineptitude.

The abovementioned article was about the personal ATM that the South African politicians and their henchmen deem the government to be, and the comment that they are not inept people doing the job badly but bad people doing their corrupt activities well, it occurred to me that there are very different attitudes in our society when it comes to criminal activity and imprisonment.

I – and many others, black, white and khaki – would, I am sure be appalled and ashamed at being sentenced to time in jail for an offence. That is because our mindset sees such a thing as embarrassing and a slur on our good name. We would feel shame at the fact we had been in prison or even that we had been accused of a crime.

When, however, you have people who do not understand that mindset, whose entire lives are built on envy and a grasping sense of entitlement and who have NO sense of shame AT ALL you are definitely on a road to a beating.

We have seen corrupt politicians who have served a jail term, being feted by serving government ministers as they are being RELEASED FROM PRISON – actually being carried on the shoulders of these serving ministers as they celebrate that corrupt person’s release.

I think I would be uncomfortable to be seen even visiting a prison and as for collecting someone…. Well I would do it but I would feel conspicuous and uneasy unless perhaps the person being released had been exonerated. Such is the mindset, I would dare to believe, of most law-abiding persons.

Not so the ruling (I use the word ruling VERY loosely) elites of South Africa. With their mindset and the envy and admiration of the don’t haves directed at them – instead of horror and condemnation – why worry at all?

Throw into the mix a police and legal system that is dysfunctional at best…and many of whose members largely share the feelings of the abovementioned don’t haves, and the recipe is rancid. Vast swathes of people see these swanky people and their vulgar displays of ill-gotten gains, as role models to be emulated. They believe that the end always justifies the means and, given the opportunity, they too would trample on their peers, their friends – their family even – just to elevate themselves. They see nothing wrong with this quite feudal approach to being the elite.

What a disastrous situation when a huge part of the populace appears to think like that?

Then, of course, those doing the grasping (the ruling elite) naturally exploit that feudal mindset and keep the people constantly off-balance and in awe of the apparent power that they have – displaying it in fancy cars, blue light convoys and flocks of fawning lackeys…

…and the people do not care how that status and vulgar wealth was obtained, they just want some of it and they openly admire those who have this wealth and status – irrespective of how it was achieved and oblivious to how much they themselves may suffer as a result.

Flat Dog

Some explanation of terms used is probably a good thing here:

  • ouens – (oh-wins) blokes, men, lads etc
  • Callsign – (Context 1 – original) The numbers or letters allocated to identify a unit on the radio network
  • Callsign – (context 2) slang reference to a unit or sub-unit by using their radio callsign
  • Sitrep – Situation Report
  • RLI – Rhodesian Light Infantry
  • Net – A radio NETwork
  • Ops room – Operations Room
  • OP – Observation post (sometimes in the context of OBSERVED)
  • NTR – Nothing to report
  • “…roger so far?” – have you received up to this point?

To the story…

I have a theory that this is when the term flat dog escaped from in-house use by the ouens of 1RLI and into the general population of Rhodesia and, ultimately, into the world at large. 

I was a young signalman, probably some time in 1965/66(?) and on ops room radio duty at HQ 2 Brigade. (The term used for deployed troops then was BORDER CONTROL.)

Although the war at that time was pretty low key with relatively few incidents it was to hot up considerably in a fairly short time. This however was a quiet, lazy weekend and everything was pretty routine and everyone – in HQ and in the bush – was suitably bored but doing their duty.

I am not sure who the duty ops officer was – I suspect it may even have been one Capt John Peirson?

In any event the callsigns were sending in their sitreps. The RLI callsign in the bush was on the net as callsign 5C (Five Charlie) and the duty RLI signaller at Chirundu, in the Zambezi valley, was Terry Miller.

Terry, who was in the RLI signals troop, spoke the callsign as FIIIIVE Charlie (drawing out the five) so you always knew when he was on duty! 

He was sending his sitrep and it was the usual boring stuff:

“…patrol here, patrol there, patrol this or that river and OP on that position…” and so on. It was all NTR or, maybe, “…observed movement at XYZ…” – pretty mundane stuff. From time to time an exciting report would come in on a callsign that was scattered by elephant or some other incident involving wild animals.

Eventually, after yet another “…..roger so far” duly acknowledged by me “Roger, over”…

“Fiiive Charlie callsign 15 – incident – shot one flat dog at grid 123456 over”

“Seven, Roger out” (I can’t for some reason remember our callsign at HQ but Seven comes to mind!)

I passed the report to the duty officer – I think the Bde Comd was there as well as another person so there were about four of us in the ops room.

The duty officer had heard the last transmission and been checking code word and nickname lists and came over to me and asked me if I had any idea what this code “Flat Dog” meant.

 I did not and was asked to get 5C to clarify.

“Hello 5c this is 7 over”

“Fiiive Charlie go!”

“Seven, we don’t have a code Flat Dog are you able to use plain over?”

“Fiiive Charlie, FLAT DOG is a crocodile, over” comes Miller’s voice.

For a moment, in the ops room, you could have heard a pin drop then the laughter started.

The rest, as we all know, is history but I wonder if anyone else from that era in Rhodesia has a comment around this?

First kill

My friend, John Peirson, with whom I served at HQ 2 Brigade in 1965/66-ish –when I was a Signalman and he a Captain – tells this true story. 


In the early days of Operation Hurricane in the 2 Brigade area (that would probably have been in the early 70s) members of C Squadron, Rhodesian SAS captured a GOOK after a contact (firefight) in the Zambezi Valley.

Looking north over the valley floor that is 1000 feet (440m) below.

The captured man was painfully thin and rather obviously starving and it was decided he should be given some food before they tried to interrogate him.

Accordingly, they gave him a tin of meat from a ration pack and he proceeded to wolf it down greedily, so ravenous was he. So ravenous, in fact, that he proceeded to choke on the food and, in spite of their best efforts to revive him, he died…

Afterwards Major Brian Robinson, the SAS Commanding Officer, sent an official message, through the correct channels, to the Central Ordnance and Supply Depot. The message read: “Congratulations on your first kill!”. 

Actual sign in KGVI barracks, Rhodesia

The Major’s efforts were rewarded with an official rebuke from some humourless cardboard replica of a senior soldier at Army Headquarters.

Demands and tragedy at Marikana

In 2013 an incident occurred at Marikana, a mine in the North West province of South Africa. There was much discussion of the matter (and still is for that matter) and left and right wing takes on it passed blame around like the proverbial hot potato. I was in the habit of writing to the press at the time and drafted my comments but various things, including the death of my wife at the time, intervened and the draft has languished on my computer.  My comments on tactics are based on my own training, reading and common sense.

I believe the Marikana matter has still not been properly resolved and probably never will be.

In my opinion the overweening power of the unions and the misinformation that they allow their members to be fed is largely to blame as is the poor handling of the operation by mostly untrained and inexperienced police. Of course the management of the mining house did not come out entirely squeaky-clean either. Altogether a debacle but here, for what it is worth, is my take on the matter as written in 2013…for those interested I suggest a web search for Marikana/Marikana killings and similar. (I have added one or two explanatory asides for the wider audience)


Firstly, long before we get to strikes and protests there is the matter of free choice in the job you choose to take.

Having looked for work and chosen to be a miner you knew what the remuneration was to be and you can’t, and should not be allowed to, suddenly demand that you want double pay.

When you took the job you knew the nature of your responsibilities in respect of family and home. It seems though, that if you are in a unionised environment where the union has overwhelming representation it is accepted that once you are in you can behave as you please. You can do just enough to avoid any serious sanction against yourself. You know that you are fire-proof in terms of current legislation that is so skewed towards labour that it loses sight of the requirements of good business practice.

It is in this environment that DEMANDS are born. Not reasoned requests or applications at appropriate times but savage demands backed up with brutalising behaviour.

Notwithstanding the above it appears that the employer in this case was clumsy in their handling of certain issues around pay. Furthermore, they, the mining house, should still shoulder the blame for not being sensitive to what is going on within its organisation and they should have been in a position to respond or even pre-empt the escalation of the matter. That they remained obdurate when the situation started to deteriorate and the first deaths occurred is shameful.

Before proceeding to my next point – journalists please note:

There were NO machine guns on site. There were semi-automatic rifles (probably in 5.56mm) and semi-automatic 9mm pistols – NO machine guns so learn the difference in the interests of accurate reporting.

As to the reaction of the police it appears that poor training and even poorer leadership – on the ground and all the way to the top – is to blame and not the men on the spot. Bear in mind that they had seen not only the bodies of two of their own men who had been killed and brutalised with pangas but also the bodies of similarly mutilated miners. These now fearful individuals may quite reasonably have felt: “If they could do that to their own people then what could any police member expect”.

Oh and why would the rioters attack fellow-miners? Perhaps those miners had tried to be reasonable – comment has been made that a moderate voice on that hillock would have got short shrift – or were they denounced by a sangoma (witch-doctor in common parlance)? Maybe an opportunity to take care of a grudge presented itself?

It appears that among the police were a fairly large number of poorly trained, nervous people concerned that what had happened to their colleagues might happen to them – bluntly these were armed, jittery men who were, in military slang, SHIT SCARED, without experience or appropriate training for the situation.

When, on film, I saw the miners burst out of the bush a moment before the police opened fire I got a fright – and I was only watching a film!

Notice that the FIRST reaction of a number of the police was to run AWAY from the oncoming charge. Only on hearing the firing of those who stood fast did they turn and add their fire to the fusillade. Well trained men do not run and certainly do not fire from BEHIND the firing line endangering their comrades. Press photos also appear to show some members ducking away behind their colleagues – or could that have been when the first shots came from the rioters – something one gets the distinct impression is being denied or suppressed?

A good riot control squad would firstly have had disciplined, trained and respected section leaders in control. NO-ONE would have opened fire without a clear instruction and that instruction does not seem to have been given on the evidence presented.

The first volley might have been birdshot, or similar, designed to hurt and break up the charge. And the sharp pain of such incapacitating ammunition would have dispelled any thoughts of muti protection actually working! (muti protection being some kind of charm – even an oil or ointment – given by the sangoma [witch-doctor] that the users are told – and which they believe – will make them immune to the bullets/weapons of the police – this practice and belief has been seen a lot among terrorists in Africa).

Only if the charge could not be broken should high velocity ammunition have been used and then it should have been controlled and aimed and not been a random volley of shots. Stop the leaders, break the charge. Of course the main instigators hang back and send a few fierce, ill-considered firebrands to lead the charge so it would be no surprise to learn that not one of the dead will be identified as a leader or instigator.

All the repeated cease fire calls also point to belated attempts to stop a panic reaction.

But I am on the side of the police here – the poor buggers who should have been properly trained and led. Well trained police and soldiers are not fearless but they are disciplined and work as a team. Through continuous training and discipline they learn to trust each other and their leaders and they understand the dynamics of situations because they were trained for them.

Furthermore, it is no good having a nucleus of a few well-trained individuals and padding it out with poorly trained and inexperienced members – there is going to be no trust and no cohesion.

Just giving the police military ranks was not going to magically endow them with the appropriate training or ability either.

Had the specialised paramilitary reaction units, trained for such situations, been maintained it may well have been a different matter. Even this is debatable with the decreasing standards that are evident everywhere.

Governance in Africa

I drafted this as a LETTER TO THE EDITOR of one of the South African newspapers quite some time ago and then, as with other projects I started at the time, life (and death) again intervened and I never submitted it.

I came across the draft some days ago and, having often been served by the kind of ineptitude that leaves South Africa and most of Africa in the state it finds itself today, I though brushing it off and posting it might not be a bad idea.

While it points to a specific area it is also a chilling example of what has happened throughout Africa. Rather like a truculent child with a new toy, they – the new dispensations – will not be advised and will not ask for or accept help to look after the asset.

Anyway, here is my delayed comment on something I feel very strongly about.


Comments on healthcare and effectively the nation.

Some years ago a visiting professor from Australia, made a few good points but he should have been aware that apartheid in health care as he called it has recently been visited on the country NOT by whites or wealthy people as he implied but by the very government that, given the opportunity, could not arrange a decent booze-up in a well-stocked brewery.

Why does he think that the private healthcare industry has flourished? Bear in mind that this is the very same PRIVATE healthcare that the country’s leaders [I use the term advisedly] subscribe to for their own health issues. It has flourished in the almost COMPLETE ABSENCE of adequate public healthcare. It has flourished because of the government’s lack of vision and its inability to maintain and build on what they inherited which was not dysfunctional and was, in fact, WORLD CLASS.

Private healthcare is a BUSINESS and is run on BUSINESS principles and that business saw a gap in the market and it ruthlessly exploited it.

While it is unequivocally accepted that apartheid was wrong and should not be defended there are a few truths that seem to be conveniently overlooked when discussing the “legacy” of apartheid.

Why do African LIBERATION movements deem it necessary to FIX what is not broken when they take over?

Using the analogy of a motor vehicle let us say that one is given a perfectly good, well looked after, motor car.

Instead of taking the same care of the vehicle as the previous owner and maintaining it with a view to its value for a later transport upgrade YOU JUST USE IT.

Not only do you use it but you allow friends and acquaintances (the masses) to rip the seats to pieces, dump rubbish on the floor, let water enter through broken windows – that THEY have broken. You neglect to top up the oil and water or budget for regular servicing – MAINTENANCE. You decide to upgrade but you can’t get for the car what you should REASONABLY HAVE BEEN ABLE TO EXPECT had it been maintained.

You are now stuck with no savings and in need of transport. Your cash went on using the car to run your erstwhile friends around Those same friends who trashed the seats and left the windows open and allowed their fast-f0od to spill over the floor and upholstery. They, who bashed the doors into things and scratched the paint. Those same friends who never had any money for petrol, or a few bucks to help fix the car but expected, no, they took it as a RIGHT, to call for lifts here, there and everywhere and at any time. Those same non-contributing friends who were annoyed with you, were actually quite offended, when the car was in one of its increasingly frequent down times with some backyard mechanic.

And you came to dislike the traffic cops because you felt they were targeting your car just because it looked A BIT dilapidated and smoked, A BIT, from the very noisy exhaust.

The current government is like that neglectful car owner and the ever-observant media like the traffic cops, always finding the faults. …..and the friends? The friends are the MASSES, truculently RIOTING and DEMANDING but never contributing a damned thing.

A large part of the infrastructure the current rulers had handed to them over twenty-plus years ago may have been skewed towards one part of the population but it ALLWORKED. It was all run and maintained by competent and experienced people who knew how to manage, maintain, budget and generally look after the assets entrusted to their care – and if they did not do their jobs they knew they would be fired and replaced.

A simple example of carelessness and neglect? The toilets in many hospitals are today frequently found with walls and floors smeared with faeces and vomit with no paper, broken seats and filthy toilet bowls – if they work at all.

So why did they not retain and maintain the best of the best and build on it? Are they so blind that they are unable to see what incompetence and an almost total lack of management skills has done elsewhere on the continent, in southern Africa in particular? Why not build systems with those aforementioned excellent examples in mind.

We, the diaspora of white Africa can answer these questions. However, the uncomfortable truth of our answers is not convenient to those invested in the lie and certainly not to those with their snouts firmly in the trough of corruption and nepotism.

Why not work towards the HIGHEST common denominator you might ask in bewilderment?

The highest common denominators are in the private sector where people are expected to EARN their income.

God forbid that government should stoop so low as to look for good examples to emulate – that would endanger the cadres, the loyal lackeys in the highly paid status positions. Well paid positions that ensure that they say and do the right things (read – do what they are told – as and when they are required to do so). They become experts at obfuscation and denial but not at doing the work required of their exalted positions.

As a struggling wage-earner I would have loved to see the public sector thrive in excellence enabling me to pay lower medical aid fees but, truth be told, I paid a small fortune that I could ill-afford because the thought of relying on the state for any serious care filled me – and many others – with dread.

Of course all of the above, perhaps with a bit of editing, could be applied to pretty much the entire government of the country – as well as much of the rest of Africa

Thoughts on South Africa…and on AID

Am I just a curmudgeonly cynic or do I have a point here?

I lived in Southern Africa for 67 years. I lived, and paid taxes in, South Africa from 1980 to 2016 and I drafted this as a letter to the press several years ago. Life intervened but this remains relevant.

I think it points up something that is fundamentally wrong with the practice of GIVING AID. People who do not help themselves and don’t do the work that they are entrusted with but are helped at every turn by AID will never have an incentive to DO those things that they are contracted to do. As long as the aid is given the VICTIM culture will prevail, the sense of entitlement. Coupled with ineptitude…anyway for what it is worth here are my thoughts from a few years ago…

At the time this was happening…(and had happened before).


MNet / DSTV are once again promoting a Carte Blanche (https://carteblanche.dstv.com/) initiative in respect of the Frere Hospital in the Eastern Cape.

The initiative has called upon corporates and individuals to donate funds to build / rebuild the children’s and neo-natal wing of the hospital.

By all accounts an incredibly successful project, it will provide truly state of the art facilities in this impoverished area.

While the generosity has been great let us not forget that every penny given over to corporate responsibility and charitable causes can be offset against tax. Nothing wrong with that in and of itself and the corporates get some nice publicity.

Most importantly, and without wishing to detract from its success, I feel that these initiatives point up the absolute failure of the post-apartheid government to properly manage funds and maintain and build infrastructure.  

It is NOT the job of private enterprise to build, hand over and maintain facilities for the government. It is why we – individuals and corporates – pay taxes to the government, which government seems to think the money is solely to fund extravagance.

It is accepted that previously disadvantaged areas often did not have quite the same facilities as the more privileged areas. Of course Baragwanath Hospital (the largest in the southern hemisphere) for example, was (note the past tense) a world class hospital and known in the international medical world – and that is in Soweto – the vast township area outside the greater Johannesburg city.

What the new government failed to recognise is that they inherited all these top class facilities that could be used as the model, as the standard to which they should aspire.

Had the existing facilities (and one should include EVERYTHING infrastructural here, not only medical facilities) not been neglected and allowed to deteriorate – no, been dragged – down to the lowest, most base, level then there would be no need to beg private enterprise to do what the government should have done and should be doing on an ongoing basis.

Private enterprise on the other hand could have used all that money to build itself up and create jobs and opportunities. Of course that presupposes that the business world would not have been hamstrung, as it has been by the current administration, by poor decision making, punitive regulations and laws and the entire gamut of negative, oppressive and ignorant government departments each seeming to be trying to outdo the other on measures to drive away and discourage investment and small business initiatives.

With apologies to those grammar Nazis who may pick up errors of tense – I felt if I changed it too much I would lose the immediacy of the time at which I first drafted it.

The Record

These days gramophone records are obsolescent at best – having nearly become obsolete they are experiencing a nostalgic resurgence.

The historical record is one that will never become obsolete but it IS one that some agencies seek to corrupt and rewrite to suit their own agendas.

Not enough people seem to care that the records of history are really important if we are to avoid the mistakes of the past – such as world wars.

A frightening trend appears to be sweeping the world with new generations often seeming to align themselves with suspect organisations. Organisations that would, for their own (and sometimes unknown) purposes deny the lessons of recent history – that which has happened in the last hundred years.

If the record is not truthfully maintained and honestly taught, and the lessons of that history are not fully understood then the future record will speak of the repetition of untold tragedy – of a history unlearned and a record ignored.