Tag Archives: South Africa

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.

The Irene Morning Market

I wrote this article for a course I was doing in 2012 – it was enthusiastically received and I thought I would share it – for those who may never have experienced South Africa?

Sadly, this market is no longer held at the location I have described here – in about early 2016 it was moved to another venue several kilometres away. It is still very popular but somehow not the same? I was last there in late 2016.


Irene is a small suburb south of Pretoria with a village-like atmosphere. It used to be a sleepy hollow but is now enormously popular – even trendy, particularly at weekends

In Irene is “Smuts’ House” that was once the home of General Jan Smuts, a statesman and soldier who was instrumental in the establishment of the League of Nations. (see https://www.britannica.com/biography/Jan-Smuts)

Smuts House is a museum and national monument surrounded by extensive grounds and, twice a month, the Irene morning market takes place there. People travel from all over the region to attend and stall holders arrive early to set up.

Most popular is the food stall area where you can buy almost any kind of food. From Indian delicacies to Portuguese snacks to Chinese spring rolls and custard tarts. There are traditional South African stalls with boerewors rolls (literally “farmer’s sausage”) Spicy and delicious, these are our answer to the New York hot dog.

Artisanal cheeses, preserves, pickles and jams. “Waatlemoen konfyt”, a watermelon preserve using watermelon rind to make a crisp, sugary, delicious treat.

The pancake lady and her twenty-five litre barrel of batter – with a tap. Rotating twelve pans on the burners and flipping pancakes. Her son manages the cinnamon sugar and rolling – they barely stay ahead of the crowd.

Moving on to find curio sellers, local and regional, with carved wood and soapstone, wire sculptures, beadwork and leatherwork.

Bedding, clothing, art, a children’s painting table, coffee and soft drink stalls. Second hand book stalls and plenty of old bits and bobs that my sister describes as the “one man’s junk is another man’s treasure” section. Oh, and collectables of all sorts from old tins to badges, brooches, toys and, and, and…

Pets, particularly  dogs, feature a lot. I learned about “Merle” Great Danes from a tired looking couple ( http://www.all-about-great-danes.com/merle-great-danes.html ) with their magnificent young grey-dappled, white-chested Merle in attendance. Two chaps had a Scotty dog in a zippered “medics uniform” of waistcoat and peaked cap. A beautiful, bored Labrador retriever and a dignified border collie and a man with the slobberiest, puffingest bulldog named Larry!

Camel rides – on aloof-looking camels with the most exotic eyelashes.

A young blonde girl had a colourful “jewellery” stall – a real splash of colour. So eye-catching, I asked if I might take a picture. Poised and relaxed her bright eyes and friendly, unselfconscious smile made the braces on her teeth a part of her sparkle. There is a lesson in this for young people with orthodontic problems because that smile, already so dazzling and natural, will be a real winner when the braces come off.

 

 

People. Fat and thin, well-to-do and modest. Mothers and children, babies and grannies, hot and bothered and cool, calm and collected. Sleeping, exhausted babies and wide-eyed demanding tots in prams with grannies and mommies in attendance revealing varying degrees of love and tired defeat. People, bewildered and brash, shy and outgoing, smiling and grim-faced but all with a common purpose – the Irene morning market.

The Black Dog

Depression – The BLACK DOG

I hope the Australian organisation using the name https://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/ will forgive me but I believe that no lesser persons than Samuel Johnson and Winston Churchill (http://theconversation.com/winston-churchill-and-his-black-dog-of-greatness-36570) coined the term many years before when referencing their own status, that of being the sufferers of depression, quite likely being manic-depressive.

I was married to a sufferer. Indeed, we had a REAL black dog, Digger was his name, an irrepressible, goofy and lovable Labrador/Border collie cross…and my then wife, Rose (Rose-Marie) had her personal, invisible BLACK DOG. Depression is an awful condition that has only in the modern era been identified as a real illness. An illness partly of the mind and partly of the chemical make-up of the body of the sufferer.

I am not going to address the difficulties of her childhood that no doubt contributed to her state of mind as an adult but suffice to say, the condition is apparent in her family as related to me by her cousin, a woman who quietly takes her medication and who shows no sign of her black dog to the outside world.

Rose, when I met her, was a startlingly attractive woman of about thirty-two who must have been (and still was ,actually) quite beautiful in her teens and twenties.

Having been shy and introverted, when she was introduced to the world outside the confines of her family she cut loose with a vengeance.

A short-lived flirtation with LSD and a few other drugs was to trouble her once or twice in the years before we got to know each other but she had the strength of character to KNOW that this would be the end of her.

She was a fairly heavy smoker and her DRUG of choice was to become alcohol.

Rose was always well-groomed and outwardly confident but inwardly she seethed with insecurity and anger. The anger was directed inward at her inability to stand up to people because of a fear that she would be thought lazy or incompetent or not fun-loving. It resulted in her becoming overwhelmed as people loaded their work onto this helpful, seemingly cheerful, woman.

Another result of this fear of being found wanting was that she was bullied. By men in her life and by bosses and colleagues who should have known better.

She had few friends because she suspected everyone who tried to get close to her of having an ulterior motive. The men wanted to get her to bed the women were, in her mind, snide and nasty and as soon as people seemed to become her friends she pushed them away. Not so you would immediately notice but she would just find excuses not to meet them, to not accept their invitations to visit for a party or drinks or a braai (barbecue to the uninitiated). In her mind everyone was criticising her. People would eventually give up.

After several years of knowing her we were married and almost immediately the problems started. The accusations of an ulterior motive to anything I did. The raking over of my previous relationships and the often cruel and vicious personal attacks.

From denigrating my manhood, accusations of wanting to beat her, accusations of wanting other women (I dare not comment on some film star for example – yes, I was likely to meet them, NOT). It did not matter that these things were irrational – they were brought up to provoke. And even when the AA had managed to get her off the booze and she was enjoying the company of the members of her group she remained fragile and volatile.

If she visited a psychologist or counsellor she would find a reason to distrust them, to stop seeing them. I came to the conclusion that as soon as the psychologist started getting too close to the matters that were important the distrust would take over. There would be some reason – “He tries to look down my neckline” to “She criticises me” (sometimes the criticism accusation would be made against an innocent comment on the colour of her skirt but it could be turned into CRITICISM if the need to claim such was there).

After seeing several psychologists over a period of years, she had started to see a psychiatrist and was taking medication. I, we, had hopes for her future.

In 2013 at the age of 53 she went into hospital – a supposedly good, private hospital – for a comparatively minor operation from which she was recovering when inadequate care was to blame for her dying. No one has been held to account and no cause of death, just UNDER INVESTIGATION, appears on her death certificate. Our fifteenth wedding anniversary was eight days away – we had known each other for about twenty years and lived together for sixteen.

My point here is that this lovely, attractive woman did not believe she was just that – a lovely attractive and capable person. She believed everyone had an agenda against her and she trusted no-one except her mother – not even me. She screamed abuse at and accused both her mother, who lived with us, and me of the most awful things. Often the most absurd and hurtful things would be screamed at us as she retreated to her corner, believing that only her truth pertained. No matter that she was wrong, and demonstrably so, her self-loathing and insecurity meant that, in her mind, no one told the truth to her.  

For us who loved her and wanted nothing more than that she should learn to love herself and shine as we knew she could this was the MOST PAINFUL thing to experience.

Some sufferers of depression are openly aggressive, are often highly talented yet believe themselves to be failures. Some are withdrawn and hide the aggression and anger inside. In all cases the anger, the distrust, the feeling of being alone against the world the introversion and the extroversion eats at them.

It slowly and inexorably erodes them. They gradually find themselves without friends or with VERY FEW friends and only close family will generally persist with them. For these supporters it is exhausting, totally exhausting for they will never know if what they say will be construed as criticism, and not as gentle criticism but as harsh, judgemental and condemnatory. The reaction will vary from hysterical withdrawal and tears to very hurtful (to the supporter) shouted accusations and condemnation of the imagined slight, often made in the most confrontational and aggressive manner.

It is usually those closest to the sufferer who experience this behaviour and if anyone not “in the know” were to be told of it they would generally exhibit utter disbelief. The may even buy into the narrative of the sufferer and join with them in condemning those who know and care about the person.

Rose and I never had children together but my experience leads me to believe that the children of such persons learn to co-exist out of an instinctive sense of self-preservation. Rather be on mommy (or daddy’s) side and be with them rather than to even be suspected of not buying into the fiction. The long-term effect of this on children can be devastating and lead to estrangement in later life with sometimes quite tragic outcomes.

The BLACK DOG affects not just the sufferer but their family, their friends, their relationships – intimate and otherwise – but the ripple effect can be damaging to many persons that one may not even imagine could be affected. It is an insidious, scary and very harmful condition.

Many sufferers do not realise they have the condition or, if they do, they play it down. Many avoid or refuse treatment and counselling. There is nothing the people on the periphery can do except hope that the need will be realised and the help sought.

It is a horse and water situation and cannot be forced. It is tragic.

*****

Subsequent to writing the above I came to learn about BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder. Also called: BPD, emotional dysregulation disorder). Could Rose have also been a sufferer of this horrible condition, this very treatable condition? She certainly exhibited some of the symptoms? I don’t know and would hope her psychiatrist would have ruled it out but her life, already difficult, must have been torture if this had been added to her burden.

Irresponsible unions

I make no claims to be a businessman, economist or entrepreneur. I am just an ordinary person in the early evening of his life but I am saddened and angered by a number of things and try to engage when and where my small voice might cause someone to pause for thought.

I once managed a small factory in South Africa that employed a number of people. Black people, mostly from Zimbabwe.

One day our welder, who was also our driver, came back from collecting a cheque and I noticed him talking to some of the others and gathered it was about the cheque – which had not been placed in a sealed envelope so had been carefully scrutinised before being handed in to the bookkeeper.

Asking what it was all about I was told (I will refer to the owner of the company as Mike) that Mike had just received a cheque for R400,000.00. The general feeling was that he was really lucky to be getting such a big amount.

Curious, I asked if the cheque had been made out to the company or to Mike in his personal capacity and of course it had been made out to the company. So I asked if they really, really thought that that money was going to Mike in his personal capacity. I could immediately see that this was considered a silly question – of course it must be for him as he is the boss and he sent for it to be collected.

I then asked them if they budgeted their wages and proceeded to describe an oversimplified family budget – rent, school fees, clothes, food, water and electricity, transport et al. I ended by saying that once all that has been taken care of then, and only then, could one look at what, if anything, is left over. If there is some left over then maybe one can go to a movie, have some friends over for a meal and maybe even put some aside – savings for a rainy day.

This concept was clearly understood so I now proceeded to ask them what they think becomes of money that the company gets in – earns. I got a kind of a puzzled look and asked if they had given a thought to the fact that the company also had overheads.

Wages, utilities, vehicle finance and fuel and maintenance. Equipment maintenance and new tools as necessary.

Once wages have been paid…and I went on explaining that every penny that comes in has to be accounted for in terms of expenses and then raw materials to make more product and then, and only then, could the owners and directors look to taking a share, or their wages, out of what was left from the month’s income.

It took some effort to get these men to realise that the buildings were not just there for us to use. That we paid for the phones and electricity and water and everything else out of the income from sales after we had paid all our accounts, paid our staff and so on. It was a bit uphill but the message got through. It was obvious that the costs associated with running a business had not really been given any thought. The business was just there, where they worked.

We all know that making rich or wealthy people poor, will not benefit the worker or the job seeker. The person with the vision who is prepared to take the risk in business will take his abilities elsewhere, where they will be appreciated and not be penalised for creating an enterprise that provides the means for others to earn a living.

Now interestingly these factory workers were mostly men who had immigrated from Zimbabwe in the late 1980s and early 1990s and had benefited from the one thing Mugabe had got right up to that time –  education. It was interesting to hear from these men that they were surprised by the levels of illiteracy they encountered in the townships but for all that they were still relatively ignorant in terms of the VERY BASICS of how a business operates – and a small/medium business at that.

The point of all this is that every year South Africa has the same riots and demands over wages and these demands are often, USUALLY in fact, outrageous and not sustainable – not to mention destructive and wasteful with town centres trashed, shops looted and even burned. All supposedly to protest poor wages…there is no logic to it.

In my considered opinion the unions carefully do NOT school their members and shop stewards on how business works and whip up their uninformed members every year regardless of the harm that it does to the economy and the image of the country as a business destination.

The unions are irresponsible and culpable in this because if their members were informed and basically knowledgeable on how businesses function then they would better understand why certain things are not easily granted. They would know that minimum wages are keeping many of their friends and family on the outside of the workforce. They might even begin to realise that the riots and strikes for unsustainable and unreasonable increases are mischievous in the extreme.

Until there is better understanding – REAL UNDERSTANDING – by the various workforces around this matter it will never be resolved.

Building a home requires everyone to work together but building a nation that is prosperous NEEDS a united vision and every time that vision starts to take shape it is quickly obscured by irresponsible, inept, greedy and selfish agendas.

Can the unions be rationalised? As long as they see the ANC as their protector and benefactor I rather doubt it and until then the country will continue to suffer because what the union is meant to be there for – to see to the fairness or otherwise of the workers conditions – has been subsumed by that thing that seems to be at the heart of everything – power to the few.

 

 

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.

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.