Hairybacks, ‘souties’ & an accidental ANC member

Posted on July 13, 2020


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Reflections of a wayward boy (4)

My life changed during that single day in early 1961 when I returned to the Germiston Advocate newspaper office after attending a Group Areas Board hearing and making my first visit to a township where I met and interviewed people who were about to be evicted from their homes by racist bureaucracy. But it was only with hindsight that I realised how much it changed me.

I thought I was about to write my first great, front page story as I headed back to the Advocate office. I had sat, inwardly appalled, through a Group Areas Board hearing and then interviewed people whose lives were being destroyed by vicious officialdom. But when I entered the office I was soon disabused of my front page ambitions. Chief reporter, Wally Leitch, whom I had last seen, passed out, over his desk that morning, was furious.

After informing me angrily that I was never to assume that I could do as I pleased when he was “not feeling well”, he listened briefly to my gabbled report and then dismissed it with a wave of his hand. Nothing untoward had happened. Unless there was “something dramatic”, the Advocate “doesn’t carry those sorts of things”.

Inwardly, I cursed myself for my naivety, but at least I thought I had learned another lesson: never let wishful thinking substitute for careful analysis. Unfortunately, it was a lesson that took many years to sink in. All that it did at the time was to provide a clearer focus to my rebellion. And that was something I was very much in need of.

By my early teens I had become a rebel with confused causes. Which was scarcely surprising since, by a quirk of modern history, I grew up “English” and a predominately “Afrikaner” working class suburb designed for white artisans and their families. And my parents, in that third of an acre, three-bedroom, face brick environment, were also an ideological mismatch: a classic, if uninvolved, liberal and a paternalistically racist Labour Party supporter.

My mother used to buy her groceries at the “Indian shop” near the old mine workings to the south of our suburb. Then, one day, the shop was gone, the building shuttered and then demolished. “They must have moved on because business was bad,” my mother said. My father — who, until his dying day never saw any contradiction in the 1922 slogan, Workers of the world unite for a white South Africa — seemed merely to regard my mother’s shopping habits as one of her quirks.

In the Advocate office in 1961, the image of the “Indian shop” and what may have happened dawned sickeningly. And, over the following days, other aspects of my background began to achieve a sometimes gut-wrenching degree of clarity. I remembered when, as a child, for years a large cart drawn by 16 oxen had camped on the open fields beyond the houses. It carried a huge cargo of watermelons and an old black man and his family would bring their produce into the area and we would buy. Then he and his family and the cart and oxen stopped coming. We regretted that, but never asked why, or wondered what had happened to the farmer, his family, his oxen, cart and watermelons. But then none of us knew where he had come from in the first place.

At least, by the time of the general election of 1958, I had realised that the Afrikaner/English antagonism I had grown up with was less to do with the Anglo-Boer war of 1899-1902, than with the more confused aftermath of World War 2. That was when “Boers” supporting General Jan Christiaan Smuts backed the Allies and others didn’t.

And so Sarel Naude, later to become a mayor of Germiston, and his wartime friend, Dirk Nel, became my mentors in street scraps as we “Sappe” (SA Party, although by then the United Party) did battle with the Nats (National Party). It was simply a case of us and them since, I later realised, both parties were competing for which would guarantee white domination.

However, outside of personal relationships, English speakers were still “the English” and Afrikaans speakers “the Boers”. To them we were “Souties” (salties) or, in cruder vein, “soutpiele” (salt penises) or “rooinekke” (red necks); we returned the compliments, referring to the Afrikaans speakers as hairy backs, rock spiders and mealie munchers.

But there were also gradations in the terms of abuse for the Afrikaans speakers. Hairy backs were not those who lived alongside us, with probably comparable family incomes and similar work related status; they were mere ordinary Boers. And many of them were our close friends. The real variety of hairy backs lived in the exclusively Afrikaans enclave of “sub-economic housing” adjoining our suburb of bungalow housing for artisans. The enclave was known as Wannenburg or to all of us — “English” and “Afrikaners” alike — as Hollywood.

We sneered at the hideous sameness of the red brick houses squatting in the middle of small, usually uncultivated plots of red sand surrounded by wire fencing and gates that seemed, uniformly, to sag off their hinges. And we despised the multitude of usually barefoot children who all seemed to wear khaki shorts and shirts and to look rather grimy. We threw clods of earth at them or even shot at them with catapults, but they never ventured for any time into our domain nor we into theirs. It was said in our area that the people of Hollywood were so poor — and poverty seemed to be related directly to degeneracy — that they couldn’t even afford servants.

I was still angrily mulling over these images from the past, considering the new realities of the present and prospects for the future when I got a call from Joe Gqabi, the radical journalist I had met at the Group Areas hearing. “What are you doing on Saturday night? he asked. I had nothing planned. “Come to a party,” said Joe. He arranged that I would meet Costa “a comrade with a scooter” on a street corner in Johannesburg at 7pm on Saturday.

I was there well before 7pm. and my lift duly turned up: a burly, tousle-haired medical student astride a Vespa scooter. “You Terry?” he asked and, without waiting for an answer, stuck out his hand. “Costa Gazidis. Hop on.” I hopped on an off we went, soon leaving the city and onto a darkening road leading south and west. Then Costa turned off the road. We bounced along on a barely discernible track before reaching a road that led through the mean, matchbox houses that defined Soweto and on to a party in one of those houses and in the adjoining yard.

It is a night that I remember as a kaleidescope of colour, light and sound, and, particularly between Joe, Costa and me, earnest discussion. It was to lead to several more meetings with Joe, usually on a “whites only” bench in a Germiston park, screened by the overhanging branches of a tree. It was there that I was recruited — briefly and in error — as probably the first only non black African member of the ANC.

It also led to finding another political guide and mentor in a most unlikely place: the head office of Amalgamated Press, owners and publishers of the Germiston Advocate and the local newspapers serving towns to the east and west of Johannesburg.

Posted in: Autobiographical