© DESMOND DESAI, DMD EDU-HOME, 2008
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DESMOND DESAI'S AUTOBIOGRAPHY
(CONTINUALLY REVISED AND ON-GOING)
EARLY YEARS: RIVERSDALE, GEORGE and PORTERVILLE: 1952-1958
" Then also, I must account - for the sake of the numerate - that our Austin was 'clever'.
Cleverness for cars depended on whether one could make a mathematically true
sentence out of their registration numbers. The Austin's registration was CEX 972.
Thus 9 minus 7 equals 2 or 9 equals 7 plus 2. Clever, hey! "
I was born in my grandmother's house at 72 Barry Street, Riversdale, South Africa, during the early hours of the morning on 29 October 1952. This picturesque little town, famous for its landmark mountain formation called 'Sleeping Beauty', is situated on the garden route, 300 km from Cape Town. My father, Alfred Desai, was a school teacher who hailed from George. He was the youngest child of Coovergi Haribhai Desai, a Gujerati-speaking Indian from Amritsar, India, who in 1911 married Paulina (see photo below), a local lady and member of the large and old Du Plessis family in George. Coovergi became an extremely successful businessman. In 1916 he purchased a large dwelling in the main road of George, called Montague Street (later re-named Langenhoven Street). In George he raised four sons and five daughters, while running well-established and flourishing businesses in George, Knysna and Mossel Bay. Coovergi excelled as a property developer as well. He single-handedly established a township in Blanco just outside George, which was later razed to the ground by the the many proponents of apartheid. It is a pity that his memory also faded in time, such as the famous "Sammy se brug" (Sammy's bridge) in Montague Street, which was locally named after my respected grandfather. I think that our present government and the George community should seriously consider renaming the bridge after Coovergi. This act will go a long way towards mending the unpleasant thoughts I have of how Coovergi's estate was destroyed during the late 1950's. The deed of sale of his home in Montague street to his white tenant states that one of his less-educated sons, Sautibhai, who under dubious circumstances was appointed executor of the estate, empowered the lawyer, a certain Casper van Zyl, to state that the then late Coovergi had legally sold his home to his former white tenant James Leggat for four hundred pounds, even though the deed of sale states that the fair valuation of his property which consisted of two portions, was six hundred and ninety five pounds. In this way, after Coovergi's death in 1958 when he was in his eighties, a white person acquired his home under "dubious circumstances". I vividly remember how upset my father and his brother Jinnibhai were about this matter at the time. We never claimed from the "Land Claims" board set up by the new SA government after 1994. Firstly, this was because my late cousin Clive Theodore phoned me early one morning that a government official who handled his claim, could find "no proof" that Coovergi had owned property in Montague Street. Of course, had I not found proof in the title deeds that Coovergi was an honourable person, they might have got away with it. Secondly, we believe that we were 'robbed' beyond imagination by the apartheid government in the 1950's and 1960's. It is therefore impossible for the new government to make good for injustices done in the past. There is just too much for the new government to fix up, so thoroughly the old government messed things up!
THREE DESAI GENERATIONS IN GEORGE, SOUTH AFRICA
Left: Coovergi and his wife, Paulina, on their wedding day in 1911
Centre: Alfred and his wife, Chrissie, in 1948/49
Right: Desmond and his wife, Zalda, on their wedding day, 8 February 1975
However, the story of how I located Coovergi's title deeds is interesting indeed: The deeds office official searched everywhere for the original title deeds. I remember receiving an old handwritten book, and after having searched for the name 'Coovergi' for a very long time, and being on the point of giving up my search, I found his name: 'Eureka'! There it was: In 1916 Coovergi bought the property legally, and as an Indian nogal. Coovergi's name had been vindicated for ever! He did not hide anything. He was also proudly Indian (, as I am today South African)!
The official simply said: "As ek julle is, claim ek!" (If I were you, I would claim compensation from the government!)
I shiver at the very thought of either not having found the title deeds (of which I posses a copy which is safely stored), or having to live with what Clive Theodore told me about his (Theodore's) land claims, which prompted my earnest 'research'.
My father was devastated at the time when he received his inheritance from Coovergi's estate. We all thought of Coovergi as a 'very rich' man. However, her left his daughters, who married into the Levendal's of Knysna, Theodore's of Oudthoorn and the Simpson's of Pacaltsdorp, and sons, relatively very little money. My father used this money to buy a second-hand car! How sad!
My mother was Christina (fondly called 'Chrissie', born on Christmas Day 1927) Rosina Elsie Du Preez, who also was a school teacher. Her mother, Magdalena (Maggie), qualified as a school teacher in the early years of the twentieth century. Maggie - my grandmother - never married, but "was engaged twice or thrice" to a miserable, frequently drunk, schoolteacher called Adams who hailed from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).
The Du Preez family was a large and respectable family in Riversdale. Before moving to Barry Street, my grandmother's parents owned a large tract of land outside Riversdale. Fonnie - Maggie's father - was the miller in the area. He was half-white. Because of his mixed ethnic descent as well as the fact that he married a 'dark' woman Rosalina ('Rosie') Denyssen, his historical mill just outside Riversdale where my mother and grandmother both grew up, was raised to the ground. Later the South African "apartheid" government of the 1960's built the Landboukollege (Agricultural College) on the land. All memories of the well-known miller Fonnie Du Preez were obliterated from white memory - but not for ever!
I was thus born into an educated and socially well-placed family in mid-twenty century 'Coloured' South African society. I must hasten to say that I have always regarded myself as a full-blooded South African. I would have hated to be an 'Indian', or even 'White' South African for that matter. I have always regarded Coovergi as a great man: this pillar of our South African family married Paulina Du Plessis, an 'ordinary' Southern Cape girl of Khoi descent, whom he must have loved dearly. Paulina was a tall, refined, pretty lady, who played the organ in their home in Montague Street. I was fortunate to have known her brother Apie's daughter, Johanna, very well during the mid 1970's and 1980's. Johanna was an intelligent, talented, pleasant, sociable person, who taught farm children her whole life on her ancestral farm, Diepkloof, where her brother, Christie, was principal. Christie's grave on Diepkloof is in serene surroundings, unlike Coovergi's in Rosemore, George, which was vandalised notwithstanding uncountable repairs by my aunts, others, and myself. Cars belonging to nearby owners of sub-economic dwellings, even started driving over his grave, which prompted me to remove his tombstone, with permission of course, and due notification to the George Municipality at the time.
Unfortunately Paulina died young, in 1931, when my father was only a toddler. Her half-white father, Abraham Du Plessis, must have been proud of this daughter. However, Coovergi and his father-in-law did not get along very well! Was it because Coovergi was an Indian, and short of stature, unlike his tall daughter Paulina? Or did Coovergi dislike him because Abraham proudly rode around on horseback in George, thinking he was somebody special? Or was it simply because Coovergi remained a Hindu at heart, and loved his mother tongue Gujerati dearly? One of the things I certainly remember clearly about Coovergi is the broken Afrikaans, and the many letters he used to write in Gujerati to family and friends we never knew and/or were told about. Coovergi, in my opinion, was not only a great man, but certainly most learned - albeit not in the Afrikaans culture!
It was from my Desai grandmother that I must have inherited my intense love for music. Indeed, the Du Preez's sang their Christian hymns with great gusto, but I do not think that they were musicians extraordinaire! Not even great-grandfather Fonnie belonged to a band, although millers have formerly been quite willing to allow boeremusiek dances in their barns at distant and desolate places! During such and other occasions, much fun and frolicking took place, between master and slave alike. But to expound on this, would be drifting too much...
My father, Alfred, belonged to a dance band before he met my mother. During the 1940's, Alfred and my later father-in-law Vernon Smith, teamed up to form a dance band in George. Both were young and looking for enviable maidens to 'conquer'!
I thought that my father was an astonishingly talented fellow. He could play the piano, organ, guitar, banjo, and piano-accordion. As a school teacher he performed musicals with his young learners in the 1950's in Porterville, where Alfred and his family later moved to. Apart from his musical talents, he qualified himself as a specialist woodwork teacher in Paarl in 1955, and crafted a large number of remarkable pieces of furniture: jewellery boxes, side-boards, most with intricate 'ball and claw' feet! (I still love ball and claw furniture today!)
In Porterville, the Desai family socialized with the Liebenbergs, Ehrenreichs and other teachers as far afield as Saron and Goedverwacht near Piketberg.
By 1955 our family consisted of three young sons: Sidwell, two years my senior, and Colin, two years younger than me. My only sister was to be born only in 1959. All of us were born in 72 Barry Street, except for Sidwell who was born in a little house on the farm Diepkloof near George. At that time in 1950, my mother seemed to be content with staying in the region in which my father grew up in. Alfred must have loved the George area, where here grew up. As a young man, he was fond of driving to Diepkloof and surrounding areas on his motorbike. Both Chrissie and Alfred started their teaching career at Hibernia Primary School in George. My mother was young, pretty, sociable and above all, highly intelligent. She fell in love with the attractive half-Indian at first sight. She even drove around with him on his motorbike! This was the effect Alfred had on Chrissie until his early death in 1960/61 and even afterwards until she blew her last breath on 24 November 1994, where I was present. Chrissie never re-married!
My earliest memories are of Porterville in the 1950's. I remember our flat-roofed house on the corner in Porter Street, which we rented from Paulsen who stayed many miles further away in Somerset West. I remember the banana trees, our pigeon cote and the neighbours. I remember the likeable white shopkeeper Van Eck and the stern Indian businessman Hassim.
I also clearly remember my first day in Sub A (Grade One) in Porterville. On my first day, I had to walk to school. My father and mother did not believe in 'babying' their children. I only remember snatches of my early school experience: Harriet Liebenberg was my teacher. She was tall, young and vivacious, and possessed a fair skin with freckles. I cannot remember any class mates at all. I do remember Spring Day on 1 September 1958 when special attention was paid to the wonders of nature and song.
I remember our first car more vividly, an almost new 1958 Austin A50 model. My father bought it with the money he inherited from his father who died suddenly in Oudtshoorn in 1958. I remember Coovergi's funeral in George, and our drive through the Outeniqua mountain pass for his funeral. My father was heartbroken at the time. It seemed as if his life had come to an end. My mother thought that he reacted in this way because his mother had died when he was only months old, and only knew a step-mother Fredericks - Coovergi's second wife from Pacaltsdorp near George.
My father seemed obsessed with teaching my mother to drive our Austin. He was to commit suicide about two years later in Malmesbury. My mother remained thankful that her husband taught her to drive a car, although she was unable and too distraught to do so for months after my father's death in the very same car.
I remember how my mother reversed the almost new car into a tree just outside Porterville, on what must have been a late Friday afternoon. My father, a perfectionist and visibly disturbed by the accident, immediately drove the whole family to Riversdale to have the damaged boot repaired the Saturday.
Nobody was allowed to see our misfortunes - my father thought that he had the perfect family - a fine wife and three sons.
I remember how my father helped my elder brother Sidwell to enter a handwriting competition. He showed him some examples of how to write. (My father had a special gift for art as well!) As tiny as I was at the time, I bravely asked my father whether he (- my father -) would have won the competition, had he - in stead of Sidwell - entered. My father was not impressed with my arrogance and argument. Although I cannot remember it, I am sure that he gave me a huge wack!
The three brothers, Sidwell, Colin and myself were the proud owners of two pushcarts and a tricycle. Coovergi, our Indian grandfather, bought the tricycle for Colin when he paid us a visit in Porterville in about 1957. Coovergi was a proud old man, who lost one of his eyes when he was young. He thus had a glass eye. One day I helped him to fit his glass eye, which he inserted the wrong way round! My mother was amused, but my father and grandfather were furious. On another occasion I spoilt Coovergi's holiday by throwing some Porterville sand in his hat. I even hid his hat from him sometimes (I may have sat on it as well!)!
That is how Colin received a bicycle from Coovergi. Colin was kind towards Coovergi; even at my young and tender age, I was difficult to handle!
Let me now dwell on the broad issue of culture, and specifically of language, which has affected and dominated the lives of my family, and that of my forefathers for decades, if not centuries:
The Du Plessis's from George and Du Preez's from Riversdale were Afrikaans-speaking. They were Christian, and had generally a very clear set of values, based on worthiness, respects and honesty. Notwithstanding the few 'mistakes' made in the families - there were a few 'single' parents, at least one maiden fell pregnant from more affluent white males in the area - they were close-knit families, who loved getting together and having a good time. They were good-natured, well-balanced Afrikaans people. They produced several leaders: community and political leaders, headmasters of schools, church leaders, and so on. The children were fairly well-educated. My mother, for example, received her teacher's training at Sohnge Teacher's College in Worcester in the 1940's.
The Desai's from George were different. Although they were baptized in the Dutch Reformed Church (probably due to their mother Paulina's influence), most of the children were sent to Cape Town for their education (probably due to their father Coovergi's influence). Zonnebloem College and Trafalgar High School in District Six were used by Coovergi to educate his sons. Monnibhai went to Trafalgar, but died too young to realize his ambitions of becoming a medical doctor. My father studied at Zonnebloem. Culturally speaking, the Desai's were thus more English-orientated, although they belonged to the DRC Church.
In Porterville, English was our mother tongue. My mother was well-educated, and could speak English well. While we all still love Afrikaans, we loathed the narrow exclusive 'Afrikaner' mentality, and the impending insane political segregation policy which the Nationalist Apartheid Government in South African tried to force down on all South Africans.
I think the Du Preez's and Du Plessis families were more practical than the Desai's in this respect. We all, however, resented the ill-founded philosophy that some people, purely because of their skin-colour and heritage, are mentally - and otherwise - inferior. My mother and father united as one in their opposition to the political philosophy of segregation!
None of their children differed from these noble thoughts. We did not think of whites (or blacks) are more inferior or superior to us. We were (and still are) all equal. Of course, at the same time, we accepted that some of us have been blessed with a greater measure of some natural talents than others.
We were taught to do whatever it takes to realize our dreams. My sensitive father had his own ambitions and dreams of his talents and for his family, which he humbly tried to realize. After his death, my courageous mother took charge of those dreams: In her own words to me, shortly before her death when I told her that she was a good mother, she simply replied with a slight smile and a faint sigh:
"I tried my best."
But let me return to Porterville, the Liebenbergs, the Ehrenreichs, and the nearby mission stations:
The Liebenberg's were family friends who loved my father, mother and us, their children. They were educated and respected in Porterville: most were teachers. I remember the grand old lady, Mrs Liebenberg. However, one of the most outstanding features of the Liebenbergs is that they were 'white', in all respects. (Of course, I saw no connection between colour and ethnicity at the time). They were like the Petersen's of Riversdale, clearly of good social standing, respected, of white descent, but clearly politically opposed to white Afrikaner nationalism of the time.
The Liebenberg daughters were pretty, particularly the one whose name I cannot remember. I think that she liked my father a lot, or the other way around, but I was too small to be sure. Nonetheless, they were all very nice to us, and we could visit them whenever we liked and play in their large yard, which spanned several acres. (I preferred to play with the Smiths, and I was particularly fond of an older boy called "Duppie"). ('u' pronounced, as in the word 'up' or 'under'.) (Little did I know then that I was to marry a Smith later in George.)
My father had a best friend, Mr Ehrenreich, who was a principal on a nearby farm. Steenwerp. Mr Ehrenreich was a witty, jovial and amicable person who loved playing cards called "klawerjas". He also tried to make a buck or two, whenever he could! He really provided the Desai family with lots of fun times, and a good holiday.
The older people, including my parents used to socialize with other educators from Saron and Goedverwacht. I think that it was in Goedverwacht or elswewhere, that my father met up with another of his great buddies, Boeta Jul (Mr Julies). Little did I know at the time that I was to lecture to the very Boeta Jul later during the 1970's at Hewat College of Education, where I started lecturing in 1976. Boeta Jul was good at mathematics, which of course, I did not know when we lived in Porterville.
Life was good in Porterville. We often drove with our Austin out of town to Piketberg, or to Steenwerp. My father, probably like most others, like to speed with Volksies (Volkswagen cars). I remember how my father put our Austin into overdrive, and left the Volksie way behind, do our sheer delight!
Then also, I must account - for the sake of the numerate - that our Austin was 'clever'. Cleverness for cars depended on whether one could make a mathematically true sentence out of their registration numbers. The Austin's registration was CEX 972. Thus 9 minus 7 equals 2 or 9 equals 7 plus 2. Clever, hey!
My first experiences of klawerjas ( - card game which involves adding and comparing totals of two opposing pairs of players - ) was entirely due to the impressionable Mr Eirehreich. He was a formidable player of this particular popular game of cards. he has an incredible memory for cards, could anticipate card moves, never counted wrong, could psychological completely mislead and outwit an opponent, and with sheer brilliance could force ouspeel ( - second phase of a round of cards to determine the winner - ) at will. Mr Ehrenreich could easily play you a vlag ( - literally a flag, which indicates that the opponent could not win any round of cards, and whose 'won' cards totalled zero'). He played gave so many varkies ( - which meant that the opponents could not win any round in a set of rounds), that had these varkies (pigs) been the real thing, he would have been richer than Bill Gates!
But Mr Ehrenreich never played for money, just for the sheer social fun of it. We all had wonderful occasions with this lovely family from the farm Steenwerp. He had a lovely, timid wife, who made lovely food, and sometimes played cards with us. I remember her constant smile and giggles or bursts of laughter as if it were yesterday. Their son, was very quite and well-mannered. Sometimes we played with him, but he was a little too young for us, the three Desai boys.
One aspect of Mr Ehrenreich's card playing that remained indelibly imprinted on my musical mind, is his rhythmical, vocal expression of "hibikik" (in Afrikaans one would prefer to write: "hubbukik" rather. His utterance of the syllables of "hubbikik" in rapid succession, would signal danger: As he slammed his card on the table, he would simultaneously utter: "hubbukik". Then we all knew that he would play you a vlag. Very rarely, however, he pretended to have received good cards with a less than enthusiastic "hubbikik", which clearly demonstrates the good nature of the man.
We loved the man Ehrenreich, the time with him, and our childhood. I remember that one morning my father hastily had to go to Steenwerp to support Mr Ehrenreich in some private matter. I cannot remember what it was, except that it somehow was related to money and his health. However, the fact that my father went to help his friend in need also illustrates the compassion my father had for his friends.
We ( - the Porterville Desai's ) all inherited this compassion. We would go out of our way to help our immediate family and friends in need. But there is also another side to our characters, which will probably become clear in due course.
I think that we inherited this 'soft' side from our Du Plessis grandmother, Paulina. My mother Chrissie also thought that the tall and slender stature of my father, as well as his sensitive nature, was passed on from the Du Plessis's side. I must admit that I experienced the same compassion from my father's cousin Johanna Du Plessis, when she offered to store Coovergi's tombstone (which I mentioned earlier, was desecrated by vandals in George) on her property in Pacaltsdorp. Johanna even wrote in her will that her "Uncle Coovergi's' tombstone should remain and safeguarded on her property! I am truly grateful to Johanna for this, and I am sure, Coovergi as well.
I am compelled to mention the occasion when my father accidentally drove with our Austin over one of our pigeons. My father actually cried, and I bandaged the poor bird's broken leg. Indeed, my father was a compassionate man who loved animals.
One day my father bought us new shoes. I remember the soft yellowish, rubber soles. Porter Street, the road in which our house was situated, was newly tarred with a very rough coat of stones and tar at that very time. With my new shoes on, I ran up and down this road, only to discover within a short while that the soles of my new shoes did not exist any more. My father was furious, but my mother cautioned him by saying: "This is what happens when you buy the children cheap shoes!" Such was my mother's nature: courageous, much more 'insensitive' than my father, thick-skinned or politically astute, and outspoken. I think I also inherited a fair measure of those character traits from her. Pity she could not sing. In fact, I think she must have been tone-deaf, which is one of my areas of speciality these days! My singing prowess again, I must have inherited from the Du Preez side, although I have nothing to prove it!
Our time in Porterville came to an end, when my father succesfully applied for a post at Schoonspruit High School in Malmesbury. His reasons for the move were: he was now a high school teacher, and Malmesbury was only about 45 minutes drives from Cape Town. Porterville on the other hand, was 45 minutes drive from Paarl, and much more than an hour's drive from Cape Town.
The last time I remember driving from Porterville to Malmesbury with my father, was when a stone shattered the windscreen of our car somewhere between Porterville and Riebeeck West, while we were enroute to Malmesbury. This was a bad omen, for within a short while, probably within less than a year and a half, my father would have committed suicide in Malmesbury. Thereafter, our young, large and fatherless family would be left devastated and scattered, if only for a relatively short period...
MALMESBURY: 1959 - 1974
" Well, I took advantage of their interest in us, and asked the young girls whether
they would share some of their 'secrets' with us, in exchange for being 'special'
friends. It worked, and we all enjoyed the show of indecency!"
I grew from a very young boy into an adult in Malmesbury. Over a period of 15 years - during the height of apartheid and oppression, and by 1974 - my mother reared and educated 4 children single-handedly. By 1974, I held two degrees in Mathematics, whereas my eldest brother Sidwell had been teaching English at Schoonspruit High School for four years already. My younger brother Colin had by then completed his second year at the University of Cape Town for a Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics. My only sister Gail - who was born in Riversdale during the year we moved to Malmesbury in 1959 - had almost finished her high school studies by 1974.
But let me describe the finer details of my interaction, reactions, impressions, life and memories over this important period, as best as I can remember them (- these will be continually updated, as we go along and as they become clearer in my memory of that time more than thirty years ago.)
I remember that we had to rent housing from my uncle Jinnibhai ('Jin') in Kraaifontein in 1959. (I cannot recall that my mother and youngest brother lived with us in Kraaifontein, in which case they must have stayed with our granny Du Preez in Riversdale during this period, probably to ensure the safe arrival of their baby.) My father and his two elder sons - Sidwell and I - drove by car to Malmesbury. My father started teaching at Schoonspruit High School, where a Mr Cupido was principal. Sidwell and I attended Liebenberg Primary School: I went to Sub B (Grade 2) and Siddie (as we called my elder brother) went to Standard 3 (Grade 5). Our Ms Denise van Zyl, the principal's daughter, became my teacher, whereas Mr Lategan was Siddie's teacher.
I remember my first school day in Sub B clearly. I was introduced by teacher Denise to the class, and was ordered to share a desk with a boy who was very similar in stature and height to me. This boy was 'Eben' Lingeveldt ( - his full names were Abraham Ebenezer!) That afternoon, after school while waiting for my father, Eben and I had a fight right in front of the school buildings. I remember how we both fell against the steel school fence in our struggle. Eben tore my new (but 'cheap') navy blazer badly. When my father arrived, he was furious with me. My mother must have saved the day for me again, because I cannot remember that my father gave me a spanking. What was more probable was that my father probably became tired of all the driving, and perhaps had an equally bad day at his new school Schoonspruit.
I cannot remember much of the schooling I received from Denise. I do recall vividly the games we played during intervals: marbles, rugby, cricket, and so on. I also remember that I started examining the Malmesbury (or Swartland) soil, vegetation and nature closely. I actually started liking the place.
There was one incident after school I just have to recall: While I was waiting and enjoying some games with one or two boys from the nearby township West Bank, some young girls pleaded with us to join them. Obviously we were shy of girls, and I can remember that my little friends were'nt pleased with their approach as well. Well, I took advantage of their interest in us, and asked the young girls whether they would share some of their 'secrets' with us, in exchange for being 'special' friends. It worked, and we all enjoyed the show of indecency!
By the next day these little girls had told everybody what had happened (which is not what you think it was, and will remain my secret!) My friends took care of this embarrassment by simply chasing them away! From then onwards, for several years on, I remained extremely shy of girls. Eben, for example, was a far better friend than these girls. He supported me and did not embarrass me in any way, I thought at the time.
Back to Riversdale for six months
"...my report for that year showed B's in all subjects, except for mathematics,
for which I obtained an A. My average was recorded as '70%'. Since my parents
were educated and quite clever, we stated the impossibility of getting an average
of 70%, when at least 70% was achieved in all subjects, except for mathematics,
in which more than 80% was obtained. My granny was adamant that she did not
make a mistake. Her response to our intellectual argument was a blunt
"Loop julle!" (This would translate roughly as f*ck you all!)"
My father decided one or two months later, that we - my mother and children - had to stay in with my granny in Riversdale. This was due to my mother's pregnancy with Gail. My father then visited us in Riversdale every weekend. I remember how Siddie and I drove with my father at 4 0'clock on Sunday afternoons, when he started driving back from Riversdale to Malmesbury. We were dropped off at the post office in Barry Street, while my father then drove alone to 300 kilos to Malmesbury and to his boarding place with the Jasson's!
In Riversdale my granny taught me in Sub B at a school where Eric Groenewald was principal. I remember that my sister Gail was born during that year, and that my mid-year report reflected B's in all subjects, except for mathematics, for which I obtained an A. My average was recorded as '70%'. Since my parents were educated and quite clever, we stated the impossibility of getting an average of 70%, when at least 70% was achieved in all subjects, except for mathematics, in which more than 80% was obtained. My granny was adamant that she did not make a mistake. Her response to our intellectual argument was a blunt "Loop julle!" (This would translate roughly as f*ck you all!)" My mother was upset, and unamused, but allowed the matter to rest there, mainly because : "Hy her darem eerste gestaan" ( I still came tops in my class with my granny, notwithstanding a low average!)
I have to stress that my entire schooling - in Porterville, Riversdale and Malmesbury - took place through the medium of Afrikaans. However, my father insisted that we should speak English at home. Most educated families during those days of apartheid, who spoke English at home, did so to show their opposition to the 'language of the oppressor', namely Afrikaans. Many people, even today, erroneously think that by speaking English, rather than Afrikaans, we wanted to show our superiority in our community, and that this decision rendered our families as 'exclusive'! This argument might have been true for those of us we learnt to play piano. At that time, learning to play piano, was regarded as a better 'hobby' than, for example, playing rugby!
Back in Malmesbury
"As was the case with my granny Du Preez's funeral in 1986 - when I played George Handel's 'Death March"
from his oratorio 'Saul' on the Riversdale Lutheran Church pipe organ in Barry Street - the solemn and
oft-performed rendition of this highly emotional recital, pierced my soul, which left a bizarre impression
that remains forever!"
During the latter part of that year, in 1959, we moved into our rented house in Malmesbury in Smuts Street. We were a united family again. My little sister Gail was barely six months old. We had a British piano, decorated in a yellowish paint by my artistic father.
One day my father had difficulty getting some aspect of piano-playing across to Siddie, my elder brother. Although my father did not teach me to play the piano, I tried to intervene with something clever. I think my father gave me a slap, and persisted teaching his eldest son on how to play the piano, rather than me, who clearly must have appeared more musical that the rest of the family. At that time really wanted to learn more about music, and just could not wait to do so.
I re-attended Denise van Zyl's Sub B class. Again I sat next to Eben, who by then became my closest friend. On my first day Denise welcomed me back, and asked me what I had learnt in Riversdale. I immediately responded with the Afrikaans poem "Jan Fiskaal":
" Jan Fiskaal
sit op 'n paal
sy hoed is stukkend
en sy kop is kaal"
which could be roughly translated as:
sits on a pole,
his hat is tattered,
and his head is bald."
Denise was not pleased with my honest effort. Noticeably shocked, she said: "Is dit al?" (Is that all?)
Eben then, with great expression and beaming triumph, recited one of their lengthy poems, which I cannot remember, but sounded something like "Makoemazaan, die Waterman".
Notwithstandingly, I still came tops of my class with Denise van Zyl. In fact, I managed to repeat this 'feat' during all my years at all schools (- except once -), including Malmesbury. This was mainly because they annual held a prize-giving ceremony in the school hall, where I could receive all these prizes! Only on one occasion, in Riversdale, after my father's death in 1960, did I not 'come first in my class'. This story follows a little later...
In Malmesbury, my father had a few very close friends, some of them fellow teachers. I remember two of them particularly well: Boeta (for Uncle, in a familiar way) 'Jul' ( - his surname was Julies - ) and Jos van der Heyde. Boeta 'Jul' hailed from Goedverwacht, whereas van der Heyde was from Kimberley. They visited us in Smuts Street often. Although I did not see anything, my mother told me that my father started drinking too much with his friends. On the evening of his death, he was with his friends. It was told that he behaved 'normally', and that his friends had no idea that my father was going to gas himself later that evening (or early morning).
I think that my father was extremely depressed and deeply anxious at the time: After about 10 years of marriage, he had four young children who were costly to rear, in need of care and support. One of them was a little baby girl of only six months. Furthermore, our society was particularly scathing with respect to colour. My little sister was fair-skinned, and notwithstanding the fact that from both my father's side and mother's side there were white ancesters ( - my aunt's Lina Prins (nee Du Preez) and Hettie Du Preez were very fair-skinned with blue eyes, for example, as was Oom (Uncle) Daan Du Preez - ) the question could have been posed to my father and mother as to who the father of Gail was (sic) !!!??? Then of course, he was viewed as 'Indian', and the apartheid government had ill-founded plans of sending all South African Indians 'back' to India, as if my father had come from India, and not George!
My father also probably did not receive much (or any) recognition for the many woodwork articles he manufactured in his spare time. He did not own a house, and his wife was not working. Clearly my father had many responsibilities, and perhaps found it difficult coping with them. This may have prompted his excessive drinking. I always recall our happy days in Porterville, when we had much time, and everything seemed under control! My father also suffered from a serious stomach problem, which he tried to cure himself. He may even have been suffered from stomach cancer. Then he had a bad back, which my mother believe was due to excessive long-distance driving, particularly on his beloved motor-bike during his younger days in George.
The story was told by his friends Jul Julies and Jos van der Heyde that my father practised the 'last supper' as Christ did with his apostles on the eve of his death. This tells me that my father's mind was not clear at the time, and that he knew 'his time had come'. He wanted to tell his friends something, which he could not say in words. He character was too brittle ( - too weak maybe?-) to ask for help. He probably hoped that someone would help him, as he did many years ago for his friend Mr Ehrenreich from Steenwerp. Years later, in the late 1970's, I became Boeta Jul's mathematics part-time lecturer at Hewat College. Jul then mumbled something to me about my father's 'last supper', but since my father's untimely death in 1960, it did not matter at all to his family!
By that evening, just before my father's tragic end, his wife Chrissie ( - my mother -) was completely out of the picture. Her hands were tied; she could only await the inevitable... Later, after his death, she took charge of rearing their family, excelled at it, and achieved 100% success in it! I salute her again!
It was early the next morning when the police came to tell my mother that my father had committed suicide in our Austin, just outside Malmesbury on the way to Darling.
I remember the voices, and how my mother started crying. Her beloved "Alfie' was no more. He died at his own hand, at the age of 31 ( or was it 29?).
His body was placed in a beautiful coffin, which was placed in our lounge for two days. It stayed there during the night. My mother cried all the time, and for months later. She had lost her intelligent, attractive, talented young husband, and was left with four small children, in a foreign town. The next morning, reddish white/brown substances from my deceased father's stomach came out from his mouth. All the mourners were deeply shock. Some ladies remarked how attractive my father still looked in his coffin, and how sad they all were. But it was too late for us... We, my mother in particular, now had to bury his body and start carving out a life for the devastated Desai family in Malmesbury. But she was inconsolable, and crying all the time.
My father's funeral was a huge occasion in Malmesbury, with much oratory by church and educational leaders, singing by choirs, and many cars following the hearse in slow procession to the graveyard. As was the case with my granny Du Preez's funeral in 1986 - when I played George Handel's 'Death March' from his oratorio 'Saul' on the Riversdale Lutheran Church pipe organ in Barry Street - the solemn and oft-performed rendition of this highly emotional recital, pierced my soul, which left a bizarre impression that remains forever! By that time, no-one had taught me formally to play the piano or organ. Many years would still have to pass before I would play Handel's "Death March" and other funeral compositions, the different wedding marches, and other great musical works, on the many special occasions held in Malmesbury and its environs.
All my father's beloved high school pupils were at his funeral, as were his shocked fellow teachers. They praised his educational contribution, and felt pity towards his family. Our extended family members came from all over South Africa: Porterville, Oudtshoorn, Durban, Cape Town, Riversdale, George and Knysna for his funeral. My mother had his body laid to rest in the local cemetery, to be visit often over the next years by her and her children. Often, over the next many years, we visited his grave on Sunday afternoons, where my mother sat in quiet contemplation. Here she must have pondered over what her life would have been, had my father not taken his own life. She often placed fresh flowers on his grave, and kept his grave neat at all times. Years later, she had a tombstone erected with the words: "In memory of our beloved husband and father ..." In 1994, I strew the ashes of my mother, and placed the marble box with the ashes of Colin (who tragically had died in a car accident in 1979) in my father's grave.
Back in Riverdale for the second time: January - December 1960
"Apartheid was vicious on us, and separate group areas for people based on skin-colour
were planned by the Nationalist Afrikaner government. Whites shunned us, as we did them. "
Chrissie was well-educated, a born teacher. Above all she had the will to overcome our misfortunes. She started teaching in Saron (while still crying a lot), and took her two youngest children with her. She boarded with Mrs ..... ( I've forgotten the name Lahoe maybe?). Siddie and I were sent to my granny in Riversdale. I was now in Standard 1. Life was tough. I was fatherless, and had to hear many a crude remark of how my beloved father 'killed himself"!
Our car stayed in Malmesbury (with my father, so to speak). My mother was too sad to drive the car in which my father had died.
A few months passed, and then we returned to Malmesbury as a family. My mother got a job as teacher as Liebenberg Primary School. We rented a small room from the Idas family, next to the house which we stayed in with my father just months ago. We were now a poor, fatherless family.
The kids in the area gave us hell. Siddie was once bullied by his peers, but I made up for it by thoroughly beating up a fat boy my age. Times were tough for us. We had to fend for ourselves now. We had a car still, but very little more. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to see us go down further. Later, we made friends with the same kids who all attended the same classes even: the fattish Casparus ('Kassie') Lategan, the quiet and strongly built Gerald Erentzen, and many others.
My mother (and God) planned otherwise. She clearly made some brilliant decisions, although there were mistakes as well. One of her mistakes, was to buy a plot of ground in the town. Apartheid was vicious on us, and separate group areas for people based on skin-colour were planned by the Nationalist Afrikaner government. Whites shunned us, as we did them.
Our granny assisted my mother in some way to buy a plot in the 'Coloured' area of West Bank. Against much opposition, my mother had a house built, which was completed in 1962, when I was in Standard 2. Then we started making our presence felt...
But let me return to 1960, and Riversdale, where Siddie and I were sent to after my father's sudden death in January 1960. Here our cultural transformation started by being forced by our Du Preez granny to become part of the 'Afrikaanses'. We tried our best to continue speaking English to each other, as my father had taught us. But my granny, and the community seemed hell bent on making us part of them. Fortunately, I became friends with Henry Petersen, whose father had the same language belief as my father did. However, all my other friends and family members in Riversdale, the Wessos, the Prins's, all the Du Preez's, the Adams's, were Afrikaans- speaking. What I did find interesting, was that the Petersen's of Riversdale were like the Liebenbergs of Porterville, notwithstanding the language differences. The Groenewalds of Riversdale with all their teachers - Eric, Ruthie, and the many others, were also similar to the Liebenbergs with all their teachers - Kosie, Harriet, and the others. All the members of these families were fair-skinned, like white people!
In fact, the people in Riversdale were proud of their Afrikaans cultural heritage. After all, Henry's uncle S.V.Petersen (who I later met in 1976 in Cape Town, and with whom I taught at Hewat College of Education in Athlone), was a well-known writer. I later found that I could hold my ground in Afrikaans as well, and have been using this to my advantage: "Ek is Afrikaans, en goed daarin!" (I am Afrikaans, and good at it!)
But later my mother thought differently. Although we persisted with speaking English at home in Malmesbury until about 1963/64, our English language ability weakened considerably. We were in danger of speaking 'kitchen English'. Hence my mother wisely decided to make Afrikaans our home language. Speaking English at home in an entirely Afrikaans environment, made no sense at that stage. it was only much later, probably by the mid-seventies, that the entire Desai family reverted back to speaking English at home. This was mainly due to my brother Siddie qualifying himself as an English teacher and Colin and I having started studying at the University of Cape Town. I have to mention at this juncture that Siddie boarded with some English-speaking families in Oudtshoorn during his studies at the college there between 1967 and 1969. Later he continued his studies at Hewat College, where his classes were in English again.
During 1960 I attended Standerd 1 in Riversdale. Ruth Groenewald ('Ruthie') the principal Eric's sister taught me in an old church hall. I remember Henry Petersen and Adam Prins ('Adampie', because he was small). Adam was reputed to be clever, and a competition developed between him and me. My uncle Dougie Josephs, who became a prominent politician later, who also taught at the same school, did not think that I could beat Adampie. Indeed, he piped me to the first place, and I think even Henry must have beaten my at the time.
Although my father had died a few months earlier, and we had to move town frequently, I still felt disappointed. This feeling was aggravated even more when I remember a Riversdale boy of my own age, taunting me with the words: "Jou pa het mos homself vrekgemaak!" (Your father killed himself!) I immediately lost my temper with this boy who had insulted the memory of my father in a callous manner. I defended the honour of my father by hitting the boy there and then, at the water tap where we had both come to fill up our containers. (My granny, whose house was just opposite this tap, did not have running water in her house.) I also solemnly promised myself that I will make my late father - and our young family - proud by 'showing them'. Academically, this did not immediately happen in Riversdale. However, during our happy and stable period in Malmesbury from 1961 to 1969, I excelled in these (better) schools. In fact, my first taste of glory came when I was in standard eight (Grade 10). I was placed tops in this grade in the whole country. Adampie, the clever boy from Riversdale, was nowhere to be seen. (We still visited Riversdale every school holiday. Adampie also remained my friend, and completed his matric with a first grade.) In matric I repeated this feat with only two others, one from Paarl, and another from East London (who I both beat two years previously), achieving a higher average than myself. But by that time, music was dictating my academic discipline and future, and my application to studies in general academic subjects (Languages, Biology and Physical Science)) except of course for Mathematics, Accounting and Commercial Arithmetic, faded significantly.
Back in Malmesbury: January 1961
"The room was dark, with a little window, where sometimes I saw people walking past"
I really cannot remember whether I attended Standerd 1 in Malmesbury. I don't think so, since I would then have been in Sybil Jasson's class. I remember attending Liebenberg Primary School, and being in my mother's class in Standard 2 in 1961.
During this year, our house was being built in West Bank, near to our school.
But we first had to suffer being squashed together in a little room rented from the Idas family in Smuts Street. I remember that we did not have any privacy. We had no water, no bath. The room was dark, with a little window, where sometimes I saw people walking past. I am sure that they must have peeped in when we were bathing ourselves. I shudder in anger at the thought of others seeing my young and defenceless mother bathing in our little room. But what could we do?
The Idas family was quite considerate given the prevailing circumstances at the time. I clearly remember the boys, Boetie and Christie. Although they were much older than us, they did not mind playing with us. They had an equally friendly sister, Freda, also older than us, who often played with the children. They made our lives bearable.
I remember how, one evening, after a school concert, Boetie ( - his real name was Joemat - ) jumped from a bus which I had missed, and ran home with me, after I had already covered more than half of the distance on my own. Smuts Street was about two or three kilometres from our school. We had to ran in the pitch dark, and there was a large river which we had to cross. I remained ever thankful to Boetie for taking care of me when I was so young. Apparently the teachers and my mother were looking for me everywhere earlier that evening. My mother had to assist other kids at school. Everyone was extremely relieved when Boetie and I arrived home safely, close to midnight.
The reader will by now wonder how we were affected in apartheid South Africa at that time. It needs to be stressed that we were embedded in a community, and had to survive under those circumstances. During those times there were many of all backgrounds who exploited the prevailing political system, and benefited from it. We did not, and never wanted to ride on an unjust and unworkable political system of "'separate development for all South Africa's 'races'"!
I recall that my mother was acutely aware of all the political injustices done to us. However, with the tragic passing of my father at a young age, my mother (correctly) strategized that we should get a proper education, and that she should stabilize our home environment. The political problems which I encountered in South Africa, will be highlighted as we go along. We had to live under those political circumstances all the time.
In Malmesbury, Liebenberg Primary School was blessed with an outstanding principal, who hailed from Mossel Bay, situated between Riversdale and George. This man, Rudolf ('Dolfie') van Zyl, was a musician par excellence, an educator and leader beyond repute.
I remember how Dolfie drove with us to school. After leaving our little room in Smuts Street each morning, my widowed mother picked up Dolfie and Ms Petersen, a Sub A teacher, on our way to school. Yes, I do think they took advantage of my mother's generosity and my late father's Austin. Before the commencement of school, Dolfie would address his staff, and then, at the ring of the bell five minutes before eight, his marches which he himself played on the piano, bellowed over the loudspeakers. The children would then all assemble in neat lines, and march on the beat of march music, to their classes. Dolfie was a dynamic person, and believed in an enthusiastic start to the school day.
Dolfie was famous for playing the piano with brute force, so that it actually rocked as he slammed the notes. He had a loud, powerful voice. Everyone feared Mr van Zyl. He did not hesitate to give you six of the best with his large and heavy cane in his office, if he thought that you deserved punishment. His teaching staff worked in fear of him. I personally heard many teachers sobbing, after he had called them in for some misdemeanour. In my opinion, it was only my mother, and Mr Mathysen, who did not fear Dolfie van Zyl. I think that my mother had a way with people, apart from possessing superior social skills and high intelligence. She, like Dolfie and Mathysen loathed mediocre people and shallow thinking. Dolfie and Mathysen however, made people directly aware of their inadequacies; my mother, did so more diplomatically! However, my mother was fond of referring to the those who just accept things without thinking, as 'poppe' (puppets or stooges). Thus there were many 'poppe' around that tried to pretend that they were original thinkers, pioneers or leaders of 'their' people, but only did what their 'masters' told them to do! They were in fact, as I later learnt when much older, "their masters' voices"!
That is also why, I think, everyone in Malmesbury respected all of them, particularly my mother. But all of them were 'inkomers', that is, they were not from Malmesbury and 'came into' the town from elsewhere. Thence, they were not completely accepted by the town community. When my mother requested someone important in Malmesbury to tell her when one is supposed to become one with all Malmesbury people, he replied: "Wanneer julle lank genoeg hier gebly het, of wanneer julle met een van ons mense trou!" (- After you have stayed here long enough, or when you marry one of our people!) Well, Mathysen married someone from Malmesbury, but both of them settled in Athlone. None of the van Zyl's married someone from Malmesbury. Only Siddie, my eldest brother, married a Rinquest from Malmesbury. Did this then make Siddie a full-blooded member of the Malmesbury community? Are all his children now accepted as Malmesbury people, and mine not?
When were still staying in Smuts Street in 1960, we experienced heavy winter rainfalls, and the nearby river came down in flood. We, who lived on the south side of the river, as well as the white children, who lived all around us by the same river, enjoyed seeing the mud-coloured ravaging river overflowing its banks. The little bridge which connected us to the town, became impassable.
On one scary occasion, I went to the river, were we often caught paddavissies (one of the developmental stage of frogs), and got sucked in waste-deep into drifting sand. I really though that I was going to die that day, as I was sucked in deeper and deeper into the sand. Fortunately for me, my feet touched solid ground when I was waste-deep already.
Siddie and I were also forced to smoke cigarettes by the river. This one could partly ascribe to peer pressure, as well as the fact that my father was not around anymore to protect his family. I think that my mother must have been placed under similar negative societal pressures. She started smoking later, partly because it calmed her nerves. However, it was more likely due to the fact that her friend in Smuts Street, a Mrs Adams, also smoked. These things made me tough and thoughtful, I think. My 'survival instincts' kicked in, and I devised numerous techniques to survive in Malmesbury society. This was particularly difficult at the time when the unjust political system of apartheid was forced upon the people of South Africa. Apartheid also meant that people of differing social and cultural backgrounds were often forced together, simply because they were 'Coloured' or 'Black'.
Dolfie van Zyl introduced many unique things into Liebernberg Primary School which all the Malmesbury Desai children attended, and where my mother taught: As I have mentioned, his school day started with teacher's meetings, and his piano accompaniment to the pupils marching to their classrooms. Then we had many school choir performances, and play productions. Sport played an important role, and we all had to play rugby and cricket. He planned the building of cricket pitches, rugby fields, and tennis courts. During interval we were taught to play normal kids games of marbles, and so on. We had to respect our teachers to the utmost, with almost militaristic obedience. Above all, we had to be proud of our school, education and our teachers. We were disciplined, dignified and hard-working.
Dolfie was the church organist, and taught several children how to play piano. He was also my first piano teacher, whom I went to for lessons at his home, when I was in Standard 2, in 1961, at the age of eight years.
Dolfie had many outstanding piano students: his own children could all play the piano well, as could the Lategans, the Rinquests, the Balies, and of course, the Desai's. Unfortunately, Siddie received like many others, severe punishment for not playing piano properly. I remember an occasion very similar to when my father was alive, when I tried to help Siddie at the piano, while Dolfie lay sick, and dieing in his bed in the adjacent room. His 'ear' for pitch was so good, that he growled at Siddie wheneven, he heard a wrong note. Because I thought that Dolfie was not in the room, and very sick as well, I silently pointed out the correct notes with my fingers to Siddie. I think Dolfie would have given me six of the best or a huge smack, or both, had he been able to walk to his music room to do so!
Mathysen also did his own unique thing: not only did he rival Dolfie for ruthlessness with the children - boys and girls alike, but he was a specialist physical education teacher, good at English and blessed with good brains. He developed the Maypole showcase, first class gymnastic displays, and some other good things too. Unfortunately, the huge pole one day fell directly on my nose, because one or more children tugged too hard onto the ribbons, that were attached to the top of the pole. A sympathetic teacher quickly checked whether my nose was broken, and all she then said was: "Jou neus is maar so plat!" (You always had a flat nose!) I do think that my nose was broken, but I dared not show it to Mathysen. We were taught to behave like real men, at all times: "Julle is nie papbroeke nie!" (You are not weaklings), is what my mother often reminded us of.
Mathysen thought that I was good at gymnastics. Of course, we practised jumping over "die bokkie" , handstands, flip-flops, summersaults, and the like, every day on our huge grounds of our new house situated in 9th Avenue (later 24 Jasmyn Street), West Bank, a short walk from our school. He also encouraged speaking in English, and doing well at mathematics. It was customary at Liebenberg Primary School to have regular tests. Dolfie required students to be graded, on a regular basis. Thus we would have, on Monday mornings usually, or everyday with some teachers like Mathysen, speed tests, and longer calculations to do. I excelled in Paper C, also called "word sums", which only the best could do. But before I get to my years in Standard 4 with Mathysen, and Standard 5 with 'Dokkie' Petersen, let me tell you about what happened when I was in Mr Lategan's Standard 3 class, when Dolfie did inspection while Lategan was busy with his formal examinations.
Lategan ('Latie") was a tall fellow, with a huge frame. Although I remember him saying that he was six feet tall, it seemed to us as if he was much taller. He had a gentle nature, and coached us well in rugby. One day, a big and older boy from the farm Rooidraai joined our class. This boy, Andries Talmakkies, was also tall and gentle, and became friends with Eben and myself. Now we had someone big who could fend for us. Talmakkies was also good at mathematics, and he was well-mannered as well. Standard 3 was a nice class, where we did painting and bookbinding in the afternoons. Mathematics work and tests were reserved for early in the morning.
During a period of examinations, Dolfie decided that he would conduct an inspection of Lategan's class. This would ensure that maintenance of standards, in Dolfie's 'humble' opinion! I was asked to read a passage, which did not satisfy Dolfie. He argued that Lategan should raise the standard of reading, and believed that the potential did exist in the class for him (Lategan) to achieve a much higher standard! I thought he was going to spank the huge Mr Lategan for not meeting his (that is, Dolfie's) requirements and expectations!
Now that I am much older, and hugely more experienced, I can't help wondering what Lategan did to evoke Dolfie's wrath! Maybe he said something unacceptable in a staff meeting, or something. Perhaps the real reason was that Lategan was a well-liked and good teacher, much taller than Dolfie. Or perhaps Dolfie just did not like his gentle, well-modulated voice. Lategan was also happily married, with two lovely sons, and stayed only three houses from us in 9th Avenue. We thus were practically neighbours, and I often went to visit Mr Lategan.
I also visited others in the row of houses where we stayed: The Lareys, the Sheldons, the Adonis's, the Stuurmans (our neighbours on the left), the other Lategans (lower down the road), and the Bocks's (our neighbours on the right). The Rinquests stayed lower down, as did a few others we did not bother with much. Everyone, except for Stuurman and Mrs Bocks, also a widow, had pigeons. Mathysen on one occasion gave use three pigeons as a present. Eben also had a set of pigeons, and this prompted us to learn from the experts how to maintain these beautiful birds: Lategan, Sheldon, Larey and Adonis. I recall how I stole some beams in Riversdale from the local sawmill, and had it transported by railway (at a loss) to Malmesbury in order to erect a proper pigeon cote. In Riversdale, I thought that the beams I found lying around at the sawmill were meant to be discarded, when I had to go there on instructions from my granny who had asked us to collect pine off-cuts for her wood stove. The load became almost unbearable when I carried these heavy beams many kilometres to my granny's home in Barry Street. Three beams were transported to Malmesbury, from which I erected a fairly sturdy pigeon cote in about 1962/3. We also had a fowl run. The feed for our poultry and pigeons came from the local granary where, somehow, a friend of mine, John ('Joppie') Marias, obtained bags of wheat from.
I regularly visited my best friend Eben, across the open veld (field), where their house was situated right at the beginning of the sub-economic section of West Bank. Eben, and his brother Lawrence, also regularly played with us. We all thought that we lived in a happy and lovely neighbourhood where the teachers were all greatly respected, and people of lesser means, were not discriminated against, just because they were poorer or less educated!
'Rubberkop' and Old Malmesbury
"...proper piano playing came first to him, before any sympathy for pain
and suffering whilst attempting to do so"
The much feared 'Dolfie' van Zyl was commonly know as 'Rubberkop' ('u' pronounced as 'u' in 'up' or 'cup', which is unlike the Afrikaans pronunciation as 'i' in 'lip' or 'trip'). This nickname was due to a small prominent and unusual white patch of hair on his forehead. It resembled, and had the approximate size, of a largish white pencil erazer or 'rubber'. Mathysen again was known as 'Gall' (meaning 'bitter') amongst his closer colleagues; the pupils mostly did not know of the existence of the nickname 'Gall' and simply referred to him as "Mr" Mathysen. Mathysen owned a car, which must have broken down at the time when 'Rubberkop' got a lift to school with our car. Mathysen, who grew up in an area near Swellendam, stayed in Cape Town, but boarded with Dolfie at the time, and 'Rubberkop' were quite good friends.
Dolfie stayed in a large house in Moorrees Street, in town. During the early 1960's many people of colour owned large houses in town, where many white people lived close by. The centre of Malmesbury was around the old Dutch Reformed Mission Church, which was close to the river, the popular cinema which I often attended in the 1960's, the Jewish Synagogue, and several businesses. Many 'Coloured' families were also prominent business owners: Vesamian, Rinquest and Wells are a few examples. Bredenkamp was a much-liked cobbler in town. The Jews Job owned a large hardware store, while the friendly Meyers were grocers further up in town. The Kasu's, Abrahams', Wells', Bredenkamps, Allies, Vesamians, Van Der Merwes, Marees, Marais, Lategans, the Simons', and many others, all stayed in town.
Apartheid was not only vicious on us, the Desai's but also on all people who were not white, also in Malmesbury. They were forced to move from their well-established community to the outlying West Bank, where we all went to school. It seemed a systematic affair: First West Bank was established in the 1940/50's. Then Liebenberg Primary School was started there in 1948. The existence of old school in town faded in the people's memories. Only the old DRC Church in town kept the people connected to their past.
One day, when I was in standard 1 or 2 at Liebenberg Primary School, I accidentally stumbled across old school records which lay scattered in a disused section of the boys' toilets. I remember that I saw the names of former pupils who by then were well in their sixties. Therefore, the records that I saw must have gone back to the 1920's. Many people went to school in a building adjacent to the old DRC church in town. I was also received a portion of my early Sunday School instruction there, before we did so in the old DRC building itself.
I became an assistant organist during the 1960's of the same Church. In 1969, I was confirmed in the DRC Church in town, as was my elder brother Siddie, two years earlier.
When I started my first formal piano lessons with Dolfie in 1961, I walked past the old DRC buildings as well as the local mosque situated in High Street. Eben, who became my best friend, also stayed in town before they moved to West Bank, just before we did. He told me how they listened to the bilal or muadhdhin giving the call to prayer over the minaret. I had the impression at the time that he did not appreciate the sound or meaning thereof, and little did I know then that I would spend a large portion of my adult life delving into Islamic musical culture. Eventually my interest in Islamic music would earn me a doctorate in musicology from one of South Africa's foremost universities. I would also by that time, have travelled to Australia to deliver a keynote address to top musicologists from all over the world, on an aspect of South African music.
I think that people from different backgrounds, religious affiliations, and education levels, got along well with each other in Malmesbury. We loved to buy our groceries from the Meyers, who spoke English to us. Job was visited as well for odds and ends.
First public piano performance
Although I only started with formal piano lessons in 1961 with Dolfie, I gave my first public piano performance during that year as well, as did my brother Siddie.
All Dolfie's pupils, including Martin Balie, Aubrey Lategan, Carol Rinquest and my brother and I had to perform a solo piano piece in front of the teachers and pupils of Liebenberg Primary School. Dolfie, of course, on this occasion again impressed with his marches which he played with great force and intensity that day, rocking the piano to the delight of the crowd!
My own piece was a march, wherein I could show off some of my superior technical skills. I can still recall the entire piece, which was in ternary form. It was called "March in C Major". It had no sharps and no flats, but a lot of notes, with a lively quaver-two semi-quavers rhythm. There was also dynamic variation, which meant that my audience could be 'taken along emotionally', if you know that I mean!
Dolfie was satisfied with all of us. But this did not mean that with our next lessons he would not clobber us if you did not practise or play the music to his satisfaction. Dolfie had a nasty habit of curving his fingers, when he hit the culprit with those curved knuckles right in the centre of the skull. Girls were not spared either. I remember how one of his pretty pupils was crying from those hits, when we one day went for our piano lessons with Dolfie. Yes, proper piano playing came first to him, before any sympathy for pain and suffering whilst attempting to do so.
Dolfie died after a long illness, when I was in standard 4, in 1963. His funeral was as impressive as my father's was, three years earlier. I remember how I sat with all the school children on the balcony of the old DRC church, next to the organ. This was another event which lingered on in my mind... This was because I revered Dolfie as an outstanding educator, as well as the fact that he was my first formal piano teacher.
Most of his former pupils - Martin Balie, and many others - then travelled on a weekly basis by car to Paarl in order to further their piano lessons with Frank Petersen. Many years later, I was to write to the revered Frank about a school song which I had composed, and whom I only formally met in my first year as teacher at George High School in 1975.
I remained without piano teacher for several months, until J.J Balie, was appointed the new Liebenberg Primary School principal the following year. In the meantime, Mathysen was our Standard 4 school teacher, since Mr Jasson, the usual standard 4 teacher, became the acting principal for the rest of the year.
The Chalifa Display (or Ratiep) in Malmesbury: Circa 1962
" In 1962... the immensely impressed Malmesbury children
tried to imitate the unique ratiep dance, and as we vigorously brought down
the imagined daggers ( - we used kitchen knives for that purpose - )
onto our exposed stomachs, we curved our backs sharply inwards,
and loudly exclaimed : 'chalifa!' ".
I cannot recall exactly when a 'Cape Malay' ratiep performance group from Cape Town sent shock waves through Malmesbury, except that I was about ten or eleven years old at the time. Years later, I was equally surprised to hear the Schoonspruit High School principal, Ebrahim ("Braimpie") Vesamian sing the Cape Malay nederlandslied (an old Dutch folk song or sea shantie)) "Hoor, Matrosies, Hoor! (Hear, Sailors, Hear) when he taught us English in Standard 9.
I. D. Du Plessis was a well-known Afrikaans poet at the time, after whom the newly built rugby stadium in West Bank, Malmesbury, was named in the 1960's. Du Plessis was an acknowledged 'expert' on Cape Malay culture at the time. He was also a very senior Nationalist Government official, a Secretary or something of Coloured Affairs.
Anyway, I do not know who brought the 'Chalifa' to Malmesbury. The whole Desai family attended the show in the hall next to the N7 national road to Cape Town. The hall was packed with just about everyone in Malmesbury: children and adults filled the largish hall to capacity.
The bench with the flags, the drums and drumming, the 'singing' and the incredible acts remained in my memory. I clearly remember how they pierced the tongue of one of their members with a sharp dagger (actually called a tamboes), and paraded him through the audience whilst he carried a frame drum (rebanna) into which one had to donate something. We had no money to offer then!
The sword display which involved men bringing down swords with force onto their forearms, was mesmerising. The next day, at school, we all tried to imitate the sword dance and the cutting of the forearms. I think we even tried to pierce our cheeks with sharp needles, but when it hurt we stopped just there, before hurting ourselves, or bleeding.
The ratiep display is a serious matter. During my childhood I did not know that one day, over a lengthy period from about 1981 until 1993, and even afterwards, I would keenly study this art form. My research actually culminated in a unique doctorate in musicology. My research had been noted in Canada, Europe, the United States and Australia. In addition, I developed related research interests which include Indian and Malay music.
In 1962, however, the immensely impressed Malmesbury children tried to imitate the unique ratiep dance, and as we vigorously brought down the imagined daggers ( - we used kitchen knives for that purpose - ) onto our exposed stomachs, we curved our backs sharply inwards, and loudly exclaimed: "chalifa!". Today I know that the words that accompany this trance-linked act, are actually very special and unique dhikr, which are essentially religious phrases 'sung' in Arabic. The underlying drumming form an important component within this trance-linked art from, as does the ratiep movement. This is an ancient and highly structured art form, which deserves a special place in our South African cultural history.
Magicians: Yusul Tini and another Magical Couple
"...one day (Theresa) announced that 'Yusul Tini' was to visit our school, and
that he would be accompanied by a pretty lady from the 'east'..."
The well-known magician Yusul Tini also visited Malmesbury during the 1960's. I always thought that this talented chap was from 'overseas' (- maybe from India, or elswhere, but not a 'local' fellow), but rumour has it that he may have been from George (of all places), and was 'coloured'! Anyway, as children we were amazed at how Yusuf Tini made people float, and how the pigeons suddenly increased in number, at the mere sound of magical phrases, and the wave of the magician's wand!
One of Dolfie's daughter's, the attractive Theresa, who also taught at Liebenberg Primary School, one day announced that 'Yusul Tini' was to visit our school, and that he would be accompanied by a pretty lady from the 'east'. We were surprized, and perhaps more amused, that 'Yusul Tini' turned out to be Ronnie Ehrenreich, a local woodwork teacher and brother of Mr Ehrehreich of the farm Steenwerp, near Porterville. The lovely lady from the 'east' was none other than our dear teacher Theresa!
Theresa later left South Africa, travelled extensively, and married a German high-ranking army officer. Many years later, as recent as about ten years ago, I met up with Theresa again, when visiting Dolfie's very sick son. Theresa wrote to me on a post card, the following message:
The depicted side simply reads:
" October 1995
Desmond, A very Happy Birthday to you,
Love, Theresa "
(In her message on the other side she apologises for using card with 'frills' and flowers. However, I think the card and the lovely border is very special!)
Although the picture above is not very clear, you will no doubt notice Theresa's exceptionally artistic handwriting. She told me that she became involved in music, drama and the art productions whilst overseas. I am sure that this talented former teacher of what I believe to be one of South Africa's top primary schools at the height of apartheid in the 1960's, must have impressed with her charm and talents whoever had the privilege of working with her!
At this juncture, I am yet again reminded of the extraordinary things her father Dolfie accomplished with his school, during the short period I knew him. When I was in standard 3 or 4 in Malmesbury, Dolfie arranged for some of the more senior classes, to visit some factories in Cape Town by bus. We saw how they made wine ( and drank some grape juice - my first taste of it), bottles, flour, etc. That day we really learnt a lot, thanks to Dolfie's educational farsightedness.
There was another occasion when Dolfie took the school children to the beach which meant that we had to have food packs, and travel by bus. My mother fried a pigeon (- I had to slaughter one of my own pets, but this was a big occasion for us - ) which I started eating while Dolfie was nearby. I remember how he shouted at me: "Moenie jou vet op my laat drup nie!" (Don't let your fat drip on me!). My mother was not amused by this remark. She probably responded with something like: "Hy was net jaloers oor julle lekker kos!" (He was only jealous about your nice food!) or "Hy het seker ook daarvoor gelus!" (He probably also wanted some!) I don't know if actually Dolfie did, since he was also eating chicken or something when this happened on the bus. The pigeon meat, however, was absolutely delicious, and fried in a manner only my mother could. Pigeon meat is still one of my favourite dishes, although my wife had never yet prepared any since we got married more than 30 years ago!
Operettas and Plays
"I pipped Eben to it (- the title role in the operetta "Repelsteeltjie" or Rumpelstiltskin-)
because I could sing the high notes better than he could, according to the panel
of teachers who had the unenviable task to deciding between the two hopefuls."
I am extremely thankful that my primary school education provided opportunity for me to sing in choirs and perform in plays and operettas.
In no small way this was made possible by two principals of Liebenberg Primary School, namely Dolfie Van Zyl and Mr J.R. Balie.
I cannot remember any details of a play in which I played the part of a ‘bytjie’ (a bee), and which the Malmesbury community raved much about. An older school friend, Pietie ‘Mol’, used to call me ‘bytjie’ in honour of my performance in it!
After Dolfie’s death, Mr Balie took over his reigns and started very good junior and senior school choirs. Since I was his piano pupil, I also became his school accompanist at the tender age of 12 years already.
I remember how my close friend Eben and I were auditioned for the main title role of “Repelsteeltjie” (Rumpelstiltskin). I pipped Eben to it because I could sing the high notes better than he could, according to the panel of teachers who had the unenviable task to deciding between the two hopefuls. I do remember clearly how they argued about it, and how my mother had to make the right decision for them!
A Nasty Accident in "Repelsteeltjie" that 'rocked' Malmesbury
"I really don't know how it happened. All I can remember is that
my heel struck something hard, which caused me to land flat on
In 1964, a year or so after Nelson Mandela, was sentenced to life-long imprisonment, and at the time when the famed Eoan Group under the musical direction of Joseph Manca 'rocked' the opera world, I performed in the operetta "Rumpelstiltskin". We had several performances, all packed with appreciative Malmesbury children and adults. After all, many of the family members were in the large cast consisting of 'kabouters' (elves), the miller, his 'lovely' daughter, and so on. The main roles were played by the senior pupils of Liebenberg Primary School, like Carol Rinquest and myself, who were cast as "Rumpelstiltskin" and the miller's daughter.
The reader may recall that I was quite adept at physical education acrobats: summersaults, etc. During one of the scenes, I successfully used acrobatic movements (cart wheels, etc.) to the jubilation of the crowds. We invariably drew standing ovations at the end of this operetta, until a nasty accident occurred:
My acrobatic act involved doing 'flip-flops' in a rough circle around the pretty miller's daughter. I really don't know how it happened. All I can remember is that my heel struck something hard, which caused me to land flat on my back. Actually I also got hurt, but not as badly as the hapless actress of my age. After the accident, I got up from the floor, and realised that my counterpart was crying. At first I thought that she had forgotten her words. I then went on with my own section. Then the stage curtains were drawn, and all hell broke loose. I was accused of not looking where I was going, and so on. Of course, I felt bad, and did not agree. Why, I thought, did she not get out of my way. My mother, and of course all my closest buddies, agreed with my own counter argument. Together we managed to weather the little storm. The show went on, and I was eventually forgiven by everybody.
With our next performance, the pretty miller's daughter was not as pretty anymore: She had a black, badly swollen eye, which really did not look 'nice', especially when one was close by, as I was, when on stage with her! In fact, the pain she must have suffered, caused her swollen face to appear even worse! Even though I was only eleven years old, I felt sorry for her!
(De-) Grading Pupils (Learners) according to their Ability at Mathematics
"I admit unashamedly that we cheated, which ensured that both of us, that is
JM and I, ALWAYS obtained 100% in every test we wrote."
During the 1960's, at the time when Dolfie van Zyl was principal at Liebenberg Primary School in Malmesbury, an interesting system of grading pupils, in accordance with their mathematical abilities, took place.
Let me first explain how this system worked: Every week, and sometimes even on a daily basis, different types of mathematics (actually 'Arithmetic') tests were conducted in all class grades. Based on their performances in these tests, the pupils would then be graded into different ability groups. At that time, when corporate punishment was commonly applied in schools, this could mean several cuts with the cane for the weaker pupils. Since the time I was in standard 2 in 1961, until I got to standard 5 in 1964, boys and girls were mixed and placed in order of merit in accordance with a ranked list. Often I sat next to a girl. In fact, I was always first, and invariably the second place was taken by a girl, who demonstrated great numerical skills. The competition for the top spot was keen amongst the pupils, since everyone could at a glance see who was the best in mathematics in that particular class, by simply looking for the person who sat in front. If you sat at the back, you were 'no good' and part of the 'agtergestoeltes' (back benchers).
At the time it seemed to me as if none of my friends wanted to be seated next to the opposite sex. (Today we can hardly believe that children tend to behave that way, until they "grow up"!) A good friend of ours, let's call him JM, managed to achieve full marks in a standard five test once, as I did, and was then placed next to me. The rest of the class could not believe JM's good fortune. The class felt sure that JM would loose his coveted place in class soon, and a few girls readied themselves for the 'kill', so to speak. JM, however, realised that he had to come up with a plan, and he did! (I still think that JM had the 'brains' to come up with the solution himself!). In Malmesbury, some children had a strange habit of pinching sweets, chocolates, and other things from certain shops on certain occasions. JM did just that, and offered his goods to me free of charge, and only in exchange for peeping at my sums when we wrote arithmetic tests. This is how he did it:
When we wrote the test, we were required to place our briefcases on the desk, between our scripts. This would make it impossible to peep answers from your mate next to you. I always did as was required. But then, while writing down the answers, I felt the sharp arm jerk of JM into my ribs. When I looked towards him, he showed me a slab of my beloved whole nut chocolates, and clearly indicated that the slab was mine in exchange for answers. Who would not cheat, especially if it meant that no girl would ever sit beside you! I admit unashamedly that we cheated, which ensured that both of us, that is JM and I, ALWAYS obtained 100% in every test we wrote. This was not always easy, but I am glad to report after more than 40 years, that we were never caught out, and both of us always obtained 100%! So this is the advice for cheaters in exams: Make sure you get 100%!
Today there may be many of the (political) opinion that what I did was degrading for both JM and myself. Well, in today's school environment, cheating seems to be the order of the day. In my days, you dared not cheat. JM and I only got away with what we did, for reasons cited above. Today many get away with false degree certificates, faked exam marks, and so on. The problem arises when you do not possess the skills you claim to have. Who suffers then as a consequence of your false claims? JM and I were both not bad at mathematics, and really we deserved to be tops of our class. In my opinion, all I ensured was that JM did not have a 'bad day' when writing exams. And what is wrong with that, between friends, hey?
A Well-rounded Malmesbury Primary School Education notwithstanding Apartheid
"By the time I reached standard 5, I was a happy and polite early adolescent.
I was well-liked by my peers and respectful of adults and teachers alike.
While my father would have been proud of the row of first prices in class and
my outstanding school reports, he might have frowned upon my typical
country Afrikaner-like image, albeit disciplined, and our home language which we spoke in
well-modulated Afrikaans. Still, he would have been pleased with our progress to
a happy family circle with our own house, as well as the fact that none of us
had acquired the 'repugnant' ( - or 'charming', if you prefer - ) Malmesbury 'brei',
(their roll of the ...aaarrrrr!) "
There may be those readers that remember that the political circumstances in South Africa during the time I was in senior primary school, did not favour people of colour. This may be true, generally, but at the same time there were many 'good' schools around. I am sure that there are few that will disagree that Harold Cressy and Trafalgar High School provided their learners with quality education during the same period.
In Malmesbury, mainly thanks to my mother's influence, we were acutely aware of Mandela and all the other political giants of the day. However, there were several factors that must be remembered: Firstly, we were still very young at the time - actually 'babies', if you know what I mean. Secondly, we resented anything and anybody that supported the apartheid regime at the time. We were often insulted, either verbally, or by having to enter the post office, or other similar buildings, through a separate door, just because we were not 'white'.
I believe that by the time I completed my primary school education in 1964, I was ready for a new (high school) education. Through proper academic instruction, sports involvement that included rugby and soccer, tennis and cricket, athletics and gymnastics, as well as religious and cultural enrichment programmes were grew into what I deem learners worthy of continued high school education.
One aspect of our primary school education that I neglected to report on hitherto, was recreation: How we spent our intervals playing games, marbles and tops; how we attended the bioscope shows at school, and how the staff entertained us at the many assemblies we had.
Our weekly programme was often rounded off with educational films on various themes, including proper dieting, sport activities, etc. We all could then watch, for a few cents entry fee, very good movies in a hall at our own school! Do you see what I mean? There was nothing in my primary school education that was inferior to that received (in Malmesbury) by the 'privileged' white children. What was necessary, was the need to recognised as being on an equal level to anybody else, including the black population. Believe you me, whenever we could, we should our resistance to apartheid. Later on, this resistance resulted in our family severing ties with the Dutch Reformed Church on political principle.
By the time I reached standard 5, I was a happy and polite early adolescent. I was well-liked by my peers and respectful of adults and teachers alike. While my father would have been proud of the row of first prices in class and my outstanding school reports, he might have frowned upon my typical country Afrikaner-like image, albeit disciplined, and our home language which we spoke in well-modulated Afrikaans. Still, he would have been extremely pleased with our progress from a devastated family in 1960 to a happy family circle with our own house only one or two years later, as well as the fact that none of us had acquired the 'repugnant' (- or 'charming', if you prefer - ) Malmesbury 'brei', (their roll of the ...aaarrrrr!) ".
What probably would have made my father Alfred the happiest, was the fact that I excelled at both mathematics and music, which was beginning to be noticed as far a field as Riversdale, my birthplace. I don't know if Alfred (my father) who seemed to have had a difficult time in life during his short period of marriage to my mother, would have been at home with our granny Du Preez from Riversdale, who often stayed with us for lenghthy periods of time.
I recall that my granny used to visit our neighbours in Malmesbury frequently, while at the same time 'looking' after us. Perhaps she needed to look after my little sister, seven years younger than me, who had the great misfortune of undergoing 'heart surgery' when I was in standard 4 or 5. This is how it happened:
The day my sister Gail's heart stopped beating
"Juffrou Desai se dogtertjie Gail se hart het driekeer gaan staan!"
(The heart of teacher Desai's daughter, Gail, stopped beating thrice!)
Dr Du Toit and partners were our family doctors in Malmesbury. When we became ill, Dr Du Toit would visit us at home in those days. We were very fond of him. Dr Du Toit was also our dentist. Often when we needed to visit him, he simply extracted a tooth as well. (There was a time when Mr Ehrenreich from the farm Steenwerp, near Porterville simply removed the rotten tooth by brute force using his thumb, without any anaesthetic or sympathy whatsoever! I do not wish to distract the reader, but you may recall our visits to Steenwerp after my father's death. My near death experience in the dam on the farm immediately springs to mind again, as does the occasion when I fell off the bumper of the old 1948 Chevvy of Mr Ehrenreich. I cannot recall anything after the fall, and when I 'woke' up a few hours later, I felt a different person. My mother often remarked: "Dis toe hy slim geraak het!" (That was when he became clever!)
One day, Gail, our young sister of about 4 years, needed to have her rotten teeth extracted. Since she was 'very small' still, Dr Du Toit decided perform a simple 'routine' operation. Well, while under operation, Gail's heart stopped!
I remember how, one sunny morning, my mother had to rush to hospital on hearing the news, while we children still went to school on that eventful day. Everyone at school heard the news:
"Juffrou Desai se dogtertjie Gail se hart het driekeer gaan staan!"
(The heart of teacher Desai's daughter, Gail, stopped beating thrice!)
The whole town prayed with us. After all, it was our only sister and a poor 'wesie' (fatherless child), who was still only a 'baby'! But she survived! Often, Gail proudly showed off her healing scar, where Dr Du Toit hurriedly had to 'open her up' to message the heart (thrice)! Some careless people in Malmesbury sometimes remarked unthinkingly: "Iemand was seker dronk!" (Someone must have been drunk!) We were only too glad that Gail had survived the failed operation, although she still had most of her rotten teeth left! My mother vowed: 'Nooit weer nie!" (Never again!), which meant that Gail first had to grow older before her teeth could be extracted 'the normal way', either by means of Mr Ehrenreich's crude, but effective, method or by Dr Du Toit's injection needle.
Then there was the time in Riversdale, only shortly after the above dramatic event, during the holidays that we spent with my granny, when boiling hot water tipped over the whole face of Gail. She was rushed to hospital, had a badly swollen face covered with large blisters all over for many days, but miraculously healed completely! Someone in Riversdale recommended 'Sambuk' ointment for skin burns, which worked!
Nonetheless, at the end of 1964 I was ready, and rearing to go to the local Schoonspruit High School, which was situated even closer to us than our beloved Liebenberg Primary School.
Academic Thoughts before High School
"I could not wait to get to the higher classes to show 'them' what
I could do with 'numbers'! Some teachers at the time had the nasty
habit of visiting parents at home if they thought that their children
weren't performing well. I vowed that should a teacher visit us at home,
it would solely be for 'academic enrichment' and not merely to
complain or socialize!"
During my last primary school year, I heard of the outstanding Jan Persens who hails (as far as I know,) from a farm near Moorreesburg or from the little town near Malmesbury itself. Over the preceding years there were others who excelled academically in the important and externally set matric exams. Audrey, one of the daughters of first piano teacher Dolfie van Zyl, is a good example. Audrey first qualified as a specialist nurse, many later as a medical doctor from a British university.
My eldest brother Sidwell was already in High School, and seemed to struggle somewhat with his 'numbers'. However, not only was he instrumental in getting us back to speaking English at home, in accordance with my father's wishes, but he also excelled in years later as an English teacher at Schoonspruit High School.
I could not wait to get to the higher classes to show 'them' what I could do with 'numbers'! Some teachers at the time had the nasty habit of visiting parents at home if they thought that their children weren't performing well. I vowed that should a teacher visit us at home, it would solely be for 'academic enrichment' and not merely to complain or socialize!
SINGULAR HIGHLIGHTS DURING HIGH SCHOOL: 1965-1969
The following were special moments during this period, which I shall never forget:
The attempts at, and eventual assassination, of the architect of apartheid, Hendrik Verwoerd, prime minister of South Africa, 1966;
The first heart transplant in the world by Christiaan Barnard, 1967;
Neil Armstrong, first person on the moon, 21 July 1969;
The boxing victories of Cassius Clay (Mohammad Ali) middle 1960's;
Being placed top student in Grade 10, and third in Grade 12 (matric) in the country, 1967 and 1969.
Sole representative of Schoonspruit High School at the First Leadership Conference held in Cape Town, 1968.
A fundamental change of career choice from medicine to mathematics and music, sometime during my matric year. During 1969 I also frantically but alas in vain, searched for assistance in music theory ( harmony and counterpoint).
I must hasten to add that my personal 'victories' mentioned in the last two points, were achieved under the humiliating apartheid system in South Africa. During, before, and long after this period, all people in South Africa were not equal before the law. In fact, we 'excelled' as 'coloured' or 'white' or 'black', never as South Africans. In a way, this type of 'excellence' is no more tolerated. However, today ( - in 2008) we may still hear remarks such as: "We Coloureds have few role models" (See Rapport, Die Burger, Cape Argus, July 2008 - 'No for Coloured Party' ).
In the 1960's we regarded Chris Barnard as a role model. Nothing could stop us from choosing our own role models irrespective of colour: Cassius Clay, Barnard, and so on. However, Verwoerd was no role model, he was an outright oppressor, who showed neither mercy nor regard for people of darker hue. At least, this is my impression, although my granny Du Preez was very sad when Verwoerd died! I really hate to think that Verwoerd could have been a role model for my own granny!
Beginnings of High School
"Since your marks are expected to drop by 10% each year,
your mark in standard 10 will only be 30%, given your 70%
in Standard 6!"
I vaguely recall my first day in January 1965 at Schoonspruit High School. After lining up in rows, we filed into the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) Church, which also served as our school hall. One of the most feared teachers, ‘Pietie’ Sheldon must have ( - he usually did – ) read in measured tones a section from the Bible – probably ‘again’ I Corinthians, Chapter 13, "If I speak in the tongues..." - followed by a short prayer followed by our muffled and lightning-fast, “Our Father” which the whole school had to recite! We were clearly at high school now, where most of the boys wore long pants, were tall, with some even with beards and sideburns! We were still only ‘babies’ - short and smooth, well-mannered and innocent!
All the newcomers who were fresh from two local primary school, all the nearby farm schools, and other primary schools as far a field as Mamre, were then divided into three standard 6 classes: a, b and c. My class was situated in the corner of the large church building. For the first time we had ‘subject’ teachers. Mr Steve was my mathematics teacher, while a white woman, Mrs Sauermann taught us Social Studies. Teachers often changed subjects: For English, I think we changed from a Mr Appel to Mr Pheffer, who was also our physical science teacher. Mr Sambaba taught us Afrikaans.
The custom of 'ontgroening' (initiation) was commonly and vigorously practised in those days. However, the senior boys avoided initiating me, for several reasons: firstly, my mother was a well-liked teacher, secondly we had our own house close by, on ‘rykmanshoogte’ (rich man’s hill), thirdly, my eldest brother was already in standard nine, and lastly, I was fairly aggressive lad, and did not hesitate to defend myself ‘until the end’. (This is what ‘they’ thought, although in reality I would always re-evaluate my chances, and change tactics. Afterall, who would like to die prematurely!). Thus whoever had the intention to 'ontgroen' (initiate) me, had to be prepared to use excessive force to do so! Additionally, anyone doing so, would have to deal with opposing members of the Malmesbury community, including my beloved mom! Today, I still think that 'ontgroening' is decidedly barbaric, and devoid of any practical function or purpose in our modern society. Yet this practice still persists at, for example, the University of Stellenbosch! Apparently it serves the purpose of creating 'maties' or friends(hip)!
In the Standard 6 June examinations, I only obtained a ‘B’ for mathematics, although I came tops of the whole class. Although I scored higher marks than a 'clever' girl from St Thomas Primary School, who apparently obtained almost 100% in her standard 5 exams, and, to the dismay of those with hailed from Mamre, more than that of a young lad who was 'very, very good - a genius' at mathematics according to education experts from the Western Cape Education Department of the time, my mother was very disappointed (- but not angry -) with my first high school report. This is how she ‘logically’ summed up my chances of doing well at mathematics: “As jy nou 70% kry – en ‘n mens sak met 10% persent elke jaar – dan sal jy maar so 30% kry in standerd 10!” (Since your marks are expected to drop by 10% each year, your mark in standard 10 will only be 30%, given your 70% in Standard 6!). To me it seemed like a repeat of my experiences in second grade with my granny. Although I was top of the class (which consisted of the top pupils from other school, including the then deputy principal's daughter), my standard average was only in the 70% range!
No matter how I tried to explain to her why my mark was so low, she kept on expressing her disappointment with me directly. She reminded my of how well others (such as Jan Persens) had done in their matric exams.
So I vowed silently to myself again: “I’ll show ‘em!”.
My first taste of glory came at the end of that year, when I pushed up my average to well over 80%, including distinctions in Mathematics, Science and Social Studies! In the meantime, I continued acting as piano accompanist for Mr Balie's Liebenberg Primary School senior choir. I remember that I accompanied a performance ( - 'The Lass with the Delicate Air'? - ) which was aired by Mr Balie's famous aunt, Maud Balie, on the 'exclusively Coloured'(sic) Protea programme of 'Tannie (Aunt) Maud". This programme had a weekly slot on the South African national broadcasting station, the SABC. Although Mr Balie still attempted to teach me piano, he suggested to my mother that since he 'could not teach me anything new' anymore, I should seek a new teacher.
Thus in standard 7 I sadly did not have a piano teacher anymore. Furthermore, the same shameful story of my achievement in the previous year, repeated itself. This time, I obtained an even more miserable 'C' (60%) in mathematics ( - yet, also still the best in the whole standard!) I immediately told my mother that the teacher had not correctly scaled up the mark from 200 to 300. I told her that he showed us our scripts, which was 143 out of 200, and that the correct conversion should be 215. I even explained the whole thing to her, using percentages. I argued that 143 out of 200 was equal to 71.5%, which was a "B", and not a 'C'.
My mother then instructed me to phone the relevant teacher. After I explained to him my query, he simply said: "Ek kry jou,mannetjie!" ((I'll get you, little boy!).
I spent the whole of the June vacations fearing having to go back this teacher's class. However, my joy was boundless when I discovered on our first day back at school, that I had a new mathematics teacher! I don't know why he was shifted to teach another subject, except that I can guess that he must have 'spoken' to the principal, and maybe 'requested' a change of teaching subject!
The Beginnings of 'Real' and Proper Understanding of Mathematics
"Only after pain and suffering, will you
achieve success in your endeavours."
When the young mathematics teacher Joe Olivier from Paarl joined the staff of Schoonspruit High School in July 1966, everybody considered him to be just another 'inkomer' (newcomer) to Malmesbury. Olivier was a brilliant young teacher, who studied for his B.Sc. in Mathematics and Physics at the then very young University of the Western Cape. According to him, students were required to pass their major subjects ( - in his case Mathematics and Physics) together. Olivier claimed ( - and I believe him totally - ) that he overslept on the day of his final exam. Oliver in fact has an incomplete degree in Mathematics. However, he was clearly brilliant at Mathematics, and could solve difficult mathematics problems in seconds.
Olivier had an interesting exuberant character as well. He loved to crack jokes, which some of his colleagues considered 'bad' or 'poor'. However, Olivier understood and appreciated his own jokes, and his rawcous laughter would ring out after a witty statement of joke. All the children loved Olivier when his took over the reigns from our previous mathematics teacher LC.
Olivier introduced us to Euclidean geometry right from the start. We were all stunned and confused, given our 'poor' mathematics education up to then in the high school. I remember how two of my friends, I think they were Salomo Persens (brother of the famed Jan Persens) and Steven Radcliffe (who made a tremendous impression on teachers with his leadership qualities, orator ship and singing voice) visited Olivier where he boarded with Mr Balie (also from Paarl). Again he explained the "exterior angle theorem' which confused me. After a few attempts at explaining this straightforward theorem to us, he exclaimed to us, who remained confused up to that stage: "Maar julle is onnosel! Kan julle nie sien hoe die ding werk nie?" (But you are stupid! Can't you see how it works?). I think I lost my temper with Olivier, and went home dejectedly to think about this theorem.
That whole evening, even while I slept, the theorem lingered in my subconscious mind. When I woke up the next morning, I clearly 'saw' how the theorem worked! Since that moment, I never experienced any problems with Euclidian geometry again. In fact, today, more that 40 years later, I still often remark: "If I can't work it out, then I go mad" ( - and I have been 'mad' twice, if I remember correctly, once in 1986 and later in 1997 - but I'll come to that later in this autobiography)!
This experience when I was only 13 years old in July 1966, and similar experiences in 1971 as an undergraduate student at the University of Cape Town, again in 1986 as a doctoral student at the same university, and later in 1993, when I submitted a doctoral thesis at the University of Natal, serve as personal underpinnings for 'advice' I often give to my students:
"Only after pain and suffering, will you achieve success in your endeavours."
Putting the above differently: success does not come easily, but only after painstaking effort.
Although in a completely differ sphere, and then as a family, we also collectively went through 'pain and suffering' in 1991 (during the disintegration of apartheid), when we bought our new house in Muizenberg.
Two Icons In Junior Secondary School: 1966-1967
"Pietie turned around immediately, stormed at me, intending to give
me a huge slap meant to send me sprawling and landing half-dazed on the wooden
school floor. Whether I gave way, or Pietie deliberately missed me, I don't
know. If the latter is correct, the only plausible reason could be that
Pietie perhaps feared the wrath of my mother, whom he also respected.
If the former is correct, it meant that I was not scared of Pietie, and that
Pietie understood that sometimes even he had to be 'careful'!"
There will be many of my own generation who will sharply disagree with me, many of them perhaps well-educated today which include principals, lawyers and even doctors, on my viewpoint that Pietie Sheldon and Joe Olivier were the best teachers during my two years in Standard 7 and 8 at Schoonspruit High School. After all, I was taught mathematics in standard 8 by a B.Sc. (Mathematics) graduate from the University of Cape Town, who even then when only about 30 years old, already became the vice-principal, and later the principal. Then there were other outstanding teachers who taught me Social Studies and other subjects. No doubt, I was well-taught in mathematics throughout my high school career. I admit that. In my senior years, I was fortunate to have had a dedicated teacher, whom I really liked.
However, I really adored the earthiness and naked brilliance of Olivier. In contrast, church-going ( - he was a deacon in the DRC church- ), authoritarian and 'ruthless' Pietie Sheldon impressed me with the 100% compliance and control he had over many a scoundrel-like learner whom I shared my schooling with.
Pietie Sheldon had his Bookkeeping class next to the matric class, which was adjacent the principal's office. All his learners had to stand in a neat line in front of his class, before he allowed them in. Sometimes this ran into several minutes. No-one dared talk, or enter the class late!
My friend and I were late for my first class with Pietie Sheldon, who always wore a dark, neat suit. On that day, he allowed the class in immediately after the bell rang, as if he was waiting for us!
When the two of us entered his class (late), Pietie stood in front of a completely stunned and silent class, with his Bookkeeping text book in his hand. His fierce eyes pierced through ours, when he ordered: "Julle twee, bly net daar voor staan!" (You two, remain standing where you are!) And there we stood for 10 or 15 minutes while Pietie continued with his first lesson in Bookkeeping. I became bored, yet amused at the situation, smiled at my friend and said something to him. Pietie turned around immediately, stormed at me, intending to give me a huge slap intended to send me sprawling and landing half-dazed on the wooden school floor. Whether I gave way, or Pietie deliberately missed me, I don't know. If the latter is correct, the only plausible reason could be that Pietie perhaps feared the wrath of my mother, whom he also respected. If the former is correct, it meant that I was not scared of Pietie, and that Pietie understood that sometimes even he had to be 'careful'!
Pietie and 'Oils': Opposite Characters
My favourite teachers at High School were Pietie Sheldon and Joe ('Oils') Olivier. Make no mistake, there were many other good teachers are this high school who were well-liked by myself and other learners. Most of my teachers later became principals, inspectors (subject advisors) and even professors: These included my mathematics teacher from Grade 10 to 12 (Neville Fry), my Afrikaans teacher in the senior classes (De Laura), my biology teacher (Bennie Saunders), and many others like Esterhuysen ('Essie').
However, Pietie and "Oils" were the best, in my opinion. Both were 'characters' in completely opposite fashion. Olivier was outspoken and easy-going. A brilliant man who was in complete control of his talents. He later became a chess champion and completed a B.Com. degree.
Olivier was also controversial sportsman. When he joined the staff of Schoonspruit High School, he played for Never Despairs, a struggling team, which was labelled inkindly the 'flinterspan' (tattered team) by my mother and others. They consisted of the poor and uneducated, the marginalised! The next best were the Olympics rugby teams. However, Uniteds were the sought after teams. They consisted of the best players, the intelligentsia, the who's who in Malmesbury!
Olivier, only later, 'graduated' to the second team of Uniteds. Of course, some of my teachers such as Neville Fry and Lois Liedeman had been playing in the first team of Uniteds for ages by the time Olivier came to Malmesbury.
Pietie, again, loved his pigeons and his family. You would either find him after school in his dove cote, or sitting in the car of the feared traffic officer (who was 'white'). Yes, Pietie had 'white' friends, even during the horrible times of apartheid. Yet Pietie hated apartheid. But his physical appearance resembled that of 'whites'. His black hair was always neatly parted in the middle. He always wore a neat dark suit. His hands were strong and well cared for (I always watched his nails in class, which were impeccable). Everyone agreed, Pietie was an astonishingly neat person, and disciplined. He did the same thing everyday. He was completely well-organised - a thorough person, indeed.
Pietie had a ruthless approach with all learners, boys and girls alike. Olivier, again, was relaxed, somewhat 'familiar', with learners. "Oils" smiled all the time, cracked a lot of (bad, and not so bad) jokes and laughed often (rawcously and loudly). Pietie rarely smiled (enigmatically), and had he done so with us, we would have been shocked and frightened. He only spared some of his colleagues a little smile, and that would have reserved for the more senior staff, and not the 'laaities'' (kids) like Olivier and other younger teachers.
Sports Entertainment in Malmesbury
"It really wasn't nice to see young ladies in their short dresses tearing off each other's clothes!"
At the time when I should have attended choral, oratorio, operatic, symphony and concerto performances given my deep rooted love for music, I delved into science and mathematics. While my brother, who was training as a teacher in Oudtshoorn, visited the Cango Caves and heard the famed Vera Gow of the Eoan Group sing, I could only entertain my many friends on the piano. Steven Radcliffe and Eben Lingeveldt often requested that I play for them.
Reading of various novels and other library books formed an important part of my recreational activities. However, over weekends, there was nothing better than going to the I.D. Du Plessis stadium to watch the local rugby matches. Sometimes, just for fun, I also watched the soccer and netball matches. However, I decided to stick to watching rugby when on one (probably once-off, and sad) occasion some netball players started fighting with each other due to an unpopular decision by the referee. It really wasn't nice to see young ladies in their short dresses tearing off each other's clothes! Bra's flew everywhere; luckily 'everything else' did not undergo the same eradication process!
The sport matches were well attended by the Malmesbury crowd. Supporters with cars, which often included my mother as well, triumphantly hooted when their team scored.
The best place was on the stadium, where the ordinary people sat. I think I enjoyed sitting there since I became an enthusiastic supporter of our High School teams.
I remember one
particular occasion when our first team rugby players came under the influence
of a boy who was transferred from a school in
Cape Town and smoked 'dagga' (pot) just before a major match. The
smell of dagga was terrible; we in Malmesbury were not used to this type
of drug, and/or behaviour. This boy, a Don Juan with slick hair and ways,
actually caused havoc amongst the local girls, to the dismay of the principal
and community at the time! I was told that even he became a principal of an
unlucky school a few years later!
Year of' 'Glory': Standard 8 (Grade 10), 1967
"Bertie Lategan asked me what I intended studying
at University. I mentioned “medicine”, which prompted
him to ask me to hold a pencil loosely between my forefinger
and middle finger. He then stated: “Jy bewe te veel!” (You shake too much)."
My development in mathematics was nurtured further by the then vice-principal of Schoonspruit High School, Neville Fry. Fry was a colourful character who was a real ‘ladies’ man - an attractive fellow. His attraction did not only stem from the fact that his physical looks resembled that of the actor Mark Condor, whom we all admired, but from his lively and sexy mannerisms. Fry had a brisk walk, which he did with arms bulged widely, like a body builder.
Fry was also a friendly bloke, who made many ‘original’ jokes, unlike that of Olivier, whose jokes he thought were crude and unoriginal. I don’t want to take sides here, but I liked ‘ Oils’ ’ crude jokes better. They were more earthy and better appreciated by simple people.
However, Fry also was an excellent (mathematics) teacher. This left-handed person, with his neat and extravagant handwriting, took great pride in his impeccable chalkboard technique – he could write in a straight line, while talking to the class at the same time. He could also draw perfect geometric diagrams. His class act was to draw a perfect circle, within a split second. What was a little disappointing was that he showed absolutely no humility when we admired his craft! Fry was completely arrogant about his abilities, and equally disgusted at our inability. Most of his learners, particularly the boys, did not find his arrogance acceptable. I remember how some of the bigger, rougher guys told me that they will get him ‘one day’. Well, the only things that got them, were the bad results they continuously obtained in mathematics.
Fry was well-disposed towards me. I liked the fellow in many ways. He was polite, and ‘cultured’. I also enjoyed sitting next to the ‘white’ man, the ‘coloured’ Mark Condor, who could impress any lady he wanted to (except of course my mother)!
Fry practised differentiated teaching. This how he did it: If Fry thought that you were capable of progressing, he would teach you aside, which allowed you to progress faster. In his opinion this method facilitated in others not holding you back, which then gave him the opportunity to concentrate on the weaker students. What actually happened (in my case) was that Fry actually came to teach me at home! His aim, which he stated publicly, was to ensure an “A” in mathematics.
Then we had an excellent Social Studies teacher by the name of Lois Liedeman. ‘Boeta’ (Brother) Lois had the unusual ability to make history interesting. I still remember how he kept us spellbound when he narrated the fall of Louis XIV and the Bastille. Liedeman also was an exceptionally neat person, with an unusually artistic handwriting. He was quite a clever guy, and a good rugby player – very fast! I eventually also obtained an ‘A’ in his subject.
Pages from my Social Studies Project in which I scored top marks
During the same year, our science teacher Bertie Lategan asked me what I intended studying at University. I mentioned “medicine”, which prompted him to ask me to hold a pencil loosely between my forefinger and middle finger. He then stated: “Jy bewe te veel!” (You shake too much). Another class mate ‘passed’ his test! I felt like a failure, and this feeling may have contributed to my final decision to study music and mathematics when I reached matric two years later. I obtained 79.7% in my Science examinations at the end of that year, one mark short of an ‘A’ ( - I am sure you believe me!)
My Mother's Friends
“I am witness to the fact that TvdM as driver overturned our
Austin with the whole Desai family in it, when we returned
from a visit in the 1960's to our Fredericks relatives who stayed in Calendula
Road, near Athlone High School. According to my mom this
happened because TvdM did not want to sleep over in Cape
Town, and decided that she was capable of driving us home safely.
Of course, all of us almost died that Sunday morning!”
My mother had many friends. Some of those, she shared with my granny. Aunt Ellen Paulsen was one of them. Ellen was also a teacher, of the age and schooled likewise as my granny in Riversdale. She was an unmarried, bubbly person, who spent some time with us in Malmesbury. I remember her articulated voice and laughter well. Even after her stroke, she communicated effortlessly with everyone. Aunt Ellen’s younger relative later became a high school principal in Riversdale.
I now recall Oom (Uncle) Hennie Paulsen who had a shop in Riversdale during the 1960’s. Oom Hennie was fond of handing out sweets to little children, which could be a reason for him not having made as much money as others did, out of a small business.
My mother also had many friends in Malmesbury. The first name that springs to mind is that of two young teachers: TvdM and SA. I am witness to the fact that TvdM as driver overturned our Austin with the whole Desai family in it, when we returned from a visit in the 1960's to our Fredericks relatives who stayed in Calendula Road, near Athlone High School. According to my mom this happened because TvdM did not want to sleep over in Cape Town, and decided that she was capable of driving us home safely. Of course, all of us almost died that Sunday morning!
Then also there was SA who later go married to one of my primary school teachers.
Hettie Adonis from Mamre, came to board with us during the 1960's. This young physical education teacher was close to my mom. My wife Zalda recalls that Hettie, who later married Sambaba, who taught me in Standard 6, attended my mother’s funeral in 1994. Hettie was part of our family those days. She prayed with us (at about 7 p.m. just after supper). My mother, although clearly not the ‘church-going’ type, held a little service every night in those days. Somehow, my mother was really serious about her chosen religion, although later she converted to the Jehova’s Witnesses, which caused me in turn to have to make a decision in a ‘life-or-death’ (religious) issue shortly before her death in 1994!
Then there were many male teachers who visited us often: Pheffer and Olivier were two of them. I do not really know why they came to visit us often, except to guess that some young ladies also frequented our house when they did. My mother, remember, was also sexy young widow at the time, somewhere in her middle thirties!
The Sad Saga of how Buksie was shot by a 'Boer' (Farmer)
I remember how the stray brown medium-sized dog followed me home one day. I must have been in Grade 9 at the time. We all loved this mild-mannered dog, which we named Buksie. Buksie was kept clean, happy and well-fed by our family. Buksie even slept with me, on my bed!
Buksie, like any other male dog, sometimes ran away after female company. We were disappointed in him, and did our best to keep him from mating and fathering little puppies. However, we managed to live with Buksie doing his rounds at night!
At the same time, there were talks of dogs killing sheep on a nearby farm. Our house was adjacent a large open veld. During spring, Buksie and I strolled these open fields looking for wild flowers. Like most of the children in Malmesbury, I knew the names of the wild flowers (aandblommetjies, etc.) and that of edible plants (uintjies, etc.).
One morning I noticed some white fur on the mouth of Buksie. I severely reprimanded
Buksie, and decided to stay away from walking with Buksie close to the nearby farm.
I must have dropped my guard one day. As Buksie and I did our 'freedom stroll' in the veld one sunny afternoon, a farm worker suddenly pointed at us, and shouted:
"Dis hy, baas. Dis die hond wat die skape so byt!"
(It is him, Master. It is this dog that bites the sheep!)
I became both angry and scared at the same time. The labourer was clearly subservient to his 'master', and 'only earning his daily bread'! What followed next, is still hard for me to describe:
The ruthless white farmer – a ‘boer’ – then commanded me:
“Hou jou fokken hond vas dat ek hom kan vrekskiet” (Hold on to your fu..... dog so that I can kill him). I was stunned, trembled, and feared being killed as well.
So I looked Buksie in the eye, and commanded gently, calmly and with deep love: “Sit:
Bukse sat completely still, with tail wagging. While I sadly looked into his brown, friendly eyes, the boer unashamedly shot a defenseless Buksie devoid of any mercy either to me (a young boy) or the dog. I noticed two little holes appearing between Buksies eyes, after which Buksie fell to the ground, tail still wagging. All the time my hand was stroking my beloved dying dog.
The burly khaki-cladded farmer then bellowed:
“Nou kan jy jou donnerse hond self begrawe” (How you can bury your damn dog on your own.)
The farmer and his loyal coloured servant left me right there with the dead Buksie, with a tangible deathly silence all about me, while I was sobbing uncontrollably all the time. With tears streaming down my eyes I walked the kilometer distance home, collected a spade, walked back while crying all the time, and dug Buksie a decent grave. I laid my beloved dog to rest right there where he was shot, and made a silent vow.....
Afterwards I accounted the sad story of Buksie's unjust murder to my stunned mother and family, who was severely shocked as well. My mother murmured quietly that the damned boer could have taken the dog elsewhere to be shot, and not by involving me in the cruel manner he did. His was a blatant demonstration of ‘baaskap’ (Hitlerism). We tried to work out who the farmer and his ‘loyal’ coloured servant were, but quickly realized that we were wasting our time in the ruthless Malmesbury apartheid environment of the 1960’s.
1967: Text Books, Rising a 3 a.m. and Top Marks
“…..but they did not impress me: It was still apartheid then, and our family were not to be taken for a ride. Furthermore, I wanted to ‘compete’ with everyone, not just ‘Coloureds’ “
At the end of 1966, just before the long December school holidays, I discovered the room wherein all the free text books were kept. This was were those children who still attended the school were kept busy reading. The others either went home (to Porterville, Klawer, Garries, Nababeep, and so on) or they simply stayed at home.
I thought that my mother could no longer afford to pay for our books, and/or that we were unfairly expected to buy our own text books since my mother was a ‘teacher’, while ‘richer’ people – business people – could qualify for free text books under the apartheid system (which now worked in favour of the ‘poor’, except us).I therefore decided to ‘steal’ my Mathematics, Biology, Science and Bookkeeping books. This was a systematic affair: I took them one by one. I even swopped ones that were worn for cleaner and better ones!
During 1967 I also rose at 3 a.m. every morning, ran four times round the block where we lived ( which totalled a distance of more than a mile) and then took a cold bath! This I did even during the cold and rainy winter months of that year. Thus, every day, from about 4 am until 6 a.m., I devoted an equal amount of time to studies in my various subjects: Mathematics, Bookkeeping, and so on. From about 6 am, I started playing the piano. That year, my old teacher, Mr Balie, again accepted me as his pupil for a few months, while I learnt to play difficult pieces by composers such as Chopin.
At the end of that year, I obtained virtually full marks in Mathematics, Social Science, Bookkeeping and Commercial Arithmetic. There may be those that would regard it as arrogant of me to publish the following final marks I scored in the external national Junior Certificate examinations in 1967:
Mathematics: 303 (because they raised the marks by 10) out of 300;
Bookkeeping and Commercial Arithmetic: 298 out of 300;
Social Studies: 292 out of 300;
General Science: 239 out of 300.
I also obtained ‘B’s in the two languages, Afrikaans and English. Later I was told that the boy from Paarl who came second, got five “A”’s, (whereas I only obtained three) but then of course, I did better than them in Mathematics and Bookkeeping! More about this later! Today, the "B's" look out of place to me, particularly in the light that I consistently obtained 'A''s in Science and probably Afrikaans in the school examinations in grade 10. In those days, it was almost impossible to obtain an 'A', let alone the marks I quoted above in external exminations. My wife Zalda tells me that she obtained four 'A's at the same examination level three years later in 1970, and that their principal refused to release her actual marks! In Malmesbury, my teachers in my best subjects were Pietie Sheldon, Neville Fry and Lois Liedeman who did not fear telling us how we did. Remember that I mentioned how good they were as teachers - all of these! Bertie Lategan, who studied at the University of the Western Cape prior to his appointment at Schoonspruit High School, taught me General Science in standard eight. Bertie, or others, seemingly enjoyed spreading the news in Malmesbury that I did not get an 'A' in his subject, although I missed it by one mark only, and obtained 'A's with him previously!
I must have scored a very high average mark, which I did throughout grade 10 (standard 8). In fact, I scored an average of well in the 90’s(%) during that year. My mother’s argument about dropping by 10% every year, certainly was not true in my case!
After our holidays in Oudtshoorn and Riversdale that year-end, we were informed that I was the ‘top’ student in ‘South Africa’. The Director of Education came to Malmesbury to congratulate the school, but they did not impress me: It was still apartheid then, and our family were not to be taken for a ride. Furthermore, I wanted to ‘compete’ with everyone, not just ‘Coloureds’!
In those days, apartheid also implied that those not 'white' were inferior scholars, etc. Thus rarely did blacks obtain a distinction in any subject. Your best chance was in mathematics, in which many obtained 'A''s. In our community your score in mathematics was used to place your academic performance more appropriately. In other words, it was assumed that people 'marked you down' deliberately in languages and Science. I think it was true in those days! It is also my theory that some marks were higher that what they actually should have been. You see, discrimination always goes both ways, more or less in accordance with Newtonian laws!
Music: Influences at High School
During 1967/68 one of our teachers influenced me to write a school song. This teacher was a science graduate, who started playing the piano at a very late stage. In fact, he had rudimentary knowledge of music when he became one of my teachers.
I did compose a school song in 1968, and sent it to a music inspector Frank Petersen for perusal and comment. Although many others tried to write a school song at the time, I think that Petersen's comments prompted me to start searching for a teacher in music theory.
I even asked our principal, Ebrahim Vesamian, to try and get me enrolled at the local 'white's only' high school for music studies, predictably without success! I searched in Cape Town, Parow and Paarl for assistance, but in vain!
These searches, coupled with my desire to study music theory, became more desperate when one of my friends, Martin Balie - then music student at the University of Cape Town - often came to our home to talk and play 'music'!
Leadership Conference, Standard 9 (Grade 11), 1968
EDUCATION FOR LEADERSHIP!? Director of Education (J.F.Louw);
Charlyn Wessels and Desmond Desai
in school uniform
(from Alpha, Vol. 6, No. 12, December 1968)
Eoan Group 'Glory', 1971
Since I am presently busy with research on the Eoan Group (See my CV),
I am posting the above rather prematurely!
Matric 1969 and the Accounting Teacher from Swartland High School
I am compelled to write the following account of how I was nearly expelled from Schoonspruit High School towards the end of my matric year on the basis of 'excellence'. This sounds like a contradiction, but the underlying reasons for this extraordinary scenario were: that a white teacher (from the local 'white' Swartland High School) was supposed to have been a better teacher than our previous 'coloured' one who suddenly resigned from our school, and that it was presumed that 'coloureds' could never perform better than 'whites', unless of course they were taught by 'whites'. Clearly this sounds crazy, but let me relate to you this sad saga: