Monday, August 13, 2007

A Tyrant, Ducktails and Black People (1960)

Excerpt no 3: Africa Will Always Break Your Heart

...This is where I got exposed to black people for the first time. I used to sneak off to the wood-mill and join four black labourers over lunch every day. They used to cook their lunch over a small fire in two kafferpots. Kafferpots (still called that today) are black, cast-iron, three-legged cooking pots to be used exclusively over an open fire. It is even one of the export products of Africa. It was without exception putu-pap and meat. Putu-pap is a very stiff maize porridge cooked with very little water and left to steam for hours. I am a master at cooking this porridge after years of practice. The labourers would start to cook their lunch as soon as they arrived at work in the morning, as the putu-pap took a few hours to be cooked just right. The fact that we could not understand each other did not harm our relationship. Every day I got a handful of pap and a piece of meat from them and sat around the fire together with them, listening to them talking in their language.

They would talk very loudly and laugh a lot. These visits were done in secret as we were forbidden to fraternise with black people and the dangerous machinery of the mill was also off-limits. I was taught that black people were dangerous, they stank and they were liars, thieves and murderers. My mom got suspicious since I wasn’t hungry at lunch time and soon found out about my daily excursions. I got a serious trashing and I could not understand why. I can now understand that it was fear bred out of ignorance on her behalf and that she just wished to protect me from harm.

Here I have to confess that black people used to smell a bit but what was lost on me was the reason. And the reason was definitely not that they had some kind of resistance against washing. It rather depended on them being forced to live under conditions that can only be described as inhuman. They erected and lived in squatter shacks close to the white population, as we were their only chance for employment. As many as twelve persons would live in a little shack, no larger than 12 square meters. There was no running water. Townships were informal settlements that only got granted the most basic infrastructure two to three decades later. They cooked their meals over open fires. The only source of heat in winter was an indoor fire without even the luxury of a proper fireplace. Salaries were kept to a minimal and didn’t allow for any improvement of living conditions. The little bit of money they earned was used to feed themselves and to send home to their loved ones living in kraals in the traditional rural areas. Blacks were mostly migrant workers forced to move to the large concentrations of whites, as subsistence farming in their kraals did not produce enough for all. A standard racist joke for years was:

“Why do kaffers stink? The blind must be able to hate them as well.”

That this migrating workforce turned out to be one of the major causes for the spreading of AIDS became knowledge only much later.

Blacks only existed in the periphery of our world. They worked for us, but we were not exposed to them. That fact that there were millions of them never crossed my mind. We were taught that we were superior to them and that they did not amount to much. They did not belong here. This was our land and we were taught at school how our forbearers fought for it. The blacks were jungle bunnies that would never be a factor to consider.

The only other type of people that existed apart from us was duck-tails. Ducktails did not cut their hair. They greased it down with bryll-cream and combed it into a little ducktail at the back. They wore leather jackets and very tight stovepipe jeans that took hours to put on and always carried knives. Ducktails drove around on motorcycles and beat up innocent people. All of them smoked dagga and were the trash of the white population. They were different to us. We had to avoid them and avoid becoming like them.

I remember walking into a cafĂ© in Irene a few years later, where I saw my first real ducktail. In awe of being so close to danger I ogled him for a long time as he was buying cigarettes. He had all the hallmarks of a true ducktail; slicked down hair, a leather jacket with chains and studs and stovepipe jeans. I looked for the bulge of his flick knife in his back-pocket, but could not detect any. The fact that he left on a bicycle and was most probably a wannabe who could not afford his own motorcycle did not diminish the ‘peril’ I had been in. I remember talking about this incident for days...


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