A big fish in a small pond

In the mind of my mother, it seemed, there was a growing stigma attached to living in the southern suburbs of Johannesburg, and she seemed very class conscious. Our suburb, Robertsham, was dotted with mine dumps: enormous piles of sand and lime, golden-white in colour, and the height of small hi-rise buildings covering areas the size of several football fields. Here, the remains of processed rock and sand (once containing gold from the mines) was simply dumped and the result was an unsightly skyline vista, almost desert like. After a particularly windy day, dust from the nearby mine dump would cause my very sensitive eyes to swell to the point that I was unable to open my poor, inflamed eyelids without severe discomfort. Doctors talked of it as an allergy best treated by living in an area where mine dumps were not so close by. Mom needed no second invitation and we moved back to the eastern suburbs, and a new school yet again; my fourth.

Aged 7, I walked through the impressive gates at Leicester Road School in Kensington. I was struck by how neat the children’s uniforms were and how pretty the buildings and gardens were. This was not a standard Transvaal Education Department brick construction but a well thought out structure designed with love and attention to detail. My dad took me to the principal’s office, which smelled of leather and wood, and introduced me to Mr Frank Braun; a man of huge physical stature whose mere presence demanded respect. It turned out they were acquainted from when dad had been a South African boxing champion and Frank Braun had been head of the South African Amateur Boxing Association, as well as president of the South African National Olympic Committee. Frank Braun had vetoed Dad’s participation at the 1954 Commonwealth and Empire Games in Canada, due to his young age – 16 – after he’d qualified by beating a 30-year-old policeman to take the South African title. If relations between the two were strained, it didn’t show—possibly a charade for my benefit or perhaps dad had softened over the subsequent years. My oupa, however, who had founded a boxing club in Johannesburg – Olympia – and had produced two SA Champions (dad being one), was a vocal opponent of the controversial Frank Braun, which made me a little wary of this giant of a man with the booming voice.

The house that my parents bought in Highland Road (for R11, 000) had been built in around 1932—when houses were constructed to last and artisans took enormous pride in their work. As a child I would lay on the floor of every room in the house gazing in wonder at the beauty of the pressed steel ceilings, all differing in design and complexity. I imagined the workmen measuring up each room and then reporting to the factory to make a ceiling that would snugly fit into the different areas of the house; including the little scullery and pantry, which prided themselves on being as beautiful as their larger counterparts, the lounge and bedrooms. The large, north facing bay window in the lounge trapped the winter sun, turning it into the most inviting portion of the house on a chilly winter afternoon. The enormous, high pitched galvanised iron roof proved perfect for climbing when mom and dad weren’t home—they both worked full day. The cellar, which stretched under the entirety of the house (with space for a grown man in some areas but accommodating only little bodies in others) was the perfect place to test the bravery of visitors, who were told how the darkness ensured zero vision. And from the foundation of our abode, we’d move to the summit for further adventures; setting mouse traps in the ceiling at night and checking them for spoils in the morning.

It never occurred to me back then… but in the 1960s and 1970s our situation was somewhat unique in that about twenty homes, pretty much adjacent to or across the road from each other, housed some thirty children of similar ages; of which only four (my sister being one) were girls. I was surrounded by boys, most of whom attended Leicester Road School or Kensington Ridge School. Family names hinted at the origins of these second, third and fourth generation immigrants from various parts of Europe. Names such as Starkey, de Silva, Thomas, Amiridaki, Malan, Mankie, Steyn, Cason, Greiner and Crawford, described the diversity of the origins of these families. That said, the accent shared by these boys was homogenous and fundamentally English but also littered with Afrikaans adjectives and expletives—an urban South African dialect that evolved from the mingling of cultures. Many of the colloquialisms that comprised our speech were derived from the literal meaning of a word but applied in an idiomatic context. So, ‘lightie’ was a young boy, due to his light weight? To be beaten up was to be ‘donnered’, from the Afrikaans for thunder—donder. Had you taken something from a mate, you’d ‘diefed’ it, from the Afrikaans for thief—dief. Don’t ‘tune me grief’, meant stop being disagreeable; the tone conveying the level of irritation and how close you were to being ‘dondered’ or ‘moered’—other words for beaten. We would also talk about someone ‘stripping his moer’ (losing his temper), which was, literally, to strip the thread of a nut (as opposed to bolt) in Afrikaans. If you were talking nonsense you were said to be talking ‘kak’ (shit). The word ‘fuck’ was used liberally for emphasis (and worked quite well), and when something was good it was said to be ‘tit’ or if it were really good it was ‘fucking tit’. A girl was a ‘chick’, dads were ‘toppies’, and mom was the ‘old queen’. An alcoholic beverage was a ‘dop’ a cigarette a ‘skyf’ and a hangover a ‘babalaas’. Come over to my place became ‘pull into my possie’, possibly because the old queen was out, and you’d ‘diefed’ or ‘zikked’ (stolen) a ‘skyf’ from the toppie’s pack of Rothmans or Texans.

School holidays at the end of Highland Road were tantalisingly sweet—we were free to adventure from sunrise to sunset. Highland Road collided with Sovereign Street in a T–junction, beyond which lay many square kilometres of open veld, spanning as far as the eye could see: from the border of Malvern East and Primrose Hill in the south, to the edge of Cyrildene and Morning Hill to the north and then all the way to the western borders of Glendower (Edenvale) and Solheim (Germiston) and back home to the eastern border of Kensington. The highveld landscape was bush interspersed with large houses occupying large spats of land, and some small farms and nurseries—dry and sparse in the winter, green and dense in the summer. It was magic.

Bicycle races (before BMX), war games, tree climbing with ropes and tackle, clay fights in an old quarry (after which clothes were surreptitiously discarded, since I had been told not to venture to the quarry), long walks up the ‘koppie’ (small hill) separating Cyrildene and Linksfield, stopping on the way to make a fire to cook some ‘boerewors’ (farmer sausage) on a stick over an open flame, before pressing on to Gillooly’s Farm for a swim in the Jukskei River. This walk would take up practically the entire day but left one in a pleasing state of exhaustion. Back yard cricket, soccer and rugby was responsible for the financial success of the local glazier, and some very sore bums. We’d shoot bottles with Daisy or BB pellet guns in the old service lanes (a hangover from the days before underground sewerage) and the suburban gardens in Kensington, which  yielded delicious grapes, plums, peaches, mulberries, pears, passion fruit, figs and pomegranates, were perfect for ‘fruit picking expeditions’—we ate until we sometimes felt ill. Most people allowed kids to continue uninterrupted in their pinching of the local delicacies, turning a blind eye; acknowledging that there was usually such an abundance that waste was inevitable. Some, however, did not take so kindly to this mischief; resorting to chasing us down the lanes or calling the police. These people would often have their roofs ‘rocked’—a hail of rocks, lobbed by countless kids after dark, landing on the galvanised iron roof when one is in the early stages of slumber would, I imagine, be quite disturbing. If we weren’t meandering the veld or mooching around the neighbourhood, we might be found at the ‘Regent’ (the local cinema, only a walk away) or on a bus to the city, to see a movie; Sean Connery or the new James Bond—Roger Moore… such laughter in the Bud Spencer and Terrence Hill movies brought tears to our eyes. Planet of the Apes stirred our curiosity and I took up spitting after seeing Clint Eastwood as the outlaw Josey Wales. The way he spat was so cool! All these adventures added up to great school holidays for our crew of boys but were a tad harrowing for all our parents, who could be heard to heave a collective sigh of relief when each new term dawned and the gang were once again off the streets for ten weeks or so.

I don’t know if it was a matter of luck or a string of self-fulfilling prophesies but we were usually blessed with really outstanding teachers throughout my primary school years. I was a reasonably intelligent, attentive kid, and seldom in serious trouble with teachers or the principal. Friendships formed back at Leicester Road School have endured until today, some spanning oceans and continents. Whether that’s testament to a fine school, or a particularly enduring band of mates, I cannot be certain; perhaps a combination of both.

As time went by, I realised that I did not share my oupa’s disdain of Frank Braun. On the contrary, he was really kind to me in his ‘old school’ Mr Chips way. He had been the founder of the school and was particularly proud of all he surveyed. I certainly didn’t escape the wrath of his cane when dawdling on the playground after the bell had been rung but then again, he was quick to praise on the sports field and reward me with the captaincy or vice—captaincy of the football team when I was deserving. I remember making special effort for all my teachers at primary school, and being praised for frequently being close to the top of the class. I enjoyed the praise, and realise today that’s probably what provided the nourishment for my self-confidence. My close friends came from similar backgrounds, solid family units (divorce was truly the exception) and kids usually had one or two siblings. Middle class was the phrase used to describe us and not many kids had parents who were graduate professionals. Dads tended to be artisans, bankers, sales representatives or technicians and moms tended to be secretaries, nurses, clerks or stay-at-home mothers. Frank Braun would never allow a tuck shop, since this could put into the spotlight kids from less fortunate homes arriving at school without the means to buy food or a drink, as others could. We were never required to pay for or purchase team jerseys, cricket kit or anything that might cause embarrassment if parents were unable to afford the funds. I once noticed two boxes of brand new school jerseys concealed in the principal’s storeroom/safe when he’d asked me to find something in there one day; two boxes—one for boys and another for girls. It struck me then that there was a reason he could be seen patrolling the playground, pen and clipboard in hand, on the coldest of cold days.

I had been a good student, had achieved well in most of my subjects, was reasonably popular with teachers and had become a fairly decent sportsman. In short I had loved my time at Leicester Road, while pretty much retaining most of my childish innocence; I believe that many of us emerged as well grounded teenagers, courtesy of the school we attended. As fate would have it, Frank Braun’s retirement coincided with our graduation from Primary School, my friends and I were big fish leaving a little pond. An illustrious era had certainly come to an end. I was in ‘the zone’ (catchment) to attend Queens High School, our local co-educational school within walking distance. My parents however, had other ideas, and felt that Jeppe High School for boys, with it’s long history, treasure trove of traditions and sporting success was the place for me. It was felt that Queens High School discipline was lax while the old fashioned discipline at Jeppe Boys produced well groomed, upstanding citizens, without the distraction of girls. Leaving most of the Highland Road gang to go to Queens, I was shipped off to Jeppe, along with about 14 mates from Leicester Road School, most of whom remain friends to this very day.

 

Author & Storyteller: Peter Steyn

Editor: Andrea Zanin

Peter Steyn lived in Kensington and the eastern suburbs in the 60s, 70s and early to mid 80s, and by the time the 90s rolled around; Sandton (where all the financial services companies ‘hoi poloi’ were putting up head offices) was his home. Today, Peter lives with his family down under and whilst his children are true blue Kiwis, South Africa is never far away; living on in stories… and perhaps even a book about home (watch this space!).

3 Comments

  1. Lovely read. Really awesome to be reminded of the many wonderful things of that period in my own life; partially lived out in Leicester Road Primary! Thank you

  2. I went to LRS from 1955-1959 and also lived on Highland Road – 331 Highland Road but in 1956 we moved to Bedforview – 45 Vander Linde Rd. At the end of the road was Gilooleys Farm (sp?) I remember the mine dumps and also played on them despite warnings from my parents.

    I remember Mr. Braun and was caned several times – mainly for fighting. We got to choose the flavor of the cane as they were of different thicknesses. I also remember Mrs. Black, Mr. Blatt and Mr. Knox – as well as Ms. Friel.

    In 1960 we emigrated, and my memories of SA are bittersweet.

    1. Hi Patrick – thank you for reading and for your comment! I think many South Africans feel as you do…bitter sweet! There’s a lot of heartache and longing for Saffa expats.X

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