BLACK MAMBA

The black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) is a highly venomous snake that is endemic to sub-Saharan Africa

My heart sank when I spotted Black Mamba, a man in his forties, waiting at the bus stop as my bus was approaching it. With his nasty, thin moustache and round face, and wearing his black bus inspector’s uniform complete with cap, he could easily have passed for Heinrich Himmler’s twin brother. His nickname amongst my fellow Cape Town City Tramways bus conductors was “Black Mamba”, which befitted his reputation.

The inspectors would board our buses without prior warning to check that all the fares that we had issued had been charged correctly and that everyone on board had a valid ticket.

The bus conducting job was the only one that I had been able to secure for the three months’ university holidays. As an immature nineteen year old I was not coping well with the stresses of the job. I lacked the skills to deal effectively with the challenging behaviours of some of the passengers, who would from time to time spit on me, swear at me, refuse to pay their fares and physically threaten me. I also had to enforce the white government’s Apartheid laws, which I loathed, on the buses. I cringed every time I had to ask a black or coloured passenger to move because they were sitting in the area of the bus that was reserved for white persons only.

The so-called pickpockets who robbed passengers with impunity and would draw a knife if anyone, including the conductor, tried to take them to task, terrified me. One of my fellow conductors had already had a knife stuck through his hand, through the meaty bit between his fingers. Nevertheless one couldn’t help but be impressed with the way that the pickpockets could jump off a double-decker bus as it was still slowing down, pirouetting gracefully like ballet dancers in the process to show off.

I had come to the job with a lot of mental baggage from my year in the army; I had been conscripted on finishing my final year at school. For the duration of that whole year I had been subjected to a daily barrage of abuse and punishment from the psychopaths whose role it was to mould us into mindlessly obedient soldiers. Instead of succumbing to the brutally enforced discipline, I had developed a rock hard core of rebelliousness. Long after I had returned to civilian life I would still react with an immediate flash of anger if anyone so much as raised their voice at me.

I was close to a breakdown on the day that Black Mamba boarded my bus. I had seen him around the bus depot and had been told how mercilessly he persecuted any conductor who had made a mistake. I knew that if he found an incorrectly issued fare or someone without a valid ticket on my bus he would report me and I would have to appear in front of the bus company’s disciplinary panel, where I would be given a fine or be temporarily suspended from work. Mamba was known to consistently urge the panel to hand down the severest of penalties.

On that day I had issued a ticket to a boy who had told me that he was 13 years old. A higher fare applied to boys of 14 years and older. When the inspector checked his ticket the boy panicked and confessed that he was 14. Mamba took out his notebook. He was going to report me.

I was outraged at this injustice. “You can’t report me for that,” I told him. “When I asked him how old he was he told me that he was 13.”

“You’ve under-charged him. You gave him the wrong ticket,” he snapped, dismissing my objection out of hand.

Something instantly snapped in me. “That’s bullshit!” I snarled, advancing towards him. “You get off this f**king bus before I throw you off!”

He backed off, stomped towards the exit door and got off at the next stop.

I was beside myself, knowing full well that I would be dismissed for my outburst. I would not find another job before university resumed. How was I going to pay for my cigarette addiction and other vices for the duration of the academic year?

After a sleepless night and feeling sick with stress I fronted up at the bus depot as usual the next morning, expecting to be pulled off the job for which I had been rostered. Nothing happened, so I did my rostered shift. Perhaps Mamba was away sick, I thought.

Nothing happened the next day either, or the day after that.

Nothing ever happened.

Gradually it dawned on me that Mamba had not reported me.

At the time I was so relieved to discover that I had gotten away with such an unforgivable misdemeanour that I never wondered about Mamba’s behaviour. Now, many decades later, it is clear to me that he must have realised that I was just a kid who had lost the plot due to stress.

And that he had felt sorry for me.

At the time none of us conductors would ever have suspected that Black Mamba was not all snake.

OFF CENTRE

Fictitious names have been given to the individuals in this story to protect the identities of the living and the dead.

One of the things that I love most about my wife is that she calls it as she sees it. I don’t have to try and read between the lines with her. Thus I knew exactly what she was thinking when she responded to my question over dinner one evening.

“Would you describe me as a normal person?” I had asked her, apropos of nothing.

She considered my question briefly, then asked, “Do you want me to give you an honest answer, Tim?”

“No, don’t bother,” I replied.

This exchange may shed some light on why I have, from time to time, gravitated towards people who were a touch off centre in terms of normality.

When I first went to university in the 1960s I became friends with three fellow students who, in hindsight, were clearly a bit mad. I shall call them Lewis, Walter and Otto.

Lewis, a law student from South West Africa, had a dark cynical streak. He was endearingly charming in his interactions with females, but over time it became clear to me that he actually despised women. He treated them with utter contempt and with a complete lack of compassion that, to my surprise and horror, only fuelled their devotion to him.  Many a time I had to console his distraught girlfriends and dish out tissues.

His English was poor, so he practised an opening gambit to chat up the women whenever we paid a social visit to the English-language University of Cape Town campus. “My name is Lewis,” he would introduce himself in his thick Afrikaner accent. “I come from an obscure little place in South West Africa called Keetmanshoop.” The women loved him.

Lewis was a tortured soul. He never talked about his inner demons, but they exposed themselves sometimes. One night, for instance, we were walking on a beach when he picked up a piece of driftwood and used it to write on the sand in large block letters: “MY NAME IS CHAOS.” We eventually drifted apart after his politics had taken a sharp turn to the far right.

I had first met Walter during our year of army training, when we were in the same squadron. He was an atheist who had enrolled in a religious science degree course and had planned to become a minister of religion in the Dutch Reformed Church. Perhaps not surprisingly, in view of such contradictions that cohabited in his mind, he eventually did a stint in the Valkenberg Mental Hospital where I visited him. “The psychiatrist told me that I have absolutely no fear of death,” he told me proudly during one such visit.

Later, completely unexpectedly, he converted to an extreme brand of fundamentalist Christianity. He believed that God had created the earth less than four thousand years ago and that the world would end in December of that same year.

“But what about all those ancient fossils that they have dug up?” I challenged Walter.

“They were planted by the devil to mislead people,” he told me earnestly.

He left university to join a group of fellow believers in a remote area in the northern region of South Africa to await the imminent end of the world. I never heard from him again.

My third university friend, Otto, studied literature and was quite manic in his speech. His words would often overtake each other in a jumble because his mouth could not keep pace with his thoughts. In the room that I shared with him and with Lewis for a while, Otto would sometimes get up in the middle of the night and pace around restlessly, muttering in German, “Problemen! Problemen!”

We were at a beach one day when Otto got up from his beach towel and announced matter of factly that he was going for his big swim to China. He was a strong swimmer and, having battled his way through the wild surf, swam off until he was a mere speck in the distance before disappearing from view altogether. The other beachgoers had become agitated and someone must have called the police because a boat eventually picked him up miles out in the open sea. Further big swims to China followed from time to time. Lewis once remarked “You can always tell by the large crowd on the beach that Otto has gone for a swim.”

Otto married a famous poet’s sister, had a child, got divorced and disappeared completely off the radar. Perhaps he had gone for his big swim to China once too often.

Decades later I became friends with someone else who was a tad off centre. I liked my workmate, Mona, because of her touch of eccentricity. We found that we had some common ground in that she was bi-polar, as was someone close to me, and she would offer me moral support and advice on how to best deal with this.

Once I had to take a new staff member to Mona’s office area to introduce her to the staff there. Mona shook hands with her and enquired earnestly, “Tell me, do the people that you usually mix with use bad language?”

“No, they don’t,” replied the perplexed newbie.

Mona put on her friendliest grin. “Well, my role in this organisation is to desensitise people like you,” she said.

I discovered by accident that Mona was a lesbian. I was talking to her about work matters at her desk when I noticed a photo of her standing beside another woman. “Is that your sister?” I asked. “Nope, that’s my missus, Nicole,” she corrected me.

Not long afterwards I was walking along a corridor at work when someone behind me pinched me on the bum. I swung around. “Oh,” I said in surprise, “it’s you, Mona.”

“Yep,” she said, laughing, “and it’s just as well that you’re not a woman otherwise I’d be up for sexual harassment.”

She rode a large motorbike to work. “I know it’s none of my business,” I said, “but you really should stop riding that motorbike. They are far too dangerous.” To which she responded, “C’mon Tim, motorbikes are heaps of fun! We could all be so damned careful that we never have any fun in life at all.”

A week ago I was told that Mona had lost her battle with cancer. She was not yet fifty. With her death I have lost an unusual gem that had sparkled brightly in the grey shale of human normality.

TAMBOERSKLOOF BOYS

There wasn’t much on offer in the line of entertainment for children when we lived in Tamboerskloof, a Cape Town suburb overlooking Table Bay, during my early years at high school more than fifty years ago. As we had few toys to play with we had to invent our own games. Television did not arrive in South Africa until more than a decade later and radio broadcasts accounted for our entire experience with the entertainment media. You would often find one or more of us huddled by the radio, listening to crackly Rock and Roll music on Radio Lourenco Marques, or to broadcasts of rugby or cricket test matches.

Friendship groups amongst children were mostly based on one’s street or neighbourhood as transport was not readily available. Our local group of boys included my brother Charel, two years my senior, his classmate Rouan who lived down the road from us, Kloppie from a nearby block of flats, who was adept at fisticuffs, and the quiet and low-key Johannes, Rouan’s cousin, who was in the class below me at school.

We also knew David Moon, who was a few years older than us. He owned the only rock music recording in our neighbourhood, Bill Haley’s “Rock around the clock.” One of us would say, “Let’s go and listen to David Moon’s record” and off we would go to his house where he would play his one and only 78 speed vinyl record for us four or five times.

Occasionally Kloppie would lend us one of his Lone Ranger comics. These prized items were unobtainable in Cape Town and Kloppie refused to divulge his source of supply, no matter how much we pleaded with him.

A major pastime was to go to the disused quarry up the slope towards the mountain known as Lion’s Head, where we would play kleilat (clay stick). We would each break off a green bough, about a meter in length, slightly springy and green. We would squeeze a small ball of doughy clay onto the thin end of the bough and whip the clay in the direction of one of the others. The ball of clay would fly off at high speed, causing a whelp of pain whenever it struck someone.

For us city kids the street was our playground. Charel once found an old discarded roller skate. We would take turns balancing a meter long plank on top of the roller skate, hopping onto it and going flying down the slope of Woodside Road where we lived, using our bare heels to brake when necessary.

Sometimes when we were bored we would lounge outside the neighbouring double-storey block of flats where the D’Ambrosios lived. It wouldn’t be long before old Granny D’Ambrosio, who disliked us intensely, would spot us and appear on the balcony, screaming abuse at us in Italian to our great merriment. At other times we would go to a small park and playground down the road. It was supervised by ‘Parkie,’ an elderly coloured gentleman who wore a khaki uniform and cap. We would climb into the kaffir plum trees, which was forbidden under the park rules, to pick the small fruit and he would chase us ineffectually around the park.

Apart from Johannes, we all smoked intermittently from an early age. None of us could afford to buy cigarettes, so we nicked them from the smokers in our families. As neither of my parents were smokers my grandparents, who lived two doors down from us, were Charel’s and my source of supply. I can vividly recall the seductive aromatic smell of the Woodbine cigarettes when we found them in one of the drawers in my grandparents’ house.

We were just an average group of white South African city kids of that era who were sometimes naughty, but never really evil. And yet, a germ of evil must have lurked in the heart of one amongst us, unnoticed by the others.

Fifty years later, when I was told about a criminal case involving someone I had known, I looked it up on the Internet. The headlines told the horrible story: “Mom tells court of sex assault by surgeon,” “Surgeon found guilty of rape,” “I wanted to vomit while he raped me,” and so forth. A surgeon had raped one of his female patients during a medical procedure in his surgery. His victim had testified in court that, after he had finished raping her, “he then held me and twice said ‘I’m sorry’.”

There were a number of other similar charges against the surgeon. He was eventually convicted of one charge of rape and 14 counts of indecent assault on nine women over a period of many years. His attorney argued for a lesser sentence for various reasons, including his advanced age and the fact that he was suffering from a degenerative brain disease, but most of the assaults had occurred before he had contracted the brain disease and he was sentenced to a term of eight years in prison.

Looking back now I am unable to equate the quiet, happy boy that was our friend and playmate all those years ago with the rapist that he had become. Of all of us, Johannes had been the best behaved and the least assertive or aggressive.

Now I wonder uneasily whether we ever really know what someone else is truly like, or what they are capable of.

LAAIPLEK

Tim Bruwer Blog

I am somewhat apprehensive when I am amongst blokes from fishing villages. They tend to be strong fellows who are not shy of throwing a punch, whereas my own physical prowess is at the lower end of the scale. Amongst such fellows one can easily get caught up in disputes that can only have unfortunate outcomes for one’s own health and safety.

Of course I shouldn’t generalise. I know from experience that not every bloke in a fishing village is hell bent on beating me up. Take Frankie, for instance. I met him in the bar of the Astoria Hotel in the fishing village of Hermanus when I was 19 years old. At the time of our first encounter we were both lying on the floor, having fallen off our respective bar stools as a result of extreme inebriation. Frankie was a truck driver who was covered in tattoos at…

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In search of the elusive Panthera pardus pardus

Tim Bruwer Blog

I like the scientific name for the African leopard, Panthera pardus pardus. I have no idea what ‘pardus’ means, but in my imagination ‘pardus pardus’ somehow perfectly represents this elusive animal as it moves stealthily through the bush on padded paws.

My interest in leopards started when I was a little boy. My grandmother had a number of albums containing her black and white photos, taken with a Brownie box camera in the 1930s, mounted on black pages. Underneath the photos she had written her comments in white ink. One of her albums, my favourite one, was devoted entirely to her family’s visits to the Kruger National Park. Amongst its contents there was a photo of my grandfather, the professor, with his back to the camera, urinating into a bush. The comment underneath was “What animal has Ems spotted over there, I wonder?”

My favourite photo…

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MAPUTO

When we see the statistics about one of the poorest countries on earth we are horrified, yet somehow it does not feel quite real. It is akin to seeing the results of an earthquake on television. We sympathise, but we haven’t stood next to the dead bodies in the rubble and two minutes later we are thinking about our evening meal.

I thought that I knew what to expect when I travelled to Mozambique with three Australian friends in 2007. I was aware that a massive 54% of the entire population was living below the poverty line. Being confronted with the reality, however, was an entirely different thing from reading the alarming statistics in the comfort of my own home in Melbourne.

Not a single traffic light in the capital, Maputo, was in working order. There were deep potholes everywhere. We saw a man wearing only underpants, which were so moth-eaten that his genitals were exposed, picking through discarded rubbish in a skip for something to eat. With so many destitute and desperate people competing for edible scraps, I didn’t fancy his chances of success. I soon realised that there were different levels of poverty amongst those fitting into the catch-all category of ‘below the poverty line.’

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 Potholes, Maputo

The two or three multi-storey buildings that were under construction in the city stood abandoned like concrete skeletons. The finance had apparently dried up along the way. The only post box that we encountered was a relic from the Portuguese colonial era and it had long been an empty shell.

None of the shabby old buildings had seen a coat of paint for decades. I noticed that there was no graffiti anywhere in the city. In Maputo young people cannot afford spray paint. They are focused on more immediate things, such as finding ways to stave off the daily hunger.

071 Maputo 01

 

Desperately poor people will do almost anything for money in order to avoid starvation, like the girl we noticed one night standing on a street corner by herself under a street lamp as we were walking to a restaurant at the beach. She was only around twelve years old, thin, with her bony knees exposed under a skimpy, threadbare dress that was fluttering in the evening breeze. A mere child, touting for business and at the mercy of predatory, violent men in a city that was unsafe even during daytime and where the rate of HIV/AIDS infection amongst young females was 20%. Who would save the children in a place like Maputo, I asked myself? In my heart I knew the bitter truth. It would continue to be a chimera.

My mind involuntarily jumped back to Melbourne, to the area where I live, where girls of her age would be walking to school in their neat blue St Helena Primary School uniforms on that same day, animatedly discussing the latest twist in the plot of the TV soapie “Home and Away”.

It’s not easy being a feminist

I became a feminist of sorts long ago in a country where male chauvinism was traditional in both the white and the black communities. Not that South African women were left entirely outside the loop of male-dominated affairs. As early as the 1980s South African Airways had at least one female pilot. I know this for a fact because I was on the short flight from Johannesburg to Harare during that time when a woman’s voice came over the intercom, introducing herself as the pilot and welcoming us on board. The three redneck Afrikaners in the seats behind me sniggered derisively. “I hope she doesn’t have to go and have a pee while she’s supposed to be flying the plane,” one of them said, to the great amusement of his fellow Neanderthalers.

I first became aware of my feminist stirrings three years before Germaine Greer’s The female eunuch was published. At the time I was a mere 20 years old and working as a junior clerk in the Administration for Coloured Affairs in Cape Town. I had dropped out of university earlier that year and had unsuccessfully applied for jobs as a cigarette company rep (with company vehicle), trawlerman (I loved the sea), waiter on the Cape Town/Johannesburg train (I enjoyed traveling), and ladies’ underwear rep (don’t ask!). At long last I managed to secure a junior clerical position in the Misconduct Section of the Administration for Coloured Affairs. Our job was to punish misconduct by Coloured teachers.

There were seven of us sitting in desks positioned in two rows, with a glass wall at one end of the room beyond which our boss, Mr Van Deventer, sat and kept an eye on us from his office. Teacher misconduct embraced a wide range of misdemeanours. One of the most common of these, apart from unsatisfactory work, chronic absenteeism, drunkenness and making sexual advances to schoolgirls, was sexual relations between unmarried male and female teachers. The Administration for Coloured Affairs punished such behaviour under the provisions of Section 16 (i) of the Coloured Persons Education Act of 1963. Our job as clerks in the Misconduct Section was to write letters to offending teachers, advising them of the action that the Administration was taking against them under the provisions of the Act.

When an unmarried female teacher became pregnant to a male teacher, the standard penalty for the male teacher was a fine of sixty Rand, which was equivalent to three months’ salary. However, the female teacher’s appointment was immediately terminated without benefits and she was banned from teaching for a period of three years.

As a naïve twenty year old I took it upon myself to write a submission directly to our big boss, Mr Du Plessis, who had a large office on the floor above ours. In my submission I pointed out the inequity between the severity of the punishments that were meted out to female and male teachers in these circumstances. I suggested that this should be redressed by allowing a female teacher to return to teaching three months after her baby had been born.

I was summonsed to Mr Du Plessis’ office. I had barely had time to admire the size of his public service floor mat when he started berating me, his little moustache wobbling wildly on his upper lip with anger. “How dare you, a junior clerk, try and tell the Administration that its policy is wrong? Who do you think you are that you can write to me and comment on things that you know nothing about? Senior people set the policy, not junior clerks!” He raged on in this vein for a while longer before telling me to get out of his office and that he did not want to hear from me ever again.

Later, having emigrated to Australia, I worked for five years in the late 1970s at the Glen Waverley Library, which had a staff of 13 people. I was the only male staff member. During that time that I became better acquainted with women. Having had no sisters and having married young, the only women that I had known reasonably well until that time was my mum and my wife of the time. It was here that I realised that the majority of men of my age treated their wives and girlfriends pretty much as doormats.

One young woman, married to a plumber, complained to the others how her husband never cleared up anything or helped in the house, apart from fixing the odd thing. His clothes would lie on the floor wherever he had taken them off, the dirty dishes would be her responsibility to wash up and she did all the washing, cooking, ironing and cleaning. I thought that this was outrageously unfair, taking into account that she and her husband were both working fulltime.

“Just leave his clothes where he left them, and leave the dirty dishes in the sink,” one of the other female staff members, who was single, advised her. “That will soon make him sit up and take notice.”

The woman with the plumber husband reported a week later that it had taken her a whole weekend to clear up the mess. The clothes had just piled up higher and higher on the floor and the dirty dishes had merely increased in number, until she could stand the mess no longer.

On a very hot January day in 1980 I went with my fellow staff members from the library to have lunch at a pub in Clayton. On the way back to work afterwards I stopped at a red traffic light in my battered old Holden station wagon. Four of the women were in the car with me. My window was wound down because the Holden did not have modern mod cons such as air conditioning.

Unexpectedly someone said to me through the window: “Hey, mate, how do you do it? How do you pull all those women?” It was a bloke who was working on the road. His mates were consumed with mirth at this witticism.

I was quite embarrassed at this exhibition of male sexism in the presence of my female workmates and apologised to them for it. “You know, I don’t even think of you as women,” I said.

None of them responded to this and for the next couple of weeks there was a distinct chill in the air towards me from the women at work.

It’s not easy being a feminist.