Jannie Afbeen

One of the kids in our neighbourhood was knocked down by a car while a group of us were playing a variation of “Hide and Seek”.  We called this game “Blikaspaai” and it was played by any number of children but with one person being “It” and the rest having to hide.  A chalk circle some 6 to 8 feet in diameter was drawn on the tar surface of the road and in its centre was placed a metal jam tin half filled with pebbles and the open end hammered flat so the contents wouldn’t spill when the tin was thrown.

The idea of the game was for all but the “It” person to hide while he (or she) counted to one hundred with eyes closed. Then “It” went looking for those in hiding and as they were caught they had to stand in the chalk circle as “captives”.  If the “It” person strayed too far from the circle and one of those hiding and not yet discovered could run to the circle, grab the tin and fling it down the road, the “captives” were set free to hide again while the “It” person went to retrieve the tin and place it back in the circle.  It was while making a dash to free some captives that Jannie was struck by a car.

He was taken off to hospital where his left leg was amputated below the knee. When he had recovered he learned to run with one leg and one crutch and was thereafter referred to by us kids as “Jannie Afbeen” which, literally translated means “Johnny One Leg”.

 

Jannie Afbeen

Jannie se een been is afgesit
Hy’s deur ʼn motor raak gery
Bestuur deur ʼn ou vreemde oom
Glo ʼn lid van die ryk hoë lui
 
Vroegaand oudergewoonte
Op straat het ons klomp baljaar
Blikaspaai hou almal se aandag
G’n benul van naderende gevaar
 
Die treurspel begin toe hy kans sien
Om die gevangenes wel te bevry
Doelgerig hardloop hy die straat in
 Die vuurwa kan hom weinig vermy
 
Om te rem is glad nie tersprake
 Die slag is kindsvlees teen staal
Sy ligaampie trek ver deur die lug
En beland in ʼn hoop teen  ʼn paal
 
Die toneel speel hom uit teen traagtempo
Met wanklank word die akteurs begelei
Verstom kyk ons hoe die draagbaar gelaai is
In die ambulans wat hom hospitaal toe karwei
 
ʼn Volle jaar later maak ons weer so
Ons laat ons nie so maklik afskrik
En Jannie woel saam met die ander
Ondanks  ʼn been vervang met  ʼn kruk
 
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Mine Dumps

Deep level gold mining consists of blasting sections of the ore bearing seam then hoisting the resulting rocks to the surface where they are crushed and processed to remove the gold. The residue of this extraction process is a tiny quantity of gold and an enormous quantity of extremely fine yellow sand that is of no use to man or beast. Despite being worthless, this sand has to be stored somewhere so the mining companies created man-made hills on tracts of barren land. These “dumps” as they are known, became features of the Highveldt landscape but many residents complained about the dust that invaded every nook and cranny on windy days. Because nothing would grow in the sand, a special strain of grass was developed that not only survived but thrived in the mine dump sand. In addition, it was realised that many of the older dumps still contained gold and other precious metals which hadn’t been of interest during the original refining process. The upshot was the reworking and disappearance of many dumps and the conversion of others from the familiar yellow into green dumps and I, for one, was saddened by the loss and the change.

Mine Dumps

Your golden hills once dominant
Stood as tribute to your birth
Your life, soul and vitality
Portrayed in yellow earth
 
But they are disappearing now
The prey of man and machine
Intent on destroying all trace
Of that which you have been
 
The stubborn few that remain
In shrouds of green are dressed
Are we so blind we cannot see
Beauty in their nakedness?
 
Why this sudden sense of shame
This scramble to disguise?
The cause is lost for come what may
The character will survive

Die Kettie

I grew up in an area close to several small dams and a number of blue gum (Eucalyptus) tree plantations. The trees served as nesting places for a variety of bird species chief of which was the turtle dove. At weekends and during school holidays I would spend many happy hours in the plantations “hunting” turtle doves with my trusty homemade catapult which consisted of a forked stick with a length of elastic (cut from an inner tube) attached at one end to each of the two forks and a patch of leather joining the two lengths of elastic at the other.  Had I relied on my hunting ability to feed myself I would have frequently gone hungry but at the time I imagined I was a master hunter. The commonly used Afrikaans word for a catapult is “kettie” and this poem is accordingly titled “DIE KETTIE”.

Die Kettie

Met n rekker van n trekker binneband
En ʼn mikstok van n bloekomboom in hand
Was ek die bobaas kleinwild jagter
Geseen met bomenslik spoorsnykragte
Om troppe voels van eenderse vere
Plus hope ander ongedierte menere
Te laat les opsê met onfeilbare skoot
En ʼn spoelklip as boodskapper van die dood
 

The City built on gold

Like all the colonies of the major European powers, South Africa served as both a dumping ground for wayward noblemen and a happy hunting ground for adventurers and charlatans. The discovery of diamonds at Kimberley and gold near what would become the mining camp named Johannesburg, caused a veritable flood of fortune seekers to descend on both areas. Some would grab what they could and move on to the next big opportunity while others would become pillars of the new community. Life in the mining camp was harsh with hunger, disease, crime and deprivation the constant companion of all but the privileged and cunning few but the thought of the potential rewards made the suffering tolerable.

The City built on Gold

Come young man and listen close for I’ve a tale to tell,
Of vision, greed and spirit, of paradise and hell.
Of men who built a city where none before did stand,
And gave the very breath of life to our fair and sunny land.
They came from earth’s four corners, princes, paupers, thieves,
Plunged by fate in a melting pot to forge a brand new breed.
 Strong of back or sharp of wit and most uncommon bold,
These were the noble sires of the city built on gold.
 
From Germany and England and Canada and France,
Came many fortune seekers all looking for the chance,
To pit their wits against nature to strike the mother lode,
And reap a richer harvest than man had ever sowed.
With single minded purpose they tunnelled in the earth
To extricate the golden flake that measured each mans worth.
Fortunes won and fortunes lost each time the dice was rolled,
No place for the faint hearted in the city built on gold.
 
Now close your eyes and in your mind conjure up the sight,
Of straining men and creaking gears toiling day and night.
Hear every spoken language in the hubbub of the throng,
And thrill as black men labour to the rhythm of their song.
See the rutted, dusty streets, the tents placed here and there,
Strange order midst the chaos, excitement midst despair.
Imagine each rough component that shaped the final mould,
In which was cast the future of the city built on gold.
 
Give image to that tent town of a hundred years ago,
Than overlay the present scene and you will surely know,
That though their motivation was solely for self gain,
They set events in motion, the first link in the chain.
Now built upon their bedrock there stands a magic sight,
A million blazing jewels fired by early morning light.
Glass fingers reach into the sky, a wonder to behold,
A thing of unique beauty is the City built on Gold.
 
Back now to those men of men as ‘cross the scene they strode,
Sing out their names, Barnato, Rissik, Harrison and Rhodes.
The wheelers and the workers, each played their destined role,
And left behind some legacy, the price of which, his soul.
Expensive? That’s as may be but of this you can be sure,
That if asked to do it over they’d choose the same once more.
Lie peaceful then you pioneer’s in graves so long grown cold,
We salute you, Founding Fathers of the City built on Gold.

 

The Hotdog Man

The “Hotdog Man” was an institution in Johannesburg during the forties and fifties and there may have been several of them but I only remember this particular one. He operated from a completely self contained two wheeled cart near the Mayfair tram terminus so he could serve those homeward bound from watching a movie or a soccer match or an event at the City Hall. He was an engaging fellow who spoke good English with a distinct foreign accent and he kept several conversations going simultaneously with several customers.

 

 The Hotdog Man

The hotdog man and his hotdog stand
Were once a familiar sight
Where Market Street and Harrison meet
He plied his trade every night
 
A miserly shilling bought both roll and filling
Good value by anyone’s measure
Including, of course your choice of sauce
And service always his pleasure
 
On top of all that he was up for a chat
About things he’d read or seen
A raconteur of note with many a quote
From Plato to Saint Augustine
 
To my great shame I know not his name
Back then there wasn’t the need
And now he’s long gone, like many moved on
And the city is poorer indeed

Spookstories (Ghost Stories)

I grew up at a time when there was no such thing as television, there were no computers, no cell phones (very few people had even a landline telephone) and no shopping malls. This meant we had to make our own entertainment and my all time favourite was for a group of boys to sit around an open fire out in the veldt, listening to one or more of the older boys tell terrifying but wildly improbable ghost stories.  This poem is written in Afrikaans, find out more about this language here.

 

Spookstories

ʼn Geniepsige wind en ʼn maanlose nag
en ʼn brak wat eentonig vir ʼn skaduwee blaf
ʼn Knetterende vuur en ʼn Eveready flits
en ʼn bibberende groep liggelowige niksnuts
ʼn Bouvallige kerkhof waaruit spoke snags rys
en geraamtes wat klater gee kits hoendervleis
ʼn Flitslig word stil onder ʼn kennebak gedruk
en die gedaante wat verskyn laat elke man skrik
ʼn Gruwelike spookstorie om ʼn kampvuur vertel
en byklanke wat eggo teen die pikswart nagvel
ʼn Geselliger byeenkoms sou jy nêrens kon vind
En sonder twyfel  die lekkerste prêt vir dié kind

The Royal Visit

In 1947 the British Royal Family visited South Africa which was then still a member of the British Commonwealth. The King was George VI who had succeeded his brother King Edward VII when the latter abdicated so that he might marry the twice divorced American Mrs Wallis Simpson. King George was accompanied by his wife, Queen Elizabeth (later to be affectionately known as “The Queen Mum”) and his two daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret. Just 5 short years later, King George would be dead and the young Elizabeth would be Queen.

This visit took place only 2 years after the end of world War Two and Jan Smuts was Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa, as the country was then known. Political power would, however change dramatically in the General Election of 1948 when the National Party scored a narrow win due, in no small part to the defection of disillusioned Smuts supporters.

 The Royal Visit

Grosvenor Station, Mayfair, nineteen forty seven
The Royal Train will pass through at a quarter to eleven
The small group that has gathered to wave to the King
Are mainly white women and their pre-school offspring
 
Only English is spoken by the folk in the crowd
(The Boers hate the Royals and Blacks aren’t allowed)
Two topics to the exclusion of all others are heard
The visit of the Windsors and Jan Smut’s broken word
 
The women are angry, they feel sorely betrayed
‘Cos nothing has come of the promises made
That houses and jobs would be given henceforth
To those who joined the army for service “Up North”
 
All this grownup talk is quite spinning my head
I would sooner be playing with my friends instead
Of standing out here in the sun’s blazing heat
To wave to some strangers that I’ll never meet
 
“Who is King George?” I enquire of my mother
“Is he the one who succeeded his brother?
When to give up the throne he clearly was forced
Because Mrs Wallis Simpson is now twice divorced”
 
Good heavens my child! You will come to understand
That the monarchy’s much bigger than one single man
And more so if his key role as Defender of The Faith
Is compromised by some personal decision he takes
 
Just as Mother’s all set to more fully explain
I’m saved by the cry of “Here comes the Train!”
We crowd to the fence and wave as we sing
Standing stiff to attention, “God Save the King”
 
Now older and wiser I at last understand
The forces at work at that time in this land
The King was but a Pawn in a much broader game
The outcome of which would leave nothing the same