Mike's A little diversion in Johannesburg
I went to an all boys school in Cape Town, Sea Point Boys High. I sat Junior Matriculation and left soon afterwards, aged 15, possibly a young 16.
Having no idea what to do with my life I was fortunate enough to land a job with the De Beers mining group in Johannesburg. The position was as trainee gold assay analyst.
It sounded like a great opportunity: good starting pay during training for a couple of years; live-in on a campus with other gold diggers and have a great time. I sat some tests in Cape Town and was soon told to report in Johannesburg for a medical. There was no way I could fail a medical as I was young, strong and very fit from swimming, surfing and a busy beach life. As well as football and cricket.
Or so I thought!
I had a one-way ticket to Jo'burg fully expecting to take the medical and be sent to the campus.
The medical itself was quick and over very soon. The upshot being that because I weighed less than 140 lbs I was too light to go down into the mines. I put up an objection, of course, and was told to call back in a few days and a final decision would be given.
The problem with this was that I had to stay in cheap digs for a few days, using up what little money I had while waiting for their decision. The decision, when it came, was as short and sharp as the medical itself: No.
There was no argument; no job; nothing to do but go back home. There was no appeal in the 1950s. No meant No.
I had very little money left. My parents didn't have a telephone and I had to decide what to do.
At the cheap hotel I'd been staying in I'd got friendly with one of the bus boys, a young Indian, perhaps a bit older than me, he told me where to go if I wanted to sell some of my stuff - not that I had much to sell! He also arranged for me to store my case out of sight, because I didn't have enough money to stay there any longer.
I raised enough money to buy some food and not for the first time in my life I had to sleep rough; it's one thing to do this in open country but something else in a place like Johannesburg.
Johannesburg is a dangerous place now and was dangerous then but I got through the night all right, sleeping inside a large bush in a park!
Without dwelling on this for too long, the following day passed and when it got to night I was cold and hungry. I stopped at a stand and got talking to a man who was eating a burger or something. It happened that he was in town for a meeting and was staying at a small local hotel. One thing led to another and he bought me some food, he also offered me a floor to sleep on.
I was able to get a bath that night, slept on the floor in his hotel room. The following morning he bought me breakfast and I went on my way. A good guy.
That day I sold the rest of my clothes and found a small local snooker hall. I was an ace player, very good and I hoped to make some money and perhaps get my fare back to Cape Town. I didn't make money, in fact, I think I lost! I did meet someone there who said he was driving down to the Cape a few days later.
He was a fighter and spent time at the gym training. I don't think he was a pro but just liked to fight. I spent some time with him that afternoon at the gym while he trained. He said to meet him at his hotel the following morning.
I slept inside my bush again that night.
The next day I turned up at his hotel and as he was having breakfast he told me to sit down and feed myself. During the course of the meal there was a scream in the lobby. A woman was coming down the staircase shouting out that she'd been robbed.
I carried on eating but my new pal said he'd see what the commotion was all about. He left the table while I stuffed my face with grub. Not long afterwards some police came into the dining room, asked me who I was and where was my friend. It turned out he was the suspected thief!
Good for him, but tough for me! I said somewhere else that I was a good judge of character!
The upshot of all this is that I was charged with vagrancy and sent to a reform school outside of town. The magistrate advised the authorities to contact my parents and arrange for me to be sent back home.
It was a tough school with young guys from about 10 to 18 I would say. Most of the time we were out in the open, barefoot and digging with a fork into the hard soil in the fields. I'd spent many years walking barefoot when I wasn't in school so I had hard feet. A dammned good job too, I can tell you!
As an English speaking boy in an Afrikaans group I was something of a curiosity, an outsider and pretty feeble in their eyes. At night when they first saw me naked, they thought I was hilarious. Slim, golden brown with a little white strip where my costume had covered up my bits. They had white bodies with brown forearms and brown lower legs. They were hard guys.
I spoke just enough Afrikaans to get by and they mostly left me alone, more out of contempt than anything else. One evening after food and chores, a bunch of about 12 or so were playing a game where one team goes into a rugby scrum but in a straight line butting up to a guy who acts as a post with his back to a tree. The idea is for one person from the other team to run and leapfrog over the last man and then others follow, all trying to make the other team buckle and collapse.
I'd been playing this game for years and asked if I could join in. It was great! So was I! I bonded with a few key people and after that I was allowed to become part of a group instead of an outsider.
There was a lot of violence and abuse, not against me but against other boys, one in particular; there was smuggled drugs (dagga) and brutal sex, almost rape, but after 2 weeks I was on my way home. I think that's about all I want to enter about this little diversion.
There is an ironic ending to this.
A week or so before I'd gone on the job interview to Jo'burg I had a note slipped through our front door asking if I wanted to go on a picnic. It was from an old married couple, missionaries. I'd laughed to myself since they were in their 90s, friends of my father. I had never met them and had no intention of wasting time with a couple of old geriatrics.
Some time after my return the missionaries came round to our house to see my Dad. They talked about their years in Russia during the time of the Russian Revolution; years spent in China, South America and Africa. Breathtaking stories from an amazing couple!
When I spoke about my job offer with De Beers, he (cannot remember their names) said "If only I had known, the Oppenheimers (I think it was Harry, the President or Chairman of De Beers) have been friends of ours for years! I would have phoned him and given you a note of introduction."
I cannot imagine how my life would have been changed if I'd had that letter! It would certainly have set me on a different life course to the one I followed.
That's the arrogance of youth, I guess.
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