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Jo'Burg Days: The Vegetable Basket

In words more vivid than any photograph, Barbara Durlacher captures a Johannesburg scene on a summer's morn in 1941.

It had rained the previous night, but in Northern Johannesburg on that warm Transvaal summer’s morning in 1941 the dust hung golden in the still air. The main road from Johannesburg to Pretoria gave an indication that progress might come once the war was over, but time hung suspended while the fighting raged in Europe and the Western Desert, and few cars were around.

Old Model-T Fords and Willys sedans took nearly three hours to cover the distance between the Johannesburg and Pretoria in those days. An occasional convoy transporting troops from the Army training camp at Voortrekkerhoogte outside Pretoria to entrain at Johannesburg’s Park Station to join the Allies fighting ‘Up North’ gave the two-lane highway life, but otherwise vehicles were few and far between.

A solitary car stuttered into action after filling up at the petrol pump on the corner. This was the last pump until the small settlement at Halfway House. The pump was an American model, hand-cranked, with two vertical glass one-gallon tanks side-by-side in the metal casing. These filled and emptied alternately as the petrol was siphoned off into the vehicle. As the transaction was completed, the driver shook his head at the high cost of fuel. “One shilling and thruppence a gallon” he muttered. “This damned war is pushing prices up all the time. Much more of this and motoring will be such a luxury we will have to go back to riding horses, and then they’ll probably start rationing the oats!”

After the brief excitement of filling the car was over, and clutching the coins in her hand, the young girl picked up the empty basket and set off down the steep sandy road. Jumping the small channels created by last night’s storm, she hummed a tune for company. She watched the brilliantly coloured butterflies feeding off the indigenous purple verbena lining the roadside verges and listened to the cooing of the doves in the tall pine trees, relishing the silence and beauty of the early morning. Young as she was, she enjoyed the freshness and bright early morning silence of the quiet summer’s day.

The road flattened out and she arrived at the market garden. Far in the distance she could see the bent figures of the immigrant Portuguese farmers working in the hot sun, while to the side was the whitewashed Mediterranean-style dwelling where the farmer, his wife and five daughters lived.

A small corrugated iron hut in a clearing surrounded by tall blue gum trees contained the fruit and vegetables for sale. It was customary to linger until one of the workers looked up and noticed a customer waiting. Walking laboriously across the furrows and the rows of potatoes, tomatoes, cabbages and carrots, the farmer would jump the small clear stream flowing from the borehole higher up the field. Arriving, boots caked with mud, and he would then produce a large metal key to unlock the ‘shop’.

Putting her large basket on the floor the young girl said “One penny carrots and a tickey* soup greens”.

Cutting off the green carrot tops and making up a large bunch of mixed turnips, leeks and celery the Portuguese gardener placed the veggies into the basket. It filled to overflowing, and disgustedly he looked at the copper pennies she handed him.

“Quartre pennies, quartre pennies” he muttered, glancing at this fortune. He thought of the long hours in the sun, the sticky walk across the muddy fields to attend to customers and wondered if it was worth it for only “Four pennies”.

A slight twinge of guilt made her wish her mother had ordered more. But the basket was full and almost too heavy to lift, and times were hard. She would not have been able to carry anything more, especially up the steep hill and under the blazing sun.

“Thank you, Mr Rugani” she said, as she turned for home, and he philosophically touched a muddy hand to his cap, locked the hut, and returned to his vegetable fields.

* Tickey.

This was the slang name for a three-penny bit, which was common currency in those days. The name was taken from the vermilion coloured “tikka” mark on the forehead worn by Indian women.

This story was written when a caption to a photograph in ‘Aquarelle’, the house magazine of the Watercolour Society of South Africa caught my eye. This identified a lady with the name of “Rugani”, and triggered a memory from my childhood. The story is based on a family of that name who lived and worked extremely hard, running a market garden down the road from where I lived in Bramley, Johannesburg in the 1930’s and ‘40’s. I was sent by my mother to buy a basketful of vegetables and still recollect the quiet suburban peace of that pretty suburb. It has now become a cacophony of hooters, ‘combi’ taxis, roaring delivery vans and used-car dealerships.

The family sold up long ago, and moved to the northern edge of the rapidly expanding city, where they continue to grow and sell vegetables, but this time in a huge undertaking, employing hundreds of black workers, and a large acreage of ground, producing many thousands of tons of food each year.

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