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U3A Writing: Early British Settlers in South Africa - 4

...The coal stove in the kitchen was part of my childhood where I learnt to spell Johannesburg from the word stamped on the oven door, and many were the loaves of delicious homemade bread, cakes and puddings my mother produced from its small black interior. All the furnishings of that comfortable old kitchen remain as cherished parts of my childhood. The zinc had a chipped stone draining board and a white enamel bowl where the budgie, Pretty Boy, took baths in a lettuce leaf if the tap was left running, but the stone draining board and rigid enamel wash-bowl made short work of crockery if care was not taken...

In this satisfyingly detailed and evocative article Barbara Durlacher recalls her parents, and her childhood days in South Africa.

My Parents


My parents were pioneers too, in their own way. My father came up to Johannesburg from East London to work on one of the early power-stations at the tail end of the famous gold rush, travelling everywhere on an Indian motor-cycle. He subsequently bought an 11-acre property in Bramley, Johannesburg where he and my mother lived for about 26 years.

When my father bought the property, there was no running water and no electric light and in those early years they used candles, gas lamps and a coal stove. The only form of sanitation was the infamous ‘bucket system’ and there was what the Australians call a ‘dunny’ in the garden. The odorous buckets were emptied twice or maybe once a week, by two men driving a mule-wagon. The arrival of the cart was heralded by strong smell of the tar used to disinfect the buckets which preceded them. What a dreadful job. Cowled in sacks, the men arrived and departed at a run. As a small child, twilight glimpses of these hooded men running furtively through the garden terrified me and my mother made sure I was whisked away as soon as the jingle of the mule’s harness was heard in the distance.

The water question was addressed by two large rain-water tanks which collected the rainfall from the roof, but if this supply ran out my father had a system of empty paraffin drums carried in the trunk, or boot, of his car which he filled with tap water at his place of work. He carefully drove the precious contents home, but I have no idea how the water was transferred from the boot of his car to an appropriate container when he arrived, or if it was pumped into the rainwater tanks or used directly from the drums. A bath was a real luxury, and as far as I remember was only taken out of necessity and never more than once a week.

The coal stove in the kitchen was part of my childhood where I learnt to spell “Johannesburg” from the word stamped on the oven door, and many were the loaves of delicious homemade bread, cakes and puddings my mother produced from its small black interior. All the furnishings of that comfortable old kitchen remain as cherished parts of my childhood. The “zinc” had a chipped stone draining board and a white enamel bowl where the budgie, Pretty Boy, took baths in a lettuce leaf if the tap was left running, but the stone draining board and rigid enamel wash-bowl made short work of crockery if care was not taken.

There were a number of fruit trees with some varieties so old they are no longer cultivated, being what horticulturists call “low bearers’’. A productive fowl-run and a small vegetable garden and the corrugated-iron “kya” housing July, the kindly Zulu man of all work; a toolshed and a large coal bin were faced by a large compost heap/garbage pit, where the “boy” burnt the household waste every Saturday afternoon. Several acres were left uncultivated and allowed to return to natural grass. The empty area was bordered by a line of large black pine trees and an ugly Macrocarpia hedge, and I remember my mother planting a number of jacaranda trees and an sprouting acorn which grew into a huge English oak. It was amongst the branches of this tree that I read Biggles of the RAF by Capt. W E Johns during my wildly rebellious teenage years, escaping into a world of make believe rather than concentrating on my incomprehensible maths homework. One or two of those trees are still alive over 70 years later, but I never did learn arithmetic.

Roaming the “farm” as I called it, I once surprised a guinea-fowl on her nest and she, poor bird, got such a fright at my quiet arrival that she flew up attempting to peck my eyes. Fortunately for me, her beak only caught my left eyebrow and caused no real damage, although as a small child I made the best of my “terrible accident.” It was an early lesson in how quickly wild creatures react to unexpected surprises.

The weekly family wash, including several pillowslips, one sheet from each of the beds and at least two or three of my father’s shirts with separate collars, several damask table napkins and unpleasantly soiled handkerchiefs, was done by the washer-woman who arrived every Monday on foot from the nearby native township of Alexandra, site of the current anti-black xenophobia.

She, poor woman, had to kneel on the hard ground and scrub the wash in a zinc bath filled with tepid water with a bar of ‘blue’ soap and as she worked, the sticky grey-blue curds of accumulated suds and dirt turned the stomach. Once finished, the water was emptied out into a part of the garden called a seep where the water from the bath and hand washbasin ran and the whole smelly, unhygienic area was planted with straggly geraniums struggling to breathe through the crust of fat and muck. The morning was taken up doing the washing, while the afternoon was spent ironing the results, using a ‘cold-iron’ heated on the top of the coal stove. Luckily for the black washerwoman, the fashion for ruches and ruffles had changed years before, as otherwise, amongst her skills she would have needed to know how to use a goffering iron to put the crispness back into the mistress’s ruffs.

In my memory those days were filled with laughter, sunlight and happiness, I basked secure in my parent’s love and each new day was an adventure. Winters were icy cold, the Highveld frosts made colder by the uninsulated iron roof with only one tiny Victorian fireplace in the sitting/dining room where we huddled on frosty nights. Entertainment was the “wireless” with an English radio service running from 0630 to 0900 and 1600 to 2000 daily. I remember my father, brought up in a staunchly British home where the children had been trained to despise the Afrikanders, coming into the dining room to switch off the radio as the closing announcement was made. “Thank you very much, Ladies and Gentlemen,” said the announcer, repeating it in Afrikaans, “Baie Dankie, Dames and Heere.”

My father said in a studiedly English accent, “Buy-a-donkey, yourself, you blithering idiot,” to the voice he had been content to listen to only minutes earlier, aiming a finger and thumb at the wireless’in a macabre shooting action. The announcer was fraternising with the enemy. It was not all that many years since the end of the Anglo-Boer War.

Enormous empty stretches of savannah came right up to the outskirts of the suburbs and very few people had the luxury of a private swimming pool, but it was quite safe to walk anywhere in the early days along tiny paths beaten out of the veld by the passing feet of hundreds of passing strangers. I rode my bike everywhere. The Pretoria Road, now Louis Both Avenue, was almost empty of traffic most of the time, and at school we formed a crocodile to walk to Norwood Municipal Swimming Baths for the weekly swimming lesson. It was a long, hot walk for short legs, all the way from Waverley to Norwood, and I never did learn to swim properly, although it has been my favourite form of recreation ever since.

Such a feast of memories and such an interesting place to grow up in, although I hated it at the time as I found Johannesburg so boring. But then, don’t all young people find their home towns boring and long to move on and start having adventures?

Johannesburg as I knew it then no longer exists. Now traffic clogs the highways night and day, while even the old business district has been taken over by thousands of traders and high finance and big business has moved to Sandton. But I cling stubbornly to my memories of the old days, as they are precious to me and are something nobody can destroy.

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