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Here In Africa: Fresh Fish For Lunch

“Last night I cooked myself a deliciously simple meal of beautiful fresh Kingklip (fish) and this suddenly triggered a memory of a sunny Saturday morning in Cape Town in about 1964 when I paid a one and only visit to the famous District Six.,’’ writes Barbara Durlacher.

“I hope that I've managed to convey some of the feeling of vibrant life and colour that was such a feature of the place during its heyday, and that although everyone knew it was a dangerous slum, there were still many appealing facets of this historic area.

“After the demolition, the public outcry - which reached many people overseas and put sufficient pressure on the Nationalist Government for them to decide it was a potato too hot to handle, also meant that apart from the District Six Apartheid Museum and the Cape Technikon, the land has been left completely undeveloped in the 40 years since the place was razed to the ground.’’

In the bay the wind was whipping whitecaps off the waves, but in the harbour the heavy swells only lifted the ships a few feet each time they travelled across the dock. In the bowl of the mountain, the heat rose steadily, and the thin streamers of cloud lipping the cableway and forming the famous “Table-cloth” on the summit indicated a sudden cooling around midday when the ‘Cape Doctor’ would arrive in all its fury. Then, the ships in the Duncan Dock would put out stronger hawsers and batten down the hatches. Their captains would listen anxiously to the weather reports, knowing that if the forecast sou’easter really got going, their ships might be in for trouble, especially if they were scheduled to sail with the midnight tide.

Then, it could mean two or even three tugs to get them out of the narrow opening into the bay, while the captains strained every sinew as they pushed their ships against the full force of the gale, worrying every moment that they would be swept against the savage rocks lining the quay.
Unheeding, the swimmers splashed noisily in the sun-dappled pools amongst the rocks of Saunder’s Cove and Rocklands Beach, “lookit-me’s” posed on the high board at the Seapoint Baths and the happy tinkle of the ice-cream man’s bell brought a steady stream of kids running for 2d ice-lollies. Old ladies and their lapdogs, both carefully coiffed after their Friday dates at the hairdresser, sauntered slowly down the front, enjoying the tang of the salt-laden air, the lively breeze and the sight of the ships at anchor in the bay. An endless stream of shiny cars rolled down Main Road and along the curves of past Camps Bay to Clifton, Botany Bay and over the rise past the luxury white hotel, built against all objections, and then around the corner to Llandudno. Here, with a dramatic suddenness, the air changed and became fresher and the view altered to blue translucent depths, creamy white sand, soaring mountain peaks, and the colourful fishing boats in Hout Bay harbour.

Meanwhile, this fine hot morning, the young woman in the tiny red mini-Minor crawled slowly up Adderley Street waiting until she could turn left into Darling Street and into District Six, vibrant and colourful with hawkers and pedestrians out shopping on this sunny Saturday in 1964.

Past Groote Schuur Hospital and along de Waal Drive and the creeper clad Greek neo-classicism of the University of Cape Town, divided by the broad sweep of ‘Jammy Steps’, the mountain looked serenely down onto Die Oude Moulen and the oaks of Newlands cricket ground. The Norfolk pines leaned against the wind as they had done for decades and ambling slowly through the undulating pastures, the late Cecil John Rhode’s small collection of animals, bought for his private zoo, thought whatever thoughts ruminants of this species are prone to as the wind gathered strength and speed and whistled round the corner to Bishopscourt.

Looking about her as she crawled along, she took in the gap-toothed, curler-bedecked, doek-wrapped women, the scrawny, agile men poised for a quick getaway, and instantly ready to deflect any comment with quick witticisms and mimicry. At the same time, her unwilling nostrils filled with the stench of the century old drains, the overcrowded, toppling houses and their foetid backyards. Yet, for all the filth and decay and the crime and poverty of this most infamous section of inner Cape Town, she could still appreciate the colourful life pulsing from every doorway, the sense of a close-knit community and a people for whom each day was an adventure. They had so little to lose that every new dawn was a bonus.

“Haarders, lekker haarders, Merrem” screeched a vendor, holding out a scrawny arm clutching a bunch of glittering silver fish tied with a sliver of bamboo. “Merrem wan’ I’se clean ’em, or’se Merrem goin’ mek bokkems for the winter?”

Waving her hand impatiently at the persistent vendor, she spotted a gap in the traffic and overtook an old jalopy about to park, leaving the frustrated seller to find a more willing customer. Then, glimpsing the familiar fish shop, she cruised to a stop and beckoned the assistant to the car.

“Have you got any Kingklip?” she queried in her best Constantia voice, meanwhile studying the ice-covered slab for the familiar softly mottled pink and brown patterns of this famous Cape fish, whose sweet flesh made such delicious eating. Spotting a heap of the delectable fish lying in a bed of crushed ice, she quickly said, “Give me two large ones, skinned and filleted. I’ll also take the bones, heads and tails to make stock” raising her voice above the sound of a noisy banjo-playing quartet sauntering down the street, clad in last year’s Cape Minstrels finery, their gaudy faces made up to resemble circus clowns or a child’s idea of an American Negro.

Strumming their banjos and twirling their gay parasols the quartet soon gathered a crowd of onlookers and she knew this was the time to be most wary of pickpockets or a sly arm filching something from the backseat while her attention was directed elsewhere. Locking the car doors and rolling the windows closed she swiftly slipped her handbag onto the floor under her legs. ‘No need to take any unnecessary chances’, she thought as she waited for the parcel to be brought to the car, and when it arrived she thankfully gunned the motor, and within minutes had threaded her way out of the warren of streets until she rejoined the motorway and was on her way home to Wynberg.

Back at the flat, she noticed a big difference in temperature and glancing out of the window saw how densely the cloud had covered the lower slopes of the mountain above Kirstenbosch. “Doesn’t look as if we’re going to get much swimming at Muizenberg this afternoon”, she grumbled to herself.

“What with that damn wind and now the cloud, we’ll be lucky if there’s any point at all in driving the few miles to the beach, and I’ve been looking forward to surfing all week. What a bore, but never mind, perhaps tomorrow will be better and if we start off really early – we could even have a braai at the beach. Then we can get in a few hours of really gorgeous swimming before the beach gets too crowded to enjoy ourselves.”

“Maybe I will buy some haarders tomorrow, and dry them out for the winter, they make a delicious snack with brown bread and butter and this is just the season to get them while they’re lovely and fresh.”

Years later, this memory of an ordinary Saturday in Cape Town and the momentary whim which took her into the infamous District Six was to return in all its colour and vibrant life. So simple, so uneventful and yet somehow special – how lucky she had been to see that vital, ugly and dangerous part of Cape Town before it disappeared, and although there were a few regrets, most thinking people knew that it the demolition had to come otherwise the public health dangers would threaten the entire Peninsula. Still, she experienced a sense of loss that this historic part of the “Tavern of the Seas” had gone forever.


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