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Jo'Burg Days: The Golden Afternoon Air

Barbara Durlacher tells of a glittering golden day in the history of South Africa.

The small apartment block in the charming old-fashioned dormitory suburb of Bellevue East stood at the top of the ridge, not far from the ox-blood red onion-domed and semi-Art Deco concrete water towers, which are such a familiar feature of this part of south-eastern Johannesburg. Adjacent to the towers, is a newer half-buried concrete reservoir, roofed over and capable of holding a huge volume of water, very necessary to supply Hillbrow’s mini-New York with its swollen population of immigrants from all over Africa.

October saw the narrow access roads, lined with flowering mauve jacaranda trees, burst into fragrant honey-scented blossom and a stroll down a tunnel of blue, walking on sky-reflections created by the fallen blooms, was a spring evening delight.

Climb to the flat roof of the building among the water tanks and lines of washing, and you looked down and across to Ellis Park and the southern suburbs of the city, with its old-fashioned gridiron patterns of houses. The dusty red roofs of Malvern, Kensington and Jeppe housed a stable, middle-class society, hard-working and passionate about their national sport, Rugby. Jacarandas lined the residential streets there as well, and with good municipal transport and several excellent schools and an attractive municipal park with flowers, trees and a lake, it was a good place to live.

Here and there, a few golden mine dumps, eroded by decades of sudden fierce summer storms remained on the southern fringes of this older part of Johannesburg, but they were rapidly disappearing as advanced reclamation techniques leached additional grains of gold from the sands until one by one, the familiar silhouettes disappeared. These century-old deposits were hated because of the pollution they caused, but once the area had been cleared, the exposed ground was eagerly snapped up by speculators and within a couple of years had been built over. What had literally been an eyesore with the dust and allergies it created, now became a developer’s dream and soon all traces of Johannesburg’s most recognizable icons, the mine dumps, had disappeared.

Ellis Park Stadium was the favourite venue for important rugby matches or celebrations requiring a 50 000 seating capacity, and many a time I heard from my small flat - and sometimes climbed up to the roof to view – the exciting display of fireworks soaring into the night sky to celebrate a spectacular win. The hugely amplified sounds of an imported rock band thumping away always brought the house down, and these concerts also ended with a heart-stopping display of spectacular fireworks. Watching these, I felt many a time I had the best seat in the house without the bother of getting to the stadium. There it was for me to enjoy, and all without the expense of a ticket.

Then came 24th June 1995. Everything was set for the final match of the Rugby World Cup. The match was played at Ellis Park Stadium between the host nation, the South African Springboks, and the New Zealand All Blacks. South Africa won the encounter by 3 points in the first Rugby World Cup Final decided in extra time, and with it, their first Webb Ellis Cup.
The stadium went wild as everyone erupted from their seats. Programs were thrown in the air, total strangers embraced and burst into tears, children wet themselves. When South Africa’s own “Madiba”- Nelson Mandela - wearing a Springbok jersey, walked onto the field to accept the cup with the team, it was impossible to quantify the joy. After the political turmoil of the previous years, suddenly South Africa was one country.
When Madiba congratulated the team captain, Francois Pienaar, with the words, “Thank you, Mr Pienaar for winning,” Pienaar had the presence of mind to reply, “Thank you Mr Mandela, for what you have done for our country.” If spectators were moved at Ellis Park, there was not a dry eye in South Africa when these words were beamed around the country.
And up on my roof, listening to the surging roar of acclamation as the sun dropped lower in the golden winter afternoon, my heart nearly burst with pride.

WE HAD DONE IT!

South Africa had won. And then, over my right shoulder, slipping almost silently through the late-afternoon air, came the Boeing 747 ZS-SAN Lebombo bearing the words, “Good Luck Bokke” painted underneath her wings.

It was a moment never to be forgotten. Simply, absolutely sublime!

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