“Mum, please hold my poetry book. Help me memorise my lines.” “What’s it called?” she asked. “Hiawatha.” “Oh, then just say it,” she said, her hands deep in soapy washing-up water. “But, Mum, you’ve got to hold the book to see if I’m saying it right.” “Oh, just say it.” “Straightway into the forest strode Hiawatha … um… um...” And then Mum recited the whole passage by heart, correcting me and starting the section as I should have:
“Forth into the forest straightway All alone walked Hiawatha with his bow and arrows; And the birds sang around him, o’er him, ‘Do not shoot us, Hiawatha!’ sang the robin …”
“I can’t remember it, and you know it all!” I wailed.
She explained that when she was a young woman, just after the end of the First World War, she and her friends would walk hand in hand reciting poetry. They would look for nicely bound editions to give each other. Hiawatha by Henry Longfellow was one of her favourite poems. It spoke of natural man, the noble savage, courageous and beautiful, and at one with nature. By then, Mum was already politically engaged and going to Socialist Sunday School in Hackney, London. Another of her favourite poems was the mildly erotic Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, translated from Persian by the anthropologist Edward Fitzgerald. Sometimes there would be radio broadcasts of these long poems and she would recite them along with the reader, almost word perfect with a few “um ums” thrown in, but keeping up the pace and the rhythm. In those post war years it was thought to be daring to read such verse, and even more so to recite it. But Mum and her friends saw themselves as liberated women. They refused to tie down their bosoms, preferring to wear loose-fitting bodices
From her photographs I’d say Mum was a good-looking woman, though I don’t remember her as pretty. As I grew up I was aware that she had aches and pains, especially in her lower back. She said it was from crouching over a sewing machine in a clothing factory where the light was bad and the treadle was heavy. She also developed a stomach ulcer and needed to be careful of what she ate, but she still made most of her own clothes and was very good at it. She did this to save money. There was never much to go around, though I do not remember ever being really hungry. There was usually bread and jam or, if no jam, then bread and dripping: tasty fat from a roast with little bits of onion in it. Nowadays we’d say it was very unhealthy. Perhaps that’s why I have high cholesterol and clogged-up coronary arteries.
My mother seemed quite unhappy during my childhood. It wasn’t only her ill-health, or money problems: as politically active communists she and Dad shared the same interests but the spark in their marriage had died. I know they made love sometimes, but her lips developed into a thin, compressed line, and he had wandering feet and a roving eye. Yet, like so many women then, and even now, economic necessity kept her tied to the marriage. After Sunday breakfast – eggs, bacon and bread fried until it was crisp in the bacon fat – Dad would go out and later re-appear, saying he wanted us all to go on a picnic. But Mum would retort, justifiably, that it was absurd: he should have spoken earlier. She had the chicken in the oven, the weekly washing was soaking and she simply could not leave it. He would counter that she was always obstructive. After a time I realised this was a game he played: he really wanted to go out on his own. He would return much later in the day looking quite content and relaxed, and I sensed that it was more than his eyes that were roving. Later I came to recognise the feeling myself. Actually, I am convinced that I have a half-sister, the daughter of a comrade with whom he had an affair.
Both Mum and Dad were born in London (he in 1898, which made him a year older), the children of Lithuanian Jews who emigrated to England during the second half of the 19th century. Jewish families left the Baltic States and Eastern Europe during that period to escape the anti-Jewish pogroms. Many Lithuanian Jews settled in South Africa, among them founders of the South African Communist Party. They came together with miners from England who brought their class consciousness and organising ability with them when they were recruited to work on the gold mines that sprang up from 1886 on the Witwatersrand, today’s Johannesburg. Dad came from a large family of brothers and one sister. My paternal Grandpa Morris and Granny Annie also emigrated to South Africa, though from London, not directly from Lithuania. My cousin Betty - her Mum and mine were sisters - told me that our maternal grandmother Rachel Fineberg was a very intelligent woman. But Betty would read the newspapers to her because – though she stared at the pages – she was never able to master reading English. My paternal Grandpa had a scrap yard for reclaimed building materials. I believe he had been a rag-and-bone man in the East End of London where he pushed a handcart. I heard he was also a window mender, pushing a barrow selling panes of glass, crying “mendjawinders” (mend your windows) and fitting them.
Dad went to sea as a merchant seaman during the First World War. He did not want to be a soldier fighting for imperialist Britain, but he also did not want to go to prison as a conscientious objector. So he became a sailor. Did he know that the ships in which he sailed carried military materials for the armed forces in which he would not serve? I once asked him about this contradiction. He replied that he knew, but had to make a choice. That was the choice he made. In 1917, in New York, he heard about the Russian Revolution. The triple-decker headlines “Revolution- Revolution- Revolution” proclaimed the Bolshevik victory. It was, he said, the most moving day of his life. To some extent I can understand his feeling. As a merchant seaman he saw the world. He liked Australia and he liked the militant trade unions of the working class movement he found there. He and my Mum went to Sydney in the 1920s. He loved it; Mum barely tolerated it. They went back to London. She joined him in Australia again. When she fell pregnant with my brother Allan she insisted on having him “at home” in England, so they went back again to London where he was born in December 1927.
Later, my father insisted they leave and they settled in Cape Town. I think he felt constrained by having to be a father and husband when what he wanted was to travel and be free. He did settle down but found it hard to love his son. Then I came along and I gather he fell in love with me. I was open-faced and happy: knowing then, as I know now, that the sun will shine tomorrow, even if today is cloudy and cold. That made it even more difficult for my brother who spent his life trying to win his father’s love. Dad used that to manipulate him in many hurtful ways. Dad’s brother, my uncle Barney, told me that Grandpa Morris used to beat Dad because Dad had rickety legs and was slow in getting about. I have to say that I cannot remember Dad ever beating Allan or me. I do not even remember being seriously spanked on the bottom with a bare hand, which was then a standard means of chastising children. But I do think Dad emotionally abused my brother Allan. That turned normal sibling rivalry into my brother’s enmity. When Allan was 49 and I was 43 he told me that he hated me because, as a three-year-old, I teased him. When he retaliated I would run to Dad for protection. That, he said, made him feel even more rejected.
I have a mental picture of my brother, a sturdy boy aged about nine, standing with legs astride, hurling my “Tigger” onto the roof of our house. Oh, the tears that fell until the stuffed toy tiger that comforted me when I slept was back in my arms again. Later I admired Allan. He was so capable and taught me many things, like how to make a crystal radio and a small electric motor. I learnt to be quite good with my hands because my big brother showed me. It is sad what parents unconsciously do to their children. Both Mum and Dad read extensively, and Dad would have said he was careful not to abuse his sons. But, as modern parents who believed in the science of everything, they were sometimes unable to see the unfairness of their actions. And yet, for the most part, I sailed through my childhood feeling loved and protected. Even by my brother. When I was three years old my thumb got caught in a door that the wind slammed shut and Allan carried me on his back to Doctor Resnikov who bandaged it. And when I was nearly seven years old and had a minor operation at the famous Groote Schuur Hospital near our house in Observatory and was too woozy after the anaesthetic to walk home, my brother gave me a piggy-back. Dr Resnikov was a German Jewish immigrant who had fled Nazi Germany. Highly trained, he had to repeat his final years of medical studies in South Africa to show that he was competent. At that time South Africa had its share of militant groups of Nazi sympathisers and anti-Semites. Even as a child I experienced them
Dad had had only six years at school but he read widely and knew much about many things. So when I struggled with homework, even though he did not know the details of an awkward topic, he would ask me questions that led me to the correct answer. Mum also had a knack of explaining things simply. When I was little she would patiently answer my incessant “Why?” and “Yes, but why?” as I tried to understand the thoughts that underlay her explanations. Mostly she told me a bit more than I could understand, leaving some things for me to think about. It was great having two parents who knew so much and enjoyed teaching me whatever I wanted to know. At the same time I enjoyed being with my friends – at school and after class, when we would walk on the mountain above Observatory, or play cricket in the street, or football, or find a field where we could pretend to be Springbok rugby players. Formal sport was great fun. Aged nine years we started playing rugby when the school switched from football. Though it was never stated openly, the switch was made for racist reasons: soccer was played by schools in Woodstock and Salt River, suburbs where many of the inhabitants were people who had “passed for white”; whereas rugby was played by posher schools in suburbs where the families were clearly white. Class and colour were always closely related, especially in Cape Town where there were more Coloured people than in other parts of the country. Apartheid is usually portrayed simply as a white-black conflict.
It was much more complicated than that and we have the evil legacy today of the multiple layers of discrimination. In the Western Cape there is still the inherited attitude among many Coloured people with aspirations to being white and privileged, not be tied to the Africans and the unprivileged. We have a long history in the Western Cape where first segregation then apartheid created a hierarchy of oppression of the “non-white” people: Coloureds as the most privileged, Indians less so and African people unprivileged, in this descending scale. It was a deliberate political policy of the racists to keep groups divided from each other. Later, the various African groups - Xhosa, Zulus, Sesotho and so on - were segregated in the townships. And in the barracks on the mines there was a policy of tribal segregation. This was applied quite consciously by government and big business. The divisions between white and Coloured during my childhood were governed by strongly observed social custom and practice rather than by laws. Then the Group Areas Act, based on race, was introduced in the 1950s in addition to the previous laws controlling where “native” people were compelled to live in separate “locations”, generally called townships in later apartheid terminology.
Social separation could be found in a single street. In Observatory, for instance, Rochester Road is about a kilometre long and runs from Main Road to Lower Main Road where my school was. At the top end of the road the families were clearly white. Some way down, in the language of the time, there were the “three-eighths” (Coloured) people, followed by some homes with the “halvies” and the “five-eighths”, followed by the houses of people who were undoubtedly Coloured. These differences were obvious to all and the gradations were quite strictly followed by the socially disadvantaged as well the advantaged. The attempt to pass for white, or to “play white”, was serious in terms of both income and social status. A few streets along and nearer the city the suburbs became more clearly Coloured with only a few whites living there. One of my classmates lived on the corner of our street and Main Road. Sometimes, at night, his father would come and sit whispering with my Dad. I once asked what he had come for. Dad said he had come to speak to him because he had to have somebody to speak to. “But why?” I asked. Had I not realised that he was Coloured and was passing for white? I understood, on the one hand, because Dad was a communist and therefore anti-racist, he came to him: “Oh, so that is why he comes under cover of darkness?” because on the other hand, associating with a communist might draw attention to him.
Another school friend came from a large family. His brothers were of different hues. Some were white, some were dark, and some looked a bit Coloured. “Auntie” Daisy, who always had cocoa for her children and their many friends on a cold winter’s evening, used huge amounts of face powder. None of this seemed to affect the enjoyment we had as young people together. I think Auntie Daisy’s husband had disappeared as a discretionary action because he was very dark-skinned and that would have been embarrassing for a family who had moved up the social scale. The anxieties of people in such families must have been excruciating, especially in terms of providing protection for one’s friends from representatives of the state.
I had a few run-ins at high school with authoritarian teachers. Our mathematics master seemed to think he could beat a grasp of algebra into a dull boy with the flat of his large blackboard compasses applied to the calf muscle. He really lost it one day, working himself into rage at the stupidity of a less than bright pupil. I shouted at him to stop beating the boy. He stopped and turned to threaten me with a beating. He calmed down but I wish he hadn’t, because my Dad would certainly have gone after him for assault. In such ways, early in life, I learnt that tyranny was not to be tolerated and that one must stand up against injustice. I read voraciously as a kid, learning to read from the headlines in the Cape Argus, the evening newspaper, while sitting on Dad’s lap and that contributed to my early interest in politics. I read voraciously as a child. There was no school library but there was a cupboard in each classroom with about the same number of books as there were children in the class. We took one book home each week. That was not enough for me and I borrowed more from the public library. And from quite an early age, I can remember Dad, when he had a few shillings to spare, taking me to Foyle’s bookshop in the heart of Cape Town.
There he would turn me loose to choose something that interested me. That was the start of a lifelong habit of reading. As a five and six-year-old I still sat on Dad’s lap reading the Cape Argus as we read the news together. I read about Africans protesting about the pass laws and burning their documents and going to prison for it. I read about poverty and how it was somehow connected to race in South Africa. These were topics that the weekly Guardian wrote about. At first I didn’t understand why that newspaper was the “workers’ paper” when there were no jobs advertised in it. Later I understood that the Guardian was a different kind of newspaper and always wrote about matters from the workers’ point of view. When there was a strike the Cape Argus and the Cape Times always condemned the strikers, but the Guardian praised them because the strikers would make the world a better place. And when workers went on strike my parents and their comrades would take them hot soup and sandwiches to help them man their picket lines. It did not matter whether the workers were white or black, they were workers! So I soon learned that my parents were different and ours was a home where people of all races came to visit. Sometimes there were meetings, but often the people came as visitors to share our evening meal. Somehow there was always a little bit extra in the pot.
“Family hold back” (“FHB”) was the rule, and guests had to be served first. If I eyed the last potato too greedily it would be offered to a visitor and I would get bread and gravy or bread and dripping to fill up on. Everyone had to be served and respected. There were times when there was a bit of luxury. Sometimes Mum brought home a small tin of golden syrup imported from England by the large stores, despite the lack of shipping space during the war. Trade must continue, I realised as a child. But golden syrup’s refined sweetness on toast was indeed something special. The shop assistants would keep such niceties for their favoured customers and my Mum was one: not just because she was a regular customer but because she was one of those women who supported shop workers when they were on the picket line during a strike and needed feeding and solidarity.
On May Day I would sit on the front mudguard of Dad’s truck as he led the parade of workers through the city with a band playing revolutionary songs on the platform and a crowd of all races marching behind with their flags and banners flying. In this sense my life was quite different from that of my school-mates. Some of them would mock me and my parents about our friends and visitors, but I was quite tough – both physically and emotionally – so I could handle it. Besides, I played sports and was one of the guys. With my school friends – Donald, Roy, Neville and others – I would watch rugby on Saturday afternoons at the famous Newlands rugby ground, then walk home along the pathway next to the railway line passing an imaginary ball with swinging arms, jinksing with the hips or “selling a dummy” (pretending to pass the ball to send an opponent running the wrong way), and sidestepping onto the opposite foot to break the line. The tries we scored in our wild imaginations were always match-winners. Cape Town winters are cold and fingertips and nose would feel the bite of the winter air late in the afternoon when it was already getting dark. At the Rondebosch fountain, originally a drinking trough for horses, we stopped at a fruit shop to buy Granny Smith apples and continue our walk home, munching away with the juice running down our chins. I suppose it was a brisk five-kilometre walk. It saved money to walk: we knew it was good for us - and it was fun.
Maybe my parents’ attitudes influenced my becoming the fullback, the last line of defence in the rugby team. In later years when size mattered, forwards of the opposing team would come tearing down on me and I simply had to take the hammering of their weight and force as they piled into me. The sheer physical exhilaration of the game was a joy. In the winter, playing in the cold sleeting rain when your kit was soaked through and covered in mud, it was exciting as your body warmed up and you felt you were steaming like a horse. It was sheer delight to be young and strong, ready for anything! We played by the rules. Cheating was frowned on and there was a sort of code of honour that required you to admit to an infringement of the rules even if the referee had not seen it. A hard, proper tackle was okay. The idea of deliberately injuring your opponent to take him out of the game seemed to creep in through the coaches only when I was at university, many years later. Clever play within the rules, such as a change of pace, or selling a dummy, was a legitimate use of athletic skills. But tripping up an opponent was not okay. We played to win, but not by cheating.
I played sport in a team at a white school. By playing rugby we rubbed shoulders with the elite schools and established a distance between our school and the football-playing schools. But outside of this little white island we children were constantly faced with everyday racism. Among the key moments in my life, I remember an episode when I was nine, and a bunch of us were walking home from school together. Outside the greengrocer’s we saw a man running to catch a train. Somebody said he was faster than Tinkie (Heyns), our gym teacher. “No, he can’t be. Tinkie is the champion (Western Province half-mile champion). Nobody can be faster than him,” somebody else insisted. Our voices rose and a third one said: “But the man is Coloured, so he can’t ever race against Tinkie!” How dare white South Africans say today that everything was kept secret. We knew what was happening - when we were nine years old! The history book in my fourth year at school, Our Country, said South Africa was a democracy, which meant that all adults could vote in elections for Parliament. But I knew that only whites and Coloureds could vote. “Natives” were not allowed to vote. When I asked my parents about this they said that, of course, the history book was wrong. Perhaps most children would not have asked anyway, but these things were discussed in my home all the time.
In that same year, 1943, I saw a man sitting on the pavement eating his lunch. He had a small French loaf which he opened down its length and poured a tin of sardines into it. He pressed it closed to save the olive oil and feasted on it. He was eating my favourite sardines, King Oscar, imported from Norway. (King Oscar was the golden king with huge moustaches in the picture on the label.) Why could I not have lunch like that instead of having to sit at a table with my elbows by my side and my mouth closed while I chewed? Then a white man appeared, shouting at the man with his sandwich: “Filthy black, you make the street dirty with your food!” The man drew himself up and said, “Don’t call me a black! I am a respectable native person!” The courage that must have taken. The sheer dignity of the man. I see him still, sitting down again, rather quickly, after his tormentor had scurried away . That year was full of turning points for South Africans in the Second World War. It started with the defeat of the Nazis by the Red Army at Stalingrad. We had large war maps on our dining room walls. Every night we listened to the BBC World Service, and would stick in pins with different coloured heads to show where the battle lines were. We also had maps showing Hitler’s North African campaign with the Allied victory at El Alamein in Egypt and the defeat of Field Marshal Rommel’s Afrika Korps in Tunisia after the United States landed an army there. Our living room was very small, but there was room for the Pacific Theatre as well. I certainly learned a lot of geography. I can remember discussions at home about how wrong the right-wing Indian nationalists were who thought that by supporting the Japanese against the British during the Second World War they would set themselves free from British rule. What they ignored, the grownups argued, was that they would find themselves subjugated to a hungrier and more vicious imperialism: Japanese militarism.
The term “Native” is now frowned upon as derogatory and racist – and people are proud of being called black.
In South Africa we were hardly touched by the war. But I remember some things that we children did, largely because our parents wanted us to do them. I helped to address envelopes for appeals for the Medical Aid for Russia Fund (its president, Bishop Lavis, thanked me for my hard work). More notable was the fact that the fund’s Patron in Chief was the conservative Prime Minister, Field Marshal Smuts. My Uncle Barney was heavily involved in the same fund. How respectable it was to be of the Left during the anti-Nazi war years, when the Soviet Union was the “Glorious Ally”. That changed very quickly when the imperialist nature of the Second World War emerged in the form of the Cold War. Dad frequently spoke on public platforms about current political issues. He held his audiences well and explained political matters in simple language. I think that came from his being a trade union shop steward when he was a sailor, where he learnt to speak about complicated things in ways his fellow workers could understand and accept. He was the education secretary in the Woodstock Branch of the Communist Party, and years later, my older ANC comrades in the liberation movement told me that they had learned their politics from my Dad. And how pleased I was when Moses Kotane, General Secretary of the Communist Party, personally thanked me for writing election cards and envelopes, and for stuffing envelopes for his party’s candidates in municipal elections.
Gradually, during the war Dad built up a cartage contracting business and when he was out driving one of his trucks late at night I would answer the phone and take messages for him: “Five three double six seven, Quick Service Transport”. Dad owned an early 1930s Diamond T truck and a newer one with an all-steel cab – and, most beautiful of all, a 1933 International with flared front mudguards that made it look like it was flying. Dad hauled materials for military construction for the many training camps and coastal defence batteries that were built. He often came home furious about other truckers who fiddled their petrol ration coupons so that they could sell them on the black market at exorbitant prices. Then there were those who would drive their trucks with tyres showing canvas so that they could get a chit from an army base commander for new tyres “for essential war work”. They would use the new tyres for a few days and then sell them at an enormous profit. Dad also railed against the building contractors who were paid on a “cost plus” basis: the more they spent, the more their profit as a fixed percentage of the total cost. They would put themselves on the payroll of each construction project they had been awarded, taking a wage and a profit on each job. “How can they weaken our war effort?” Dad would cry. “Don’t they understand that we have to defeat the Nazis and the Japanese if we are to survive at all?” He simply would not be a crook
Dad was a small business man, with no special training. In the 1930s he ran a petrol-filling station on the main road in Woodstock, almost directly opposite the police station. There was a lift for raising cars and trucks for servicing. It was a source of amazement to me to watch the shiny steel column of the “high jolly jack” (hydraulic jack) emerge from the floor and lift the heavy vehicles. I always wanted to see what the mechanics were doing and I woul, d dart around them as they wielded their grease-guns. Of course, the floor was covered in grease and often I slipped and fell – and had to be washed in petrol to get the muck off. A somewhat messy way to ensure that in later years I was able to do my own maintenance and repairs. In the mid-1930s Dad, his brothers Joe and Barney and my Grandfather each owned a bus. They competed with the many other owners of individual buses and the tramway company whose trams had the right of way on their tracks. The situation was chaotic and dangerous as drivers inevitably raced to get to waiting passengers first. Eventually the authorities and the company agreed that the latter would set up a bus company with a monopoly of the service. A condition was that they would have to buy out the existing bus-owners, paying reasonable compensation for their buses. Dad’s driver accidentally stalled his bus on the tram tracks and a tram driver simply smashed into it, destroying it. No compensation for Dad.
He was sure that the tram drivers were instructed to use their right of way to destroy the buses. Twenty years later Dad was still amazed that the government official who had to issue the licences to the new bus company suddenly became very rich. The official, according to my Dad, claimed he won his money at the races. Nodding his head, Dad said that the promoters of the new bus company were also the owners of the race horses and won their bets thanks to insider knowledge. Observing current transport conflicts, I can say indeed that we’ve seen it all before. It has little to do with race but with greed and capital accumulation. And I’m fascinated to see that today’s bus and taxi drivers are as susceptible to brutality in the interests of their vehicle owners as they were then. In the end, after years of hard work, Dad ended up better off than he had ever been. Though there were shortages, my family could rejoice: we had 500 pounds in the bank! We moved to a better area of Observatory, Dalston Road, and we had a rented house with a refrigerator. No need now to rely on Icy the ice man for a once-a-week block of ice.
But the transport business was in bad shape. The two Diamond T trucks were worn out, and the 12-year-old International truck with its beautiful flared front mudguards was held together with baling wire. Dad could no longer drive: the constant jarring, vibration and heavy steering had damaged his spine. Often he wore a great big belladonna plaster covering most of his back just to keep going. But it was all, he insisted, worth it. We had won the war. Life was not all politics and social theory. There was time for enjoying the pleasures offered by Cape Town’s mild climate, with great opportunities to swim, climb mountains and play sports. And we played cards, like rummy and klawerjas. Though Dad was never a great chess player he enjoyed the game and it was fun to learn how to play it with him. We learned because he believed that such intellectual exercises were an important part of our development. By the time I was 13 he could no longer beat me but playing with him was a pleasant way of being together. In my first year at high school I beat the school captain at chess with a sneaky back-row checkmate when he was about to defeat me. That was in the final of the school chess competition and so I was a champion. The next year I was up against Ralph Wright, a friend to whom I had taught the game. The night before the championship final I defeated him. But that was the last time: in the final he wiped me off the board and I was never again able to beat him.
Mum was a stickler for doing things properly and for fulfilling one’s duties in the home. Two sayings summed up her attitude: “If a job is worth doing, it must be done properly”; and “If you start a task then you must finish it”. At times, of course, I resented both sayings, especially when it seemed utterly important to go out to play ball or idle away an afternoon in the sun with friends. But Mum would insist I finished some chore like washing the dishes or sweeping my room. So now I find it hard to tolerate slap-dash attitudes in younger people and government officials who claim rights but neglect their duties. I must add another saying that permeated my upbringing: “Workers are entitled to a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.” That lives with me still. In my final year at school, 1949, there seemed to be the possibility of going to university to study civil engineering. From the age of about 13 I had become convinced that I wanted to build roads and bridges, dams and pipelines for people. I had read books about the modern wonders of the world and I wanted to make even greater modern wonders. Then I read books like Microbes by the Million, a best seller by Paul de Kruif. I discovered that the Panama Canal could not have been built without medical doctors being able to control tropical diseases; that railways had often cost, as it was said, a life for each sleeper that had been laid. Doctors could also do heroic things and that is what I decided to do. Then I thought about it some more. Dad would, I know, find it difficult to keep me at university for four years of engineering studies.
The thought of six years of medical studies, then a year of internship, would have been too much for him. I returned to my first love. Even then there was doubt about my getting to university. So I wrote the Railways apprenticeship examination. My classmate Kenny Vinello, we heard, came first and I came second in the country. Kenny became an apprentice and I and another classmate went to university as full-time students and another two were part-time students. It was a miracle!
Miss Cook, where are you?
Starting school on the day I turned six was the best birthday present ever. Even though I was the pikkie in our family I wanted to be a big boy and go to school with my brother Allan. That first day Mum and Dad were very serious. They told me that I should not get upset if other children or teachers called me “Kaffirboetie” (“Nigger lover,” is the easiest awful translation), Commie, or Jewboy. Of course I knew we were different because none of the people who lived around us had black and Coloured friends who visited them and had dinner in their homes. Nor did other kids sit on the front of their Dad’s truck leading the May Day parade through Cape Town with flags flying while the band on the back played songs for the people of all colours marching behind.
I could not understand my parents’ anxiety. Mum and Dad both took me to school that first day. They made it special and they said they wanted me always to do the best I could. They did not expect me to be the best in my class, as long as I really tried hard. Miss Cook was my first teacher and, oh dear, I thought she was so beautiful. She was young and slim and she wore a lovely perfume and everything she said or did was just right. I thought this was my secret but, many years later, when Mum visited me in prison she told me she was quite jealous at first because every day I would come from school and talk about Miss Cook this and Miss Cook that, Miss Cook said this or that or the other. I think I inherited strong genes from my Dad.
Miss Cook was distraught one day after the morning break. She asked if any of us had seen the gold wrist watch her parents had given her when she qualified as a teacher. She had left it in the drawer of her table and now it was gone. As one, the 30 six-year-old boys in the class cried out, “Nolan took it, Miss Cook.” She asked how we knew that. “Because we saw him, Miss Cook,” we chorused. How? She cross-examined us, insisting that we be sure before we blamed him. She knew we could not have seen him take the watch because we were all outside in the school playground during the break.
Nolan had a hare lip and cleft palate and in 1939 plastic surgery was not very good. Nolan had a vivid scar across his upper lip and he spoke “funny.” He dressed in dirty clothes and did not wear shoes. Because he was different he was a lonely boy. I suppose we found him strange and he found us unfriendly. Now we were saying he was guilty. Ag, Nolan, apologies for what we did to you
Miss Cook was very insistent that we think carefully and questioned some of us one by one. She held me by her side while she sat in her chair. It was embarrassing to be so close to her, but nice too. When I said we had seen Nolan put her watch in the refuse bin, she said that it was not enough to see Nolan at the bin. We all knew he looked every day for sandwiches that other children had thrown away. The janitor had looked through the bin and the watch was not there. And so it went on, round and round, until Miss Cook made us see that we were blaming Nolan for taking the watch because he was “different”.
Miss Cook gave me a lesson in bigotry and intolerance that I have never forgotten. Often in prison I thought about her. I wanted to thank her for reinforcing the attitudes of my parents. After all, if Miss Cook could say that what my mother thought was correct, then my Mum had to be okay, too! Dear Miss Cook, the secret is out! You sent me to prison for 22 years.