Traveling in the opposite direction by train from Athlone brought you to the city of Cape Town. Already the government to separate the Europeans from the non-Europeans were using the railway line as a divider, and declared European residential areas were already established. Although the train ride was boring because all that could be seen was suburbia and industrial areas, Cape Town city itself was one of my favourite places. As the most geographically isolated of the world’s great cities dominated by a 1087 meter high flat topped mountain with virtually sheer cliffs and surrounded by superb mountain walks, vineyards and beaches, other great coastal cities like San Francisco, Rio de Janeiro, Sydney and Vancouver had made pointless attempts to compare itself to Cape Town, none though could surpass its dramatic site or its 350 years of recorded history. It had what was described as a Mediterranean climate because of it having no extremes of temperature. It also had a characteristic phenomenon called the Cape Doctor; south-easterly winds that buffeted Cape Town and laid Table Mountain’s famous tablecloth, which was a welcome breeze in summer and a wild gale in spring that blew clean the Cape Flats. What it also did was to blow females dresses and skirts up while they held on to their hats so that wouldn’t blow off too, and of course another hindrance was their hand-bags that they had to contend with. A favourite spot for my mates and I was the corner of Castle and Lower Plein Street when coming from Cape Town Station. Actually we made the acquaintance of quite a few young girls when that occurred, who didn’t seem to know about that revealing wind, because as soon as that happened we would rush forward to assist by either holding on to the hat for them or help pulling down the dress…we were such gentleman.
The Grand Parade outside the terminal station was also a car park that was sectioned off twice a week for an open flea market and permanent stalls at the Adderley Street end for a colourful bazaar of flowers. In sight of the Grand Parade the Good Hope Castle built in 1666 with granite stone to repel attacks from the Khoisan. Cape Town’s Botanical Garden’s was in easy walking distance going directly towards Table Mountain, and was the surviving six hectares of the original 18 hectare vegetable garden planted to produce fresh produce for the first Dutch settlers. You walked up what is called ‘The Avenue’ where bushy tailed squirrels scampered for acorns up in imposing gnarled oak trees that flank it. To the right an open air tearoom that lead to an enormous hot house in which you could get lost in, and where all home gardeners got snippets of their favourite plants. To the left was the National Art Gallery, small but exquisite with important South African paintings. Straight ahead the South African Museum of fascinating displays of indigenous black culture, even to cast taken from live San in 1911 of startling lifelike displays. Cases and cases of stuffed animals, African artifacts and even bloodthirsty dinosaurs. The Houses of Parliament that opened in 1885, and continuing towards Table Mountain, the president’s house De Tuynhuis (High Dutch = The Garden House) built in 1795, and fifteen minutes’ walk from there, the foot of Table Mountain. In the ‘Gardens’ a kaleidoscope of vivid colours, aromatic airborne fragrance, cooing of turtledoves and the stirring rustle of tree leaves by a balmy summer breeze all induced a feeling of well-being and contentment, and the only cost for that was the expense of buying a bag of unshelled peanuts that you shared with the squirrels. The only other cost also to continue that feeling of inner peace was a walk down the road to Cape Town City Hall to listen to a free matinee performance of chamber music by members of the Cape Town Symphony Orchestra.
It is significant that, when District Six was named, in 1867, as one of the six municipal areas, District Six is the only one to be left with a number and not a name, and of all the areas of Cape Town this is the one best-known throughout the world. District Six – until the building of De Waal Drive after World War I – was an isolated area through which beautiful streams flowed. Their courses have been filled-in today, or covered over and led to the sea through tunnels. In years gone by the waters of these streams were used by Malay washer-women who stretched their washing on the rocks to dry. At the turn of the century the Mother City’s population was swollen by an influx of refugees from the Transvaal, on the outbreak of the South African War. Then came great building activity in District Six. The old two-story buildings and flat-roofed houses with stoeps in Caledon Street, Hanover Street and Constitution Hill gave way to two- and three-story blocks of flats built in a curious variety of architectural styles. Time and again the Star of David was part of the ornamentation. District Six, the first suburb of Cape Town, where by the end of the eighteenth century non-European people of Hottentot origin, freed black slave and poor whites of Cape Town lived together, which became the working class centre of culture. Every nationality and South Africa’s races of African, Malay, Indian, Chinese, Coloured, poor white, European and Afrikaner either lived as neighbours or together after that. It gave Cape Town its cosmopolitan atmosphere and life. People of every race lived there, overcrowded but a vibrant community. The streets were alive with people, traders, buskers and petty criminals. The district was home to musicians and jazz was its lifeblood.
Met up many times there with my mate Vincent Kolbe in your school days and later on in life, and he was the one who not only introduced me into his music world but also the intricacies of District Six. It was a world that he loved and could move freely without hindrance among the rich, poor and the crooks. Especially the Globe Gang who he had a kindred spirit with because of music, which would see both of us when together, share what they had to offer. We frequented the Avalon, National and Star, but the Star was the one that the Globe Gang would occupy all of the back seats as their domain and so would Vincent and I when in their company. Dagga was not only freely smoked there but also sold to other patrons. An incident that I thought saved not only my life but also others was due to my involvement with Vincent Kolbe and the Globe Gang. In Lawrence Road, Athlone, across a field directly from our home in Capuchin Street was a row of shops belonging to Mr Allie, who had his home next to those shops. The first one was a Billiard Saloon where Athlone skollies and others hung out. It was a quite Saturday night with nothing else to do so I went over to the billiard saloon to help out and maybe get a game. What occurred wasn’t to be reckoned with as a game. The doors burst open and we were surrounded by a group who bore knives and pangas. I almost shit myself and so did the rest of us. They were looking for a certain member of an Athlone gang who they said had disrespect one of theirs. It was then when I got my scared thoughts together that I not only recognized one of the lieutenants of the Globe Gang but also Vincent in the background. He had told me before that he carried at times when the gang was out on a mission but I never believed him, however, that night he proved his point by showing me the gun that he was packing. It seemed the police always searched leading gang member because of knowing who they were when confronting them, but never worried about the minions. It not only saved our bacon that night but it also gained me a bit of respect from those at the billiard saloon.
District Six was also the hub of Coloured culture and had the reputation that everything that was first in South Africa originated there. With Cape Town the oldest city in South Africa, District Six became the first suburb, integrated area, had the first hospital, shebeen, and red light district for visiting sailors and soldiers, and gangs. On my way at one time on a double-decker bus going from Cape Town Station to Walmer Estate along Hanover Street through District Six, which was notorious for the rougher tougher human element, I witnessed some of them in action. It was standing room only as the bus made its way through the hub of activity that consisted of restaurants, theatres, clubs, churches, stores and homes. Hanging onto the bus straps in a stop start and over crowded bus meant constant bumping of passengers into each other, and also difficult for the bus conductor to collect the fares of the majority of skollies who never paid. To do that they always stood a distance away from the bus stop and when the bus picked up speed they would sprint alongside and board by grasping the handrail to pull them onto the crowded bus platform. The conductor by then was either collecting fares upstairs or downstairs, and they would alight the slowing bus before the next stop, which was frequent, and continued that procedure of boarding and alighting until reaching their destination. There were other times when the conductor did approach the platform on which they always congregated to demand the fare but never received it, and the reason was that the majority of them were able to perform an amazing feat by jumping off from the speeding bus while facing backwards to it. Their legs when jumping would be in a running motion, and the fast movement of their running feet going backwards as it hit the road and the forward motion of their bodies caused a perfect balance. All they had to do then was to wait for the next bus. On that occasion though their hasty exit off the speeding bus was not due to unpaid fares, one of the passengers had discovered his wallet missing, followed by a woman’s purse, and then there was an uproar as more passengers found their money missing. They had made a good haul that day.
Something memorable though happened between a sweet young lady and me on one of those buses. A good friend of mine, Vincent August from Gleemoor, had told me that a certain female cousin of his was coming to visit and maybe I would like to meet her. I think the reason was that I wasn’t hitting it off with his sister and he thought maybe his cousin would do better. Well he was right, because Milly Searle and I hit it off right away, and so much so that she allowed me to see her home to Walmer Estate when leaving. We had a chat-fest all the way to Cape Town, which continued on the Hanover Street bus. It only stopped once when we were reaching her destination bus-stop because I seized that moment to lay extra charm on her so that I could kiss her. I had chosen the upstairs of the bus for just that planned moment because we had the whole upstairs to ourselves then. She wasn’t lazy in coming to the party too and it was pleasurable for both of us. Being the gentleman that I was, I took her home and met her family. From then on in it became a weekly occurrence to visit her at her home, however, because at that time I was beginning to ‘feel my oats’ and her sister and mother were watching me like a hawk, I thought it was time to move on. But not so wily Mill who must have sensed it and organized for me to meet her best friend Mildred at her home ,who also lived in Walmer Estate, which was more like it because with Mildred’s family not being there we became cosier in our relationship, and from there on in it progressed to dances and parties. And then disaster struck in the form of an ex-boyfriend of Millie’s who at one party had a confrontation with me that eventuated into fisticuffs. It was the first time that I had seen her upset and tried to pacify her but to no avail, so I took her straight home. I decided then and there that because she was the one that mixed in that circle and a confrontation would likely occur like that again, I never went back again. So there you go Mark and Roger, when you read this blog you will realize what a gentleman and scholar I was in my days, especially to one of your relatives.
District Six ‘Skollies’ having a good time.