Notes from underground

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Archive for the category “local history”

I heard the old men say

I Heard The Old Men SayI Heard The Old Men Say by Lawrence G. Green
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve just finished a long leisurely read through of this book by Lawrence G. Green. I classify it as history because he explores some historical byways of the Cape Peninsula, but more as a journalist than as a historian. As a journalist he must have kept copious notebooks, and draws on some of this material in his writing, but this particular book was sparked off by his purchase of a second-hand guide to the city of Cape Town, published in 1904.

He goes well beyond the guide book, however, telling stories about old people and houses of the city, its trees and flowers, its hotels and restaurants, its vaults and kramats, its churches and their bells. He is always on the lookout for forgotten mysteries, secrets that can be told when all the people involved have died, and so on. In these mysteries he is more inclined to titillate the reader than to be strictly historically accurate, so what he writes always needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Green claims to have solved three historical mysteries.

(1) Was Governor Simon van der Stel a coloured man.
(2) Was George Rex of Knysna an illegitimate son of King George III?
(3) Was a certain cottage the place where Dutch troops signed articles of surrender to the British in 1806?

Green concludes that Simon van der Stel was coloured, that George Rex was probably an illegitimate son of George III, and that the treaty was signed at the cottage.

I’m not sure about (1) and (3), but I have my doubts about (2). Green ignores all the historical evidence and reaches his conclusion on the Rex royal descent based on the supposed physical resemblances between George Rex’s family and that of George III.

My wife Val’s Green family has a similar legend of royal descent of her ancesttor William John Green, which Lawrence G. Green (no relation) has also dealt with in two of his other books, Thunder on the Blaauberg and Lords of the last frontier. A lot of the stories about that are also based on supposed physical resemblances, but the legend has been pretty conclusively refuted — a man could not be the father of a child born in Quebec if he only arrived there in the year following the child’s birth.

But even if Lawrence Green’s conclusion was off, not everything he wrote about those events was untrue, and his accounts contained a lot of useful family information that might have been lost if he had not preserved it. You can read more about our royal legend here Mystery cousins and royal legends | Hayes & Greene family history.

Zonnebloem College today

In this book Green also reveals more of his own political and social opinions than he does in most of his other books. In most of his books he seems to be studiously apolitical, perhaps to avoid offendi9ng the racist sentiments of at least some of his readers. But this one is more revealing. In his chapter on places of execution in Cape Town he emphasises how strongly opposed he is to capital pinishment. And he also notes that at the beginning of the 20th century Zonnebloem College was a beacon of nonracial education. That was at the height of the New Imperialism and the Scramble for Africa, when racism was at its height of approval, and so I was rather surprised to read it.

I think what Green Green (1964:185) has to say about Zonnebloem is worth quoting:

Zonnebloem, on the slopes of Devil’s Peak, a wine farm early in the eighteenth century, has survived because it was bought by Bishop Gray and used for the education of the sons of native chiefs. The wine cellar became a chapel. Girl boarders now occupy the old slave quarters.

White students attended Zonnebloem for many years, and one who left in 1906 wrote as follows, “Zonnebloem has peculiar characteristics of its own. Among these is the unrivalled opportunity it gives for becoming acquainted with a variety of people, habits and characters. How cosmopolitan Zonnebloem has always been! There have always been representatives of many peoples — Zulus, Xosas, Pondos, Basutos, Barotses, Bechuanas, Balolongs, Matabeles, Englishmen, Scotsmen, Welshmen, Irishmen, Dutchmen from Holland as well as from the Transvaal and a host of others. Yet there is never discord, but perfect unity between all, each respecting the other.”

Perhaps it is appropriate to recall this now, as Zonnebloem College has just celebrated its 160th anniversary.

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The missing ghosts in my life

Ghost That Closed Down The Town,The: Stories Of The Haunting Of South AfricaGhost That Closed Down The Town,The: Stories Of The Haunting Of South Africa by Arthur Goldstuck

I haven’t finished the book yet, so this isn’t a review, but rather some thoughts inspired by some of the bits I’ve read so far, that mention places that are familiar to me, or at least that I have been to.

Arthur Goldstuck has written several books about South African urban legends, and there is an overlap between urban legends and ghost stories, especially in the legend of the Vanishing Hitchhiker. Hitchhikers have now vanished in more than one sense, and I’ve written something about that here and here.

In one of his earlier books Goldstuck mentioned the Uniondale ghost as a story belonging to this genre and he has dealt with it more fully in this book. I found it quite interesting as I recently travelled the road in question, though when he mentioned the Barendas turn-off the name didn’t ring a bell, but when I looked it up on a map I did find that the road we had travelled along passed a railway halt called Barandas. Perhaps the ghost entered the typesetting machine to add a little more mystery to the story.

The story is of a motorcyclist who have a hitchhiker a lift, and lent her his spare crash helmet, and a little further on he felt the bike swerve a bit, and looked round and the hitchhiker had gone, and the helmet was in its usual place.

We travelled that road four years ago, and again in September this year. On Friday 29 April 2011 we drove down the N9 from Graaff Reinet, noting the empty dam on the Groot Rivier (a trickle), and about 40 km south of Willowmore we turned west on to the R341, leading to De Rust. I think this is what Arthur Goldstuck refers to as “the Barendas turn-off”.

We had only gone a few kilometres when an ambulance came the other way, lights flashing, and the driver signalled to us, and stopped, so we stopped, and he asked if we had seen an accident involving a motorbike. We said we hadn’t so he turned around and passed us going the same way we were, and past the turnoff to Uniondale we came to the scene of the accident. The ambulance had obviously come up from Uniondale and hadn’t known which way to turn.

We didn’t stop at the scene of the accident, but passed by sending up a silent prayer for the rider, since the ambulance was there. Now, having read the stories in the book, I wonder if we had stopped, would we have found that the accident was caused by a ghostly hitchhiker?

The other thing that struck me in the book was the mention of the Sandringham Dip. I lived for 6 years at Sunningdale, on the ridge above the dip in question, from the age of 7-13, and four years down the hill in Sandringham itself. The dip actually leads from Silvamonte to Senderwood, and as you go that way the grounds of the Rietfontein Hospital were on the left, and on the right was the Huddle Park Golf Course. At the bottom of the dip is a stream, a tributary of the Jukskei, which runs between Sandringham and the golf courses. As a child I used to play in the stream, and I went through the dip many times, by car, bicycle and on horseback. I rode on horseback with friends to see another friend who lived in Bedfordview, and a little way up the hill past the dip was a gate that opened to the Huddle Park golf course. When the gate wasn’t locked we would take a short cut through the gofd course, galloping down the fairways. There was a danger of being hit by a sliced ball perhaps, but we were more afraid of municipal officials who might accuse us of trespassing and make us go back. Nothing could be further from our minds than the fear of ghosts.

Goldstuck mentions a grave at the bottom of the dip. I never saw that, but I did know of a graveyard at the top of the hill beyond the dip, and took photos of it because I thought it was picturesque, with mouldy wooden monuments and crosses rotting under the trees.It may have been the graves of people who died in the hospital, but I doubted it. It was too far from the main hospital, and looked more like old farm graves.

As children we also used to ride on horseback through the grounds of Rietfontein Hospital, because there were plenty of wide-open spaces, which were (and are) getting harder to find in an increasingly urbanised landscape. We gave the hospital buildings (a few old Victorian houses) a wide berth, partly because of the fear of Authority, which might chase us away, and also because it was an isolation hospital for infectious diseases, and we were afraid of catching something.

More recently I have been in correspondence with people who are concerned about proposals to develop the site, because apparently a lot of people who died at the hospital have been buried there over the years, and local history groups believe that these sites should be respected.

So I seem to have missed the ghosts. Though I was in the right places, obviously it was at the wrong time.

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Walter and Albertina Sisulu biography

Walter & Albertina SisuluWalter & Albertina Sisulu by Elinor Sisulu

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the things that I like about biographies of political figures is that you get a more personal view of the times they lived in. Here one gets two for the price of one — Walter and Albertina Sisulu were a married couple forced to live much of their life apart, and for several decades it was rare that there would be a time when there wasn’t at least one member of the Sisulu family in jail or banned.

Walter Sisulu was Secretary Gerneral of the African National Congress (ANC) at the time it was banned in 1960, and resumed his organising activities when he emerged from prison and it was unbanned 30 years later. Albertina was a leader of the ANC Women’s League, and was in jail, detained without trial, and banned for many years.

They belonged to my parents’ generation, but the second half of their life story was about times that I myself have lived through, and so casts new light on those times for me. It was written by their daughter-in-law, Elinor Sisulu, who knew them personally, and so they come alive in a way that is not possible in biographies written by impersonal outsiders. And perhaps because Walter was a political prisoner, the securocrats kept much of his correspondence from jail, and so, even though what he wrote was censored, there is something very warm and human that comes across in his letters to family and friends.

On reading the story of the Sisulus, I am acutely aware of how the leadership of the ANC, and of the country, has deteriorated since then. We will not see the likes of Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu again, more’s the pity. The time that Albertina Sisulu was a Member of Parliament, from 1994-1999, was a high point in our country’s history, though we did not realise it at the time. It is sad to see how much things have declined.

But the Sisulus would be the last to claim the credit for that. They believed in party discipline, and collective leadership. They believed that leaders must be responsible to the community, and this comes out in the sharp contrast between the disciplined and humble Albertina Sisulu and the publicity-seeking loose cannon Winnie Mandela. There were events involving Winnie Mandela that received a great deal of publicity at the time, such as her notorious football club. One did not know what to believe in the media reports, so I held my own counsel at the time, because judgements based on incomplete reports are usually wrong. Albertina Sisulu held her own counsel too, but now the story can be told.

One of the things that struck me was that in a sense people like Nelson Mandela, the Sisulus and the Tambos were larger than life, and this seemed to contrast with the idea of collective leadership and being responsible to the community, in fact collective leadership works best with people who stand out from the crowd, yet see themselves as part of it.

One small point that shows how far the ANC has fallen is that when Walter Sisulu was invited to visit the People’s Republic of China, and the latter asked him not to visit Taiwan, he refused, saying that he went where he was sent by the ANC, and not by the hosts of one of the places he was visiting. The contrast between that and the present ANC government’s refusal to give visas to the Dalai Lama could not be more stark.

In some ways the book is also a family history, and here there is a shortcoming. There are pedigree charts showing the ancestry of Walter and Albertina Sisulu (though not of Walter’s father, who played little part in his life), but there is no chart of their descendants, and as they had numerous grandchildren a family tree chart (or even several) showing them and their relationships would also have been useful.

It is also a love story. One of the lasting effects of apartheid was to destroy family life, especially for black people. But in spite of having to live almost half of their married life apart, Walter and Albertina Sisulu were an outstanding example of family life, and life as a married couple.

It is, however, a readable and well-researched book, and for anyone interested in South African history from 1940-2000, it’s a must read.

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Fantasic creatures, evocative houses

In 1969 I often used to drive from Durban up the North Coast Road to Tongaat Beach and beyond. On the way I passed a rather strange symmetrical house among the pine trees, between the road and the beach. The house kept drawing my attention, partly because of its symmetry, partly because of its location, and partly because it reminded me of a film I had seen.

House at Desainagar

House at Desainagar

It was in a place called Desainagar, at least that whas what was on the sign on the road that seemed to lead to it. I often thought of stopping to take a photo of it, but the road was then the N2 highway, with a lot of traffic in two lanes desperately trying to overtake along the only straight stretch for a long way on each side, so I never did.

The house reminded me of a film I had seen a couple of years before on Dutch TV. It was in French, with Dutch subtitles, so I couldn’t follow it very well. The film was called Les Créatures, and was set in a place on the seaside, and that was what the house reminded me of.

The film started off with a bloke and his wife driving in a car, and they had an accident which left the wife dumb, and they lived alone in a house in the woods. The first part was rather puzzling, but it became clearer when they discovered
another man who had built a machine that could control people’s lives and influence them for good or evil, and he prefers to influence them for evil. It seemed to be a kind of parable on manipulative relationships.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s we lived in Melmoth in Zululand, and passed that way again whenever we visited Durban. Val said that she found the house as fascinating as I did, but it was even busier than it had been ten years earlier, so we still did not stop to take photos of it. It was then painted a light green, which matched the trees.

A couple of years ago we passed Desainagar again on holiday, and were sad to see that the house was abandoned, empty and vandalised. The trees had all been chopped down too, so that the house was barely recognisable.

Then a couple of weeks ago someone posted a link on Facebook to an article on the house, which had some of the pictures we had never taken. And it seems that the trees that we had thought were pine trees were actually casuarina trees. It was interesting to read something of the history of the house, but sad to see it vandalised. It would have made a good setting for a fantasy novel or film along the lines of Les Créatures.


Narrow gauge railways of KwaZulu-Natal

When I was young, there used to be narrow-gauge railways all over KwaZulu-Natal. Many of them were branch lines, leading from mainline stations to villages in the Natal Midlands. The area was very hilly, and the traffic was not heavy, so narrow gauge lines were much cheaper to build.

In addition, in the coastal region, there were countless privately owned lines radiating from the sugar mills for taking cane from the fields to the mills to be crushed and refined. When I was 12 years old I spent a holiday with a friend at Mount Edgecombe, and we used to sneak out at 4:00 am, nick one of the cane trucks, and ride on it down the hill to the mill to beg for “treacle-toffee” — the caked residue chopped off from the cauldons in which the cane was boiled. We then used to ride back up the hill on a train pulling empty trucks out to the fields, and jump off when it got close to home. They were pulled by steam engines in those days, but I never got a photo of one.

By the 1960s many of them had vanished, being replaced by “hi-los”, or Gila monsters, big diesel lorries that crowded the narrow roads. Smaller growers used trailers pulled by ordinary farm tractors. So when in 1980 I spotted what was possibly one of the last surviving cane tracks in Zululand, I quickly took a couple of photos.  The steam engines had gone, but now the diesel that replaced them has probably gone too.

My beautiful pictureThe tracks used to wander in and out of the cane fields, and seemed to be inviting one to a journey to a mystery destination, and the complex network of lines seemed to belong to a romantic different world. Being stuck behind a lumbering hi-lo on a narrow winding road was a poor substitute, and a great nuisance.

Cane train in Zululand, December 1980

Cane train in Zululand, December 1980

When the cane was loaded on to the trains, it was burnt in the fields before being taken to the mill — the cane had to be burnt before it was crushed. I don’t know what they do now — burning it on a hi-lo would probably melt the tyres.

Narrow-gauge Garratt locomotive at Umlaas Road, 8 December 1980

Narrow-gauge Garratt locomotive at Umlaas Road, 8 December 1980

The cane trains were light railways in every sense, but the ones belonging to the South African Railways were “proper” trains.  Their locomotives were many times bigger than those used on the cane tracks, and were often articulated Garratt locomotives, to cope with the sharp curves winding among the hills, which Alan Paton described so lyrically in the opening paragraphs of his novel Cry, the beloved country.

There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it. The road climbs seven miles into them, to Carisbrooke; and from there, if there is no mist, you look down on one of the fairest valleys of Africa


Carisbrooke Halt, with corrugated iron waiting room, January 1972. This featured in Alan Paton’s novel Cry, the beloved country. The view of the fairest valley in Africa lies just beyond and to the right of the waiting room, but this post is about the trains rather than the view.

The station at Carisbrooke, described in Alan Paton’s novel, was a branch off the line from Donnybook to Umzinto, and it the only one of the Natal narrow-gauge lines I have actually ridden on. A friend and I set out to hitchhike from Pietermaritzburg to Grahamstown on a long weekend, but after being stuck in Ixopo for hours decided to make for the coast instead, and got a lift from Highflats to Hluntankungu with a witchdoctor and from there walked three miles to to Jolivet, and seeing no lifts in cars likely and a train coming, ran to the station and hitched a ride on it to Umzinto (see The vanishing hitchhiker). I once wrote a children’s novel featuring an imaginary extension of this like from Donnybook to Himeville, but I haven’t found a publisher for it yet, and probably never will. [Update: published as an e-book in December 2014].

The Donnybrook-Umzinto line somewhere between Hlutankungu and Jolivet, May 1964

The Donnybrook-Umzinto line somewhere between Hlutankungu and Jolivet, May 1964

There was also a line from Port Shepstone to Harding, and I saw trains on it as recently as 1980.

Train on the Port Shepstone-Harding line, 10 December 1980

Train on the Port Shepstone-Harding line, 10 December 1980

Because of the sharpness of the curves and the narrowness of the gauge, the trains could not mtravel very fast, but they did give one a marvellous view of the countryside that they passed through.

Train on the Port Shepstone-Hardin line, 10 December 1980

Train on the Port Shepstone-Hardin line, 10 December 1980

At Umlaas Road station, where the narrow gauge line from Mid-Illovo met the main line, the trucks would be placed side-by-side to transfer the loads.

Transferring a load of poles from the narrow gauge to a mainline train at Umlaas Road, 8 December 1980

Transferring a load of poles from the narrow gauge to a mainline train at Umlaas Road, 8 December 1980

The narrow gauge rolling stock could also ride piggy back on the mainline wagons for trips to the repair shops in Durban.

Narrow-gauge truck riding piggy-back on a mainline train. Umlaas Road, 8 December 1980

Narrow-gauge truck riding piggy-back on a mainline train. Umlaas Road, 8 December 1980

Most of these narrow gauge lines have now been closed. There used to be one between Estcourt and Weenen, but it was closed and the rails have been removed. The line used to cross the old Durban-Johannesburg road just outside Estcourt, but though I must have crossed it dozens of times, I never saw a train on it. And I believe most of the others have now been closed too. I’m glad we managed to get a ride on some of them before they did close.

Narrow-gauge Garratt locomotive at Umlaas Road Station, 8 December 1908

Narrow-gauge Garratt locomotive at Umlaas Road Station, 8 December 1980

Death in the neigbourhood

When I was in Greece in 1998 and 2000 I noticed lots of roadside shrines marking places where people had been killed in motor accidents, and they were beginning to make their appearance in Albania as well. They have also been becoming more common in South Africa, especially at busy intersections, dangerous bends and blind rises and so on.

But yesterday one appeared in our quiet suburban neighbourhood, and made me wonder who or what had died, and in what circumstances.

You see, we live in a quiet cul-de-sac with no through traffic. There’s only one road in and out of the neighbourhood, and a couple of months ago the city council put in a mini-traffic circle and a few speed bumps to make doubly sure that people didn’t drive around like maniacs.

And then yesterday we noticed this:

It’s about 10 metres from one of the new speed bumps, so it couldn’t have been a vehicle travelling at high speed that crashed into the tree, and anyway, the tree seemed to be unscathed, though the vegetation around it seemed pretty well trampled.

The name on the cross was “Kat”, which could be a nickname for a person, or literally a cat. Was a pet cat run over here? Possibly. Cats do sometimes dash across the road unpredictably , and even a slow-moving vehicle might not be able to stop in time. But if that is what happened, why the trampled vegetation behind the tree?

The date on it was 25 December 2010, and we went out to church on Christmas eve and again on Christmas morning, and noticed nothing untoward, either going or returning.

So the mystery remains, and someone is sad and missing Kat, whoever or whatever Kat may have been.

Update 2 October 2012

More than a year later, the shrine is still being maintained. Someone is putting fresh flowers there, and there was a photo indicating that “Kat” was an adult male human being.


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