Two years ago, I went into Musica at Canal Walk, and staring at me was Gary Moore from a Vinyl Cover, what we used to call an LP. I rushed for the earphones and asked the shop assistant to play the LP. I listened, feeling my brother’s presence; the music transported me back thirty years, and we are dancing to Still got the blues and Empty rooms by Gary Moore, and Fantasy by Kool and the Gang in the small room in our council house.
My brother, my Boeta – tall, dark handsome, caring and sensitive – never had a girlfriend, never knew the vices of life, because he was ripped from us on 2 July 1986. Maybe God needed him more.
My brother was the creative one in the family. With no money, all we knew was to go to school, finish matric, work hard so you can get a bursary and then go to university. Art School was not even part of my parents’ vocabulary. Who knows, he could have been our Picasso.
‘Kom gou! Kyk wat ek het gedraw!’ My brother, my little Boeta called Balie, had a light beaming from his eyes. He pointed to a painting of Elvis Presley on the outside wall of our house. It was the exact image of Elvis. He was only 9 years old.
Our three-roomed council house was home to six children and two adults, with an outside toilet. Warm water was a luxury and once a week we placed a big pot of water on a coal stove for our proper bath. Life was not easy, but we persevered. As long as we had food to eat, things were fine. Forget clothes – we all waited for hand-me-downs from my mother’s employer. Holidays did not exist, something I still struggle with today. My dear father worked two jobs to keep us afloat and to avoid having to take us out of school to work in a factory. That was and still is the norm on the Cape Flats.
My mother was very strict and disciplined. She made us believe that it is only through education that we could get ahead in life – it was ’our ticket out of poverty’.
Her famous words: ‘Paradise for some and hell for others’, so is this life. She meant paradise for white people and hell for black people, who we now refer to as people of colour.
Sometimes, when my brother and I would sing and dance to Gary Moore, Cool and the Gang and Elvis Presley, my father would enter the bedroom, and we would stand still in our tracks, feeling shy. We would wait for my father to leave the room and continue our beat.
My dad knew this and teased us. We would be happy.
While we were growing up, my brother slept in my parents’ room. Late at night, in the dark, I would creep into their room and feel the small bed next to my parent’s bed, checking to see whether my brother was there.
We used to play marbles, we kicked the ball and played kennetjie together. When we were small we even slept together on a mattress of ghoema hare. Sometimes our bronze coins would fall into the hole and we spent hours looking for the few cents because it is money for sweets! Only never to find the money. Oh! the disappointment.
Every Thursday, we would go to my father’s work to collect his weekly salary. Our first stop on the way home was a small café, where I would buy a big chocolate for us, then Pick ‘n Pay in Woodstock where we would buy the weekly groceries. Later my father would meet us at Pick ‘n Pay, and we would catch the bus home with my father, carrying bags of groceries.
My dad built a pond for the ducks in the back yard. He made a hole in the ground and cemented it with bricks. My papa loved animals, soft and kind-hearted he was, yet strong. My brother and I loved watching the ducks swimming in the pond and the hens hatching their eggs. We loved them so much that we could not eat their eggs and we could not bear the thought of killing them for food. Underneath the coal stove there was a storage place for the wood. In the evening we would convert it into a sleeping place for the chickens and ducks.
’Boeta, ons moet koolblare vir die eende en die hoenders gaan soek’. Every Sunday we woke early to scratch through the bins of the hawkers for green cabbage leaves for our ducks and chickens.
Every alternate week we would go to the hardware shop to buy mealies and grain feed. We pushed our handmade wagon over two fields, avoiding the gangsters. One day a rough girl was picking a fight with me. She wanted to box me with her bare hands; being tough and rough are values that are admired in the community.
The children were beginning to form a circle around us, I was petrified because I had a skirt with a washing peg on instead of a button and was afraid the skirt was going to fall off and I would stand only in my panties! These thoughts were racing through my mind, I cannot let it happen. The other children were eager for the big fight. The rough girl hit me hard in the face, but I held up my skirt with one hand and fought her off with the other. My young brother tried to help me, but he was too small. I had to think on my feet and, for my own dignity and self-respect, I gave up the fight and ended up with a blue eye.
Boeta, I have been feeling your presence around me and I know you are with me, especially now that we have lost both our parents. Remember the time we walked all along the railway line to Simba Chips in Parow? It was the June school holiday and I told you we can go to Simba Chips and peel potatoes to earn money. ’No,’ the white man said, ‘you are too young.’ We were both in primary school. We were so brave.
Trains on the Cape Flats line were and still are a symbol of anguish, suffering and pain, a living hell, as people are rushing to make a living to feed their families. Always a worrying factor – will my loved ones return home safely? .
One cold winter’s morning I rose early, and was rushing to get the 7am train to get to university. I stood in trepidation as I watched the beast entering the platform. The beast, adorned with human beings looking like ornaments: on the roof of the train, at the back of the train, in front of the train, in the windows of the train, between the carriages and the doors, wherever there is a hole it will be filled with people.
The managers and supervisors come from a different world – not knowing what their employees have to endure just to get to work, only to be ridiculed when arriving late.
Paradise for some and hell for others.
I can’t be late, I am writing an exam! I worried. I found a small space in the doorway where I could place my foot. As the train started to move, two hands lifted me up inside. I could have fallen into the tracks. The hands of God, I thought to myself. Usually it was a white conductor that blew the whistle for the train driver to leave the platform; ’Can’t he see? Why does he always blow the whistle so quickly?’ I mumbled to myself.
You have to be quick and swift or else you fall down off the platform. Who cares? Fifty years later nothing has changed, and today the situation is ten times worse. This line is now known as the notorious Central line.
The morning of the 2 July, I had just started working after graduating and took a day’s leave. Rain was falling hard on the asbestos roof.
My father, Babi, asked: ‘Gaan jy nie werk toe nie?’
‘Nie,’ sê ek, ‘ek is met verlof’.’
My brother replied, joking: ’Jy is lui!’ Those were his last words to me.
My brother was tossing and turning in bed, and my father warned him that he was going to miss his train. He liked to make himself two tin cups (bekers) of coffee. My eldest sister would often scold us when we were getting ready in the morning. As a comfort for my brother, I would prepare his two cups of coffee for him.
Maybe my brother wanted to speak to me that morning. Why was I so inattentive? If I wasn’t so half asleep, could I have prevented the tragedy?
That night I sneaked into his room and his bed felt cold. My brother never came home that day. My heart snaked.
Moni, my father’s eldest sister, said, ‘Balie het nie huistoe gekom nie.’
‘Ek moet hom gaan soek, Moni. Ek moet nou die hospitale bel, die polisie bel, miskien het iets met hom gebeur?’’ My father picked up the phone and started dialling.
I was twenty-one years old and did not know what to say … my poor dad.
‘Ä young man fell out of the train between Bontheuwel and Netreg station between 7 and 8am,’ the policeman told my father over the phone.
’They said he broke his neck and he died. We must now see if it is Balie’.
The rain was falling down hard and it was dark. I could not see in front of me as I drove behind my uncle to the mortuary in Salt River. I was still a learner driver.
My father came out with tears in his eyes. ’Dit is Balie…. ons moet hom huistoe vat.’ We put my brother in my uncle’s car, and drove in silence in the pouring rain to our house, tears streaming down my face.
It is tradition that the men prepare the body for the funeral, wrapping him in linen cloth. The sun had already set and it was too late to bury my brother that day, so we had to wait for the next day. My male cousins and uncles washed and embalmed his body for burying and laid his body on a cartel, or burial bed, in my parent’s room. Later, I took my mattress and I put it on the floor next to him and spent the night with him. It offered me a little comfort. My heart was outside of my body for a very long time.
Early the next morning when we woke, although no one had really slept, my mother went into a kind of silent coma. She never said a word, and carried him in her heart until it was her time to pass.
‘Balie, ek wil vir jou om vergifnis vra as ek nie ‘n goeie Pa vir jou gewees het nie.’ Tears welled and spilled down my father’s cheeks before he put the cottonwool over my brother’s face. ’Kom ons moet nou vir Balie groet … en ons moet sy gesig toemaak.’
I kissed my brother on the forehead, looked at him, and noticed that there was a smile on his face. ‘How can it be, he died so tragically, and he is smiling!’ My father closed my brother’s handsome face and wrapped a fez and linen around, and then the men took him away to be buried.
At the funeral people we didn’t know came to us and said that he always bought them food from the little money he received as pocket money.
One day I went to study at a friend’s house. As I arrived, her flat mate said; ‘Is your brother tall? Does he have a smile on his face?’ I replied yes, and she said: ‘He just walked in with you.’
Another time she told me she opened my bedroom door at 3am in the morning and she saw him sitting on my bed.
My brother, the gentle soul, turned twenty-one on 16 June 1986, and on 03 July 1986 he passed on. The meat that he bought for his twenty-first birthday was also used for food at his funeral.
Thirty-one years later my mom got ill and was hospitalized on the 28 June. I thought that it is strange, so close to Balie’s passing.
My mom slipped into a coma, and she passed on the same day my brother passed. She waited for the same date. We buried her on the same day we buried my brother.
This is my story, but so many other tears have fallen: mothers and fathers burying their children, untimely deaths, gone too soon.