There’s something completely warped about Grahamstown. Every time I drove into the valley the town nestles and stews in my sense of direction would shift about 90 degrees and north just wasn’t where it used to be. I heard rumours that it was built on where a number of ley lines meet and cross, but I never managed to dig up any more on this.
Grahamstown was a huge chunk of my life, as I went to do my “national service” there for two years, before attending Rhodes University for five years straight after that. The town is made up of the army base on one side, the university on another, Fort England mental hospital on the third and the township, which overlooks the town on the fourth side.
The town was the bastion where the anxious1820 settlers gathered, after they were dumped there by the English to fight the surly Xhosas, who weren’t taking too well to the concept of being colonised.
The tiny dorp also has the dubious distinction of having once had the highest rate of alcoholism in the world, apparently holding the Guinness Book of Records title at some stage for its abnormal prevalence of drunkards.
It’s the also educational and cultural centre of the Eastern Cape, with a disproportionate amount of schools, Rhodes University and the Settlers Monument, which forms the home base for the annual festival of the arts. Last but not least, Grahamstown has 52 churches, which dominate practically every quaint little street, where people still often live in old, converted army barracks or horse stables.
I began my seven-year sojourn of Grahamstown as a very naïve, reluctant “troep” who was bought in by train from Cape Town to fight for white South Africa before I was able to fully reason for myself what that actually entailed or meant. It was a vicious awakening for my 18-year-old being; the six months of training I received before being shipped off — first by truck to Port Elizabeth, then by “flossie” transport plane to Namibia, to fight on the border – was characterised by baking summer days and freezing winter nights. The bush was scrubby and filled with thorn bushes, and as the new recruits panted and sweated their way through the Eastern Cape dust, I kept my thoughts to myself, being urban and English, and surrounded by Afrikaners from mostly rural backgrounds, or towns much like Grahamstown itself.
My pass times, when we were allowed to go home, consisted mostly of hitch-hiking back to the Cape to where my buddies and parents lived, but I did get to see some of Grahamstown, as my parents knew a lecturer and his wife there, and I stayed with them at times. I even got to recite some of my anguished teen poetry in the Journ department recording studio, complete with reverb and delays. Hopefully this has long been deleted or lost! I was not a happy camper; I resolved to never return to any institution filled with males, like prison, or army camps, and cycled through Rhodes on a bicycle, drooling over what appeared to be thousands of young, nubile female students lounging by the pool and strolling past in flimsy, revealing clothes to lectures.
Unsurprisingly, when I did get to study at Rhodes, I was obsessed with women and making up for what I regarded as years of lost time of not having had sex with them; I wanted as much sex as I could get with as many as possible of them, and all of it immediately, thank you. I was terribly inexperienced and painfully shy but I did manage to seduce a fair number of willing lasses nevertheless. Nuff said.
I initially took my studies very seriously, as the prospect of doing “camps” if I was to fail impressed itself upon my mind constantly. In my first year, I attended every lecture, took notes, and typed them out; spent hours in the library, and swotted diligantly for each and every exam. I even took up karate and smoked very little dope.
I do recall one evening going up the koppie beneath the monument, above my res, for what I thought would be a quiet toke just before the exams started. I had left a wonderfully carved and wire-wrapped chillum up on the hill, and the cops had evidently found it and were waiting for its owner to reappear. As I took the first hit, a cop van suddenly switched on its headlights, and began to race towards me. I reacted immediately, sprinting down the hill towards campus. Miraculously, I cleared a tall, barbed wire topped fence in one leap and raced across campus, into a toilet, where I waited, panting, for 15 minutes, before changing my jacket inside out and heading back to my res.
Things started to fall apart a bit in my second year, when I moved into my own digs and began playing in a band called Vader Jakob. We wore black and shades and long coats and listened to Nick Cave and Joy Division and drank as much beer and took as many drugs as we could find and caused as much ‘kak’ wherever we could.
I’ve got some pretty vivid memories of our gigs: we were invited by the Women’s Movement to play at an End Conscription Campaign gig; we all took downers; the clarinet player started playing figaros, while the singer was trying to plug in his guitar; the clarinet player, an immense chap even then, passed out and fell onto my amp, and both fell off the back of the stage. The women ended up screaming for us to leave. “Fuck off! Fuck off!” We had discredited their movement.
At another gig we managed to convince a new club’s owner that we would open for the national festival at his venue, and chased all his patrons away. He kept unplugging our amps, and we kept plugging them back in; eventually he was physically strangling the lead singer and yelling at him to shut up.
There were also some memorable lines; while practicing at a digs, an old hotel, the landlady entered the room and found us bashing on old car suspension springs and on the walls with firewood. “Raak julle mal?” (are you going mad?) she asked. While practicing in a sports room on a Sunday morning, a priest crossed the field opposite and addressed us politely with: “It’s impossible to worship with this going on.”
The third memorable line was when Tony Gush, the narcotics agent who had made it his holy mission to save the drug-gobbling students from themselves, raided our practice room just after most of us had consumed a huge dagga pipe. I had not take part, being on a bit of a “cleanup” and I smiled at a huge police sergeant who was trying to put the fear of God into us. “Ek gaan jou kry, pappie!” (I’m going to get you, upstart!) became part of our lore and legend.
Rhodes was basically divided into two separate “camps” – there were the guys studying for BSCs who played rugby and drank beer, known as the “buggers”, short for “rugger-buggers”; and then there were the BA and art students who smoked dope and listened to alternative music, known as the “bungies”. There were a few surfers who crossed the line – they were sporty but also smoked weed – known as the “rugger-bungies” but they were a rare breed indeed.
Our little gothic group sometimes ran afoul of the buggers, as we, unlike many bungies, also drank. One of our group also used to take these much larger guys on, and got beaten up several times. Once, outside a club, he was held by his hair and his face mashed to pulp on a bugger’s knee. I was held back from stopping this by the bugger’s burly mate. His cousin was called from the club and dashed down the road and kicked the bugger full in the balls. When this produced no discernible response he took out his flick-knife and slashed the bugger a neat, perfect cross on his forehead, which drew sufficient blood and shock to deter the face-pulping and allowed us to make our escape.
I also used to hang out with a lesbian woman who would cause shit with men in bars, who would then turn on me and want to beat me up! Apparently I beat some buggers up once who caused shit with my friends, but for some reason I have no recollection of this, which is a damn shame …
I found a steady partner in my third year, and stuck with her for about five years, my first long-term relationship. I consider myself lucky to have been able to do this, as, for my psychology honours, I wrote about how conscripts who returned from the border war often had difficulties in forming and maintaining lasting relationships, and expressing or allowing intimacy in them.
I kept studying after doing my honours, because the longer I was able to do that, the longer the army camps were kept at bay. My Masters degree in psychology was initially focused on difficulties exiles experienced on returning to South Africa, but I eventually wound up doing it on battered women leaving their husbands, as I had a friend who worked at the POWA shelter, and was able to obtain access to women who were stepping out on their own after abusive relationships. Basically I found that it could be any catalyst that sparked off their leaving their abusive partners – it was more the point that they had reached by that stage in their lives, the straw that broke the camel’s back.
In the end though I came back to journalism as a means of making a living, after trying unsuccessfully to make a career out of music, and then out of photography. I’ve always been able to write, and these days I correct other people’s stories and seldom write my own.
More than two decades after leaving Rhodes, most of the friends I hang out with still are the people I either met then, or are friends of those whom I knew at university. What made the experience of being in Grahamstown, at Rhodes, so special? What is the bond that still unites us?
The eighties were a time of massive social upheaval, with states of emergency peaking the whole apartheid regime paranoia, ultimately culminating in Mandela’s release just after I left university.
The Eastern Cape was especially hectic; I arrived in 1985, the year that anti-apartheid activists Fort Calata, Matthew Goniwe, Sparrow Mkhonto and Sicelo Mhlawuli, also known as the Cradock Four – were abducted, assaulted and killed by the apartheid police while returning from a meeting in Port Elizabeth.
Our personal contributions to the ‘struggle’ were petty compared to these guys’, limited to playing at End Conscription Campaign gigs, taking part in and photographing marches on campus where students were sjambokked by the police and the like, but our circle, which was leaning very much towards the left, was nevertheless riven with internal conflicts, fear and paranoia about police spies. The leader of Nusas (the National Union of South African Students) in Grahamstown, was a hero to many of us, as she was so often imprisoned, but turned out later to be a spy, who was probably sucking the cops’ cocks and sipping champagne while supposedly being ‘detained’.
Combined with this huge social upheaveal stuff, as the country writhed like a snake and finally shook off the skin of apartheid, was our own personal upheavals, which involved equally huge changes. I was exposed to Marxism and the UDF just after coming out of the border war and had to reconcile the massive guilt this engendered. I came to realise through my relationships that women were human beings, not the fuckbags we were told they were by the misogynists of the military; I had to reconcile the lust and fear they evoked in me, which had taken temporary root through their enforced absence from my immediate world.
I guess me and my varsity friends were spoilt white brats – most of us were there on our parents’ wishes and purse-strings, and we had half a decade to find out who we were and what the world was about, free from the usual grind of having to make a living. We learned about art and culture and experimented with how to express ourselves through our art and music and dress and debate. Actually we were exposed to and explored some really good art. I was watching Bergman and Fellini and Fassbinder and the like and listening to artists who I still admire today.
We were all passably intelligent and shared a love of bohemian decadence, which extended beyond drugs and partying to several other excesses – I mean, Grahamstown was a fuckfest of note – sometimes at a party one would realise that you had slept with half the people there. Hugely incestuous, we were just damn lucky that no-one bought Aids into the picture, because few of us used any protection and we would have all caught it, and in those pre-anti-retroviral days it was like, a real death sentence.
There was also the fact that Grahamstown is situated just an hour from the coast, and is close to what used to called the Transkei. Holidays in that still unspoilt paradise just defy description, and of course the weed that made its way from there to our university town – often via students themselves – was at times comparable to acid, capable of imparting huge insight or numbing, mindless terror.
We were happily able to maintain our own little bubble in Grahamstown, with its own hierarchies and cool and cliques, and while most of us have largely grown up and had kids and moved on and changed, I think we went through something unique that still holds us together, through social media, no matter where we are on the globe.
Well, you never know what you are going to dig up when you start shovelling though the past; I’ve gone through a whole gamut of emotions writing this piece. It reminds me of something I read recently about the building of the Grahamstown highway. The apartheid power-that-be insisted the freeway ran past the town, not through it, because the old road traversed the township. When the engineers dug through the mountainside a massive cache of unique dinosaur bones was unearthed, which might have otherwise lain undisturbed for another few millenia. Perhaps this piece will dislodge dusty matter for my alma mater chinas; and perhaps some old ghosts will come to life, or, better still, be laid to rest.