If I bore you then I am sorry. I have been trying to piece together the story for twenty years now and the only way of making sense of it, it seems, is by putting it on paper.
I’m not much of a writer I know. So apologies in advance if the logic doesn’t match up at first – it is an error in the telling, not the story itself.
First I will tell you a little bit about myself so you can get an idea of who I am, what I have done and why, and especially, how stupid I am, me with a degree and all, which is a part of the problem as you will see.
I am fifty-five and I grew up in two countries having been born in a third. These trauma’s I outlived but they all form a part of the infinity of interest my life has been, according to the Chinese curse.
I have been weak all my life, looking to my father for guidance to happiness, not realising that he was of inadequate spirit. Now he is dead, I can say so. He could have devoted little time to his advice to me as he wasted my time as I lived to celebrate his fatherhood, not my birth. I respected him while he was alive and now I can relive and denounce his viewpoints without fear.
But then this is not about him and me. It is a who-dunnit and we hope the answer will be lying in these pages once it is done.
My Dad left school at 13 before the war, joined the royal navy at seventeen and was sent to Celyon on a frigate as radio operator. After the war he learned to play honky-tonk piano and was sparkie at Pinewood Studios for a time before getting a job blowing glass in a factory. And then he became a laboratory technician at Porton Down research facility where he met my Mum, a local beauty employed in the microbiology department as a laboratory assistant. You might say I was thought up on the slab but that would be wrong for I have three siblings who came before me.
The Spirit of Adventure sown by the war led to my parents taking a chance and moving to Philadelphia where my Dad worked at the University of Pennsylvania and my mum was a housewife odd-jobbing by sewing and working as a canteen monitor at my elementary school. And in the third grade I was when we all moved, that is two older girls and two younger boys, to Johannesburg South Africa by QE2 and a mailship to Cape Town followed by the Blue Train through the Karoo, to Johannesburg where we ended up staying in a hotel in Hillbrow.
When we bought a house in the jacaranda strewn suburb of Greenside I attended the local primary school and then the high school and it was there that I signed the statement that I had no intention of becoming a South African citizen. In return I was exempted from National Service or two years in the army as it was then, fighting for apartheid.
I did well at school especially in the sciences and while I had an opportunity to go to Med School, I chose instead to do Mechanical Engineering at Wits, a notoriously difficult course. I graduated High School with four A’s and two B’s.
At Wits I did well in first year. Engineering was all beer and sunshine and work work work. But in second year I discovered weed and Jamesons on Commissioner Street and my marks showed a slump.
In the beginning of my third year I joined the campus radio and met Simon Whiting, Gary Rathbone and numerous other campus activists. The campus radio was a sub-committee of the Student’s Representative Council which was notoriously political, labelled communist by the residents of Johannesburg and the greater South Africa.
Simon Whiting was a law student who was personnel manager of the radio station and he interviewed me. We discovered we shared a love of the band “Midnight Oil” and struck up a friendship. He invited me to take over when his term of office was up and I was elected Personnel Manager at the end of the year 1995. Gary Rathbone was Music Director at the time. Gary was a musician who had played in the punk band XXXX before he formed the Spectres with Tara Robb, Allan Lusk and Richard Frost, who were older and not students.
Let me tell you a little about Wits at the time.
It was in dispute constantly with the authorities, the Students Union that is. As a white english speaking university it was top in South Africa along with the University of Cape Town. Ten percent of the students were black and the office of the black students society was across the corridor from the radio station.
And yet, I was never made aware that the university was Nelson Mandela’s Alma Mater. All evidence of his attendance had been scrubbed. Although thought of as a white liberal university, the Senate of the university was hard right and afrikaans.
The Black Student’s Society (BSS) was very active but promoted a policy of non-participation with the University. They would not join the sports teams, the societies or anything else. Instead they concentrated on their own policies and meetings, looking after accommodation issues and funding problems. Demonstrations were common place and as a radio station it was our job to advertise these meetings and supply the PA, so our live sound team of volunteers under Kevin Glover was very active.
This was a time of the pass laws and the illegal gathering and the undercover cop. Every meeting on campus required permission from the police. Nothing was secret. Special Branch had an office in a tower block over-looking the campus and we were continually forbidden from taking our marches onto the streets of Braamfontein.
I was aware of the change in the law when I was naturalised against my will in 1985 and I received my first call-up papers on my 21st birthday in 1985. I responded by joining the End Conscrition Campaign which was run by Roddy Paine on Wits campus.
The next year I was elected Deputy-Station Manager with Gary my Chair. We became friends. A year later I was elected Station Manager of the radio, with the approval of the SRC.
My academics had suffered at the same time and this was not helped by the fact that my elder sister Claire was wiped out on her motorcycle during my third year exams and I failed two as a result. I was forced to repeat the year, but the life had gone out of it. I wanted to get away. I had had enough of apartheid South Africa but being young I was respecting my father’s wishes and stayed at university, registering year after year to avoid conscription.
The campus radio was my saviour. I met like-minded individuals, amongst the Loren Borale, Christian Figenchou and his brother Olaf, both of whom I recruited, and Bruce van Ryneveld, my friend from school who was a technical whizz and looked after our expansion to the new west campus on the old grounds of the Randshow.
During my year as Personnel Manager, I was very active recruiting and the numbers rose to 60. But all white due to the BSS policy. The next year, as Deputy Station Manger, I was invited by the SRC and Gary to a secret meeting over a weekend at a motel in Broederstroom, about twenty miles outside of Johannesburg. Five of us went, Siobhan Paterson, Gary, Loren and two others. Loren was very active on the campus newspaper too, Wits Student, and she eventually went on to work for the Star in Johannesburg after graduation.
That is the year I organised the Chinese Firedrill. Me, Christian, Olaf, Loren and Bruce number 2 bought a lot of spray paint, after I had been inspired by Simon Whiting. The issue was about Barclays Bank refusing the police access to bank accounts of its users and Simon had written underneath the highway on Empire Road: “Barclays Bank, the bank with Balls” after Chris Ball who was Managing Director of the bank at the time.
The five us got together one night with two volkswagen beetles and twenty cans of spray paint and drove all over Johannesburg at night, Johannesburg being under a State of Emergency. We adopted the drill of choosing letter respectively, parking, jumping out the cars and running to the chosen walls, painting and running back to the cars. We did 22 different sights in one night, from Greenside to Edenvale, from Barry Herzog Avenue to Fordsburg. We sprayed “Fuck de Klerk”, the apartheid Education Minister, everywhere, as well as “Free Wits” because of the education dispute that engulfed the University at the time.
I was never arrested but Bruce number 2 was, at a mass meeting held in the University sports hall. I was lucky. I was on my way to the sports hall to take over the PA when I heard the sound of barking and running feet. I turned around and saw the grey uniforms streaming around the corners of the campus buildings in the direction of the sports hall. I stopped walking, they rushed past me and I watched them shooting tear gas through the windows of the building where the meeting was already in progress to a packed audience. Some students tried to jump out the windows of the change rooms, Bruce being one of them but he was pulled back inside by his feet.
In the end, 142 students were arrested that day. The campus was ringed by bumper to bumper yellow police vans.
Eventually the University would not accept my moving from course to course, registering but not going to lectures. I did computer science, Maths and then Economics but did not pass another year.
It was while I was Personnel Manager that I first got involved with the SRC/NUSAS Wits Free People’s Concert. This was an annual event in freshers week, where South African bands played for free, entrance was free and the audience was freely mixed because it always occurred on university grounds. The biggest name to play was Johnny Clegg, who played with Sipho as early as 1972 with his duo Juluka.
In the end I was involved in three successive Free Peoples, being co-chair of the 1988 concert which was the last and I still have the t-shirt, as well as an old student card which never leaves my wallet.
I have never confirmed this but there is no doubt there was a security file with my name on it. I had a Honda 500 and I cruised Jo-burg, hanging out at Jameson’s and the Harbour Cafe in Rocky Street, the bohemian sector of the City, called a “grey” area because it had both black and white residents.
Fees at Wits were subsidised. About R2000 a year from engineering. I borrowed from the bank and in third year Simon introduced me to Mike Castis who ran a pizza parlour in Rivonia. I took over Simon’s job as pizzaola and Mike and I struck up a strong friendship. He taught me to roll pizza’s and when I finally had to deregister from Wits he offered me a job working cash in hand and I moved from my parent’s place into a flat with my school friend Simon Lee, in Blairgowrie.
In 1998 Gary invited me to manage his band, The Spectres. I had gotten to know most people involved in the South African music industry and Gary introduced me around the music company reps and I met DJ’s like Neil Johnson of 702 radio fame.
I took the Spectres on tour in 1988, to Pietermaritzburg, Durban and Cape Town. We didn’t make much money but we had a great time. The Spectre’s single “Teddy Bear” was being played on the radio and we got crowds at the concerts.
But, in the end I worked out that being manager of the band cost me about R400. The last time I saw Gary was on a drive from Cape Town to Johannesburg. Without warning I left the band and concentrated on making enough money rolling pizza’s for cash to save for a ticket to London. I moved into a house in Rivonia with a german girl who catered for the fledgeling movie industry in the country.
Gary worked for the Weekly Mail, a left wing newspaper that continuously walked the line of the press restrictions of the State of Emergency, but Gary wrote a music column. We were both members of the End Conscription Campaign, but confusingly Gary had been to the army before studying, having joined permanent force to do graphic design he said because he had heard he could do it through the army. He had bought himself out after more than two years and then come to Wits to do his BA.
Eventually Gary had his picture in the press along with an ECC group which I did not join. I never understood his need for press attention but he was a show man, not me. I still have my Spectres t-shirt too, which I hand screened myself.
I worked the pizza’s all of 1988 until I got tired of not making enough money and took a risk.
I got a job through a musician named Dave Denman at a firm called Ideadata, specialising in the fledgeling computer graphics industry. I was there for the money, but I was not happy working fopr the “corporate asswipes” as Dave called them, like the mining houses and banks that Ideadata had as clients. I was still paid by check but my mother would cash it in her account and pay me cash so I could continue without a bank account and remain untraced, I hoped.
Eventually, Chris Courtly-Hoare got tired of me and my attitude and asked me to leave, saying “You don’t know what we are trying to do here”. With my final paycheck I purchased a plane ticket to London, one way.
While at Wits I attended the mass meetings and the speeches, including that of Winnie Mandela who advocated the politics of the Pan African Congress. I listened and I believed. With a matric certificate as my only formal qualification, I would be taking food from a black man’s mouth.
I had a South Africa book of life, the id document, because it was necessary for a driver’s licence, but my id number had been for a non-South African national. I did not apply for a new one because this would have made me visible to the authorities. They phoned my parent’s home once, looking for me but my sister Claire said I had moved somewhere in Cape Town, she did know where. Phew!
I booked my ticket, sold my beetle and my guitar and accumulated £600.
My mother drove my to Jan Smuts airport. I was nervous. I had not undertaken the mandatory police clearance and I did not know what would happen when I went through customs.
In the end it was okay but the grey uniformed officer who inspected my id said: “You will have a “hard time” returning to South Africa.
I flew out Sabina to London so it was a stop-over in Brussels. My first journey over-seas alone and I was very green but optimistic. I had phone numer of a South African fdriend and felolow frisbee player named Tim Hannah in South London and £600 in cash in my pocket. But no credit card or bank account.
I was placed in a hotel overnight. I rolled a towel up and placed it under the door and took some weed out of my underwear. I switched on the tv and sat back to relax.
And saw the man walk out of Victor Verster prison. Nelson Mandela was being released. I could not believe my eyes. I watched the cheering crowds and saw he and Winnie hand in hand. He raised a clenched fist. They both did. So did I.
It was explained there had been a three day press blanket. To quell any potential unrest. I had not known a thing.
The next morning I caught a flight to London.
Once I arrived at Heathrow, I called Tim in Mitcham, South London and got directions for the tube, south to Tooting Broadway from heathrow. Everything was new. I had one bag and Tim had a spare room where I could stay.
I didn’t do much during those first weeks. I managed to get a national Insurance number that I needed to pay tax and found a few days work in a coffee factory, shifting boxes on the production line. I knew my eldest sister Jane was sailing in the Caribean as a chef on a charter yacht and I was waiting for a call from her, ship-to-shore. Tim was seeing a New Zealand traveller who he eventually married and the last I heard from him he had married her and moved to New Zealnd. But in the meantime he was living and working from Mitcham.
Then the call came. Jane said the Elaphonissi would be arriving at Gibraltor in a few days and would I like to come down and join them sailing the Mediterranean as deckhand? Jack Smythe, her South African partner, was skipper of the 62 foot maxi-class sloop and he had agreed.
Let me make something clear. I hate white south africans. All off them. I have never met such liars in my life. Ever since I left South Africa I avoided them like the plague because I knew better than anyone what they are and were like. Given my background and police record, it was the wisest thing I could do.
We sailed the Med. The Elaphonnissi stopped in Palma Maljorca, Antibes and finally Rhodes. I had boarded the yacht after meeting Jane in Gibraltor with my remaining £25 in my pocket. Fortunately everytime the yacht anchored I got some daywork cleaning the yacht and I could earn some beer money. I got a tan and kept healthy, learning the ropes from Jack.
In Antibes I had a gun held to my head.
In Rhodes I discovered power. I met a young South African who had been sailing the Med too on a yacht that berthed in Rhodes and we went out to cruise the town, looking for a girl. We went a disco, this man whose name I forget and I, both of us tanned, tall and fit.
We met two Swedes on holiday that night and said: “Would you like to see our yacht?” That was all it took.
Later we sailed to Marmaris to anchor because Jack’s father had died and he had to fly back to SA. Jane went to Paris for a cookery course and I was left in charge of the yacht for six weeks of bliss. Hot hot hot was the weather and the Turks are great. Food and Efes beer. What a life!
But all good things come to an end and soon the yacht was to be on charter and I would be out of a berth. I flew back to London, intent on saving enough money to rejoin the yacht in Antibes before it set sail to the Caribean again.
The only hitch was in Antibes when I had a gun held to my head. In Marie le Pen’s France. But on the brightside Jane and I went through to Nice and saw the Stranglers play on their 96 tears tour. Christ the French do not know how to enjoy a gig!
I sent a total of seven postcards home to South Africa and had not a single reply. Except fro my friend Rodger Bosch who I met while working at Ideadata. A quiet man, he was learning the photography trade in the darkroom of the graphics company since our output was in the form of photographic slides. Dodge is a diamond man, as you will learn later.
Back in London I stayed with Tim again in Mitcham. It had been three months away and I was eager to find work. This time I met Ben, a Kiwi who left home at 16 to see the world. He was working on a building site and he found me a job. For two months I used a sledgehammer and a strong back. Three evenings a week I worked in a pub. Before you knew it, two months had gone by and I was ready to go back to the yacht.
A National Express bus to Antibes took me through Paris foer the first time, at night, then on down through the country via Lyons and Grenoble and Grasse. The yacht
was on stilts for a week then we set sail having taken on three more crew aside from myself and Jane and Jack, a South African named Dave and two Danish students, a couple. We sailed/motored via Palma and Gibraltar to Puerto Rico on Gran Canaria where we stopped, refuelled and got pissed.
Then it was off for the Horse Lattitudes and the trade winds waiting there but it was seven days of conserving diesel and motoring before we found wind. Course altered to more easterly and we were off. Landfall was Antigua and the voyage was uneventful apart from a broach where we lost all the remaining diesel when the can tied to a stanchion in the engine room tipped over.
This meant that we HAD to sail all around the island to English Harbour and could only restart the engine to reverse anchor. From Shelley’s Heights the 1812 Overture was being played by a steel drum band and it floated to us on the wind.
Take a heading south of Gran Canaria to The horse latitudes where, hopefully You will pick up a wind that will blow You clean across the Atlantic To the Sargasso Sea Where everything is silent so you hear the Lapping of the wavelets against the hull. Heat is in the wind and in the sky. No more for the welcome committee to see It is a spark that has gone out of me Until the coming of the Lord there will be Mayhew and mayhem in the ranks of The Conservative House because of me Yes because of me. I will prevail. I will non-stop be the one who Shows the Beetlejuice man Cameron what To do with his head! Copyright 2016 Bruce E Saunders