I first smelled dagga when I was seven or eight, walking to primary school with my brother. The walk took us through a small veld that was a familiar shortcut for school children and workers. Our neighbourhood, New Orleans, was a new one and of the 1970s, called a ‘community development project’ (Gemeenskapsbou-projek) by apartheid planners and part of the town planning and development required by the Group Areas Act. New Orleans was one of countless new ‘community development projects’ across the country which were to accommodate those kicked out of areas then recently declared white.
In daily conversation among its victims, ‘community development’ also hinted at class stratification, as it signalled an inability to buy an erf and build privately in the more solidly middle-class neighbourhoods like Charleston Hill or Elridge Estate. The distinction between owner-builder and community development was not one of shame (not always or not all the time); it was simply part of everyday conversation: “Where do you live? New Orleans. Oh, that new community development?” And, eventually, New Orleans itself would open up further erven for owner-builders, allowing more idiosyncratic variation to the already changing face of the neighbourhood as people inevitably stamped their individuality onto the place – replacing regulation fences, cultivating gardens, building extensions, painting new colours.
But New Orleans itself catered for a mix of economic classes and it contained several different sizes (and styles) in housing, allowing people of different means to rent-to-buy houses. From small two- and three-bedroomed houses for the painters and bricklayers, the artisans, the wage-earners, to larger three-bedroomed houses for the teachers and young doctors, the salary earners. This led to a weird feel about the place: houses of several different styles and sizes, and thus evading the numbing sense of uniformity one gets when viewing the stereotypical aerial shots of American suburbs, yet the styles and sizes were repeated.
The language of apartheid town planning naturally hid the displacement by pretending that it cared about the inhabitants, that it cared for the community’s development, this meaning just flickering around what would be, in other circumstances, a more-or-less neutral phrase: the building, by government, of a housing project. But New Orleans was part of apartheid planning, and its roads reveal that truth. No regular grid, but, as is now common in new developments, curves and crescents, awkward left turns into a road with its own kink leftwards. I suppose this was all part of an idyll of community as gloss over its roots in apartheid planning, though I can’t imagine it was for marketing purposes. No marketing was needed; people were kicked out of homes with nowhere but New Orleans to go. But I can still imagine bidders for the project (if such there were) presenting their artists’ impressions of a neighbourhood filled with children walking the streets, unhampered and un-maimed by speeding cars. Perhaps the idyll of community could sooth planning consciences.
One thing was clear: the road map of New Orleans was also a piece of town planning as apartheid control: only three entrances/exits for vehicles into the neighbourhood, so it would be easy to close off the neighbourhood. Many roads were cul-de-sacs, with a short, straight footpath at the bottom via which pedestrians could enter and exit the neighbourhood. Over the past decade, though, residents have managed successfully to lobby for their closure, as these paths allowed easy escape for burglars while preventing quick mobile chase responses.
The road in which I grew up, Jacaranda Avenue, for instance, had a path that exited on a major junction (Oosbosch and Jan van Riebeeck) in Paarl’s industrial area, with destinations for workers – canning factory, plastics factory, packaging factory, textiles factory – and train commuters – Dal Josaphat Station. Workers from poorer areas east of New Orleans thus walked through the neighbourhood, down Jacaranda Avenue, through the path and on to their various work places. And back again from work. The tramp and voices of the workers were like a clock, signalling shift-changes.
Somewhere in the 1980s, a new pedestrian joined: the poor who had become addicted to a cheap, badly sulphuric wine apparently sold for R2.00 per five litre (bring your own container) from a winery coop in Drommedaris Road. This pedestrian was identifiable by his or her puza face and, more markedly, by the round, black, plastic 5l jerrycan hauled on the shoulder when full: swart varkie.
In the mornings and afternoons, Jacaranda Avenue also carried school children – my brother, myself and friends included – to and from my alma mater, Noorder Paarl Secondary, which stood its ground alongside Athlone Training College in Berlin and Sanddrift Streets in the now white area, or to and from the bus stop in Jan van Riebeeck Road. At that time, there was no bridge over the Berg River along Oosbosch Street, and the bus had to follow a circuitous route much longer than had there been a bridge: south along Jan Van Riebeeck to cross the river at Lady Grey Street and then tracking back on the other side of the river. In doing so, however, it also serviced several other bus stops of Noorder Paarl schoolgoers.
In summer, when the river was easily crossed, the direct route down Oosbosch Street was a walk not much longer than ten minutes. And so we saved our busfare for cigarettes by taking that route, wading through the river to and from school. In summer it was a simple matter: socks and shoes off, trousers rolled to the knees. But some times, before the river was fully full in early winter, or when it was running at slightly less than full capacity in early spring, and desperate for cigarette money, we would still forego on the bus and use the shortcut through the river. Coming to the river on your way to school, it was inevitably too late to turn back; by our calculations in taking the shortcut, we left later and, in theory, the last bus would have gone by the time we got back to the bus stop. In theory only, because in practice, when we did take the bus, we deliberately waited for the last bus, which was always a bit late. But this served us well. Not always too keen on school, we’d take the last bus, knowing that the school closed its gates after the 8 o’clock bell, to open it again only with first break at twenty-past-ten. This the school believed discouraged late arrivals; unfortunately, it did not discourage late comers. We were often too happy to arrive at a closed gate, throw our hands in the air and decamp to the bushy veld across the road, picnicking with our sandwiches, smoking cigarettes and swimming in the nearby river. A rural, almost sylvan scene, similar to the one from times when we crossed the river either side of winter while at places the water still reached up to our chins. Boys only, in underpants, clothes and rucksacks in a bundle on the head. A scene to which later, urban friends always responded with disbelief, if not scepticism.
Paarl is semi-urban by nature of its own expansion, but it is also peri-urban, given its proximity to Cape Town and given that the proximity is shrunk further as more and more development takes place along the N1, turning the perception of the commute between Paarl and Cape Town into a foreshortened journey. The expanses of farmland that, in my childhood, seemed to go on forever on a trip to Cape Town, now seem shrunk.
But this is not accurate. As a child, I thought of Kraaifontein as the conceptual boundary between urban Cape Town and rural Paarl. A slight rise in the road, some industria on the left (Leyland was there), over a bridge over train tracks, and residential Kraaifontein started. From here on, there were few open expanses of land on the way to Cape Town then and the sight of all the houses so close to the national road always excited me because now it signalled how close Cape Town lied. The sight of stretches of housing signalled the urban and the urban was Cape Town.
This shift in landscape still obtains. Between Paarl and Kraaifontein, there is still a sense of openness, even as it may be shrinking by the appearance of more chicken batteries and the Engen stop. The sense of open space or farmland proper diminishes. And the distance between Kraaifontein and Cape Town is now more crowded. Whatever open land there was has been gobbled up by uniform townhouse developments. But I digress.
My mnemonic life – my coming to memory and thus human life – starts after the rupture associated with the immediate effects of the Group Areas Act. In other words, life in a group area was normal to me, not in schism as it may have been if preceded by a time and memory of a prior place, on the western side of the Berg River. My family lived in the ‘servant’s quarters’ – a converted garage, really – in the yard of my uncle and aunt’s place on Charleston Hill, a previously white area that had then been declared coloured as Apartheid shifted people around, turning South Africa into a giant sliding puzzle, such as those found in lucky dip packets of my childhood. I thus came to memory in an already ‘coloured’ neighbourhood and our subsequent move to New Orleans was thus a ‘normal’ move for my family and, for us, not directly, not immediately, associated with the Group Areas Act. Or rather, not for me as a child.
My parents must have suffered Group Areas indignities. Many times during aimless Sunday drives through the cooler parts of town – and maybe driven there by my father’s own unspoken longing for home, a hidden ague – the names of streets that used to be their haunts in youth rolled off my mother and father’s tongues with just enough nostalgia to hide the hurt: Van der Lingen, Tempelier Straat, Malei Straat. And there’s a story about my uncle and aunt viewing the house on Charleston Hill and seeing an uncooked leg of pork in a bowl standing around in the kitchen – a horror for any Muslim family, the prospective occupants – which must have deepened the indignation of the apartheid evictions, ripping people from a previously established community to face something wholly alien and horror-filled. I imagine the house was still occupied with its white owners, but I remember the story as that of a lone leg of pork – or was it a pig’s head? – having been left behind by accident, in haste, a macabre symbol appropriate to its era. On moving in, my uncle and aunt scrubbed down the entire kitchen.
But so, while there may have been the traumas common to Group Areas removals for my parents when they moved from west of the Berg River to Charleston Hill, the eventual move from Charleston Hill to New Orleans was a new world adventure for them. My father had got his name on a waiting list for housing and so the move to New Orleans was a move towards independence for him: the ownership of property, no matter how modest, via the long and slow rent-for-ownership scheme.
As a group area, New Orleans was developed to accommodate, mostly, the people forced out from Onder-Paarl, to the north-west of the town but also on the now white west side of the Berg River. This was the community that built Noorder Paarl Secondary in 1926, a solid brick and mortar school built from community funds and that stood as a proud and beautiful symbol (white, with Doric pillars and behind a row of oak) in an era where new non-white schools were prefabricated asbestos units, like Klein Nederburg Secondary, which I attended prior to my alma mater, and which one year had several classrooms flattened by wind. Miraculously, or mercifully, Noorder Paarl School was allowed to stand, now in a white area, and still serve as school. The popular belief was that the apartheid planners dared not touch the school.
New Orleans had been an old guava farm and many open spaces still had guava trees and the ruins of old farm buildings. The piece of veld through which we had a shortcut to primary school had an old farm building, in which a large, very poor family had taken residency. We called that area die plaashuis or die dam. There were two (empty) cement dams, one a round one, about thirty meters in diameter, in which we often played and older schoolchildren smoked, and a smaller, rectangular one closer to the buildings, with a leivoor and probably used to water animals in its old farm days.
Die dam was a site for the most ordinary of childhood playing and mischief; most ordinary but – and therefore? – making for the most enduring of childhood memories. The wall of the dam was easily scaled on the side of the main footpath cutting through the veld, where a swell of ground brought you to within a step of the top of the wall. From there, a set of steps led down to its dry, cracking cement floor. Cracking, but hard and smooth enough for games with tennis balls. Or hokkie – hopscotch. Or for sitting around in the shade of the wall, drinking a cooldrink, smoking a cigarette filched from a parent or older sibling; and years later, for rollerskating, but by then it was becoming more and more frequently soiled by human faeces.
I had a vague sense of what dagga might be. From scattered remarks and proclamations, I knew that dagga was smoked, that it was prohibited and that it made you gerook/ geroek. If for some reason I was not performing a chore efficiently, my father would ask: ‘Is djy geroek?’ So, as a six-year-old I knew dagga caused some form of mental incapacity. But I knew too its taboo status, from both within an Islamic moral order and a broader social disapproval.
On our way to school one morning then, a pungent smell wafted past my brother and me, in the almost turbulent wake of a group of workers, in blue overalls, rushing past us on their way to work. It smelled strongly of raw peanuts – or of what one would have if one distilled the oil of raw peanuts – just dropped onto a flame or into a hot pan. It was nauseating.
“That’s dagga,” my brother said from the corner of his mouth, “They’re smoking dagga.” Two years older than me, he sounded affronted. I can’t remember whether I said anything, but I was intrigued and fascinated by the apparent openness with which these workers were just walking along, smoking their dagga. They may have hidden the joint in cupped palms, but they couldn’t mask the smell. And the smell is the strongest memory I have of that encounter, that smell of raw peanuts intensified, a smell that still causes me to gag when I smell marijuana being smoked or when I sniff at a bag of heads. But the oddness of the smell – raw peanuts intensified – also stayed with me, and stayed with me as intrigue.