I did start smoking dagga. Details evade me, but the first time would have been on that large veld where die dam was, the farmhouse now abandoned. It would have been at some point during the last three years of high school, with Bokkie, Hare and MC, who had all already tried dope a few times.
By Std. 9 or 10, an obligatory drinking culture had developed among many of our peers, some of them friends. At an older friend’s flat or in Orleans Park with friends who were already at university, and who thus had bursary money to burn and were of legal age, some of my friends drank away their weekends. ‘n Kis biere, ‘n bottel hardehout (hard tack). Four people. One evening’s drinking. Or these were friends from school who were now already at university (I failed Std 8 in 1981 and thus had old class mates a year ahead of me). I didn’t drink. While I may have been intrigued by alcohol (advertising, or from seeing an uncle from my mother’s side lean on a fence on a hot day, a chilled can of Black Label in hand), as a good Muslim boy I stayed away from it, having developed the appropriate distaste towards it and its consumers. Even had I had the interest, I would not have been able to disappear from home for two days, which was needed for my drinking friends, ‘sleeping over’ at an older, independent friend, drinking, passing out, sobering up.
The absence of alcohol in my closer circle of friends was a point of contrast and Bokkie and Hare even expressed a disinterestedness in drinking, sometimes even a sense of satisfaction that they weren’t spending weekends blind drunk. But dagga was approached differently.
Dagga, like alcohol, is prohibited (garam) in Islam because it ‘intoxicates the mind’, but rebellious or mischievous Muslim youth smoke dagga often more readily than drink alcohol. I am sure that the form of the prohibited substance plays a role in establishing a hierarchy of transgression. Smoke is ephemeral, alcohol is tangible liquid; dagga is an easier sin because it does not sit in the body as a liquid might. Evidence of dagga indulgence is more easily masked (a peppermint should do, unless you’ve smoked uncivilised amounts and the smoke clings to body and clothes), while alcohol lingers on your breath, and in your sweat and urine. The guilt associated with the sin – guilt which might prevent a future transgression – thus seems directly proportional to this: ephemeral smoke, ephemeral guilt; liquid swirling in your gut and recalling the sin through your pores, lingering guilt. If there were Muslim youth drinking alcohol at that time in Paarl, it was a well-kept secret. Perhaps there were; I don’t know. There were known adult drinkers in the Muslim community (and gamblers, also a big no-no), but they weren’t ostracised. In fact, there was a level of tolerance regarding them. Boeta X, it may for instance be related, might be seen coming out of an off-sales. But on Friday no one will shun Boeta X’s hand after mosque.
My father grew generally intolerant of any association with alcohol. Boeta Aggies, the panel-beater (Achmat, my father’s one brother, whom my brother and I called Uncle), might receive bottles of brandy as Christmas gifts from his KWV clients. These he kept in his store-cupboard outside, with the cans of Duco and tubs of body-filler, making a big show of hauling out a bottle as a gift again to one of his non-Muslim friends. My father didn’t like that Uncle accepted these gifts, first of all; and my father disapproved strongly of Uncle then handing the alcohol to his friends, thereby not only associating with it, but ‘encouraging’ it. In fact, my father disapproved of even handling it, as if a sealed bottle of brandy was a piece of fetid pork.
My father’s intolerance grew with age to the point where he was reluctant to visit my mother’s family over the big days, and the paranoia of sitting next to someone festively sloshing a big glass of whisky around rubbed off on me too, worried that the alcohol might spill and burn me like acid, or taint me. But my father could simultaneously tolerate others who may not have been on the straight and narrow of Islam. He would fix Salie-Gamat’s car, for instance, and entertain thoughts about selling his own car to Salie-Gamat (customarily, the name would be Mohammad Salie). Salie-Gamat looked like a younger Huggy Bear, the stereotyped, jive-talking, pimp-like informer in Starsky and Hutch (the original Huggy Bear, played by Antonio Fargas). Why does he want to buy my father’s car, a 1970 Fairlane with a big V8? Salie-Gamat would smile, showing his gold-edged teeth and fiddling with the ruby stud in his left ear: “Nee Boeta Gamat, die kar is vinnig.” Why is he looking for a fast car? His smile would grow, but he would remain silent. In his own car, Salie-Gamat always had a few miang-stokkies (joss sticks) lodged above the sun-visor, which for many people symbolised being ‘salieg’ (pious), even if you were using incense purely for its perfuming properties. In his late twenties or early thirties, and much younger than my father, Salie-Gamat was a cool character, dressed in cool clothes, with a cool slink of a walk. Tall and dark, he also listened to cool music: Grover Washington Jr., Ralph McDonald, Curtis Mayfield. We called it jazz, my father called it stront (crap). Salie-Gamat wanted a fast car so that he could outrun the narcs on his trips to and from the Transkei.
Dagga, then, was a mischief that a Muslim teenager could keep hidden easily. So when Bokkie and Hare presented the opportunity one day at die dam, I hesitated only for a moment. They reassured me that nothing much would happen. I took a few tokes.
Nothing happened. My friends told me that I was supposed to get the laggies (fit of laughter), and later get hungry. Nothing, I said. Someone whispered to someone else; they giggled. Hare laughed non-stop, but MC dismissed his performance – he was putting it on. I was befuddled, bemused with them. They were behaving oddly. My mouth was parched. Demonstrating, Bokkie told me to smack my tongue repeatedly against my palate. What does it feel like? I shrugged: dry. He smacked his tongue against his palate a few times. Like putty, he said. A sweet-tooth and always prepared for eventualities, Bokkie drew some sweets from one of his pockets. We all cried out: Sweets! You’ve got sweets! Why didn’t you tell us!
We walked to his house in Eike Laan, a broad thoroughfare nearby. His parents were forever on church or family related trips to Upington or Johannesburg, where an elder sibling lived. Bokkie and an older brother would stay at home, the brother himself off somewhere, playing tennis or at choir practice. So, we would have the house to ourselves, and a hi-fi. Funk. Disco-funk. Mix-tapes, sometimes an nth generation copy, of club DJs from the two legendary clubs beat-mixing: Tiffany’s in Paarl, and Thriller in Bellville. New generation dance clubs, with strict door policies, expensive light and sound systems. And different from Mojo’s, the dingy club at Ivanhoe Park, a ‘shopping centre’ op die Rug that housed Robot Supermarket, another smaller one, a doctor’s surgery, a café, upstairs I think a bodybuilding gym as well. Free-standing on the right, Planet Cinema, the local bioscope owned by the Mukkadams, neighbours on Charleston Hill, where I visited often as a pre-school child, playing with their youngest daughter, F–, one year younger than me and my first crush when I was 5. Green eyes and a pout – how could a boy resist? And sometimes, Mr. Mukkadam would preview a film in his lounge, and F– and I might get a sneak preview.
Despite the general informality in the Muslim community whereby children address adults as uncle or aunt, and not as Mister and Missus, the Mukkadams were Mr. and Mrs. Mukkadam. They seemed to come from another world: they were very rich, you spoke in hushed tones in their house and on Eid they gave the biggest donations when you went to wish them. Or maybe it was just to me and my brother and cousin S—. They favoured us perhaps because my father and my uncle were car enthusiasts, Ford enthusiasts. Mr. Mukkadam imported his cars from the US, and what a palaver when his blood red Mustang Mach 1 arrived. The whole of Charleston Hill was out on the streets, gawping at us, my father, brother and me, getting into the car, just like that one used in Diamonds are Forever. Mr. Mukkadam took us for a spin down Jan van Riebeeck Drive, all the way to Wellington and back.
I was still listening to reggae, that first time I smoked dagga, but was back to tolerating other music as well, like funk and disco; not, I should stress, disco as in ABBA, but disco as a quite heavy, funk infused music. This was the music my friends, growing into young men, were interested in – music one danced to. So, in his lounge, Bokkie would turn up the T-Connection and him and MC might show off their steps. Perhaps they regaled me with stories reliving how the dance floor at Tiffany’s – on Bauhinia Street, just across from Magnolia Flats – suddenly came alive when the DJ spun this or that hit. Perhaps Hare just sat there and laughed.
I didn’t go to dance clubs, not even the matinee sessions at Tiffany’s where my three friends went to skud (literally ‘shake’, dance). To repeat, my social life was proscribed by a father more and more strict, overprotective, suspicious, smothering. And more and more religiously conservative. But I had a sense of Tiffany’s as a bright, glittering space, filled with sharply dressed boys and pretty girls. Mojo’s, on the other hand, I imagined as dark and humid inside, during a hot matinee session, while outside it was bright and summer, a sense based on one brief moment glimpsed through its door: a dark staircase leading upwards to the club, three sweaty teenagers bundling out through the door, blinking at the bright sun and shaking their heads as if they were just waking from a dream. But it could also be a rop place, as I gathered from my cousin S—, who liked dancing and went there regularly in pre-Tiffany’s days. Perhaps he had told a story about a brawl in the club, perhaps he was involved. Maybe someone was stabbed.
“Steel blade drinking blood in darkness.” Whenever I hear LKJ’s line, from a poem in which he bemoans such knife-fights in blues dances, which he reads as the misspent energy of violence turned inwards among second-generation West Indians in Britain, I think of Mojo’s, a place I had never been to, although I had seen someone being stabbed, or missing being stabbed properly, one night, outside Mojo’s – but this was years later. Was Mojo’s still operating?
The stabbing happened in the parking lot of Ivanhoe Park, die stoepe, where, in the late 1980s, youngsters now on their way to adulthood and owners of cars, would get together and ‘perform’ with their cars. Burning rubber until acrid smoke hung in palls, performing sharp manoeuvres with a heavy V8, and occasionally dicing down Klein Drakenstein Road. During a lull, while the petrolheads, my brother among them, were standing around bragging about future upgrades – increasing the bore-gauge of the piston cylinders, installing larger jets on the carburettor, or fantasizing about installing a blower (a supercharger) – during this lull, an agitation of people moved like a whirlwind up along the parking lot. A group, agitated among themselves, but also moving as one commotion. I noticed it first, tried to play it cool, tried to fit in. Most of the petrolheads were on their own turf, so they didn’t appear bothered; or was it that they hadn’t noticed?
The agitation – male and females in their late teens – were a group of people who were clearly rof and rop. Some of the petrolheads started paying attention, some got into their cars, trying to ignore it. It was clearly a social division (people with cars, of relatively better means), or, lacking courage, we tried to ignore it. As outsiders we would certainly not have been welcome to intervene. Suddenly the agitation heaved open, revealing a wrestle inside, some trying to break up the group, a skirmish here and there on the margins too. Then someone was running, bare-chested, but with a shirt flapping from his hands; and someone was chasing, hacking out with a large knife, missing, then throwing the knife, which clung to the target’s back momentarily, then fell to the ground. The target got away, a small dark nick on his back.
I was nervous and scared, but also perversely excited and then disappointed. I wanted at once to not see the stabbing, yet see a stabbing; to not see, because witnessing with inaction would implicate me, would show up my lack of courage, and to see, to experience some frisson of a world unknown to me, but of which friends and cousins who lived op die rug or in Klein Nederburg often bore witness. To be able to shake my head afterwards with disbelief that the human can move beyond its boundaries, but at the same time to be able to nod my head sagely and in acknowledgement that the human can also contain, that it can and does also include that very move: the human endlessly including the other-than-human. Or was it that witnessing a stabbing true and proper may have made an LKJ song feel more vital, providing some measure of authenticity in claiming reggae to speak also to me, who said ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and went to a glampy school?
Of course, after that first time at die dam, I would smoke dagga several times, but I never quite latched onto it; it never became habit. Not that I didn’t enjoy it. Circumstances and supply were always a problem. The second time I smoked it, with the same group of friends, I did experience die laggies. Which was fun, but this also engendered a bonhomie, because now I was finally part of the group in another experience. Bokkie, eyes narrowed, smile widening, (he had no front teeth, but it is unrelated to the stereotype people like to hold), nudged Hare and pointed at me: “Lampies is geroek”. Laughing fit. Euphoria. Hunger. What was there to eat in Mr. and Mrs. Bock’s kitchen, them being away so frequently? Peanut-butter, jam, bread, tea. We gorged ourselves. I had learned the responses to dagga.
Emboldened by the fact that I had now smoked dagga twice and remained undiscovered by my parents and brother (no matter what other mischief we got into, I was convinced that my brother would not condone dagga), I was ready to smoke it whenever it presented itself, even though such opportunity remained rare. It did present itself at school one day, during second break, on a hot summer afternoon. Again, Bokkie and Hare were involved, perhaps another close friend, W—. This must have been Std. 9, before Hare became head prefect the following year. As always, it was an ugly little bullet of a zol (hand-rolled cigarette, not necessarily including dagga), inexpertly rolled with dry majat that was difficult to coax into the rizla (we were beginners). A few hurried tokes behind the boys’ toilets just as the siren signalled the end of break. We were being foolish. There were still close ties among Paarl’s growing community; teachers knew our parents from their own schooldays, or might belong to the same congregation, or may even be related. The school principal at NP was a distant cousin of my father’s. And a year or two before, a big scandal had erupted when a few boys from prominent families were caught smoking a dagga pipe in the reeds at the back of the school. They tried jettisoning the evidence, but teachers found the bottle neck. “Die bottle nek nog warm en bitter van die dagga,” Mr Julius, my biology teacher fulminated, spitting out the words with utter distaste. But we weren’t caught.
Hare and I, in the same class, had history with Mr. Simpson after the break. History class, on a hot Boland afternoon, while stoned – a triple soporific, a state of torpor, of being geroek, unrivalled since. History with Mr. Simpson, which otherwise was always a lively class. Meneer Simpson, Charlie Weir, because of his shock of grey hair at the front. Or, more commonly, Kake (Jaws), because of a tic he had with his jaws. Kake could enliven a class. His main concern in teaching was that we should pay attention to him and to what he was saying. So he might wander up and down the rows, explaining the implications of the Treaty of Versailles and suddenly smack himself on the head. “Wat het ek nou net gedoen?” he would ask someone whose eyes may have wondered out the window. One cut on the hand of your choice if you didn’t know. Or he would dictate a langvraag (“long+question”; essay type question) which we had to take down in our notebooks, in ink. He would slip in an erroneous date, the correct one which we should know from a previous lesson. “Sit neer julle penne!” he’d say, and then check everybody’s notes. One cut for not realising the date was wrong. And he soon cottoned on that I was using one of those new Papermates with erasable ink.
Revision in Kake’s class consisted of the whole class gathering at the front and rehearsing an essay by relay. Someone starts, he stops them, the next person continues, etc. And if you stumble or hesitate, you would get a few switches across the shins or calves. Of course everyone hated corporal punishment and was nervous of Kake as examinations, tests or revisions approached, especially in winter, when it was difficult for boys to decide to take it on their hands or bend over and hold your breath. The end of corporal punishment was, after all, a demand during boycotts in 1980 and 1981, the latter boycott mainly to protest the sham of the Tri-cameral Parliament. Most teachers at that time in any case were no longer practising casual corporal punishment. In the event of a serious misdemeanour, the offence had to be reported to the principal, who would note it in his dreaded black book, along with the number of cuts given by him or the vice principal and witnessed by the reporting teacher. But there was still a kind of unofficial sanctioning of the practise; some no-nonsense teachers, like Kake, still pratised it.
And NP, for instance, had a strafkommando (yes, straight out of South African military history) which depended on a bureaucratic system that co-opted students and turned them into spies. Each class had a klas-monitor who registered attendance at the end of each period. The teacher in whose class we were at the end of the day then signed off on the attendance list and the class-monitor handed it to the school secretary. The next day, those teachers on the strafkommando – all men – who had periods off, went from classroom to classroom, attendance list in hand. If you had bunked one period the day before, there would be an @ against your name. Six cuts. No choice for boys – bend over.
Following two consecutive school boycotts, a certain rebelliousness had set in and attendance suffered. I, for instance, bunked for days on end in 1981, days that accumulated into weeks, months, eventually failing Std 8 and causing my parents trouble and costing them money in getting me re-admitted in the science stream at school (I wanted to be a mathematician). Thus the strafkommando to try an maintain good attendance. But corporal punishment was no prevention. We’d take our cuts, Hare and I, and come first break, we’d meet up with W—, jump the fence at the back in Sanddrift Street, and disappear through the shortcut past the hostels of Athlone Training College, off to play arcade games at Fernando’s in Lady Grey Street. I guess one advantage of having the school in a white area was that there were no aunts on the stoep seeing us on a beeline to the café.
So my school days had its oppressive, Christian National Education elements, militarised to some extent (but not fully, as in white schools, I later learned, where boys had to do ‘cadets’, making them paraat, partly already assimilated into militarist culture and ready for conscription), but we also had a fair amount of freedom which we grabbed at every opportunity. The boundaries between authority and rebellion were elastic (and sometimes broke, as when a student stabbed a teacher who himself were perhaps stretching the remit of authority). So, while Kake might be considered cruel and perverse by an outsider, or by the times, then and now, the overall experience of his class for me, or the memory of the two years spent in his class, is not trauma filled. We took our liberties (and sometimes stole his cigarettes), and he could be funny as well, his comedy of course humanising him. He was wont, for instance, to ask boys for a match, boys whom he knew were smokers, like me, veiling the knowledge of my transgression in an attempt at historical comedy: “Slams, het jy die primus gisteraand aangesteek? Gee my ‘n lig”. I know you smoke, but I’ll pretend you don’t and invent a reason for you carrying matches.
Another tic Kake had was to joke about racial division when doing South African history: “So when Retief got to Natal – that’s now my people – he tried to negotiate with Dingaan, your people,”, waving at the class in general, a mischievous grin pulling against his left jaw. One day I muttered, but loudly enough for him to hear: “You want to be white? You know what happens to dogshit when it dries out? It goes white.” He looked at me, nodded, smiled widely, revealing a gap where an upper premolar should be, and continued with the lesson.