The Khakis of Claremont


The Khakis of Claremont

LIN SAMPSON tells the story of an English family from Ceylon struggling to settle down among ‘bloody Nats’ in 1948.


IT IS 1948 and my father stands on the summit of Sir Lowry’s Pass with the Cape Peninsula spread before him and says, “welcome to the most beautiful place on earth".

However, we did not feel either welcomed or at home. We felt we were unwanted. We were entering a country which was ruled by people we did not know and did not want to know.

My parents (my pa was South African) often referred to them as savages or bloody Nats".

It was a pathetic little group that walked into the dining room of the Herschel Hotel in Claremont on that summer day in 1948, the same year the Nationalists legalised racism in what would become known as apartheid.

My pa, in his flared khaki shorts to the knee, nails and hair violently disciplined. “Ex-army” whispered one of the guests.

My ma, who revelled in dowdiness, in her faded cotton dress, held together by priceless pieces of jewellery; only the local jeweller knew how priceless and he soon bought them for nothing.

Her diamond tiara kept in an old hat box was stolen the day after our arrival.

She was as thin as a pin and seemed to be made up of loosely strung-together bones. My pa said, “you’re too bony to even make a good stew".

My sister and I wore old-fashioned straw sunhats, our faces already burnt to a fiery red.

The sun was our enemy.

Anyone with a smidgen of perception must have realised that as a family we were doomed.

My father could not get a job. Before we left Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), he said it would be no problem. He had been to Bishops, belonged to an old Cape family, knew people with names like Van Ryneveld, Bairnsfather- Cloete, Van de Byl.

It was years before I realised their names were Afrikaans and had been ruthlessly anglicised. Vaandebayl sounded quite exotic.

The hotel was run by Delicia Theron who was Afrikaans, spoke English in an over-refined way and crooked both her little fingers when she drank a glass of wine.

She waged a daily war against dust and as she swayed around the old corridors in her upholstered frocks, her little finger probed for the slightest sign of it, under shelves and tables.

My parents thought she was a figure of fun but they were also terrified of her. They were amused by her clothes, terrible trouser suits in elephant grey, her piles of golden curls, her cheap patent leather shoes and overdone costume jewellery.

My ma would whisper behind her hand, Afrikaans".

Although I was then too young to realise what Afrikaans meant, as time rolled on it would signify men in bad suits, lack of social polish and lack of humour, net curtains, rockery gardens, braais, ugly churches, no booze on Sundays and the obiquitous melktert, loathed by our whole family.

People who said, come with". My pa would joke, “are you coming with?"

My pa’s real horror was men in very short shorts.

My ma’s horror was over-varnished imbuia ball and claw furniture.

We would visit farms where the old house lay in ruins and a hideous facebrick house had been built next to it.

At the opening of the Nationalist parliament, we would laugh at their accents and their clothes. I remember Mrs Diederichs, wife of the finance minister in the late sixties, in layers of beige lace and satin. “She looks like a burst sofa," my ma said.

We tried never to go to a hospital because the nurses were always Afrikaans and wagged their fingers when they talked to us. “Now my girl, I’m warning you, if you don’t listen…"

All the government departments were now run by Afrikaners, although few seemed to have penetrated the upper reaches of Claremont apart from the Le Rouxs.

My pa insisted we learn the language. “They are our rulers," he said. When we wanted a new phone, we had to practise, before going to the telephone department. Kan ons asseblief 'n telefoon kry. The weasel in his polyester suit behind the counter shouted, “Is jy 'n doktor? Telephoons is net vir doctors."

My pa said wryly, “you'd better do a medical degree if we ever want to get a phone".

We blamed Afrikaners totally for apartheid although we knew little of politics and my parents did not realise that most of their English friends voted silently for the Nationalists, hoping to keep a status quo that was very comfortable for whites.

But I was about to learn a lot about Afrikaners. At the government school I went to, my best friend was Afrikaans, and looking back I think that in the Rondebosch surroundings of supreme suburbia we were both a bit isolated.

Elizabé le Roux had frizzy hair, enormous breasts and an admirable sense of risk and adventure.

She lived in a pseudo-Dutch house with a tarred front garden.

The house was always shrouded in semi-darkness with heavy curtains and lots of imbuia and ball and claw furniture.

Mrs le Roux — I never learnt her first name — spent most of her time lying on a bed with a headache in a voraciously dark room.

Our tumbledown cottage, below the line in Claremont, had lots of open windows and always had bowls of flowers and a few 18th century antiques, army chests, silver (most of it since stolen), lots of dogs — six I remember. The Le Rouxs had no animals. Their house was spotless.

My ma didn’t believe in hygiene and said it was middle-class to wash your hands after going to the lavatory.

We were both naughty girls and smoked and drank. I always had a bottle of vodka under my bed. Elizabé turned up slightly drunk at the matric dance in a revealing black dress she ran up herself at home.

Also, a bit tipsy, I wore a dress I had planned for years, the years I should have been studying. It made me look like a Voortrekker wagon.

My family loved Elizabé because she wasn’t suburban. Suburbia was my ma’s real enemy and we were not allowed to play with children from Pinelands. But Elizabé drove a Karmann Ghia (God, I was envious of that), took off for London when she was 18, had affairs with men and drank. Just the sort of girl my parents thoroughly approved of.

My mother said to a friend, “you would never know she was Afrikaans."

The Le Roux household was alien to me. I knew they were “Afrikaans" and probably “bloody Nats". Elizabé was called ounooi and the young sister as sturdy as a brick wall was kleintjie.

On Sundays, their father Ben le Roux put on a black suit and sat close to a large radio listening to the dominee. Sometimes when we were in the bath he would take time off from the fiery damnations to wander into the bathroom and touch our breasts.

He was a bit handy and we spent most of our time trying to avoid him. I told my ma but she just laughed and said, “don’t make a fuss, it’s so middle class".  

Sometimes we would go for a drive in the Le Rouxs' car, a large American saloon. It was hazardous because Ben le Roux was blind. But that was not the only impediment to his driving; he also had to keep an eye on us in the back seat. We were not allowed to look at boys.

Once when he had caught Elizabé looking out of the window, he swerved violently and shouted, “ounooi, wat maak jy?"

I was good at languages but I didn’t bother to learn Afrikaans.

At school it was the subject we hated most. Everyone in the Le Roux family spoke perfect English. No one in our family spoke a word of Afrikaans. We puzzled over Moenie spoe nie written in the bus. My ma pronounced it mooneespoonee.

Apart from the Le Rouxs we knew no Afrikaners but we understood they were now in charge. My pa was keen for us to learn Afrikaans and we were sent away to farms during the holidays where we fell in love with boys with names like Kwartus.

I remember those farm meals, the amount of food, three kinds of meat, yellow rice, thick, sweet jam and  homemade bread. And the dominee's hand on my thigh under the table.

In our house our ma was still cutting sandwiches so thin you could read through them.

We had never cooked anything over a fire. Afrikaners had braais but it was known that the English could not braai. They boiled their food.

Just the term braai made my pa angry. “It is just cooking something outside on a fire," he said, “it is not only the prerogative of the Afrikaner. They do it in every country."

Once I went up the west coast with the Le Roux family. They braaied in the veld. Mrs Le Roux had made sandwiches, thick brown homemade bread, cold mutton, lots of fat and butter. I can remember the taste to this day.

The enemy in our anorexic house was fat. My mother could even strain fat off fat.

At school, God Save the King was replaced by Die Stem. This was because of the “bloody Afrikaners". The centre of our southern suburbs universe was Kelvin Grove, a club. My parents did not belong because they couldn’t afford it and my mother thought it was common. She despised members of Kelvin.

To make things worse, Ben Le Roux became a member of Kelvin, the first Afrikaner. My pa foamed with rage. “Once they start letting Afrikaners in, who knows what will happen."

Now things are different, but in those days there was little to soften the wax of conviction and preconceived ideas. Had my parents only known it, they had a lot more in common with Afrikaners than with the expat English.

♦ VWB ♦

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