IT'S a scorching, desert-hot day just after Christmas when I meet Tossie Lochner at the top of Kloof Street, on the slopes of Table Mountain, at the Italian restaurant Bacini’s on Kloof. It's fitting that the mountain is her backdrop. For decades, she lived in an ancient village, Aulla, nestled beneath the white Carrara marble mountains in the north of Italy.
Baccini means little kisses in Italian, and I get a peck on the cheek from Tossie when she arrives, shock of hair and all.
When she walks into a room, she makes her presence felt. She is the grande dame of Afrikaans radio, but without pretence. She is generous and warm — so warm, in fact, that she first drinks a cold glass of mineral water to gather herself.
We order a bottle of Diemersdal Sauvignon Blanc and focaccia with garlic and olive oil to start with. She is unsure about the focaccia because she knows Italian cuisine, but after the first bite she approves.
Tossie is still a journalist at heart, curious. That's why she still follows Italian news every day and knows what's happening. She also knows just about everything about the Uber driver she sat next to all the way from Parklands, where she lives. Nobody is insignificant; everyone has a story that interests her.
She arrived with a see-through handbag and now realises she had left her cellphone in the Uber. I try to track down the driver but have no joy. Just when I start thinking the entire interview, meticulously planned, is ruined because we have to look for a new phone for Tossie, he arrives. Phone in hand.
“Thank you, Andile,” she says. It's clear they bonded on the trip.
She wears a large necklace, handmade by her niece. On her left hand is a ring of coral and gold. “There is a lot of coral in Italy," she says. “I bought it in the village where I lived, Aulla. It's large because I have big hands; my left hand is bigger than my right hand."
She also wears a handmade wooden watch that doesn't work, but she is too attached to it not to wear it. “I heard Jacob Zuma has one too," she says.
How it all started
Sara Jacoba Du Toit (Tossie) Lochner was born on July 26, 1937 as the youngest of six children in Wolseley. “I am a Leo," she says, pointing to a small tattoo of her zodiac sign on her forearm. She has a larger one on her back, she says.
Her father was a railway man, and when she was eight they moved to Karringmelk, a small station near Swellendam, where they lived in a station house.
“One of those pretty, neat red-brick houses; spacious inside, with a shiny front porch," she says. She had told the writer Dana Snyman about “carefree days and blue gum trees", and then, Dana writes, after a slight pause, she became emotional. “It's a long way from Karringmelk to Italy and back again," he notes.
Tossie went to Buffeljagsrivier Primary School and stayed with an uncle during the week. At the weekend, she travelled home by train. She completed high school in Heidelberg.
One day, she had to recite a poem in front of a school inspector. He was so impressed with her voice, expression and interpretation that he promptly had her perform for the Afrikaanse Christelike Vrouevereniging.
Realising her talent for language, and after graduating from the teaching college in Wellington, Tossie studied speech therapy at the University of Cape Town (UCT). She also started taking drama classes at the Akademie vir Dramakuns or Academy for Dramatic Arts (ADK) under the actor and mentor Babs Laker.
“My mom had to do crocheting and sell it so that I could afford the studies at the ADK," she says. Little did she know that her introduction to Laker would lead to greater things.
Wilna Snyman was one of her fellow students and a longtime friend. Tossie met the head of radio drama at the SABC, Suzanne van Wyk, through Babs, took a test, passed, and regularly did radio work. One day, Babs told her, “Tossie, if you behave yourself, there's a great future waiting for you in radio."
“See, her words have come true," says Tossie.
The Bellville days
For 10 years, she worked as a speech therapist at primary schools. “I must mention, my three sisters had a significant influence on my inner world. They were married to interesting men, open-minded people, and they absorbed it. Broader thinking, more cosmopolitan, and I learned from them," she says.
She has no time for petty, parochial types.
By now we are ready to order the main courses, with a bottle of Rustenburg Merlot. Tossie asks for the Osso Buco Ragù, and I choose the Pizza Amalfi with mushrooms, olives, anchovies and salami.
When her veal shanks, roasted with vegetables, white wine and sauce, arrive, she looks surprised. “Where is the meat?" she asks. Indeed, ragù is a meat-based sauce usually served with pasta. I didn't notice the ragù on the menu.
“I wanted meat," she says. The meat is buried under the pappardelle pasta, and she forks it out piece by piece.
“People here in South Africa just improvise their own dishes. I know Italian food. But no one ever asks for my opinion on it.
“You know, sometimes people will tell me they've been to Italy. Then I ask where and what did they see. Their eyes glaze over and then they can't even remember the names of the places," she says disdainfully.
She starts talking about her days in Bellville, where she lived in an apartment opposite the tennis courts. One evening, in a boarding house, she saw him: a handsome man with olive-coloured skin and black hair.
His name was Petro, in Italian, Pielo. Tossie laughs playfully and tosses her head back, hair fluttering.
“Even though we were together for four years, I quickly realised that he wanted to make me feel bad about myself. I don't want to generalise but Italian men tend to do that. They'll always remain mamma's boys. Also, they make promises they never keep," she says.
One evening she'd had enough. They were driving. She ate slap chips with salt and vinegar and offered him some. She offered a few times, and each time he said no.
When they got out of the car, she carried on eating. “You only think about yourself," he shouted. She lost it and shouted, “Get out of my life! Out, out!" and hurled the chips, which hit a lamppost before falling to the ground.
Free from the horrible man, she joined the Bellvillese Afrikaanse Toneelvereniging. She was enthused, and met actors such as Dawie Maritz, Paul Malherbe and Jannie Gildenhuys. In between, there was radio theatre. Golden days, she remembers.
One day, she helped judge young students at an eisteddfod at Totius Primary School in Bellville. Before her stood a beautiful girl in standard 3 (grade 5). She performed so beautifully that Tossie got her to do a radio test at the SABC.
Her name was Bettie Kemp.
Italy, love and radio
Tossie wanted to broaden her horizons and applied for a job at the South African Tourism Corporation, which was opening offices overseas. She was accepted. To learn Italian quickly, she moved to Aulla in Tuscany for three months.
“I worked in the garden of a castle. Was it hard work!" she says.
The foreman had a handsome cousin who came to say hello. She was introduced to Roberto Vegnuti. The next day, he came to say hello again, and the day after that too.
They got married in Cape Town and, after a year, moved back to Aulla, where she taught English.
“Oh, the Italians love English. Even if you just say, ‘Hello, how are you?', they are delighted."
Two children, Sara and Leonardo, were born from her marriage. Tossie raised them in Afrikaans and the children later become fluent in the language. During a visit to South Africa, the SABC's Afrikaans service conducted an interview with them.
While Tossie was sitting in the studio, one of the station's bigwigs arrived and asked if she wouldn't mind phoning in news from Italy. They were looking for someone there.
“No," she said, “where are you coming from? I'm not a journalist." Yet, she accepted the offer, and thus her relationship with Afrikaans listeners started. It was November 1979. She had already lived in Italy for 10 years and knew the country well. Tossie only stopped after 30 years, in November 2009.
In the beginning, there was no telephone where they lived. In the mornings, she had to walk to a small house where there were indoor telephone booths and make a collect call.
For the first three months, she tried to speak like a radio journalist but it didn't work. “It's during that time that (CJ) Langenhoven's words sank in; that the imitator isn't even a monkey because the monkey is a monkey itself," she says. (Die na-aper is nie eens ’n aap nie, want die aap is self 'n aap.)
There was no internet. She had to buy the newspapers every morning, read extensively and listen to the radio. Over time, she made numerous contacts at the newspapers, got a telephone, travelled to major cities like Milan and Rome and expanded her network of informants.
She didn't just work; Tossie loved dancing. “In the evenings there were regularly festivals with food on the village squares, and then people sang, made music, danced. Oh, it was so spontaneous, so lovely," she says.
“There are too many to mention, but during then president FW de Klerk's visit to Pope John Paul II, I was invited by the embassy to attend the event at the Vatican," she says.
“Former minister Pik Botha promised me that he would introduce me to the pope. Oh, it's just idle talk, I thought. Pik still wrote a poem for me while we were sitting and waiting. (Listen below to the poem.)
“Lo and behold, I see him talking to the pope and think, well, that's it. He forgot about me. Then Pik turns around, takes me by the hand and brings me to him. And there, unexpectedly, I am introduced to him."
She tells a sad story that she will always remember of a six-year-old boy on a farm outside Rome. They were drilling for a water pipe and didn't close the narrow well.
The child played and naturally peered down into the well, then fell into it. Everyone tried to help him, and you could hear him scream: “Mama, mama, mama!"
The people stood by helplessly. The fire department came but no one could pull the child out. There was a caravan where a very thin man lived.
They got him to descend headfirst into the well with ropes so he could grab the child's hands. He grabbed the child's hand, and they slowly pulled him up.
But their hands were sweaty and slippery, and the child fell back down. He died.
“So it happened," Tossie says, “that 12 years later, a story appeared that astonished me. That very thin man was identified as Italy's fattest man.
“Over the years, his conscience had ridden him so much that he tried to eat himself to death."
It's 2008, and Oscar Pistorius is famous across the world. Oscar is popular among the Italians and has many friends and supporters there. The same year, his first biography by sports journalist Gianni Merlo is published: Dream Runner. In corsa per un sogno.
Umuzi Publishers approached Tossie and asked if she would translate the book. She didn't have a computer and had to translate it by hand.
“I lay on my bed and did the translation in pen. On Sundays, a friend came and typed it. I started in September, and a week before my December deadline I handed it in."
Tossie, who met Oscar several times, describes him as a friendly young man with an open face and a great love for his mother.
“There was little interest in the book because it wasn't marketed well," she says. “The newspapers didn't even mention that I translated it."
The irony is that Oscar, who is being set free, will once again receive publicity worldwide.
And who, from those who listened to Afrikaans radio back then, will forget her sign-off: “Tossie Lochner, Italië"?
Radio journalist Foeta Krige remembers
In 2004, when Foeta Krige was executive producer at Monitor and Spektrum, Lapa Uitgewers published a book with some of Tossie's radio stories that were broadcast on RSG over the years. Foeta wrote the foreword, which read along the lines of:
“RSG's news and current affairs programmes, Monitor and Spektrum, are respectively 25 and 10 years old this year. For the full lifespan of Spektrum, and for [most] of Monitor's existence, Tossie Lochner has been a part of these programmes.
“Programme editors and presenters have been replaced and journalists have come and gone. Contributors and foreign correspondents have appeared and then disappeared into oblivion.
“During this time, South Africa experienced a border war, a state of emergency was declared and a democracy was born, which is also celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. Monitor's jingles, chimes and broadcast times have changed.
“Spitstyd has made way for its younger sister, Spektrum. One thing, however, has never changed: the voice with the cheerful laughter in its tone that says, ‘Tossie Lochner, Italië'.
“Over the years, Tossie's stories and distinctive greeting have become part of Afrikaans news and current affairs. It's not at all odd to hear from complete strangers at a barbecue: ‘Oh, you work at Monitor with Tossie Lochner.'
“In a time when radio journalists are often accused of only broadcasting murder, manslaughter and sensational news, Tossie's stories, with her humorous and lighter approach, are just what is needed to liven up a programme. That's why we at Monitor and Spektrum will always say: ‘Viva, Tossie viva!'
“When I started working as an editor at Monitor in 1995, one of my daily tasks was to edit contributions from foreign correspondents. From Australia, there was Frikkie Maas, from Tel Aviv, Glenys Sugarman, and from Italy, there was Tossie Lochner."
“When we received a story from Tossie, we knew there was a tail-ender for the programme; a story with a healthy mix of human interest, humour and interesting facts.
“My colleague James Scholtz once drily remarked: ‘If a pigeon craps on the square in front of the Vatican, Tossie will find a story with a South African angle.' I think that was the secret to her winning recipe. She told stories that people could identify with.
“But all the years in isolation in Italy also took their toll on Tossie's use of Afrikaans and sometimes led to great merriment in the office. In December, when people go on vacation and news is scarce, we call it cucumber time (komkommertyd)."
“One December, Tossie sent a story and said, ‘This story is for watermelon time (waatlemoentyd).' And then talked about the man who was a ‘myth’ in his own time. We had to explain to her that a person is a legend in his own time. (It was only much later, when Hlaudi Motsoeneng appeared on the scene, that I realised a person can be a myth in their own time!)
“Tossie was always up for fun. One day, she sent a story about a man in the Tuscan village of Lucca who dragged his neighbours to court because their amorous tortoises kept him awake at night with the noise they made during sex. The magistrate found the neighbours not guilty, and Tossie explained it thus in her story:
“A biologist from the animal protection society explained to the press that the constant tapping of tortoise shells against each other during the mating approach is indeed quite noisy, but there are many other animals whose courtship involves much more noise — think of frogs. Tossie Lochner, Italië.’
“I was working late that evening when she sent the story and was tired, mischievous and a bit reckless. I deliberately cut out the word ‘frogs,' and the story that went on air the next morning just before seven sounded like this: ‘A biologist from the animal protection society explained to the press that the constant tapping of tortoise shells against each other during the mating approach is indeed quite noisy, but there are many other animals whose courtship involves much more noise— think of ... Tossie Lochner, Italië!'"
“Tossie nearly died of laughter when I later told the audience about it during the launch of her book."
- Here is an old TV interview with Tossie in Italy conducted by Amanda Strydom and Johan Allers.
- Pik Botha's “Corona-poem" forTossie in Italy.
- A radio interview with Tossie.
- Tossie Lochner looks back on her days as a sports reporter.
♦ VWB ♦
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