Siena was quite someone to look at, Servaas says. Young, vivacious, fun-loving. She used to dress to please – and to tease. That is, until Servasie got born, then everything changed. But before that, she was – according to the old man – as hot as Durban’s Burn-in-Hell curry.
“She had this body, see…ab-so-lute-ly fabulous. When I was elected as elder in the church, I packed those photos away in the old trunk and locked it. She was sexy…” Servaas has that faraway look Vrede gets when you take the biltong away. “But I still have them. Yes sir, I do.”
“So you had a nice wedding?” Gertruida wants to keep the conversation going. It’s been rather quiet in Rolbos lately.
“The wedding was traditional. Parents, grandparents, nephews and nieces. But afterwards we went to Durban. It was the first time I saw the sea. That was great, except I almost drowned there…”
December, Durban, 1963.
In July the top structure of the ANC had been arrested at Liliesfield, and in November the Rivonia Trial began. Nelson Mandela was still mostly an unknown name and the various boycotts against the Nationalist regime had not bitten into the livelihood of average citizens yet.
Despite the looming decline of the social structure, the economy and the eventual reversal of political balances, South Africa was still steaming ahead, believing in the principle that different cultures should be encouraged to maintain their identities. Of course, Servaas says, that was wrong. It’s far better to throw everybody together and start from scratch: “…but being a Rainbow Nation is hard. There are just too many hues…”
Servaas knew little about the bigger picture. He was on honeymoon with Siena and the Marine Sands Hotel offered luxury beyond his wildest dreams. A double bed, radio and even room service… Wow! Imagine reclining in your bed and ordering toasted sandwiches and milkshakes!
Finally, on day four of their honeymoon, the two of them agreed to visit the beach. The sea had been calling them since their arrival – and surely they had to have at least one little dip in the ocean before returning to the Kalahari? Siena put on her lace-trimmed bathing suit, had to undress, and put it on again before they made it to the lift.
Of course the lift was a treat. The uniformed man asked where they were going, despite the towels and bathing suits. He pressed ‘G’ and the cables and wheels whirred and clanked to deposit them on ground floor.
“Ground Floor. All out.” the man announced and ushered them into the foyer. Siena was shy, but soon realised that she was slightly overdressed. Bikinis were starting to become fashionable and the younger girls seemed unconcerned to display their various anatomical attributes in public. Siena, in her one-piece and gown, felt a little better after noting this.
Despite the fact that the beach was right across the road, Servaas decided to be extravagant and hired a rickshaw to take them on a block-long roundabout trip back to where they started. They got off, he paid the exorbitant 75c and walked to the seaside opposite to the hotel.
This was a beach reserved for Whites Only, of course, so they were safe there. The Indian vendor with the rubberised floating mattresses caught Servass’s eye, but it was only later – when they were relaxing under the umbrella – that Servaas started watching the daring antics of the body-surfers.
At the beach, Servaas paid 50c for an umbrella for the day and they spread their towels in the shade. No, Siena wouldn’t like to swim, thank you. There are sharks out there… But…Servaas, young and adventurous, thought differently – although there was no way he could stay above the surface of the water. In the Kalahari, swimming isn’t big. In fact, it isn’t at all.
To cut a long story short: Servaas made it to the water. He managed to get past the waves. And there, where the sea is flat and only the waves-to-be rocked his little floating mattress, Servaas relaxed while he marvelled at the soothing rhythm of the sea.
The shouting lifeguard on the beach made no impression on Servaas – he simply couldn’t hear the man. So, while he drifted deeper and deeper into the ocean, carried along on the gentle current, Servaas tasted the salty water, felt the sun on his face and told himself that Life is, indeed, sweet.
By the time he noticed he was in trouble, he had travelled about a mile from the little umbrella where Siena was reading Die Brandwag. He could barely make out the shore. Their hotel? Where is the hotel?
He started paddling towards the beach. He was young and fit and strong, which helped. It must have taken an hour, but eventually he beached: amongst bathers who sported skins darkened not by the sun, but by the amount of pigment they inherited from their parents. Servaas, White citizen, found himself on a Non-Whites-Only beach…
“I didn’t know what to do. A policeman was shouting at me while the other people on the beach thought it was hilarious. Eventually I made it back to Siena, who gave me quite a lot of lip because I stayed away for so long.”
“Were you scared, Servaas?” Precilla wonders what it must have felt like, back then in 1963, to be surrounded by so many Blacks.
“They were laughing at me. I didn’t belong there, I couldn’t swim, I was exhausted…and I was lost. They laughed at the White man who ended up on their beach….No, I wasn’t scared. I felt humiliated.”
“Ja, Servaas. I understand. I think we all understand. In fact, with Black Economic Empowerment, redistribution of land, an inept and corrupt government and the masses that have to resort to crime in order to survive, I think there’s not a single person in the country who doesn’t understand. And, mind you, it isn’t only the political situation: we drifted away from the church, which seems to be arguing about worldly issues so much that we can hardly recognise God any more. Also: family values are dying; today the people in bigger places like Prieska don’t care so much any longer. Individual survival is the motto of the day. People are all desperately trying to reach the beach – any beach – just to feel solid ground under their feet once more.” Gertruida sighs as she signals for another beer. “And now we’ve all ended up on the wrong beach, that’s all…”
1963. 2013. Nothing has changed. Only: the colours are darker.