The Man in the Shebeen



(follows on the previous four posts)

Gertruida maintains – and she’s absolutely convinced she is right – that South Africa’s lasting contribution to the world of culture, is the magic you only find in our shebeens. Here you’ll find pantsula, kwaito, jazz and fistfights. Orators sweep up the population here, affairs are born (and die) in these bars. Singers and musicians take their first steps to fame under these corrugated iron roofs. Take Madison Garden, West End and Caesar’s Palace, roll them in one, and you have a shebeen. Yes, we do gamble here as well. And drink. A lot…

When the taxi shudders to a stop in front of Mama Sarah’s, Diksarel isn’t in the mood to contemplate the wisdom of Gertruida’s words. He is in a state of panic. The place looks…threatening.

He has a lot on his mind. The fraud Kneehigh seduced him into. The cancelled trip to his wildest fantasy. The disappointment of Kneehigh’s treachery. A massive guilty conscience. And now, on top of it all, the wild ride in the taxi and the prospect of more catastrophe to come as he gets out of the rickety vehicle to enter the tin shack housing the shebeen run by Mama Sarah.

“Go in.” Is there a commanding note to the taxi driver’s voice? Almost like the officer ordering the men to take aim at the blindfolded man against the wall? A shiver runs down Diksarel’s spine.

The shebeen is packed. When Diksarel steps – hesitantly and oh, so afraid – into the shack, the music and the drone of conversation ceases immediately. Many pairs of eyes (most of them bleary and bloodshot) turn to him. A white man? Here? Dressed like that?

But then Mama Sarah – a huge woman with a moon-face and an absolutely charming smile – comes to his rescue.

“And who did you bring today?” She asks the taxi driver.

“Eish, Mama, this man is in trouble. Money. Police. I thought you might want to talk to him. You know? With my usual commission at the end, of course.”

Mama Sarah finds this so funny, she has to sit down while she laughs.

By this time, Diksarel knows: he is being punished for his dishonesty. Sin begets sin. Wrong will create more wrong. And he, Diksarel, can only blame himself. These men and women are going to make him pay. Already his little suitcase seems to be missing…

“Come, White Man, let’s go somewhere quiet. Let me hear your story.” Mama Sarah wipes the tears from her eyes while still chuckling. Then she leads him to the back, where she has a tiny office. As she closes the door, Diksarel hears the music and the hum of voices resuming in the shebeen. The customers have a lot to talk about.


Mama Sarah wants to know it all. If Diksarel was more aware of her technique, he would have said she’s an expert interrogator. But, naturally, his mind is in such a turmoil that he simply cannot think of anything else than simply getting out of there. Almost without him realising it, he tells Mama Sarah everything.


His youth. His mother leaving the house after his father’s affair in the location. The boring job at Mister Shewell’s, the fraud of RD+P and, of course, the story of the beautiful Kneehigh – the girl who led him so willingly astray.

“Interesting.” Mama Sarah stares at Diksarel for a long minute. “Now, tell me about your father again?”

Damn! Did he have to tell her about his father, the agent of the Bureau of State Security? Why did he do it? If Mama Sarah heard about how his father was an Apartheid agent, he can forget about surviving this ordeal.

“I…I’d rather not, Mama.” He seems to shrink in the wobbly chair she’d given him. Eventually, forcing his eyes upwards, he looks straight at her. “I’m ashamed.”

That much is true. His father’s affair – and his job – have ruined his life. At first it was the shame of the white-man-black-woman situation. Back then, society frowned upon such a union with such severity, that Diksarel was included in their rejection. Later, when the New South Africa dawned, people suddenly distanced themselves from anybody who had anything to do with BOSS or any of the other organs of the Nationalist’s regime. On both counts, Diksarel was cast out of society with a finality that made him the recluse he has turned into.

“It’s okay, boy.” It’s the first time a woman of colour called him ‘boy’. and Diksarel finds himself smiling despite the circumstances. “But tell me. I’m interested. It’s important.”

So Diksarel tells her. All of it. The way his father disappeared at night. The rumours of his visits to the location. The terrible confrontation between his mother and father after the gossip of his affair could not be ignored any longer. His mother leaving. His father’s escape to alcohol and his eventual death as a frail and demented skeleton.

“You telling me the truth, boy?”

“Yes.” Defeated, he stares at his sandals. He was supposed to walk on pearly white beaches with these sandals. Him…and Kneehigh.

“You wait here.” Mama Sarah gets up slowly, obviously deep in thought. At the door, she turns. “I want you to tell your story to somebody. It’ll take time. I’ll send in some food.” A thought strikes her. “Oh, and don’t try to leave. It’s not safe out there.”

Out there? Out where? Diksarel has no idea of where he is. He’s lost his suitcase. In his pocket he still has an aeroplane ticket for a flight that has long since departed.

“I’m screwed,” he tells the closed door…

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