The big bulky man in the oversized red cap strolled down the aisles of Woolies. His cap, probably hiding his bald, shaved head, was emblazoned with the word Monster. Apt. It settled loosely on his lily white ears, almost like he was wearing some sort of designer potty (and I use the word designer loosely). His wife, or as she is probably known in these parts, his cherry walked ahead of him, piling fresh chicken after chicken into the trolley. After about seven bird carcasses, she looked to see if this was sufficient. He nodded his orange fake-tanned face in approval. Monster was happy with his protein selection for the week. As his synthol-filled biceps pushed the bird coffin along the aisle, another bulky man walked along, this time with no cherry by his side. His snug red T-shirt wrapped around his over-sized biceps and pecs. The fact that it was winter did not stop this man from showing off his very worked on physique. The cold was just another challenge his body must overcome.
Recognition occurred. Monster knew No Fear.
“Howzit my bru!” chirped orange face.
“Lekker boet. Howzit hanging your side?” said No Fear as he slapped his hand into Monster’s, before doing this boyish man-hug thing where pectoral could touch pectoral, but face couldn’t meet face. It was like it was rehearsed. Perhaps intrinsic. Cherry was not even acknowledged.
“Lekker, lekker. To the left and in a knot,” replied Monster.
They both guffawed and slapped each other’s hands again.
They stood there awkwardly.
“Cool, my bru. Lekker seeing you,” said No Fear, finally finding something to fill the gap.
“Lekker, Lekker.” Monster was a lot more prolific with his lekkers.
They parted ways heading for the next animal carcass they could find to add to their protein intake for the week.
I was in Benoni. My old hometown. The place of my birth. And the place I fled from as soon as I learnt to drive.
Deciding to go back to Benoni, this time with my journalist’s cap on (which hopefully is far better fitting than Monster’s), filled me with all sorts of emotions, even before we climbed into the Mini Cooper to venture onto the N12. I remembered that N12 well. Many days and nights were spent flying along at 120 kilometres per hour or more to hot spots far more exciting than those I could find on the East Rand. I never really felt like I fit in with my fellow Benonians. I wasn’t the beer drinking, soccer-playing type (soccer had an avid following in Benoni and was the only sport offered in the English schools in winter) so no one really understood this drama-loving, novel-reading boy from Benoni. Hence my need to escape. I would head onto the N12, in my clapped out yellow Opel Kadett, feeling freer and freer as I passed the Rietfontein, Jet Park and Gilloolies interchanges. While my Benoni counterparts were klapping back the beers watching Benoni Northerns moer Old Bens at the soccer fields, I was at Rosebank sitting in a darkened cinema by myself, watching a movie with subtitles. As soon as I could, I packed up my yellow skadonk and hit the highway to move from this city with a small town mentality permanently.
Now I was returning. Surely there must be more to this city than gym bunnies and the beer drinking soccer boys I ran from in my youth. Surely there must be a charm, an allure and an energy I somehow missed when I was growing up. After all, most of the people I went to school with were still living in Benoni. I know this thanks to Facebook – I was greeted with much excitement by the girls I reached puberty with in a little school named Tom Newby Primary School. The name rings a bell you say? Why yes, it was the primary school featured in the You magazine all thanks to a Benoni swimmer who became a princess. Charlene Wittstock of Monaco fame. Or Prince Grace Junior to some. She too walked the corridors of the school I called mine, but made it far more famous than I. After my stop at Woolies for some protein inspiration, I decided to head back to the Mini Cooper to see my old school.
I suppose I need to avoid the cliché and not say it appeared smaller than I remember, but it really did! I remember expansive fields where we spent our break time playing marbles (one of the few sports I allowed myself) or I hid while the boys played ghastly things like cricket or, I shudder as I type, soccer. The fields were enormous and running across them left us red-faced, and huffing and puffing as we ambled the long path back to class. Looking now I see it was about twenty metres, but my legs were a lot shorter back then.
The grey corridor floors and red facebrick walls perpendicular to them are still the same. Surprisingly the poles lining the corridors, propping up the extended roof, brought back many memories. Somehow the idea of keeping one hand attached to the pole while I ran round and round in circles for what felt like hours was a highlight of my primary school time. As was playing ‘scoot’ with the girls. This highly strategic game that we proudly developed ourselves required us to each own a pole. When someone ran up to us and yelled scoot we had to run to another pool and yell scoot to kick the other person off their pole. They then had to do the same. Then the same. Then the same
The poles are now painted royal blue. I can’t remember what colour they were but I suspect they required this royal touch up to hide the scuff marks from years of unending scoot matches.
I stopped at Mrs Schwenk’s class. She was my Standard Two teacher and was the strictest educator in the school. I recall her walking along the corridor outside her class, where I now stood, slapping all of our bare thighs with her red nail painted hand as we stood in a row, because someone had been speaking in line. Yet I loved her. I can’t recall why, but somehow I know that she shaped me. I remember her telling me I was good at things, and because she took no shit, I believed her.
Other teachers came to mind. The media centre teacher who was single but had a daughter – the talk of the town! The deputy principal, who walked to the beat of her own drum, and made me fall in love with art and theatre. The elderly maths teacher who smelt of cigarette smoke. The Greek principal with the Magnum moustache, and the rugged good looks. Somehow here I did fit in. In this little old primary school that now had a princess to its name.
As I walked along the grey corridors I reached the school hall. Tiny. Yet I remember it as this massive auditorium with its pine sprung floors that we crammed into each week for assembly. The stage where I made my theatrical debut. Good times. And above that, the school badge, blue and green and rather amateur, and its Latin lotto hung on the wall below the ceiling. Conabor. I will try. I decided to head off before I started to see if I could remember the school anthem.
Benoni isn’t just famous for its Monaco princess. You may have heard of its number one attraction? You have. The mine dump is famous then! The Table Mountain of Gauteng, Benoni’s mine dump is the stuff of legends. The city was born out of its gold-filled land, with many heading to the town to find their wealth and live the dream. The grey mine dump bears testimony to a time of hope and wealth, when Benoni was the jewel of the Transvaal East Rand. Heading to the dump now I was surprised to see that the most iconic cliff face was different to what I remember. Like a virus has attacked it, the mine dump is shrivelling away, half the length it used to be, but still a massive presence. The dump is being reclaimed. Small particles of gold and other precious metals still lie in this dumped soil and bit-by-bit the dump is being sifted through to reclaim these bits of treasure.
Yet for us young Benonians the mine dump never held the prospect of gold. We stayed away from the mine dump. Our parents told us that the sand could shift and swallow us up whole if we set foot on its precarious surface. Tales of dead young people lost below the soil were told with glee as soon as any mention of exploring the mine dump was made. The only people who ever set foot on the mine dump (and survived) were the town Satanists.
The Benoni Satanists were well known amongst us. Not that any of us knew a Satanist, but we all knew the Satanists were after our pets or our chewing gum (I now realise this was a clever way the teachers got us to stop sticking our gum under our desks). They would sacrifice our pets to the Lord of Darkness in an attempt to show their evil ownership of the city. I don’t think we ever knew why our chewing gum was to be used, but I vaguely recall it having something to do with being able to track our DNA. Churches even preached about the need to “take back Benoni for Jesus.” For too long it had been under the curse of the Satanists.
I heard terrifying stories about the drugs they put in the Coke in the Northmead Mall Wimpy or the razor blades carefully inserted and hidden to slice you if you used the slides in Trim Park. Whether these were stories created by terrified parents who were desperate to keep us indoors or if there was any truth in it is beyond me. All I know is that they remain stories until I see proof.
In a later conversation with a fellow ex-Benonian, she said that the disappearing mine dump is symbolic of the city. As the mine dump’s size has declined over the years, so has the city declined. The clean, well-run town I once lived in seems more desolate, dirtier and tired than I remembered. Driving through the CBD I see buildings in desperate need of repair and paint. TLC as the décor experts would put it. This is a city centre that has been forgotten as businesses have moved to the suburbs or malls, and spaza shops, Adult Worlds and fast food joints dominate the stores that are occupied.
The city library was where I spent many happy childhood moments. Here I discovered books that I devoured. Shock as I discovered the Jewish holocaust in I Am David, escape in the hours spent rereading The Happy Prince and The Snow Goose, and let’s just say, it was a life changing moment when I discovered What Every Boy Should Know. Now the old city library is as I remember it, just dirtier, grey and tired, like an old person head down, shoulders deflated in defeat. The civic centre is a typical government department – busy, manky, smelly and over-crowded. The city hall (or town hall as I knew it), once the pride and joy of the city centre, and home to some of the most prestigious events on the East Rand is no longer the white pristine building in my memory. The peeled paint shows the building’s age and the clock in its steeple is stuck. Not moving from 10.20. Just like the clock, the city seems stuck, no longer able to define itself by its hope, its wealth or its potential. It’s a city that seems caught between the so-called new and old South Africa. Not knowing how to evolve and emerge as a South African city. Perhaps not allowed to.
Standing in front of the dilapidated city hall, I can’t help but think of the city’s name. Benoni. A biblical name, but one you might miss. Originally the name given to Benjamin, brother of Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat fame. Benoni means ‘son of my sorrow’, and I sense that sorrow. The sad city hall, and the buildings running in the streets along it seem to be sighing. Or perhaps that was just me.
It was time to liven up things and see another icon of Benoni. This is probably what I know Benoni best for. Let me rephrase that, what I know people not from Benoni knew the town for. The, shall I call it infamous, bunny park. Every Benoni child has been to the bunny park. It’s a kind of rite of passage. You’re not really a man or a woman if you haven’t held a carrot to the ground and watched some little rabbit thumper its way over to you to have a gnaw. As a young primary school pupil you wouldn’t fit in if you couldn’t swap war stories. Tales of man-chasing goats, and possessed cows after your bunny’s carrots abounded in the playground, with some stories mentioning actual bites and tears. The guinea pigs were also not to be trusted, even though they were caged and hidden in a grotesque stone castle, refusing to come out no matter how long you sat there with your carrot dangling through the wire fence to lure them. I was pleased to note that the park was still there. Those same turnstiles were still there. The same turnstiles that I would run through excitedly, ignoring my mom’s screams to stop running and to wait for her. You could still buy carrots there, tired looking things, but a feast for the creatures waiting to hop to you. And hop they did. I thought there may be less bunnies, but I think breeding is something rabbits do well, so they were en masse. The hard clay ground looked much like the roads in the city – pothole-like bunny burrows were dotted around, making the ground look like a block of Emmental cheese. I was more concerned about potentially twisting my ankle than looking for a bunny, and I certainly admired the children who had their hands in the holes – I wasn’t sure what could be lurking beneath the soil.
It was all the same. Just tired. Jaded and run-down. No longer the amusement park of delight I remembered. Perhaps I was now the jaded one and no longer saw it with child-like amazement. I’ll never know, but I still walked away sad.
Perhaps thinking of the Oscar-winning Hollywood blonde bombshell who came from Benoni would make things a bit more enjoyable. I often tell the story of seeing Charlize Theron when we still pronounced here name Charlize T’ron (be sure to roll the ‘r’). She had won a model of the year competition and was featured in some big magazine. I found this out by reading our very own newspaper – the Benoni City Times. My dad called it the Benoni Shitty Times, and we would all laugh when he said it, but deep down we all waited for it. We all wanted to see who was in it, or, even better, if we were in it, and the specials at Checkers at the Northmead Mall of course. Charlize was in there and I knew she went to a school near me. I’m sure it was her walking past my house on the way to school with her hair tied back, a dirty blonde with curls cascading from where her elastic freed her hair. She was in her school uniform. I knew it was her. Being in the Shitty Times was a big thing for us town-minded people so it was like I had seen a star. I can now say that I had. She of course never even looked my way. But that’s irrelevant. I was the one with the story.
Charlize, probably Benoni’s best export flies the Benoni flag high, and gave us Benonians a reason to stop lying about where we lived or came from. For years I would claim to live just outside Johannesburg, and if pushed would lie and say I lived in Bedfordview. It was still in the East Rand so not a complete fib. I was usually introduced by out-of-Benoni-town friends like this: “Hi. This is Clive. He’s from Benoni, but he’s very nice.” I would laugh, so would they, usually louder than I did. Now I could say Charlize came from the city too. I was cool by association. We may not be, but us Benonians will hang onto this possibility for as long as we can.
I never stayed long enough to try the restaurants or see the interior of the grotesque New Orleans ship that never sailed type shopping complex called the Lakeside Mall. I never ventured further than the CBD. There was nothing more for me here. I will never escape Benoni, and perhaps therein lies my sadness. The sadness of family no longer with us. The memories of times best forgotten. A childhood misunderstood. A boy who will always remain just that – a boy from Benoni.