South Africa

Dear Mr Mandela

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Dear Mr Mandela

You left us a year ago today, and like the rest of the world I was immensely sad at your passing. I was sad for many reasons, among them that we would only refer to your legacy and history, and as the powerful man who changed the shape of the world I lived in. I was sad because somehow we hoped you would live forever – because you represented hope and at times we look at the shape of our country and struggle to find that smiling face of hope. I was also sad that I never got to meet you. That I wasn’t one of those fortunate souls that got to shake your hand, to hear your instantly recognisable voice in person, and maybe get to share a few words with you. Even if they were just about the weather. I’m sad because I couldn’t thank you in person for changing my life.

You see, I grew up as a child in the apartheid era. I didn’t know what apartheid was but I was aware that something was going on. I remember being stopped by two women (who were a tad intoxicated) as I walked to the shop to fetch bread for the family. I was six years old and walking through the streets by myself; not an uncommon thing in the early 1980s. The two women stopped me and slapped me. They said I was one of ‘them’. I ran off as fast as I could. That was my first experience of knowing that I was part of something that was making other people angry. Black people specifically.

I can vaguely remember benches that said “Whites Only” but I don’t ever recall seeking them out or sitting on them. I just recall being a child in a small suburb that was being raised by Selina. She may not have lived with us, but she was my other mom. I didn’t know that I was part of a cog that was denying her the opportunity I was receiving.

I never went to school with people from other races. In fact I remember when two Chinese children came to our primary school, we were all called into an assembly to be told that they were going to be part of the school, and although they couldn’t speak English, they were white. I had no idea why that mattered, but simply accepted that it did. That was the devastating side of apartheid – we didn’t know why it mattered, but accepted that it did.

My ignorance changed when I went to high school and was taught by an English teacher who had been detained for his anti-apartheid activities and vocal support of the ANC. I started to realise that something more was going on, and that perhaps it wasn’t as peaceful as I assumed. I knew nothing about the violence in the townships, or the horrors going on in our detention cells and the letter bombs being manufactured and sent from Jan Smuts airport. Like a dull ache progresses to a pain more urgent, I slowly became more and more aware that I was living in a country where I was being lied to and sheltered from the atrocities my white counterparts were committing. My elders. My government.

I went to the Market Theatre in 1988 and saw a play that changed my life called ‘Vid Alex’. It was a one man play about a man who recounts what he has had to do to protect his country against the black uprising. He told stories of midnight raids of homes, dragging half-naked men out of their beds to be detained and beaten. He breaks down in tears in the last part of the monologue as he remembers shooting a child, and wondering how he had lost any sense of humanity and mercy. I don’t remember all of it but I remember walking out in shock.

It was just before this time that I first heard your name Mr Mandela. Stevie Wonder had dedicated a song to you and we were no longer allowed to listen to it or own it. Or even see Stevie Wonder on TV. There was outcry when a ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ poster was spotted in one of the children’s rooms in The Cosby Show. Luckily the programme never got banned, but that was usually the government’s knee jerk response. Anything that acknowledged you was usually banned. We were told (I’m not sure by who) that you were a dangerous terrorist that was determined to kill white people and that if you were ever freed, our country would turn into another Zimbabwe – a country run by a government that was giving white people a few days to leave the country before threatening them with violent eviction. We were scared of you Mr Mandela. As a young teenager, I was petrified that you may be freed and hurt us. Imagine my surprise as I began to hear stories about the hurt we were causing you and other black people. I can’t say I did anything about it as a young teenager but I do remember being angered. And imagine my surprise when I saw the smiling man waving alongside Winnie as you walked your first few steps to freedom.

After turning 16 I remember signing petitions against apartheid and forced conscription to the army, and being shouted at by family members when I told them – this meant I could be arrested. That strange military men could rock up at my family’s doorstep and arrest me for treason-like activity. They had my name and address. I could be on some sort of list. I was one of those who then backed down Mr Mandela. I was scared by what my government could do to me. A lot of us were. And perhaps that makes us cowards.

The day you were freed signaled a new start to all of us. We sat in front of our TVs and watched you walk slowly along, waving, triumphantly raising your fist in the air. The violent terrorist of my past emerged as a dignified man, dressed in a suit, with a warm smile for all of us. A smile that never stopped. A smile that won us all over.

Behind that smile was a strong leader that shielded us from so much heart ache. Heart ache for a past that hurt so many, all races, all South Africans, and that could have seen us tear each other apart. We miss having a strong leader Mr Mandela. Perhaps that’s why on a day like today we miss you so much more than we should. We need the hope you gave us, the confidence you inspired, and the desire to see a country united and moving forward with the best interests of all its people at heart. We miss a man with that vision in charge.

Mr Mandela, you changed my world. You changed a country from white to black. You changed a country from war to a semblance of peace. You led me out of a country that had me confused and part of hurt, and made me part of a country that had hope and was a shining example to the rest of the world. You initiated a constitution that removed discrimination, and as a gay man, I benefited from your leadership. I now live in a country where I can be married and have rights others in many other countries are denied.

So today as we remember your legacy, and stand in silence to remember you, I wanted to send you a few words. To show how far we’ve come. And to remember the past you led us out of. I don’t think we always remember where we were, and remember how grateful we must be for where we are.

For your leadership. Your words. Your energy. Your life.

Thank you.

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Lost and Found – a story about adoption in South Africa

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I have a sister and a brother. But I had only known my brother. For as long as I could remember I knew my older sister was out there and that my mother had been forced to give her up. At a young age I knew having a baby before you got married was bad. Punishable. A sin. And meant a life of regret. That’s how it seemed at least.
 

Mom would drive through the streets looking for her. Looking at the face of each young girl as they emerged from school, with their smart school blazers, long skirts and socks up to their knees. Each little girl represented hope. Hope that she would find the young girl seven years older than the youngest boy in the back seat of the tiny blue Fiat with dog hair filling the rips in the pleather seats.

She would drive in silence. Scanning the streets of each suburb. Looking. Slowing down every time she neared a girl around 12 with dark hair. I wasn’t sure what she was expecting. Or what would happen if she found her. How she would even know. I never knew because I didn’t really know why she was looking. Perhaps looking made her feel less aggrieved, less guilty for abandoning the daughter she clearly still loved and longed for. Maybe looking made her feel better, and gave her hope in a situation she had always seen as hopeless. So I never complained when my mom piled my brother Wayne and I into the Fiat to go on one of our searches.

I never really knew what drove my mom to that ultimate point. I still don’t understand what made her take her own life. Why ingesting lethal doses of sleeping tablets and tranquilisers seemed like a more viable option than living. Living to see me grow older. Why I wasn’t enough. Yet, I knew that giving up Deborah – the name given to my unknown sister at birth – was traumatic for her. It was one of the many demons that haunted my mom, forcing her to disappear.

At the age of eight, in 1981, saying goodbye to my mom at a pauper’s funeral where it was acknowledged how sad it was that her suicide meant she would never see heaven, I secretly promised her that I would find the child she so longed to meet. I would tell Deborah how loved she was. How she was longed for. How I wished she had been a part of our lives. That she wasn’t just one of my mother’s many sins.

 

Andrea had always known she was adopted. She can’t remember how she was told, she just always knew. “Initially I didn’t understand what it really meant, but I knew the word ‘adopted’ made me different to other children, and I didn’t like that,” she says quietly.

Andrea was adopted by a couple living in Boksburg in 1965. They adopted a sister Karen two years later. Surprisingly, the topic of adoption was a taboo subject in their home. Perhaps speaking about it would raise too many questions for the adoptive parents to answer. And perchance their children would begin a search to find the mother or father who hadn’t chosen to love their children.

While she was forced to remain silent, Andrea had a million questions about being adopted. The burning question – where did I come from? “As an adopted child I was very conscious that I didn’t look like anyone else in the family. People used to comment on it, and I used to hate it. I kept feeling that if I could go back where I really came from, I would be happy. I kept wanting to be fetched,” she says. Looking down at her hands while trying to get the words out, or right, she adds, “Although my adoptive family were the only family I had ever known, I always felt like I wasn’t really a part of it; that I was watching my life from outside of myself and that one day I would be ‘rescued’ and taken ‘home’.”

Images of orphan Annie sitting on the ledge of her window singing a prayer for her parents to fetch her may offer a romanticised version of a child longing for her birth family, Andrea’s experience of being adopted represents an internal battle of a child in turmoil. A dichotomous inferno of feeling grateful for parents who chose her to love, raging against a burning desire to know where she came from, who she looked like and the deep seated desire to understand why she was rejected. “In theory, adoption is ideal. On one hand you have a family who want a child, and on the other hand you have a child that needs a family, so logically it should be a match made in heaven. But it’s not. The reality is that you can’t transplant a baby from one mother to another and think that life goes on as normal for everyone, because it doesn’t. On some cellular level that baby knows that something is different. And every adopted child I have ever spoken to has battled with feelings of alienation, displacement, a fear of being different and issues of abandonment. I am nearly 50, and I still fight those same battles every day.”

Anys Rossouw, a Pretoria-based psychologist says in an article about adoption that the feelings of disconnectedness and abandonment are not unusual for an adopted child, “This is why so many adopted children think about finding their birth parents. And not necessarily because of a bad relationship with their adopted parents. They just want to know: where do I come from.” She also explains why adopted parents sometimes feel betrayed by hearing their child wants to know about their birth parents. “These parents have often waited a long time for a child, have been excited, prayed, planned and been through a large number of processes. For so many parents, the child is a miracle and a dream come true. When the child decides to find his or her birth parents, it’s often difficult for the adopted parents and they experience a range of emotions, insecurities and fears,” Anys adds.

Andrea did try to find her birth parents in the late 1980s but the adoption files had just been opened (the Child Care Act 74 of 1983, which regulates adoptions in South Africa, made information more available for children to be reconnected with their birth parents). Andrea’s experience was a frustrating one though. “The process was so long and complicated, and the adoptions agency in Pretoria were not keen to give info to an adopted child. Initially it was to be for birth mothers only. I also knew very little. I knew the hospital I was born in and my birth date, but that was it. I was too scared to ask my adoptive mother as she saw my curiosity as a sign that she wasn’t good enough as a mother. It was very difficult. ”

“The adoptive parents are often very afraid,” explains Anys. “They are afraid of rejection and that the child will choose to bond with their biological family and not love them any more. They can also feel that the adopted child is not demonstrating loyalty or appreciating what they did for them for so many years. They are angry that they have done all the hard work raising the child and now someone else might simply step in and ‘steal’ them.”

Andrea was acutely aware of her mother’s feelings about her curiosity regarding her birth family. Her mother actively discouraged her search for her birth parents and shortly after starting the process, Andrea gave up. She never tried to look for her birth family again.

 

I would lie in bed and wonder what she was doing. If she looked like me. If she was even still alive. I would imagine what she’d look like. Dark brown hair like my mom’s, with blue piercing eyes? Maybe she would even have the same small beauty spot on the left side of her face that my mom had. Maybe that would help me find her. Or maybe she looked like her dad. We never knew who he was. My mom never spoke of him. To me at least. All I knew was that he hurt her, abandoned her and left her to face the wrath of a staunchly Catholic family who saw her pregnancy as an embarrassment to all.

I wished I could find Deborah. I had no idea when or where she was born. I knew it was in the mid-1960s and that was all. And I had my mom’s name. How would I even start?

A friend, the only person I knew who had been adopted, had tried to find her birth mother and discovered she had died fourteen years earlier. She was devastated. She told me she always used to think that on her birthday her birth mother had to be thinking of her. And now she knew for the last fourteen years, since 1986, she had been deluding herself. I thought of the sister I had lost and what might happen if she discovered our mom was dead. Had been for the last 19 years. I didn’t want her to think she hadn’t been thought of.

I called the Registrar of Adoptions in Pretoria and spoke to Mrs Wenstra. I explained about my sister, my mom, and how she longed to meet her. Mrs Wenstra told me that she could only give the information to a birth parent. After a while she gave in, perhaps sensing the honesty of my plea, and said I could write her a letter with the details I knew and fax them to her. She would then see if she could pull anything up in the records and would give me call. I wrote the letter, dated 12 September 2000, and faxed it to Pretoria.

The following day, I was surprised to hear Mrs Wenstra’s voice on the line when the call was put through to me. She had information, and had in fact found my sister. She allowed me to ask a few questions, but would only reveal what she could. My mind raced. After years of so many questions I suddenly had none. I asked when she was born. 14 September 1965. The next day. The same day as my brother. I would later find out that my mom would always give him a special extra gift on his birthday at 3pm. He never knew why.

I asked what her name was now.

Andrea.

 

She recalls the day she was found like it was yesterday. “I remember my mother phoning me at work the day after my birthday, telling me I needed to sit down as she had had a phone call from the Registrar of Adoptions. I had two brothers that were looking for me. She said that my birth mother was dead, but the youngest of my brothers was trying to find me,” Andrea says with a slight smile on her face.

She was surprised her adopted mother had shared the information, finding out only later how much she had grappled with whether she should or not. “She gave me the lady’s phone number and said I could contact her if I wanted to. She said it was her duty to give me the information, and it was up to me what I did about it. She said that she wasn’t comfortable with it and if I did get in touch with my brothers then she wanted no part of it.”

Trembling, Andrea headed to a coffee shop near where she worked to take in the news. Was her fairy tale of being found really coming true? After pulling herself together she called Mrs Wenstra at the Registrar. “She asked me lots of questions about my background and told me a bit about my birth family. She said she had a letter from my youngest brother and that he sounded like a really genuine young man, so she decided to take a chance on this case and put us in touch. She faxed me a copy of the letter and I remember that I read and reread it over and over and over again. It felt unreal. I was so happy that my family ‘wanted’ me.”

 

She responded to my letter. Photos dropped out as I unfolded the pages. Computer printouts, pixelated, but clear enough to see the immediate resemblance between her and I. And our mom. Long dark brown hair framed her round face. Her eyes were darker than I expected. But she was definitely my mother’s child. And my sister. I trembled as I held the photograph, not sure how to take in the face before me. I felt an immediate love for a stranger I knew nothing about. Blood. Mine.

 Nephews. There were photos of my nephews. Two young, beautiful blonde boys, snapped while sitting in the kitchen sink, smiling mischievously. Their names and ages were written on the back: Christopher (4) and Matthew (2). Good Catholic names that would have made their grandmother proud. If only she could have met them. 

 The letter was dated 26 September 2000, a mere 13 days after I began the search. I held my breath as I read the first words Andrea had penned, breathing life into this person I had dreamed about finding for so long.

“Well, if somebody had told me a month ago that I would be writing a letter to one of my brothers I never would have believed them… but here we are. I feel I have lived a lifetime in the last two weeks with emotions ranging from shock to disbelief to excitement. Somewhere in each adopted child is the wish to find or to be found and yet it so seldom happens. As far as difficult letters go, ours to each other must rate top scores.”

 I cried as I read the first lines. I was experiencing the same shock, disbelief and excitement. When she wrote about my mom, our mom, I struggled to keep my emotions in check. I was overwhelmed by the thought of finding my sister. In the same breath, I was acutely feeling the loss of my mother and feeling the need to mourn all over again.

 “I have wondered on and off through the years about my birth mother and whether or not I had any siblings. I would like to know as much about her as possible. I was very sad to hear she had died. There is so much I would have been able to tell her, and maybe it would have been able to put her mind at ease to some degree and let her know that I am happy, and she needn’t have worried.”

 I’m not sure I had ever longed to have Mom alive so she could hear those words. They would have healed her. And perhaps made her more alive.

 

She mentions the first letter she received from her brother with grin on her face, “It still makes me cry when I read it, which why I don’t. The letter is locked away with other documents for safekeeping.” With her youngest brother living in Cape Town, communication first took place via email and then over the phone.

“What really comes to mind is my first conversation with my youngest brother. He emailed me pictures of Mom and I was actually able to see her for the very first time. He sat in Cape Town and I was in Jo’burg crying into the phone as I opened the pictures one by one while he spoke me through them. There is one where she looks so much like me I thought for a mad minute that it was me.”

 

I was desperate to meet her. Being able to chat over the phone wasn’t enough. I had a picture but still no real person to put to the soft voice and the surprisingly loud laugh that sometimes emerged. Our conversations were long. Emotional. I always fought back tears. Wanted her to know how excited I am without placing any pressure on her or assuming some kind of relationship that could be deemed inappropriate for strangers.

 Living in the other side of the country was frustrating. For the first time in many years I was desperate to head home, back to Johannesburg to meet her.

 

Andrea and her youngest brother got to meet in the flesh three months later. They were both on holiday on the KwaZulu-Natal coast and decided to meet halfway between their holiday homes.

“We met at the Steers in Ballito, can you believe?” says Andrea. This was the only landmark they both knew. “It was so weird because we’d been talking and emailing up a storm, and suddenly it was going to be face-to-face. It never crossed my mind that we wouldn’t get on – and I was just so excited to finally meet him. I remember hearing him before I saw him – this excited scream as he came rushing through the door. And lots of hugs. It was just so amazing.”

 

I stood outside the entrance to the Steers for what felt like an eternity. I was so excited, but surprisingly petrified. What if she didn’t like me? What if I didn’t like her? What if she was nothing like Mom? She was already there. I could see her through the entrance. I couldn’t see her face, but I knew it was her. My sister.

 I took a deep breath and ran in. I remember seeing her face for the first time and recognising that same mix of delight and fear, like a blind date no one else has really ever experienced. Where you know that you love this person, but don’t really understand why.

 She stood up and threw her arms around me, and we hugged. A lot. And then we sat down, with flabbergasted customers and waitresses looking at us strangely. We sat down and for what felt like a lifetime, we just looked at each other. There was much to say, yet in that moment silence was appropriate. She was there. Years of searching, driving, praying and pondering was sitting in front of me.

 “We were both trying to talk at the same time. I was vaguely aware of people just watching us, and the staff standing with their mouths hanging open. I found out so much, but not enough. I could have sat there forever and by the end of the day I felt I’d known him my entire life. It was very difficult to say goodbye,” says Andrea. “I still maintain that Mom was there and knew that her dream had come true.”

Now when we’re out together, people immediately know we’re siblings, and I can see her face light up as they place us. She’s not like Mom, or at least what I can remember. She’s loud, and funny with a sharp sense of humour. She loves to travel. And eat. And drink. She’s clearly my sister.

 I wish my mom could see us together, talking about her, and laughing at the idiosyncrasies we have in common. She would have liked Andrea. I know she loved her. She gave up both of us and I suppose Andrea and I will always have that in common. Yet, we both celebrate her. And know we’re her legacy. What she left behind.

 “I wish I could have met her so I could say to her ‘I KNEW you were coming’. Just like the fairy tale. I sometimes talk to her in my head and I hope she knows that I don’t blame her for anything. I understand how things were in 1965 and why she did what she did and the pressure she was under to give me up. And it’s okay. I’m okay with all of that,” says Andrea, looking likes she’s struggling to hold back tears. “The fact that while I was wanting her to find me, she was looking for me, is something I hold onto.”

 

 

Going back to the small town city…

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

Genius.

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.