A small school and house sports... Gielie Hoffmann reminisces about that wholesome cloud
Growing up in the platteland is a blessing you only treasure fully when you look back on those years. And indeed, today, in a world of hyperconnectivity, globalisation and the overall breakdown of community structures, I’m deeply thankful that, for a time, I was protected in that cosy cloud of familiarity, consistency, wholesomeness and, yes, also ignorance.
If I were to be completely honest,
I’d ask myself: how idyllic could life really have been between 1990 and 1994, my primary school years in the Hennops River Valley? The country was in transition: townships were on fire, the smell of burning tyres and suburban fear filled the air, and no one was unaffected.
I recall the bell drills at our school: a short ring meant you had to sit under your desk; a long ring meant everyone should gather on the rugby field; and short, repetitive rings indicated that, wherever you were, you should drop down to the ground. For many months our school bus was escorted by two patrol vehicles, one in front and one behind, plus there were two armed men on the bus. These men were taking no chances with terrorists.
I also remember that we had to learn the new National Anthem. In Afrikaans. A valuable exercise. Because we learnt of “God bless Africa”. Understood what we were singing. Realised that “Die Stem” was no longer the only voice.
Back then I was simply a happy, barefoot child who won a book prize every year for the best achievement in my grade; my great pride was my handwriting workbook in which I learnt to write faultlessly in flowing cursive; and I found joy in the few activities my school offered.
Because, you see, in those days the entire school never had more than 150 learners. Classes were offered in Afrikaans and English. We were a group of Boers and
Brits, maplotters (poor plot dwellers) and farmers, thrown together in the same class. For a bit of variety there was the occasional German, Dutch, Greek, Portuguese or Swedish student. They were just playmates to me; now I understand that I was exposed to more diversity than 99% of my urban friends during the formative years they spent growing up on tarred city streets. Yet it was not all diverse.
THE ONLY WAR WE EXPERIENCED was in the form of house sports, that highsummer institution in which everyone – regardless of their shape, size or ability – had to participate on a Saturday morning in January.
Our surnames determined what house we were allocated to: the Falcons, Eagles or Owls. The day began with a procession led by the conductors, each bearing a flag and they marched around the track to the rhythm of “The Clap Clap Sound” by The Klaxons. We copied the Germans well.
For a moment I imagined that
I was a member of the first Olympic team allowed to participate in 1992 after all the years of sanctions and boycotts. Even today I feel emotional at opening ceremonies.
We took our places on the pavilion where the headmaster opened with a reading from the scriptures and a prayer. The sport records were read out, then each team had a turn to let their song echo around the grounds. And then nothing could stop us, because we were in the spirit for the day that lay ahead.
Recently someone shared a photo from one of these days on Facebook. Today you would probably describe us as three lost groups of children. But back then we felt like super-athletes.
IN MY YOUTH I was a sprinter: 60m and 80m. Relay. Long jump. I usually got second place because the German Guido Mueller was lethal at the start. I never put up my hand for long-distance races, or high jump, even though I was tall.
The athletics field swarmed with white ants: ooms, tannies and teachers acting as officials for the day. The coach, Oom Cassie Waite, stood out in his red shirt. Finger on the trigger.
Early in the morning, the field was still covered in dew. When your event was called, you’d go up to the starting blocks. Freshly chalked white lines. The grass green and lush. Oom Cassie’s assistant made sure everyone’s fingers were behind the start line. She would raise the small white flag to warn the timekeepers at the finish line: the herd is on its way.
Then, the shot.
Between events we would have to sit on the pavilion and sing. I was an Owl. We didn’t often win the athletics trophy – this honour usually went to the Falcons. But the Owls had gees. Huge gees. I screamed along enthusiastically: “V-I-C, V-I-C, V-I-C-T-O-R-Y!”
Yet it was at the food stalls that
I really excelled. Because, you know, no one outdoes a bunch of plattelanders when it comes to food. The menu at an ordinary athletics event would include curry and rice (with coconut and chutney, of course), vetkoek and mince, hot dogs, jelly and custard, coffee and tea, pancakes… And there was the regular tuck shop, too, for cooldrinks and sweets.
First you had to buy tickets, because no money changed hands at the stalls. Probably to keep things under control. You’d then join the queue at the stall selling your delicacy of choice, then take your purchase to a shaded spot to enjoy. Sometimes you’d have to think about the order of the athletics events and whether or not eating or drinking was a good idea. Usually it wasn’t.
Those were the days before children had shoes with spikes, or starting blocks, personal trainers and eating plans. Warming up was optional.
The day concluded with a prizegiving. The principal and his wife. Dignified and sophisticated. Strange words like victor ludorum. A rostrum. Trophies. Flowers. And then, the school anthem. And the new National Anthem.
That night, there would be a cold bath to soothe your sunburnt shoulders.
Later, the best athletes would compete against those from other schools with names like Skeerpoort, Broederstroom, Sanddrift, Voorwaarts and Vissershoek. Against other country bumpkins. Those events involved a bus trip, but that’s a story for another day.
The highlight of the season was, of course, the district sports. One year
I won the 60m – in Guido Mueller’s absence. Hanlie Louw won the girls’ race. Somewhere there’s a photo of us smiling proudly. I don’t know if I’ve ever been as happy again as in that moment. IN 1995 MY PARENTS DECIDED
I should attend a larger primary school. On my first day I was dumbfounded: it was 10 times bigger than Hennops River. I hadn’t imagined there were so many people in the entire world.
At the first athletics meeting
I was moved from sprints to shot put – the carbo-loaded December holidays had tripped me up. Here the boys were really fast. These kids trained and won national titles. To this very day, nothing has impressed me more than when I first watched Charlene du Preez sail perfectly over a hurdle to another victory.
House sports were now “bokkesports”. The Owl had become a Blesbok. The food stalls offered more generic food and much less of it. The tannies wore sunglasses, the ooms had cellphones pressed to their ears. No denim shorts and long socks. Democracy was in full swing, the euphoria of the Rugby World Cup around the corner.
The mountains of Hennops River were forgotten. Perhaps it hadn’t been all innocent. But it was good there.
No one outdoes a bunch of plattelanders when it comes to food. The menu at an ordinary athletics event would include curry and rice (with coconut and chutney, of course), vetkoek and mince, hot dogs, jelly and custard, coffee and tea, pancakes…