That’s life

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…

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