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Being Coloured for a swim

   07 July 2017   l   Johnny Masilela    l   Views: 60   l   4 months ago  


One of my boyhood passions was to recall by name which railway station the steam train from Pretoria to erstwhile Warmbaths was approaching.

For instance, when the forlorn whistle was discharged from the coal-powered locomotive, I knew which of the railway crossings we were approaching, for the whistle sounded each time we were headed for Pyramid, Codrington, Radium or Willem-stasie.

And when the carriages snaked into Warmbaths train station, there was commotion and great excitement from those waiting for loved ones arriving from the big cities.

As a youngster, Granny would fetch me from the Pretoria township of Mabopane, for memorable Christmas holidays at the local township.

At first the city fathers at the downtown mineral baths had allocated a section of the place to Africans, Indians and Coloureds, but later the African holidaymakers were barred from accessing the place.

It was around the time of these tightened restrictions that my local friends, such as the educator Simon Molemela and the late Johnny Malete, designed a conspiracy whereby we would sneak into the Coloureds Only section of the public swimming pools.

Because I am of a lighter skin pigmentation, and unknown to the authorities, my friends suggested I collect the pennies (cents) and buy each an access ticket.

Thereafter, I would give each a ticket and we would — against the municipal bylaws, of course — all sneak into the place for a nice swim.

But then the first day we defied the law, an uncle who worked as a cleaner at the mineral baths called my friends to one side.

One by one he scolded that they dare defy his employer, and that they leave at once.

As for me, the uncle came closer to where I was playing in the water.

Speaking in Afrikaans, he charged that next time I abused my privilege as a “Coloured”, I would attract “groot moeilikheid (big trouble)” to myself.     

And in later years as a young adult, the Coloured factor often had the police on dompas raids looking the other way, because our Coloured cousins need not carry a dompas.

• Johnny Masilela’s novel, We Shall Not Weep (Kwela Books), is on sale at PNA at Bela-Bela and Oude Werrf Antiques and Décor at Modimolle      




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