The year 1980 announced the beginning of my ‘working career’. Not yet sixteen, my Dad said that I couldn’t sit around at home and wait for my sixteenth birthday. I was told to find a part-time job.
One of my friends had two older brothers. One worked for the South African Railways and the other, so I was told, held down a well-paying job at the East London cemetery. The brother working at the East London cemetery promised to organise us jobs at the cemetery.
A week later, my friend and I started our part-time jobs as grave diggers. It bordered on hard labour and the pay was very little. My friend’s older brother, who arranged these two part-time jobs, was also the boss and in charge at the cemetery. It came to light much later that, without our knowledge, my friend’s older brother at the time pocketed half of our weekly wages.
Not long after we started our jobs, my friend disappeared some days for about an hour. After each disappearance, he returned with samosas. Samosas is a triangular savoury pastry, deep fried in hot oil and contained spiced vegetables or meat. Besides the samosas, he would also bring along other aromatic curry dishes. We ate all the samosas, as well as the other aromatic curry dishes, that he brought back with him upon his return, during our lunch break. For me, these delicacies made up for working on my own for an hour and it soon became the highlight of my day on those days. The food was exceptional, and I really enjoyed it. Curious about its origins, I asked him where he bought those delicious meals. Evasive, he commented every time I asked: ‘I’ve got contacts’.
After a month of receiving the same evasive answer every time I asked, my curiosity had peaked. Around the same time, I was fast losing interest in digging graves for a pittance. Dying to know who my friend’s ‘contacts’ were, I followed him one day. To my utter astonishment, I discovered that he actually never left the cemetery, but walked to another area where a certain population group buried their loved ones. I observed him as he remained out of sight, watching the ritualistic behaviour of the visitors of this group. At the end of the ritual, the visitors placed fresh food at the graves of their dearly departed. I watched my friend as he came out of hiding after the mourners had left and quickly gathered all the freshly prepared dishes.
I approached and queried,
‘Don’t you feel ashamed?’
‘No?! I asked them once when their departed will come and eat the food. They told me it will be the same time when our departed came out to smell the flowers we leave on their graves.’
Not long thereafter, my friend and I decided it was time to look for another part-time job. We soon found part-time jobs at a local grocery store and started work as fruit packers. Two weeks into this new part-time job, a lovely green apple tempted me. I took a bite; the supervisor saw me and, needless to say, I was fired on the spot. In solidarity, my friend left with me. However, whilst I hunted for another part-time job, my friend left East London. He went to Johannesburg, where he stayed with family, whilst he awaited his sixteenth birthday when he would be eligible to join the military.
My Dad was a police reservist and put out the word amongst the other police reservists that I was looking for a part-time job to tie me over until my sixteenth birthday when I would join the South African Police Force. A fellow reservist owned a Liquor store and was prepared to give me a part-time job. And so, it came that, before I turned sixteen, I worked part time at a liquor store.
By law, in 1980 in South Africa, whites and blacks did not share the same entrances or exits at liquor stores. The whites had their own entrance/exit at the front and the blacks had theirs out of sight, usually around the side of the building.
I was employed at the black entrance/exit side. My job was to get rid of the drunks if they tried to enter the store. In between this, I was tasked to pack and unpack liquor crates.
What is interesting is that according to the then prevailing Liquor Act in South Africa, no one under the age of eighteen was allowed in a place where liquor was sold. Because of my height, I didn’t appear to be under eighteen and nobody ever asked me about my age. Of course, neither my father nor his police reservist colleague said anything to anyone.
I was happy. For a youngster like me, back then, the pay was good, and the hours were reasonable.