‘Moenie spoeg nie’ — do not spit

2009-01-29 00:00

It’s 1985 … I’m leaving Natal. I’ve counted my pennies. I’m going to find work in Jo’burg. The train leaves at 9 pm. I’d loved the trains in Europe, here I associate them with army camps, and Grampa’s poem (see box) Moenie spoeg nie — do not spit.

If you spit your “gob” out of a train window with some force, you can hit a passenger in a carriage at the back of the train. In Grampa’s day a sign on the passenger train windows read: “Moenie spoeg nie — Do not spit”.

The conductor squeezes his way toward my berth. He’s a familiar type. He recites the railway rhetoric you hear before the train pulls off. He checks the list.

“Ek kan vir jou ‘organise’,” he offers. I‘m confused, is this guy offering me dope ?

It’s Gandhi’s station. If you visit it today you’ll see his story on the plaque. Gandhi was thrown from the train in Pietermaritzburg when he dared to sit in a first-class berth reserved for whites. The train pulls off. The dope pedlar returns.

“Ek kan vir jou ‘organise’. Moet net nie worry nie, ek kry vir jou, jou eie plek.”

I’m still confused. He gestures to the booking page. I take a look. The names of my companions are Zulu and Asian.The penny drops.

The conductor moves off muttering to himself. He’s desperate to change me to an unshared compartment. The African name enters. He’s a neatly dressed man in a suit, a court interpreter. The other guy, an Indian youngster, is going to Pietersburg to find work. The conductor takes instructions for bedding. A coloured man arrives to roll it out.

The man in the suit remarks: “It’s much better in the front of the train.”

I think of Grampa’s poem. “Moenie spoeg nie — do not spit”. I refrain.

Don guy

A native of Kwa Zulu-Natal, Don Guy grew up in Zululand and was educated in the midlands.

An artist at heart, his short career in agriculture was followed by 20-something years working as a freelance documentary film maker for 50/50.

This story told by him marks his first journey to the “big smoke” where he began afresh in the mid-eighties.

Consolation from the SAR

I’d rather travel down the drain

Than in an SA railway train,

With difficulty I refrain

From spitting on the window pane

Perhaps the officials felt the urge

Themselves, to utter such a purge

And so anticipated it

By “Moenie spoeg nie – do not spit”

For equally they look askance

At English spit or at Afrikaans

It’s nice to have such guarantee

Of social equality.

— Alastair Lorne Macphail.

• Alec MacPhail taught chemistry in Grahamstown, Swaziland and Johannesburg. His grandfather was the bard of Mull, a beautiful and remote island on the west coast of Scotland. The family was displaced in the “clearances”, when sheep became more economical to landlords than tenant farmers.

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