Winner 2002: The world of a white sports club

2008-07-22 00:00

I landed my first job in January 1975. I must have been seven. I never saw the money I earned for my efforts; it went straight from John to mum and dad.

Not that the income mattered much: I could barely tell a cent from a shilling, and the nearest shop was in Mooi River, five kilometres away. Farmworkers seldom went to town. I derived immediate gratification from the improved self-image that came with the job. I was a big boy and I could ride on the back of John's Chevrolet as all my bigger brothers did. A trip by truck, I had long imagined, was a treat beyond compare.

I suppose I had seen and heard more of white people than of blacks by the age of six. We had no neighbours and the nearest black settlement was at Lakeview, half an hour away as man walked.

Our family was fortunate. As labour tenants of the Mooi River Polo Club, we never had a baas. Perhaps the closest we ever came to having a master was when John Pickering visited our home. Once in a long while, he would drive up in a bakkie to pick up grandpa and my elder brothers. They did all manner of maintenance work: tending firebreaks, mending fences and trimming the hedges behind the clubhouse. Much less often, we saw Mrs (Joan) Gibson, an energetic if pedantic elderly lady with a hoarse voice. Unlike John, who gave instructions and drove away, Mrs Gibson supervised every stroke of work around the clubhouse.

Nearly everyone in our extended family had a role in the scheme of things, especially on matchday. Our divorced aunt helped in the clubhouse kitchen. Any one of my elder brothers could wield flags at the goalposts or adjust digits on the scoreboards. Grandpa stoked the boilers - athletes took a hot refreshing shower after their strenuous exercise. Dad was relatively exempt. He held a job in town and pitched in when he could spare the time. Keen to sample western savouries, I hung around my aunt in the kitchen.

Big matchday resembled a picnic, that sedentary pastime of Victorian England. Brollies, hampers and a sprinkling of gap-toothed children lent polo the pretence of a jolly family affair. When I bumped into boys of my own size, we struck up a friendship, the language barrier notwithstanding. Play was the common interest. White boys wore shoes and rode on bicycles. I walked barefoot and had scraps of rubbish for toys.

I would jog behind the cyclists as they rode leisurely around horsepens, bales of hay, past stable lads, the horseboxes, cars and trucks parked behind and alongside the clubhouse. When offered a ride, I failed at the pedals. I knew little of bicycles, much less of riding. Not all white children arrived in the company of their parents. Quite a few boys came down the hills on foot. They were taller than me and tended to mingle with adults. They would step into the clubhouse, exchange a few words and get cooldrinks in paper cups. They left the earliest, fading over the hills whence they had come. Where could they be going, I wondered. Didn't they have horses? For all I knew was that blacks walked, whites rode on horses and in cars.

Familiar or stranger, all whites who rode through the serene valley were our overlords. We knew our place and behaved accordingly, none more so than when a white child could not control his horse. A mare of the mildest temperament can sense a novice and prance about nervously when he tries to mount. Instinctual or learned as such bestial responses may be, no horse ever had its way at the expense of a white child, not within sight of our home. Unsolicited, grandpa or dad or any one of my brothers intervened, taking the beast by the bit and holding it steady while the child, on the verge of tears, took to the saddle.

A horse that shed its rider and bolted never got very far either. Dad would intercept the recalcitrant creature and lead it right up to the embarrassed rider. Characteristically, the unfortunate child remained on the spot where he had crashed. As if to exact revenge, the resurrected soul would ride like Muis Roberts once back on his perch.

Grandpa's loyalty transcended private and family interests. When my only sister stumbled upon a good solid timepiece at the foot of the scoreboard, grandpa decided that it should be handed over to club stewards, much to my aunt's consternation. The legitimate owner of the watch could not be traced. Perhaps he did not live nearby: inter-club polo drew visitors from as far afield as Underberg and Shongweni.

In due course, the watch was returned to our family. It was for many years the only luxury item under our modest roof.

Ambitious, if not wayward, my brothers did not subscribe to all of our elders' conservative principles. Once, having convinced one another that there were oranges in the clubhouse, they devised a bold plan to break in. It never worked. Flush-fitting hardwood doors and windows prevented unauthorised entry. By co-incidence, the telephone rang while they grappled with the burglar bars. A phone ring invited police to a crime scene! They fled like the wind.

Polo furnished the personalities and events we noted and remembered. Guy Pickering became the subject of conversation among kitchen maids and stable lads the day he drove his dad's Chevrolet across the polo ground. Wasn't the boy clever, they marvelled. A young man who made his official match debut became weekend news. He had come of age, maids asserted.

Stable lads speculated on his chances of making the grade for the senior team.

One player, known by us as Tsotsi, once had his grey turn wild during a match. Following upon a massed goal-bound spurt, the immense beast galloped past the goalposts and up the gentle slope, well beyond the boundary of the playing field. Like the excellent horseman he was, Tsotsi hung on tenaciously. The episode was hardly worth a comment.

Horses bolted as often as motor vehicles broke down. Black people who claimed to know interpreted it all differently. The incident, they insisted, confirmed a long-standing rumour that Tsotsi's horses got dagga smoke from stable lads. Whether he was in on that one, was everybody's guess.

Only John Pickering, Graham Armstrong and Gavin, whose last name I don't recall, were called by their proper names. Most of the senior members of the Mooi River Polo Club were known by their Zulu names - titles bestowed secretly by farmworkers. Anyone who worked on a farm or cared about polo knew Mafisane, Magqadazi, Mhlakaza, Mhlathi, Mshumbu and the enigmatic Tsotsi - the one white man who may have lived up to his shadowy nickname.

Then, as now, farmworkers rarely bothered about their employers' true identification. To cite one specific example, a truck driver on a routine trip from a pig farm in Balgowan to a meat processing plant in Estcourt was stopped by traffic police near Mooi River. The year was 1992. When pressed for his baas's name, he gave no more than a Zulu noun. He had lived on a farm all his life.

Possibly, whites spoke our language better than we spoke theirs. A sizable riding party once halted at our gates. At its head, astride a lofty roan, was Robert Pickering. He had come to greet grandpa. His companions must have been impressed with his command of isiZulu, for they fell dead quiet the moment he and granddad began clicking. "Bab lam lokhuya," Pickering proclaimed, pointing in the direction of the ground where a senior match was under way. Unbeknown to his comrades, he had just said, "That thing is my father"!

I never spoke his language nearly as well. My younger niece and I held our noses tightly between the thumb and index finger and spoke like white people did. Upper class whites speak as if their nasal passages are congested.

Cultures contrasted most starkly on matchday. As determined by roles and predisposition, blacks and whites settled at opposite ends of the establishment. It cannot have been an implementation of apartheid: there were no signs or notices on walls.

At the end of each chukka, the horsemen returned to the horsepens where the black people assembled. White ladies and gentlemen milled about the clubhouse at the other end.

In retrospect, the neutral zone between races may have served a practical purpose. It restricted impediment, for each contingent responded uniquely to developments on the pitch. Blacks cheered throughout the fray, applauding every stroke of genius. They could be heard a long way away. When his favourite player connected perfectly with the mallet, a groom waxed lyrical: Gqekez' uMdubane, Impandl ayijuluki, Ijuluka ngo leven. (The bald head never perspires until eleven.)

Stable lads joined in loose alliances rooting for opposing teams. A player's finesse inspired a short verse, terse and original. Tone and voice rose and fell with acceleration and drama on the pitch. Poetry and song came spontaneously to simple, modest Zulus.

Whites never exerted themselves half as much. Ladies clapped nonchalantly at the end of a thrilling chukka. Patrons of the victorious team chanted "hip, hip, hooray" upon the presentation of a trophy at the closing ceremony. Pints of lager did not dilute inhibitions either.

Blacks beheld spectacle, whites cherished memories. A tennis ball and a homespun mallet were all the equipment required. Matches were played on the grounds of the Mooi River Polo Club. My brothers constituted the core of the home team. Opposition invariably came from Lakeview, two kilometres to the west.

Inevitably, each player modelled himself on a white man. Bare-legged and indefatigable, they utilised approximately a quarter of the vast turf. For hours on end, they swarmed about, contesting a bare, black rubber ball. Players had bruised ankles to show for their effort.

They shared the white man's passion for horses. Grace, sheer physical presence and explosive acceleration bore testimony to a long tradition of selective breeding. A pony in full tack was the very essence of horse, perfection on four limbs. Indeed, grooms took pride in plaiting the horses' manes, exercising them mid-morning and saddling them up for combat.

Mounted polo players affected a certain pompous demeanour. Perhaps they harked back to the splendour of the British Raj when polo was the peculiar preserve of Her Majesty's officer corps in India. They rode to test the constitution of the beast and the will of the opponent. Not much has changed since the age of the legendary maharajahs. In all four quarters of the globe, polo remains an asset of the wealthy rather than a sport, a family tradition rather than a pursuit of choice.

For all the old-world grandeur associated with the horse, equestrian sport has its perils. In a steeplechase through the woods and bushes on the banks of the Mooi, white children rode like a storm towards the finish point before the clubhouses. Not all the horses made it home. Within two hundred metres of the finish line, fate took a hand, a horse's forelimb sank into a hole and snapped like a twig. One ton of surging muscle went down with a crash, never to rise again. I never heard a gunshot but it was whispered a little afterwards that John Pickering had had to shoot the poor animal.

Then, a revelation of biblical magnitude unfolded. White folks seldom betray emotion. On that day, however, masks of composure melted away. Tension and nausea clouded every face. A young blonde woman on crutches wept bitterly; it was her family's horse, I gathered. Ironically, her plight was attributed to a nasty horsefall. Ladies of greater discretion took refuge behind sunglasses. A veil of desolation hung over paradise valley.

The following Monday, the ill-fated horse was drawn by tractor across the pitch in the direction of the Mooi. He seemed out of place, forsaken. The sun shone dimly on his deep mahogany coat, on the woods and on the hill above the Mooi River Polo Club.

Mighty and minor, all creatures shall return to dust.

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