Late on a Sunday afternoon in August on the Highveld. The sky is bright and cloudless and the air thin and cold. The road is clear.

I know this road.

The tabletop mine dumps, Johannesburg shrinking in the rear-view mirror, Soweto to the right, Lenasia to the left. Townships, locations. Do they even use those words any more?

At the crossroads the squatter camp is still there after all these years, beneath a billboard where a politician promises flushing toilets for all. The urban sprawl yields to smallholdings and scrubland and the landscape reveals its winter coat. Red-brown soil, sallow grass, coils of smoke, a lick of flame. Black and white plastic bags stabbed by barbed wire. A cordon of yellow police tape near a stop sign.

Ahead, a flash of silver. The finders-keepers guy! Hubcaps shed by cars hurtling along the highway, dusted and buffed, displayed in neat rows or mounted on sticks like giant metallic sunflowers.

The sinking sun turns to silhouettes the stripes of blue gums and the towers of the gold mines, the deepest in the world, a sign says. It is dark when I finally reach the town of Potchefstroom.

I first travelled this road in January 1987, a twelve-year-old boy heading to a state-run boarding school. My mother in the passenger seat, my father at the wheel, his elbow out the window, a cigarette between his fingers. Me, nervous but mostly excited. My brother, two years older, quiet, knowing what was to come.

Nearly five years later I left the school and the road behind. It was the end of 1991, the last year of racially segregated education in South Africa, the dying days of apartheid. I only really knew one person who was not white.

In 1838, three years after leaving the Cape Colony, a wealthy sheep farmer named Andries Hendrik Potgieter and his Voortrekker followers halted their ox wagons on the banks of the Mooi River.

Quickly their laager became a settlement, a town, capital of the Boer’s Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek and then a battlefield prize. Volleys of gunfire in Potchefstroom in 1880 signalled the start of the First Anglo-Boer War, in which the Boers emerged triumphant. Two decades later the British returned to scorch the earth, burning homesteads and cornfields and slaughtering cattle. Colonial soldiers herded Boer women and children into a concentration camp in Potchefstroom, a tactic replicated across the Boer territories. More than 27,000 Afrikaners died in the camps, along with up to 20,000 black Africans who were separately confined.

At the end of the war, Lord Alfred Milner, the governor of the Transvaal and Orange River Colonies, sought to anglicise the defeated republics. He ordered the establishment of half a dozen English-language schools in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Potchefstroom. They were to be modelled on British institutions such as Eton and Harrow and staffed with young Oxbridge graduates.

The site chosen for the boys’ school in Potchefstroom was the former concentration camp. The two areas where the flimsy tents had been pitched were marked out as a cricket oval and a rugby field. In between rose the handsome school building with its Cape Dutch facade.

‘College’, as Potchefstroom High School for Boys became known, opened in 1905 with the aim of producing young men ‘who are responsible, self-disciplined, independent in their thinking, tolerant and well-mannered’.

The first house was named Granton, after the Edinburgh district where the headmaster grew up, and the second was called Milton. Buxton was the last to be built, a double-storey block in the far corner of the grounds, nearest the railway line. Pupils were allocated randomly between the three houses when they were accepted at the school. I was sent to Buxton, which had a reputation for being the most rebellious house, run more by the senior boys than the housemasters.

All the Buxton ‘newboys’ were directed to a large ground-floor dormitory called Dorm One where twenty metal-frame beds were arranged a foot apart in two facing rows. My parents carried in my trunk and packed my clothes into a tall metal locker. Outside on the grass I posed stiffly for a photograph in my uniform: brown shoes, grey trousers, white shirt, navy blazer with an orange springbok-horn badge and vertical yellow stripes, matching tie. On my head a straw boater several sizes too big.

The Buxton newboys were a motley bunch. Some, like me, came from the Witwatersrand. Others lived in the Orange Free State or blink-and-you-miss-it towns in Western Transvaal. There was a strapping boy from Botswana whose family owned a cattle farm and another one from Potchefstroom whose father bred chickens in such numbers that he owned a fleet of sports cars.

That first night we were each assigned as a fag to a matric, as the final-year pupils were known. For the next eleven months it would be our job to make his bed, polish his shoes, lay out his clothes in the morning, squeeze toothpaste onto his toothbrush, fetch him tea, procure snacks and sometimes cigarettes, and carry his books to and from class.

In the morning, lugging two satchels, the newboys hurried to the school buildings, five minutes away. The classrooms were arranged in a rectangle around the hall, into which we filed for assembly, the senior boys sitting on chairs, the rest of us on the floor. If we looked up at the walls we could read the names of ‘Our Glorious Dead’, old boys who died fighting for the Allies in the world wars or while serving in the national army after South Africa became a republic in 1961. Higher still was an orange, white and blue South African flag that had once flown over parliament, a gift to the school from the local MP, a former minister of police.

After a Bible reading and a prayer we stood to sing a hymn from the tiny blue songbooks that we all carried in our blazer pockets and which served a dual purpose. At break the newboys swarmed around the noticeboard and scrawled in the book margins the line-ups of the first cricket, hockey and rugby teams. These we were obliged to memorise, along with the house and school war cries, the school song, and the names of all eighty or so matrics, who took it upon themselves to test us.

This normally occurred after lunch when we returned to our houses for roll call. The whole of Buxton assembled in Dorm One, squeezing between the newboys’ beds, which were often ‘stripped’, the mattress exposed and the sheet and blanket and counterpane tangled on top, because they had not been made neatly enough. The duty prefect read out the names of those of us who had committed other crimes: failing sweeping, bathroom or picking-up-rubbish duty; not making it out of the house before the exit bell. A few matrics then sifted through the letters pile, smelling any envelope from Potch Girls’ High to see if it was scented with perfume, before flinging it in the direction of the intended recipient.


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