The mines and I got on quite well at first. When I started working underground at Dutoitspan in Kimberley as a learner official in 1960 I had just turned 17, and had spent the previous 10 years at Christian Brothers’ College. Almost anything was an improvement on that.
For my first shift I was taken down to the 1260 ft level by mine captain At Venter and shift boss Apie Lotter who did their best to impress me with how tough they were by finding fault with and screaming at various miners on their way to their chosen quarry, an Italian called Alberto Trugidillo.
Nothing fazed Alberto, and certainly not the two officials who had delivered me to his care. As soon as they were out of the way he put me to work charging up holes with a “bossboy” at the end of a blueground tunnel. The middle-aged African “boy” delighted in making me do most of the work that he had been doing before I arrived. He slit a piece of dynamite lengthwise, slid it into a hole drilled into the face of the tunnel, handed me a charging stick (think broomstick) and said “slat hom”.
I cautiously used the stick to push the dynamite to the back of the hole, and gave it a light shove. He laughed and said, “SLAT hom”. I could not satisfy this man until I had hit each piece of dynamite with all my strength. Only when he was sure that each piece had been hit so hard that it had burst its seams and had filled the hole so firmly that it would not be dislodged by other dynamite exploding next to it did he condescend to putting another stick of dynamite into the hole for me to pulverize.
After I had been hard at work for a while Alberto appeared, took one look at me stripped to the waist and sweating profusely. He said, “Ees good for thee feegure!”
I didn’t argue, but thought that this sort of activity was more likely to make my puny body even skinnier than it was.
At the end of the shift a motley group of white miners waited for their cage to come while hordes of African workers lined up and squashed into cages taking them to the surface. As we waited one of the miners opened a matchbox and showed us two yellow diamonds that his workers had picked up during the shift. One was estimated to be about 5 carats, and the other 30 carats and a perfect octahedron in shape. It made me wonder if what At Venter had told me earlier was true. He said that I was dreaming if I thought I was ever going to find a diamond (and get the substantial reward that went with finding one); he said that the only people who found diamonds were the workers who spent their whole working day in close proximity to newly exposed blueground.
Afterwards I suffered the shock of showering with a bunch of well-endowed men, most of whom were staunch members of the Dutch Reformed Church. Men who believed in regular church attendance, tithing, corporal punishment, the death penalty, the sanctity of holy matrimony, and the superiority of the white race. But once they got naked and wet they carried on like a bunch of giggling schoolgirls. A favourite trick was to turn off a neighbouring showerer’s hot water as soon as he’d closed his eyes and got his face and body covered in soap, and guffaw loudly at as he flinched under a stream of cold water; another was to throw somebody’s cake of soap on the floor and grab him from behind when he bent down to pick it up so that he could be grasped from behind and “mated” with sailor-style.
It didn’t take long for some of my friends who had started work with me to start aping the antics of the older miners. I decided that as I was the smallest and skinniest of the lot, I would soon become a target if I didn’t hit back. So, the second time I saw somebody sneaking up on me through a veil of soap, I raised my right foot, and connected with his scrotum in a most satisfying manner. I still remember the way the upper part of my foot sank into the softness, and the loudness of his screams.
Another time I decided to take the initiative and turn off my friend Lenny’s hot water. But being a klutz, I turned off his cold water and had to apologise profusely for scalding him. Some strange things happened at De Beers in the sixties, and maybe I’ll dig up some of them for future posts . . .