Sing before breakfast

DUTOITSPAN MINE, KIMBERLEY, JUNE 1960.  When acting shiftboss Dennis Knox walked into the shiftbosses’ underground office that morning there was a strange glint in his eye; there was foam coming out of his mouth, and he was carrying a stick of dynamite.  The fuse protruding from the dynamite was ominously short, and it was burning fiercely – like a child’s Guy Fawkes sparkler.

Dennis saw that he had everyone’s undivided attention.

The shiftbosses’ eyes filled with fear as they did frantic mental arithmetic – they knew from their mine learners’ course that fuse burned at a rate of 90 to 110 seconds a yard.  This particular piece of fuse had a foot to go before a deafening and deadly explosion would tear limb from limb and splatter their flesh against the freshly painted rock and concrete walls.  But their minds were so numbed with dread that they failed to compute that there was a whole 30 seconds left to grab the lightly built Dennis, wrestle the dynamite away from him, and cut the fuse; or at least pull the fuse out and throw it into the tunnel outside where the detonator would explode harmlessly.

Dennis noted with satisfaction that Attie Carstens, the biggest windgat of the group, was attempting to escape by trying to crawl through the one-foot wide drainage channel at the back of the office.  The other bosses cowered under the wooden table while their half-eaten sausages and eggs reposed on thick china plates above their heads.

James, the tea-boy and first-aid attendant, who had cooked their breakfast, was singing to himself while washing up in the adjoining kitchenette.  He’d been in an especially good mood that day – singing almost non-stop since coming on duty at 6.10 am.  As he sang he looked up from time to time at his handiwork: models of oxen, full-breasted women, and gnarled old men with sticks and blankets – all reminding him of his village in the Transkei that he sent most of his wages back to every month.  The figurines were dotted around the kitchen – on shelves, and perched on indentations in the silver-painted rock wall.  They were sculpted from tamping, a substance just like clay that was made from mixing blueground dust and water and fed into the tamping machine which he operated when he wasn’t working in the kitchen.  The machine had been constructed in the De Beers workshops and was quite a clever thing: when he pressed the button it would exude a sausage of mud like a long piece of boerewors, and cut it into eight-inch lengths. (Once holes drilled in the rock had been filled with sticks of dynamite, tamping was squashed into place with a broomstick-like tamping rod – keeping the dynamite in place when nearby holes exploded.)

Dennis placed the smoking bomb on the table and called out to the tea-boy, “James, fika lapa.”

Then he turned on his heel, leaving James to use his considerable play-acting talents to feign alarm and terror at the scene in front of him; then pull the fuse out of the dynamite and show the cowering Boere that there was no detonator attached to it, and that the dynamite wasn’t really dynamite – just a stick of tamping wrapped in brown paper.  (He would refrain from telling them that it was the same stick that Dennis had asked him for much earlier, when Dennis had explained his plan in fluent Fanakalo.) As Dennis wiped the Kolynos toothpaste from his lips he thought to himself that next time these hairybacks would think twice before giving a soutpiel from Natal such a hard time.  He wondered if mine-captain Brittz, who was built like a brick shithouse, but had a wry sense of humour, would ever ask him to be acting shiftboss again.

He walked down the tunnel singing a little verse that an English miner had taught him – a verse that helped sustain him when the pressures from the unreasonable bosses he worked for got a bit too much: “Times are bad and wages are small – take your time and fuck them all.”

The above story is based on a 1960 incident in the mine where I first worked.

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2 Responses to Sing before breakfast

  1. Chris Martin says:

    I thought it was going to be about Leyton and Johnson. But no matter, it was very absorbing.

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