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Of “Brothers with Perfect Timing”

An Essay by Mike Abraham

Germiston station has a very long platform. It is located at the base in a fork of the railway network that split the East Rand between Pretoria and Springs. This junction serves the vast industrial area on the East Rand ferrying human cargo to and from workplaces all over the Witwatersrand and also to transport goods and products of cheap and hard labour from the mines, processing plants, steel foundries, chemical and electrical production lines through all ports across many borders to distant corners of the world for others to consume.

Here at Germiston Junction you’ll find people from the furthest townships, always tired; tired of too little sleep, too hard work, too long travelling and tired of always watching out for cops. Not having dompas papers in order can mean the difference between reaching home at ten in the evening or ten months later. Dependent on where you live and work, it is often here that you change from one train to another.

The junction is a hive of human energy and activity, with cops always at hand to harass black travellers for stolen goods, ganja or other contraband, but mainly for that dreaded dompas. Here everybody seems in a hurry, rushing in all directions with all sorts of cargo as they chase the next train. Brides travel from cracked hard hands of those in faded and dirty work-clothes to greasy, greedy, fleshy palms of those in uniforms as if a ticket to get onto the train. Earlier, in the late sixties or early seventies, a train loaded with oil, chemicals and other flammable products ran out of control at the station, bursting into flames, causing scores of deaths and injuries. Some still talk about the explosion, the unbearable flames, the heat and the bellowing black smoke, the smell of burning human flesh mixed with industrial pollutants, the deaths of fellow-workers and the running and screaming of survivors. My father was on the platform that day, also changing trains on his way to work. He ran, he survived.

It is here that the wiseguys, the outies, the ouens mastered the art of staffriding. If you’re from somewhere on the West Rand on your way to Pretoria and you know you’ll miss a few trains at Germiston if you take the all-stations, so you jump on an express and alight from a fast moving train – which always seems to pick-up speed as it enters the Germiston just to make it more difficult for the staffriders. Here platform politics rhythmically play out the politics of the land; white against black, rich against poor, workers against bosses, people against machines. But the staffriders lived and died in that little space between train and platform, between roles.A split second of misreckoning and it’s all over. Here timing is a matter of life and death.

We are in the mid 1980s. I have just returned from the Pretoria side of the East Rand on my way to Springs. My cargo is political contraband, hidden in washing powder boxes, carefully opened at the bottom where the contents were emptied and the box then filled with illegal political material and glued meticulously. I also have my ghetto blaster with me, those ones with the long PM10 batteries – its insides also removed and filled with more political material I am been couriering around from one part of the East Rand to another.

Sitting on the platform at Germiston station a train approaches at high speed on the Springs line, clearly an express. It is not going to stop at the station, the rhythmic noise of the train tells you that. I leisurely step back, prop myself up against one of the high-powered electricity pylons – always coolly keeping an eye on the the cops. Then I notice it. Almost synchronised with a stealthiness about it, the rebirth of Staffrider plays itself out. Above the hypnotic clanging of the train you can hear distinctive banging sounds not part of the train’s noise, not quite the sound of gun yet not far off, not quite staccato either, rather chaotic. Sounds that make you turn towards the noise quickly, tensely and ready to respond appropriately – we are a nation on edge. So, my attention is captured by the banging noise from the high speeding train and I turn to witness the most daring township jazz, the bravest poetry, the sweetest dance moves. The outies are showing their stuff. Here, on this platform, you don’t break a leg, you lose your life.

Through many windows and doors where the banging sounds come from, hands push out, searching, feeling for something to grip onto. Then one leg, and a second leg, through the window. Then some adjustment of the body to sit in the best position, tense yet relaxed, waiting, calmly shaking with the rhythm of the train, waiting for the right moment. Up to five or six riders on the same pole, all hanging out of the train at angles most convenient for the grip, hand preparing the next move. The train rushes past half the platform and all of us on the platform say soft prayers as we see the white of their eyes, focussing, concentrating; the wind tucked in work-clothes and making their cheeks look puffed. And then, a rat-a-tat-a-tat, almost endlessly as a sea of soles hit the tarmac of the platform, young men shouting, swerving, twisting, jigging, jagging as they avoid colliding with each other, some adding an exaggerated twirl as they give vent to the last of their pent-up adrenaline. Laughing loudly and continuing conversations interrupted by this moment they rush across to the other side of the station to another platform to wait for another train. Eyes shining with daring and defiance they disappear. Brothers with Perfect Timing. They’ll be back tomorrow.

I stand there breathing heavily with the young brothers, experiencing their moment, feeling their exhilaration and smile to myself. This is my second contact with staffriders. I’ve felt this way before, when I picked up my first Staffrider in 1978.

In the 1970s our house was a hangout place for many BC cats, they partied here, they drank here, met partners, fell in love and celebrated here, broken hearts mended and sorrows drowned with cheap wine and the wise counsel of my old man. Here plots were hatched and politics debated, from the takeover of the Bush University SRC to rehearsals of Manifesto’s and many other things happened here. Diliza Mji met Albert Torres, one of the last SASO leaders at Bush, here. I remember the whispers around the house when a cousin brought Mapetla Mohapi (supposed to be serving a banning order in the Eastern Cape) – or was it someone else? – to sleep over after a meeting; Johnny Issel (or someone else) too violated a house arrest banning order to visit, meet discuss or join a party.

In the boys’ room on the grey-blue wall there was a huge black fist painstakingly put together with small pieces of black gaffer tape by Henry. There on the table in the middle of the room, in between term papers and LPs was Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, SASO’s Black Review 1977, Edgar Snow’s The Long March and Mao’s On Contradictions. And the chess board with a white king lying on his side surrounded by black knights, a bishop and pawns propped on top of it all, signs of the last game lost by someone who will have to buy the booze next time. I went into the room looking for Hugh Masekela’s The Boy’s Doin’ It! And there was Staffrider!

My oldest brother, Henry, was absolutely ruthless in keeping me away from politics – after warnings by father and beggings by mother. “Don’t let your brothers get involved in politics, they still at school, let them focus on their school work,” they had told him. He had already done his first stint in detention by then. And I had already thrown my first stones, burnt my first barricades, cried my first teargas tears, and stolen Paulo Freire to study in the open veld behind the township, instead of going to school. It was too late. Nothing that was going to stop me from joining this revolution.

The cover was defiantly alluring, the art work, a pencil, charcoal sketch or something similar, captured all the pain, anguish, torture and crucifixion of being black yet rebelliously flexed its muscles with the focused and concentrated stare of the staffriders I’d later meet at Germiston Junction. Forgetting Bra Hugh I walked out of the room with Staffrider put in my school bag, where it joined Cry Rage and The Iron Heel – for the next day when my friend Weber and I would read it thoroughly.

I read and re-read Mafika Gwala, Oswald Mtshali, Ben Langa and many others; I studied the photographs and art works, learnt about theater, drama, art and poetry collectives of far flung townships in the Eastern Cape, Durban and Jo’burg. The pages breathed life into the Malopoets. I saw all the black suffering and I saw more black resistance and knew I was a staffrider too. That same year I became a Staffrider vendor at the bus rank. I even built up a small group of loyal readers, including some of my fellow students.

As I wander the new South Africa, around Newtown, Berea, Yeoville, Melville and sometimes Rosebank I see young people chasing a recording deal, funding for one or another project, connections for a show or some publishing contact and I yearn for staffriders, for those who jumped off fast moving trains with the grace of dancers, who did not wait for handouts, dared, defied and took the leap. A time when the arts were not merely entertainment, something added on at the end of the speeches, after the rally, or sneaked in-between fiery speeches – Staffrider was the clenched-fist, the speech and the rally too.

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