Photographs and text by JFC Clarke | Contributions by Darryl Accone, Johnny Masilela and Zwelakhe Mthwethwa



Essays

Photographs


Aristocrat from the Slum
Johnny Masilela

For the boy in Jack-and-Jill shoes the Marabastad of the late sixties was encountered in tow (from) behind man-abouttown Bro Jeff Ntsele.

An elegant dresser of fine-tailored suits, two-tone shoes and Stetson hat tilted to the side, was Bro Jeff.

For a while the boy and his divorced mother moved in with Bro Jeff and his wife, Ann, who was the sister of the boy's mom. They lived in a three-roomed apartment adjacent to Ismail's Barber Shop in Lady Selborne, a largely flotsam and jetsam African location from which the Indian business community of Marabastad drew their clientele.

Bro Jeff's apartment living room was furnished with a timber table and chairs, a record player, and a piano under which lay a couple of golf clubs. On the wall near (against which stood) the piano was an ancient-looking canvas scroll on which were written the words:

I do my thing
And you do yours.
I have not come to this world
Up to your expectations
Nor you up to mine.
You are you
And I am I.
If by chance we meet
It's beautiful.
If not
It can't be helped.

Now wait a minute. These words, and the deep meaning thereof, did make the boy wonder. But the little one never asked who wrote them, where and why. Wasn't this, perhaps, how Bro Jeff conducted himself: the friendly twinkle in the eye but still jealously guarding his aristocratic space.

He was so different from his contemporaries, in that he held what was then a better job as a senior clerk at a cable manufacturer in downtown Pretoria. The boy remembers how Bro Jeff was one of the very few relatives who interrogated and took issue with certain aspects of African culture. He had a senior matric education at a time when on average the supposedly most learned went about with a junior certificate.

And so against the backdrop of blaring marabi music, screaming babies, barking dogs and the vroom-vroom of the police kwela-kwela pick-up vans, Bro Jeff's place became a rendezvous for pretenders to aristocracy who came to appreciate the genius of John Coltrane and George Frederic Handel's sacred oratorio. They would descend on Bro Jeff's apartment with tilted Stetsons; tapping two-tone shoes on the Sunbeam–polished floor, muttering "hoor net daar" (listen to this).

The Long Play albums, and magnificent collection of literature, had the covers rubber- stamped with Bro Jeff's hallmark:

Words, words, words. Now wait a minute. There is subtle resistance here. Was Bro Jeff daring the System to get lost. Was he somewhat saying: Me, I am not a victim of apartheid. I am my own man. I am not going to allow anyone to get me down. I'll resist my own way.

Late at night, when the aristocrats of Lady Selborne had left, Bro Jeff would continue to play records, often waking up the boy from slumber to listen to the "genius" of … yes, yes, yes. Frank Sinatra's "My Way".

Oftentimes when the record player was off, the boy would still be woken up to savour a passage from the verse of William Butler Yeats or Frederick Forsythe.

But then, to be smart in Lady Selborne was to be seen in the streets of Marabastad. A pair of Flosheim shoes at Ocean Taylor. Jazz at Steeve's Record Centre. A motion picture at Orient Cinema. And a good read from Chiba's.

Come Saturday morning, Bro Jeff – the boy in tow – flags down a Pontiac or Chev cab to Marabastad. The driver would turn down Stevens street into Hercules, the working class Afrikaner suburb. Here the boy would ogle at pipe-smoking white men and knitting wives relaxing on the front stoep, looking oh so important.

Besides the whites and their kids on colourful bicycles, Hercules was also a place of armed white cops (with fire-arms), and their black underlings with batons pounding the sidewalk barefoot. In the cab to Marabastad there were hushed but resentful remarks about the dompas and shebeen raids. Bro Jeff would have his face buried in a book, seemingly oblivious of the chit-chat. Guarding his aristocratic space?

In Marabastad, Kashmiri Restaurant was the boy and Bro Jeff's first port of call for breakfast of curry-and-rice. Here the boy observed with a measure of pride as patrons envied the ease with which Bro Jeff engaged the Indian restaurateur about such important matters as the Rivonia Trial, in good English, nogal. Also, as everybody else ate with bare hands, Bro Jeff and the boy used fork and knife, napkins tucked to the collar.

After settling the bill, Bro Jeff would lead the way around the corner into Jerusalem Street, to Steeve's Record Centre. An astute but charismatic records and FM radio shop-owner was Mr. Omarjee Vally. He would often break his engagement with a customer, his eyes lighting up, to shake hands with Bro Jeff.

"This man Jeff collects good jazz, " Mr. Vally would often tell those who cared to listen. "Yes, you over there, how can I help you … Hell, Jeff you remember how I used to sell records placed on an upturned apple-box, right here in front of this shop ... And folks were saying I need to set up a proper record shop … Ha! Ha! Ha!"

And the two of them, Bro Jeff and Mr. Vally, would chat about the latest jazz, blues and Negro Spirituals, and another of Bro Jeff's passions: theatrical musicals (captured on Long Play), in particular the work of township impresario, Gibson Kente.

Chiba's Book Shop was situated opposite Empire Cinema on the corner of Boom and 10th Avenue. Here Bro Jeff had largely hushed and intense discussions with Mr. Chiba about available and banned literature, in terms of the Publications Control Act, as amended. The boy had a suspicion the two men exchanged what was obviously prohibited material.

Bro Jeff's literary tastes, if you happened to ask the boy, were varied and wide-ranging.

There were titles on the history of jazz and Negro Spirituals, Also Yeats, John la Carre, Morris West, and John Steinbeck.

Ah, Jeff's Brilliant Corner – Your Favourite Library!

From Chiba's Book Shop Bro Jeff and the boy rounded off the Marabastad experience for a motion picture at the Orient Cinema, because of the classics screened there, such as 'The Sound of Music' starring Julie Andrews.

You'd never know with Marabastad. The other day down Boom Street Bro Jeff and the boy saw a scuffle in the vicinity of Chiba's book Shop. Screeching tires. Whistling. Barking dogs.

"Pas!" bellowed a young police officer with a red moustache. The boy looked up. Let there be no doubt there was a flash of resistance in Bro Jeff's eyes. He pulled the dompas from his hip pocket and handed the damn thing over to the cop, his face turning to look the other way. When the men of the law proceeded to chase men bolting in different directions, Bro Jeff took the boy by the wrist and flagged a cab back to Lady Selborne. Did Bro Jeff try to hide the horror of it all from the boy?

He dared not. For in Lady Selborne they say a white man in a safari suit had delivered an "amptelike" letter declaring the locals had to move en masse to give way to bulldozers in terms of the Group Areas Act, as amended. The news threw a blanket of what can only be described - for lack of better language - as graveside gloom. Even intellectuals like Bro Jeff lost the spring in their step, dragging their two-tone shoes in the gutter.

A group of men were seen hand-cuffed in pairs and being frog-marched down Stevens Street. The mothers whispered that the men were caught singing "ons dak nie ons phola hier", which means "we are not moving from here". But, to borrow from Alan Paton, the deep meaning of it all cannot be translated into any other language.

Even the boy was prohibited from witnessing the deep meaning of the ultimate destruction. For before the bulldozers moved in, the boy was taken away to live with Grandma in the rural Northern Transvaal.

The boy rejoined his Mother a year later in a place called Mabopane north of Lady Selborne. Bro Jeff and Aunt Ann had relocated in Mamelodi, east of Marabastad.

Johnny Masilela and Omarjee Vally standing outside Steeve's Record Centre in Jerusalem Street in 2007. Johnny Masilela, today a well known journalist and author, is holding one of Jeff Ntsele’s records that Jeff bought from Omarjee years ago. Omarjee Vally was born in Marabastad and once taught at the local Indian High School (since demolished) before opening Steeve's Record Centre in this building in 1971.

In Mabopane nostalgic memories of Marabastad were to be rekindled when older boys boarded the Putco bus to go to the movies at Empire, Orient and Royal. It was clear that even when people had been forcibly removed from these places, they would return.

Indeed the boy himself was terribly tempted when boyhood friend Voli suggested the two save money in a disused Gold Cross Condensed Milk tin so that one day they could run away to Marabastad. Enough money for the fares was raised, but the boy changed his mind on the Putco bus doorstep. Voli left for Marabastad never to return.

And as Voli vanished like that, the boy heard stories that the white man in the safari suit arrived in Marabastad's Malay Camp. For here too the people were to give way to the bulldozers in terms of the Group Areas Act, as amended.

Years later in Mamelodi Bro Jeff fell very ill. The boy, who had grown into a vibrant young journalist, was one of those who visited the sick-bed.

The drummer with the internationally acclaimed Malombo jazz band, Julian Bahula, returned from self exile in Great Britain to, among other things, check on his ill jazz mentor, Bro Jeff . On seeing his beloved Bro Jeff in this state of ill health, the boy hears that Julian Bahula choked and sobbed.

Photojournalist and jazz collector extraordinaire in his own right, Walter Pitso, visited and quipped: "Jeff, do me a favour, don't die". Bro Jeff retorted: "No, I can't afford to perish, Walter. There's still a lot of writing to be done".

That very evening Bro Jeff held Aunt Ann by the hand and drifted away.

We thank him for shaping our own lives.

Johnny Masilela is the author of We Shall Not Weep. 2002. Cape Town: Kwela Books.

The name and address Omarjee Vally stamp-printed on the covers of the long playing records he sold.


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