IT was a funny place to be reporting on a football match, the Driehoek Stadium in the industrial heartland of South Africa.
On his travels through Africa as a young man, Don Bentley had taken work where he could find it and he had secured employment as a sports journalist on The Star in Johannesburg.
Bentley’s position on The Star’s sports desk was a lowly one and as a measure of his status he did not get to cover headline sports like rugby union, cricket, athletics and even hockey. Bentley got to cover soccer, a minority sport for The Star’s mainly white readership, a sport played by European immigrants and Africans.
Bentley didn’t mind. He was a soccer fanatic like most Englishmen and the South African national soccer league had a fair sprinkling of English soccer stars past their sell-by-date in his home country, but making a name for themselves in the twilight of their careers on far-flung fields at the bottom end of the African continent.
What is more, virtually the entire 1960s Fulham team, Bentley’s favourite English club, where playing in South Africa and so these excursions to Bentley’s own exotic, far-flung places carried an air of both adventure and nostalgia.
Some Saturdays Bentley would travel north from Johannesburg to the South African capital of Pretoria where Arcadia Shepherds played at the expansive Berea Park. The stadium took in a fine view of the South African parliament, the Union Building, set amid jacaranda trees and manicured gardens on a hill. Closer to home another venue, the Rand Stadium, nestled amid the yellow mine dumps that dominated the vista to the south of the City of Gold. Here Southern Suburbs played on a concrete-hard surface amid dust swirling from the dumps. Winters in South Africa were dry and cold and smoke from thousands of coal fires, the wind-blown dust from the mine dumps and the sun-baked lawns and sports fields were an indelible feature of the South African urban winter.
At the Driehoek Stadium, however, you would never know you were in Africa at all. It was not exotic by any stretch of the imagination. Germiston was a railway town and three of its dominant features announced to the world that it was a no-nonsense industrial hub without pretension. These features - if you ignored a towering steam engine coaling plant and a distant steel works - were a red-brick Victorian train station at South Africa’s most important railway junction with myriad platforms serving passengers travelling to all parts of the country, the matching red-brick Radium Hotel on the main street outside the station and the Driehoek Stadium, not built in red-brick but in pasty concrete and asbestos sheeting.
The stadium had not withstood the unkindness of the chilly winter winds, and the pounding of hail and torrential rain during the stormy summer months, and its ramshackle nature and location had another feature that set it apart from other sports venues: its grounds and surrounds were devoid of trees and, because of the generally flat terrain in these parts, no distant blue hills, or trilling birdsong. There was nothing to indicate to the visitor that they were in fact in Africa and not some grim industrial, railway town in the north of England.
Bentley had been to those towns, following his beloved Fulham to away games when he was a schoolboy, and a trip to Driehoek Stadium always took him back to those times, especially if there were players he remembered from his youth, like former England captain Johnny Haynes and a famous goalkeeper, Tony Macedo, playing.
The referee’s whistle at Germiston was often drowned out by the whistle of mighty steam locomotives leaving the locomotive depot and the clanking of freight trucks being shunted in sidings near the ground made it necessary for players to shout for the ball in a more strident, piercing tone than they would have done normally.
Bentley loved the atmsophere, even if it did not represent the Africa he had come to see, but there was a drawback to reporting on sport at the Driehoek Stadium that was not to his liking, a feature that on the first occasion he visited Germiston caused him to consider giving up his new-found career as a soccer reporter in the Dark Continent forever.
When Bentley had arrived at the stadium he had observed to his horror that there was not the usual bank of telephones in the press box found at the other grounds. At Driehoek, the Star had not bothered to install a phone, probably because the stadium was merely used for soccer and not other sports covered by the newspaper.
Pretoria’s Berea Park, a cricket ground in summer, had a direct line to the Star’s sports desk as did the Rand Stadium which was not only used for sports fixtures, but pop concerts.
The absence of a phone promised to present Bentley with problems because the Star was an evening newspaper and its sports edition on a Saturday night required Bentley to file copy at half-time, with an update just before the end of the game, followed by the final score. The strict timetable for filing, as with other sports on a Saturday afternoon, was necessary for the the copy to be set in hot-metal type so the paper could go to press as soon as the afternoon’s sporting program finished.
There was in fact only one phone in the Driehoek press box, and this had a large sign attached to it that read: ``For use of the Rand Daily Mail only’‘. And sitting at the seat with the phone was a young journalist, with a neat collar and tie who looked anything but a sports journalist in the mould that Bentley had known them in Britain. Sport journalists, in Bentley’s experience, were usually older, usually had a cigarette dangling from their lips and usually looked as though they had never kicked a soccer or rugby ball, held a cricket bat or picked up a hockey stick in their lives.
The clean-cut sports reporter sitting at the Rand Daily Mail desk, and guarding the Rand Daily Mail phone, was known to Bentley by reputation, although Bentley had never met him. His name was Andre Goosen, a Dutch immigrant who had sold his services to the Rand Daily Mail on the basis that he had once covered a match by the famed Feyenoord in his native Rotterdam.
Goosen had crossed swords with the Star sports reporters in the past, boasting about his triumphs on the soccer field, and his reporting on a sport in his homeland that he constantly pointed out was played at a far higher level than in his adopted country.
Before Bentley had had a chance to introduce himself, Goosen had snapped: ``And don’t even think about using my phone. I’ve had this problem before with you Star guys.’‘
Bentley had been warned by other Star journalists that Goosen was always looking for a fight, he fed more than others on the resentment at the Daily Mail that the Star was the bigger newspaper and thus paid its journalists more. The Daily Mail was the city’s main morning newspaper and Goosen was well aware that he would not need to file his report until the next evening for Monday’s newspaper. He would not need the phone at all.
Bentley and Goosen kept their distance during the first half of the game, leaving a couple of seats between them both to mark out their respective territories in the press box. Germiston Callies were playing Durban United and Bentley’s favourite player, Johnny Haynes was captain of the Natal side.
Bentley revelled in the passing of Haynes, who carried the nickname of ``the general’’ during his Fulham and England days, because he was a play-maker, a chess player on the football pitch who assessed the positions of the defending players before setting up his fellow forwards for goals with short or long passes that always seemed to find their mark.
Bentley didn’t feel inclined to tell Goosen that he had seen Haynes play many times in England, or that, indeed, he had once met Johnny Haynes and secured his autograph.
It was an exciting first half, and Johnny Haynes as predicted had set up an opening goal for the Durban team with a pin-point pass to his centre forward, and then scored a goal of his own.
Bentley had been busy scribbling down his report of the first half and when the half-time whistle blew he left the press box without saying a word to Goosen, to go in search of a telephone.
Bentley was confident this would not pose a problem. The ground was a stone’s throw from Germiston’s main street. There was bound to be public pay phone somewhere within easy walking distance.
Notebook in hand, with a neat and concise report of the first half of the match between its pages, Bentley paced the street looking for a phone box. He was shocked to find there wasn’t one, or at least one that had a phone working, or one that even had a phone because it was clear vandals had taken their toll on the phones of Germiston’s main drag.
After inspecting three phone boxes on about a hundred yards of road, and another damaged one at the entrance to the Germiston railway station, a mild form of panic began to set in.
Bentley had to file urgently, and then get back to the ground for the start of the second half because he was sure that if he missed any of the action - and worse, missed a goal - Andre Goosen would not fill him in, not even with the promise of a pint or two after the match.
Pacing back down the high street in search of an operational phone, Bentley came across the Radium Hotel, a structure he had not noticed when he first arrived in Germiston in his hurry to locate the ground.
The hotel was bound to have a phone, and if it was not a public one, the landlord would be bound to let Bentley use the pub’s own.
The Star, being the biggest newspaper in South Africa, carried a certain status on the Witwatersrand, the region of the Transvaal embracing Johannesburg and its associated mining towns, and members of the public generally were only too pleased to assist one of its reporters in the pursuit of their work.
Well, that was the theory. Bentley had not realised when he had set off for Germiston that afternoon, catching the train from central Joahnnesburg for the short journey to the railway town, that he was entering foreign parts. It was the territory of the urban Afrikaner, and home to a sport that for Afrikaners was akin to a religion - rugby union. Germiston might have a name derived from a place in Scotland - the town grew after gold was discovered there by a Scottish prospector - but it had now passed into the hands of the Afrikaner in the modern South Africa, the dominant white clan generally not well disposed towards the country’s English speakers.
The Afrikaner government’s policy of exclusiveness, its apartheid idelogy separating the white and black population, had a sub-plot of English resistance, an unease about the direction the country was taking voiced in the English newspapers.
Bentley, in his eagerness to get to a phone, was not to know that his very appearance, long hair, floral tie and flared trousers would cause disquiet among the railway men who were the patrons of the Radium Hotel. English-speakers had been beaten up in town and country for less. Bentley burst into the bar of the Railway Hotel, interrupting the barman who was in deep conversation with a patron, discussing the main rugby union match of the day, Transvaal away to Western Province, in Cape Town.
``Excuse me,’’ Bentley shouted, ``Have you got a phone? I’m rather desperate. I need to phone the Star with a soccer report.’‘
The barman continued talking to his patron without looking up at Bentley.
``Excuse, I’m a reporter with the Star. You don’t have a phone by any chance?’‘
Finally, the barman turned to the eager Englishman in flared trousers. “And I’m the Queen of Sheeba,’’ he said.
``And fok jou,’’ the barman said, turning back to the patron.
``Please,’’ Bentley pleaded, full-blown panic overtaking him now. He had to file and quickly.
``I said fok jou,’’ said the barman.
The patron intervened.
``Koos, gives the boy a chance,’’ he said, ``He’s got a job ta do.’‘
The conversation had attracted interest among the other patrons sat at the bar.
``Give the foker a tickey and make him go to a call box,’’ said another patron.
``I’ve already tried that,’’ said Bentley addressing the whole bar now.
``I’ve got sixpences thank you very much, but I can’t find a phone that works.’‘
``Meneer, gives the boy a chance. He’s got a job to do,’’ said the first patron again and the barman finally relented and gestured to Bentley to come around his side of the bar.
``And be quick,’’ said the barman, ``I got me bookie calling.’‘
Bentley dialled the Star switchboard and asked to be put through to the sports copytakers. A silence had descended on the bar and everyone was listening to his call. He felt slightly embarrassed to have an audience for his match report.
``Hello, copy, Bentley at Drieheok, Germiston Callies 0, Durban United 2 at half-time.’‘
Bentley then started to give his account of the first half of the match, looking anxiously at those around him, all straining to hear.
``Foking poofter sport,’’ someone at the back of the bar shouted, and gritty laughter rang out.
``Blixem. Gives the boy a chance,’’ said the first patron. He was an elderly man with a deeply lined and scarred face, a face seared for half a century by the roaring furnaces of steam locomotives, jets of steam and the African sun. A tumbler of cheap brandy, Klipdrift, was in his hand. ``He only doing his job.’’
Bentley was getting to the end of his report, when he noticed another of the patrons, a little worse for wear with booze, leaning over the bar and eyeing his pin-striped flares, and then eyeing his green floral tie.
``Fokin’ lang-haar betoker, ‘’ said the Afrikaner, now looking a Bentley’s overgrown Beatle hairstyle.
Bentley had heard the phrase before, when he joined the Star a few months previously.
One of the general news reporters had been called such when he had ventured out into a rural district on a story about a farmer mistreating his African farm workers.
The farmer had chained one of the Africans to a tree as a punishment for alleged stealing.
The reporter had been accosted in a pub that night, from where he had been telephoning his report. A farmer had abused him and had invited him outside for a fight.
The reporter had taken off his coat, making for the car park outside for the fisticuffs, but was pulled back by the Star photographer travelling with him.
``Don’t be silly,’’ the photographer had said. ``This one only the dentists and the lawyers in Joburg can win.’‘
The story about the reporter’s near fight had done the rounds of the Star building, and the Star pub, for weeks. And the Star journalists had taken to shouting, ``Here comes the betoker’’ every time the reporter entered the newsroom.
The Afrikaans term referred to long-haired demonstrators, a reference initially applied to English-speaking students who protested against South Africa’s apartheid laws, but later was used to describe anyone who was dressed in the fashion of the 1970s, who was clearly not of the strict Calvinist Afrikaner community.
The ``betoker’’ jibe signalled trouble for Bentley in the Radium Hotel and he was keen to finish his report and get out of the bar.
``Ends,’’ he said finally to the copytaker, putting down the phone and looking at his watch to see how much of the second half of the game he had missed.
``How much for the call?’’ Bentley asked but before the barman had time to reply the elderly man drinking brandy threw two six-cent pieces across the bar.
``Have this one on me, jong,’’ he said, ``and a brandewyn. I reckons yous need it.’‘
The barman was quick to intervene, not that Bentley would have had time for a drink anyway.
``Voetsak,’’ he shouted to Bentley. ``Fok off. We don’t allow trouble-makers in here.’‘
Bentley rushed along the main street and into the Driehoek Stadium. He was still panting as he took his seat at the reporters’ bench, two seats along from Goosen and his phone.
``And you missed a goal,’’ said Goosen, concentrating hard on the game and not looking in Bentley’s direction as he spoke. Bentley didn’t bother to ask which team had scored, or who. He would go into the Durban United dressing room as soon as the game ended, announcing he was the soccer writer from the Johannesburg Star covering the game. And he would say be knew Johnny Haynes of old, he was a fan.
And they might even have a phone.
Don Knowler A story of journalism … once!
Number 27 in a series of short stories by Don Knowler on his journalistic life and observations told through imaginary newspaper The Chronicle. He explores not only journalism but what Knowler terms the sacred covenant hacks have with their readers to put truth above all else, even if it means leaving the comfort of the bar to do so … His musings appear regularly grouped under the Category Don Knowler