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THE WAY WE LIVED   7. A day in the life of a Black medical student.  [7min read]

Part 1.

The Black South African of the 1960‘s and later was an amalgam of people classified as Indian, Coloured, and Bantu.  A “ few days in the life” would be my experience as a PPCC [Person Previously Classified Coloured – now that’s a mouthful!], and yes, there also are PPCW’s!

There are many variations on my theme. Mine will be that of a medical student coping with an expanded day in Cape Town.

From 1965, I attended the premier English-speaking University of Cape Town [UCT].  Before that, I matriculated from one of the better schools available to PPCC’s. Livingstone High School had a solid academic reputation, and its political credentials were marked by several teachers who were banned under the suppression of Communism Act and imprisoned under the State Terrorism Act.

UCT was a Whites only establishment, and I had to obtain a special permit from the Minister of Education to attend once my application to do medicine was successful.  I knew a few students who refused to apply for permission and, in the process, gave up the chance to study at UCT. The course was six years long, and I got by with three scholarships.  My father had just gone into political exile for his activities against the state. He returned thirty years later.

Money was tight, and I had a fifteen-kilometer bike ride to UCT which was on the lower slopes of Devil’s Peak.  Table Mountain was around the corner.  The location was scenic, but the ride was tough. I was unaware of any other student who tackled the trip, as I did, for the next five years. In the first year, there were less than six bikes chained to an area alongside Jamieson steps.  That grass patch came to be known as Freedom Square in the mid-1970’s when many student protest rallies and meetings were held there.

Cycling up the base of the mountain to UCT was no easy matter. The Mother City is renowned for its fierce winds, and many trees grow at sixty-degree angles.Steep roads added to a taxing ride on a a three-gear-change, upright roadster.  No, there was no 24-gear change option for me which I now have.

The ride took me from our suburb of Lansdowne where we lived after our enforced move from Claremont, which had been rezoned for Whites only.  At least three generations of Fataars and Scott-Davidsons [my maternal sid]) had lived in Claremont and Simonstown. All had to give up family homes in sales to the Group Areas Board. Nearly twenty years later, Lansdowne was also rezoned. The sales were always at reduced market prices.

My bike ride took me through the Coloured suburb with its mix of shanties, stronger iron and wood houses and brick and breeze block structures with an assortment of corrugated iron, asbestos or tiled roofs. This was what we also had from one end of Dale Street to the next.

<—  [Recent photo of my home for 17 years at number 44]. Some streets, like ours in Dale Street, had stormwater drainage and street lighting. Some roads had none while a few were sandy and paved side-walks were non-existent in the whole area.

Our toilets were outside, and we had a bucket system with a weekly collection of the night soil by collectors who went around in a nauseatingly smelly truck. Like most, I always held my breath when passing the vehicle as fast as one could.  The collectors hoisted the waste buckets onto a shoulder to carry it to the waiting truck. I often wondered how much spillage there was in their work.  One never saw any Whites doing this work or, for that matter, any other menial jobs like garbage collectors or labourers. Their lowly jobs were as foremen or working for South African Railways. Such were the perks of privilege. 

About a third of the way to the university I cycled through fairy-land. The roads were tree- lined and they had stormwater drainage, pavements, street lighting and sewerage. Yes, there were no smelly night soil collection trucks here. The White suburbs of Rondebosch and Rosebank went up the mountain towards the University which had an exquisite view of the Cape Flats below.

One could look east to the Hottentots Holland Mountains one hundred kilometres away.  The horseshoe-shaped Table Bay was to the left and False Bay to the right. Many Black people were displaced from these vista-rich homes to the windswept Cape Flats.

Cycling the last few kilometres up the mountain was always a challenge, but there was no way that I was going to walk the last bit up to the campus.  Of course, coming home was easier. Fortunately, the bike’s brakes never failed me on that hill!

When it rained, I took two buses to university.  Most buses were “mixed”. These older style buses had a rear entrance with a platform.  Pity the Whites who had to walk past standing Blacks to access the White seats up front. Often, many of those seats were empty. Conductors fiercely guarded who could sit in the segregated seats. Standing Black commuters grumbled about the empty seats up front.  Anyone could sit upstairs, but mostly there were only Blacks there. Standing was not allowed up top. There was no discrimination in the paying of fares; everyone paid the same.

The bus route took one past the main Whites only school in the area.  We could only look on and simmer at their manicured rugby, soccer and hockey fields, swimming pool, and other facilities. My former high and primary schools, just up the road from there, had far less.  Our grounds were too small for a soccer field.  Livingstone, uniquely, had a tennis court, but no school team.  We also had a quadrangle with a netball court.

The first bus ride terminated at Claremont station.  Claremont was a first world suburb with one of the first modern shopping malls in Cape Town, if not in Africa. By comparison, the station and bus terminus, a block away from the mall, better reflected the third world status of the majority with limited facilities, crowded buses, and hordes of people waiting with a bare minimum of shelter from the elements and inadequate after-hours lighting.

The second bus I needed was as hit and miss as getting the first one.  A certain physicality was often needed to board a bus, and then rush for the limited seats available.  Once again, those few empty White seats were a constant reminder of the disparities we faced in all walks of life. My cycling days spared me this daily insult.

The second part of the bus trip took us past a number of suburbs where friends’ and family homes had sold for a pittance in Claremont, Newlands and Mowbray.  Eventually, the renovated houses were worth millions of rands in these much sought after suburbs.  Many of them were virtually in the shadow of Table Mountain or Devil’s Peak.  Affluent schools abounded, their brilliant blue swimming pools were an unknown luxury to the Blacks on the Cape Flats where schools had none. There were less than six municipal swimming pools for the million or so massed in the Cape Flats townships.

On alighting from the bus, there was a steep hill to the main University campus.  Total commuting time was usually one and a half hours by bus; quite annoying during the cold winter months when it was always dark when one left for UCT and when one went home again. My cycling time was around forty minutes.

On-site student university residences were strictly for Whites only. I walked or cycled past these creeper-covered buildings which were the first buildings one encountered when I walked or cycled onto the main campus.

[Part 2 to follow.]

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