Stories and Traveltips

ID #5358

The Roses of Bloemfontein, Sasolburg, Free State, South Africa.

In the early 70’s I lived and worked in Sasolburg – a town on the banks of the Vaal River near Vanderbijlpark. It was dominated by the first synthetic fuels plant built in South Africa – Sasol 1 -- and had been laid out at the time of its construction. As a result, the town-planning was excellent – a perfect place to raise as family. Most of the population was Afrikaans-speaking but the town also contained a sprinkling of English, Dutch, Belgian, Danes and German residents. So while relatively conservative, it had a cosmopolitan atmosphere. Bear in mind that there was no TV at the time and they rolled up the sidewalks at 21h00 each evening. So we found creative ways to keep ourselves busy. We played lots of sport, went to movies often, saw the occasional show at the Etienne Rousseau Theatre and put on plays and pantomimes at the Sasol club.

I was consumed with passion for my work in the factory. We faced difficulties that took all of my energy and effort and it was an interesting time from a professional perspective. I would often work late, spend time in the factory at night playing dominoes with the plant operators to get them on my side and so on. But this meant I did not give a moment’s thought to where and how I was living. Bachelors like myself were accommodated in flats (Natalia, Transvalia and others) close to the factory. In retrospect I am embarrassed about how I used to live. In my flat I had a bed, a mattress, a blanket, a hi-fi set, a great selection of records and camping equipment. No pillows, bed linen, chairs, carpets, cutlery, etc – nothing else. Parked outside was my battered VW beetle that never let me down. It went everywhere – highways, beaches – it made no difference.  I played sport regularly – squash, tennis, cricket, hockey so I must have been clean. But I definitely never washed or ironed any clothes -- I can only assume that someone else did. However I never spent much time in my flat – I spent most evenings having dinner with friends such as Pat and Mel Walton, Luc Broes, Richard and Helene Bettman, Gavin and Cynthia Turner, Neil Burnton, Howard and Marge Roberts, Roy and Angela Pithey, Ken England, Joe Stegmann and so on. I suspect that they invited me to dinner because they felt sorry for me. In addition, the bright lights of Johannesburg were within an hour’s drive. My sister Deirdre lived at Loch Vaal and I spent many weekends at my mother’s home in Krugersdorp where I played cricket at Krugersdorp High School Old Boys. So escape was possible if and when the atmosphere became oppressive, which was rare.  

Unmarried female teachers at Sasolburg High School were also accommodated in the flats. However there was another reason why life in Sasolburg was "interesting". Bloemfontein, capital of the Free State, is famous for its roses. Many parents sent their daughters to university in Bloemfontein and they subsequently became known as “Bloemfontein se Roose”. When they returned home for the university holidays many were often bored so we manfully stepped in to fill the gap and the town became noticeably more lively. We left no stone unturned in our attempts to make use of the opportunity. Cliff Barnes, Ian Murray and I were most active but others included Hans Hefer, Pat Chandler, Mike Lawson, Dave Pay, Dave Harcourt, Stuart Forbes and Annemarie van Graan to name a few. We organized disco parties, hiking trips to the nearby Drakensberg, overland trips to Botswana and Zimbabwe, hiking trips to the Wolkberg,  the Cederberg, the Wild Coast, and so on.

I was at the time in no hurry to commit to a relationship – I had other ideas in mind. However this perspective was not shared by some of my friends. I played chess regularly with a colleague, Max Vreugde, and became good friends with him and his wife Magda. Max fancied his skills as a matchmaker but I suspect that behind the scenes Magda was the main culprit. They regularly organized “blind dates” for me, most of which came to nought. On one occasion however they organized a date with one of the “Roose” from Vanderbijlpark who really impressed me. She was doing an MA at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein and was obviously intelligent, came from a good family and was remarkably beautiful – a real “catch”. So I went to great lengths to impress her. I organized dinner at a restaurant in Braamfontein followed by a show at the Civic Theatre hoping this might do the trick. The show featured Patrick Mynhardt in “A Sip of Jerepigo” – a one-man-play based on the book by Herman Charles Bosman – South Africa’s premier short-story writer.

On the evening in question I drove to her home to pick her up. What she thought of my car is uncertain but she climbed in happily enough and off we went up the Golden Highway (R57) to Johannesburg. We had a superb dinner at an excellent restaurant and things seemed to be going very well. Afterwards we went to the Civic, took our seats in the theatre and waited for the show to begin. The curtains opened to reveal a dilapidated old house. Patrick Myhardt was sitting on a chair on the “stoep” looking like a derelict, making all sorts of rude noises, slurping his coffee, etc. I felt my date stiffen. As the show went on she became more and more quiet and rigid. Clearly she did not find the show at all amusing or entertaining and I realized that my plan to impress her had backfired. After the show we drove back to Vanderbijlpark without a word between the two of us. All my attempts to break the ice flopped and eventually I dropped her off and went back to my flat.

I never saw her again. Magda and Max were polite enough not to enquire as to what had happened and I did not venture an explanation. Several months afterwards however Max mentioned in passing that she had married a spykermaker (operator of a nail machine) at Iscor in Vanderbijlpark.  Initially I was taken aback – a girl with an MA married to a spykermaker? Later I consoled myself with the thought that one should not be judgmental --  perhaps he had good points of which I was unaware.

Sasolburg and Vanderbijlpark are on the R57 where it crosses over the Vaal river. Travel southwest on the N2 from Johannesburg, turn left onto the R57 and travel southeast to Vanderbijlpark and Sasolburg.

Alan McIver

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Last update: 2014-05-14 14:20
Author: Alan McIver
Revision: 1.10

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Comment of Anna-Marie Groenewald:
Lovely blog, and I enjoyed the Sasol stories, even though I certainly did not chase the Bloemfontein rose!
Added at: 2012-07-21 16:21

Comment of Pat Chandler:
Hi Alan, Good story - brings back memories! I found this site while doing a search for the Turners. Do you have their contact details?
Added at: 2013-05-01 04:03