Conversations with Mr Stander

I found a letter in the pile of personal documents my mother gave me. It was posted on 24 February 1958 from Warmbaths, then part of the Transvaal. The single small stamp looks like the precursor of a portrait of the stylised zebra that Investec has as its emblem. The envelope is addressed simply to:

Mnr Peter Stathoulis

Union Caffee


It arrived the year before my parents were married. They had their honeymoon in Warmbaths, and Mr Stander, the writer of the letter, lived there. He had helped my grandmother with my father when he was small. She would have been in South Africa only a few years when Mr Stander helped. I cannot imagine how they met, or what he did to help. Or even how they communicated, because she could speak no Afrikaans or English in the early days of her immigration.

His letter is addressed to my father, family and dearest friends. It is written in old Afrikaans, with more than a hint at Dutch. Mr Stander complains of the heat in Warmbaths. February would have been the end of summer. He developed pneumonia and was bed bound for eleven days. After the diagnosis his one leg went lame and he was worried that he had contracted polio. There had been four cases diagnosed in the Warmbaths community over recent months, and with respect I assume these were amongst the whites only. Using heat treatment and rest to retard the damage done to the spinal cord by the polio virus was in vogue at the time. This much is evident from the medical literature at the time. Who knows, with all these people seeking treatment in the warm waters they probably caused infection of others. Mr Stander was happy when the doctor told him that it was not polio, and that he must get out of bed and walk. He did, slowly, and walked with a “kierie”. He complains that he had to do everything himself, that there was even no maid to help him. With the heat and his illness his garden had dried up and the weeds had taken over.

It is an odd letter. I suppose an sms would impart that information from an old friend today. “Hot in Warmbaths. Recovering from pneumonia and thought I had polio. Dr says not. Garden a mess. Regards to the family. HC Stander.” In sixty years time no one would have any record of the event. Instead I have neatly folded letter posted with care and carrying news of illness to friends who cared. It does not ask for anything, other than Godspeed to meet again.  The addressing of the envelope is also heart warming. No street or number, no code, and yet it arrived. In those days Union Café was a landmark in Alberton, with my grandfather and Uncle Piet delivering some semblance of social service to the poor whites of the area. The same poor whites that the government introduced affirmative action for in the form of Apartheid.

The tragedy today is that the poor people today  cannot write letters and only use sms’s to communicate. They also do not have a Union Café to look after them.

The letter from Mr Stander

Conversations about Levels

My father was a firm believer in technology and psychology. When we were close to finishing school we were subjected to a battery of tests at the CSIR (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research) for a whole day. Doing tests and answering questions asked by young psychologists.

The CSIR was at the bottom end of the WITS complex, on Yale Road. It had a modern facade at the time, with vertical blue aluminium balustrades that were too long. I stills see it in my mind’s eye, but do not remember the details of my visit. I remember my brother going there a few years before and becoming an accountant. I remember going in with a very negative attitude.

I knew where my family was pushing me. I had to get a degree in law, medicine, accounting or engineering. I suppose the only other option in those days was teaching, the arts and architecture. I think that creativity was not even on the horizon in the view of the old people who had struggled from Greece. Possibly on the horizon for my father, but only for professional reasons. As in creating a new business or designing a building of shopping centre. It was a luxury in those days, and our white South African society, although luxurious in it lifestyle, did not allow for visionary creativity. I suppose that’s what stifled the country.

So I completed the battery of tests and was labelled somewhat anti-social and not creative. They recommended I become an engineer. What I really wanted to do was become a game ranger, and even offered to do the B Sc degree at Stellenbosch in Forestry. But that did not fly well with my father. Even though it was a B Sc, how could I think of getting a degree from Stellenbosch? Come to think about it, how could I think of even getting a degree away from home? WITS was near home and was my father’s alma mater.

He started out doing pharmacy but could not handle dissecting the platanas so he changed to commerce. I started out doing engineering and after two years changed to medicine. Antisocial me. The first year was a breeze. I had a physics credit and only did chemistry, biology and sociology. Coming from the engineering faculty I was jeered by my previous classmates when I entered the sociology school for lectures and tutorials.

I had revolted against my engineering friends to leave technical engineering, and was revolting against myself to do medicine. I discovered that towards the end of my undergraduate training I could not keep up with the volume of information to be digested and committed to memory. I went to one of the professors to discuss it and he told me about the Bullshit Level Detector.

I had to adjust mine. If I thought something was below the Bullshit Level Detector, then I had no need to spend more time on the matter nor remember it. It has paid off in life.

It is amazing how much bullshit there is out there.

My Graduation Proof Print 1988