OOM VÊN SE LIGGIES (Please see the English translation further down below.)

Hierdie artikel deur Johan du Preez het in Die Burger (By) van 14 Maart 2015 verskyn. Illustrasie deur Fred Mouton.

Bultfontein is waarskynlik die laaste Vrystaatse dorp wat elektrisiteit in die sestigerjare gekry het.

Daar was altyd opgewondenheid wanneer ek saam met Pa en Ma by die familie op Brandfort gaan kuier het. Brandfort het elektrisiteit gehad en die nefies elektriese Scalectrix renmotortjies waarmee ons die ure omgespeel het.

Daar was weemoed in my hart wanneer ons die renmotortjies aan die einde van die kuier weggepak het. Ek het geweet dat ek nooit ‘n Scalectrix-stel sou besit nie, want Bultfontein het nie elektrisiteit gehad nie.

Eintlik het dit nie gegaan oor Bultfontein wat nie elektrisiteit gehad het nie. In die dorpsmond was die probleem dat Bultfontein nie liggies gehad het nie. Ek onthou die gelerige lig van ‘n paraffienlamp waarby ek my huiswerk gedoen het. Ma het ook ‘n Alladin-lamp gehad. Hierdie wonderwerk van ‘n lamp wat ‘n suiwer wit lig gegee het, was hoofsaaklik in die sitkamer gebruik wanneer ons gaste gehad het. Ander mense het selfs sulke lampe gehad wat opgepomp moes word om dan met ‘n agtergrondgesuis lig te verskaf. Maar, dit was nie liggies – elektriese liggies – nie.

En tog hét Bultfontein liggies gehad – Oom Vên se liggies.

Oom Vên van Niekerk was ‘n elektrisiën. Ek kon nooit verstaan wat ‘n elektrisiën op Bultfontein gemaak het nie, want daar was dan nie elektristeit nie. Sy besigheid se naambord “Van’s Electrical” het uitgestaan op ‘n dorp waar selfs die Joodse winkeliers hul besigheid “Horwitz en Levitt Algemene Handelaars” genoem het en waar Engels slegs in Mister Wright se Engels klas by die skool gehoor en probeer praat is.

Hoewel Oom Vên Afrikaanssprekend was, het dit nie altyd so geklink nie. ‘n Mens kon dikwels nie mooi hoor wat hy sê nie en meesal kon mens nie verstaan wat hy met sy skrillerige stem teen ‘n haastige tempo probeer verduidelik het nie.

Oom Vên was áltyd haastig. Die geskarrel van hierdie man met sy skraal postuur in sy kenmerkende Omo-wit oorpak, het my altyd laat dink aan die rysmiere wat ek met belangstelling kon dophou. Soos hulle was Oom Vên ook altyd besig. Soos hulle het Oom Vên ook hard gewerk. Anders as hulle het Oom Vên minder struktuur en veral logika gehad in hoe hy dinge gedoen het.

‘n Outydse effens-te-groot gholfkeps wat so effens skeef na agter op sy kop gesit het, het hom laat lyk soos ‘n destydse Amerikaanse bofbalspeler. (Die Amerikaansegansters in die swart-wit rolprente wat ons later jare op Saterdagaande in Bultfontein se stadsaal gesien het, het ook sulke pette gedra. Hulle het ook masjiengewere gedra. Oom Vên, gelukkig nie.) Sy tenger lyf het egter beklemtoon dat hy beslis nie ‘n bofbalspeler (of ‘n ganster) was nie.

Om redes wat niemand ooit geweet het nie, het Oom Vên besluit om elektriese straatligte in Bultfontein te installeer. Uiteraard kon hy nie die hele dorp se strate elektrifiseer nie. Hy het dus besluit om een straat van ligte te voorsien. Theunissenstraat, die straat waarin ons gewoon het.

Oom Vên moes seker soos Noag van ouds gevoel het toe hy die Ark gebou en mense allerhande vrae gevra het. “Vên, hoekom lê jy straatligte aan en waar gaan die elektrisiteit vandaan kom?” Of: “Hoekom Theunissenstraat? Hoekom nie eerder die hoofstraat nie?” Ek dink nie Oom Vên het self geweet nie.

En soos ek vermoed mense gewoond geraak het aan Noag wat dag na dag die Ark gebou het, so het ons gewoond geraak aan Oom Vên wat dag na dag in Theunissenstraat gate gegrawe, pale geplant en kabels gespan het.

So het dit dan gebeur dat Bultfontein een straat met elektriese straatligte gekry het. Saans, klokslag as die skemer daal en die aand steurend stil raak, het Oom Vên se Lister dieselenjin begin poef-poef en het die kragopwekker wat daaraan gekoppel was dit reggekry om selfs die gloeilamp op die verste punt van die lang straat ten minste ‘n sinvolle gloed te gee.

Die ligte was nou nie juis van so ‘n aard dat ons die gordyne moes toetrek om die slaapkamer teen slapenstyd donker te maak nie. Ook kan ek nie dink dat die passasiers op SAL se sporadiese vlugte vanaf Kaapstad na Johannesburg hul kaptein oor die interkom sou hoor sê het: “…en aan die regterkant sal u Bultfontein se ligte in die verte sien…” Feit bly egter staan, Bultfontein het straatligte gehad – Oom Vên se ligte.

En wanneer ons laataand na ‘n kuier van Oom Boet en Tannie Sarie Venter se plaas, Stillerus op die Wesselsbronpad teruggery het huis toe, het ek gewag om Oom Vên se liggies in Theunissenstraat vanuit die donkerte te sien. Vir my was dit die kompas wat gewys het waarheen ons op pad was en waarheen ons moes gaan om ons bestemming te bereik – die verligte landingstrook in Theunissenstraat na ‘n huis en tuiste waar daar rus was. Stille rus.

Ek het toe nooit ‘n Scalectrix-stel besit nie. Teen die tyd toe Bultfontein Eskom-krag gekry het, was daar nuwe werklikhede in my lewe wat te doen gehad het met die realiteite van ‘n kind wat besig was om groot te word – ‘n kind wat kompasse gesoek het om die rigting aan te dui waarheen hy as ‘n jong man moes gaan. En die kompasse was daar. Soos Oom Vên op sy manier ons donker straat verlig en ‘n veilige heenkome sigbaar gemaak het, was daar ook ander Oom Vêns in my lewe gewees wat, toe ek dit nodig gehad het, straatligte aangeskakel het sodat ek kon sien waarheen ek moes gaan.

En soos Oom Vên nooit geweet het dat sy liggies vir ‘n kind die simbool van rigting en ‘n veilige hawe versimboliseer het nie, so het diegene na hom waarskynlik ook nooit besef wat hulle hulp en optrede in my lewe as kind, en later as grootmens, beteken het nie. Ek huldig hom wat destyds in Butfontein vir my ligte laat skyn het en huldig almal wat dit daarna vir my gedoen het… en dit steeds doen.

Dankie, Oom Vên.

 English translation below.

Translation kindly done by Billie Fielding from Silvermine Retirement Village in Noordhoek, Cape Town. Thank you, Billie, for a job well done!

OOM VAN’s LIGHTS                                                             

 Bultfontein was probably the last Free State town to get electricity in the l960s.

It was always so exciting when I went with Ma and Pa to visit the family in Brandfort. Brandfort had electricity and the cousins had electric Scalextric racing cars with which we could play for hours. 

I was always sad when we had to pack away the little cars at the end of our visit. I knew that I would never possess a Scalextric set because Bultfontein where we lived did not have electricity. 

Actually, it was not so much that Bultfontein had no power. In the town’s mind the problem was more that Bultfontein didn’t have electric lights. 

I remember the yellow light of the paraffin lamp by which I did my homework. Ma also had an Aladdin lamp. This amazing lamp gave a pure white light and was mainly used in the sitting room when we had guests. Other people had lamps that needed to be pumped before providing light, but did so with a strange background hissing sound.   But, these were not lights – not electric ones. 

And yet, Bultfontein did indeed have lights – Oom Van’s lights. 

Oom Van van Niekerk was an electrician. I could never understand what an electrician was doing in Bultfontein, because there was no power. His business’s sign board “Van’s Electrical” hung out in a town where even the Jewish shopkeepers called themselves “Horwitz en Levitt Algemene Handelaars” and where English was only heard and attempted to be spoken, in Mister Wright’s English class. 

Although Oom Van was Afrikaans-speaking, it did not always sound like it. One couldn’t always hear too clearly what he was saying, and mostly one couldn’t understand what he tried to explain at great speed in his shrill voice. 

Oom Van was always in a hurry. To see his thin figure scurrying aroundin his distinctive Omo-white overall always made me think of the termites that I used to watch with such interest. Like them, Oom Van was always hard at work. Unlike them, Oom Van had less structure and especially less logic in the way he went about things. 

An old-fashioned, slightly too-big golf cap, set slightly crookedly at the back of his head, made him look like the old American baseball players. (The American gangsters that we saw in black and white films in later years in Bultfontein’s town hall also wore similar caps. They also wore machine guns. But, fortunately, not Oom Van.)  His delicate frame made it rather obvious that he certainly was not a baseball player (or a gangster…). 

For reasons that no-one ever understood, Oom Van decided to install electric street lights in Bultfontein.  Obviously he couldn’t do so for the whole town’s streets, so he decided to provide lights just for one – Theunissen Street, the street where we lived. 

Oom Van most likely felt like Noah of old when he built the Ark, and people asked all kinds of questions. “Van, why are you putting in street lights, and where is the power going to come from?” Or: “Why Theunissen Street?  Why not rather the main road?” 

I don’t think Oom Van knew why himself. 

And, as I imagine people got used to Noah who built his ark day after day, so we became accustomed to Oom Van, who day after day, dug holes in Theunissen Street, planted poles and strung cables between them. 

So it finally came about that Bultfontein had one street with electric light. Every evening, as soon as the twilight faded and the eveningbecame very still, Oom Van’s Lister diesel engine began to chuff and the generator which was connected to it managed to give even the lamp at the furthest point of the street a meaningful glow. 

The lights were not actually so strong that we were obliged to close the curtains in the bedrooms at bedtime to keep them dark. I also don’t suppose that the passengers on the SAA’s sporadic flights between Cape Town and Johannesburg would hear their captain over the intercom saying:  “... and to your right you can see Bultfontein’s lights in the distance.” 

The fact remains, Bultfontein had street lights – Oom Van’s lights. 

And when, late at night, after visiting Oom Boet and Tannie Sarie Venter’s farm, Stillerus, on the Wesselsbron road homewards, I used to wait to see Oom Van’s lights in Theunissen Street through the darkness. For me this was the compass that showed where we were coming from and where we had to go to reach our destination – the illuminated landing strip in Theunissen Street where home and rest awaited us. Quiet rest. 

I never did possess a Scalextric set. By the time that Bultfontein got Eskom power there were the new realities in my life of a child who was busy growing up – a childsearching for the compasses to show him the direction that he, as a young man, had to take. 

And the compasses were there. As Oom Van in his way lit up our dark street and made a safe homecoming visible for us, so there were other Oom Vans in my life, who, when I needed it, turned on street lights to show me where I should be going. 

And, as Oom Van never knew that his lights became the symbol for direction and a safe harbour, so those who followed him probably never realised either, what their help and guidance meant to me in my life as a child, and later as an adult. So now I pay tribute to the man, who long ago in Bultfontein, shone lights for me, and I pay tribute to those who did so later in my life – and are still doing.  

Thank you, Oom Van.