When I was a student (yes, I know it’s a long long time ago – don’t be nasty) we had no cellphones and many houses had no phones at all.
If I wanted to meet somebody, I would try to phone them and, if they were not around, I would leave a message with whoever would have answered the call that I had called and to phone back and, sure enough, in a day or two, I would get a call-back.
There were other forms of communication. Often, I would say, hey, do you ever see ol’ whats- itsname and, if the answer was yes, I would say something like, ok, when you see him, tell him Jack got married. You get the idea?
Communication was by word of mouth, largely. One also wrote letters. I had a very long correspondence with girlfriends. For some reason, I always fell in love with girls who lived in other towns and we wrote regularly. It took up the time at nights which, since TV only arrived in South Africa in 1976, were relatively empty (I couldn’t afford to drink).
This changed when we all got cellphones, Twitter and Facebook. Back in the day, we also used to visit each other and catch up on news. We would drop in at a student house and chat away about what and who and it was all very pleasant and I miss it – lots. I cannot imagine that the young people, texting away like mad things, have as much fun as we had
I am not just indulging in nostalgia – there is a point to all this, and it is this: from time to time, I employ a builder called Morris and his friend, Rasta. Morris and Rasta cannot really read, but they are very good builders. Also, much of the time, they do not have work. Anyway, I decided to build onto the house a bit so I tried to phone Morris on his cellphone using the number that he had given me two years previously. No result. So I said to Julia, my housekeeper, do you know the cell number of Morris? Oh, she said, no, but do you want him to come here to build? Yes, said I, yes.
Two days later, Morris arrived. I showed him what work was needed and he said, fine, he’ll be back on Monday. All good. I vaguely assumed that Morris had been living in one of the townships and had got word of my job offer.
The following Monday, he came round. For a full hour, Julia and he stood by the gate and chatted. I cannot speak Xhosa, but you could easily tell the substance of the conversation. It was something like: “Oh, yes. You know old Moses? Yes? OK, now his son, not the one with the limp or the one who got married in Butterworth, the other son, well, he has just bought two cows. You know Peter? The man from the dairy farm? They’re his cows. The cows were the calves of the old cow of Bertha, the one that was struck by lightning . . .”
As Jennifer said, “a full-on kuier (visiting) session”.
The following day I asked Morris where he was living. Oh, he said, in the Transkei. Yes, I said, I know, but where now? Where had he been when Julia phoned him? Oh, he said, in the Transkei. Where? Twenty kilo- metres from Ntsaka. And Julia hadn’t actually phoned – his friend had walked from Ntsaka to tell him.
As they say in the US, go figure. Julia had told a friend of Morris that work was avail- able in Cape Town and, in a day, the vast whispering gallery of Africa had given him the message over a distance of 1 000 km. A day later, Rasta arrived. He had been nearby, a mere 900 km away and Morris had told him to stand by until Morris had found out more about the deal.
I am not suggesting that informal communication is better than cellphones, but it is still very astonishing that it works at all. But it does, and really only with the poorer people of this country. Somehow, I find this very comforting.