Lin Sampson talks to author Erich Rautenbach, who remembers a vivid past in a South Africa long gone
I am sitting with Erich Rautenbach in what was once the Mountain View (now Jameson’s) in Long Street, a 1960s stronghold of prostitution once run by a woman with ivory combs in her hair and a theatrically outlined mouth.
The red velvet drapes still hold the ghosts of those sad women; one was a dwarf who wore curious leggings and one had a cleft palate.
It is this part of Long Street that features largely in his book The Unexploded Boer.
“I remember this place,” says Rautenbach. “There were a couple of gay guys who lived down the road who asked me if I wanted a capsule, so I took it. I woke up in Caledon Square without my shoes.”
Rautenbach is back in Cape Town to launch his book after 36 years away, and old schoolmates from Cape Town High have turned up to view the pretty boy who was always a bit damaged, who played in bands, had a black velvet suit, who was banged up in the rozza and who would disappear for long stretches of time; the boy who gave up school a few months before the exams and was known to roam the streets and mix with low life.
He writes in the book: “I wore eyeliner and earrings and satin shirts in the middle of the day just to freak people out.”
Rautenbach writes a very scattered story, from a sexually abused and abandoned child to small-time drug dealer; from John Vorster Square to loony bin. He describes the stink of the holding cells, his endless dodging of authority, a wild chase across Highveld turf as he made an escape from Sterkfontein Mental Home and how he played music, even meeting up with writer Rian Malan, then a guitarist from El Cid’s rock band.
His family was science fiction: two boys who became girls, a father who ran away and became a vegan and a mother who turned to Buddhism.
Rautenbach, who talks like a clattering train, writes about the survival of a poor white boy who knew how to use his good looks, which, at 57 and after a bout of leukaemia, are still discernible. His blue eyes are deeply set and his teeth reveal some very expensive bridgework. He writes about playing in bands: “A lot of guys thought I was cool and girls though I was ‘handsome’ after I got some media coverage with the garage-punk band Bottleneck.”
Girls were always willing to give him a leg up (to coin a phrase). The book describes how a girl called Bridget who ran a massage parlour brought him food when he was in chookie, a girl who is now dead, like so many of the hard-lifers he lived among. He is now a house husband in Vancouver and a career father who is determined his children, three from different mothers, will not suffer the neglect he did.
“Having children,” he says, “has helped me to get over my anger and bitterness.”
We move down Long Street. It was in number 272, described in the book as The Office (now a restaurant) where a group of guys with names like Spiky Steve, Deadly Hedly and Poison Pete played music and took drugs.
“When you jammed the night away, all kinds of people stopped by, made pipes, drank wine or blew their psychedelic minds,” he writes.
According to his book, Rautenbach’s knowledge of dope is impressive. “We were serious about smoking and always carried in the cubbyhole of the car three clay pipes and pre-loaded corncobs. Mandrax had just come on the scene and among musicians the thing was to eat it,” he writes.
The most heartfelt words are reserved for the weed: “Forty beautiful brown paper wrapped, hand rolled, sinsimilla Durban Poison sticks of the finest blend on the continent.”
The book centres on a gruelling drug arrest. “In those apartheid years you could just be locked up and charged with being idle and undesirable. I was walking with a mate in Durban when the police jumped us,” he writes.
He was sentenced to 40 days’ hard labour. “You learn quick. One minute you are out there, the next thing you are locked up just for being poor and homeless.”
For someone who insists he was never a drug addict or dealer, who always resisted becoming a boy prostitute, he got stuck in some mutilating places. The book describes his friendship with a well-known gay landscape gardener. He writes: “I suppose he thought I would eventually come round and become his partner.”
The Unexploded Boer might have benefited from a good edit and more in-your-face truth, rather than a softening of the matrix. Its brush strokes are so broad and detail so lacking that it is impossible to tell fact from fiction, but more than that, there is a general grandiosity (unbearable when he attempts to be philosophical) of someone who is never wrong, a man who always ends up as the victim, who espouses the cause of the underdog, scorns Afrikaners as pigs and, like so many returned home exiles, calls himself an anti-apartheid campaigner.
At one point he writes that he bought weed because he believed it would help the poor: “I saw the money generated by the sale of the product going to a poor village where people lived in old tin huts.”
Writing the book took nearly 20 years. “In hospital with cancer, I talked about it so much that they thought I was cracked and labelled me bipolar and stuck me full of drugs. They thought it was all a fantasy.”
Ah well, what can I say?
First published in the SUNDAY TIMES magazine on 18 November, 2011.