Klaberjas and pipe dreams
To see (and hear) Bernie Baatjies and his circle of friends slapping down the pack of cards one by one in a game of klaberjas on a small table in an upmarket restaurant in the strangely rebirthing, formerly deeply Jewish Johannesburg suburb of Norwood, you would not think that you were that far from a mixed sidewalk gang of tsotsis, businessmen and actors on the make passing time on the back end of Table Mountain, out there on the Cape Flats.
The truth is that you would not be far wrong. This is, in fact, what is going on under the neon lights of Grant Avenue. The cast of characters is indeed partly drawn from the underbelly of what was the displaced, disorganised, sometimes disgruntled remnants of the thriving world of District Six.
The truer truth is that Baatjies is the unexpected face of some of what is going on in the New South Africa. And he is more than that. He is a success story, a one-man rags-to-riches saga that has already been turned into a commercial movie (Dollars and White Pipes, flighted several times on M-Net), and seems destined to go up and up and up.
The good news is that Bernie Baatjies is still a nice guy. I say ‘still a nice guy” in the full understanding of the fact that he might not have been a nice guy all his young life. Hell, no. He would be the last to claim that he was born with a halo over his head and has spent his life walking the straight and -narrow. Although his father did his best to make sure that he did so, and, to a certain extent, failed.
Bernie Baatjies grew up on a council estate in the effetely named Hanover Park on those same Cape Flats. His father was a Pentecostal preacher but, in the formative years of the young Baatjies’s life, as he puts it, it was not so much a question of ‘joining a gang in your neighbourhood. You were born into one.” The rubble of the neighbourhood then, as now, was a virtually un-policed series of territorial spaces where the block you took your first tentative steps in defined who you were and where you belonged. You defended it, like you defend your own skin, or you perished—literally.
This wiry Son-of-the-Preacher-Man is still, at the age of 34, a tail-in-the-air mongrel with no pretensions, his eager eyes alert to all dangers and all possibilities. In between rounds of klaberjas he is springing around the Asia d’Afrique restaurant that he co-owns in down-at-heel, suddenly on the up-again, griping, whining, born-again-Mandela-loving Joburg Yiddish Norwood, with a kind of energy and purpose that can only be admired.
He has made his corner of this distant hood his own. On a certain week night he exacts a kind of revenge on the past that excluded him by hosting a singles evening for what can only be described as the semi-reptilian wrinklies of the neighbourhood. He invited me to join in for free. I declined. But you can be sure that the greying Rabbits’Tea-Party that was doing the slow-motion, pass-the-unwanted-parcel-polka in the hope of some kind of twilight excitement was not getting out of there cheap. Baatjies has learned the hard way what it is to be a businessman.
Baatjies, small as he is, became a feared gang leader in his native Cape Flats environment. He does not go into detail, but you can imagine what went on. Knives, guns and drugs, as we all know, were the order of the day.
One day he woke up and gave himself a wake-up call. He would either have to get out of the repetitive gang cycle or end up dead, sliced up or in jail forever. He packed his few critical belongings into a black bin bag, emptied his R34 savings out of the Post Office and into his pocket, and headed off to a twilight life living under a bus shelter in the distant, alien world of peachy-white Cape Town.
‘Whatever it cost me,” he says, ‘I knew I could never go back.”
And he didn’t. He eventually wheedled his way into a cleaning-and-picking-up job at the Pit Stop Diner, which doubled as a skating and rodeo rink, or some such. He watched everything, front and back, was moved rapidly up the rungs to become barman and then bar manager, assistant cook (‘cos he wanted to know what was going on in all areas) and then general manager.
Since then, via stints running clubs, restaurants and hook joints in the dubious but necessary area of Cape Town’s Sea Point, the sky, and gnawing at it like a hungry dog, has been the limit. He became manager of the funky franchise Primi Piatti, which enabled him to move to its new, prime outlet in Johannesburg’s larney, nouveau-riche territory of Rosebank (where he once tried to beat me up in a friendly way, but failed) and on to unlikely Norwood. Where he is making a great success, as I have said, of being an upmarket restaurateur to the rich and restless, and playing winning and sometimes losing hands of klaberjas in between. Keeping the faith.
Word is that he is the hot ticket for managing and running, with his instinctive flair, Nandos’s six new franchises in the downtown area of Johannesburg’s putative revival.
If I had any money to put on a winning horse (which I don’t, by the way) it would be on Bernie Baatjies to do his thing: streetwise, hip, learnedness, flair, and ‘livity”, as they say.