The wild life of a mild revolutionary

The Unexploded Boer by Erich ­Rautenbach (Zebra Press)

Chapter 1 is called “The End”, but it is not—far from it. Erich Rautenbach begins this wild and somewhat melancholic memoir with his arrest by two drug-squad cops. It is roughly the middle of the narrative and happens ­outside the house of his “friend”, Endicott, in Johannesburg.
Later, when he tries to piece together what led to this moment, he is left with a few irresolvable questions but he does at least discover who hid him under a pile of planks the night before his arrest.

Rautenbach is a wonderful ­raconteur with a poetic talent for running together images and ideas. This memoir, and this version (there were others, now lost), was written in Canada; it covers mainly a short period in his early life in Cape Town, where he lived with his mother and three siblings in rented accommodation. His father abandoned the family when Rautenbach was 12; he was a free-running boy before that and calls the chapter in which his father leaves “The Slippery Slope”. “Boys without fathers,” he says, “have a hole at their centre.”

Although his mother, in her ­desperation, blames him and his wildness for his father’s departure, it is she who buys him his first set of drums, on credit. Those who ­remember Cape Town in the 1970s will no doubt recognise the clubs and bands that Rautenbach mentions: Wigwam, Bottleneck, Buddies.

When his call-up papers arrive he determines, despite the family’s relative poverty, to evade conscription by going to London. He decides that his best shot at making money, despite gigs and a few jobs, is to sell ­Durban Poison. A good bit of the memoir recounts his experiences in John Vorster Square, the Fort and ­Sterkfontein after he is caught.

This talented drummer, lover of satin shirts, golden boy with hair so blonde the Bo-Kaap guys ask him “Waar’s jou fokken hoedjie?” (Where is your fucking hat?) survives his errors of judgment.

He acknowledges towards the end that selling dope as a political statement and an act of rebellion was delusional and wryly berates himself for his belief in the youth ­revolution. Despite the rough corner of the world he chose to be in, he at no stage succumbed to violence, anger or hatred, though his father and Endicott gave him cause for disillusion.

This tale of a wild few years is, for all its lack of structure, an engaging read. Rautenbach’s take on people is sharp and benign; he is still at “the forefront of all things cool”, though now a married man, “raising four sons and a niece and growing lots of veggies”.

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