Daveyton Golf Club's rabbits are out of tricks
Of all the East Rand townships, Daveyton is by far the most charming. The main thoroughfares are clean and Daveyton’s many fruit and privet trees are pruned, in what residents call the flat-topped “umbrella style”, for maximum shade. Although they are popular no longer, old Chev, Valiant and Chrysler taxis were once ubiquitous here, stately ships whose drivers scoured street corners for trade, packing four – sometimes five – on to the back seat.
The “kota”, a quarter loaf of bread stuffed with a variety of fillings, is said to be Daveyton’s finest invention, and the township boasts some of the most vibrant taverns in the land, including the infamous “Love Corner”, located at the entrance of the Daveyton Golf Club.
What with its proximity to the lakes and dams of the East Rand, shebeen dreamers have been known to call the township the “Venice of the East”, although this might only be when they’ve spent too long sipping in a corner of the Corner.
Not only was Daveyton the first township in the country to be electrified, but because of the mayor of Benoni’s comparative enlightenment, amenities were also often better here than in most other townships of the Rand.
Daveyton had a bioscope and a soccer field and, in 1965, an 18-hole golf course, the oldest surviving township course in the country.
Old-timers who hurtle down the fairways on hot spring afternoons still tell stories of bygone days when, looking east, there was nothing but farmland beyond the last of the distant greens. Wheat waved in the faraway haze and there were adjoining fields of beans and potatoes. Rabbits and hares were common, as were jackals and snakes.
“Before the course came along we were playing all over here in the Fifties, on sand greens in the velds,” says Ronnie Mtshali, one of the oldest surviving members of Daveyton’s increasingly small golfing fraternity. “I remember once playing on the other side of Daveyton with Clifford [Mkwanazi], my friend, and the farmer he caught us. He wanted to pull Clifford’s teeth out with pliers. He said we were stealing his mealies.”
The epitome of sly quick-wittedness, over the years the rabbit has become an unofficial township emblem. The now defunct local soccer club, Benoni Premier United, who used to play out of the Daveyton’s Sinaba stadium, were nicknamed “the Rabbits” – their mischievous fans bringing bunches of carrots to home games. The rabbit is also on the golf club’s coat of arms, whose motto exhorts: “Forward ever, backward never.” Of all the old-timers I ask, no one seems to know why it was chosen or what its significance is, although some try.
“We thought the rabbit had tricks to protect him from his enemies,” offers Adam Watlolo, who plays off an 11 handicap and was a caddy as a youngster when the course was first laid. “Yes,” adds his playing partner, Sunny Botolo, who plays off a 14, “it’s not so easy to just go out and catch a rabbit.”
The Daveyton Golf Club is no longer as big as it used to be after half of its land was taken for RDP houses. (Photos: Oupa Nkosi, M&G)
Daveyton’s course was established by former mayor of Benoni George Walmsley, who played regularly at the Benoni Lake Golf Club. Mtshali was his caddie, and eventually managed to persuade the mayor to donate some council land to the township’s aspiring Bobby Joneses, as it was becoming clear that they’d never be allowed to join a white club.
The course was originally a stately 18 holes on the edge of the township but the council colonised half of it for RDP houses and now it is a maze of 18 holes on land intended for nine. It can make for a dizzy afternoon, as golfers crisscross the fairways, avoiding the odd group of nyaope addicts and the vrying teenagers still in school uniform, not to mention those crossing the course along the pedestrian thoroughfare that slices it in two.
Off to one side is the corner of an informal settlement and further away you can see bakkies and townships taxis ponderously picking their way along a pot-holed track. The impression is of the course that time forgot, despite the dignified old pines and the dusty poplars, relics of the course’s halcyon days back in the 1970s when membership was high. Back then black golf professionals regularly graced it with their presence.
Look and learn
Mtshali, like Mkwanzi, learned to play by caddying on the greener, more prosperous courses of Boksburg, Benoni and Germiston. The pay wasn’t good (R1.50 constituted a big payday) but being a caddy meant there was often an old ball to filch or a discarded club to spirit away. The Daveyton golfers looked and learned, going home to practise their techniques in the mirror, buff up their shoes and design their own clubs. These were made by threading wire or a thin steel pipe into a length of garden hose; a head was whittled or fashioned out of wood and attached to the shaft with wire. Rags and tape were used for handles.
There was invariably a disgruntled farmer loitering in the shadows and he seldom had any feel for golf.
Daveyton Golf Club, with its rabbit logo, has seen dramatic change and neglect over the years.
“Christmas Day was the only day of the year we were allowed to play at Benoni Lake,” says Mtshali with his customary flourish. “That was ‘Caddy Day’. We used to park outside and eat there in the parking lot. We used to have problems in relieving ourselves because to us the toilets were always locked.”
As it approaches its 50th birthday, it is fair to say that Daveyton Golf Club has seen better days.
With the plastic wrapping of Windhoek Light six packs substituting for flags and shafts of wire substituting for pins, the atmosphere on the course itself is one of slow decline.
About 250m of the perimeter fence on one side of the course has been stolen for scrap metal and although there is a watering system for the greens they aren’t, by any stretch of the imagination, lush. The club cannot afford a mower and even if they had one there is a legitimate concern that they wouldn’t be able to keep it in petrol or from being stolen.
Young olive trees have just been planted by the council and not all is lost, except there is no sand in the bunkers and the fairways are the colour of eggshells, bleached after a winter without rain.
Daveyton still draws talented youths such as 16-year-old Siphiwe Nhlapo.
There is litter everywhere and generally the main pastime is not improving on your front nine but indulging in the time-honoured sport of finger-pointing.
Everyone is happy to suggest the remedy to the course’s many problems lies elsewhere, whether this is with the council or the township residents or the better-run courses to the west and south.
Theo Dauwa, the club professional, does more than most to raise spirits. He trains young golfers such as the talented 16-year-old Siphiwe Nhlapo and spends several afternoons every week perfecting swings and short games steeped in the kind of etiquette and deportment that sees his charges come to afternoon practice with Rory McIlroy-like white belts and smart golf flannels.
He is particularly hopeful about Nhlapo, who, he says, shows a healthy work ethic and willingness to learn. Despite all this, he is frustrated, unable to put the club on the kind of footing that will make its membership grow, but the council mows the fairways regularly and the club hosts tournaments and produces talented young players in numbers.
“Something drastic needs to be done here,” he says. “I’m a card-carrying member of the ANC, not some EFF moegoe. Our government is in power. We wrote to the mayor of Ekurhuleni asking for help. There was no reply from his office.”
Which is not to give the impression that the club hasn’t received help over the years. The Sports Trust was once a benefactor, as were Nedbank and Kempton Park Golf Club. In a chain of causality and blame that has become impossible to unravel, what can be said for certain is the club, like its greens, is curling up at the edges.
Gone is the time when Gabriel Putsoe, Reggie Mamashila and Vincent Tshabalala brought energy and pride to the course.
Indeed, in many ways the history of Daveyton Golf Club is the history of black golf in this country, the course a heritage trail of pride and bumptious township achievement.
At the moment, though, all that exists is a sad, fading negative of what might have been.