/ 16 April 2015

A jig for when the chips are down

A Jig For When The Chips Are Down

Zulu-speaking Sipho runs a shebeen in a backyard shack in the township of Temba, outside Hammanskraal.

The place attracts a variety of characters, from educators to someone down-and-out like Saki.

What I found strange about Saki during a recent visit was that he had become a loner, keeping to himself, sipping his beer from the mouth of a 750ml bottle, from time to time wiping foam from his unkempt beard.

His sense of dress was also of a man who had degenerated to the gutter.

But then, as the alcohol took hold, Saki would plunge into brief – rather poetic – recitals, lamenting how the steam train had hauled husbands from the hinterland to Johannesburg to work in the belly of the earth.

The lot of us burst into laughter, reminding one another how this was a nostalgic line from a Hugh Masekela classic.

Then a drunken fellow stumbled into the yard, waving a cheap cellphone, claiming he had won a quarter of a million pounds from a mysterious competition.

Saki watched all this, taking a quaff from his beer and suddenly declared: “It’s a scam!”

Enter two little twin girls coming to buy cold drink from the place run by Sipho.

Saki’s drunken eyes lit up, rising to greet the twin sisters. “Ah, my beautiful girls.”

The man then asked – or rather instructed – Sipho to play a rhythm and blues CD.

And then against the backdrop of the music, Saki held both girls by the hand, dancing the cha-cha-cha shuffle, spinning one and the other girl around in downright professional movements.

The girls had great fun, entwining their little fingers into Sipho’s, presenting us with a threesome repertoire which, in my judgment, could be featured on any television music programme, or indeed as a prelude to breakfast or even prime time news.

Stunned, I asked locals as to the surprise package origins of the dance routines by Saki and the twins.

The answer was Saki was a former choirmaster and dance teacher, who had been consumed by the amazing wonders of backyard shebeen life.

At the end of the dance, I congratulated Saki and the twins, suggesting to the man to consider offering dance lessons to others in his home township of Temba.

Saki’s response was a deviation but still stunning, mumbling that when the chips were down, one had to lower the (living) standards.

When I pressed him to elaborate, Saki explained he’d acquired a transistor radio to catch the news. That, he added, was how he planned to get around a changing world of “touch screens and digital migration”.

My goodness, is the bloke informed!

Johnny Masilela is a journalist and author