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A tale of 'old lady' Softown

By unknown | Feb 23, 2009 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

Don Mattera

Don Mattera

The terror and trauma of South Africa's apartheid brutality was, for me, never so poignant, nor so tellingly told as in the tragicomic story of a Sophiatown jazz lover and record collector called "Pinocchio".

Small, almost dwarfish, but with an unusually large, shining forehead, he spoke softly, with an amiability that easily won friends. Pinocchio belonged to what we thugs, at the time, dubbed The Nylon Club.

These were the peace-loving highbrows whose main interests were wine, women and song; jazz in this instance.

The Nylons were favourites with the ousies or the motaras - as the fast-living, hedonistic women were called in Sophiatown in the mid-50s.

The diminutive, colourful man had a sense of joy about him that was so contagious one could not stop to speak to him without parting in laughter. Yet there was also a tinge of tragic mirth in his eyes: in the way he moved his head and in the way he used to purse his lips.

No story of Sophiatown would mean anything, could ever be real, without Pinocchio - because he was a special person: alive and funny and lost. He was a dreamer and a comic who touched hearts, and made people laugh.

The strong, the cunning and the cruel, tough men who ruled the streets as well as the feeble-hearted - everybody respected Pinocchio.

Sometimes, when we came from our midnight street battles, we would see the solitary, impish figure walking the quiet and subdued alleys in the township, without the fear or bother of danger. Walking and whistling a blues number by that arch woman-hater, Louis Jordan.

The streets are filled with women looking for romance... And, if you ain't got a dollar, Brother, you don't stand a chance... The little man would sing out loud; the darkness his stage and the bright, shimmering stars his audience.

When we came closer to him, the familiar salutation would ring out at us: "Howdee cats, ya all out on da usual prowl ta-nite eh? Hope ya all git home in one piece and not in pieces. Oit that! Sweet, gents ..." And, with shoes tapping Fred Astaire-style, Pinocchio would vanish into another alley: another deathtrap, another graveyard.

Sometimes, laughter and comedy are but the palliatives we carry around with us: masks to shelter and conceal our pain and contusions, our failures and the shards of broken dreams that lie scattered in our hearts. But, in some quiet corner, when the noise and sound are buried in the coffin of ancient tranquillity and the mask is removed and the clay washed away; oh how frightened the eyes that are alone ...

Pinocchio, whose name was Cameron Mokaleng, always dressed like a French painter, complete with long, brightly coloured scarf and black beret. His pint-size pants were held in place by braces and a thick leather belt that appeared to be choking his waist.

His bright shoes were so pointed that some of his close friends teased that the police would arrest him for wearing dangerous weapons.

His parents were not really known to us and rumours had it that Pinocchio had fallen out of the sky on a night that was as black as tar and that, in place of a baby's rattle, he had a musical instrument in his hands.

Nobody dared tell him the story, although I guessed that he had heard it somehow. Pinocchio never uttered a word about his folks either. He often referred to Sophiatown as his "mother", his "old lady".


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