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I’D LIKE to be completely self-indulgent this week, and pay tribute to one of the most remarkable and intrepid women I have ever known, my mother, who died on Monday at the fine age of 90. I SMSed news of her death to some of my friends, saying “she quietly slipped away with no fuss, a bit like the way she lived her life – not quietly, but no fuss.”
She was one of the least self-indulgent people I’ve ever known, and one of her favourite sayings when one of her four sons (we were always known as “the Weaver boys”) or one of her daughters-in-law got a bit emotional was “hou jou in”, hold yourself in (or as I liked to translate it, pull yourself towards yourself).
She was born Cynthia van Niekerk in the Hex River Valley in 1922 on my grandfather’s, and before that my great grandfather’s, grape farm, Non Pareil. The Van Niekerks are a large clan, with several cousins still farming in the valley.
Non Pareil is a gracious old homestead with a sweeping staircase off the verandah, adorned then by a bas relief carved slate panel of Jan van Riebeeck’s ship, the Dromedaris, entering Table Bay, on one wall. The panel was carved by Tinus de Jongh, one of several artists, including Maggie Laubser, to whom my grandfather gave free board and lodging in exchange for the occasional work of art.
An enduring memory of my childhood is long Christmas lunches under the pergola at Non Pareil, our extended family seated around a 40-seater table, the air redolent with the musky smell of the ripe grapes in the vineyards pressing up against the magnificent homestead gardens.
There was a stone cottage next to the pergola, which had been my grandfather, and later my Uncle Alex’s gun room, its walls adorned with hunting trophies from around Africa. Sadly, it was after one such hunting trip, to the Sabie area near the newly proclaimed Kruger National Park, that my grandmother died of suspected malaria when Mom was still a teenager.
As with all young people of her generation, World War II was a defining event in her life, and she enlisted in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force as soon as she could.
Remarkably she got her pilot’s licence, but, in the sexist 1940s, it was her secretarial skills that saw her serving in Khartoum and Cairo as an aide de camp to, among others, Gerald Gordon.
Years later, when Advocate Gerald Gordon was defending the PAC-aligned Poqo guerrillas who launched an abortive attack on the Paarl prison and police station on November 22, 1962, he asked my mother to work with him doing daily transcripts of the evidence, because he didn’t trust the official stenographers. It was a tense time.
Post-war, Mom did what she was best at – she defied all the boere-meisie stereotypes of the time. A member of the anti-fascist Springbok Legion, she briefly flirted with Communism, before embracing a fiercely independent liberalism.
She enrolled at UCT, qualifying as a clinical psychologist, and also getting her licentiate from the Royal Academy of Music. But as she told the story, she was more interested in the dashing engineering student from Basutoland, a former Number 1 Squadron SA Air Force Spitfire pilot, who like her had served in North Africa, and who drove around campus in a dark blue MG. She signed up as a fellow member of the UCT Flying Club, and soon, to the slight dismay of my very aristocratic, raised-in-the-Eastern-Cape-and-Basutoland paternal grandmother, she and John Weaver were engaged to be married. The rest, as they say, is history.
We four Weaver boys grew up in a fishing and hunting household. Every weekend, we would head out from our home in Somerset West and fly fish for trout, spin for yellowtail, hunt guinea fowl, dive for crayfish, perlemoen and alikreukel, and live a Huckleberry Finn life.
And my parents would entertain – their parties were legendary, tables groaning with food, much of it hunted and gathered.
And there were the journeys: in 1957, Mom and Dad toured Europe, and brought back one of the first VW Kombis ever seen in South Africa. For the rest of our childhoods and well into adulthood, they always had a Kombi. And we travelled – the Kruger National Park, the Wild Coast, Lesotho, Mozambique when the road north of Lourenco Marques was sand, and Vilankulo was Fim do Mundo – the end of the world.
Kwaheri Mama Cynthia, safari njema. You’ve left us a magnificent legacy and wonderful memories. I hope you’re with Dad on the banks of a beautiful trout stream.