Johannesburg. Pic by Michael Heilemann
It was 1994 and I was 31, but Vaatjie must have been nearly 40 when I knew him: a large man, a South-African man, a boertjie oke, and he looked it. Indeed every inch of him looked the Afrikaans-speaking, beer-swilling, braai-loving no-nonsense-taking, very restless prop forward that he was.
There was something dangerous about him.
"I was born on the wrong side of the tracks, Alibert" he'd sometimes tell me over over his third Castle. He never elaborated but one winter afternoon outside the Loftus Versfeld I witnessed a chance encounter with an old acquaintance: a burst of Afrikaans swearwords (I'd learned those), raised voices and a flash of anger; and it was easy to believe him.
Vaatjie was a middle manager in a large South African bank where he was in charge of a chunk of one of their change programmes - the change programme that evidently required hot-shot, 31 year-old international management consultants to help run it. If ever there was a fish more out of water than Vaatjie hunched over a spreadsheet in the Programme Management Office, then I never saw it.
In twelve months living in Africa he was the only white person I ever heard speaking native languages to black people, "What was that?", I asked one time, after a bunch of kids had agreed that they would 'watch' my car for only 5 Rands, "Ah, look, man, it's a mixture, ja? but mostly Zulu, it's how people speak at work - in the mines in the farms". I asked him where he'd learned it "Ah, see, Alibert I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks".
When we moved back home it was hard to keep in touch - he's not really much of a letter writer. In 1996 I was back in Jo'burg and I looked him up; we went to Ellis Park to see Gauteng Lions play the Crusaders and outside the stadium the women handing out leaflets for the local lap-dancing club greeted him by name.
Around 2000 Vaatjie emailed me to tell me that had been, as the South Africans have it, retrenched. Like so many jobless bankers before him he found work in Saudi Arabia. On the personal scale just as much as the international geography is destiny, and I live in England. He did come to London once - we saw England beat South Africa again - and that was the last time I saw him. It must be the best part of 10 years.
Vaatjie is pronounced Fikie. It's not a name - it's a nickname; it means 'barrelly', in English he'd be called 'Tubby'. Not so dangerous after all.