A streaker dashed across the pitch as Don Bentley and his colleagues watched cricket on television late one night in the newsroom, after the first edition of the Chronicle had been put to bed.
“Haven’t see a streaker in years,” said the sports editor. Don Bentley wasn’t listening. He was thinking of a streaker from years gone by, long ago in the city of Johannesburg. After the next over, he told the story.
“It was early in the morning, before the African sun had risen over the mine dumps of the city of gold. The sub-editors sat there, waiting for their first stories of the day. Chatting, talking rugby and cricket.
“Then in walks Duncan du Preez, naked.
“Streaking was all the rage in Johannesburg, one year in the early 1970s. It was an incident at Twickenham in London, during an English rugby match and this young guy had streaked, the first, and there was this picture in the Johannesburg Star with him being frogmarched off the pitch by a policeman, with the policeman’s helmet covering the streaker’s private parts. It’s a famous picture.
“Well, in rugby–mad South Africa it sparked a streaking frenzy. Everyone, or so it appeared, seemed to be doing it.
“So one morning, Duncan du Preez arrived in his birthday suit. He walked into the newsroom, slowly, deliberately. Cruised across the floor and just sat at his desk, awaiting his first story. He sat there, and no one said anything. The chief sub, a Welshman not known for his sense of humour, looked up and I don’t think it registered, and he just went back to what he was doing, planning the day’s presentation of news.
“After a while Duncan just rose from his seat, and slowly walked out of the room. He came back a little later, fully dressed, without saying a word.”
Bentley was thinking of du Preez now, and all those other characters who had vanished from all the newsrooms of newspapers past. The modern newspaper had no place for larrikins, and drunks, and misfits. Modern newsrooms were sober and sanitised.
Du Preez, a man in his fifties, cut a distinguished, sophisticated air with short-back-and-sides, Brylcreamed hair and pencil-thin moustache. But his appearance was at odds with his habit of visiting the Elizabeth Hotel for its 10am opening for a shot of Mellowood brandy, to top up the one he had with in his coffee before he left for work just after dawn.
More followed after his shift at the Star finished at around 4pm.
Duncan du Preez was more than a boozer, merely fond of a pint or two at the end of the shift like his colleagues on the Star. He was an alcoholic, although you would never have known it. He carried his alcohol as he carried himself, upright and purposeful. It was only the half bottle of Mellowood brandy – firewater, one of the cheapest brandies on the market – he took home from the pub each afternoon that revealed he had a drink problem, although du Preez would not describe it thus.
Duncan du Preez was fun. He always had a story to tell, or a story being told had him as its subject. He had grown up in a dorp in the Great Karoo arid lands of the Western Cape where his father was the manager at the local bank branch. Du Preez, despite the pleadings of his father, had eschewed a commercial career for one in journalism, attracted to the bright lights of the city.
He may have been a proud Afrikaner from the Cape but like many Afrikaners in the province – whose ancestors had not taken part in the Great Trek into the hinterland to escape British domination – he felt more comfortable in the more liberal, English-speaking world.
These Afrikaners had also put their hand up to fight for Britain in World War II, at a time when some nationalist Afrikaners were siding with an old ally,Germany. South Africans, because their country was a self-governing dominion within the British Empire were given a choice.
Du Preez had tried out as a pilot for the South African Air Force at the start of the war but had been rejected after pranging a plane against telegraph wires near his air training base. He had escaped injury, but the expensive plane had not.
Du Preez was still determined to take to the air and finally became a rear-gunner on a bomber making sorties from an air base in Britain to the Ruhr in Nazi Germany. Du Preez tended not to talk about his war-time service but word had it that on his last mission his aircraft had sustained enemy fire and he had bailed out, thinking the plane was about to crash. The pilot had, in fact, managed to regain control and the plane had limped back to base without du Preez aboard. When it landed the crew were mystified to find du Preez’s rear-gunner position empty. Du Preez meantime was hanging by parachute from a tree somewhere in Germany. He was captured and spent the rest of the war in a German prisoner-of-war camp.
Du Preez’s misfortune in war might have steeled him to the realisation that life doesn’t always go according to an optimist’s plans, but his life was to continue on a course of adventure, and misadventure.
When he returned to South Africa he set about building on his fledgling career in journalism in Cape Town but his family’s involvement with banking (his grandfather was also a banker) drew him constantly towards business ventures. He said that, despite his love of journalism, business and the art of making money was in his genes, and it was something he could not shrug off.
In between writing stories for newspapers, du Preez devised lavish business plans, which on occasion he tried to turn into business ventures.
His businesses, and their failure, over time became the stuff of legend for journalists who held dreams of finding riches and getting away from journalism although in Duncan du Preez’s case business represented more of a challenge than a means to an end. In the few years that Bentley knew du Preez he suspected that his love of newspapers and newspapermen and women was so strong he would always be involved in the industry in some way, even if he struck gold. Bentley could picture him in the future as a gentleman journalist, perhaps with his own column, or even his own newspaper.
Duncan du Preez was working as a sub-editor on a newspaper in the small port city of East London, in the Eastern Cape, when his first business venture took flight. He had edited a story about a cargo ship running onto rocks off the Wild Coast north of East London and with the aid of a friend, who was an engineer, devised ways of retrieving the ship’s cargo of minerals, as treasure trove.
Salvage experts said it couldn’t be done, and the ship had been abandoned to the insurance company but du Preez raised finance – mortgaging his home – to erect a crane on a cliff top to secure the cargo from the stricken ship on the rocks below.
All went well, and du Preez looked like becoming rich, until on the eve of the operation starting a roaring storm lifted the ship off the rocks and dumped it deeper at sea, out of reach.
Du Preez was ruined. He looked to Johannsburg as the city in South Africa where he could earn the most money to pay his debts, the metropolis the Zulus call eGoli, the place of gold. He immediately secured a well-paid sub-editing position on the country’s biggest selling daily newspaper, the Star.
Next venture for du Preez was to buy surplus eggs, released from storage in government warehouses. By this time he had moved to a house in a rural area on the outskirts of Johannesburg where rents were cheaper. The house was on a main road and at weekends he sold the eggs at the roadside, claiming they were newly farm laid. For effect, he speckled them with chicken droppings from a few hens in had a in a coop in his backyard.
It proved a “nice little earner”, as he would say, that helped to clear his debits but it was never enough to launch any new business initiatives. Instead Duncan de Preez turned to drink, and outlining lavish plans for attaining wealth that all his colleagues knew would never reach fruition.
Wherever du Preez held court, in the Star office or over the street in the Elizabeth Hotel, he would always draw a crowd.
Bentley was drawing a small crowed himself, his colleagues gathered around him at the end of their shift on the Chronicle, as he told of the incredible life of Duncan du Preez.
One afternoon in the Elizabeth Hotel du Preez complained that the mossies, or sparrows, in his garden were eating the produce of a vegetable patch he had started, and tended lovingly each evening with drops of precious water after the African sun had set.
Bentley said a Star colleague recommend that du Preez get a shotgun to shoot the sparrows, and another said he had a shotgun that du Preez could borrow. Next day the shotgun and cartridges arrived at the Elizabeth Hotel after work but there was an air of disquiet and concern in the journalists’ bar because du Preez had had a little more Mellowood than usual, and for once was showing the effects of drink.
He was packed off early with the shotgun, the journalists saying the earlier he got home, the longer he would have to sober up before away at the sparrows. Du Preez’s wife, who worked as an official of the stock exchange, was phoned to be told of his activities, and warned not to venture into the garden when she arrived home.
Du Preez was in early next morning, earlier than usual. The sun was well behind the mine dumps and the city streets were bathed in darkness. Du Preez sat at his desk, sullen as the other sub-editors arrived.
“Well how’s it go,Duncan?” one of the sub-editors inquired. Du Preez remained silent for a moment and then told his story.
“Well, I got home. I put a chair by the kitchen window, overlooking my vegetable patch. And I loaded the gun with cartridges, and I made myself a coffee.
“I tell, you, I’m sitting by the window. I got my coffee there and a tumbler of Mellowood. And I’m waiting.”
“At first the little fokkers didn’t come. And then one or two mossies. Having my vegetables. And I waited. I waited for as many as possible, and they would get the message.
“And then more came, and I was ready. I took a sip of coffee, a slog of brandewyn. And boom!
“Bliksem! The window crashed all around me. The frame was flying out to the garden, ripped from the walls. I had forgotten to open the window.”
Duncan looked sheepish now, one by one eyeing the sub-editors gathered around him.
“But you know chaps, you know the hard part. It was facing the missus when she got home.”
Two nights later, having given up on shooting sparrows, du Preez had another reason to get home early. His son, a student studying medicine, was bringing home a new girlfriend for dinner. The son disapproved of du Preez’s drinking and there was tension between them. Du Preez had been warned by his wife to get home in good time, and to arrive sober.
Du Preez as usual went to the Elizabeth Hotel but was careful not to have his usual intake of brandewyn and didn’t buy his usual half bottle of Mellowood to take home with him. There would be no drinking this evening, apart from a glass or two of wine with dinner.
Dr Preez’s colleagues waved him off cheerily, wishing him well for an evening that had obviously been playing on du Preez’s mind. He hadn’t been his jovial self all day.
Within 10 minutes du Preez was back in the hotel bar. He had not been able to find his car, parked in its usual place off Diagonal Street behind the Star building and after searching adjoining streets he had come to the realisation that it had in fact been stolen.
The Star’s crime reporter was in the bar and he phoned contacts at John Vorster Square police headquarters, to ensure that the matter of Duncan du Preez’s stolen car was given the attention it deserved. The reporter returned from the pub’s phone to say that an alert had gone out to all cars to be on the look-out for it.
Du Preez then phoned for a taxi and, once again as he went to the first-floor lift, there were cheerful farewells, and expressions of support for the evening that lie ahead.
Minutes later as du Preez headed through the labyrinth of backstreets surrounding the Star building, he suddenly saw his car parked in a street he rarely used. He had been so preoccupied with the evening ahead that he had forgotten where he had parked it early that morning.
Du Preez ordered the taxi driver to halt, paid him and then settled into the driving seat of his car, and headed out of the town. His foot was hard on the accelerator to ensure he made it home in good time, after the delay, and he sped through the Victorian inner city areas of Johannesburg and out into the suburbs.
All of a sudden du Preez heard the wailing of a police car siren and, looking into his rear-view mirror, saw a police car approaching at great speed, its lights flashing.
Du Preez pulled to the side of the road to let the police car pass, and was surprised to find it serving to a halt in front of him, and two police officers, with guns drawn, jumping from the front seats and racing towards his vehicle.
“Hand to sides,” they shouted, in Afrikaans, and one of them pulled open the door vigorously and hauled du Preez out of the car and onto the street.
“Silence,” the second officer shouted as du Preez tried to ask them why he was being arrested.
At that moment he remembered the stolen car report, and the fact he had not phoned the police to say he had made a silly mistake and forgotten where he had parked the car. It could all be easily explained, he reasoned sitting there on the pavement close to the open door of his car, and he gave one of the police officers a weak smile.
Du Preez was not to win over the officers with his usual charm and good humour, honed from watching his bank manager father operate among the boers in the dry Karoo. The police officers patrolling a different world, the tough highways and byways of the City of Gold, had smelled brandewyn on his breath, the sweet pungent smell of Mellowood.
“You been drinking, meneer?” one of them inquired.
“Just one or two,” du Preez replied as he was handed a breathalyser and told to blow. He was four times over the limit, and promptly arrested.
Du Preez’s strained relationship with his son, and the nascent one with the woman who would become his daughter-in-law, was not enhanced when the du Preez family, sitting down to an overcooked dinner, received a call from an officer at John Vorster Square. They were told, tersely, and in a formal police language that makes no allowance for circumstance and the human predicament, that Duncan du Preez had been arrested on suspicion of driving a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol and would be spending the night in the cells.