Mvezo village, Umtata, is the birthplace of Nelson Mandela who was only released from prison in February 1990. Nine months later the main square in the centre of Umtata had been decked out with gazebos, a massive stage had been erected, loads of bunting and enough plastic chairs to seat the nation were in place. This was a big occasion and there was feverish excitement over the launch of the Transkei lottery ‘SCORE-A-LOT’. Hundreds of black and white footballs, the Score-a-lot signature, were placed around the square ready for the ‘kick-off’.The President, Major-General Bantu Holomisa, was preparing to make the keynote speech and launch Transkei’s first ever lottery. We were up at the crack of dawn and off to the ‘Score-a-lot’ offices to make sure the organisers, administrators and ticket sellers were ready. The promotion over many weeks had been conducted well and everyone expected a massive number of tickets to be sold as is usual on the first day of any lottery.
Not surprisingly there was bedlam at the offices with hundreds of ticket sellers scrabbling, shouting and wrestling to make sure they kept their place in the queue to get the first tickets. The issuing staff was about to be put under pressure they had never experienced before so I could imagine right then that there would be some major administrative cock-ups around the corner. Thousands of Rands in cash were about to change hands during the next 12 hours and whenever there is that amount of cash flying around even the best controls will be tested. More on that later.
Launch ceremony and partying
It was fast approaching mid-summer and not unexpectedly Umtata was extremely hot, even though it was before 9am. I was praying that the opening ceremony would not last too long as just the thought of sitting under the blazing sun on plastic chairs beneath tarpaulin gazebos made me sweat profusely. In real-time I was more akin to a human waterfall and there was hardly enough drinking water available to avert possible de-hydration. I was too naïve about African culture and my prayers were not answered.
Opportunities like this are rarely missed and ceremonies, parties and anything of a celebratory nature will be kept going as long as possible. Anyone who could pretend to play an instrument or bang a drum became part of many bands and, of course, there is no African on the continent who can’t dance. Quantity not quality is always the order of the day and the streets were filled with revellers from dawn till dusk. No South African party would ever be considered without the ubiquitous Braai (barbecue). God knows how many cows met their Waterloo as the smell of countless sizzling steaks, ribs and boerewors (sausage) saturated the Umtata air all day long.
As usual ‘pap’ accompanied the meat. Pap is a traditional porridge/polenta made from mielie-meal (cornflour) and a staple food of the black Africans of Southern Africa. Often called ‘mieliepap’ it is traditionally dished up with the braaied meat and the dish is known by every South African as ‘pap en vleis’.
Not many parties are complete without the booze. Castle lager is the most famous of South African beers but the rural black South Africans still drink sorghum beer which is a brownish-pink beverage with a fruity, sour taste. Sorghum beer is high in protein and very thirst-quenching.
The beer is a popular drink primarily amongst the black community for historical reasons. African sorghum beer is said to be a traditional drink of the Zulu people of Southern Africa. It also became popular amongst the black community in South Africa, in part because the only exception to the prohibition, which was lifted in 1962 and only applied to black people, was sorghum beer.
Every speaker, and there were many, made sure they occupied the podium as long as they could or wanted. By the time President Holomisa, to much whooping and chanting, cut the tape and announced that the Transkei Lottery was launched and ‘Score-a-lot’ was now open for business, the few white faces in the audience were wilting badly.
There wasn’t anything for us to do now as Umtata erupted into mass hysteria. Sellers were running out of tickets at an alarming rate as the whole population converged on them expecting, with every ‘scratch card’ bought, to land a big one. How were they to know that the ‘scratch card’ lottery business is highly engineered and, yes, while there are many small winners there are few big-uns. We made our way to the offices to see how things were going just as the top sellers were piling back in to replenish their stock of tickets. Score-a-lot’s first day would have made the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange seem like a tea-party.
If there was anyone in control it wasn’t apparent as we made our way out of town to a quiet place for lunch and a gallon or two of water.
No real surprises
Whilst the first day of trading was, as with most lottery launches, hectic to say the least it came as no surprise when we learned later that at around 5pm Score-a-lot’s office was the target of a gang of amateur armed robbers. Thankfully no-one was injured and fortunately the gangsters were apprehended by the security forces before they got too far. I do not know what fate befell them.
After that day people gradually returned to work and Score-a-lot operated in an orderly fashion. It pulled in many thousands of Rands daily which delighted us as we were the exclusive ticket suppliers. But as, I suppose, you would expect the temptation for some of the hundreds of poor ticket sellers was too much and cash began to leak regularly. Balancing the books became a nightmare as stories of mugging and theft of tickets became the norm over the ensuing months.
By then I had travelled on to Cape Town over Christmas, flown back to Durban and returned home to England for a while.
James King is a writer, blogger and photo-artist. Born in England, he travelled to over 20 countries and in 1995 emigrated to South Africa. In 2011 James moved to Thailand, in semi-retirement, where he built and sold one house, renovated another, wrote various e-books and started a blog (jamoroki.com).