In a big farm shed in the quiet countryside of Swaziland, we found a big truck parked on a small, wooden table. A truck on a table? Sounds crazy, but it’s true.
On another day you may find a bus on the table. Or a racing car or a tractor or a concrete mixer or a tow truck. Austin Hleza makes them all.
We watched Austin put the perfectly round clay wheels on the clay truck. He was nearly finished the truck and he looked very proud with himself. We could see that he loves his work.
Is it not strange that a man who makes cars and trucks is called Austin? “It just happened that way,” says Austin, without looking up from his work. “At first I thought I was the only Austin, but these days I find many people with same name.
And so we spent the next few hours watching and talking to Austin Hleza. He told us about his life, his work, and his dreams.
“I grew up in my grandmother’s house in a place called Mpuluzi in the western part of Swaziland,” says Austin. “Mpuluzi is the name of a very small river – a river of a river.
Maybe there was once a man called Mpuluzi, but I don’t know for sure.
“I Iived with my grandmother because my parents split soon after I was born. My mother married another man and went to live in the eastern Transvaal. I saw her only once or twice a year. My father worked for the mines in South Africa. I saw him for the first time when I was in standard five.”
Like many other children who grow up in the countryside, Austin made his own toys. He made all these toys from the clay that he found on the banks of the river.
“There is a lot of good clay in Swaziland,” says Austin. “You can find clay on the banks of every river and every stream. We made little clay people, little clay animals, and little clay motor cars.
“But most of all, we liked to make bulls out of clay. Then we used to fight the bulls. But the bulls did not last for very long. They always broke because we never fired the clay properly. “
When Austin got a bit older, most of his friends stopped playing with clay. But Austin didn’t. His love for clay was too strong.
“The kids at school teased me,” says Austin. “But after a while they stopped laughing. They saw that I was good with clay. They started coming to my house – and they took everything that I made.”
“When I got to standard one, my grandmother told me to leave school. She said that there was no money for my schooling. She said that I was educated enough.”
But Austin did not agree. He did not think that he was ready to leave school. He got a job with a white family and stayed in the servants quarters. He went to school in the mornings. In the afternoons and on weekends he worked in the garden. He got R 10 a month.
“Soon after I finished my junior certificate, the white family left Swaziland and went back to South Africa. I was forced to leave school.
“Some of my friends went to work as mechanics or plumbers. But I decided that I wanted to do pottery. My friends and family thought I was playing. They thought that only old women and kids worked with clay.
Austin went to a pottery school near Mbabane. And for three years Austin learnt how to make all kinds of things. “1 made plates, cups and saucers,” says Austin. “And I made pots, pots and more pots. I learnt much about clay at that school.
Austin did not only learn about clay. After pottery classes, he went to art classes in the evenings. He learnt how to draw and paint. He enjoyed the art. But pottery was his first love.
“1 had a girlfriend at this time,” says Austin. “She was a twin and she was very nice. But she was not very pleased with my pottery. ‘Austin man,’ she always used to say, ‘You are educated. Get a proper job, man’.”
“1 loved her very much and so I listened to her. I got a job as a clerk at the post office. But it was no good. I could never balance the books. I left the post office two years later.”
Austin was now without a job – and without a girlfriend. He packed his things and made his way to the mines in South Africa. There was nothing else he could do.
“1 got a job at a gold mine in Kinross in the eastern Transvaal,” says Austin. “1 thought I could get a nice job because I was educated. I did not want to work underground, that’s for sure. I asked for an office job
“The man in the office looked at me and asked if this was my first time at the mines. I said ‘ves’ with a big smile. The man smiled back at me and said: ‘Underqround, thank you!’
“Before they send you underground, they give you a special course to get you ready. On the last day of the course, I met an old Xhosa man. The old man saw that I had some education and told me to ask again for an office job. I did what he said and I had some luck. I got an office job.
“I was put in charge of level one and level six. I was very happy with myself. But then I got a little surprise. The man in charge of levels has to go down underground to check what’s happening. I couldn’t win.
“And so I rushed into the lifts with the other workers. We had to rush because the doors close so quickly. I lost my watch and I couldn’t even bend down to pick it up. The lift was too crowded.
“And then I got another surprise. After I finished checking level one, I could not catch the lift to level six. I had to walk there.
“The people on the mines are okay. There is food 24 hours a day. And there is plenty of cheap drink. But after only three times underground, I decided that mine work was not for me. I got my money and went straight to the station. I jumped onto the train and went home. I was glad to leave the mine behind me.”
When Austin got back to Swaziland, he got lucky again. His friends were waiting for him. They were starting a crafts workshop with a man from America. And they wanted Austin to work with them. They called the place Mantenga Crafts.
Austin helped to build the place and soon he was doing what he loved best- working with clay. He made all kinds of beautiful things. He worked there for a long time and he loved every minute of it.
At the end of 1982, Austin decided to make a motor car – just like he did when he was still a kid. Maybe he was a little tired of making pots and more pots.
“The first car I made was a funny little car,” says Austin. The car had no steering, no driver and the wheels had no threads. But I knew that I could do better and I kept on trying.”
Austin’s cars got better and better and bigger and bigger. People liked them and soon Austin had a few customers. He left Mantenga Crafts.
Austin began to think about his life. For a long time he has had a dream about the future. If his cars sold well, he could maybe make his dreams come true
“At the moment I live on a doctor’s farm,” says Austin. It’s nice there but I’ve lived there for too long. I want a place of my own.
“I know of just the place where I want to live. The place is called Bhunya. There is lots of clay there and lots of water. There is a small stream on the one side. And on the other side is the great Usutu River.
“There is also a paper mill right there with a mountain of fresh sawdust. I will have as much sawdust as I need for smoking the clay. And it will cost me nothing.
“I will build a small house and work with the community. We will make all kinds of things from the clay. And maybe we could do other things too – like making big, beautiful floor mats. You see, I don’t think people should leave their vilIages when there is so much to be done in the community.
“I want to take my children with me. Already they are getting used to living near towns. This really worries me. I believe town life is not healthy.”
You can now find Austin hard at work in the farm shed. He works seven days a week. He does not want to waste any time.
A month later, Learn and Teach went to FUBA gallery in Johannesburg. Austin Hleza’s work was on show there.
It was the last day of the show – and nearly all the cars and trucks were already sold. We were very pleased for Austin. He is getting closer to his dream. We look forward to visiting him in his little house next to the Great Usutu River.