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With the world under his feet

At one time Thielman Klaas was like most other people. When he walked, he walked with both feet on the ground. But in 1972 his life changed. He got a job – and now you won’t find him next to you on the ground. If you want to find him, look up high, high into the sky.

Thielman Klaas is a crane driver on a building site. He sits in a small box high above the ground. Just below the aeroplanes, he will tell you. And from his little box in the sky, he moves concrete, planks and tools from one part of the building site to the other.

Learn and Teach bravely climbed up the crane to talk to Thielman. We got ourselves full of oil and grease. But it was fun and interesting. We saw Johannesburg from the heavens. And we heard about the life and work of our new friend, Thielman Klaas.

“I was born in Lady Frere in the Transkei. Lady Frere is a small place and everybody knows everybody else. The people in the village use only one small piece of land to feed their animals. They do this because there is not enough land.

So we boys were like a community on our own. We sat together and looked after the animals in this place. We were living like one man’s sons. We treated each other like brothers.

Then big changes came to us. It was not only a big change but a sad one too. My friends got contracts and left home. They went to work in far away towns and cities. I was still at school at that time. I felt very much alone.

Some of them were even younger than myself. When they came home, they were like different people. They spoke a different language. They spoke about money, marriage and their own cattle.

What could I say when people started talking this language? I did not say a word because I did not have money. I could not talk about marriage. The young boys did not even respect me. To them I was just a small boy.

So in the end I joined my friends as a worker. I left Lady Frere and came to Johannesburg. My first job was on a building site. Then they sent me to Cape Town with a group of young and old men. We worked at the Cape Town University.

After making tea I went around to the workers. I collected money for tea break. I loved that job because the workers were kind to me. I made tea.

But there was one thing I didn’t like about that job. There were young workers there – younger than me. They called me “shop-boy”. I hated that name like nothing. I warned them many times. But they did not listen. This name was in their blood.

One day all the crane drivers were away. The old Portuguese man came to me and said, “Mina ka fundisa wena lo crane – I’m going to teach you to drive the crane.” And so I followed him up the crane.

Going up the crane for the first time was not an easy thing. Every step was very hard. My arms were painful and tired. When I looked down, I heard my heart knocking. I didn’t feel so good that day.

I was tired. I stood there and held on very tightly. There is a lot of wind up there – much more wind than on the ground. My clothes began to blow and shake. And my eyes began to water from the wind. I stood there crying like a small child. I was scared. But I stayed up there because I wanted to drive the crane.

The old man told me about all the buttons on the crane. He touched each button to show me what it did. After lunch I drove the crane without his help. I made no mistake. If it was a motor car driving test, then I would have passed first time.

The crane driver came back to work the next day. And I went back to work on the ground. But when the crane driver worked overtime, I stayed with him. I did not get paid. I just wanted to learn – that’s all. The crane driver was not a jealous man. He helped me to learn.

One day the Portuguese foreman climbed up the crane and said to the old crane driver, “Wena ka lo sebenza naye yena lo yazi lo crane OK”.

“He is welcome,” the old driver said. And from that day we worked together.

The crane makes a person very tired. So the boss hires two people for this work. One drives the crane and the other stands on the ground. He shows the driver where the crane must go.

After lunch the driver comes down and the other worker goes up.

Then I left the job because the bosses insulted me. The gears of the crane got jammed – and the bosses said it was my fault. They said I didn’t know how to drive the crane. I went for a walk and didn’t go back.

I got another job. I told the foreman, “I can drive the crane”. But he did not believe me. So we went up together and he said, “Swing to the right. Swing to the left. Trolly out. Trolly in.” I did it all – no problems. And I got the job.

I like my job. But sometimes I think too much. When there is no work, I look in the direction of Lady Frere. I think a lot about my girlfriend. No, I won’t tell you her name. When I think of her then I think about home – and all my promises to her. She rings too much in my mind.

You know, I always watch the rich men. They drive around with their wives in big company cars. But I don’t need a car. I wouldn’t mind if my love sat with me up here. We could watch the little life down there together.

When I am up the sky I don’t always worry about my girl and my home. When they don’t need the crane for a few hours, I sometimes just switch off and sleep. And I forget about the world under my feet.


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