‘The little white lie that could have landed me in jail’

Aug 02, 2019
Robyn was working the telephone switchboard in Johannesburg when her little 'white lie' became known. Source: Getty Images

In 1974 ‘apartheid’ Johannesburg, South Africa, I found myself having to tell a — and please excuse the expression — ‘white lie’ to save myself from destitution and starvation. And I very nearly came unstuck.

I raise my hand in acknowledgement that in my life, from time to time, I have fibbed and bent the truth in order to achieve some ‘better for me’ outcome but without sacrificing another’s comfort or achievement. However, this fib could have had me arrested, jailed and deported and I was legitimately and honestly frightened.

The early to mid-1970s saw many Aussie young adventurers travelling the world, spring boarding from one country to another, one job to another. Australians were greatly favoured as employees of choice because employers knew the Oz creed was ‘work hard, play hard’; and we knew not to mix the two.

As great an experience as it was to work, play and live in London, England our little group decided we could not spend another grey, cloudy, cold winter there; “South Africa looks good this time of year”. Job prospects then determined the ‘where’, so it was Johannesburg here we come.

In those days, flying from London to Johannesburg necessitated a re-fuelling stop in Kinshasa, on the Congo (now, the capital and the largest city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo). The problem was, even though we eventually landed in Johannesburg, our luggage did not. Scuttlebutt suggested our fashionable London clothes may be a tad out of place in such a remote West African fishing and trading village. Ho-hum.

Airlines in those days did not compensate adequately particularly when inexperienced travellers packed cash and traveller’s cheques in their luggage for safe keeping. Yes, you heard right! Youth is the time to make monumental friggin’ mistakes, okay!

Focus: No money, no clothes. Urgent: get a job.

Interview: Shipping Company for an English speaking dictaphone typist. Can-do all the secretarial stuff; aced the typing test; working visa; no criminal record. What’s this? Bilingual? Why would I need to be bilingual? I have limited conversational German so, okay, yes I’m bloody desperate and let’s hope my employers have a sense of humour if push comes to shove. Tick, tick, tick. Liar liar pants on fire.

The first four weeks sailed by; as I said, employers loved Australians and our work ethic. Then, one memorable day, I was told I would start lunch time relief switchboard duties the following day. Panic: why?

Back in the day, Afrikaans, a West Germanic/Dutch language, was spoken by over 60 per cent of the population of Johannesburg. If someone spoke to you in Afrikaans it was actually illegal to respond in anything other than Afrikaans. Illegal!

There I was being told I have to relieve on a switchboard and my bilingual ‘white lie’ was coming back to bite me on the bum. I ‘fessed up to a few understanding South African colleagues because I didn’t want to be thrown in jail and deported. Trust me, it was no idle threat.

To this day I remember the phrase that I parrot-like repeated whenever a caller spoke in Afrikaans: “Hou die lyn ‘n oomblik asseblief”

“Hold the line a moment please”.

It gave me enough time to source an Afrikaans speaking colleague who was willing to help and, do you know what, not one of my South African workmates ever dobbed me in. They appreciated the ‘black humour’ of my ‘white lie’ in the midst of this absurd apartheid regime and the ridiculously strict rules that could have seen me tottin’ that barge and liftin’ that bale.

Dankie ouens. Thanks guys.

Have you ever told a little ‘white lie’ to avoid something? How serious was it?

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