In the late 1950s, three daughters of Willie and Kokkie Erwee, Louna, Obie and Bettie, worked on the telephone exchanges at Bot River and Kleinmond. Those were the days of free local calls, when there was a “live” operator. All calls were recorded on cards including the duration of each call and frequently the operator had to interrupt to say “three minutes were up” and consequently overheard many conversations.
The farm lines were wonderful hives of gossip when most were shared or party lines. News of births and deaths and everything else spread like wildfire; the exchange ladies knew everyone and everything!
Bettie remembers that the Kleinmond Exchange closed at 9pm each evening and that all calls were re-routed to Gordon’s Bay which had staff on 24 hour duty. She used to phone the nearby Police Station for an escort home – it was very dangerous for a young woman to walk home at night in Kleinmond at the time!
The Bot River exchange where Obie worked was the basis for the Television Show “Nommer Asseblief” in which Miems de Bruyn was the actress. Exchanges could borrow “Main Lines” from each other and one evening Caledon exchange had asked Obie in Bot River for a line to Kleinmond where Louna was on duty. The line was busy for a long time and it was almost time to close the exchange.
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Obie listened in and overheard her boyfriend making arrangements to visit Louna, her older sister for the weekend; they had no idea through which exchange the call had been routed! Obie waited for a chance to surprise them. A few days later Jan phoned Obie to arrange to take her home for the weekend. She confronted him in the car with the story and he drove on to Kleinmond. He later married Louna!!
Needless to say you could not be “skelm” on the phone in those days.
The country people were always very kind to the girls on the exchange at Bot River. Each evening between 6 and 7pm, local residents would send pancakes, baked fish and other treats to enjoy during a long nine hour shift. There was a lot of give and take and everyone was willing to do favours for one another. When the Postmaster was busy with a telegram which was sent in Morse Code nobody could disturb him. Only at those times were they allowed to leave the board to attend to people at the counter and to accept or deliver the post.
The farm people were always very hospitable: “picking us up one evening after our shift to stay on local farms, and delivering us back the next morning in time for work.”
Words such as stress and overtime did not exist – they always answered the phone “Nommer Asseblief?” with a smile in their voice.
Article re-posted here with kind permission of The Cape Odyssey