Peter the cockroach killer

The Principal of the University of Natal during much of the 1960s, Professor Owen Horwood, and I had a less than cordial relationship and we had several run-ins.

(For background, Horwood later joined the National Party (apartheid) Government as the Minister of Finance. He was married to Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith’s sister. Quite a toxic combo for what prided itself on being a liberal university.)

The story begins

Circa 1966 I was doing an honours degree part-time at the university and teaching at the Montclair Primary School. One day, Horwood banned the SRC and a student protest meeting the SRC had organised.

The banned student leaders approached me (as a former SRC president). I think Roger Hulley was the SRC President at the time. After discussion, I agreed to attend the banned meeting and read the speech that the SRC President had intended to make, and then I led a spontaneous protest to the Principal’s office.

The Sunday Times published a picture of me addressing the protesting students outside the admin building. The result was a double whammy.

Fired and fired again

The pictures led, after a tortuous process, to the Natal Education Department sacking me (a primary school teacher) for “undermining discipline at a sister institution” (meaning the university!). In parallel, the university instituted its own disciplinary processes against me and eventually barred me from the campus. So, I was no longer a student and also unemployed.

Job hunting

Initially, I wrote the the Daily News applying for a job. I received an invitation to an interview, which I did not receive until several months later! In this instance, not SAPO’s fault. The letter had been filed in a ‘never looked in’ drawer by the housekeeper in the house that I was sharing.

So, thinking the Daily News had ignored me, I placed an advert in The Natal Mercury: “Graduate, willing to do anything legal”. I soon got a response from a Mr Steyn, the owner of Service Master, the pest control company.

I was soon employed as a Service Master trainee pest controller, primary job to kill cockroaches by spraying inside houses. Within I week I was fitted out in the company uniform, supplied with a car and trained in the art of cockroach spraying. I was ready to be let loose on Service Master customers.

Kharma strikes

The first house listed at the top of the day’s worksheet was the Principal’s Residence at the Univerity of Natal. I fleetingly thought of explaining to Mr Steyn why this was a very bad idea. But I decided to hope for the best and get on with the job.

I parked in the driveway, and knocked on the door of the Principal’s residenece.

Mrs Horwood opened it. She looked shocked and treated me a bit like I would expect someone to treat a known serial killer. “What do you want,” she asked.

“I have come to kill your cockroaches,” I replied, smiling.

Mrs H slams the door

Wait here,” she replied, firmly slamming the front door in my face. I could hear her talking to her husband, Professor Horwood, on the phone. He obviously decided not to cause a fuss.

She opened the door again: “You can come in.”

Then follows suspiciously

We (my assistant and I) pumped up our cockroach spray pumps and proceeded into the house. Mrs Horwood followed us suspiciciously from room to room. She looked particularly jumpy while I was spraying in the drawers and closets in her bedroom. After finishing, I asked her to sign the jobcard, and we were on our way to the next assignment.

One gets an interesting and rather intimate insight into the lives of people when one is opening every drawer and cupboard in their homes. What they wear, the colours they choose and more. The Horwood home was my first such insight.

The next time

The next time I interacted with the Horwoods was in 1970 as a Daily News reporter covering an election meeting that he was was addressing on behalf of the National (apartheid) Party.

He and Mrs Horwood were sitting on the stage at the front of the hall. I saw her lean over, tap his shoulder, and point to me. He did a double-take and then waved. Afterwards, he was very affable (hoping for good coverage?). She hung well back.

A year or so later I was appointed Youth Director of the Progressave Party in the Natal Coast Region. But that is another story.

3 thoughts on “Peter the cockroach killer

  1. I remember Owen’s boet, Billy, a friend of my Dad’s in my early years in Plumstead. My father was scathing of Opposition members who crossed the floor for a cabinet post such as Marais Steyn and men he deemed intelligent enough such as Owen, not to be drawn into NP politics for a post.
    Perhaps you don’t know that Owen was the brother-in-law of ex-Rhodesian PM Ian Smith (their wives were sisters), which might partially explain her attitude to pest controllers.
    Quite recently I read an account of the destitution of famous English pre-war batsman Wally Hammond, whom Owen rehabilitated by importing and employing as a groundsman on the Natal campus.
    Most memorable is the play on the surnames of Alf Trollip (another English UP who crossed the floor for a cabinet post) and Owen Horwood – “WHO WOULD FOLLOW A TROLLOP (prostitute) INTO THE NAT CABINET?” – ONLY A WHORE WOULD!


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