The terrible fault lines left by apartheid run very deep. Mostly the disturbances they cause
pass unnoticed. Not part of any statistics. Not cause for any marches. But sometimes there’s a reminder. This story is one of those reminders. It is all true. Only the names are fictional.
In a post-apartheid middle class Johannesburg primary school, there was William, grave, small for his ten years, his shoes a little heavy for his thin legs. He walked with a rather measured tread which immediately endeared him to me, because it reminded me of my grandfather who came from Northampton, where people are known for their studied steps. He would appear on the threshold of my classroom on Tuesday afternoons for extra English; he would pause and greet me courteously before entering, then decorously seat himself opposite me, eyes wide and solemn.
To start with he was quiet, a little stiff. In the conversations between us, the rules of English seemed to become like the dictates of an irascible and illogical old lady, too old to be bothered with consistency or logic. Because he was keen to learn and also hard-working, William would have preferred some hard and fast guidelines.
“First we say “cough”, then we say “through”, then we say “tough!”’, with a sad shake of his head.
However, he came to accept the vagaries of the old lady, because of the riches she yielded. He spent a lot of time in the school library and talked about what he had read. He would melt a little, become expansive, start telling me stories, making jokes. These were heralded by a crinkling on the outside corners of his eyes, which would shift to a twinkle.
“Do you know how many active volcanoes there are in the world?”
“No. How many?”
“One thousand five hundred,” slowly, with great emphasis. “But don’t be worried. None of them are near us.”
I imagined that he came from a home where people listened to each other. It seemed clear that he was a well-loved child, who knew he was a source of joy to his mother. He became one of those delights that lightens the increasingly onerous burdens of teaching.
But at the beginning of the following year, he was disturbingly different. Now he was in my Arts and Culture class.
He would slouch to the back, silent, heavy, producing no work, bringing no file, shrugging dumbly when I inquired about these things. Anxiety, exasperation, irritation, wrath; I went through them all. I tried talking to him. I gave him the usual demerits and detentions – all to no avail. He was a non-person in my lessons. I ambushed him alone, wanting to understand what had brought about this change, but the face and the silence remained stony.
More anxious than ever, I spoke to him again in the second term. He could not continue this way. Clearly, something was seriously amiss in his life. Could we not sort it out? The same stony silence. Well, if he couldn’t discuss it with me, was there someone else he might like to discuss it with? Still stony silence. Mr D, perhaps (a lovely humane man)? A reluctant nod. So, I sent him off to Mr D, checked that a conversation had taken place and concerned myself with more urgent but less important educational matters: the correct completion of my register, mark deadlines, meetings, book perusals, forms. William produced a grubby file at the next lesson and started doing a little work. I allowed myself to feel a little hopeful.
One third term morning, I was sitting on a step at the edge of the playground, on duty. I became aware that William had just slumped disconsolately onto a tree stump a little way behind me. He’d taken to associating with younger boys and they’d been playing marbles on a bare patch of ground. There was a sudden rising of exasperated voices. William was apparently being irritating, and, in the definite terms that little boys use, he was being told so.
“William, dude, you can’t just throw your ghoen like that!”
“Stop it, William, man! Give those ironies back. We’re playing for keeps!’ Now William’s head was bowed, the brim of his white floppy hat hiding his face. But sliding off his chin and plopping down into the dust were treacherous tears.
“Hey, you guys! Now he’s crying!” The younger boys clustered around him, peering up under the brim. No place to hide in a rule-bound school.
“William,’ I said, ‘would you like to sit in my classroom for a bit?’ Without a word he took my keys and went.
After break I found him. He didn’t want to talk.
“You seem to be so unhappy,” I said. Bowed head. “I know you don’t want to talk about it to me, but I think you need to talk about it to someone.” Bowed head. “Nobody should be so unhappy all alone.” Bowed head. “Does your mother know how unhappy you are?” Bowed head, then anguished sobs.
I’d touched the tender spot. Out it all came. From the beginning of the year, he had no longer been allowed to live with his mother. She was a domestic worker and until the end of the previous year, he had lived with her in the backyard of her employers’ home. But at Christmas time her employers had emigrated. Now she had a new job in Bryanston, and her new employers would not allow William to live with her in their yard. He had to stay with his aunt in Klipspruit. He was permitted to visit his mother certain Saturday afternoons. He caught taxis alone to school, to his mother. No, his aunt and her family were not unkind. He was his mother’s only child.
I discussed the matter with two sympathetic staff members. The short-term solution seemed to be to find domestic work for his mother nearby. Nearby and with understanding employers. It didn’t seem hopeful. And anyway, we weren’t quick enough.
Two weeks later William wasn’t at school. Breathless children came to my garden gate that afternoon with the bad news. He had been knocked down by a car. He had been only a few hundred metres from his aunt’s place in Klipspruit. On his way home from school. Killed instantly. He’d just alighted from the taxi.
I imagined his small figure, head bowed, schoolbag heavy, plodding through the dust, not caring much.
The big funeral was held far away in Bushbuck Ridge. A memorial service was held at the school. His mother came. Like him, she was slight and gentle. Nevertheless she climbed the steps onto the stage to address the whole assembly. I saw her son’s gravity and courtesy. She thanked the school for the money collected for William’s funeral. She wanted to say how grateful she was for the opportunity he’d had to get a good education. That was very, very important to her. And she was grateful for the kindness and care of the teachers. She had always trusted that he was in very good hands. She had always known that they were doing their best for him. She had faith in our school.
Of his ever having been unhappy she made no mention and nor did I. The fault lines separated us.
Lying empty on the floor at my feet, the worn leather holdall is a thing of beauty, harking back to a time of artisanal labours of love, quality and long life. It conjures the image of a dog lying close by, one of protective companionship.
Beautiful as it is, it’s not an easy carry. When full, the narrow strap doesn’t feel robust enough to hold its weight and the handles although strong, require the arm to be held at an unnatural angle if one is to avoid bruising one’s calves, and I bruise easily. It is not suited to airline travel, and a seasoned bushwhacker might argue that it wouldn’t be useful on safari either, as dust and unwanted curious creatures may enter the gaps between the zip and beautiful side folds. Even when packing, ideally someone needs to hold it open whilst you load it up. So why the sentimentality? Why the unnecessary friction to reclaim it during the breakup of my marriage? I had in fact gifted to my husband, then insisted that because it had belonged to Spike, it was mine.
I’m woken by a loud knock at the door, it’s pre-dawn on a Sunday morning. I sit bolt upright and scream a single scream. I’ve no idea why. My husband gets up and goes to the door. I hear voices, him asking what’s going on and their insistence that they need to talk to me. I venture down the open wooden staircase that separates the lounge and dining room of our Victorian home. James turns, concerned at once for me, the situation and the sheerness of a simple but pretty cotton nightie and my naked body beneath. The nightie had belonged to my late mother. She’d passed on 14 months earlier and I’d kept it when Spike and I had packed up her home in Durban. James and I had married, two months ahead of our planned wedding so she could be part of our celebration and union. After beginning married life as a grieving wife, it had felt good to say to the bereavement counsellor two weeks earlier, that I could feel spring in the air, I could notice the world around me again.
I take myself immediately to the couch, perhaps for the modesty sitting might provide whilst also intuiting I’d not be stable on my feet. The two young policemen remain in the doorway, not wanting to intrude and to ensure a hasty getaway. They reconfirm who I am and ask me what car my brother drove. They say there’s been an accident. I hear myself: ‘Is he ok?”
Images of hospitals and injuries flash through my mind. More bedside care; the world I’ve been all too familiar with in the final months in the lives of both my parents.
“I’m afraid he didn’t make it.”
James, who is standing midway between the police at the door and me on the couch, rushes over exclaiming loudly “She’s lost all her family”, as he wraps his arms around me.
I feel numb, the words seemingly hanging midway in the air. If I could only keep them suspended there, then I’d not have to feel the full blow of their impact. Instead I imagine these two young policemen on duty at the station, almost at the end of their Saturday all night shift, receiving the call from their colleagues in the Franschhoek station, possibly even drawing straws as to who would go. Is this their first time? Did I make a lousy job, a little easier? I marvel at how quickly I’ve been informed. Learning only later that the car windscreen had blown out, flinging the bag on the passenger seat out of the vehicle as it flipped on it’s head and caught alight. Spike, with a little Moleskin book that must have been fairly new, had listed me as his next-of-kin, address and all. If only he’d have been as thorough as to complete that will template I’d given him some months earlier and would find lying in its cellophane wrapper in his desk drawer in his office at the wine cellar.
I’m standing in my kitchen, preparing a spontaneous meal with my new, big love, sharing the spaces of uncertainty and anticipation ahead of this Life Righting Course I’m going on in the morning and these objects I need to take along…and I begin the story of the policemen at the door and my voice cracks all over again, tears prick my eyes and we are both taken by surprise. Some hours later, after a beautiful evening I walk him to his car, a Land Rover, and am reminded for the first time in decades of the awful fights with the man in KZN over the Land Rover Spike had bought, had customized and not yet taken delivery of at the time of his death. Me, screeching in desperation at the hole ripped right through me by the thought of journeying through life without my younger brother, accompanied instead by this worn, leather holdall…an awkward bag, so difficult to carry.
Two years ago, I went into Musica at Canal Walk, and staring at me was Gary Moore from a Vinyl Cover, what we used to call an LP. I rushed for the earphones and asked the shop assistant to play the LP. I listened, feeling my brother’s presence; the music transported me back thirty years, and we are dancing to Still got the blues and Empty rooms by Gary Moore, and Fantasy by Kool and the Gang in the small room in our council house.
My brother, my Boeta – tall, dark handsome, caring and sensitive – never had a girlfriend, never knew the vices of life, because he was ripped from us on 2 July 1986. Maybe God needed him more.
My brother was the creative one in the family. With no money, all we knew was to go to school, finish matric, work hard so you can get a bursary and then go to university. Art School was not even part of my parents’ vocabulary. Who knows, he could have been our Picasso.
‘Kom gou! Kyk wat ek het gedraw!’ My brother, my little Boeta called Balie, had a light beaming from his eyes. He pointed to a painting of Elvis Presley on the outside wall of our house. It was the exact image of Elvis. He was only 9 years old.
Our three-roomed council house was home to six children and two adults, with an outside toilet. Warm water was a luxury and once a week we placed a big pot of water on a coal stove for our proper bath. Life was not easy, but we persevered. As long as we had food to eat, things were fine. Forget clothes – we all waited for hand-me-downs from my mother’s employer. Holidays did not exist, something I still struggle with today. My dear father worked two jobs to keep us afloat and to avoid having to take us out of school to work in a factory. That was and still is the norm on the Cape Flats.
My mother was very strict and disciplined. She made us believe that it is only through education that we could get ahead in life – it was ’our ticket out of poverty’.
Her famous words: ‘Paradise for some and hell for others’, so is this life. She meant paradise for white people and hell for black people, who we now refer to as people of colour.
Sometimes, when my brother and I would sing and dance to Gary Moore, Cool and the Gang and Elvis Presley, my father would enter the bedroom, and we would stand still in our tracks, feeling shy. We would wait for my father to leave the room and continue our beat.
My dad knew this and teased us. We would be happy.
While we were growing up, my brother slept in my parents’ room. Late at night, in the dark, I would creep into their room and feel the small bed next to my parent’s bed, checking to see whether my brother was there.
We used to play marbles, we kicked the ball and played kennetjie together. When we were small we even slept together on a mattress of ghoema hare. Sometimes our bronze coins would fall into the hole and we spent hours looking for the few cents because it is money for sweets! Only never to find the money. Oh! the disappointment.
Every Thursday, we would go to my father’s work to collect his weekly salary. Our first stop on the way home was a small café, where I would buy a big chocolate for us, then Pick ‘n Pay in Woodstock where we would buy the weekly groceries. Later my father would meet us at Pick ‘n Pay, and we would catch the bus home with my father, carrying bags of groceries.
My dad built a pond for the ducks in the back yard. He made a hole in the ground and cemented it with bricks. My papa loved animals, soft and kind-hearted he was, yet strong. My brother and I loved watching the ducks swimming in the pond and the hens hatching their eggs. We loved them so much that we could not eat their eggs and we could not bear the thought of killing them for food. Underneath the coal stove there was a storage place for the wood. In the evening we would convert it into a sleeping place for the chickens and ducks.
’Boeta, ons moet koolblare vir die eende en die hoenders gaan soek’. Every Sunday we woke early to scratch through the bins of the hawkers for green cabbage leaves for our ducks and chickens.
Every alternate week we would go to the hardware shop to buy mealies and grain feed. We pushed our handmade wagon over two fields, avoiding the gangsters. One day a rough girl was picking a fight with me. She wanted to box me with her bare hands; being tough and rough are values that are admired in the community.
The children were beginning to form a circle around us, I was petrified because I had a skirt with a washing peg on instead of a button and was afraid the skirt was going to fall off and I would stand only in my panties! These thoughts were racing through my mind, I cannot let it happen. The other children were eager for the big fight. The rough girl hit me hard in the face, but I held up my skirt with one hand and fought her off with the other. My young brother tried to help me, but he was too small. I had to think on my feet and, for my own dignity and self-respect, I gave up the fight and ended up with a blue eye.
Boeta, I have been feeling your presence around me and I know you are with me, especially now that we have lost both our parents. Remember the time we walked all along the railway line to Simba Chips in Parow? It was the June school holiday and I told you we can go to Simba Chips and peel potatoes to earn money. ’No,’ the white man said, ‘you are too young.’ We were both in primary school. We were so brave.
Trains on the Cape Flats line were and still are a symbol of anguish, suffering and pain, a living hell, as people are rushing to make a living to feed their families. Always a worrying factor – will my loved ones return home safely? .
One cold winter’s morning I rose early, and was rushing to get the 7am train to get to university. I stood in trepidation as I watched the beast entering the platform. The beast, adorned with human beings looking like ornaments: on the roof of the train, at the back of the train, in front of the train, in the windows of the train, between the carriages and the doors, wherever there is a hole it will be filled with people.
The managers and supervisors come from a different world – not knowing what their employees have to endure just to get to work, only to be ridiculed when arriving late.
Paradise for some and hell for others.
I can’t be late, I am writing an exam! I worried. I found a small space in the doorway where I could place my foot. As the train started to move, two hands lifted me up inside. I could have fallen into the tracks. The hands of God, I thought to myself. Usually it was a white conductor that blew the whistle for the train driver to leave the platform; ’Can’t he see? Why does he always blow the whistle so quickly?’ I mumbled to myself.
You have to be quick and swift or else you fall down off the platform. Who cares? Fifty years later nothing has changed, and today the situation is ten times worse. This line is now known as the notorious Central line.
The morning of the 2 July, I had just started working after graduating and took a day’s leave. Rain was falling hard on the asbestos roof.
My father, Babi, asked: ‘Gaan jy nie werk toe nie?’
‘Nie,’ sê ek, ‘ek is met verlof’.’
My brother replied, joking: ’Jy is lui!’ Those were his last words to me.
My brother was tossing and turning in bed, and my father warned him that he was going to miss his train. He liked to make himself two tin cups (bekers) of coffee. My eldest sister would often scold us when we were getting ready in the morning. As a comfort for my brother, I would prepare his two cups of coffee for him.
Maybe my brother wanted to speak to me that morning. Why was I so inattentive? If I wasn’t so half asleep, could I have prevented the tragedy?
That night I sneaked into his room and his bed felt cold. My brother never came home that day. My heart snaked.
Moni, my father’s eldest sister, said, ‘Balie het nie huistoe gekom nie.’
‘Ek moet hom gaan soek, Moni. Ek moet nou die hospitale bel, die polisie bel, miskien het iets met hom gebeur?’’ My father picked up the phone and started dialling.
I was twenty-one years old and did not know what to say … my poor dad.
‘Ä young man fell out of the train between Bontheuwel and Netreg station between 7 and 8am,’ the policeman told my father over the phone.
’They said he broke his neck and he died. We must now see if it is Balie’.
The rain was falling down hard and it was dark. I could not see in front of me as I drove behind my uncle to the mortuary in Salt River. I was still a learner driver.
My father came out with tears in his eyes. ’Dit is Balie…. ons moet hom huistoe vat.’ We put my brother in my uncle’s car, and drove in silence in the pouring rain to our house, tears streaming down my face.
It is tradition that the men prepare the body for the funeral, wrapping him in linen cloth. The sun had already set and it was too late to bury my brother that day, so we had to wait for the next day. My male cousins and uncles washed and embalmed his body for burying and laid his body on a cartel, or burial bed, in my parent’s room. Later, I took my mattress and I put it on the floor next to him and spent the night with him. It offered me a little comfort. My heart was outside of my body for a very long time.
Early the next morning when we woke, although no one had really slept, my mother went into a kind of silent coma. She never said a word, and carried him in her heart until it was her time to pass.
‘Balie, ek wil vir jou om vergifnis vra as ek nie ‘n goeie Pa vir jou gewees het nie.’ Tears welled and spilled down my father’s cheeks before he put the cottonwool over my brother’s face. ’Kom ons moet nou vir Balie groet … en ons moet sy gesig toemaak.’
I kissed my brother on the forehead, looked at him, and noticed that there was a smile on his face. ‘How can it be, he died so tragically, and he is smiling!’ My father closed my brother’s handsome face and wrapped a fez and linen around, and then the men took him away to be buried.
At the funeral people we didn’t know came to us and said that he always bought them food from the little money he received as pocket money.
One day I went to study at a friend’s house. As I arrived, her flat mate said; ‘Is your brother tall? Does he have a smile on his face?’ I replied yes, and she said: ‘He just walked in with you.’
Another time she told me she opened my bedroom door at 3am in the morning and she saw him sitting on my bed.
My brother, the gentle soul, turned twenty-one on 16 June 1986, and on 03 July 1986 he passed on. The meat that he bought for his twenty-first birthday was also used for food at his funeral.
Thirty-one years later my mom got ill and was hospitalized on the 28 June. I thought that it is strange, so close to Balie’s passing.
My mom slipped into a coma, and she passed on the same day my brother passed. She waited for the same date. We buried her on the same day we buried my brother.
This is my story, but so many other tears have fallen: mothers and fathers burying their children, untimely deaths, gone too soon.