The Life Righting Collective runs courses to encourage self-exploration through life writing, raises funds for course fees and brings people together to share their stories and grow community.

That was the name given to her by Joanne, our youngest sister, who surely resented her the most. She might have been Mildred or something, and her surname is lost to me, but we knew her as Aunt Millie, and somehow she managed to waddle around on a pair of grossly saturated legs, rather like sandbags, and which defied any laws of physics. She wasn’t really our aunt, but had been a kind neighbour in Kroonstad when our father was growing up, especially when he hid on the roof to avoid the wrath of his own irascible father. Being childless herself, she often gave him a refuge, plus sweet tea and biscuits.

In 1963, we had recently moved into 909 Church Street – a large double-storey house in Arcadia, Pretoria – and were relishing a new sense of space, when this portly stranger suddenly came to live with us along with some heavy furniture, crockery and a budgie. This meant that we four sisters had to squash into one room again, as the idea was that Auntie Millie’s railway widow’s pension would help to pay our rent at a difficult time. She also gave Daddy a lathe and workshop tools that belonged to her late husband, Harold, who had been a train driver. It wasn’t long before Dad had sold all the tools to a neighbour for some cash. I don’t know if Aunt Millie ever knew about this betrayal; but on the other hand, our mother gave her a warm home for the last years of her life, and kindness and respect.

Millie’s main pleasures were a daily box of Peter Stuyvesant, a glass of sweet sherry in the evenings, and letters from her relatives. She had to wait a whole day to do the crossword in Daddy’s Rand Daily Mail and Evening Star, as he needed time to finish the horse racing columns and plan his spread for Tattersalls. Being a railway widow, Millie was entitled to a free pass once a year so she always used it to visit the relatives who had never offered her a home as we did. But apart from that, her Saturday treat was to don a hat and gloves, catch the bus down Church Street and have cream tea with scones at Garlicks in central Pretoria. I don’t think Millie had friends in Pretoria but that didn’t make any difference to her weekly outings. And now I ask myself – how ever did she heave herself on and off that bus, never mind the steep steps to get up onto to railway coach for her annual train ride? It must have been a sore trial to her that we lived in a double-storey house. We all heard those slow gasps as she negotiated one step at a time, going up or down.

Aunt Millie soon adapted to us, her ’new family’, although it was not so easy for us to accept her old lady ways, especially as she sent us hither and thither to fetch pills, cigarettes, crochet work or crosswords which were always in another room. Joanne had the worst time of it and was not allowed to be cheeky. It was painful to watch Aunt Millie heave her waterlogged weight out of a chair, onto those misshapen tree stump legs. She also doused herself generously in a cloud of cloying lilac perfume. Wheezing or coughing, she left a trail of sweet-stale air and cohorts of upended stompies in ashtrays around the house – especially on the glass shelf above the bathroom basin. “Damn drowned submarines,” muttered our father.

But one afternoon, she must have been dozing while an unextinguished stompie next to her bed smouldered silently. It stood upright on the chest of drawers pushed hard against her bed, dropping hot ash onto her crocheted pillow case. Then it slowly burnt an acrid hole through the feathers and smouldered deep into the mattress. Even a corner of the bed base and the wooden headboard began to char and smoke.

A foul cloud suddenly billowed out of her upstairs window, and we heard her shouting. Rushing into Aunt Millie’s room, we saw the bed was on fire so, with one mind, my sister and I shoved the glowing mattress out of the window. We dragged it on to the grass and sprayed it with the garden hose, but the foul rubbery smoke spewed out unabated. So, we phoned the Hatfield Fire Brigade – merely to ask for advice as how to douse the stinky embers ̶ but they said they would send someone. They didn’t say they would send a monstrous brigade with flashing lights and siren jangling all the way up Church Street and into our modest driveway. Within minutes, a whole team of fire fighters in shiny black uniforms and hats were aiming heavy duty hoses at a ludicrous single mattress on the grass. We teenagers cringed in embarrassment as curious neighbours and passers-by gathered on the pavement to stare at the sight, and at us. It was all over when Daddy came home. One of his obsessions was extreme safety consciousness, and he fulminated if wall sockets were switched on when not in use. I can’t remember how he reacted but I imagine he must have been incandescent with fury that she had almost burnt our house down. And Millie would have been overcome with tears, distress and abject apologies. I have no idea how she slept that night on a blackened bed. We must have found an old spare mattress in the garage, so life went on. There were fewer flotillas of submarines for a while.

Like us, Millie was confused by Daddy’s rages, and she learned to keep well out of his way. But she became very fond of our mother who valued the extra household income and an adult presence for us children while she was at work. Aunt Millie didn’t endear herself to us, as she would reprimand or boss us, Joanne in particular. “Ag fie,” Mom would say when we grumbled about heavy-winded old Fat Legs, who competed with us for our mother’s attention at the end of a long day. I suppose the poor old woman had some charm, because, by Jove, she always responded warmly if one bothered to crack a joke or chatted with her. On the day of my matric dance, she gave me a tip to soften my hands by rubbing them with a spoon of sugar and cooking oil and then washing with soap. I haven’t done it for years, but it worked the other day after a muddy session in the garden.

Millie also had a litany of repetitive stories from her Kroonstad days – or Croonstard as she called it, trying to make dressing up for the Sunday evening promenade past the shops sound more like Paris than a boring dorp in the Free State. ‘Poor old sausage,’ Mom would say. ‘She means well.” And she reminded us how kind Millie had been to our father – as if that made it any better. For her part, Millie sometimes made us supper – her signature dish was ’hedgehogs’ or pale frikkadels wrapped and stewed in cabbage leaves, which we ate without relish. Cabbage poultices were part of her arsenal to treat those vast appendages that hardly looked like legs at all. Gargantuan old lady stockings and damp bandages dangled from a coat hanger at the bathroom window, and were also used to wrap pawpaw skins over suppurating ulcers. We children were not the most compassionate creatures, and spoke rudely behind her back, mocking her stock phrases,” My word! “and “By Jove!”

After her husband Harold’s death, the love of Millie’s life was a little blue budgie called Winkie. “Kiss me, kiss me,” she would croon as he sat on her shoulder, and he would dance from side to side, or nuzzle her ear. “Pretty boy, pretty boy,” he chirped repetitively for hours. I think a cat got him at some point and she was bereft, keeping the empty cage on a stand in her room.

Millie was away on one of her holidays when I was writing Matric, so I had the idea to camp in her room. It was musty and redolent of stale tobacco, but it gave me the quiet and privacy for last minute cramming late at night and again before dawn, without disturbing my sisters in our ’dormitory’. Somehow, I got used to the old lady smell and I slept in Millie’s charred bed until she returned. I regret to say that I also scratched through her chest of drawers looking for mottled chocolates or furry peppermints to keep me awake. Leaning against her blackened headboard gave me a different perspective on her life, and how she came to be part of our lives, and helped our parents to pay the rent.

Millie moved house with us from Arcadia to a plot at Mooiplaas, and then to Swartkoppies, and Mom made sure she always had a sunny room. Mom was as good as her word. She took care of Millie to the end, through all the chaotic years that she lived with our family. Meanwhile, I fled to Wits University and never gave her another thought. In one of my rare phone calls home, I heard that Millie was in hospital with bronchial pneumonia – or perhaps it was heart disease. The details are missing from my consciousness, as was my presence at her funeral. When I came home for the holidays, Joanne had appropriated Millie’s room and it was different. Life went on, and one by one, we all left home, taking bits and pieces with us, items that were useful, or which we were attached to.

Recently I was looking at the heavy chest of drawers that I appropriated when Arno and I set up home together, and I suddenly recalled that it used to belong to Aunt Millie. I could picture it in her room, housing her embroidered blouses, shawls, petticoats, corsets, stockings and stale peppermints, from when I had holed up for the duration of my Matric exams. That chest of drawers has been part of my own household for fifty years, and I seldom give a thought to poor old Fat Legs.

“Ag fie,” as Mom would say.


This week has been the saddest. Maybe it was just fatigue from time elapsed, but more likely it was lack of human presence. I live alone and this thing, connection, for which I scour the earth, mostly eludes me. On a daily basis, memes make their way into my inbox, and guiltily I pass them on, feeling not much, except so-and-so may enjoy this. Ping. I send it. You too can smile briefly at the eye-masked president, or the poem by Katy Tempest. My head hurts.

The worst has been other people’s troubles when you’re locked down. No agency. Just listen on my mobile to the almost inaudible voice telling of unimaginable stresses, and comfort them in what way you can. Send another meme. Cry dryly. And imagine the awfulness. Today my head hurts because of that. The inability to help. The path alone which I know quite well. I duck the light.

Now I send virtual messages when I meditate. No clear mind here. It’s a transmission station beaming out wishes and blessings and little pleas for comfort. So my headache has served as a recalibration instrument. Irritably it scolds me.

“Enough! Look after yourself now”, it says.

And the hard hand of tension grips between my shoulder blades, sending its metallic fingers up my neck and out along the edges of my skull to the hinge of my jaw.

And it says, “Stop trying to fix: this world is not a sanctuary. Don’t expect it, then the disappointment lessens and you’d feel less rattled. Shhhh now”.

Now it isn’t all bad. I found an escape. I read this week, as I haven’t been able to for years; I read novels which have their own searing truths. But here I couldn’t offer rescue, because their fictional characters’ fates were already mapped. That helped. I cannot intervene in these novels. I simply skim forward, and know the worst before it happens. Then I can read gently with no nasty surprises. Avoid the trouble when I need to.

But in defiance of sadness, I found another escape route this week. Tipped off by a neighbour, I drove with dog to Rocklands Farm, a legitimate food buying trip. I wind up the dirt road, rattle over the speed humps and it becomes prettier and prettier, with glimpses of the sea on every bend. There are shade trees, several leafy oaks, a few nostalgically crumbling labourers’ cottages. A pretty 17th century style Cape house. After some neglected vegetable tunnels, I stop under an oak at the shop’s small doorway, its handmade sign offering goats milk cheese and eggs. And the egg merchant hurries towards me from the cottages and opens up. ‘Einstein’s eggs’ they are called, and now I discover this is Einstein himself serving me. Child of a visionary mother, he has a good business in eggs, large or extra large. I buy 18 and only realise my foolishness once home, as I can only return in 18 eggs time. I should have bought three.

Now I ask about vegetables. And Einstein directs me towards the vegetable tunnels alongside the chicken hoks, lower down the hill. He advises me to drive and I do so, stopping near the enclosure where a good many goats watch me curiously. And as I get out, False Bay opens out ahead in a way that is actually breath-taking and breath-giving at the same moment. It opens out in its hugeness, in its spaciousness, in its entirety. I can see the chain of cliffs from Macassar to Hangklip. I can see the translucent purple-red mountains etched on the horizon. I can see every slope of scree. I can see where the mountain folds, how steep it is, the little settlements lodged in the valleys where earth has weathered, leaving a shelf to build on. Betty’s Bay, Rooi Els, and more. Strand stands out like a sort of sunlit Brasilia. Crazy towers, golden in the mid-afternoon sun, distinguish themselves starkly from the mountain barrier behind. The sea is uniformly blue today, solidly blue, rippled, but not busy. And beneath it, the unseen world which I have glimpsed these last few days when dolphins whisked past the harbour wall. And I am drawn forward into that expanse, in a way that I have not experienced for so long, hungrily, mesmerised. I sit on the grass while my dog sniffs and strains at the lead.

“He wants to walk?”, asks one of the gardeners.

He is short and stocky. His name is Edgar. Serious, with kind eyes. He has noticed the quarantined dog and seems to regard her affectionately. I nod and start walking in the direction he indicates. But I hesitate on the track because it is bushy and there are broken down buildings that have triggered my caution. He reads my hesitation and gestures to me that he will take the dog. Does he think I am reluctant to walk? Has he not noticed that I too am straining at my leash? I clarify my hesitation and he leads. I follow. Accepting this kindness from a stranger who has sensed that both of us – dog and pale haired woman – want to be out there, to tramp the sand path through the sunlit bushes down the slope to where the sea opens out like enfolding arms and the wonder of the sheer green mountain slope rises behind us, closer to heaven than I have ever known. Silently, we walk to a lookout place. In warmth, we tramp back. Do all vegetable buyers get this treatment? My heart smiles.

And then the gardeners show me their vegetable beds replete with spinach and basil, coriander, the few last brinjals, some parsley, some beetroot. I surmise they are farmers from Malawi, which is confirmed by their accents – gentle, a bit sing-song, their “r’s” replaced by “l’s”. We transact. They are pleased. I am pleased. A short delay as they cut their own spinach, “for the house’”, he says, and we part with a thank you so much and appreciative nods. They close the big gates of the vegetable tunnels to keep baboons out. They alert me to the radishes that will be ready soon. I jokingly ask if I can come and weed for them, gesturing to the sea. And they seem to understand my offer, and smile.

It is difficult to describe what I feel as we drive away but the small dog on my left is panting a little, eyes shining.


When I was five, my step father took me on a journey. We made our way to a building in central London where, without explanation, I was told to be a good girl. As we stepped inside the self-satisfied polished odour of this place, I knew immediately I was somewhere important. We sat waiting in a dim high-ceilinged office until we were called into a room where a man with glasses sat behind a desk. I was frightened by the cavernous room, the glint of the man’s glasses. 

I remember little of what was said. Mostly, I remember the falsely confident tone of my stepfather’s voice as he spoke to the man, the kind you might use when embarrassed, and you try to hide your discomfort through a feigned carelessness, a counterfeit bravado. 

The man wrote with his pen as he listened, then instructed me to stand up and come towards him. Uncertain, I looked at my stepfather.  

‘Go on. Listen to the man.’ Reluctantly I stepped forward.

‘She must lift up her dress.’ I didn’t move.  

‘Go on!’ my step-father insisted. Then he softened his voice. ‘It’s okay.’ I lifted up my dress.

The man waved his pen upwards. 

‘Higher.’ I obeyed again, this time lifting my dress so that my panties showed. Behind his glasses he eyed me coldly, measuring me against some invisible standard.  

‘Now turn around.’  Slowly, wobbling with fear, I rotated before him.

‘You’ll need to pull her panties down a bit.’ I froze. It was worse not being able see his glittering glasses, only to feel them behind me. 

My stepfather did as instructed. I could feel his uneasiness as he tugged down my panties. A moment of silence followed and then my father pulled my panties up again. I turned around while my stepfather retreated to his seat.

The man grunted as I faced him once more. Waved his pen again to show he was done with me. With relief, I ran the few steps to my stepfather.

Later we would learn I had passed. 

As we walked away from the big building hand-in-hand, I looked up at my stepfather.

‘Papa, why did that man make me lift up my dress?’  

Actually I don’t remember asking him that. By then I had already learned that to remain silent was a refuge from the frightening parts of my life I didn’t understand, a way of warding off danger. Still, in my fantasy, I like to think that I did ask, that the little girl who was me was brave enough to voice the more difficult question and that we had the following exchange.

‘Papa, why did you let that man make me lift up my dress?’ My stepfather looks down at me. ‘He needed to see if you were white enough.’ 

I imagine how it might take a moment for me to absorb this disturbing answer. I am silent. In the pause, my stepfather smiles in answer to my as-yet-unspoken question, and in his best final-line-of-a-fairy-story voice adds, ‘and of course you are.’

Despite being half-Japanese, my bathing costume line had shown me to be ‘white enough’. Now my parents and I, along with my younger, blonde brothers could travel unhindered back to South Africa, where being Japanese meant being classified as an honorary white. I had been given clearance as completely white, a whiter person than I had any right to be. 

So began my initiation into being someone other than who I was. It would be many years before I understood the full burning shamefulness of that small but potent event. It was 1967.

Author’s Note: this is the prologue to a memoir in progress about growing up foreign in South Africa and the search for my Japanese father.


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.


He must be late.

It’s Monday.

Give him a call

Rather unusual he’s not here at all

He’s always the first one in

There must be something wrong, they said

This simply isn’t him.

Ring his landline

Send someone along

He’s never late

There’s something going on.

But nothing’s going on at home

Everything is off

Then it’s all so clear

He is not here

Not with us anymore.

The door knocked in

After four bell rings

The floor holding his body

Pale blue and straight

We’re twelve hours too late, they say

No, twelve years, I realise

Now wise.

We’re way too late

We always wait

Too long

To invade

A Life

With warmth and care

Then dare

To say in one foul breath

It was a painless death.


She stands at the traffic light

Broad smile

Bright eyes

But what lurks behind them?

Fear, hope

Three tiny tots

Mouths to feed

To protect from Friday night violence

Will I sell enough copies today?

The Big Issue

What is your Big Issue, sir?

Where to dine tonight?

What is mine?

Survive Friday night.

Big Issue, sir?

*Photo taken from the Big Issue Facebook banner 


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.

Main Photo credit link


I am telling this story for the partners, the children and the parents of those whom the bureaucracy fails, on both sides of the counter.

I am trying to replace a disability disc: the blue and white square with a colour photo of my husband at the back − spectacles off, left eye off track − and a blocky wheelchair emblem embellishing the front, reminiscent of the Greek flag. The disc is covered with crackled clear film, and you hang its curved handle from the car mirror when you use it. Sometimes you toss it on the dashboard as you get into the car, but you always remove it from the car at night. These discs, as you’ll find out, are worth much more than you could ever believe. They allow you to park in the one or two places that are closest to your destination, and that’s worth something to everyone, but particularly helpful if your balance has gone for good.

I have been to rehab with my husband in the Bo-kaap, and we’ve stopped in Woodstock for lunch. He takes the precious disc with him, and slides it into the front of his jacket, so he can take it when we meet up with Chris, the carer. We’ve eaten, with strong coffee for me and hot chocolate for him; and Chris has arrived, allowing me to go back to work for the afternoon, allowing them to head home because it’s tiring, all this rehab. But as we trek up the ramp towards the car, the Woodstock wind swirling leaves around our ankles, my husband reaches for the disc, to find it’s gone. I retrace our steps while they wait in the wind: I make enquiries, I leave our phone number, but it’s not found. It’s gone.

A week later, I embark on obtaining its replacement at the municipal offices. My sister thoughtfully collects the application form – she works nearby. I note that it must be signed by a doctor at R90 for the pleasure, who will confirm that my husband is indeed disabled and worthy of a disc. We are new to the area, and he has only needed a local doctor once, but since that doctor has at least met him, I make the half hour journey. I drop off the form with the receptionist, explain what is needed, and head home, informed that the doctor is busy today. A day later, when work allows, I pick up the signed form from the doctor, pay for her signature and head for the municipal offices. The queue winds along the counter, curves back, and some of us wait outside the door, watching the slow shift of citizens who edge forward, one problem at a time. It has slowed down even more before I reach the counter, as one person is off duty for lunch; we wait. When I finally hand it over, the woman behind the glass scrutinises it slowly, glances up and says, “You’ve spelt his name wrong, and the ID number’s wrong too”.  Astute she is – but I have not spelt his name wrongly, it is the R90 doctor who must have been too busy to focus while she filled in the form. I am provided with another form, and I return home to phone the doctor, and to arrange to bring the second form to sign. This time I fill in the details, leaving space for her to tick the requisite boxes, and to sign and stamp the form. The next day I drive back, en route to work, and ask for the form to be ready for my dash past the next day. I wait three days, because I cannot get there at the right time. I plan to go to the municipal offices again on the day when I work from home. And if you interrupt your “work from home” day, it doesn’t mean you do less work, you just work after hours − right? − until the job is done. But the luxury of working from home at least allows you to do something domestic in your home area without taking leave. So I am grateful enough.

After the queue has shuffled forward, and I have reached the counter, the counterhand says quietly, “No – you cannot fill in the form yourself – the doctor must do so.”

I am angry – I say strongly (for me), “Last time the doctor made mistakes, you’ll remember! I filled it out so that all she had to do was sign.”

But she is, “… afraid that it cannot be accepted … we have auditors and they check these things,” she says.

I turn away, a new form in my hand, adrenalin rising, face flushing, glaring at the innocent queue of citizens who wait their turn for the cold hand of bureaucracy to adjudicate how well they have filled their forms. Before driving home, I drive back to the doctor’s rooms, and I do not hand over the third form, but I ask for my R90 back. There must be some small justice in this story. I shoot the messenger, relating the story haltingly and angrily enough for the doctor’s receptionist to feel responsible, while she grudgingly hands back R90. I am convinced I can pull this thing off by Friday if I take my husband down the road to the doctor at the foot of the hill where we live, and pay him R90, risk his form-filling skills, and head back the next day to the municipal offices on my way to work. Thus far I have spent over four hours shepherding this application, and there are more to come. And If there is one thing I need and want, it is time. Time not working. Just being. Being with him. Being me. Just being. The aftermath of a stroke takes it out of you. You need time, just to be.

So I phone Dr X and the receptionist listens kindly, and we go down to the rooms by car later, and, holding on to each other, we make our way up the ramp, form in hand, for the disability inspection. The receptionist will call Dr X, my husband will perform disability, and later, given time and R90, the doctor will fill in the form solo. It’s a kindness, because we are not his patients, but he will do it, because I have enumerated the troubles we have had so far, and he has heard.

Two days later I phone, and the receptionist suggests one more day. On Monday, she phones and I drop by to pick it up on my way to the municipal offices. There I take up position in the queue of citizens, noting that there is a second line coming down the passage from the drivers’ license counter today. It is busy, close to midday, and because of the youthful age of the prospective drivers, it is buzzing. I reach my destination − the window glinting coldly at me, the diligent bureaucrat contained as she reaches for the form. She reads it through and says … “You cannot answer the question ‘yes’ and …‘no’. No triumph in her voice, just resignation. “You cannot answer the question ‘yes’ and … ’no’”.

But you can! The questions asks: ‘Can the person alight independently from the car?’ and he can, so the answer is, ‘yes’. But the next part asks, ‘Can the person walk independently to the destination’, to which the answer is, ‘no’.

“Are you saying you won’t accept the form?” I ask.

She replies, “The form must be filled in correctly.”

I say, “It is correct – he cannot reach his destination alone.”

She repeats, “You cannot answer the question ‘yes’… ‘no’.”

And I say … in a low voice, “Please, call your manager. This is the third time I have been here with this form. I am a working person, I will NOT go through this again. Your form is the problem. Please call your manager”.

Her face is scowling, her voice is muttering, as much perhaps as mine. She goes into the next room, and a younger woman comes out into the foyer, alongside the line of future drivers, to meet me. I say to her, softly, as adrenalin ricochets through my 61 year-old body, “You had better take me into a private room to solve this right away, otherwise I am going to take off all my clothes – here – now − in the Civic Centre. I will not have this form filled again. I will not!”

The mousy-looking woman with a ponytail surveys the queue of youngsters, looks at the tear-faced woman who is shaking with rage, and who is ready to follow through on her threat at the slightest hint of resistance … who has had enough, enough, enough of this farcical operation to please the auditors.

“Come with me,” she says, and leads me outside, where the light blinds me, and I see no one and nothing as we cross the parking lot to the Traffic Department, where the big decision-maker is housed. She walks in ahead, and no doubt mentions my threat. The man in the uniform puts up his hands in a gesture of “whoa”, and smilingly offers me a chair, and I rant through my story of three forms, “and now your staff say you cannot answer the question as I have done, and I will not leave without the disc, and I will go to the newspapers, to Cape Talk, and (gasp) … and (sob) … and (gasp) …”

He repeats the reason, having scrutinised the form – that you cannot fill out a question with ‘yes’ and ‘no’.

I say, “Yes you can – see he can get out the car alone, he can hold on to the vehicle, but he has no balance, so he cannot walk to the destination alone … it’s your question that is at fault.”

He replies, in same patient, placating manner, “No, but we have had psychologists to select our questions. There is no problem with the question.”

Now I am searching out the cardiologist’s phone number on my phone, and I have it, and I am dialing, as I lean towards him, holding out the phone to him, saying, “Speak to him, just speak to him – let him tell you what he did, that my husband cannot walk or speak or swallow – talk to him – talk to him now!”

The man in the uniform is backing away; he sees the situation, and he says, quietly and firmly, “Come.”

So we cross the parking lot again. We push past the waiting learner’s license queue, and I am instructed to wait. He speaks to the counter clerk in an antechamber. I pay, I hand over the photos, the form is processed, and the disc is printed.

The electricity goes off before the lamination is complete. Laminated or not, I have the disc, and I make my way out into the glare, depleted from the draining adrenalin.

The disc now lodges in the top right hand drawer of the cabinet in my bedroom, never used. My husband died a week later, so we had no need for lamination.


“We will take the minutes as read,” says the CPF chairperson from his seat, waving two typed pages in the air.

A heavy, solid, silence presses against the words.

It is 1996. This is one of the first CPF meetings to be held in our town. CPF stands for Community Policing Forum.

A table and two chairs are at one end of the room, and several rows of chairs have been set out facing the table. The room is full. Standing room only.

Chairperson, Counselor Pierre Koep, a short, dapper man with a well-trimmed white beard continues diligently…. “Item one on the agenda….”

The secretary, Captain Martin, a policeman, is seated next to him, feigning indifference. They discuss the item with each other for a few minutes.

A hand is raised hand from the floor.





Someone says: “MamaKota is asking for a translation. She does not speak English.”

There is a moment of surprised silence. Serious consultation in isiXhosa, heads looking around to see who is there. “Bukelwa! Bukelwa will translate.”

Bukelwa moves to the front of the room and stands to one side of the table, hands held in front of her, waiting.

Mr Koep continues his discussion of item 1 of the agenda, politely, obediently, stopping after each sentence for Bukelwa to translate.

A hand from the floor stops the proceedings.

“Will the chairperson please start the meeting with a prayer, because that is the way it is done?”

Koep falters, but nods.

Umfundisi stands, taking off his hat. We all stand. The lengthy translated prayer thanks the Almighty God for this opportunity to meet, and asks Him to be with us in our hearts, as we make the decisions that will have to be made. Amen.

We sit down again.

Koep rises.

A hand goes up.

“Please will the chairperson read through the minutes of the last meeting… from the beginning? Members want to know what happened, who was there, and what was decided.”

The chairperson, trapped between the past and the future of his country, holds tightly onto his patience.

“Minutes of the meeting of the Greater Plettenberg Bay Community Policing Forum held on Tuesday 12 August 1997 at the office of the mayor.”

“Ingxelo yentlanganiso yaCommunity Policing Forum yaGreater Plettenberg Bay, ngolwesibini, 12 ka Ogasti, 1997, e-offisini kwemeyara.”

Sentence by sentence, the minutes are translated by Bukelwa.

The meeting starts coming alive. There are nods, grunts, murmured asides. A sigh of satisfaction rolls around the room as the minutes are finished being read.

The people have been there for over an hour.

Mr Koep asks if the meeting can continue.

There is a hand from the floor.

“RDP policy says that a counselor in the municipality may not also be a chairperson of a civic forum like the CPF. This is because there may be a conflict of interest, as the forum advises the counselors.”

Mr Koep is now overwhelmed. Caught and helpless, he asks if we can “please, just finish this meeting first?”

“No. Mr Koep can come and sit in the audience with us, and Jeffrey Rangula, the vice-chair will take his place.”

Koep storms out of the room.

Jeffrey takes his place at the table.

A member of the audience then proposes that the meeting elect a secretary from the floor, because we do not think the police should hold the secretariat function of this civic forum. The motion is carried.

Capt. Martin leaves the table, slowly.

I am elected secretary. I join Jeffrey.

Jeffrey welcomes everyone to the meeting, thanks the members for their confidence in him, and promises to do his best to lead this important forum on behalf of the whole community.

He returns to the first item on the agenda. The meeting moves forward. Bukelwa continues to translate.

This time from isiXhosa into English, especially for me.

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