A deeply personal and unflinching look at South African social inequity
‘Striving for Social Equity’ is a collection of essays that explore the gross inequities of South Africa, reflect on our challenges and celebrate our progress, through the honest accounts of the various featured authors’ lived experiences.
In writing Striving for Social Equity, the editors, Joy Watson and Ogochukwu Nzewi, wanted to talk about experiences of social inequity in a personal manner, exploring how the “personal becomes political”. They also “wanted to create a space for hearing from writers who would not ordinarily get published”, Watson explains in her foreword.
The idea came about when the pair were both presenting papers at a conference in 2019, and realised they “wanted to find a place for telling personal stories about experiences of inequity, pain and ongoing oppression”.
“May it inspire you to be a part of changing the gross inequities in our society. May it grant you grace in truly ‘seeing’ others who are different. May it inspire you to reimagine what our future can look like. We have a beautiful country, let’s find ways of saving it,” writes Watson.
Peace Trains, by Joy Watson
I am eight years old. Mary and I are playing in a park in Claremont. We hold onto a bar of the roundabout, one foot on it and the other on the tar, pushing the red circle to give it enough momentum so that we can hop onto it while it keeps spinning. The sun beats down on us. We talk about the likelihood of getting Dad to buy us an ice cream cone with a flake in it. He is not a huge fan of ice cream machines. ‘Too much bacteria,’ he says.
The roundabout slows down and comes to a stop. I tell Mary that one of us needs to get it going again and it can’t be me, because I’m discovering cloud art – I can make out the outline of a unicorn, but it’s going to take some work to see all its constituent parts. But it’s one of those days when Mary digs her heels in – her ‘disobliging days’. There’s not much to be done when she’s like that. Eventually, I pull myself up so that I can take matters into my own hands. I bend over to tie the ribbon on my knickerbockers, and when I look up, I see that there are two blond girls in white dresses approaching us. The older one is wearing a pink beaded bracelet and seems shy. Her sister is lagging behind her, calling out, ‘Sue, wait for me!’
Mary and I are both sitting upright now, watching them approach.
‘Can we also get on?’ asks the one called Sue, twirling her bracelet.
I nod my acquiescence, and Sue and her sister hop on board.
I eye them warily. ‘We all have to help in making it go round,’ I say, so that there’s no misconception about the division of labour.
‘K,’ shrugs Sue.
Her younger sister adds, ‘We usually go very fast. I hope you don’t get sick.’
These girls clearly have no idea who we are. ‘My sister and I are part of a Secret Six Club,’ I say. We don’t get sick for nonsense.
‘We go on adventures and we can jump off walls,’ Mary adds for good measure.
In the road nearby a car hoots, and a man leans out of the car window to show someone the middle finger sign.
Yet the grown-up world of petty conflicts is far away as Mary and I play with our new friends. We spin wildly on the roundabout. We whoop with delight as we swish down the slide, one after the other. We climb aboard the choo-choo train and take turns pretending to be the driver. We pretend that we are police investigators on a fast-paced train, tracking down criminals. We climb on top of the choo-choo train, beating the Bejesus out of imaginary fiends. After we have killed off everyone, we decide to spin round and round until we are dizzy. We throw ourselves onto the grass and lie on our backs to look at the sky, to see how the spinning affects our visual sight lines. It is while we are lying there that Sue says the thing that changes the hue of the day.
‘Is your mother also Coloured like you?’ she asks.
I’m not sure what it is, but there is something about the way in which she says it that tells me that it is derogatory. That she is viewing my mother through a lens that is not concomitant to the expansiveness of who and what my mother is. In the moment, I do not have words or terms of reference for why I find it upsetting. I also do not have the syntax to make her see that my mother deserves so much more. So I answer meekly, ‘No.’
She huffs her chest indignantly and says, ‘You’re lying.’
Slowly, I shake my head and say, ‘I’m not.’
In the blink of an eye, the girl who was my equal in fighting imaginary criminals is now glaring at me as if I’m stupid.
‘You are,’ she yells.
‘I’m not,’ I yell back.
‘I’m telling my nanny,’ she says as she storms off to a woman sitting under the shade of a tree.
‘Patience, this girl says that her mother is not Coloured,’ she says. ‘Tell her that her mother is Coloured,’ she whines. ‘Tell her now.’
Without looking up and meeting my eye, the woman says, ‘Your mother is Coloured.’
My parents take Mary and me on holiday. Going away is an anomaly in my childhood. I only have two memories of going on holiday. On this occasion, we drive to Durban to spend a few days near the sea. The plan is to stop over at other places on the way there. We are bundled into the car at an ungodly hour one morning. We sit on the back seat, half asleep, covered with blankets and propped up with books and Tupperware with road food. During the trip, my Dad’s car breaks down. We sit on the road in the middle of nowhere. The sun is scorching hot. We wait and wait and wait. Eventually my dad flags down a car and the driver agrees to take him to the nearest town to get help. By the time we get to Durban in a tow truck, we are world weary, the holiday having lost its sparkle.
Mary and I decide to go to the beach, to claim back the splendour of the only out-of-Cape Town trip we will ever experience as children. We put on our bathing costumes, grab some towels and make our way to the beach. On the beachfront is the most amazing extravaganza we have ever seen. Women sit on the ground, selling beaded jewellery, crotched tops and woven baskets. We’re entranced by an explosion of colour, by the women calling out and offering to show their wares. After a while, we arrive on the beach, digging our toes into the sand, drawing in the smell of the sea. In front of us is a sign.
I can read, but suddenly, I am insecure about my ability to understand what I am reading. The sign says, ‘Whites Only’. I look to Mary for direction, but she stares blankly ahead. I’m not sure if she has seen it, but I don’t want her feelings to be hurt. (Years later, Mary will tell me that she did in fact see it. That she remembers the crushing disappointment and fear). I tell her to turn around, that I want to go back to the hotel. We retrace our steps. The sun beats down, beads of perspiration line my forehead. A swim in the sea would have been really, really nice. Not that we can swim, having had no occasion to learn.
We get back to the hotel and find that our parents have gone out. Mary and I have a special thing that binds us. We are the creators of imaginary stories. We dream up alternative universes in which we are gods, acting out the dramatic lives of the people in our make-believe world. Today, we opt to play ourselves at the sea. We pretend that the blue carpet is the ocean. We throw ourselves down on it and begin to move our arms in a swimming motion. When we have cooled down, we stretch out on our towels to suntan. The confines of the room become a real world, with real sea and real sand. We get as much as we possibly can out of it, without it being the real thing. Later, our parents return. I whisper in my dad’s ear about the sign. And he says the thing that restores my dignity, ‘Always remember that you are no less than anyone else. That beach belongs to you.’
It is on this same holiday that I almost drown when we stop over at a place where we can ‘swim’. Mary has a cerise Alice-band with a flamboyant plastic flower on one side. I covet it with all my heart and soul, but it belongs to her fair and square. Desperately wanting it to grace my head for a day, I ask her to lend it to me one morning. She concedes, and I place it on my head, immediately feeling taller, brighter and prettier.
We go to a lagoon somewhere – I can’t remember where. I am in my bathing costume and the water feels cool against my skin. I wade in further. The Alice-band is like a crown on my head, I am a queen. My feet sink into a hole and I am pulled underwater, unable to right my balance. Water fills my lungs, and I panic as I realise that I have no control over what is happening. This is what death must be like – clinging to life, while surrendering to the inevitable. The next thing I know, my dad is there next to me, drowning with me. I am comforted by his presence and hang on to him as we dance underwater, struggling to resurface to the world of the living.
Later, Mary will tell me how my dad rushed in to save me as she sat terrified and helpless on the shore – how she watched the water suck him under. A man in a smart shirt walked by, and she called out to him. He rushed into the water and rescued me first. He lay me down on the sand and went back to save my dad. When we got back to the hotel, my mom pulled me into her embrace and soothed it all away. Sadly, the pink Alice-band died that day. It is the only thing the man in the nice shirt did not save.
We sit in a room devoid of personal touch. The doctor explains that my mom has pancreatic cancer, that it is terminal. My mom left school in standard two. While she is beautiful and sharp and can tell you a thing or two about the meaning of dreams, she does not know the word ‘terminal’. It is only once we step outside and she asks me what the doctor just said, that it hits her. She looks at me, her face contorted, and says, ‘You’re not allowed to fight with your sisters.’
Our family falls into a deep abyss in digesting the news. It’s as if our little glass world with the snowflakes has been thrashed on the floor, the water flooding out, the glass broken. We insulate as we try to hold on to each other, stretch time out.
Aunty Mavis, my mom’s sister, says to Mom, ‘I pray to God that if I could take this cross away from you and bear it myself, then I would.’ A few months later, she is diagnosed with cancer. Shortly after, she gets out of bed one morning, falls over and dies.
We serve tea and cake in the church hall after Aunty Mavis’s funeral. People sit on chairs, talking, holding cups of tea on their laps. On the periphery, my mom sits alone, a dejected look on her face. I go and sit next to her.
‘You okay?’ I ask.
She is fighting back tears, wrestling with words.
‘I’ve been thinking,’ she says, ‘By the time I die, everyone will be tired of funerals, no one will come.’
I take her hand into mine and say, ‘That’s not true. But even if it were, I would bus in people from all over the country.’
She looks forlorn.
‘I’ve never achieved anything with my life,’ she says.
I know what she means – her life has not been one where she had the opportunity to get a good education, a good job, to travel the world, to command resources. Yet, despite this, she has achieved everything. She is one of the most loving, most gracious human beings on the planet. Everywhere she goes, people are smitten with her, her rectitude radiates like a moonbeam.
A month later, my mom leaves us. She drifts into a peaceful sleep at around four in the morning and by quarter to ten, takes her leave, stepping up and out of herself. We sit at her bedside, singing to her.
On the day of the funeral, I pull up at the church, my stomach clenched, my grief visceral and all-encompassing. As I make my way towards the church, I see that it is filled to capacity. My mom was so loved, she touched so many people in such a special way that the people crowd the back of the church, spilling out of the doors, into an overflow area outside. Rousing, exuberant singing fills the church.
My dad, bewildered, says, ‘Who would have thought that Thelma could pull such as crowd?’
Yet, in fact, we always knew she could.
It is 1985. A state of emergency has been declared. We have become accustomed to the army Casspirs positioned outside of our school. They are like the sun in the sky – recurring, and a fact of life, but they don’t make things brighter. We walk past them every day, before and after school. Soldiers in army camouflage stand on top of them, rifles raised and aimed at us.
One morning, I wake up to get dressed for school. I am tying the buckle on my Clarke’s shoe when Mom comes to tell me that things have become dangerous and the schools have been closed. I’m unable to grasp this. Schools only close for the holidays. Which feels fun, like a good thing. This definitely does not feel like a good thing. We stay at home for what seems like an interminably long time. Our teachers meet with our parents to give them worksheets for us do at home. But it does not feel the same as going to school. There is no one to tell you if you get something wrong. Or when you get something right. No detention. No friends to sit in a circle with on the cement while we bite into bright pink polony sandwiches. The teachers and parents confer and decide that we will claim back the school. We will march to it and demand that it is opened.
We gather for a mass at the Corpus Christi Church in Wittebome before the march. My dad is standing next to me. We sing a hymn. Dad has a resounding voice, it carries through the church. Looking back, it seems strange that I did not have a real sense of the danger that could have potentially unfolded that day. Of the danger that was unfolding around us every day. I guess, I knew at some level. But, I also needed to not know – to hold onto the world where soldiers and Casspirs were not a lived reality for the majority of South Africans. Where people were not dying every day.
We sing, ‘Lord make me a channel of your peace. Where there is hatred let me bring your love. Where there is injury, your pardon, Lord.’
When the mass is over, we gather outside of the church while the teachers organise us into lines. In formation, we march towards the school singing, holding the hands of the person on either side of us. Somehow, Dad has ended up in the front line. But even from the back, I can still see that as we approach the soldiers, they lift their rifles and take aim. It is then that I realise that I need my dad. That I don’t want to watch him die.
A few months later we are back at school. A political rally has been organised – other schools gather on the grounds of my school to plan protest action against the apartheid government. Our principal decides to lock us in while the other schools gather on our grounds. Our teachers tell us that when everyone has arrived, we will be let out to join them. But before this can happen, there are gunshots. The army is everywhere. From a toilet cubicle I watch through a small window as children are beaten and dragged and violated. I am awash with the guilt of being safe. I am relieved that I am safe. I think that I am safe, but in reality, no one is.
I have detention and am late in leaving school. Annoyed, I throw my bag over my arm and make for Wittebome station. There is a slight nip in the air, and I pull my black cardigan tightly around me. I’m approaching the station when I see that the train is about to arrive. I’m not a runner, but I run nonetheless. Heaving from the effort, I realise that I will not make it to the carriages demarcated for me. For a moment, I contemplate whether or not to wait for the next train, but the wind is picking up, and I do not feel like sitting in the station, cold and lonely. The train stops and I get into the ‘Whites Only’ carriage. I am terrified and trying not to draw attention to myself as the train pulls out of the station. My plan is that when we stop at the next one, I will race down to my designated carriage. More running that I don’t want to do, but I do not have a choice. I look up and see that further down, in the next compartment, is a group of soldiers. One of them is pointing at me. They make their way towards me, and I try to decompress into my skin, my heart beating wildly. They encircle me. My eyes are lowered, but I can still see a soldier give me a once-over, his eyes lingering on my legs. One of them – one with scarlet, inflamed acne, pushes himself up against me, ‘What do you think you’re doing here, kaffir girl?’ he asks. I expect nothing more of him, yet I am shocked. My parents have raised me to believe that I matter. That I am precious. Never before has one sentence attacked the integrity of this truth so violently.
I Survived, by Zama Precious Mbonambi
My name is Zamasomi Precious Mbonambi, also known as Mbijana, which translates to Tiny. I am twenty-six years old and come from a large family. My mother has five children, including myself, seven grand-children and eight great-grandchildren. For twenty-six years, we’ve lived in a shack, I don’t know what it’s like to live in a home with well-built walls, running water and electricity. I still live here, but we’ve managed to extend it now. I’m working hard and smart to move my family out, especially my mother.
I won’t lie and say I enjoyed my childhood. I wanted to experience the freedom of being taken out and spoilt by my parents. When my friends spoke about how happy they were, and the things they did, I would wonder how it felt to have those experiences. Small things like the specials they had from McDonalds or Spur, or the amazing cartoons they watched at the cinema.
Growing up wasn’t easy, but it did teach me to be stronger. It was a constant hustle, sharing the floor which was our bed, sharing three slices of bread, sometimes eating the hard part of uphuthu, and sometimes going for days without food. From primary school we had to walk a long distance to school, and didn’t even have school uniforms. The list of things we needed was long – uniforms, school shoes, stationery, sanitary pads and, oh yes, food. We couldn’t afford so much and we lived on hand-outs.
Every morning when we were getting ready for school, we would take turns having a bath outside. To get the water, my siblings and I had to cross a very busy road and walk about a kilometre from our shack. Life was the same no matter what season it was. Fortunately, my mother used a primer stove, so after our bath outside, we could come back inside the house and stand beside the stove to feel warm. Our shack wasn’t perfect. When it rained, we all had to wake up and position buckets and dishes under all the leaking areas. I remember this one thunderstorm, when it was pouring without remorse, we woke up in a pool of water. We lost so many things that day, not that we had anything special or new, but it was something for us. Most of our official documents, our clothes and even our blankets were destroyed. They weren’t in a good condition to begin with, but they were all we had. We didn’t recover anything and were a laughing stock in our community, because we had to wear the same clothes and use the same blankets.
I had sores all over my body from about the age of four. These got worse since our living conditions were bad. We weren’t eating well, and we shared our yard with pigs. As children we would sometimes play where they ate. I remember sometimes eating rotten food from dustbins. I was the only one out of my siblings with the sores, so I don’t know whether it’s because I had bad genes, or whether my living conditions were a factor.
My mum was the bread-winner. She worked in Pinetown, selling fruits and vegetables to make ends meet. Sometimes she would come home with no money if they were chased away by the police because they had no permits to trade. The permits cost money and we couldn’t afford them.
Coming from an informal settlement is hard, and many people experience gender-based violence, rape, mental disturbance and even depression. I’ve been abused so many times that I wanted to take my own life. In 2009, when I was in Grade 10, we were attacked by an evil spirit, and I was said to be the queen of the devil. Most of the students said I was the one who brought the spirits. Some parents came to school and said they would burn me alive. I was scared for my life. I started getting threats from learners and parents, and I wasn’t wanted by my own family.
One day during lunchtime, I decided to go to Westville Bridge to end my life, but a policeman came and rescued me. Another time, I remember clearly, was when I was beaten up by some guy. I still don’t know why he abused me that much. Maybe it was because I was only fifteen and he could get away with it. And unfortunately, being a child who grew up in an aggressive family, I lived with that abuse.
I was always the smart one at school and I worked diligently too, always wanting to go to the next level in life. The fact that I could collect a number of certificates in school gave me hope that one day I would be able to change my family’s and community’s lives for the better.
Even though I was good at school, I was bullied because I was from a disadvantaged family and everyone knew that. I remember this one time I wasn’t in school uniform – can you imagine the clothes I was wearing, LOL – and a classmate said I brought shame to the class and I looked ugly because my clothes were not appealing. I wanted to bury myself alive as the whole class joined her in laughter. I cried and remembered that I was not them and unfortunately we would never be the same. The funny thing is, I’ve never been ashamed of where I come from, and I don’t think I ever will be. But this doesn’t mean I don’t dream of having the money to build a home for my mother. I imagine it, beautiful and warm, with a TV, nice beds and nice kitchen. Basically, a new experience.
I excelled in most sports, arts and performing arts in school. I am still the best poet as we speak and I have travelled and I am looking to travel even more. At heart, I am an artist. I still perform. I write and compose songs, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop. I’ve won competitions at language festivals and other cultural events for my poetry, drama and writing. For me this means ‘it doesn’t matter where you come from, as long as you’re determined and know where you are going’. Being disadvantaged doesn’t define me. My mum would tell me stories of how she grew up as a child; it made me realise that my mum is a survivor and she’s still my inspiration.
High school was hard. Being poor in primary school is easier than in high school as you tend to take things said by other learners more to heart. There was so much that almost broke me with constant reminders of my poverty. I’ll never forget my first day in school wearing my torn jersey and broken shoes. I even had a teacher telling me I shouldn’t be at that school because of my appearance. I was told I was a disgrace. But it worked in my favour because it made me push myself harder.
I started doing some domestic work at the age of twelve and also distributed those penis enlargement papers on the streets of Pinetown for years to assist my mum. The money went towards paraffin, clothes and sanitary towels for myself, but it was never enough. I would walk from Pinetown to Clermont and back for work. It was a long way, and I had to be on guard to survive the streets.
Later, when I was eighteen, right after matric, I got my first job as a direct marketer. I had no money to get to work. Even worse, we were getting paid based on commission, so there was no basic salary. I lied to my family and said I was staying in a flat in town. The truth is I couldn’t afford one and I was staying under the bridges for almost two months. It was only when my boss saw me that things changed. She invited me to stay with her for a few days until I got paid. That experience was amazing. For a change I felt like a child, loved, protected and needed in this world.
Still, I made it through. I’ve often thought that I could have chosen a shortcut like getting a sugar daddy to provide for me and my family. I would probably have fallen pregnant at an early age, used drugs or scavenged from the dustbins. But luckily for me, my dreams are bigger than that.
I hope my life story is an inspiration to others, especially those who think they are the only ones going through struggles. I’m currently heading towards my chosen destination. I’ve dreamt of myself as a future billionaire and a successful entrepreneur. Dreams delayed are not dreams denied. I’ve always wanted to become big, and I’ll be right there soon. Go on, girlchild and boychild, it’s all possible! DM