My grandfather’s death hit me particularly hard. I had been enrolled at Bramley primary school at the time, a previously exclusively white school, it now qualified as a multiracial school and we could attend and get the same education our oppressors preferred to deny us. To my surprise, there were no white children at the school. Only African children like me but because I was no longer in a Bantustaad school, for the first time, I was exposed to children from different cultures as I had never attended a township school before.
There were William and James who stuck together like the sole of a shoe and gum on hot summer’s day. Both were particularly aggressive. A symptom of tribalism that put Tsonga people a few inches below the bottom rung of society. Apartheid had done a number on us. It hinged on trickle-down oppression and ran like a well-oiled machine.
William suffered most because he was short, husky and extremely dark in a world that valued lightness to mimic whiteness. James, on the other hand, was tall and well built. He was his enforcer out of deep loyalty and camaraderie. Jan who was also Tsonga but handsome, tall and smart was never picked on. While William and James were never picked on purely because they would pummel you into the ground if you did.
We would all appear in a newspaper when we started attending and then again when Jamie Lee and her sister came. Her family had moved into a house just up the road from the school. I did not know if they had been liberal or if it was purely a question of convenience, but Jamie Lee and her sister became the very first white children to re-enter the school since it had been opened to the natives of this country.
The media came and paraded us as the ongoing success of the budding rainbow nation as the world marvelled at our miraculous transition into democracy. From then on, the teachers weren’t the only white people at the school although there would be no others until I left after a year or two.
Jamie Lee and I hit it off and I had my first white girlfriend with my limited English and her non-existent Tswana. In truth, I had been smitten with Nthabiseng, a coffee coloured beauty with the cutest nose and Gabby who could have stood in for an angel at the drop of a hat. But Jamie Lee gave me status because Apartheid had trained us to aspire to whiteness or at least proximity thereto. So, you can imagine my disappointment when I discovered that I had been one of several boyfriends at the school. Thinking back, I think she struggled with the concept of a relationship or at least monogamy. It still makes me chuckle even now.
I have many such fond memories of the sea change that was those early years of democracy. I remember William saving my life when Mr De Lange, our school principal tried to kill me. For some reason, he had decided to take over our PT class on swim day. Most of us had never really been exposed to swimming pools and he grew annoyed with how we bunched together in the shallow end.
In his wisdom, Mr De Lange decided to line us up to swim across the pool and so we jostled for position at the shallow where we could walk instead of swim across. He came charging down the poolside with his cane and I ended up last in line at the deep end. He ordered us in. I hesitated and considered making a run for it. My indecision had taken too long. The big, red and round Afrikaans man was right next to me with his cane hoisted high above his head. I shut my eyes and jumped in. I fluttered about, submerged in the chlorinated water, looking up and wishing what seemed like an eternity of staring at the waterline dancing above me would end with me in a box. I would experience this feeling again a few months later.
William jumped in and pulled me out. I was caned for jumping in when I knew full well that I couldn’t swim. We thought nothing of it then. Corporal punishment was commonplace in both our school and domestic lives.
I seldom saw the principal in such close proximity and wished at the moment that I hadn’t. I would see him watching from the distance during sports events or addressing us at assembly but a few months later, I’d see him in close quarters again when he peeked into a short conversation I had with one of the teachers and again, the experience was unpleasant.
My name had been called over the intercom and I was sent to the office. I prepared myself for a caning on the way because even though I had done nothing wrong, my English was insufficient to mount a defence. I entered the room surrendered to my fate, wishing I had an extra pair of pants to absorb the sting of the cane.
I sat on the patterned fabric chair and grabbed the carved wooden handles. My feet dangled a few centimetres from the carpet on the floor. I waited and waited, eager to get it over with so I could get back to the important business of being a child. Soon the wait was over, and I was called into one of the offices. In an abrupt and unfeeling fashion, I was told to go home because my grandfather had died. My best friend in the whole world had died.
As a child, he would take me with him when he went to queue for his pension. I looked forward to the bag niknaks and bananas. The school had become accustomed to the fact that I would be absent on such days and no longer asked. On the average day when I returned from Tlhophane primary school, I would drop off my bag and join him for a drink of Lion larger under the grape tree that stood opposite the kitchen door and wherever he went, I went. We were hardly seen apart.
In one, short, cold moment and without warning, he, my best friend was gone. It was told to me so bluntly that I couldn’t make sense of it at first. I glazed all over with the utmost stupidity, unable to form a complete thought. I was given taxi fair and sent on my way.
I fetched my bag and walked to the gate wondering if this is how white people handled such things. I didn’t cry. It wasn’t real yet. My mother would tell me I misunderstood as soon as I got home, I thought. But no such correction came. Abraham Setlhatlheng Makhudu…phala eetona had was indeed no more.
I didn’t get on a taxi then. I opted to walk from Bramley to Alex, all the while contemplating the idea of jumping in front of the fastest car I could find. I didn’t. I went home to listen to the most romantic and confirming story of death I had ever heard. A story I wouldn’t have believed had I not heard it so many times from all the witnesses who had seen my friend die.
My grandmother had been outside doing her evening chores, waiting for the coal-fired tin to stop smoking. As soon as it was done, she would take into the kitchen where it served as a stove and heater. The entire family sat around it each night. It always brought us together.
That day she returned to a husband who said he had been calling for her. He was thirsty and needed water. She knew instinctively that his time had come as it was common for elder Africans to ask for water before leaving this earth. She gave him water and called the children to join her, sending one next door to bring her sister who had never married and still lived next door in the home that had belonged to their departed parents.
My grandfather had also known that he was dying and asked that they sing his favourite hymn. His kids, my aunt and uncle held his hands and hugged him before he asked his beloved wife to kiss him. Once she did, they prayed for his soul, torn and huddled around him. It is said that he died in the middle of that prayer.
And so, preparations began. My uncle, the only traditional healer in the family then was called to perform a ritual to stay the rain during preparations. He lit a fire a small way away from the small gate and chanted incantations as he threw his potions into the flames.
A cow was being slaughtered as a tent was being erected during this time. Women got on with the business of baking, peeling and cooking before the vigil tool place until morning. People spoke fondly of him throughout the night in the tent and the rain indeed stayed for the night. He was described as a giant among men and the downpours of the morning confirmed this. These sorts of rains were expected for kings and my grandfather was nothing less than that to me.
It finally became real for me as I watched the coffin sink into the ground. I remembered Brenda, the soft notes of her face and giant ears. I remembered how I didn’t stand up for her and how if I had, I would have been beat and would not be alive to witness the hurt that swirled around my insides at that moment. Again, I wanted to die, and the need would become a more frequent and permanent fixture in every compartment of my soul.