This week, Age of Zinc presents chapter two of the memoir of a South African slum dweller. We return to the beginning of our author’s life, in the heart of rural KwaZulu.
The portion of land I once called home still exists on a farm in the hills of Melmoth in the heart of Kwazulu. The three graves in the middle of the land are the little evidence that my family once lived here.
My great grandfather, I am told, was given this piece of land as compensation for his work in the British army, deployed to South Africa to fight the Boers in the Anglo-Boer War. He was an army officer by the surname of H. He settled on this land and married an African woman, never an uncommon event in South Africa history except for the years of National Party rule from 1948 to 1994, when these natural attractions were declared against the law. The Zulu woman who married my English great grandfather gave birth to a son, my grandfather, who in turn also married an African woman. These women, I believe, were all traditional healers from different clans in Kwazulu.
My father C H was the eldest son of H H who was also the eldest of his father’s sons and I am also the eldest of my siblings. If the men in my family were a mix of racial genes, the women in my family were “100 percent Zulu girls.”
If you follow the trend of intermarriage between white and African, and coloured and African in my family, you may be tempted to believe that by the time I was born in 1958, I was already diluted so much that I barely resembled my grandmother and my mother uMariam Khumalo who was born in Enkhandla in the 1940s.
I grew up there on this farm and we all lived there together and like all rural African children the houses of almost all my uncles and aunts became my home, not just my parental home.
My mother’s family KwaKhumalo believed I was theirs and they named me Jabulani Khumalo. My father’s family named me P. Also, my father had not paid or completed his “lobola” responsibilities. Therefore, I became a contested being.
I want to believe that they named me Jabulani because they were happy that a son was born. But even though this was the time of high apartheid there were still reasons to be happy, especially for a happy-go-lucky kid like me. But one thing we were not too happy about was the fact that the head of the household, my grandfather was a sickly man and my father soon became responsible for the entire family. This meant that he took care of his brothers, my uncles, and his sisters, my aunts. He had to, at the same time, take care of his wife uMaKhumalo and his children who were: myself P, my brothers, N and B and my sisters Z and S.
He had to put food on the table, make sure that the fields were ploughed and harvested, and make sure that the cows were safe. I became one of the herdboys, but not for long. When I turned seven I began to attend school.
This is the time also when my mother became the mother, the domestic worker, and the slave of the family. My grandmother passed away and so her life become one long sentence of hard labour. She washed, she cooked, she became the nanny for my aunt’s children and she even had to care for my father’s younger brother and sister who were but children themselves.
I am not one of those children who has memories of a mother’s tender love and nurturing. I have not even one photo of my mother breast feeding or even holding or touching her own children. Nor do I have any pictures – I am talking about pictures in my mind and my heart in the form of treasured memories.
I only remember her bent over a big bath washing, or standing over a huge table in the kitchen cutting up potatoes or pumpkins, or pounding and making home-made bread from maize.
She never ever had time for us. She really had a very painful life and her pain has long outlived her. It is the backdrop to my life. My heart still aches for her, and I think this is why I subconsciously chose the type of community work that I do.
My father was a very strict, even aggressive man. He did sometimes beat up his younger brothers and sisters to make a point. He also beat up my mother. He was a jealous man because she was one of the most beautiful human beings you could ever meet. These are the sad and ugly ways of some men, too many men.
C. or uJuly, as my father was known, was also very protective of his family. His role as patriarch and his protective nature made the youngsters believe he could sometimes anticipate danger. I remember how one hot morning as we played in the long grass at the edge of the yard he quietly walked up to us. He stood about 2 meters from an old drum that was standing there. My aunt, his younger sister Judy, was jumping in and out of the drum.
My father gestured to me to fetch his knobkerrie and shouted at my aunt to move away from the drum. He then hit that drum as if it had done something very bad to him. After a few minutes of shouting and swearing and hitting this drum, a fierce one a half meter long green mamba came out hissing and striking and trying to fight back.
Of course C. killed it with a series of quick blows with his knobkierrie. Then he turned to us and said, “I am telling you and I am always right when I tell you to be careful. It is not because I want to harass you but it is the danger I see.”
But I will also never forget how he once killed a cat just for meowing and crying for meat while my mother was cooking.
I remember how he gave his cattle the most unusual names, named after politicians of that time; names like Verwoerd, Schoeman, Hitler. This was his way of showing contempt. This still happens today where people name their dogs and animals by the names of people they hate.
My grandfather died of TB and my father followed a few years later, maybe three to be exact. This is where — I think — all the poverty started.