My grandparents lived at No: 403 Grand National Building, Rissik Street, Johannesburg, South Africa. Rissik Street was one of the city’s major streets that carried traffic all hours of the day and night. It is the only home where I remember visiting Granny and Grandpa although I know they had other homes in Johannesburg since their arrival in South Africa from England.
Grand National Building was a large block of apartments (we called them flats during the 1960s) in the centre of Johannesburg, and like many blocks of flats at the time servants’ quarters were situated on the roof of the building. These quarters resembled a cell block and each servant was allocated one room with shared bathroom and toilet facilities.
While most occupants of the flats had live-in servants, Gertie, my grandparents servant, chose to commute to and from work each day. She left home before dawn and did not return home again until after dark. At the start and again at the end of each day Gertie’s trip started with a walk just over a mile in distance, a bus to the train station, another bus to the centre of town and then a short walk to Granny and Grandpa’s flat.
She arrived at work at 8.30am in time to clear the breakfast table. Gertie worked a five and a half day week during the time I knew her but in later years my grandparents insisted she cut her days to three and then to one , without loss of earnings, until she finally retired with a small pension from my grandparents.
The time about which I write is 1960 – 1970, which means apartheid was the regime under which we lived. Apartheid was not something our family ever discussed and as children, my brother and I did not question. We were not taught to look further than our own needs when interacting with ‘non-white’ people. While we would not have dared to ignore or refuse any white adult a request, we thought nothing of doing precisely that if the request came from a ‘non-white’ person.
The South Africa in which I grew up did not teach me to look beyond my own self-serving needs when interacting with ‘non-white’ people. It was not until my early twenties that I began to question the privileges the colour of my skin brought me.
Meanwhile, the multicultural people of South Africa were segregated into four racial categories: black, coloured, Indian/Asian or white. Generally one was categorised according to one’s parents or by looks.
The term Coloured covers a wide range of people that have lighter brown or yellow skin and some have slightly Negroid features, they account for about 9% of the population. Most Coloured people spoke Afrikaans (a derivative of the Dutch language) but as the rigours of Apartheid took their toll they consciously fostered English as a protest against Apartheid.
South Africa’s Coloured people are descended from the intermarriage of white settlers, African natives, and Asian slaves who were brought to South Africa from the Dutch colonies of Asia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Most Coloureds worked as domestic servants, farm labourers, and fisher-folk, but large numbers were also involved in the skilled trades. Women were skilled seamstresses and many men were involved in stone masonry.
Gertie served my grandparents for more than three decades. The close relationship between the Coloured and whites was epitomised in the relationship Gertie shared with my grandparents. There was a mutual respect and in later years friendship. Always there was concern for Gertie’s wellbeing as well as her safety as she travelled on public transport to and from work.
… To be continued/