Last week I introduced readers to my grandparents’ Coloured house servant called Gertie. When my grandparents settled in Johannesburg South Africa, Gertie came to serve them and she did so for more than three decades.
Even before The Group Areas Act in 1950, there was a move to establish racially segregated residential areas in South Africa. An outbreak of bubonic plague swept through in the centre of Johannesburg (known as “Coolietown”) which hastened the relocation of residents to Soweto (South Western Townships).
Gertie was relocated to the township of Alexandra together with other Coloured, Black, and Indian families. IN a generous moment these families were gifted the title to land and permitted to build homes. This decision was reversed under the Apartheid government.
Gertie, with her son and daughter lived in a modest two bedroom house until the children left home when Gertie moved to the township of Orlando. Like the previous township her water came from an always-running tap the end of the dirt road on which her house was located.
Like other townships in Soweto, Orlando’s roads were unpaved and no trees provided shade or beautification. Similar to other homes Gertie’s was a tiny matchbox house built from a mix of iron, wood and brick. The townships were overcrowded and there was no sanitation; toilet buckets were emptied into streets or down the few drains that were dotted around the streets. As infra dig as the toilet buckets may have been – and it was a regular topic of conversation with Gertie – others in the township used the streets and backs of other people’s houses as their toilets.
Her home in Orlando was similar to those depicted in the image below. They were poorly insulated therefore freezing cold in winter and stifling in the summer months. Gertie’s health deteriorated during the winter months and she suffered with arthritis in the cold. Grandpa supplemented Gertie’s wages during winter so she could purchase coal with which to heat her home as well as cook her meals. She used candles and a kerosene lamp to light her home which always posed a fire risk.
Under apartheid Blacks, Indians and Coloureds were prohibited from selling alcohol or entering any licensed premises and coupled with the Great Depression the illegal drinking halls (shebeens) emerged in townships. The economic effects of the Great Depression were devastating to an ever-growing poor and landless rural population, forcing huge numbers of black people to move to urban areas to seek wage-paying jobs.
“Since African women did not have to carry passes until the 1950s, they were shunned by employers (who insisted on employees they could ‘control’), and struggled to find work in the formal sector.
To earn an income, many women turned to their former skills as beer-brewers. Rural Africa has an historic tradition of beer brewing. Customarily, women did this.
The women, who came to be called ‘shebeen queens’, made and sold beer to migrant workers who could not afford to buy the western beer, or who still preferred the traditional African beer.
Shebeens were township bars and taverns, places where mostly working class urban males could unwind, socialise, and escape the oppression of life in a segregated society.
Despite their illegal status, shebeens played a unifying role in the community, providing a sense of identity, and belonging, where patrons could express themselves culturally, and meet and discuss political and social issues. Often, police arrested patrons and owners.
As shebeens evolved, and became permanent features of the townships’ social scene, establishments competed to attract customers by offering live music, dancing and food,” (sourced with thanks from: Shebeens, taverns …).
Because families were fragmented – wives often worked as domestic servants and lived in servant’s quarters with their children – men, who worked in mines returned to empty homes each night and went in search of companionship to be found in the shebeens where drinking and gambling were the main activities.
The children who remained in townships were often cared for by grandparents but many ran wild, wagged school (if they attended at all) and eventually joined other youths who formed themselves into gangs. These youth gangs who terrorised the townships were known as tsotsis and wielded a lot of power. They also offered powerful alternative to school for angry adolescents who lived in abject poverty with grandparents or were homelessness.
Reflecting on Gertie’s story I am embarrassed by the complacence with which I regarded her home life. I wonder where she garnered the strength and courage to keep serving my grandparents in light of the violence she knew she was returning to each night and from which she escaped each morning.
But then I have also to wonder where could Gertie have gone? As a person of mixed colour she was accepted by neither Blacks nor Whites and she had no relatives or other family with whom she might have lived.
Despite the violence surrounding her home life Gertie maintained a sense of humour. In spite of the poverty, family discord, violence, experiences of trauma, disability, and ill health with which she lived Gertie was generally cheerful and welcoming when we entered our grandparents’ home at 403 Grand National Building, Rissik Street, Johannesburg in South Africa.
As a middle-aged Coloured woman living alone in a predominantly Black township it was only a matter of time before Gertie became the target of the shebeen’s revellers returning to their homes.
To be continued/ …