Parts 1 and 2 in the series entitled Gertie provide background and her place in my grandparents’ home. This third post and final post was written for Monday Memoir and will be included as part of my life story.
Gertie was aware it was another night of unrest and normally she would not have raised an eyebrow but something was different. There was angry shouting but also cries of people, being beaten. She told herself it was yet another police raid and turned the radio up to finish listening to her weekly serials, and then went to bed.
When she woke someone was banging on her front door and calls for help, someone was in distress. She remembered the police raid earlier in the evening and wondered if someone was still out there and hurt. She remembered little after she opened the door.
With no recollection of the assault she lay in hospital with a broken arm, stab wounds to her neck and chest and severe bruising to parts of her body. There was little likelihood of the assailants being caught because Gertie was not a white person. However badly she was inured her sense of humour remained in tact, she told my grandfather that,
“… the stink of shebeen beer and dagga made me sick; just as well I passed out” .
While Gertie was in hospital my grandparents took care of themselves and I think my grandmother liked having the kitchen to herself. Our Sunday visits continued with the usual full roast on the menu. Typically Gertie would have done the preparatory work and my grandmother would have cooked the meal adding the finishing touches. Now Granny prepared and cooked the meal.
In many township communities neighbours often rallied to support a family member or elderly person in times of ill health. However, such caring and concern was not extended to Gertie because of her Coloured status so my grandparents employed someone to check on Gertie in the early weeks after she was released from hospital.
Gertie was one of the family and we all missed her but the gap she left in my grandparents’ home and lives was palpable. When she finally returned to work it was to reduced hours and only tasks that she could comfortably carry out as her injuries had left her in chronic pain.
As a white family we lived in suburbs that were safe, our homes had electricity and running water; we had access to excellent medical facilities and education and public transport ran frequently. We employed two servants who earned a marginal wage that would have been negotiated at the start of the servants’ employment and renegotiated each year.
The privilege of our whiteness gave my father access to employment opportunities not available to other population groupings. My brother and I received a private school education, enjoyed access to full dental and medical treatment and generally got what we asked for. These were our rights after all, being born white we would have expected nothing less. We had no concept of the burden carried by people of other race classifications.
Our home was an average South African household: mother, father, two children, two servants. Apart from my father, who was born in England, my mother, brother and I were raised ‘knowing’ only Apartheid. There were never discussions about the rights and wrongs of segregation, discrimination and the disparity between the races when it came to resource distribution. It was simply how things were.
When I left home in my late teens I joined a group of university students and newspaper reporters whose political view views ranged between radical and extreme. I had the gumption to realise that the DNA of apartheid was not going to be swept away within a generation or even two, after all how many generations had been raised believing that Apartheid was the key to the privileged life white people lived.
For Gertie whose home environment was unsafe, there was no way she could protect herself from break-ins. The police whose visits to the townships were infrequent – at best – were often intimated by tsotsis gangs who operated like the mafia and would have had some police officers in their pay. It left the vulnerable to fend for themselves.
Neither did Gertie have access to reliable public services and timetabled bus services were erratic which meant she had to walk for miles to catch the next bus or train. She had little education, having left school early to work and bring money in to her home. No matter the dreams and hopes for her children, their coloured classification would have kept them marginalised, discriminated against and having to live in the no man’s land of being coloured.
Gertie did not serve my immediate family but in her role as my grandparents’ maid I learned of her hardships yet it is only recently that I can contemplate how difficult life was for her.
Gertie Part 3 was the 500th post on QP and Eye.