I nearly fall off my chair when I get an upbeat response from Georgina, the church secretary telling me: Yes, it Is her and Yes, she is still alive, Yes, I phoned her and she is sitting next to me as I write this mail. Aunty Martha dictates, “I’m as fit as a fiddle, with a few untuned strings”. Georgina writes that Marthe’s knees give her trouble, but other than that she is fine. She has no e-mail address and only an old mobile phone, so we communicate via Georgina and via text message over the next four months. Her text messages are hilarious, full of strange characters I later find out are cats. She insists the gremlins and ET’s eat her words, she means the spell checker and technology in general. She has her own very special language. I think I might like this godmother of mine.
We make arrangements to meet. She sends me a text message saying. “Am getting anxious to meet u but there’s no way I can speed up time to make our meeting come round sooner. We meet at St Francis Church at 9am and part at 4pm so I can miss the heavy traffic flow to check on miss Molly.” I check google street view and look at the church building. I want to be able to tell the Uber driver where to drop me off. Even then he is reluctant to let me get out of the car at the empty church carpark and drives me to the guardhouse of the Maeyersdael estate. Who should be standing chatting to the guard? Aunty Marthe. Black hair turned to White, bent over with the effort of walking and still wearing jeans and a white turtleneck. I recognise her immediately.
St Francis of Assisi is in Alberton, southern Jo’burg. The church is on the edge of a modest gated estate full of middle sized, well kept houses. This is not like Sandton, but again there are women walking towards the houses with baskets, wearing house coats and berets. There are men wearing blue overals doing maintenance and a pick up truck with a trailer carrying the slogan ‘Mshume’s bin cleaning service’. I see a man roll out two wheelie bins from behind a gate, load them into his trailer, hose them down and scrub them clean. Things in the new south Africa have definitely changed in the last twenty five years, but it remains black people working in white peoples houses, with a few exceptions. The divide in the new South Africa is largely economic and runs along class lines, but everything here is racialised.
We sit in the church garden and have a cup of tea. I listen to her tell stories about her life and about me as a baby. She gives me palm crosses she made herself, a prayer cycle she wrote for the Easter service and little beaded guardian angels for all the women in my life. She says, ‘I am not trying to convert you, I just want to remind you that you will be in my prayers from now on. Give these things to your mum will you? From me’. I give her Belgian chocolates. After tea we drive to the OK Bazaar and she buys me lunch. My Godmother and I sit and eat with our hands in her car, parked on a grass verge in the park behind the church. She is 80, I am 46, we haven’t seen each other for 40 years.
Her car is full of stuff, cool bags, a walking stick, a jumper she bought in 1994. The dashboard has wooden crosses stuck on it with blue tack: ‘God is love’ & ‘Angels watch over you’. There are CDs of vaguely Celtic sounding music over which we establish quickly that she loves the sound of bagpipes and I hate it. We are a similar type of people of Scottish descent, neither of us born there, neither of us live there, but both of us are brought up to feel vaguely Scottish. There are little trinkets and glasses cases in every cubby hole and glove compartment: “Thats my spare pair. That’s my other spare pair, that’s my spare, spare pair”.
The Very Reverend Aunty M., my Godmother, is the first female Anglican priest to be ordained in the Johannesburg diocese. This is something she is very proud of. Before this she has a long career as a primary school teacher. For 30 years, Aunty Martha is a single live-in teacher at the hostel for boys and girls sent by Johannesburg district court to come to school in Bethal. The children are either in trouble, their parents are in trouble or they are orphaned. These kids love her. She fixes all their toys and takes them out to play sport at weekends. She never married. People with nothing better to do would call her a spinster or an old maid. She was also the school librarian. Everyone I speak to from Bethal remembers her. Gerjen, a man now in his 50’s, tells me: “She hid me in the library once, from the older boys. They were going to beat me up. She wasn’t afraid of anybody.” Charlotte says “she sneezed so loudly it made me jump and always three times, never just once”.
Aunty Martha goes to Germiston Girls High and then trains as a Physical Education teacher in Johannesburg in the 1950’s. She wants to be independent, no one telling her what to do, least of all a man. When her brother asks her to wash his shirt, she doesn’t. When her mother asks why she didn’t wash his shirt, she says, ‘he didn’t say please’. Her brother keeps asking when she is getting married. She tells him, if he asks her one more time, she’ll wallop him with a cricket bat. He never asks again. The headmaster at H.M. Swart is afraid to ask her to change jobs because one of the male staff says, “Sy sal jou donner!”, She will punch your lights out. ‘I don’t know where they get that idea about me’, she says. ‘I will not put up with any nonsense from men, not then, not now. I never understood why men got paid more than me for doing the same job and I worked much harder than they ever did. Did you know their wives used to mark their students work, while they were off playing golf or rugby all day. I wasn’t afraid to say what I thought about that, but I have never hit anyone!’ A woman in the 1960’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, oh, lets be honest, its still the case, who stands up for herself, isn’t interested in men, doesn’t even notice them till they get in her way, is obviously aggressive. If you are not submissive, you are aggressive. ‘I have no time for relationships’, she says, ‘I just wants to get on with my life, do my work well and read a book undisturbed, thats not too much to ask, is it’?
When I say she is a feminist, she says, ‘oh no, most of them are more left wing than the government’. I’m not sure what to do with that. I ask her about the current government, What does she think about how things are going in South Africa? ‘I listen to the news’, she says, ‘I read the papers and its all going to the dogs, ‘they’ don’t know how to run a country, this lot. ‘They’ give jobs to their friends and family, its pure corruption. You know about Zuma and the Gupta’s? Zuma built a huge house, you know, for all his wives. With government money! And there is no electricity! Escom sell all the good coal to the Chinese and bung up our own power stations with 3rd grade coal. Its a bloody mess!’ She is not the first person who has said this to me. Both black and white South Africans are highly critical of the ANC government. But it is her use of ‘They’ and ‘Them’ that jumps out. She talks about ‘the blacks’ and how they are ‘different’ from ‘us’. She thinks, as many people do, in racialised categories. It is mainly the white people I talk to who still use racialised terms from the Apartheid era such as ‘The Coloureds’ or ‘The Blacks’. Black people I talk to move words around, renaming and reframing power-dynamics, for example, ‘the So-called coloureds’ or ‘people from the Western Cape who speak isiXhosa’. She says: “a Zulu will never work under a Sotho or a Xhosa. They will always want to be the BossBoy”. I literally cringe at the word ‘BossBoy’. I think of grown men being called ‘boy’ and that feeling arises again. That feeling I am trying to put into words. That feeling of being part of a system and a group of people who have been and still are so sure of our ‘natural’ superiority that we see and name everyone else as inferior pieces in our self made puzzle. She says: “I have always had respect for ‘Them’. As long as we have respect for each other, its fine. We can all get along in the new south Africa”.
I spend two whole days hanging out with my Godmother in Alberton. When I get home after day one, I write her a letter about the things we may not agree on, about who I am and whats important to me. On day two I want to do more than smile, listen and ask questions. I want her to get to know me and maybe I want to differentiate myself from her ideas, even if she is a product of her time and the system she grew up in. I also wonder how much of my reaction is rooted in my own shame at having lived here during Apartheid as a child. These are questions I want to get to the bottom of. I want to understand and I do not want to judge. When I ask her about the Apartheid era, she says ‘It wasn’t all bad, the roads were in good condition and the rubbish got picked up on time’. While I am still thinking, hang on a minute, You cant say that, It WAS all bad, it was ALL BAD…she jumps to a new subject: Cats!
‘We are not allowed cats in our block of flats.’ She tells me. ‘But, if Linky Plinky creeps under my chair and sits there all day or jumps into my bed at night, I cant do anything about it, can I?. She loves me, what can I say’. She cat-sits for an ex-colleague of hers when he and his wife go off on safari. She and Miss Molly are the best of friends. She loves Miss Molly and Miss Molly loves her. I can see why Linky Plinky and Miss Molly love this near Octogenarian. She has this wicked twinkel in her eyes. An intelligent, naughty curiosity and a sparkle for life. When I ask her what makes her happy, she says: ‘Being alive’, followed by, ‘I’m nearly 80 you know!’
When she gets up she takes a deep breath, counts to three a few times and sings herself up onto her feet. Walking is difficult, she’s waiting for a knee operation. She wants to know all about me and keeps saying: “to think I missed out on so much of your life and you missed out on all those Christmas and birthday presents”. This makes me laugh. We may not see eye to eye on everything, but she is my present. The one and only, twinkly eyed, short haired, cat lover in sensible shoes. Even without knowing it, she has been a guardian angel in my life. Thankyou Aunty M.