Lest We Forget (For Alec, Rosie and Priscilla)

Apartheid and the way in which it informed my childhood, has occupied much of my mind since Tuesday.  This is not particularly unusual.  I’m sure many of us who grew up in that most peculiar era, often think back on it, but my current preoccupation with it stems from listening to a talk given by Justice Edwin Cameron on Tuesday morning.

Africadayz Nanny Violet

With Violet, before she retired.

Justice Cameron was the guest speaker at Highveld Forum and his topic was “South Africa’s Constitution: Its Hopes and Hazards.”  It was a privilege to have him there and a privilege to hear him speak.  Without a note in sight, he was quietly authoritative, compelling and entertaining.

Our ‘new’ and much vaunted democratic constitution provides rich subject matter, but before he went into that, Justice Cameron went back to our earliest Dutch settlers and the Roman Dutch Law they brought with them to this country.  From there he moved on to Apartheid, explaining that the way it was minutely legislated into the fabric of our society was what make it so abhorrent  He described it as a greater crime against humanity than the Rwandan Genocide – a sobering message for his entirely white audience, aged largely between 50 and 80 and therefore complicit in Apartheid whether consciously or not.

I was born into Apartheid.  It was so much a fact of my life as to be unnoticed until I was old enough to ask questions.  What was a “pass book” and why did my nanny have one?  Where was her husband and why didn’t he live with her at our house? Walking to the shop with Priscilla, who I adored, was a treat but also always tinged with a little frisson of anxiety.  The ubiquitous police vans that prowled the nearby main road were not viewed positively.  Even as a very little girl, I detected an undercurrent of threat.

One of my earliest memories is of a Sunday lunch on the patio being thrown into disarray by Rosie, our cook, screaming and hurtling into our midst with a khaki-blue-clad, young, white policeman in hot pursuit.  He accused her of having ‘warned’ young men gambling on the street corner of an impending police raid and intended arresting her on the grounds of obstructing the ends of justice.  I remember being terrified for  her and terrified for our Irish Terrier who flew to her defence and literally kept the policeman at bay.  My sister remembers her terror that Pickles would be shot as the policeman, with gun drawn, kept threatening to despatch him.

I can still clearly picture that young man with his ‘short back and sides’,  standing astride a raised flower bed and looming over the bucolic Sunday scene.  He was Afrikaans and had probably never encountered people like us before.  Back then, English and Afrikaans white South Africans were kept almost as far apart as black and white.

My father, who knew how to rise to an occasion when pressed, managed to talk the policeman down and to see him back out of the ‘Tradesmen’ entrance through which he had so rudely appeared.

My Father knew how to rise to an occasion.

My Father knew how to rise to an occasion.

No doubt extra-strong drinks were then poured and all ruffled feathers soothed, but I remained petrified of policemen for years and had nightmares about Rosie being chased for months after the event.

Those were the days of one or maybe two fixed landline telephones in the house and I clearly remember my mother on a call that evening, describing the scene to a friend and commenting that Rosie was still in a terrible state and had ‘let the soup boil over.’  Was that her way of trying to normalise what had in reality been a shocking experience for us all?  I hope so.  The fact that such a prosaic remark has stuck with me through all these years suggests that even then it struck me as being incongruous.

And then there was Alec.  And Rosie was once again involved.

On the left, Rosie, her two children, and Priscilla. On the right, Alec in 'going-out' clothes.

On the left, Rosie, her two children, and Priscilla. On the right, Alec in ‘going-out’ clothes.

Alec, our live-in gardener, had been in my life as long as Apartheid.  My parents had employed him before I was born.  My mother used to tell me that when she and my father were developing their first garden around a house my father had designed for them in the early 1950ties, Alec, along with several other part-time labourers, would turn up each day in search of casual work.  As the garden developed and the weeks passed, the other men drifted off to other jobs, but, she would say, Alec just kept on coming back, week after week, month after month, until he became a permanent fixture.

Alec, on the left, had a talent for stone masonry.

Alec, on the left, had a talent for stone masonry.

Eventually my parents built staff quarters (known in those days as ‘servants’ quarters) in a corner of their beautiful garden.  My father, an architect, used imagination seldom seen in buildings of that sort and built three rooms around a sunny courtyard, entered through an archway.  The design afforded the staff some privacy and I remember spending many hours sitting with my nanny in the sun there.

And so Alec became entrenched.  He had originally, according to my parents, ‘worked on the mines’ although he hailed from the Transkei where he’d been born and where he kept three wives.  This we took quite for granted back then.  We find it more difficult to reconcile ourselves with the fact of our encumbent president’s 6 wives, some  60 years later….

My father had designed and built a house on an old quarry site meaning there were many different levels to accommodate and lots of rock.  Alec soon showed a great talent for stone masonry and he and my mother developed a very happy working relationship building retaining walls and steps in what eventually became a prize-winning garden.

The garden developed by Alec and my mother.

The garden developed by Alec and my mother.

Every morning Alec vacuumed the swimming pool and washed the cars.  The remainder of his day was spent gardening and some evenings he would sit in the laundry and polish all our shoes.  He was a large man with an inherent dignity and stature.  When he wasn’t in his gardening overalls, he would emulate my father in trousers held up with braces over a white shirt.  It is likely that a large part of his wardrobe was made up of cast-offs from my father’s dressing room.  Alec added his own stamp to his ‘going-out’ clothes however, by always wearing a hat with a small feather in the brim.  I held him in great respect and found his constant presence comforting.  My over-riding memory of him is the smell of pipe tobacco in which he was permanently enshrouded.

Only when away on holiday did we realise that, in our absence, Alec made a habit of patrolling the grounds at night.  Armed with a knobkerrie (a traditional African weapon) and the serious intention of seeing off any would-be intruders, he took it upon himself to ensure the safety of our property.  This was back in the days when burglaries were rare.  Windows were not barred and gardens not electrically-fenced and locked.  But perhaps he had seen enough on the big city mines to make him extra-cautious.

These nocturnal ramblings were discovered when my father nearly met with an untimely demise on arriving back from a trip late one night, a few days earlier than expected.  He dined out for years afterwards on the shock he got on being confronted in the deep, African dark by a knobkerrie-wielding Alec who mistook him for a thief.  For my part, as a little girl, I derived great reassurance from the idea of Alec circling the garden at night.  Even when only my father was away on business, he made a habit of checking the grounds.  He took our safety very much to heart.

And so we loved Alec and we held him in a certain esteem.  Whatever else might have been going on in South Africa at the time and no matter what the attitude some people might have taken with their staff, my parents instilled in their three children a respect for everyone who worked in our home and insisted on courtesy at all times  Woe betide the child invited home to play who did not meet these criteria.  They were not invited again.

Time passed and circumstances changed.  When a major highway was planned and built right through our much-loved home, we moved and Alec, Rosie and Priscilla moved with us.  To my chagrin my mother decided I had outgrown a need for a nanny and eventually found Priscilla employment at a bakery where she felt there might be more opportunity for her.  I continued to visit her there until well into my teens.

It was now the 1970ties and Apartheid was thoroughly entrenched.  Draconian laws were in place and enforced should anyone overstep their particular boundary.  All black people had to carry a ‘pass book’ giving their personal particulars, their place of employment, residence etc and no black person was allowed to live or work outside a predetermined area.  A sliver of leeway meant that if you were within a very short distance – preferably in sight – of your place of residence or work, you would be given permission to fetch your pass book should the police demand it.

I write this matter-of-factly but I find it difficult.  It is difficult to acknowledge that we knew all this and that we lived with it.  And more so that our parents and grandparents knew it, professed to strongly disapprove of it, but lived with it nevertheless.  Born into a regime, steeped in it, you live in it for years.

One Saturday night when my sister and I were in our teens and our brother away at boarding school, we were once again shaken out of complacency by Rosie.  Stumbling into the kitchen, almost incoherent with fright, she explained that she and Alec had been on the pavement outside when a police van had pulled up and disgorged policemen who had demanded to see their pass-books.  Rosie had hers with her but Alec’s was in his room.  Clearly having nothing better to do with their time and with bullying tactics no doubt heightened by Alec’s dignity, they had refused to let him fetch his book, had forced him into the van and driven away.

Our parents were out for dinner.  I remember only too well our sense of outrage, our anxiety and above all, our fear.  Judging from Rosie’s state we gathered the encounter had been a very unpleasant one and the notion of gentle, elderly Alec having been manhandled into a van was almost too much to bear.  Writing about it even now, I feel the knot of anxiety that came with our sense of complete helplessness.  We knew where our parents were and we called them.

Those were the days when even in East London, a formal invitation to dinner at someone’s home called for ‘dressing up.’  My father in a formal suit and my mother in evening dress, mink stole and diamonds, took leave of the party and swept into the Cambridge Police Station demanding an explanation and Alec’s immediate release.  They caused something of a stir.  This was not expected and something needed to be done. Radios crackled this way and that; there was some behind-the-counter conferring and then, implacable denial.  No such event had ever taken place that night or indeed, ever.  Rosie must have made up the whole story to ‘make trouble’.  There had been no van in our street and none of their officers had ever seen let alone spoken to Alec.  My parents could do nothing but wait it out.

I remember a largely sleepless night.  The possibility that we might never see or hear of Alec again was very real and the probability of his being harmed simply because we’d caused a scene was nerve-wracking. I remember a subdued morning as the hours ticked slowly by.  And then, in the early afternoon, dishevelled and tired, Alec appeared in the kitchen.  He had heard all the radio calls between the Station and the van and understood enough Afrikaans to grasp that he was to be driven out of town and dropped off far away.  Nobody was ever to admit to having arrested him in the first place.  From what we could understand, that is exactly what had happened.  He had been left in the veld miles away in the middle of nowhere and it had taken him hours and hours to walk home.  He was resigned and uncomplaining.  If he’d been physically hurt he was not admitting it.  No doubt he felt he’d escaped lightly and he probably had.  My mother, in high dudgeon, phoned the police station to be met again with impenetrable denial.  And so we accepted it.  Relief overcame outrage.  It was the way it was and we counted ourselves fortunate that Alec was alive and home.   I can’t remember for sure, but we probably all had tea and biscuits and packed the whole unpleasant experience away as quickly as we could.

My parents, Alec and Rosie seeing my brother off on the long drive back to university in Cape Town.

My parents, Alec and Rosie seeing my brother off on the long drive back to university in Cape Town.

Alec eventually retired in 1975.  He went back to his house in the Transkei and his remaining wife and daughter.  He died within a year, succumbing to emphysema and lung damage dating back to his days in the mines.  I was away in America on an exchange programme.  I remember my mother calling especially to tell me and I remember shedding the first and only tears of that year away.  His death marked the end of an era for my family and in my heart of hearts I realised that he had probably never known how much we’d loved and appreciated him.  I think my mother missed gardening with him for the rest of her life and when she died some 20 years later, I remember hoping that she’d meet up with him in a garden somewhere in Heaven.

I’m sure that most people like me have a little store of apartheid-stained memories or anecdotes.  Perhaps, like me, they keep them packed away in a their own Pandora’s Box, letting them out only occasionally, one by one, when a conversation or thought deviates down that uncomfortable road.  And then we wonder – marvel even – at how ghastly it all was and yet how we lived with it.  We’ve come a long, long way since then.  South Africa is another country now and it’s almost possible to forget the past ever happened until someone like Justice Cameron reminds us that it did and that we were there.  And no matter how bad things might seem now – or what ‘hazards’ we might confront in future – nothing could ever be as bad as it was back then.



5 thoughts on “Lest We Forget (For Alec, Rosie and Priscilla)

  1. A beautifully written tribute. I love history and remember learning about apartheid in high school. But this first hand account has taught me so much. Thanks for sharing this story.


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