Since I’ve already written reflections around the birth of each of my sons, I should reference the girls’ births, lest I be accused of favouritism, or horror of horrors, gender prejudice.
The story of Caitlin’s imminent arrival does involve prejudice against women though, but it’s also a story of triumph over that, in one of life’s delightful ironies.
It was Christmas 1993. We had been transferred to Johannesburg “for one year, I promise” (We were there for seven.) and I had just been offered an English teaching post at a private boys’ school, in what would become Gauteng in a few months with the dawn of New South African Republic.
My sister arrived to spend Christmas with us and while we were sunning ourselves on Christmas Eve, the phone rang. (Remember when phones used to ring somewhere in the distance and you had to go inside to answer them?!) I came out stunned. I was pregnant. Not part of the immediate plans, but a blessing nonetheless.
After the celebrations and announcements were over, I realized the tricky situation I was in. I was due to start at the college in the January, with a matric class, and the baby was due in August – mid-prelims. With some trepidation, I called the head of the school to inform him, and stupidly admitted I wouldn’t blame him if he fired me. He promptly did. Of course, he couched it in terms which probably sounded kind to him: ‘We…eell, we would prefer then that yah didn’t start at all,’ he said in his lilting Irish voice. And that was that. There was no contract to dispute. The legal advice given to me was that I’d opened the door by saying I wouldn’t blame him. So, I was out.
This was a time in education when schools were not only racially segregated, but women also had an unequal deal as employees. When I started teaching I earned R900. My male counterparts with the same qualifications and experience were gifted R1 100 per month. I lost my permanent post in a state school when I got married and no longer qualified for a housing subsidy. And here I was being screwed over by an independent school too.
At the time, I shrugged my shoulders, sold my little blue Suzuki Jeep (Okay I cried about that) and realized that I didn’t want to be a part of a system raising boys to think like that anyway and a few months later found the perfect post at Holy Family College in Parktown, an institution which housed the best head I ever worked under, Alastair Smurthwaite, who later promoted me to my first HOD position. He was a person of compassion and believed in giving his leadership team the room to grow.
I am a firm believer that when we don’t get what we want out of life, we often find our hideen, deepest desire. This is a lesson that I have learned over and over in my life.
HFC was a significant place of learning for me. I had a fabulous subterranean classroom, which must have been part of the old convent building. It was massive and airy and even though it was situated beneath the front stairs, it had a lot of light that came in from windows at the top which looked onto a carpark and enabled us to listen unseen to all the parents gossiping outside. It had huge hooks that we made up ghost stories about, and I rummaged around in unused rooms of the rambling building, braving the odd lurking aged nun, and discovered an old carpet and footstools which we put cushions on and used as a comfy corner for reading setworks and chatting.
The school was also a place where I was witness to great suffering among young people who travelled for miles on public transport, some being victims of unspeakable violence.
I will never forget a young man named Nokwanto whose growth was stunted because of his kidney disease, that forced him to undergo two transplants. His body rejected the second transplant; yet with every day that drew him closer to death, he lived life with a joi de vivre that would shame the most truculent adolescent. My last image of him before I left the school eventually was of him standing arms akimbo, laughing delightedly as soft snow fell on one of those rare Johannesburg days when the sleet is in fact snow.
Then there was the young woman who was gang-raped on her way home because she ‘had airs and graces because she attended a fancy school,’ who gave up her plans to become a lawyer and chose social work instead. And the tall, thin, tortured Nkululeko who postured aggressively in class and drew tormenting demons in his diary, and who slipped one of the most beautiful thank you notes I have ever received under my office door, in which he reflected that I had loved him just as he was. The social worker at the school voiced prophetic words when I left: “This is the letter which will bring you back to teaching.’ And years later when I did return to the classroom, I remembered. I still wonder what became of him.
The school was a fascinating combination of new and old, and the energy of the young people was contagious. The staff was largely female; strong women who were clearly leaders, at least one of whom went on to become a principal in her own right. The Science teacher, a heavy smoker and nearing retirement, was the first female engineer to graduate from Wits University, so there was no shortage of great female role models.
It was a place of healing for me when I lost my mother, and I am still in touch with a student who was delighted to hear that Caitlin was born on her birthday. Caitlin herself has grown up to be a woman of deep compassion and generosity of spirit, and is embarking on her career as a chartered accountant. She rescued me from becoming mired in a school whose male leadership would have crushed me, and enabled me to find one where I was liberated. It is fitting that the child who was born during my time there is forging ahead in what is still a rather male-dominated field, despite have been seen as an inconvenience by a school when she was still in the womb.
Thank you, Caitlin for being God’s instrument in leading me to profound happiness and setting me on my own path towards leadership.
7 things to know about surviving hurt and trying to forgive.
I have faced my share of betrayal and spite, and sadly I have realized over the years that it seems to be a part of the human condition, this coming to terms with the damage others inflict in our lives.
I once asked for a formula to follow to try to forgive someone who had hurt me badly, and not even priests could give me a how-to guide. I think it is a path we often travel alone, but one can produce a joy more profound than the hurt.
These are the 7 things I have done and what I have learnt about surviving hurt and about forgiveness.
1. I kept an angry book
When I first realized I would need to raise five little tykes on my own with little or no consistent financial assistance, I was filled with soul-penetrating hurt and an impotent rage, that I thought would overwhelm me.
So, I wrote it all down. I filled a cheap little brown exercise book with my profound personal hurt and the rejection which threatened to destroy my fragile sense of self. And I scribbled vile words in several languages in an attempt to purge the acid that burned inside me.
Late at night I vented into that book every impassioned thing I wanted to say and needed to say, yet was unable to because I was unable to address them in person, in the knowledge that even if I could have reached his voice, I could not reach his spirit.
One day, I came to the end of the notebook. And I realized I didn’t need to buy another. I was done. The poison was out.
And then I found love
I put the book aside and some years later when I was packing to move into a new house with The Maestro, I threw it away.
2. Everyone is the hero in her own story
This is especially true of people who inflict pain on others. Some years ago I worked with a colleague who made my life so unbearable, I was forced to leave. I was filled with the penetrating pain at being falsely accused, as well as anger and anxiety at the loss of my livelihood, and concern for my children who were innocent victims yet again.
It was at this time, that I tried in vain to google ‘forgiveness for dummies’ because I knew that the hurt would crush me and demolish my serenity if I didn’t.
Then I realised something: she actually thought she was right. In her mind, she was the avenging angel, and I was a cruel woman who had to be vanquished.
In my newfound empathy for my tormentor, and her cabal, I was able to understand her a little, and in the end, I felt sorry for her. Because she was simply wrong.
‘Always forgive your enemies – nothing annoys them so much.‘
3. Forgiveness is not about the abuser
Letting go of anger, no matter how righteous the rage may be, is a healing process and brings true serenity. When you are angry with someone, that person neither knows nor cares how you feel. So, your feelings are an invisible toxin that kills only you.
Physical action helps to externalize the ache. That’s why often jogging or cycling till your drop helps some people. I am not that crazy. However, I did find that walking alongside the sea gave me a sense of perspective on my life, measured against the ebb and flow of the eternal tide.
4. It’s much more difficult to forgive someone when the abuse is ongoing
If you are able to walk away from a situation or draw a line under toxic relationships, it is much easier to let go of the emotional damage they cause, but when you face the same day-in-and-day-out bullying or verbal abuse or permanent penury that often accompanies great betrayal, it is not so simple.
There is recourse in the law for some things naturally, but I found that the legal route is almost as brutal as the original crime, and I had to look inside of myself to find solutions for the problems. Being honest with myself about how and why I felt unhinged by my emotions allowed me to park the anger temporarily so that it has eventually become a side-blur as I journey through life.
5. Time heals
It is true that time takes some of the sting out the raw pain you endure when first you are wounded. And I have found that suffering has made me more compassionate towards others. You just have to wait it out.
6. ‘The truth will out’
As Shakespeare tells us in The Merchant of Venice (and many other of his plays), ‘the truth will out.’ And it really does in the end. It is good to be vindicated, but the waiting to be ‘exalted above [your] foes’ as the psalmist promises, can be long and requires patience.
Far be it for me to suggest we should wish for such vengeful deliverance, but it is human nature to hope for it when we have been wronged. I have found though that the truth has a wily way of popping up to haunt those who abuse it.
7. The greatest ‘revenge’ is to be happy and successful
Laugh long and often. Life is absurd, but there is much joy and friendship to be found, even in your darkest hours. You can experience profound joy in the midst of your suffering.
This is how I have found my peace.
‘Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.’
President Cyril Ramaphosa was criticized by a caller on a talk-radio show this week, as ‘being weak’ for apologising for mistakes made in the process of addressing our country’s response to the coronavirus crisis.
I completely disagree. I think it is a sign of strength that a person can apologise (and a rarity from a politician). I think it shows an acknowledgement and empathy for other people ‘s feelings and opinions if you can say you are sorry to someone who has been hurt by your words or actions. And in a leader, that kind of humility is important.
I have a saying with my staff that‘sometimes only grovel will do.’
Because we mess up – like all people – and much time is saved when the offended party is given that recognition of their hurt or inconvenience.
Here are some tips about apologizing (with a disclaimer that I don’t always get these right either):
1. Believe you have offended. Apologise even if the mistake or slight was unintended.
There is nothing worse than being gaslighted by the very person who has caused you hurt, or upset you. To have one’s offended feelings then denied, adds insult to injury. The first rule of conflict management is to believe what the other person is saying. It is not for you to judge whether a person is over-reacting either.
2. Relationships matter more than your ego or being right.
A servant leader knows the simple truth that ‘it’s not about me.’ Expressing remorse shows your partner or client that the relationship you have with them is more important than your ego or being right.
‘When you’ve done something wrong, admit it. No one in history has choked to death from swallowing her pride.’
3. Mean it. Only two year olds are ‘sorry, not sorry.’
We all remember being made to ‘say sorry to your sister!’ and hearing that muttering ‘Sorreeeee!’ which was a clear sign that you were not! We’re grown-ups now though and admitting regret should be sincere and humble.
Recently after a spat between two of my my offspring, that had become particularly personal, had been calmed down, I asked each to say something nice about the other. My daughter told her brother he had nice eyes. His retort: ‘I like your glasses.’
Clearly ‘Not sorry.’
4. Don’t ruin the apology with a ‘but.’
Likewise, saying ‘but’ after an apology is just another version of saying ‘sorry, not sorry.’ See point 2 above.
5. Apologies do not absolve you of responsibility/blame/legal ramifications
Even when a criminal apologises to his victims in court, he is not excused his sentence because he is remorseful. There is still a consequence that he must accept. The same is true when we screw up. We still need to fix what we broke.
In South Africa, not enough people apologised for Apartheid, despite the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s noble aims, let alone spent their old age making amends, (or licence plates in prison).
Of course, sometimes you can land up in court for apologising because you may have admitted legal liability, but I really hate it when companies or politicians use all of those euphemisms like ‘it was a regrettable incident (that 100 of their employees died down the mine that they did not ensure was safe, or contracted cancer following their factory’s effluent poisoning the drinking water’ …
Avoiding acceptance of responsibility is cowardly. If you stuffed up, admit it! That’s the honourable thing to do, however unfortunately, honour, like cigarettes during lockdown, is hard to come by when a company is facing financial losses through litigation. Sometimes they apologise but add those little disclaimers such as ‘while the company regrets…. this in no way is an acceptance of liability…’
Large underwear is needed: confess (It’s good for the soul – trust me I’m Catholic so I know), apologise and face the music.
6. Don’t wait
Express remorse immediately when you discover you printed someone ‘s name incorrectly on the awards ceremony programme, or before someone sees the scratch on their car, or when there has been a delay in response time to an issue. Make contact even before the injured party becomes aware of the situation, if possible. That shows you’re sincere and not hiding it. It also tends to take the sting out of the error or insult and can calm down a furious client and gain their respect for being someone who owns her mistakes.
‘When you realise you’ve made a mistake, make amends immediately. It’s easier to eat crow when it’s still warm.’
7. There is always something to be sorry about in a conflict situation
Even if the angry customer in front of you is dead wrong. There is always something to apologise for such as a miscommunication that has led to the misunderstanding. If you take ownership of even a part of the complaint, the complainant may be slightly mollified at least.
Always acknowledge their feelings as valid.
8. Apologies heal relationships and build trust
Humans are weird about ‘losing face’ and being the first to apologise. In fact, to me, that is the moral high ground and shows a stronger person, confident in herself because true strength requires humility. How many of us know families who no longer speak because siblings or children or parents refuse to be the first person to ‘give in’ as apologising is considered a surrender.
In the end, we all want to feel validated. Likewise, if someone apologises to you, apologise back for your part, enabling both parties to heal and feel forgiven.
9. Take the long view
Be prepared to lose the battle in order to win the war. If your goal is to win over a group of people to co-operate with you, it can be of strategic importance to suck it up and apologise unreservedly in the small things so that they will believe you and respect you in the long term.
10. Apologies take courage
It is not always easy to apologise because it often involves facing the wrath of the offended party, and that is another reason why I say that it is strong leaders who are able to do this. An apology makes one vulnerable in the relationship (or so many think) and so they avoid doing so which is sad because the courage to own up to being flawed is both liberating and empowering.
‘The first to apologise is the bravest. The first to forgive is the strongest. The first to forget is the happiest.’
11. Don’t respond to anger or annoyance in another with reeling out a list of their own similar crimes
While it may be true that you may have experienced similar treatment at the plaintiff’s hands, now is not the time to say, ‘well you always/never do that either’
(btw ‘always’ and ‘never’ should never feature in arguments.)
‘I am so sorry! I know how annoying this is when it happens to me,’ is a far more conciliatory response and won’t escalate the conflict.
12. Don’t expect forgiveness
Don’t apologise because you want to be forgiven. Apologise because you want to heal the relationship.
13. Apologise to children.
That is how you teach them to be sorry too.
14. Sorry means I won’t do it again
My mother always told me that ‘Sorry means you won’t do it again,’ and while this assumes a path to perfection that is not always possible for horribly flawed humans, it should cause us to pause and determine a way to at the very least try to avoid the behaviour, or in business (and at home) build structures and procedures to prevent a recurrence of the error. Otherwise, you run the risk of being (or being seen to be) once again ‘sorry, not sorry.’
15. Make amends
As much as it is a powerful means of spiritually cleansing oneself, priests who prescribe prayerful penance sometimes let we sinners off the hook a bit. Saying a few ‘’our Fathers’ will not build the bridge again with one’s husband and is not as effective as going home from Confession and baking a cake for your beloved or washing his car. Showing and not just telling is a powerful way to prove repentance, and it takes more effort.
Chocolate and flowers help too:
16. A good leader apologises for the team without shifting the blame to the individual who may have caused the fault.
Not only will this gain you the thanks of your team for having their backs, it is important to remember that as a leader you may not be responsible for the mess, but you are always accountable for it.
17. Apologising is empowering
When you realise that in fact you lose nothing by apologising, there is profound sense of peace and inner strength, which leads to greater resilience.
“Apologies aren’t meant to change the past, they are meant to change the future.”
Remote Learning during Lockdown is the pits – but that’s okay if they’re Learning Pits.
I thought I’d take pity on all those parents resorting to TikTok and YouTube to post parodies of their children working at home and who rant about reaching for the Valium to get through the school day with their own beloved offspring who have turned into spawn of the Remote Learning Apocalypse. So I am letting you in on a teaching secret: the Learning Pit. Understanding this simple model may assist you and your child with school tasks at home and let you in on (some) of the magic educators learn when they study pedagogy.
It is a feature of 21st century learning and teaching that students are required to grapple with the unknown; face the fear of ignorance and learn to overcome.
The Learning Pit is an immensely empowering concept.
And it applies not only to a concept at school, but to all problems needing solving, so it is a guided way to coping with the problems of life (like avoiding opening the wine before lunch while your child is working on parts of speech.)
Now more than ever, during Lockdown, when children are learning remotely, this is a way to focus your youngsters and assist them to be self-sufficient. Besides reading, teaching a child strategies to learn is one of the most effective ways to equip a developing mind for a lifetime of successful learning.
Nottingham’s model suggests that real learning what we call ‘deep learning’ only happens when something new is learned and that can be a scary experience (almost as scary for parents who are facing similar pits during their ‘homeschooling experiments’ during COVID-19 lockdown at the moment.)
The concept is simple: if a youngster encounters a new section of work (the learning pit) and he ‘gets it’ easily, he can leap across the chasm like an avatar with that faux loping stride leaping across gorges (unrealistically) in Fortnite and can hurry on to his next challenge. He hasn’t learned anything new yet though. FYI Bright leaners do this often through school and often battle later on because they haven’t learnt HOW to navigate learning challenges so it’s important to stimulate them all the time (extend them until they face something hard) to ensure they learn the skills. All too often I have seen rosy-cheeked Dux scholars in prep school turn into average achievers later on in high school because they never learned about the struggle that is the learning pit. But they make great collaborators and cheerleaders in peer teaching -see ‘Collaborate’ below – if they understand both the work and the process.
So how does it work?
I love this child’s depiction of the pit:
When our intrepid warriors arrive at a pit that looks too dangerous and fear and confusion sets in, it’s game-on. I urge teachers to encourage our learners to leap into that pit with both feet, as soon as they recognize that they don’t understand something, we want them to feel a sense of adventure and excitement, as if they are going on a quest. A key factor in 21st century education is also the demystifying of the learning process so we point out each phase of the learning pit a child is in so they can chart their progress.
‘Having a go’
This diagram above illustrates the dangers at the bottom of the pit and challenges to be overcome like on an epic journey. (like those moments when your drooping Petal whines ‘I can’t! I don’t know what to do? And you’re thinking the same only with a few Anglo-Saxon words in between). But they are encouraged to jump on in and ‘have a go’ like the valiant gladiators of old.
A Leap of Faith
Tell them: The work may be tricky but the first important question to ask yourself is: ‘How can I do this’ – that is almost the key to crossing the bottom of the monster-filled abyss. I remember a scene in The Last Crusade, Indiana Jones (oh so young Harrison Ford) takes a leap of faith into the unknown and finds that there was a way across the impassible ravine. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-JIfjNnnMA
That first step shows the way, but the adventurer still has to climb up and out of the learning pit.
Notice that nothing new has yet been learned, but the student has already started to climb out of the pit, because attitude to learning is so important. This is why we believe in making learning fun. If a child is playing, he doesn’t realize that he’s already crossed the chasm and is climbing.
Try something else
As with all climbs, things can be quite steep and so a good pupil should know that there can be different ways of solving things: ‘What else can I try?’
Recent problem-solving by clothing manufacturers who were forced to shut their doors overnight and stop trading due to the lockdown, have re-designed and developed their sports masks into fashionable and effective alternatives for the COVID-exerciser. Instead of focusing on products they can’t sell they have focused their marketing and sales on these much-needed current products, and become essential services in the process. This kind of creative thinking is what keeps businesses afloat when times change, so when your child is struggling with a Mathematics problem, don’t show him the way you were taught – if you can even remember(!) and not at first anyway. Encourage him to try different ways because this is part of developing creativity, which stand him in good stead when his career faces a challenge.
A child must own the problem; WANT to solve it and struggle with it a bit. We all know what happened to Kodak, The Concorde, Blockbuster Video Stores and Blackberry. They would not/could not innovate. There is nothing wrong with using the fruit and veges to work out answers to basic arithmetic. Make problems relevant to real life so they have a connection. So if all you do is guide them to see a link to their own experience, you will have helped them focus on alternative ways of looking at things. Just don’t do it for them. (Walk away and mix teh margaritas for later.)
Innovation is a vital skill to learn and it’s the first step of that upward climb to problem solving so give your child lots spare paper or let her open lots of word docs and keep trying different things.
Trying can be exhausting though and is not necessarily immediately rewarding. Learning warriors need courage and resilience and what we callgrit to believe that they can. (like that little train we all remember from our youthful storybooks: ‘I think I can…’) There is a dawning hope, with each small success. Encourage her to push herself just a little bit harder, for just a little bit longer. Athletes understand this about training – the brain must also be trained to think. And sweat is involved.
Again I plead with parents not to give in and tell your child the answer. We see too many high school students these days whose parents have given them everything on a plate and they have never learnt the simple truth that success does not come without hours of (their own) hard work. They throw their hands up in despair, blame the teacher, the school, the government and everyone else because they simply don’t know how to keep at something. Things like re-writes, editing, touch ups, second drafts, conceptualization, planning are all part of keeping at it; they need to keep slogging away, and not accepting pedestrian prose or mediocrity. Cheer them on when they do.
10 000 hours at a task brings you professionalism in something. Sadly, too few students these days know how to keep at something for that long. It’s not their fault. Everything in their world is ‘insta’ – the ‘gram, their cappuccino, the news, and take-aways to their doors; binging on series has prevented us from yearning and imagining, and even gaming teaches devotees to use the cheats. Without sounding as old as my own children say I am, have to confess that I worry that we are growing a nation of quitters and lazy thinkers who want instant answers. There are loads of fun ways teachers encourage children to stick at something: competitions, promised rewards, clues and even a simple thing like timing them gives them an end in sight to strive for, so draw your child into the game of learning and keep them on track. (It will work for yourself too, especially if your choice of the fruit of the vine is the prize). Let them play music if that is their poison. (Earphones are a wonderful invention and protect us from said noise pollution).
Having said that, it is possible that you are experiencing a more genteel time at home with your family, (if you’re not exhausted from multi-tasking – running your home and empire AND Junior’s Work programme) and that can allow learners a chance to explore tangential interests and it’s consequently a great opportunity for them to go slightly off track and discover things they are really interested in. We all know this is when the real learning happens, so allow them a little intellectual bundu bashing. (They may develop an app in that time that will make them famous and you rich – more wine!)
Collaboration is one of the fundamentals of 21st century education and even during lockdown it can be achieved via Teams and WhatsApp calls. Our offspring are connected. They know how to crowd-source ideas. One of mine decided today a name change was in order for her next birthday so she threw a few ideas at her friends and bingo she had her new name. (and it wasn’t B-I-N-G-O … now there’s a blast-from-the-past kiddies tune!) So they know how to connect. It’s our job as educators and parents to guide them into using these skills to co-operate on learning tasks the same way they collaborate in their social lives. ‘Phone a friend’ is a good catch phrase to have in your classroom or on the fridge – and it’s not just a phone call – this applies to all those lifelines : teacher, google, friend, parent, asking for clues. Re-watch ‘Who wants to be a millionaire?’ and draw up your own set of lifelines to point them at when they get to this stage. ‘Read a book, search for other resources, make an appointment for a one-on-one with your teacher on Teams, You Tube videos’ – all of these are important. YouTube may well replace tecahers one day – you can learn anything on there. My eldest son watched something on ‘how to escape from a hijacking’ and it worked two weeks later when someone started shooting at a traffic light. You can learn a lot from the Tube, not least of which is how to research.)
By this time of the day, you may have your wine in hand and all you will have to do is wave your glass at the fridge to point out the ‘Phone a friend’ options.
I have always believed that a ‘lazy’ teacher is an effective educator if he is steering his students into self-discoveries and can be a profound influence on his charges. (I use the word ‘lazy’ hesitantly and for effect because I mean it in the sense that he doesn’t spoonfeed his pupils with dished up answers on the set platter of pretty notes and worksheets. In fact much time and forethought goes into planning a lesson that requires the children to do – to struggle, engage, chew on the pencil (not the stylus please though), scratch heads, stare into the vistas of space, doodle, cross out and keep trying. That is facilitating discovery. That is teaching).
Collaboration through peer-learning is important to facillitate – it empowers both teacher and learner and encourages empathy and altruism, qualities that are in rather short supply. Suggest siblings help each other, while you finish your own work (or wine).
You have almost summited the mountain if you reach the point that a child is thinking ‘I am getting there.’ This is that heady moment when a learner picks up the pace, and feels the adrenalin of final summitting the Everest of his subject. This is self-belief and is so vital for self-esteem. This is where the teacher/parent is the cheerleader, the folks back home waving the flag of support. So, don’t rob them of this high by giving them the answer because next time they will expect you to do it again. This is when you tell them they are fabulous and you knew they could do it; when you paste their artwork on the fridge/wall outside to motivate passers-by like my neighbor did with her daughter.
Give them that buzz of accomplishment and let them own the ‘Eureka moment.’ Because next time they will jump into the pit more eagerly because they know they can do it and they will need you less and less and eventually, if you are very lucky, and lockdown ends, they’ll leave home, buy you a wine farm and support you in your old age… because you taught them to solve problems on their own. School is a place and time to prepare you for life and let’s face it life is hard!
You will have taught them to think.
And you gave them an even greater gift: confidence to do it all again.
So that is the secret from the oracle today:
When it all gets too much for you, tell them to go and jump into the pit…. and resist the urge to bury them in there. If you’ve done your job right, they’ll find a way to dig themselves out anyway!
A Freedom Day Reflection during COVID-19 Lockdown 2020
I was born in 1964, three months after Nelson Mandela and seven comrades were jailed for life.
What is now the Life Vincent Pallotti Hospital, but then was the St Joseph’s Nursing Home, run by German Catholic nursing sisters, at the foot of Devils Peak, Cape Town, sounded like a strict place to be, from my mother’s telling of it. The fact that the nurses hurried her out of the loo, where I was nearly born, gave my existence an almost unseemly start, perhaps that’s why I was constantly found guilty of behaviour ‘unbecoming of a lady’ by the nuns who educated me. I was too loud. But not loud enough when it mattered.
The historic tragedy of the Rivonia Treason Trial that year though was unlikely to have been marked in my white, middle-class family, where my father was more conceivably focused on reading in the newspaper about the Springboks’ victories against touring French and Welsh rugby teams, or his own cricket matches at the club, while my mother was almost certainly consumed with caring for a toddler and a new baby. Johannesburg and race politics of the time were not even on their radar, both seemingly thousands of miles away. That’s one of the shocking realities of South African apartheid-era history: white people in the main, were not affected by the brutality and racial injustices being perpetrated in the country and life went on as ‘normal.’
I first heard about District Six when my father, a formidably fierce man, yelled at some pesky children taking delight in walking atop his newly constructed boundary wall in middle-class Pinelands, ‘What do you think this is?! District Six?!’ he roared out the window at them. I had no idea what District Six was but it seemed to be, from his attitude, a place where children got away with doing fun things. He of course had bought into the propaganda which saw the colourful, cosmopolitan area on the slopes of Table Mountain as a slum, resulting in the horrifying social and economic disaster of forced removals of black and coloured people in 1968. (Not that as an English-speaking United Party supporter, he would ever have seen himself as pro-government, an irony still playing out still in the English-Afrikaans divide in older, white South Africans.)
District Six’s fate was sealed in October 1964, a week after I was born when the Minister of Community ‘Development’ (one PW Botha!) set up a committee to re-plan and ‘develop’ District 6 and surrounding Salt River and Woodstock. The plan fell under CORDA, an acronym for the Orwellian Committee for the Rehabilitation of Depressed Areas, a plan which left communities decimated and precipitated ongoing poverty and crime although its stated intention was to eradicate crime ‘caused by inter-racial mixing.’
30 years later, however, on 27 April 1994, pregnant with my own second child, I stood in one of thousands of snaking queues in our nation’s first democratic election. Even though at the advanced stage of my pregnancy, I could have voted days before, I wanted to celebrate that special day and make sure my small son and unborn daughter would be there as part of the moment when we stood on the head of the snake of apartheid.
The people I queued with are dead now, the old man in front of me, almost certainly from old age, but my companion for the day, Kefilwe Ratsweu, passed away in 1999 from AIDS-related illnesses, following her rape in a field by a mindless, opportunistic thug, one mild Sunday afternoon.
She had five short years of ‘freedom.’
She, like so many women in our country, had lived a brutalized life of poverty and spent much of her divorced life away from her children. She recalled for me once how when she first moved to Johannesburg to find work, police vans would routinely pick up young women supposedly on pass law offences and remembered the absolute terror she felt in being considered one of the ‘young, attractive ones’ who were offered an impossible ‘way out’ of their arrest. Many women saw the option of being gang-raped by policemen as a better option than imprisonment and loss of income for their families.
The abuse she suffered at the hands of authorities didn’t end there though. She married a taxi driver, who, when he drank, assaulted her repeatedly. Eventually, when he began to inflict his violence on her five children, she took them one dark night and fled home to her mother, who raised them in the country, while she worked in the city. And yet if I remember one thing about her, it was her capacity to throw her head back and laugh.
I visited her the day before she died in the Johannesburg General Hospital, stepping gingerly over used syringes on the lift floor of a state hospitial groaning in its need for public funds, not wanting to acknowledge that she was dying. We held hands, hers always so elegantly long and soft, despite her years of physical labour, like her once rotund body was even thinner from the ravages of her disease. And we wept quietly together. I wept for the system that made her vulnerable; I wept for the children she was leaving behind; and that I couldn’t save her. Mostly I wept because I had been part of that system, simply by being white. No amount of university protest or liberal thinking and teaching prevented me from saving her.
And hers is just one story.
The AIDS pandemic has caused so much human suffering in South Africa. Just as PW Botha’s men razed District Six to the ground, so HIV and AIDS bulldozed through townships and families, orphaning countless children in the process. And today we face a new, more threatening disease.
At its height, nearly 3 million people died in South Africa, but so many deaths were recorded as TB–or-other-related that the figure is probably far more. Nearly 250 000 new cases of HIV infection are recorded annually, with over 70 000 deaths still in this brave new world of post-apartheid South Africa.
Today is Freedom Day, being celebrated in Lockdown from a new enemy, set to ravage our nation. COVID-19 is not Die Groot Krokodil, so openly evil that we can launch an armed struggle against it. This time we are faced with another unseen nemesis like the HIV virus. The coronavirus is a tiny microbe spreading its invisible armies throughout our cities and towns, swifter and more easily even that HIV. And the people it is set to destroy are again the poor and broken of South Africa.
But this time we know what can happen if we don’t fight. This time we have a president who is leading from the front.
This struggle ironically cannot be fought by mass gatherings of protest or by an armed struggle. This enemy thrives on our togetherness, something the apartheid regime recognized about our struggle for freedom and that’s why they banned public gatherings.
But this time for the sake of freedom (and life) for our people, especially those we have failed, please heed our president’s call to stay at home.
I was a child during apartheid; I stood by while HIV ran rampant and killed Kefilwe; I did not protest her brutalization.
This time, I am staying the fuck at home so my country(wo)men can live to see another Freedom Day!
How’s that for being a lady?
‘They also serve who only stand and wait’
– John Milton, On His Blindness
 The dompas in apartheid South Africa required black people to carry identification at all times, including permission to be within (white) urban areas.
I had a killer of a match with technology today. Technology: 5 – Colleen: 0. To be fair all five of Technology’s points came from own goals (I got the illumination wrong for a video; ran out of power mid-meeting; broke Liam’s camera tripod and then ran out of data on both my phone and tablet)
But it is the rematch tomorrow and I plan to win on goal difference.
Still, by the time the daylight faded, it became obvious I’d have to wait for better light in the morning to film my presidential address to my parents (sans sign language interpreter, because only Liam is able to do that, but he is not really camera-ready: Having avoided the holiday barber visit, he looks like a sort of New Romantic Wolverine, with his foppish hair and ginger beard. He says he prefers to see himself as brave Mr Tumnus, the Narnian faun, but still he’d need to shave to be my presidential sidekick) My anxiety levels rocketed, following my frustration, as did my asthmatic cough, and I felt my heart racing. I had to force myself to breathe deeply and lighten up, but I realized just how much angst we are all living with, during lockdown, and how easily that can spill over.
I gave birth to five children! I don’t generally scare easily, but I have to admit that lately, when even inconsequential things pile up, I start to feel really fretful.
I have heard from folk living on their own that they have experienced panic attacks, during this time, even though they are not usually the nervy type. I can believe it.
This virus may be an invisible threat, but so is stress and we should recognize that our cortisol levels are probably heightened at the moment. And we can’t fight (except with our family and that’s all rather blah now) and flight is not possible because we are stuck in lockdown. I read an article today about how people are recording raised levels of insomnia too right now.
So we all need to calm the farm, but I find myself worrying about so much all at once: how my four children who don’t live with us are doing; how my sister is coping on her own in her apartment; when and how we’ll return to school; how much or how little to involve parents in our remote learning; which parts of the curriculum to cull; planning for 2021; how to get through the scores of emails in my inbox; whether we’ve flattened the curve; what Bra Cyril will say tomorrow. Then my thoughts deteriorate into a panic about where the hell the ‘nasty hobbitses’ hid the chocolate; whether my tea bags will last if the lockdown is extended; whether The Maestro will notice that I illicitly washed his Bayern Munich top with all the other clothes; how many bananas Liam can consume in a day without popping; and oh hell did we put out the bin today, and other such weighty matters.
I need to take my own advice: exercise more (sigh); reach out to others; sleep more; be kind to myself. My aunt has always told us not to borrow tomorrow’s troubles, so I’m off to get that exercise going downstairs to hunt for the chocolate to eat before I go to bed for a good kip.
As that great philosopher Scarlett O’Hara said, ‘Tomorrow is another day.’
I was once booked off work due to exhaustion – my whole body was so depleted that I was forced to rest in bed for a week. And so I got to contemplating this thing called ‘sleep.’ Don’t google it – you will be inundated with more articles than there are sheep to count!
Ironically I am usually one of those permanently somnolent sisters who can ‘nap’ for two hours every afternoon quite happily, but blow me down, when told to do so (my greatest wish) by someone with an MChB , I just can’t seem to do it.
It’s guilt. Good old Catholic guilt that is stopping me and as soon as I snuggle in deliciously, self-satisfyingly telling myself that Dr Kindheart said I should, my eyes pop open as I panic about the road repairs at school, the looming Umalusi visit, my business plan, payroll, the school’s birthday celebrations, my trip up north… and … there goes my ‘nap.’ Despite the meds she has given me, I am as wide awake as a raver on E.
And of course it has to be this week that the usually cannot-be-reached or do-things-next-year repair division of our landlord arrives to fix the extractor fan and ‘Oh we’ve like to quote for the house painting you requested two years ago!’
I had no idea how much the toddler next door cries, nor how many barking dogs or bloody pigeons there are in our neighbourhood; nor how many cars drive past our house. And don’t get me started on the motorbikes which snarl by, sans silencers, or the loud teenagers passing by on their way home from school, disturbing my beauty sleep.
And then I begin to worry about my emails: should I put an ‘out of office’ notice on or will that make the school look bad; or me look weak. But hell I feel weak. But I don’t want anyone to know that. Decisions decisions. I keep telling myself to relax and enjoy the legal break and remember why I need to rest.
What is scary is how serious it is if we do not have enough sleep. My husband sent me an article detailing what happens when you stay up late each night as I do. All those nights staying up to finish a report, work on the budget, fight with the payroll program or finish a Powerpoint presentation could be killing me. That ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead’ thing I say all the time, is all wonky. First of all I didn’t say it first, Bon Jovi did (figures)! But more importantly secondly the shorter your sleep, apparently the shorter your life.
And I like my life, so sleep I must. The article also shocked me about how not sleeping enough can make you obese because it messes with your insulin absorption. That must be it! There I was thinking it was all those choccies I sneak in when I’m the last one awake into the early hours of the night. No – it’s lack of sleep. Never mind killing me; all this work is making me fat – oh my Aldo shoes! We can’t have that!
So I dutifully take the meds the doc gave me to force me to catch up sleep, but blow me down it’s had the opposite effect – a bit like a Duracell bunny on Red Bull. I find myself in a constant state of panic, mainly about what I now haven’t done at work.
And the FOMO: It was my school’s birthday week this week (yeah we go big – no birthday for us – plus the release of our super cool music vid which we shot last week- I had great fun boogying on my desk) and I so badly wanted to be there, but I made myself stay at home – mind you a mother never ‘stays’ at home even on sick leave – someone had to go to the shops and juggle the credit cards to buy provisions for the hoards when they return and feed the mutt and moggy.
Not sure why I’m feeding the pets mind you; they seem intent on killing each other and have been banished outside in the rain (it’s drizzle really) – that’ll teach them! Oh hell the washing is still on the line … up I get again … before it gets wet.
Finally, I nod off. then my beloved husband tiptoes in after school, in lead boots, snuggles in with a lovely cup of tea, slurping sweetly as he taps on his cellphone … and … PING …. I’m awake – to the mellow sounds of his soft snores. So much for ‘knitting up the ‘ravell’d sleave of care’ – I never was very good with a pair of needles. Methinks sick leave ‘hath murdered sleep’!