A luta continua

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[1] 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

[1] The dompas in apartheid South Africa required black people to carry identification at all times, including permission to be within (white) urban areas.

“Sometimes the appropriate response to reality is to go insane.” – Philip K. Dick

Comic by Natalie Dee

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.’

And I have blood pressure pills.

‘Sleep knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care’

Image result for wat is die slaap n wonderspete ding

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!

Image result for cartoon pic of a tired woman trying to sleepSo 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’!

I think I’ll just go to work.

Personal Assistants

So I have graduated to being managed by a personal assistant. Her name is Gizelle and, like the ballet character after whom she is named, she glides through my life, effortlessly and gracefully fielding calls, managing staff appointments; gently correcting my mistakes (and they are many); protecting me from cute Grade 4 groupies whom I simply don’t have the heart to turn away, but who were becoming accustomed to spending every break with me, not to mention running the administrative nightmare that goes with managing a large school.  And she makes me tea, leaving it steaming on my desk like the lingering whisper of an elfin gift.

Ariel Dorfman refers to the life of a secretary as ‘responsibility without power, the fate of the secretary throughout the ages.’ Now far be it from me to question Dorfman’s experience of personal aides, but Gizelle’s petite, ballerina-like personage may look fragile, but she is a tower of strength and surprising talents, despite her youth. No one argues with her – especially not me.

Wikipedia has this cute explanation of what a personal assistant does: ‘The personal assistant is required to do any task that the manager requires whether personal or professional.’ Seriously? Truth be told I feel guilty every time Gizelle brings me tea, because that is personal and I believe that her duties should be professional only. I wonder how many managers cross the line by exploiting their assistants to do more ‘personal’ work than ‘professional’ work. The Marius Fransman situation is a case in point of how patriarchal managers view those who work for them, especially when they are young, naïve and vulnerable women.


The expression ‘my PA’ has a certain feudal ring to it and carries overtones of possession which are worrying. I certainly hope no James Bond wannabees on our staff have tried to flirt with the Meridian Miss Moneypenny. (I don’t think they’d dare.) But on a feminist aside, just google ‘secretary – images’ and see how many pictures of male secretaries with woman bosses come up…yeah…none. The job is almost exclusively considered ‘women’s work’ especially when the boss is a man. And I think as a result  is often considered to be a servile position.

Now I would be hypocritical to say that Gizelle does not field calls from Caitlin (‘Please buy electricity’ – now there is a scary assistant!) or remind me to respond to my sister’s message (an even scarier personage to ignore), but I wouldn’t dream of requiring her to fetch my dry-cleaning (if I had any) or buy my husband flowers/ whisky/ cigars. The school does not pay her to serve me, but to support me.

And thank goodness it does. Her prowess on the computer is lightning fast. She can take complex, scattered data and make graphed sense out of it and her attention to detail has saved me several times already this year from embarrassment and error. She works long hours and frequently takes work home. I am filled with mild panic at the very thought of her being absent. She has seen me at my weakest, but I live in fear of her seeing the mess in my stationery drawer.

Now here is the thing: she does all of this uncomplainingly (well she did once moan at me for signing a document in the wrong place), while running a family of two young children plus three older step-children and a husband who works shifts. Why am I mentioning this? Well because she may be employed as a ‘personal’ assistant, but it is important for me to remember that she has a personal life. She has hopes and dreams and ambitions.

Once a year, we celebrate our secretarial and administrative staff with a hallmark moment, but truth be told, it is impossible to truly give pen to the contribution of such an éminence grise. All I can say is that I am immensely grateful for the person that is Mrs Gizelle Marais, a woman of courage and one to be respected.

Grocery Shopping in the RSA

Did you know that the inflation rate on food in South Africa stands at 12.5% for the third quarter of 2016 and that is not factoring in the inflation of an additional 5% per growing (and therefore gobbling more) child permanently resident in our household. (I dare not say which one is not growing further for fear of reprisals.)

So grocery shopping is not fun anymore, if it ever was. I suffer from terrible trolley envy when I stand in queues, wandering how that man in the mesh vest behind me can afford the box of prawns and all that tinned coconut milk, or the aging prune in front can even begin to pay for 2 ply toilet paper and lamb, not to mention my veritable outrage that someone else won the free shopping spree at Spar, when I deserve it more!

When the munchkins were small, shopping was even more of a mission and they each had their ‘positions’ in, on or around the trolley. I’d bribe them to behave by buying the cheapest biscuits I could find and I’d do our weekly shop of R500 for all 6 of us (and that was including nappies). Now of course that’s what it costs every second day in the supermarket, but in those days I could feed us all on a tin of baked beans, a chunk of cheese and half a loaf of bread (well everyone except Michael who used to flick his beans on top of the kitchen cupboards when no one was looking. It’s no wonder the kid had hypoglycaemic issues.)

My beloved gannets eat well when we are poorest though and they all know that when it’s Woolworths food then Mom is down to her last few shekels. The problem with buying where the beautiful people shop though is that it is just iniquitous to spend so much on ordinary items like mince and cheese.  Mind you, the price of dairy products has reached stratospheric heights. I am seriously considering hooking Maggie’s tail up to a churner so we can make our own butter (after all Dr Tim says butter is all good now) and I’m sure there are enough germs around the old homestead to ferment our own cheese and let’s face it, the foul language that flies around here at times is certainly enough to turn the milk.

Eggs also seem to be costing the earth these days, but I draw the line at keeping chickens in the yard. Besides, Maggie’s Labrador innocence deserts her in the face of feathered wings and she has been known to brutalise a pigeon or two over the years with frighteningly savage precision.

Then there are avocados: now have you EVER been able to find three ripe ones out of a pile of the green rocks they usually offer without having to donate a kidney for the ones in the fridge which are specially ripened? And those ones are always black. I wonder if they cook ‘em a little to soften them – it would explain their crispy skins too? We have discovered to our great joy that we have an avocado tree in our garden which from time to time drops mango-sized scrumptious avos onto the lawn like …well…avo from heaven. So this earth mother thing may well work.

Now shopping for my husband’s favourite delicacies is an exercise in Russian-English translation because he insists on scrawling unintelligible items on the shopping list. What, pray tell, may ‘spinyhjatyi’ and ‘tuhmatyi souz’ be? And ‘buzzy’ water? Trust me at 6pm on a week night I have no sense of humour and even less desire to be a UN translator.  What are ‘tjops’ or ‘Barbie Q Spices’? I do not care to purchase ‘limmon wyatr’ or ‘lzzaneya shits,’ never mind that this has all played havoc with ability of the children in the house to spell correctly, not to mention contributing to the vulgar language use.

And when I get to the till and the burly chap who is built like a side of beef himself has selected enough racks of pork ribs to fill an entire sty also wants to pay for his telephone bill and his City of Cape Town Services accounts for the last three months when he was vegging in front of the rugby instead of paying his dues., my temper graduates to DEFCON 2 readiness. Then the sweet cashier politely asks whether I am collecting ‘the stickers/ other random Stikeez (more Slavic giveaways) supermarkets throw at unsuspecting shoppers with kids. Did you know that as we speak, Checkers is generously throwing in doll-size plastic groceries for every R150 you spend? Seriously?! (I wonder if they have Barbie Q spice)

‘Hell no,’ I say, even though the delightful Gabriella, Michael’s girlfriend, is collecting the said stickers (why, I didn’t ask!). I want the points on my loyalty card – for when the Woolworths card is full.

And when you pay they ask you if your card is for a cheque or savings account. More like ‘check out or spendings.’ Who can save anymore?!

Andrew says we should shop online to save money, but where’s the fun in that?

Post-Holiday Blues

Reality sets in as the dirty dishes are passed down the table and the hapless youngsters tasked with washing up protest their lot in life. The beautiful, home-crafted crackers lie forgotten amidst the gravy spills – with their cute innards evidence of their disembowelment; their wisdom abandoned amidst the broken cordite, chocolate wrappers and stray peas. And the cynic in you thinks, ‘Ah well, that’s Christmas for another year.’

The days which follow seem such an anti-climax after the eager anticipation of all the family get-togethers, littered as they are with sighs about pretty though the tree is ‘soon you’ll make us help take it down’ and ‘oh my gosh I ate too much’ (me); ‘I cannot bear the thought of going back to work’ (those unfortunate folk who haven’t taken leave); ‘OMW Payday is a long way away’ (all of us) and of course the cry in our house of ‘Who finished all the coke/icecream/pudding leftovers?!’ (Liam did -teenagers have hollow legs I am sure.)

From my writing table, I look out of my window over the street and see a jogger trudging up the road in his matching new neon trainers and T-shirt, and admire his post-prandial energy. In a way he is a metaphor for what life after Christmas should be: facing everyday activities with a shiny new outlook and renewed energy and strength to cope with life.

Now, gentle reader, do not panic that you shall soon see me waddling up the street in Barbie-pink running knickers, powered by pale, cellulite-speckled thighs. Perish that thought. (Although I shall definitely need to do something to counteract the effects of those extra mince pies and the tin of nougat which is disappearing at an astonishing rate.)

But if our world is not a little more sparkly and a touch happier after the festive season, we have indeed missed the point of it all, even if one is not a Christian. If we are not a tad more grateful and a great deal more aware of our blessings then the celebrations have been mere duty and box-ticking.

The fact that the feast of the Holy Family follows on so soon after Christmas is not surprising. I am sure Mary and Joseph also felt a sense of let-down after the euphoria of the baby’s birth and its attendant trumpet-wielding angels, not to mention smelly shepherds and baaaing sheep disturbing their peace. Picture courtesy of Jim Worth with Dominic Hart on Facebook

But in the aftermath of that magical night, I am sure the enormity of their situation must have been quite overwhelming especially when the threat of Herod’s jealousy became known to them. Yet they slipped away into obscurity in Egypt as refugees in a foreign land and the next we hear of Jesus is at the time of his wandering off in Jerusalem as a teenager. (I have to confess I would probably have spanked him when I found him, temple or not. But that is why God chose Mary and not me to be His mother.)

So their life was ordinary after Christmas although the gospels do tell us that He went home after the temple episode and w
as ‘obedient’ to them [Luke 2:51] (Hear THAT, teenagers). We hear nothing over those growing years because they were ordinary. (Well as ordinary as possible with a miraculous lad in the house.)

Yet it is important that we carry the Christ-child with us when we go about our drudgery. Putting up with Aunt Mildred’s criticism and the boss’s nagging; exercising a bit more to become more healthy and rid our bodies of dangerous fat so we are healthy for our children; loving our offspring, despite their moods are all just burdens unless they are done in shiny new ‘running shoes and T-shirts’ which say ‘I am blessed.’

Because we are. God is with us.

Grumbles of a middle-aged Grinch

I used to love Christmas shopping. When I was a wee lass (just a few years ago) I would even dart around Cavendish and the Link (ok I admit it was a bit longer than a few years ago) ticking off gifts on my mother’s list also. Now I growl when I hear my über-organised friends smugly announce in October that that their presents are all wrapped already. And when I think of the ordeal ahead, way too close to the madding crowd, I cringe in fear and claustrophobia.

Why, pray tell, do bellicose, paunchy men who would rather be back in their boardrooms, on the golf course, or sipping beer at Castle Corner, not do just that? They hang around in sweaty queues, taking up space with their overloaded trolleys and long faces, lecturing their womenfolk about how they have got the size, colour, style of Aunty Agatha’s token cardie wrong and generally irritating shoppers with their sighs and braggart ways. (Btw, dear Mr ‘I-am-not-racist-but…’ just because I am white does not mean I agree with you when you look at me meaningfully while you rudely lambast the bedraggled casual at the till, and mutter pointed remarks about ‘these people’. Try to remember you are a guest in our city and that she is exactly that: a person.) Thank goodness such tourists only get three weeks leave (rude teacher-joke) or we’d have to suffer them in September too. Perhaps that is why my sensible acquaintances are so proactive about filling their Christmas stockings early.

At least most of these captains of industry are too slow for queue jumping. “I was in the queue’ is not good enough if you are no longer. And those perky little pushers-in always seem to have armloads of items, some of which inevitably do not have tags so we have to wait while Overworked Casual Number 2 flits off to find the price… gets distracted by Shopper with a question and Security Guard pointing something out…returns to find me slumbering like one of the infamous foolish bridesmaids.

And don’t get me started on parking theft (Can’t they see me indicating?!). That’s why I try to avoid large shopping complexes like Canal Walk at this time. I can remember driving around for over an hour one year there. (With 5 children under 12 that was no fun). We have become part of the diaspora of Southern Suburbs folk who have nudged closer to the Bokkom Curtain of the West Coast and my resolution about Christmas purchases is that if it cannot be found in the greater Table View area, it cannot be bought. For parking revenge check out this video:


It’s bad enough that fellow last-minute buyers don’t appreciate the art of using those nifty orange flashing lights on the sides of one’s car, but many of them cannot walk straight either. Now I am the last one to brag about family members with impeccable line manoeuvring, but I have taught Shannon to pick a floor tile and follow it and a hefty elbow to Liam’s midriff keeps him on the straight and narrow. Not so other families, who saunter three-adults-plus-pram  abreast and then stop without warning, or who weave in and out of the rest of us, often as if they are James Dean playing chicken in ‘Rebel Without a Cause.’

Even Father Christmas seems to be merely about a photo op and not the experience, but then again that whole concept is a trifle creepy. Who takes a job as a store Santa anyway… In hindsight I don’t think I’d ever encourage my children to sit on a strange man’s lap, not even for a Hallmark moment.

Okay by now I seem to have out-Scrooged the Grinch so let me also share that there is immense pleasure to be had from grabbing that perfect little something for each person (even if Sean brings home the same perfect idea I had for Caitlin and we have to brave Bayside all over again to exchange one). And I am a sucker for carols. My kids discovered to their amusement that I have an enormous collection of famous people singing  Christmassy songs, now EXcluding the WORST CD I ever bought:  Neil Diamond’s Christmas album (What was I thinking?!)

So despite my irritation at times with passing pilgrims, I do try to think of those alone at this time; those who are celebrating the first Christmas after the death of someone special and to remember that God sent His Son for the pushy dude with the trolley as much as for me.

Fr Kevin spoke at mass about counting our blessings and meditating on The Magnificat. That is easy: Andrew, Brigid, Sean, Caitlin, Michael, Lizzy, Shannon, Mika and Liam.

And next year perhaps Caitlin will shop for me – I think she is better at it anyway.

God bless you all, dear readers, for a holy and peaceful Christmas.


Luke 1:46-55 English Standard Version (ESV):

Mary’s Song of Praise: The Magnificat

46 And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
    For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
50 And his mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
    and exalted those of humble estate;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and the rich he has sent away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
55 as he spoke to our fathers,
    to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”

The Ecosystem of Government Department Queues

Image result for cartoon pictures of queues

I seem to have spent the last few months queueing. I have endured whole days in these haloed halls of the people, for the people and with the people: labour department (three different ones), home affairs, maintenance court, traffic department, Tygerberg Dental Clinic, Groote Schuur outpatients clinic and pharmacy (a world of its own) and a police station. I am now an expert in queues and the sub-cultures that develop around them.

Like all good bureaucratic devices to lower your self-esteem, queues have guards. Now these custodians of power are more Cerberus than ghaadtjie and seldom have a sense of humour. Often they have control over x-ray machines and sign-in books, which they either scrutinise as if they were at the door of a prison, or ignore completely so you could sign yourself ‘Mickey Mouse’ and they wouldn’t notice. Sometimes they look at you. One particular Tartar at the labour department walked the queue at about 10h00, saying that there was no chance of the folk beyond a certain point remaining since we would not be seen and that if we were ‘good citizens’ we would leave and return another day. Being a dutiful taxpayer I left. And returned the following day at 7h00, having left home at a time when even Table View traffic was fluid. (Yet still I joined the queue around the block.)

Occasionally the guards double as clerks, but even then they are dazed and detached. I wonder what it must be like to deal with the great unwashed daily. They have seen all types: the supplicant, the harried, the garrulous and the arrogant – and dismissed us all. We are mere numbers to them.  After all, most of these queuing systems give you a number anyway. Home Affairs was the most confusing for this. There seemed to be no logic to the order in which our numbers were called (in a pseudo-cheerful, robotic American voice). The maintenance court, on the other hand, has no clerk at all. One is left to bumble down corridors, sans directions, hopefully to stumble into the waiting room for the court. If you’re lucky a fellow plaintiff will remind you to sign in and then you wait…and wait.

More importantly, what all these departments have in common is this: There are no pens. Not even those chained, roped and sellotaped jobs that they used to have in banks and post offices. (Btw, please note that, brave as I am, I have not ventured into a post office in my fevered public department jaunts. I draw the line at that test of my endurance.)

Restrooms do not provide the promised rest either. One of the strangest signs I saw was this, also in the Barrack Street labour department building: Please do not change your baby in this bathroom.’ Huh? Where, pray, would they rather the wee mites be cleaned up? If one is fortunate though, there may be loo paper, but forget about paper towels or soap. Mind you, I think Maintenance Court offers a neon pink mixture which looks as though it has been a little close to the Koeberg reactor, but that may be loo cleaner because it is in an unidentifiable plastic dispenser.

The real experience however, is in the interaction among us plebians as we wait. If you’re lucky, you are seated (if you’re lucky enough to get ‘on the chairs’ as people do the sideways buttocks shuffle, chair by chair) alongside an affable type who is happy to share a laugh or wry observation without being intrusive. Of course when the aunty starts showing you her grandkids’ pics on her phone or her latest instagrammed meal, you realise you might have gone too far on the friendly scale.

At the hospitals it can be quite fun, because one thinks one is nodding politely to an unusual fellow patient, only to realise they believe they are Moses. One old lady at Groote Schuur seemed to believe we were with her in her spy cell. We scuttled away to avoid further collaboration.

All queues share the heavy breathers who sigh, huff and puff about systemic inefficiency and the unfairness of our lot. They complain to no one in particular and oddly enough, although they are voicing the general feeling of impotence in the face of irresolutely implacable administrators, no one joins in. And they tend to splutter to an indignant hiss when faced with our general silence.

The only time the queue is united is when God forbid, someone attempts to push in. Queue jumpers are universally and roundly targeted, rebuked and returned to the back where they belong. Sometimes this self-policing is really amusing, depending on the level of outrage and how strident the exchange is; other times it is mildly entertaining – anything to alleviate the tedium of waiting.)

What has certainly stayed with me is that while individual buildings have made real efforts to manage their lines, the level of comfort is directly proportional to how important the populace is viewed. The Department of Labour in Riebeeck Street, geared towards employers and their issues, finds itself in a modern building with a marble foyer and elegant finishes. The Barrack Street branch, aimed at the riff raff applying for UIF, is grimy and understaffed.

What makes this stark contrast so irksome is the proximity to parliament, so one passes silky-suited members of the house on the surrounding streets, who clearly spend more on said-suits than this former high school principal is drawing per month in UIF, let alone what the elderly man next to me is likely to claim.  No linen table cloths for the lunch tables of the maintenance court dependants or the confused populace at Home Affairs. No lunch for the unemployed! I wonder whether they promenade down among the voters and remember why they are there.

However, for the most part, the systems do chug along. My new ID, sans horrible eighties hair duly appeared and my UIF does show in my account regularly. I suppose there are no easy ways to handle the volumes of people these institutions must process, even though my daughter’s wisdom teeth may well have pierced her cheeks and gone to apply for their own passports before we get an appointment for surgery and I continue to wait patiently for justice from the justice department. I have learnt how to be a ‘good citizen.’

I’ll take it up with Moses.


St Martha is the patron saint of drudgery. Well officially, she is the paragon of servants and cooks, but really that boils down (did you catch the cookery pun?) to housework, and by the evils of continuing patriarchy, that falls on mothers. I wonder whether the much put-upon St Martha (whom I absolutely respect btw) also had kids who staged protests worthy of the most vitriolic of trade unionists when it came to being asked to do their bit for the family well-being.

They made ‘em tough in biblical times though. Did you ever notice that Peter’s poor mother-in-law immediately began to ‘wait on them’ after she had been healed by Jesus. No rest and recuperation for her: just straight back into the servitude. You’d have thought Peter would have helped out his wife’s dear mother and finished the evening meal for her, or at least washed up the gourds and stuff!

Today’s kids have it easy too: no walking to the Parklands Well to fetch water, or having to plait a broom before sweeping, or pluck an annoying pigeon for the pot: all they have to do is walk a few steps and switch on a machine of some kind. Andrew, bless his naïve soul, bought a dishwasher a couple of years back, intending to stop the squabbling after supper over whose turn it was to wash up…well we all know how that turned out…

There seems to be this belief somehow that if they argue with me that it is not their turn, I shall magically be convinced to make some other poor inmate suffer a fate which they do not deserve. Clearly they don’t know their parent very well. Debating the instruction, no matter how deeply philosophical/ patronisingly rational (Sean), dramatic (Shannon), ironic (Mika), vociferous (Michael) or loud (Liam) the plea is, the diatribe is akin to suggesting you won the fight while still coming to on the floor of the ring. And yet they keep trying.

And I feel as though I have gone a round or two with a heavyweight boxer (without the cash prize) by the end of it all. Or a paper target after the snipers have had practice. Or Cleopatra’s messenger, the one who was unfortunate enough to bring the bad news while there was an asp around.

I think perhaps I am not cruel enough, although they will tell you that they are desperately in need of emancipation from my yoke of oppression. When I ask for a doggy patrol you’d think there was a meadow of cow pats to harvest (okay so Maggie is frighteningly and prolifically regular), but really is it my fault that you decided to put on your pyjamas at 3pm?! Everyone salivates over the home baked goodies, but no one believes they should clean up afterwards. And transport dirty plates? ‘Pffft! We’re not afraid of goggas in our rooms!’ Until they hear scurrying…then who do they call?

Please don’t bombard me with emails, brandishing successful strategies or tales of your perfect offspring, dear reader. I am not strong enough to handle the envy. My children just like to complain. To be fair, housework in our clan is rather daunting, because meals are somewhat like canteen servings and the attendant mess is proportionately off-putting. But at least they only have a turn every now and then. But therein lies the catch: sometimes the sneaky ones* plan their engagements fortuitously so that they are out when that little duty comes around. And then the outrage of the unfortunate Cinderella without a social life is doubled.

And I am to blame naturally.

Sibling sparring is as old as St Martha and Mary. I appreciate Martha’s objections (we won’t discuss why Laz wasn’t asked to chip in) and I get Jesus’ wisdom, but thank goodness my children haven’t thought to use the ‘I’m praying’ excuse. No hang on, ‘Aunty Anne is here to take me to early mass.’ was a favourite excuse a while back.

Aargh! I’m off to the Mugg and Bean.

(*names withheld to prevent lynching)