A Vision for Zonnebloem

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I drive past the wasteland of what used to be District Six, on a regular basis, the few houses, places of worship and the CPUT buildings emphasise the starkness, highlighting what is no longer there. But recently, that emptiness struck me anew. Perhaps it was the viewpoint I had from the school which I had attended so many years ago. As I stood in the car park in front of the chapel on the Zonnebloem Estate, looking down the hill towards the ocean, I was overcome by a sense of loss. Through the gap above the wall where there used to be a gate, was only open field. I remembered the rows of houses that had stood there, the women who had made toffee apples, koeksisters and tameletjies, and the children who ran to buy these offerings through the fence, at break time.

Walking around the school gave me a curious sense of déja vu, of having lived in this space which is not quite the same. The buildings stand where they have stood for decades, but are rundown and in desperate need of TLC, the cobbled stones in the avenue we walked up to the chapel, have been covered by tar, and the school seemed smaller than I remembered. Memories came creeping back like the cobbles emerging from under the tar in places, refusing to be forgotten. Assemblies on the tarmac, Wednesday morning chapel, going home with smudges of ash on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday, uniform inspections and sitting at our desks eating our lunch before we could go out to play, because “young ladies did not eat outside”, and walking to the new Art Centre, where Mr Hopley taught.

I think of Zonnebloem as the “family school” – an aunt taught at the boys’ school, my brothers and cousins attended the school and various family members, my father included, had trained at the teachers’ college which is now the high school. Zonnebloem was started in 1858 by Bishop Gray who had started Bishops and St Cyprian’s, both for ‘white’ children, while Zonnebloem initially targeted the sons of African chiefs, “to remove them from heathen and barbarous influences and expose them to the full force of civilisation”. Later girls were brought to the Cape to study so that the boys would have Christian wives rather than “heathen girls”. In the early 1920s, the school concentrated on the training of ‘coloured’ teachers, to promote decency and respectability as the path to civilisation.

Zonnebloem was one of the good ‘coloured’ schools, relatively speaking. When I recently interviewed a past-teacher, she recalled with fondness the ethos of the school, the dedication of her colleagues. She said that the teachers did the best they could to instil pride and a positive sense of belonging. With dedicated teachers, limited resources but a determination to educate children who the apartheid government deemed lesser than, Zonnebloem produced fine graduates, who returned to teach or to give back to the community in other ways. One of these alumni was Jeremiah Moshoeshoe, the son of King Moshoeshoe, who studied there in 1859 and showed such promise that he was sent to study further at St Augustine Missionary College in Canterbury. Another was Harold Cressy who came to Zonnebloem in 1897 from Natal when he was 8 years old. He graduated in 1905 as a teacher at the age of 16 years and completed matric through studying on his own. Rejected by Rhodes University because of the colour of his skin, he was eventually accepted by the University of Cape Town where he became the first ‘coloured’ person to attain a bachelor’s degree. Cressy left a significant mark on education, so much so that the Harold Cressy High School was named after him in 1953.

Bishops and St Cyprian’s continue to flourish as among the top private (mainly white) schools in the province and country, while Zonnebloem’s buildings and facilities slowly but steadily decline … an indictment perhaps, on our post-apartheid society in which little has changed economically, and the most vulnerable continue to suffer. Ironically, Zonnebloem, because of its prime location, has been designated a quintile 5 school, which serves the wealthiest communities and therefore receives the least government funding. It is a state school on private property in buildings leased from the Anglican church. The pupils, however, are from the most socio-economically vulnerable communities and are largely Xhosa-speaking. Children come on buses and taxis rather than walking like I did with my two brothers.

I had not been back to the school since I left in the mi-1970s but was invited to the Sunflower festival, held at the school earlier this year, by Zephne Ladbrook of the Otto Foundation. Ladbrook and her foundation have over the last two years injected pockets of hope into these potentially dreary surroundings – opening a library that doubles up as an aftercare space, renovating two classrooms and erecting a pre-fab building for two more, engaging in various other projects to improve the experience of learners at the school. She dreams of sports fields which would serve not only the schools on the Zonnebloem Estate, but those in the surrounding area, none of which have access to sport facilities. The school is adjacent to land which would be ideal for this purpose but for a number of bureaucratic reasons, is unavailable for development as such.

I find it inconceivable that we still have to motivate for sports to be part of an inclusive programme to develop children and youth. Apart from the obvious health and fitness benefits, participation in sport has been proven to enhance academic and psychosocial development. Children learn so much more than how to play the game when they participate in sport – perseverance, patience, teamwork and building self-esteem are just some of the skills that enhance development into healthy, well-rounded and mature adults.  Sport can also play a major role in reducing criminal activity and substance abuse. I would argue that sport should be on an equal footing with language, maths and science, in developing our children.

Above all that, participating in sport provides opportunity to integrate within, and with other, communities, and here is where I see the overwhelming benefits of promoting sport at Zonnebloem that includes the surrounding schools. Ladbrook has swept me up in her vision of communities coming together to play on the Zonnebloem fields. District Six has become symbolic of the forced removals and destruction of communities that occurred during apartheid. How wonderfully appropriate then it would be if the estate were to become a hub of integration in the area, at once addressing the wrongs of the past, celebrating the legacy of the Zonnebloem alumni and shaping a generation of well-rounded individuals for a democratic South Africa. Perhaps this integration and redress will even include St Cyprian’s in the City Bowl and Bishops in the southern suburbs, drawing increasingly larger circles of inclusion and hope.

Potential projects which the Otto Foundation are hoping to complete are:

  • A new cricket field in partnership with WP Cricket.
  • A feeding scheme/vegetable garden in partnership with Ladles of Love and Rise Against Hunger.
  • Fix up bathrooms spaces and provide ‘dignity packs’ for girls in order to restore dignity.
  • Water storage and maintenance in partnership with SOS NGO; and an upgrade of security
  • Expansion of cultural extramurals such as a choir

The Otto Foundation would value support from local businesses and alumni and may be contacted via the following emails:  zephne@chrisottofoundation.com or karen@chrisottofoundation.com

This article was published in The Cape Argus 25 October 2018.

The Making of Martha

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Katrina was on her knees scrubbing the kitchen floor when she felt the faintest kick, almost like a flutter in her belly. She sat back on her heels and cupped her wet hands over the spot. There it was again, like butterflies in her stomach…like the butterflies in Namaqualand…in spring…when the flowers were out. That’s the one time of the year a person could say the place was beautiful. After the rains they’d be rewarded with carpets of yellow or purple, for all the months of emptiness. A person could almost ignore the holes gouged out of the earth by men digging for diamonds or copper, as the broken landscape burst into life. She smiled at the memory of running barefoot through fields of flowers, making a daisy chain to crown her baby sister and holding her breath as a butterfly balanced on her shoulder.

Ag, there she went again, wasting time on daydreams, her madam would say. She shook her head as if to get rid of the images and sighed as she picked up the scrubbing brush again. She’d left the vygies and daisies, the aloes and the orchids, behind a long time ago. She couldn’t remember when last she’d spoken to her brothers and sisters. If it wasn’t for the black and white photograph stuck into the mirror in her room, she wondered if she would even remember what they looked like. Bitterfontein. The name said it all, she thought to herself as she got up with another sigh. The bitterness had even seeped into the water. At least here she had a job; there was one less mouth for her father to feed. It didn’t help to worry about things a person could do nothing about.

“Katrina, I’m leaving now,” Mrs Laing shouted down the passage. “Don’t forget to bring in the washing before you go off. It looks like rain. And make sure the gate is locked properly this time.”

“Yes, Madam,” Katrina replied, poking her head round the kitchen door. “See you tomorrow, Madam.”

Katrina had been working for Mrs. Laing, a white lady, in Roeland Street for a year now. Her madam worked her hard but she was grateful to have a job where she could live in. It also paid better than her previous job and she was off on Saturday afternoons. “But no men and no drink allowed,” Mrs. Laing had warned when she started.

Katrina finished up, washed and changed into a pink floral dress, gathered under the bodice with a generous skirt which skimmed over her hips and stomach. She wanted to go see Hajji quickly this afternoon and maybe there would still be time to watch the new James Dean film playing at the Gem. She walked down Drury Lane towards District Six, to Combrinck Street where the dressmaker lived. The rows of semi-detached houses looked a little shabby but most people had made an effort with their front stoeps – they were painted red or green and polished every week, there was a potted delicious monster plant or two, and perhaps a bench to sit on in the evenings when the day’s work was done and a person had a chance to catch up with a neighbour.

Katrina went around the back of the house through the open kitchen door. There was no one there, but smells of onions braising with cardamom and cloves greeted her. She noticed the chopped cabbage, potatoes and mutton knuckles waiting to be added to the pot. Hajji must be making a bredie. She could hear the sound of the sewing machine coming from the back and called out, “It’s me, Katrina,” as she went in. Hajji was sitting behind the Singer which stood in the corner of her sons’ bedroom. Her head, covered with a scarf, was bowed in concentration as she guided the fabric through the threader and pumped the pedal of the black enamel machine. Four identical dresses in powder-blue satin hung on the front of the wardrobe. As a dressmaker Hajji’s beadwork was very popular with Malay and Christian brides, even the Jewish people came to her. The small room did double duty as her workroom by day. Her sons often complained that they had to watch out for pins in the bedspread or that they stepped onto beads on the floor with their bare feet. Hajji, practical as always, had told them to put on shoes and given them a magnet to pick up the pins.

Hajji had four children, and one from her husband’s first marriage, who was working at a butcher in Salt River. All three boys would soon leave school, one by one, to learn a trade. Hajji’s daughter, Fatima, was already apprenticed to a dressmaker in Walmer Estate.

“Salaam Hajji,” Katrina greeted, respectful of Hajji’s religion, even though she herself was Christian. “I see supper is cooking already. Hajji must be going out this evening.”

“Alaykum Salaam, Katrina,” said Hajji, taking the pins out of her mouth. “Yes, I’m very busy. I have to finish this dress tonight. That Van der Ross girl is getting married tomorrow. She lost weight again. I have to take the dress in. Poor child is already so thin.”

Hajji always did the final fitting the day before the wedding. She said it was bad luck to finish the dress too long before the time. So she made sure to put in the last stitches late at night, her fingers flying over the silk and satin. She delivered the beaded creation herself on the morning of the wedding. Hajji also dressed the bride in petticoats, underskirts of stiff netting, and finally the gown. She was skilled at shaping the gilded medora into a headdress. Sometimes she would be asked to prepare the bruidskamer for the Muslim brides as well, making drapes, cushions and quilted bedspreads with satin and lace.

When Hajji wasn’t busy with a wedding she made outfits for Eid or other special occasions and simple frocks with fabric she bought on the Grand Parade. Katrina and her friends bought these dresses on lay-bye, paying off a small amount every month. Hajji recognized the dress Katrina was wearing today as one she’d made last year.

“Can I make Hajji some tea?”

Ag, Katrina, I don’t have time for tea now. Is there something you wanted?”

Ja, Hajji, I have to talk to you about a problem. Hajji can mos see what’s going on with me.”

Katrina turned to the side in front of the mirror, and, placing one hand under her breasts, she smoothed the dress over her stomach with the other. There was no mistaking the curve of her belly when you looked at her profile. Her breasts were also fuller and Hajji realized she was glowing. She recalled that Katrina had mentioned the last dress she made for her was too tight but she hadn’t brought it to be altered yet.

Ag man, Katrina, you’re pregnant aren’t you? I warned you.” Hajji clicked her tongue. “It’s that Ginger, isn’t it? And where’s he now? You let a white man take advantage of you. I told you, they don’t marry you. The man can pull up his pants and walk away. And then you sit with the problem.”

“Hajji, please don’t be cross with me,” Katrina said sitting down on the edge of one of the beds. “I’m so scared my madam is going to send me away when she finds out that I’m pregnant. What am I going to do? I can’t go home. My Pa will beat me. What about my Ma? She’ll be so ashamed that her daughter is pregnant. What will the people say at church? In any case, what will we live on? There’s no job, not enough food. I think Pa was only too happy when I said I was coming to Cape Town. How can I go home with another mouth to feed?”

“I suppose Mrs. Laing hasn’t noticed what you are hiding behind that big overall and apron she makes you wear. Mind you, it won’t be too long before she does. What if she throws you out? Then what are you going to do? Ooh, Katrina, where are you going to find another good job like this one?”

Hajji had a soft spot for Katrina. Before Hajji and her husband had gone to Mecca the year before, Katrina had come to help with all the visitors even though it was her afternoon off. She’d set the table with plates of biscuits and tarts (all made by Hajji), bowls of dried fruit and nuts bought from Wellington Fruit Growers in Darling Street, and Hajji’s best tea set with the gold teaspoons. Katrina was honest and worked hard, she deserved a chance. She was just attracted to the wrong men, always thinking this would be the one to take her away from it all.

Hajji had known that this Ginger would be trouble. From what she heard from Amiena, whose husband had the corner café, he was charming but unreliable. He didn’t seem to have a fixed job but always had money. Katrina was flattered that he took an interest in her, loved the status of having a white boyfriend. The other girls looked up to her when they saw the two of them together at the bioscope on a Saturday afternoon. They thought she was one of the lucky ones, maybe she could even “pass”, or maybe she and Ginger could go to Botswana or Swaziland to get married.

“Katrina, look, I don’t mind,” Hajji said, “I can look after the baby for a bit, to help you out. But only for a little bit, ok? Maybe your madam needs time to get used to the idea and then she’ll let you keep the baby there. Your madam thinks we’re stupid but everybody knows her daughter’s baby came six months after the wedding. She must think we don’t know how long a baby takes. Premature, my foot.”

Hajji had been sewing for Mrs. Laing for years; that’s how she and Katrina had met. She’d made the wedding dress for Mrs. Laing’s daughter, Sarah, and had pleated the layers of chiffon to drape over the beginnings of a bump, although no one had said a word.

An extract from a story published in The New Contrast 178 Vol 45 Winter 2017

An Evening in District Six

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This area, on the outskirts of what was once District Six, is familiar to me. The Sacks Futeran building next door which now houses the Fugard Theatre and the District Six Homecoming Centre, used to be a general wholesaler where seamstresses and tailors could buy textiles, and we rode the ancient lift to buy clothing, crockery and cutlery. I remember trips to the Grand Parade on a Saturday morning, clutching my grandmother’s hand as she went from stall to stall. And, of course, across the road, is the Caledon Police Station where I, along with many others, experienced the hospitality of the apartheid state in the 1980s.

One hundred years ago there was a vibrant community here of Indians, ‘coloureds’, Portuguese, Greeks and Jews. Freed slaves, merchants, immigrants, artisans and labourers all worked and lived peacefully side by side. They were an eclectic mix of cultures, religions and ethnicities in a melting pot typical of a port city like Cape Town … apparently a threat to the apartheid government which declared it a “whites only” area in 1966. It would take about 15 years to move the 60 000 people out, to the Cape Flats, to areas like Manenberg, Hanover Park and Mitchell’s Plain.

District Six is now unrecognisable from what it was before its destruction but I have fond memories of the area where my grandparents lived and my father was born. Hanover Street was the main artery which ran all the way up from the city centre, into Walmer Estate where I grew up. My life revolved around Hanover Street though: my uncle’s tailor shop, was a hive of activity; the doctor who delivered me in my grandparents’ home, had his surgery there, and Majiet’s barbershop was filled with people not necessarily having their hair cut, but playing dominoes and catching up on the news. A trip into town would inevitably involve a stop for roti and curry from the Crescent Café. My father says that you could buy anything in Hanover Street except petrol.

Tied up with my memories is the music which was played in the streets by minstrels, Malay choirs and Christmas bands. Some of this has been captured by Taliep Petersen and David Kramer in their musicals, District Six and Kat and the Kings. And then there was food with names like bredie, bobotie, denningvleis, frikkadels and oumens onder die kombers. One dish that, for me, represents the Cape with Malay, Dutch and Christian influences blended together with fragrant spices, was pickled fish. I remember my maternal grandmother making it in the last week of Lent, to eat on Good Friday. She would make it well in advance to give the spices a chance to penetrate the fish, and also to free up her Friday when she would spend many hours in church. The fish would have been bought either from the fish market on the corner of Hanover and Clifton Streets, opposite the Star bioscope, or from the fish cart which did the rounds in the neighbourhood. The hawker would sound his horn to alert housewives that he had arrived with the catch of the day and they would come out to the street to haggle.

Weddings and funerals were community affairs. When I was about six or seven I was a flower girl twice in the same year, once for my aunt, a Christian wedding and then for a Muslim neighbour, a dressmaker who sewed all the dresses for the wedding herself. The whole street turned out to see the bride when the wedding cars hooted to announce her arrival, and the neighbours followed behind to the reception in the Princess Street Hall. Funerals were another occasion when everyone would just turn up to pay their respects and support the family in any way they could. Christian men would borrow fezzes and take turns to carry the bier of their Muslim neighbour.

As the bulldozers moved in and the walls came tumbling around her, my paternal grandmother was banished to Mitchells Plain, far from the city centre where she had lived her whole life. She had been a fiercely independent woman, who had to earn a living after her husband died and left her to raise four children on her own. She made koeksisters and konfyt to sell door-to-door on Sunday mornings in District Six, and sewed and crocheted. She used public transport or walked wherever she had to go.  What I remember most was her loss of independence. Suddenly she found herself in a foreign place without any infrastructure and no public transport to fetch her pension from the General Post Office in Cape Town. For the first time she had to ask for help.

Central to my motivation for going back to university, was to equip myself with skills to tell the stories of growing up, not only my stories but the stories of those who cannot tell their own. We’re a deeply divided society, still trying to recover from a brutal past. We cannot sweep it under the carpet, sooner or later the bump will trip us up.

I urge you to visit the District Six Museum. However painful the memories of apartheid may be, the exhibition there humanises the experiences while celebrating the rich diversity of people who once lived here. For me, it’s like settling into an old armchair and turning the pages of a well-worn family photo album. When I see the barber’s corner, the display case with the games we once played in the road, the photographs of the Peninsula Maternity Home where my sister was born or the wall-hanging with the name of the rugby club my father played for, I feel that our lives mattered. And when I walk up the stairs to the wall that bears the names of families who lived here, and I scroll down to find mine, I feel that our experiences have been validated and dignified.

This is an extract from a talk I gave prior to a performance of the musical, Orpheus in Africa, as part of an educational programme.

PICTURE: Cape Malay Cooking with Fatima Sydow