One day several of the pieces of one of the puzzles started to move around. There had been rumblings that I had heard via my eldest sister and not internalised, I was way too busy trying to keep myself glued together.
One day it clicked. I realised why the mother was so pissed off: she was coloured!
In South Africa there are three main designations: white and non-white. Just kidding. The three main designations are black, coloured and white. Coloured is the American equivalent of black, which includes anyone who is not white. In South Africa coloured is a random designation of mixed race originally based on three things. Firstly, the tone of your skin. Is it light enough to be classified white or not? The second factor was hair. coloured grannies rejoiced when a grandchild was born with hair. When my mother’s cousin told me this, I asked “but doesn’t everyone have hair?” They meant children who had straight hair that would grow: hair that would pass the “pencil test” – another random test where a pencil was placed in the hair and if it stayed there the child was “coloured”. The third criteria was based on who you spent time with and what colour people perceived you to be. It was completely random. Every month in the Government Gazette there would be notifications of people who had changed race.
My mother, her three brothers and my granny all “passed for white”, a term used for coloured people who were light enough and cracked the nod into the life of white protection and privilege: people who had hair that passed the pencil test” and who hid the fact that their relatives we designated coloured. I cannot stress how important enough it was to not be “found out”. If you did deign to spend time with your relatives who lived in different areas designated for coloured people courtesy of the Group Areas Act, you had to be very careful. Someone of a different race in an area that was designated for a particular race might be picked up by the police. This reality meant you might be re-classified as non-white and lose your privileges.
My mother’s terrible secret was that she fell between the cracks!
My granny’s seven siblings and all their children were designated “coloured”. Even my great-grandmother was sent to live in Athlone – an area designated specifically for coloureds. My granny and their children must have spent a lot of time holding their breaths, hoping that no-one wouldn’t find out so that they would not be re-classified.
The designation later changed to “what you parent is classified as”. As long as my granny stayed white, my mother was safe. Her volatile projectile vomiting of verbal abuse makes sense now.
A lot changed in the nineties prior to the first truly democratic vote. Every colour was allowed to vote - even those who didn’t pass the pencil test! There was one little snag: everyone needed to get a new “bar coded” green ID book. Everyone’s ID number was changed to sanitise it from its racial identifier. Previously each group (white, coloured, Griqua (black), Malay (Muslim coloured), Indian, Chinese, other Asian and Other Coloured) were dictated by the number 0 to 8 as the third last digit. At the time I didn’t notice that the last three digits of my ID number changed from 004 (for white South African) to 087 (for unspecified South African). I suspect many others didn’t notice either. If they did, I doubt they realised why. All numbers were changes to 08 or 09, with the last digit being a check digit in terms of Luhn’s Algorithm.
Nelson Mandela became president, while the whole world watched, shed a tear, cheered him on as he created a "Raindow Nation".
It was only when I discovered my mother’s terrible secret that I took the time to investigate the history of Apartheid. It was enlightening, shocking and helped me understand my mother’s ways. I’d missed so much. Depression had stolen the time I might have had to be aware.
My mother still kept her secret. This despite the fact that Affirmative Action was implemented to attempt to right the wrongs of the previously disenfranchised. She never got to a point where she decided that it was acceptable, even desirous, to be non-white. She protected her terrible secret with vigilance. Our coloured relatives were expected to maintain secrecy.
I asked one of my mother’s cousins why they hadn’t spoken up. There was a tacit agreement that you wouldn’t out any relatives that had been lucky enough to “pass for white”. Our coloured relatives even discussed who was “light enough” to attend my mother’s funeral, who would pass under the radar. I certainly didn’t notice. I was flustered at the funeral and simply thanked those who offered condolences. I didn’t ask anyone who they were. My mother was a social butterfly and had many friends. Those that I didn’t know as relatives, I simply assumed were friends and thanked them. Apparently I met three of my mother’s cousins that day. I didn’t know. I didn’t ask. Just like Apartheid. We didn’t think to ask!
RIP Tata Madiba. Little else can be said...
Although I am going to try.
1989, my matriculation year, was the last year of segregated education. Ironically, it was called Christian National Education. Going to all white school meant you didn’t have many friends of other races. Pretty much no-one with the exception of your non-white domestic who was trained not to tell little white girls about the atrocities of home life. And she was not a friend – she was a maid who made your bed, made you meals and did everything that the whiteys didn’t want to deign to do.
Dedicated to Tata Madiba – Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela
A man who more than coped despite the odds.
The maker of a Rainbow Nation.
Everyone’s hero and hope.
How, I never understood!