After years away this was my first time back in South Africa. I had studied there, years earlier, but after graduating, swore I would leave South Africa – and not return … or not until their apartheid system had collapsed. I had lived in Zambia and later in England. But now apartheid in South Africa had gone. They even had a black president, Nelson Mandela. In fact, not all that much had changed. Blacks – or most of them – still lived in slums or overcrowded rural reserves while whites – very many of them – sunbathed in large gardens by the side of private swimming pools.
I was on my way to Durban to visit Alfred. He was, I knew, now owner of a large pharmacy.
“I take it you can still read?” was the first thing I said to him after many years apart. He laughed. He knew what I was getting at. I had been at secondary school when his father had appealed to me to come and tutor his young son. “The boy can’t read. But I honestly can’t believe that he’s an idiot.”
In fact, I discovered Alfred had memorised his infant school text books verbatim. He could rattle off the text from beginning to end but when asked to read a sentence out of context, he was lost.
I said “He can’t be all that stupid if he can memorise books”. I soon had him reading well. That had been many years earlier.
I was now introduced to Sharon, his wife. She had been a teacher but had given it up teaching when her two sons were born. She had been bringing them up, with the help of their servant-girl Tombi.
Of course, Tombi wasn’t her real name. That was Ntombiyesizwe … but South African whites, for all their much-vaunted racial superiority, could never remember such complicated Zulu names. Tombi she became.
She lived in a small one-room “kaya” at the bottom of their garden. Toilet facilities were primitive – merely a hole in the floor in the adjoining shower room. To flush it you turned on the shower but jumped aside fast to escape a drenching.
Sharon did not normally go into the servants’ quarters but one day Tombi was ill so she went to bring her some pills. She had often heard subdued voices and had assumed Tombi was receiving a lover. ‘None of my business’, she had thought. Yes, there were some trousers hanging from a nail but these were not adult trousers but those of a child. Questioned, Tombi admitted she had a little boy. He came to visit her “once in a while”. Sharon could sense this wasn’t the whole story. Eventually Tombi admitted he slept there every night but hid away at dawn. The apartheid regulations banning black visitors on white premises had been abolished but most whites still did not permit their servants to have visitors staying. “Who wants a gang of piccaninis at the bottom of their garden?” they said.
Sharon’s boys grew up rapidly. Before long they left the parental home and set up with partners of their own.
Such is the way of the world.
It left her without work. Or purpose.
One day Sharon found Tombi weeping. What was the matter? The teachers were threatening to expel her boy from the school. They said he was subnormal.
“Madam, you’ve been a teacher. Would you talk to the boy? Do you think he’s an idiot? He’s been to a bush school in Zululand. Teachers were useless. They knew nothing.”
Sharon called the boy. He spoke some English. She was surprised. She knew they didn’t teach English at African junior schools. He said he’d picked it up from the older boys. And from the ‘bioscope” [which the rest of the world calls “cinema”]. What was his name?
“What does that mean?“
Tombi, his mother, struggled to translate: “It’s someone who has to keep quiet.”
The little boy shook his head: “But he wants to keep quiet.”
“He’s hiding, he doesn’t want anyone to find him.”
“That means me, doesn’t it?” laughed Sharon. “Tell him he’s welcome to talk – only — he mustn’t make a noise at night.” And after a pause she added: “I used to be a teacher. I’ve forgotten a lot but I can make an effort … if he would like me to teach him.”
She had found a purpose. The boy was a willing learner, and quick. The teachers at his school expressed surprise. “The idiot? He’s suddenly got clever. Who knows? He might even make it to university.”
Sharon worried about the swimming pool in her garden. One heard of children drowning because they could not swim. She gave him a first swimming lesson, then took him into the house to find a towel. Soon he had the run of the house. In this small enclave apartheid had gone. Gone.