I am about five years old and I am sitting as usual at Ouma’s kitchen table in Rylands Estate. I am vaguely aware that ‘the Group Areas’ want us to move from our house in Rylands because it is meant for Indian people. I wonder who this person ‘the Group Areas’ is. As a family we are always treated differently, sometimes unkindly, by a few people in the area but I am not exactly sure why we have to move from our house. Nor am I sure why we are different.
Ouma leans on her end of the table with her head tilted to one side, chin resting on the palm of her hand, her characteristic pose. She is deep in thought and this story pours from her lips:
‘We came to live here in Rylands Estate after moving around in the Western Cape for some time. Oupa earned enough money to buy this property. I did not come to Cape Town with him when he ran away from Pietersburg. Your father was small and Oupa had to find work first. He found a steady job at Consani’s Engineering where they taught him to do boilermaking or something and over the years he bought several properties.
‘When I was still in Pietersburg my sister Sarah, who was a nurse, looked after your father and me. Oupa only came to fetch us after ten years. When we arrived here your aunt Pauline moved in with us. She was your grandfather’s child here in the City. I raised her as my own child.
‘It was difficult for your father and I to fit in here. We could only speak Sotho. Some people would swear at us in Afrikaans and call us names like ‘kaffir’. ‘Gaan terug land toe jou gemors, voertsek hier weg’ they said. They teased us for not being able to speak Afrikaans or English properly. I did not have any education and never worked outside the home. Your grandfather took care of everything as he does to this day.
‘Life was and is not easy for me to live as a coloured. Everywhere I go people comment on my nose, short hair, and thick lips. They treat me like a dog. I prefer to stay inside the house – in my kitchen – and I only go out when it is absolutely necessary. I need your grandfather with me to help with the language. He drives me to do errands and to church. The only people I have short conversations with are those at church, my children and grandchildren, who understand what I am trying to say. I spend my days cooking, cleaning and taking care of all of you.’
Ouma pauses for a moment and offers me some tea. Of course I accept. I love the very sweet tea that she makes. We enjoy Rooibos tea mixed with Ceylon tea; a teaspoon of condensed milk and three teaspoons of sugar. She also gives me a slice of white bread dripping with fat and gravy from last night’s food. I am in heaven. I listen and try to understand what Ouma tries to explain next but it is very difficult to understand.
‘Before Oupa and I got married, my surname was Maloba. After our marriage, my surname was Malotane, like your father and Aunt Pauline. With this Group Areas thing, and to be able to buy property, your grandfather decided to change our surname to Heller. People always tell us we bought a surname to be coloured Things are very confused. I am very confused about why we need to change our surname. Your father and Aunt Pauline are still Malotane, but we are Heller. We are all classified coloured, even your father who kept Malotane as his surname. And yet we are not coloured, we are Sotho. All my grandchildren are classified Cape Coloured because your mother and Pauline’s husband are coloureds.’
I sip the sweet tea and eat the sandwich. I bask in this moment, this time with my Ouma, my special angel, who always makes me feel that I am the most important person in this world. At the same time I want to cry. I don’t understand why anybody would call her names and treat her badly and tell her to move. I don’t understand why they changed their surname. I don’t understand anything.