Categories of Persons by Jacob Dlamini

EXTRACT: Categories of Persons

In this essay, Jacob Dlamini, co-editor of Categories of Persons, explores the politics of family

This contribution is anchored in the intimate politics of family. Jacob Dlamini lived with his mother for most of his childhood, and his father remained a distant and enigmatic figure. Subsequent to his mother’s passing, the young Dlamini takes a job at his father’s hardware store. This gives him exposure to his father and his family, although he never feels truly connected to them. Some years after the father’s death, and with the end of apartheid, the family elects to rebury him in a formerly ‘whites-only’ cemetery. The decision throws into sharp relief family fractures that are both personal and historical.

In his childhood is a house.The house is a single-storey rectangular building with a roughcast facade, long sides that extend into the backyard, big front windows protected by white burglar bars, a veranda that faces onto the street, and a narrow garage on one side that can fit four cars. The building has a red tin roof, making it stand out amid the asbestos roofs that come standard with the two-roomed government-built houses it neighbours. The house, out of place in its own neighbourhood, is similar to the houses around this East Rand township in which live the ‘Reeftown elite’, that group of local notables studied by Dutch sociologist Mia Brandel-Syrier in the 1960s. Around the yard is a concrete palisade fence that locals call the ‘stop nonsense’.This is, as they say in the township, a ‘big house’. Here lives respectability, says the house, which sits along one of the few tarred roads in the township. It faces the hospital where he was born. It is, his aunties and cousins whisper, his father’s house.

Of his father – a squat, short man with a barrel chest and a serious oval face – he knows a little. He knows that the man likes his cars; that he is a fanatical Orlando Pirates supporter; and that he works at Consol, the glass-making factory in Wadeville, northeast of his hometown. He sees his father rarely. Once, the Old Man comes by in a cream-coloured Plymouth Valiant with a rare gift for the boy, a pair of takkies made by Pony, the American apparel company famous for its sneakers and boxing gear. The pair, blue with a yellow V Pony logo on the sides, does not fit.The boy gives the takkies back. He cries. His mom is upset. The father leaves. The boy does not wear anything by Pony again. He can recall other occasions when the father visits. The visits are always unannounced. They always end the same way: with the boy crying and the mother upset.

His mom says nothing about the big house. But the house is a fixture in the boy’s childhood. It is on the same road as the Women’s Hostel where she works as a cleaner. It lies between his three-roomed house and the General of God Apostolic Church, the family-founded church to which every member of his maternal side belongs. The church is what polite scholars of religion in Africa call ‘independent’ – so independent that its services, to which adult male members wear starched white overcoats and powder-blue shawls, take place in the garage of an uncle’s house. His father belongs to the Methodist Church, that bastion of African elites and Christian converts at least since the mid-nineteenth century. The Methodists worship in a ‘proper’ church building near the township’s water reservoir.

In fact, he thinks it is while walking to church with an older cousin one day, past the big house, that he first hears that here lives his father. His mom – short, stoic and with a keen oval face – avoids the main road with the big house. She prefers the side streets. But the big house cannot always be avoided. One day, he and his mom are walking through the neighbourhood with the big house when, suddenly, he asks: ‘Who lives there?’ One of your aunties, she says.

And, no, you are not allowed to visit, she adds. He is intrigued. He likes to walk by the big house, in hopes, perhaps, of catching his father out in the front yard, washing one of his cars. One day, he and a cousin named Lucky are returning home from an errand when, on a dare, they go into the yard of the big house, walk along its side to the back and knock on the kitchen door. A young woman opens the door. He and Lucky greet the woman and ask for some water. The woman hands them a glass and directs them to the outside tap. They drink two glasses each and leave. Who is the woman, he wonders? Could she be a sibling? He is his mom’s only surviving child. He knows nothing about his father’s family. Only that the Old Man lives with an ‘auntie’ and has a son who comes by to visit the boy and his mom at home every now and again. The son works for the township’s municipality.

There are no more gifts from the father after the Ponys. But there is, it seems, a problem about the boy’s maintenance. When he asks his mom for new clothes, she tells him, sometimes with irritation, to ask his father. She has no money. Her house is full of her sisters and their children. Since he is not allowed to go to the big house, he takes the train to the father’s workplace, where he announces himself to the security guards at the staff gate and asks for Mr T. The Old Man is duly called to the gate. He arrives in his faded overalls and, without ceremony, hands the boy some money and sends him on his way. The boy is excited by the fact that he has travelled by himself to Wadeville and back.

The visit to the factory gate is followed by others. But this arrangement is too irregular. Once, he shows up at the factory to discover his father is on leave. One day, his mom pulls him out early from school. ‘We are going to town,’ she says. Town is Germiston, the mining and railway junction that serves as his township’s white ‘parent town’. Town is also the Regional Magistrates’ courts. Here is, in English, the Maintenance Court.Township residents and the officials who work in the Maintenance Court know it by its unofficial name: the papgeld court. The court looks just like the name papgeld – with its mix of Afrikaans bureaucratese and township slang – sounds. It is a cold, red-brick building with long wooden benches on which sit mothers and their children. The only men to be seen around are the court orderlies who shout out the women’s names when each case is called up.

The boy and his mom have come to seek a maintenance order.The order is granted. Forty rand a month until the boy turns eighteen. No more trips to the factory gate. No more train adventures by him- self. The boy can quit harassing his mom for clothes. He now knows to wait until the end of the month if he wants something. But he also knows that the R40 cannot be for himself only. Many times the papgeld is used to supplement his mom’s income, to buy the family’s mielie meal. As the boy gets older, he is less intrigued by his father. By the time he gets to high school, he has lost interest in the father, the father’s cars and his soccer club.The boy loves soccer. He supports Arcadia Shepherds, a white team from Pretoria. Can one rebel against absence?

High school is a blast: new friends, new fashions, a discovery of politics, bigger worlds beyond his township. It is also a nightmare. It is the mid-1980s and township schooling, which has been sputtering since June 1976, has come to a standstill. His mother withdraws him from his high school. She sends him to a rural boarding school in the Bantustan of KaNgwane. The move collapses. The boy is the wrong social class, the wrong generation, and from the wrong part of the country. Having admitted him and hundreds like him, the boarding school headmaster decides a week later that having township stu- dents in his rural idyll is too risky. The students have been exposed to the virus of revolution and are likely to spread it to his school. He won’t take that risk. He refunds their school fees and sends them packing.

The boy is back in his three-roomed house. It is, as ever, full of aunties and cousins. He does not see the Old Man. He does not think about the R40 that connects them once a month. The money goes to his mom. She dies suddenly of a heart attack one October. He is fifteen. He does not see his father after his mom’s death, save for one moment during her funeral when he catches a glimpse of the Old Man in a crowd of mourners. They do not say a word to each other. In fact, they never talk about his mom’s death. The following year the boy moves to a private Anglican boarding school west of Johannesburg. The school is sufficiently far from home for the boy to feel like he has moved away from his loss. It is also close enough for him to hop on a taxi or catch a train for weekend visits. But the school is also a bit isolated, making public transport to and from there, especially on Sunday evenings, which is when students must report back to the boarding house after weekend visits, sporadic.

Once or twice the boy gets stuck at home during weekend visits.An uncle, who assumes legal guardianship over him after his mom’s death and is the only member of his immediate family to own a car, promises always to drive him back to school. He does not. He is either too drunk to drive or cannot be found when the hour of departure comes. The uncle, who uses the boy’s inheritance to buy himself a new car, a metallic-blue Toyota Cressida, suggests one Sunday afternoon that the boy ask his father for a lift back to school. Desperate to return to school, the boy visits the big house. His father is home. The boy does not see much of the house, save for the kitchen, with its maroon wall- to-wall cupboards and grey tiled floors. He asks the Old Man for a ride to school. The Old Man obliges. The boy notices that the Valiant is gone. The father now drives a metallic-green BMW 5-Series. It is the only time his father obliges, the only time the Old Man visits any of the schools the boy has attended. What does the boy know? The only parents who visit their children at the boarding school are the middle-class parents of the middle-class students who make fun of the boy’s accent and of the empty wardrobes of his fellow working-class classmates. On other occasions, the father refuses to take the boy to school.

The school has a psychologist, a blonde woman with a Germanic name like Inge and a penchant for flowing white linen outfits. Inge drives a vintage two-door convertible. She is stylish. She is also a curiosity for the students. Once, he secures an appointment with Inge. But what to talk about with a woman the boy has been told is there to deal with the students’ problems? What problems does he have? He decides to talk to Inge about his uncle the guardian and the vanishing inheritance. Inge listens, nods her head in sympathy, asks a few questions. She mutters some advice that he soon forgets.The unmemorable session is soon over. Oh, is that what psychologists do? the boy wonders to himself as he leaves Inge’s well-appointed office. But Inge has her uses. One day, a (black) pupil who neglects to do his homework ‘faints’ when he is confronted by his (white) teacher over the missing homework.The pupil is laid on his back on the floor by his classmates. The teacher is frantic. Inge is called for. While everyone waits for the pupil to wake up and for Inge to arrive, a (black) teacher who has recently joined the school and happens to be passing by comes over to see what the commotion is about. His (white) colleague tells him about the pupil’s sudden fainting. The pupil’s classmates are sceptical. They tell the (black) teacher about the missing homework. The (black) teacher asks the crowd gathered around the pupil to make way. He leans into the fainted pupil and says, in Zulu: ‘Sonny, if you don’t wake up now, I am going to klap you so hard you won’t remember your name.’ The boy wakes up. Calm is restored. Inge can go back to her office. ‘Gullible white liberals,’ mutters the (black) teacher as he walks away.

The boy loves his new school. The teachers are attentive, the classes small. There are regular excursions to the Market Theatre and endless political discussions with teachers and students. He cannot recall when the school becomes his new home. But he stops going home on weekends. In fact, he stops going home altogether except on school holidays. Shortly before one school holiday, he calls home, which is under the care of one of his aunties. A stranger answers the phone. Thinking the stranger must be a friend visit- ing one of his cousins, he asks to speak to one of his cousins by name. ‘Sorry, there’s no one by that name here,’ the stranger says. He asks for another cousin. Same answer. When the stranger gives the same answer for a third cousin, the boy asks finally: ‘Sorry, but what number is that?’ It is his home number. Hold on, says the stranger roughly. A woman comes onto the phone: ‘Who are you looking for?’ My family, the boy says. ‘They have moved.’ No, she has no idea where they have moved to but promises to try and get a message to them. So it is that he comes ‘home’ to a house full of strangers. He waits outside his mom’s old house, now full of furniture he does not recognise, while a cousin is sent for to take him to the house to which his aunts and cousins have moved.Why did you not tell me you had moved house? he asks one of his aunts. Sorry, we forgot, she says.

The R40 papgeld still comes. Only this time it is through the uncle, who has to be reminded a few times to hand it over. It is the boy’s only source of pocket money. The boy finishes high school. He wants to go to university to study law. He turns eighteen. The R40 papgeld stops. University does not start for a while.What is he going to do to make ends meet while he waits for university to open and for a scholarship that may never come? He asks his father for money. The Old Man has quit his job at Consol, opened an electrical hardware store in an industrial part of the township and owns a fleet of taxis.The Old Man says the boy is too old for handouts. If he wants money, he must earn it.The father offers the boy a job as an assistant at the hardware store. The boy accepts. He sweeps the floors, delivers merchandise to customers’ cars and, when the woman who runs the store in his father’s absence is away, sells to customers. The job is dusty and tedious. But it means exposure to his father. It means contact. Except his father is hardly around. He is dying of cancer. Occasionally, the father comes around to the store. Once, during one of his visits, the Old Man be- rates the boy for doing something ‘the wrong way’. The boy disagrees. He talks back. It is the most passion there has ever been between him and his father.

When the father gives the boy the job at the shop, he does not introduce him to the woman who runs the store. The boy discovers by chance that she is married to one of the father’s two sons. The boy finds out through scraps of conversation between the woman and his father, as well as between the father and regular customers, that the Old Man has three daughters and two sons. They are all much older than the boy. One sister is a lawyer. Two are teachers. Their brothers are artisans. The Old Man is dying. His throat cancer is ravaging him, reducing him to bones. Sometimes, the boy is asked to ‘cash up’. He adds up the day’s takings and takes the money to the big house. That is how, for the first time, he gets to know the inside of the big house. That is how he meets the ‘auntie’ who lives in the big house with his father. The big house is not so big from the inside: two bedrooms, an indoor bathroom, a lounge-cum-dining-room and a medium-sized kitchen. The furniture is aspirant middle class: solid but basic. So this is how the other family lives.

The father dies. The big house fills up during the week before the funeral with family, friends and relatives. The father’s children gather. They are distraught. One brother, to whom the boy is growing close, cries on the boy’s shoulder one day. The boy does not know what to do. It sounds like the crying brother was the father’s favourite. The boy does not know what to say to the brother or the other siblings. Sorry for your loss? Sorry for your pain? He is sorry the Old Man is dead. He is sorry about the family’s pain. But he cannot bring himself to grieve. He does not shed a tear. The boy continues to work at the shop, while funeral arrangements are being made. Each day, he cashes up and takes the day’s earnings to the big house. Once, while he is there to deliver the money, one of the father’s daughters pulls him aside. ‘I know who you are,’ she whispers in his ear. The boy is caught off guard by the conspiratorial tone. He does not know what to make of it.

On another occasion, a man married to one of the father’s daughters asks the boy: ‘Who are you?’ I work at the shop, the boy answers. ‘How are you related to the family?’ the man demands to know.Why don’t you ask the family? the boy says to the man. The man drops it. The father is buried at the Schoeman Cemetery, the biggest graveyard in the township. Schoeman is dusty and bereft of any vegetation. At the funeral, the boy is not acknowledged formally by the family. He is just one mourner among many for a man who was clearly loved by his community.When, at the cemetery, the presiding priest asks members of the immediate family to step forward and pour soil into the open grave as the priest reads that bit from the Bible about ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’, the boy holds back. He says his prayers along with the rest of the mourners. He prays that his father rests in peace among the many buried here at Schoeman Cemetery. He prays that the father’s family find comfort during their time of loss.

The township was built in the early 1950s on farmland bought by the Germiston City Council to house a burgeoning black urban population. The name Schoeman probably belongs to a farmer who owned land in these parts once, the boy speculates. The cemetery, which lies on the southern edge of the township, is a familiar place. It is where every person from the township expects to end up. In it lie generations of families. In fact, the boy’s mom is buried close to where his father is interred.The boy visits his mom’s grave often. It never occurs to him to visit his father’s grave.What ritual would he perform there? Spit on a small stone and place it atop the tombstone?What would he say?A prayer for a father he never really had?Visiting the man’s grave would feel like trespassing. So he never goes.

The boy does not have to think about visiting his father’s grave for long. Soon after the father’s burial, his remains are dug up on the orders of the Old Man’s children. One of them, the lawyer, has moved to a suburb east of the township and wants the Old Man buried close to her new home.The boy is not there for the reburial. But he cannot help but wonder what this all means. Once, the brother to whom he has got close takes him to the father’s grave. The visit, like the Old Man’s visits to the boy’s childhood home, is unannounced. He and the brother are driving someplace one day when the brother suggests that they pop in ‘somewhere’. It is only when they drive into the father’s new place of rest – distinguished by its manicured lawns, flower beds, wooden park benches and rubbish bins – that the boy understands that ‘somewhere’ means the cemetery with his father’s second grave. The cemetery, like the suburb to which his half-sister the lawyer has moved, used to be for whites only. A granite tomb- stone carries the father’s name, date of birth and date of death. The boy does not memorise the tombstone’s dedication. Decades later, the boy, now a young man still trying to make sense of this posthumous change of address, thinks he remembers the dedication saying something about a loving husband, father and grandfather sorely missed by his loving wife, children and grandchildren. He wonders if the dedication would not be easier to memorise if it said simply ‘Here lies ambition’. But what does he know? He is not from the big house.

Jacob DlaminiJACOB DLAMINI is a former journalist and the author of Native Nostalgia (2009). He holds a PhD in history from Yale University and is currently a researcher at the University of Barcelona. 

Categories of Persons is published by Picador Africa and available at all good bookstores for an RRP of R220, and online at



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