I don’t know if you’ve seen the news: young girls at Pretoria Girls High School have been in the news because their school has racist hair rules. Apparently their some of their parents don’t agree with their protest. What has also been in the news is the story about 3000 girls in the North West who are pregnant as a result of sleeping with older men. The news say that they are finding the culprits to arrest them for statutory rape. These stories made me think of you as a black mother who raised three black girls in a racist and sexist society that doesn’t value people like you and me.
I remember how you tried to make us strong and resilient when we came back from school telling you stories about how mean (code for racist) our teachers were. When Athi and I started at the prestigious girls school you did your best in making us look presentable. You taught us about respectability without even realising it. You did our hair religiously every Sunday and the teachers never picked on us because it was always so neat. You sewed our jim dresses the right length so the teachers wouldn’t think we’re cheeky. And in that respect, you succeeded. Athi and I became the exemplary black girls the teachers liked.
Athi and I also realised very early on at school that we couldn’t rock the boat: not only because we feared you too much and knew we would get a hiding if you found out we were causing trouble at school, but we were already causing trouble at the school. We were too poor to be at that school but we insisted on pretending that we belonged. When the teachers withheld our reports because hadn’t paid school fees we came back at the beginning of each year confident that we had passed even though we hadn’t seen our reports. Our poverty showed in our lunch boxes, the many camps and excursions we missed, our explanations why you weren’t picking us up from school like most moms (you didn’t have a car), the insufficient stationary, the same school shoes two years in a row, our late arrival at school because public transport to school was unreliable, the school days missed because we had no money for the taxis, the lies about why we were absent for school. A long and endless list about the markers of poverty in a school that assumes a nuclear, middle class family. But we survived and our names are in the school magazines and on the Honours board at the high school.
When I was in Sub A I was reading the comic book version of The long walk to freedom and I was so excited that I knew Nelson Mandela’s other name: “Rolihalahala” I said. You laughed and told me there’s no such word. When I showed you, you corrected me that it was Rolihlahla: the ‘r’ having the same sound as the Afrikaans g and the ‘hl’ had a different sound that didn’t exist in English. How could I know all this? I had never read isiXhosa in my life. I only experienced isiXhosa at church and smatterings of it at home because the teachers encouraged you and Tata to speak English so that Athi and I could learn English better. Tata acquiesced. You didn’t. Instead you told us stories about Xhosa history and showed us pictures of beautiful rural girls with imbola on their bodies, bodies covered in beads and umvambo (body art). I loved those pictures because they were images that didn’t appear on tv or the books we had at school. We brought home Janet and John books written by people in England. We devoured Roald Dahl stories because his stories are universal. And all the while you tried to remind us that we were black and that we have a heritage of story telling and rhymes that you tried to teach us but we could never remember. I remember asking you to help me with Maths when I was in Standard Two. The teachers always told us to ask our parents to help us with homework if we didn’t understand. You told me you couldn’t help me because you had done arithmetic at school. Not Maths. I didn’t understand the difference but you did. My education was different (and seen as better) to the Bantu Education you received. That was the first and last time I asked you to help me with my homework.
I was always confused when you told us how lucky you were that God had blessed you with what you asked for: you had prayed for three girls with light skin and beautiful hair and God granted you that wish. I was troubled by the specification about the skin and the hair but later when I realised the truth about colourism amongst black people I realised your prayer request wasn’t foolish. You wanted light-skinned children so we wouldn’t have to deal with the taunts that came with dark skin. A lighter pigmentation (what people refer to as yellow bone these days) was important for you because it meant we were not at the bottom of the colonial and apartheid hierarchy of aesthetics. The lighter we were the prettier we were considered to be. You were proud when people said we look coloured because that was a compliment. You were proud when people said “ababahle abantwana bakaThami ingathi baphuma kwiMercedes Benz” because that too was a compliment.
If we had tried to cause any trouble like the girls at Pretoria Girls’ High School have done at their school you would have given us the hiding of our lives. Without realising it, you raised us to be grateful that we were at the girls’ schools and that we shouldn’t embarrass ourselves in front of those “white people”. When we told you about the racist commentary you never agreed that it was racist commentary. You told us to ignore it. But you would laugh at me in disbelief when you realised how much I like white people: “yhu, uyabathanda abelungu umntwana wam”. Years later I have begun to understand the irony. As someone who lived through apartheid you didn’t like white people very much. In fact you had a disdain for them and admitted that you hated speaking English but you lived with children who spoke exclusively in English and had white friends.
Athi and I always talk about how we survived our childhood. We survived being at a school that believed in white supremacy and the cultural supremacy that excluded anything African. We survived the Englishness that didn’t approve of our hair and dexterity of speaking two languages. I watch with great joy how your grandchildren easily converse in English and isiZulu without the same anxiety we had. They have books written in isiXhosa and isiZulu in their home. Hopefully they won’t discover that being black is a problem (assuming it hasn’t happened already). But then again the born-frees at Pretoria Girls High School were not supposed to experience racism but that hasn’t happened.
I hope you’ve been watching the news and thinking about me because I’ve been thinking about you.
 Thami’s children are so beautiful; they look like they’ve just stepped out of a Mercedes Benz.