If you are anything like me, you have a few debts. No, you are not like me. You cannot be like me. I am bonded and mortgaged to the bones and down to the core of my very being. Yet even for one as riddled with debt as I, not all debts are equal. Some debts are more equal than others.
There is a debt I have owed for decades.
It was a beautiful day and my family homestead was overflowing with people. There was lots of food — even meat (which was a rarity in those days) was in abundance. Every uncle, aunt, cousin, granny and grandpa I know was present. Aged three at that time I remember bouncing from one loving knee to the next as aunts and uncles took turns to embrace and tickle me. Yet even I realised then that there was something strange afoot on that occasion.
For one thing, I was the only one giggly and running around happily. Everyone else was looking rather sombre and solemn. Being a child I surmised that the adults were up to their usual boring seriousness. I was not going to let their antics dampen my spirits. I leaped, twirled and frolicked between and among the crowd. Something else was odd. My mother was nowhere to be seen. That was no real bother though. She had developed the nasty habit of disappearing from time to time. But she always came back — sooner or later. For sure. For now we must get on with the business of fun, and food and the admiration of a captive audience of seemingly bored old folk — I thought.
All this was happening in a homestead on the outskirts of Valdezia — a Swiss “mission station” 25km from Makhado (Louis Trichardt) in Limpopo. The occasion was a funeral. Either no one had told me about the funeral or my three-year-old brain simply lacked the capacity to comprehend the notion of a funeral. Maybe I understood it alright but fell into primordial, instinctive and protective denial in order to shield my toddler soul. This was no ordinary funeral. It was the funeral of my own mother!
She had died suddenly after living a rather short life. No illness to write home about. I am the third of four kids she was leaving behind. She also left us one beautiful photograph of her. Only one. Was it a heart attack? Probably. What I now know for sure is that it was definitely an attack on my heart whose impact would last a life time. She has since become a constant, absent presence in my life.
Back to Limpopo, several years later and fast-forward to the morning of Wednesday May 18, 2011. We are at a ward (named Giyani) at Elim Hospital. My maternal grandmother — who had been ill for some time — is breathing her last few gasps of precious oxygen. By mid-morning medical staff confirm that grandma is no more. She was 97. Unlike her daughter, grandma stuck around. She was determined to see me and my siblings through the worst of the storms of life.
She remains to this day, the most resilient the most constant, most consistent and most reliable presence in my life. With no real memory of my own mother, grandma was the only tangible evidence that I did really have a mother once upon a very short time. But grandma was more. Grandma was mother. Upon the death of my mother, she took over the motherhood function so seamlessly, it took me a long time to realise she was not my mother.
She is unlikely ever to make it into a book titled “Great South Africans”. Back in 1914 when she was born, black women were cattle — sold and bought in the currency of cattle, as cattle and treated accordingly. She was no Lilian Ngoyi, no Albertina Sisulu and certainly no Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. When women marched to the Union Building in the mid-fifties, grandma — then a young widow with two girl children (one of whom was my mother) — was occupied and preoccupied with the small matters of food and day-to-day survival in rural South Africa. Nor has she ever been to Robben Island — not even as a tourist. The only domain in which she beat Nelson Mandela hands down was age. She was older than Mandela and she always reminded us of that.
She had no university degree. Grandma was an ordinary, rural, illiterate South African woman. I have no hope that a monument will ever be erected in her honour. She will never receive a National Order. She was not perfect either. She smoked copious amounts of snuff and took traditional beer as well as the odd non-traditional beer from time to time. Playing with matchsticks one day in my toddler years, I burnt an entire winter’s harvest of rondavel roof thatch that she had harvested and collected by hand over many months. She was livid. On that occasion, she said things to and about me that are simply unprintable. Yet it all ended with her lovingly embracing me even as she watched the blazing fire consuming months of her hard work in an instant. We were both crying.
In my short life, I have been halfway around the world, I have met people richer and more educated than grandma but I am yet to meet a person of more integrity and more dignity. Throughout my 22 odd years of education — PhD and all — no teacher and no professor has taught me more. Nor have I learned more from anyone about politics and economics. The old woman who brought me up with her bare hands and a heart pulsating with love was my greatest teacher. I have encountered few people as forgiving. Again and again, at various stages of my life, she has snatched me from the jaws of hell. For me she was and will always be a great South African woman.
On May 28 2011, family, friends and neighbours from far and near, shall gather for a thanksgiving ceremony for the life of Madzivandlela N’wa-Diki Maswanganyi — my grandmother. This will take place at Basani village, outside Makhado in Limpopo. On that day, I will finally pay my decades-old debt, by attending the funeral I “missed” as a toddler many years ago. And yet there is a debt I will never be able to repay — the debt I owe to my grandmother for everything she has done, everything she has given and everything she has been.