Sophie Mahlangu, trudges up the steep slope towards the ‘Retirement Village’ in Silver Lakes Golf Estates in eastern Pretoria. It is 5:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning and early morning golfers are preparing for a tee off at the nearby golf course.
She spots a morning dog-walker and waves at her.
‘See you Ma’am, in the afternoon.’
‘See you, Sophie’, comes the jovial rejoinder.
Sophie, 54, is amongst the numerous domestic workers working at the Silver Lakes Golf Estates. She boasts that she is one of the oldest domestic workers in the area.‘When I first came here, there were a few houses and the rest were still being built. Some of the children I had known as infants have now grown up and are in Universities.’ Though the surroundings have changed, little has in Sophie’s life. She still works as a domestic in some of the houses in the Estate.
Sophie’s generation witnessed the transition from the undemocratic apartheid regime to the dawn of democracy in 1994. It had the unique opportunity to attest the best and the worst of two completely different governing systems. As South Africa celebrates 20 years of democratic rule, it is Sophie’s generation, which offers the best insight into what, the future holds for the nation.
Born in Belfast (officially eMakhazeni) in 1960, her mother was a domestic worker in a farming household. Her father worked at a shop in White River near Nelspruit where he had another family. The mother-daughter duo seldom traveled to Nelspruit to see her father. Sophie grew up on the farm and her childhood memories are mostly filled with vivid colors of tulips that were farmed.
‘Winters used to be very cold in Belfast but on a sunny day, you could keep seeing the flowers and forget the cold.’
Sophie studied in a school on the farm. The local pastor’s wife taught some of the worker’s children in a small hut situated near the gates of the farm. Unfortunately, when Sophie was six and in Grade 2, the school had to be shut down as the hut was needed for farm purposes and thus schooling discontinued. ‘I still remember the day clearly. Some men came in a large truck and started cleaning the room. Me and one of my friends stood by watching. No one came to stop them or anything. It was just a normal day at the farm.’
The year was 1966 and Soweto schoolchildren’s uprising was ten years away. Apartheid South Africa then, paid scant attention to the education of farm worker’s children.
However, Sophie did not feel bad that the school shut down. In fact she felt extremely happy because now she could help her mother in the kitchen.
‘I wish I knew the importance of a good education then. But I didn’t. My mother never told me how important it was to be educated.’
The 6 year old Sophie went on to help her mother in household work for the next eight years. When the farm was sold, Sophie, then 14 and her mother went to live at her uncle’s home in Germiston.
‘Germiston was very different from the farm. It was very busy. I learnt a lot from that place.’
Unable to find work as a domestic, Sophie’s mother joined a group of women who specialized in bead making. Sophie and her cousin Rebecca, who was a year older than her, took up a job at a nearby store as the store keeper’s assistant. They were paid R 3 a week and one meal a day.
It was Sophie’s first paid work.
The store owner and his wife held classes for under educated children and adults every Saturday evening. Sophie joined the classes and it was here that she came to know, of a man, who had been locked away in a far off island near Cape Town for asking black people to stand up for their rights.
‘That period of my life was filled with anger. There were many mines situated near Germiston. Often young men from the mines would come to our shop owner and meetings would be held in his house. I came to know of the struggle that some people were waging for our rights in those meetings. The men would read aloud passages from a book. Though I did not understand much, I knew that there was something wrong going on outside.’
One of the young men from the mines was named Ephraim. He was particularly vocal in the meetings and he always urged those who had gathered around to take up education. Sophie and Rebecca both came to like the young man very much. One day, Ephraim asked Sophie to accompany him to the farmer’s market, which was held twice a month on Sundays. She felt elated that Ephraim had chosen her to accompany him. She remembers putting on her best purple dress and spending two hours trying to get dressed for the occasion. Rebecca who was clearly jealous of her did not speak to her for two days.
Five months later on a cold Tuesday morning of July, Sophie found out that she was going to be a mother. She was nervous as well as happy and waited breathlessly for Saturday when she would see Ephraim. Saturday came but Ephraim didn’t.
She frantically tried calling the number he had given her. She says: ‘Every day, I would spend an hour at the phone booth trying to call him. Sometimes the number kept ringing, sometimes a man would pick up and when I asked for Ephraim, he used to say, that there was no one of that name. Finally, I asked the other men in the meeting what happened to Ephraim and they said he had left the work at the mine and gone to Tanzania. They did not know why.’
Sophie was then 19 years old. Unmarried, almost illiterate and barely making ends meet; she was at a loss at how to deal with the situation. Her only friend at the time was Rebecca, her cousin.
Rebecca, now working at the SARS customs office at the OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg says of the period: ‘We never heard from Ephraim again. When Sophie first told me of the situation, I did not know what to do. We held hands together and did what we had been taught to do in times of distress. We prayed.’
Praying together did not help the situation much as Sophie was confronted with a huge dilemma; how to break the news to her mother and her extended family.
According to Rebecca, unwed mothers at that time were looked down upon.
‘Our family went to Church regularly. They believed in family, even if your husband went away later, it was a different thing. Sophie and I were both very scared to break this news.’
Going away from Germiston seemed to be the only option to Sophie now. She and Rebecca started looking for vacancies for domestics and household work in Pretoria when Rebecca found a cleaning job in a children’s day care in Garfonstein in Pretoria East. Rebecca secured the position of the cook for Sophie and the two cousins moved to Pretoria.
When Sophie was almost six months pregnant with her child, she and Rebecca decided to break the news to the family. Rebecca was Sophie’s biggest support during that period and has been ever since.
Says Rebecca: ‘In hindsight, I believe it was a blessing that Ephraim did not ask me out that day.’
Although angry at Sophie, her family nonetheless accepted her situation and even offered to cover the cost of medical care that was required during the period.
The year was 1985 and the political situation in South Africa was tense. Add to it a faltering economy with economic sanctions that were being imposed upon South Africa by the industrialized countries.
The social grant available to her mother was not enough to bring up a child and Sophie was barely making enough money to take care of herself. At this juncture, Rebecca again stepped in. Rebecca had meanwhile undergone her Matric Certification (Grade 10 at that time) from the University of South Africa through distance education. She heard of an opportunity for Black women at the Custom’s office at the Johannesburg International Airport (now OR Tambo International Airport) and applied. She was successful and this additional income was a huge help to Sophie.
On a hot evening of November, Sophie gave birth to a daughter and gave Rebecca the right to name her child. Rebecca named the child Precious.
Says Rebecca: ‘Whatever had happened was not the child’s fault. She was just so precious to both of us.’
For the next six years, Precious grew up in White River amidst her grandmother and her family while Sophie managed to secure accommodation with her aunt’s family in Mamelodi East.
Sophie’s tenure in Mamelodi East from 1985-1991 was filled with dread and fear. With political tension escalating to a peak, fights would break out almost every evening in their area. Neighbors were scared of each other and every day a burglary would be reported at some house or the other.
‘All neighborhoods had community patrols, but they would be of no help. Everyone was left to look after themselves. Burglary and theft would be common occurrences. People had stopped reporting these to police. I never understood why black men fought each other. Every day, while coming back from work, I would see burnt tyres, shoes, belts and ashes and I would be fearful of getting caught in one of the fights.’
With the increase in crimes and internal skirmishes, came the increase in the illegal gun trade. Almost all families bought a gun for themselves. Some spent their entire month’s income to buy a gun. However individual ownership of guns did not reduce the theft or the violence. It just seemed to increase.
Rebecca’s life meanwhile had taken a completely different turn. She had moved to Johannesburg and had settled in her new job at the Customs Office. She would sometimes visit Sophie at their aunt’s place and would mostly talk about the political changes that were coming to South Africa.
Says Sophie: ‘Rebecca would tell us of the change in government that was happening. She would say we will now be able to vote and have a government of our own. We heard about Mandela being freed from prison and wept with tears at the images on television when he walked hand-in-hand with Winnie. However, things did not change much in our neighborhood. The images on TV seem to be from another world.’
Sophie was desperate to escape her present neighborhood.
‘I had been on a look out for household domestic positions in some of the big estates that were coming up in Pretoria East. A lot of young, well-to-do couples were buying houses in guarded (sic) estates close to the day care that I worked in.’
Sophie’s prayers for a new job was answered in 1992 when Dr. Jaco Fernandez walked in at the day care with a household domestic worker’s vacancy. Dr. Fernandez, his wife, Lorenda and their three children had arrived in South Africa a year ago from Mexico City in the United States. Dr. Fernandez was associated with Medecins Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders). Sophie moved into the domestic quarters with the family in October 1992 and this was Sophie’s first entry into the Silver Lakes neighborhood.
The Fernandez’s twins were almost Precious’s age and the doctor and his wife encouraged education. Precious had been enrolled into a government school in White River and due to the ongoing political turmoil, most of the time, the school remained closed. So Precious lagged behind in class. Sophie asked if the family would allow her daughter to stay with her in the domestic quarters. They not only agreed but encouraged Sophie to enroll Precious into Pretoria Girls High where their own daughters went. Precious was admitted to Pretoria Girls High in 1993 in Grade 1. Probably because Precious was eldest in her class and quite matured for her age, she excelled in her studies as well as games.
Sophie says: ‘I had told Precious while coming to Pretoria, never to compare herself to other girls in class. She was always to know, that I was both her mother and her father and that, though I shall try my best to take care of all her needs, she has to forego luxuries.’
Rebecca, on the other hand, fulfilled some of the little girl’s fantasies, like good clothes, hair do’s, the first walkman and even the first mobile phone.
Sophie took up two more domestic household work besides Fernandez household to supplement her income. With the introduction of government social security grants, Sophie’s financial turmoil eased a bit, but as income increased so did expenditure.
Says Sophie: ‘All I remember from that period is how both of us struggled. The only advice I remember giving Precious almost every day was to excel in studies or she would end up like us.’
Jaco and Lorenda were exceptionally good employers. Almost all costs during Precious’s school going years were borne by them. Lorenda also took it upon herself to tutor the little girl along with her own daughters. Sophie, in spite of her busy schedule, would never miss any of the parent-teacher meetings that were held in Precious’s school. She says she did not always understand what the teacher said but she never missed any because her presence made a difference to Precious.
‘Throughout her growing up years, I always made sure she knew how important education was going to be. I would not repeat the same mistake that my mother made with me.’
Precious cleared the Matric examination in 2005 with five distinctions. She secured a place at the University of Stellenbosch and is currently in her final year of Masters in Chemical Engineering.
Stellenbosch was chosen because some of Rebecca colleagues had recommended the University to her.
Says Rebecca: ‘At that time I was posted in Cape Town and my colleagues would often tell me that Stellenbosch University is the best when it comes to engineering. I told Precious to try for Stellenbosch since she was in Grade 9. I wanted her to go the best school since we in our childhood had missed out on it. Precious had both the intellect and the perseverance, that’s why I always pushed her.’
2004 was indeed a remarkable year for Sophie. Besides Precious going to college, Jaco and Lorenda bought a small apartment for Sophie to stay in the nearby Newmark Estate.
Says Jaco: ‘It was all we could do to say thanks to Sophie. In all her years of employment, Sophie never asked anything for herself. There are so many domestics who keep asking for food, money, clothes, but Sophie never asked for anything. She would silently carry out whatever we wished her to do.’
Lorenda passed away last year from a prolonged illness. During her last year of illness, Sophie left all the other households she was working in to be at Lorenda’s side. Jaco’s eldest daughter Alexis says: ‘Sophie was a nurse-cum-cook-cum domestic-cum gardener all at the same time. We sisters, all of us live abroad. It was not easy for us to take care of mum and dad could not do it all himself. We needed Sophie and fortunately Sophie was always there for us.’
After his wife’s death, Jaco sold his house in Silver Lakes and moved to the ‘Retirement Village’ where Sophie was going to work, the morning I caught up with her.
She bid me farewell in front of House no. 19’s door and said: ‘I will tell everything I remember. Why don’t you meet me today afternoon at my place? However, most of the difficult things, I am trying to forget. You know, I feel tired thinking about my past. I want to forget it. Life is better now, this is how I wish it to be.’