How we took our kitchen staff for granted. We didn’t call them by that elegant name either. They were aia and meid, boy en outa.
I can remember us sitting around our dining room table on our farm, Liefdesbodem, and discussing ‘the help’ while they were in the room with us, quietly doing their jobs. They worked; Madam and Master paid. They had a place to sleep and food. But they slept on the cement floors and had no electricity. We encouraged them to go to the local black NG Kerk and pray for their families, as we would pray in our white church where they couldn’t set foot. It never seemed to diminish our Christianity; God was white with blue eyes.
And so, when Helen Zille tweeted her comments about colonisation and the pros and cons of colonialist developments in our country thanks to the influx of foreign talent, my first reaction was surprise. Why would anyone talk about those days? What did colonialism have to do with our democracy, where everyone was free to stand up and be counted?
It was only when I met my friend Sophie for our monthly coffee in the Parliamentary dining room that I realized what a cluster bomb the Premier of the Western Cape had tossed into a crowded country. Sophie asked me what I thought. I reminded her how the walls of this elegant room were once lined with portraits of colonial leaders, the movers and shakers who had made South Africa; the stiff, impassive haughty stares from British lords, generals, sirs and kings, who made way for the smirks of Boer generals, NGK dominees, dokters and boere. But now, Sophie and I were very aware of the bust of our first democratically elected president outside in the concourse – Nelson Mandela’s statue surviving the onslaught of paint, rotten oranges and what the lifted leg of a police dog had left on his right cheek. Was the honeymoon at an end?
But Sophie is now an MP and sits on those important portfolio committees in the public eye. For a while, our only hope. She was involved with the recent SABC investigation, but it seems to have run up on the rocks of confusion and fake news. Will that dark Hlaudi have a silver lining? I asked. She had no time for a smile. For 20 minutes in a low voice for obvious reasons, she tried to steer my prejudices into the safer haven of opinion. I am aware of what is cooking in the pots of power behind closed doors. State capture is a small heading for a huge issue. Sophie, without mentioning names, painted a garish panorama of failed parastals and successful corruptions. The G-word wasn’t used, but the acrid smell of the lunch curry was a subtle reminder that they as a first family could have supplanted the present portraits of the former freedom fighters.
Sophie was angry, a side she had never shown me before in all the years. Now and again, her excitement slipped into Xhosa. I lost some of the criminal details that infect our political traffic cops, from ministers to directors-general. She executed Eskom, Transnet, Prasa, the Hawks, SAA, the SABC, education, health, welfare – and here her sarcastic embalming of Minister Dlamini even brought smiles to the face of our Zimbabwean waitron. I sat in silence. Not because I didn’t know enough of the details to agree or disagree, but because, as a member of the ruling party, I have learnt to keep my face expressionless, or to give a slight smile when a deep frown would be more honest.
I never thought I’d be a member of the ANC. But the impossible had become the ordinary. The majority we had kept in their places are now in charge of the small spot I call my life. But my grandchildren challenged me. They are ‘born-frees’ and have little idea of what it was like under apartheid. In those days, I’d be responsible for taking their freedom away from them. After 23 years, people still know me as Evita Bezuidenhout, member of the National Party; Tannie Evita who was the South Africa Ambassador in the Independent Homeland Republic of Bapetikosweti. Ja, ek was. Yes, the most famous white woman in South Africa who voted for apartheid, maybe the only white person still to admit it.
My three little black grandchildren (I call them Barack-Obama-beige) had asked me: ‘Gogo? What are you going to do to protect democracy, so that one day when we need to vote freely and fairly, democracy will be there in full working condition?’ So obviously I had to go back into to active politics, to the only real political power station – Luthuli House. I’ve been there for 18 months, a life-changing experience.
At first, Sophie laughed when I told her I was becoming a member. She whispered it was like seeing Melania Trump as the First Lady of the USA. How we both laughed at that unlikely nonsense 18 months ago. As we say in Afrikaans: He who laughs last, laughs last! It was my turn to speak in a low key. Sophie listened as I told her what I had learnt during the last extraordinary months: never underestimate the fragility of democracy; never take freedom for granted. Even as you read this, democratically-elected governments are using democratically-accepted ways to destroy democracy. Look at Turkey! I don’t even want to point at the USA, but I must. And Brexit is political polio that will lead the UK into paralysis in business and pleasure.
And so we talked, me and Sophie, as we had been sharing our secrets and successes since 1994, when she was allowed into parliament as an MP of the ANC Government. I am continuously delighted by her success on so many levels of leadership and commitments. Then, over coffee and my koeksisters, still a favourite on the Parliamentary menu, Sophie turned the clock back. She reminded me of those days at Liefdesbodem, when she was my junior maid – die oulike meidtjie – not allowed to bake or stew, but in the scullery peeling and chopping and mixing. It sounds like Downton Abbey, but it wasn’t. Sophie reminded me how ‘downstairs’ always knew exactly what was happening to us ‘upstairs’, because we always talked about our lives in front of the staff – who listened intently.
I had to laugh. I am now in the same position in the Luthuli House kitchen where my full-time job is cooking for reconciliation, no longer between Boer and Brit, white and black, but faction and faction. I even do my own peeling, chopping and stirring. And yes, I serve silently as one does in that position, and I have heard far more than I should as a mere junior member of the ANC. So when people ask me what will happen to South Africa in the future, all I say is: don’t panic. These things happen in a young democracy. The December ANC Congress has all the accepted democratic means to sideline an irritating energy – and then the Zuma problem can move to Dubai. I always doubted that he would retire to those rondawels at Nkandla. They will always remind me of a retirement village outside Hermanus.
It was time to say goodbye. I embraced my former black domestic supervisor and she kissed her former Afrikaans Madam on both cheeks. Life went on in the Parliament of the Republic of South Africa where I hope we all remember where we come from, so we can celebrate where we are going.