My father was posted to Cape Town to Simonstown in early 1963. I was ten years old and had just spent another two years at the Garrison school in Portsmouth. The school had been a relief with its 100 pupils after the 1200 or so at Verdala in Malta and before we left a decision had to be made as to my secondary education.
The Royal Navy was prepared to pay for me to go to boarding school for the next two years, and to be fair my parents did ask for my input. My mother I think was relieved that I said that I would rather to to Cape Town with them and we all departed on an RAF flight via Nairobi (where we spent the night at a Safari hotel) for Cape Town.
There were adventures along the way but since they are not the subject of the story will leave until another time.
Suffice to say that yet again I was introduced to a new education system. Secondary school did not start until 13 in South Africa as children did not go to school until 6 or 7. The days were shorter – 8.30 to 2 or 3pm if I remember correctly, and I used to travel back and forth on my first bike. To be honest I remember that more for the scar on my knee that I still have today. I was looking at boys and rode up onto a pile of gravel by the side of the road and landed in an inelegant and revealing heap.
Of course everything that I had learned to that point was useful but the curriculum was very different. I now had to catch up three years of South African history, geography and learn Afrikaans as mandatory.
I enjoyed my time at school and I always adapted to new environments by developing the local accent. I had already learned at an early age that if you want to fit in quickly you sound like everyone else as soon as possible. In fact when we returned to the UK we went up to Preston in Lancashire for two years, and I went from a very strong South African accent to broad Lancs in the space of two weeks, much to the confusion of my family.
So I have set the scene at school but our life was very different in some major aspects.
Before we left the UK for Cape Town my father was given a relocation package that included our behaviour whilst guests in South Africa. As you can imagine this was the early 60’s and apartheid in South Africa was probably at its most fragile. We as guests were under strict instructions not to comment on the situation under any circumstances. This included us children. My brother attended an English private school in Rondabosch but I was to attend Newlands Public School and be part of the culture in all senses of the word.
I had been a baby and toddler in Shri Lanka until the age of three and was used to cuddling my Indian amah who looked after me every day and evening. I therefore was not prepared for the restrictions placed on me by apartheid. Even at the age of ten I found it unreasonable and very uncomfortable.
However, we were guests and expected to comply with the rules of our hosts and we met many South African families who were kind and generous people who had been brought up in the system, but were also restricted in what they could say and do at the time.
It was customary for the naval families to employ a local maid and my mother was sent some approved candidates.
These were the days of the resettlement when coloured families were moved out into townships. To work in the white areas, a pass was required and if you were caught without the pass you could be arrested and imprisoned. The maids lived in and would go home to the townships on their day off. If they had a generous employer they could spend the night and return the next day.
Linda Mooi – and I think I have remembered her surname right – was a slim and very pretty young woman of about 24. Over the next 18 months before we left to return to the UK she became more than a maid.
We had inherited another naval family’s boxer dog called Bosun – he was passed on as people were reposted and he knew that his role was security and nanny with young children. There was no way you could take this huge animal for a walk – he was let out in the mornings and you could hear him barking a mile away in the local park, returning exhausted and slavering an hour later with a satisfied look on his face. I dread to think what he had been up to.
When Linda joined us for her first morning – Bosun was out doing his usual morning activities and he returned and scratched the front door, being let in by my mother. We were at school by this time, but by all accounts, Linda took one look at this slobbering monster who charged into the kitchen looking for the intruder and she leapt up onto the cooker which was thankfully not on at the time.
Her gentle nature won him over within a few weeks and whilst tentative at first eventually the relationship blossomed, with Bosun following her as she hung out laundry or worked through the house.
My mother I know was instructed that on no account was she to pay any more than the official monthly wages. However I also know that she slipped money to Linda when she returned to the township where her husband and two young children had to live, and that she always returned home with a food parcel.
As far as we were concerned, Linda was our friend and babysitter. My parents had a hectic social life and without television in Cape Town in those days, entertainment for us children meant running around outside and reading.
Linda would read us stories and she knew all the voices. She had two young children of her own that she must have missed dreadfully between visits to the township, and we were the grateful recipients of her maternal instinct. When my younger brother was asleep in our shared bedroom she would come in with a tin tray from the kitchen and an old pack of cards and she taught me how to play Snap, Rummy and Poker.
When there were thunder storms or we had a nightmare she would sing to us – and I still remember one of her lullabies today and I have used over the years myself.
She hugged us, patched up grazed knees and made us laugh. At the time as children we did not see the shadows in her own life and I know the distance between her and her husband and family created some dramas during our time together, but there are a couple of things that she taught me.
One is that it is our judgement that is coloured, not the skin of the individuals that we meet, and secondly that stereotyping is one of the major stumbling block towards any peace process.
I also want to thank her for teaching me to play cards and win!
She would be in her late-seventies now and I have no idea if she is still alive in Cape Town somewhere. But she does live on in my memories. Baie dankie Linda.
Next time.. the Drama Queen is in the building!