Essay from Abigail George

By writing a few lines: How Arthur Nortje, Cecil Colin Abrahams,
Dennis Brutus, George Botha, Jakes Gerwel, Neville Alexander, and
Ambrose Cato George found the way out of apartheid South Africa

By Abigail George

Miss Gilbey taught Speech and Drama. Every Friday afternoon as the car
speeded down the highway en route to her studio cum house I would
learn a poem about ducks or gypsies parrot fashion. As my mother or
father said the words out loud to me, I would recite them back
verbatim. I was six years old fashioning a posh, whitey English accent
with clipped tones that did not win me any friends back at the school
I went to and especially on the playing field during break. I was six
years old. I had not begun to straighten my hair yet to look like the
blonde, horsy looking with long teeth, fair or dark, golden-haired,
freckled, hockey and tennis playing children who had names like
Miranda who joined me when I started going for lessons. She drilled,
‘Speak with expression, expression, expression into me.’

The first thing I noticed is that they weren’t self-conscious like me.
They were brimming with confidence, made friends easily while I had to
battle with bullies who mocked me by imitating my voice that was
beginning to change at the predominantly coloured school that I went
to. The first time I went to Miss Gilbey’s studio I went with my
mother who was taking elocution lessons but she stopped soon after
taking me. I sat there, in a corner on a bench, my back against a cool
wall, felt in my pocket for the candy my mother had given me and
started licking away at a red lolly that tasted like cherry making
what my mother told me afterwards in the car were ghastly sucking
noises that perturbed the dear old Miss Gilbey.

Every now and then I would catch her looking at me and I would smile
at her. She never smiled back. Her eyes felt like laser beams when
they connected with mine. I felt them keenly. Only later on the way
home with my mother scolding me for bringing that sweet inside with me
would I realise that I had been very irritating like only a child
could be; completely oblivious to what the grownups around her were
thinking without being told that she had done something wrong. Later
on when I had moved onto Sharon Rother’s, a past pupil of Miss Gilbey
who had done her licentiate, Speech and Drama studio in Walmer, which
was held in a room adjacent to a church, Miss Gilbey also moved on.

She moved all the way to Montagu with her sister who suffered from bad
bouts of asthma. The air there would be good for her, I reckoned. Two
women living on their own for most of their adult life; when did they
ever come into contact with men, I wondered? In the aisles of a
supermarket when they shopped for groceries going down a long list of
perishable items? Did a man ever call Miss Gilbey ‘a good girl’ or
‘you’re a beauty, sweetheart’, wink at her, put his arm around her
waist and walk with her for awhile while asking her what her name was
(her name was Marjorie and I couldn’t ever imagine even if I tried
very hard now that any man, even a brazen man or a boy could call her
by her first name) and where she lived and would she like to get a
bite to eat.

Perhaps some hot tea and a steak and kidney pie with gravy in a
restaurant at a hotel. The English men I had been taught by were
gentlemen. They were quiet intellectuals, academics, teachers, soft
spoken lecturers at universities and introverted and bookish.
What did the life of a spinster feel like? What did the life of an
unmarried woman who did not have to cook for a husband, a small child
or children, who never hovered and cooed over a crib of a pretty
new-born baby? What did a woman over fifty who was past the age of
flirting, the cunning moves of seduction do for fun? Did she attend
church, bible study with other young women; serve tea at the end of
the Sunday morning service with crumpets and sandwiches made with
fish; pilchards and sardines or cheese and tomato or egg with dollops
of mayonnaise or chicken, wilting lettuce and mayonnaise, cakes, petit
fours, biscuits made with coconut and almonds all laid out on tables
with white table cloths?

Was that the appropriate behaviour for a woman her age, a lady? Had
there ever been a man in her life? In the time I imagined when she was
young had she ever corresponded with a young man writing letters
filled with lover’s nonsense that only made sense to them, not to the
outside world. Did they write about their unfolding passion, their
wonder at their innocent love, the madness of the war, the burning
houses, flames licking attics, bedrooms, roofs, charred flesh, bodies
burnt beyond recognition?

Did they write in code, draw entwined hearts made out of paper? Did
she ever seal the letter with a wet, crimson kiss that peeled off her
lips or did she ever put her feet up in the afternoon and watch the
soaps as a middle-aged woman or quiz shows as a girl?
Did they even have a television now in South Africa? I knew Miss
Gilbey didn’t do that because she gave Speech and Drama lessons every
afternoon during the week. I was the only coloured child amongst
whites. But I didn’t, not for a long time, see myself as being the
only coloured child amongst whites. I played with them because I was a
child and when you are child words like racism and prejudice do not
ring incessantly inside your head like say in the head of a
representative of the local government, the president, his cabinet or
a community leader who was voted into power by stalwarts, comrades,
communists and people who believed in Biko’s Black Consciousness.

Had she ever gone swimming with friends when she was as old as I was
when I first started coming to see her? Had she ever clutched her
mother’s hand frightened of the road outside her house filled with
screaming cars? What were her parents like? How did she come to live
in South Africa? Did she grow up during the war; when bombs rained
down from the black skies in England, was she ever stuck with other
people, families robbed of their men in bomb shelters? Was she a
liberal? She obviously didn’t believe in the politics of the day
because she had taken my mother and then me on. So, in her own quiet
and independent way she was rebelling against the government.

She was making a political statement. At thirty-one I imagine the
woman, the child, the girl and then her middle-aged. Didn’t she ever
want to be a wife? Growing up I thought as a very young girl, a child,
that everyone wanted to be a wife but at thirty-one and the divorce
rate globally so high, the only people getting hitched are those
blinded by the alluring volcano that is love. They are not conscious
of the other person’s imminent flaws yet, how arguments can erupt from
seemingly nowhere, the cancer of talk of divorce in the interim wild
in the air while you and the other person in the relationship is
waiting to make up. They are not conscious yet of the fall out of an
illness that will later on strike the family or an intense, lingering
depression that manifests and steeps itself into the bones of either
the wife or the husband or the small child whose homework is
overlooked over the breakfast at the kitchen table while the parents
of that small child or children, who wants the attention of both of
the adults his or her features resemble while they are at war with
each other over some petty, childish thing.

A thing like who had to take the garbage out, who didn’t come forward
and help to make the unmade beds, the smears of toothpaste in the
bathroom’s basin or whose turn was to wash the dirty dishes in the
sink and put it in the dishwasher. Miss Gilbey must have died already
in Montagu; perhaps in her sleep, in her bedroom. Perhaps she is
buried there now. Who visits her grave, puts fresh cut flowers on it,
clears away the old ones, throws the brown water out and puts clean
water in the pots or jars or bottles? Even in death she is a mystery
to me; these two lonely sisters in a world of light of their own
making; their contemporaries with double chins, sagging bosoms,
grandchildren, wearing too much make-up, wearing hats to church that
bloomed roses, smelling of perfume.

Miss Gilbey had a solid air about her when I first met her. As if she
knew she belonged in the world. She always had a pot of tea on her
desk that she poured with poise, a jug of milk, a pretty cup and
saucer with patterns of flowers on; very English, very proper, very
old-fashioned. She sipped her tea as we recited our poems out loud
correcting our enunciation, willing us to speak fluently, with
emphasis, willing us to reach for that gold star she would stick in
our books that we children pasted our poetry and monologues from the
books of Winnie-the-pooh in. If she was satisfied with how our vowels
sounded, how we articulated the poet’s language, how invested we were
in executing the lull of the text, showing the full range of emotions
that was expected of us as a spirited ghost or a highwayman we would
see a gold star shining off the page, blinking up at us.

In the room filled with a breeze that felt as cool as a humming fridge
(we didn’t have air conditioners in those days) as my voice bounced
off the walls of the studio, as I watched the backs of the white
children’s heads, tufts of dark or golden hair escaping from
ponytails, still in their school uniforms or sport kit sniggering.
There was nothing, nothing said of the forced removals that took place
in 1964 in South End in what was once a diverse and cosmopolitan
suburb filled with Indians, Malays, Muslims, blacks, whites and
coloureds living together harmoniously; religion, awash with their
culture at times of thanksgiving and holiness and their loyalty, their
faith in their different Gods and to each other were their pillars of

There was nothing, nothing said of the unrest that was brewing in
South Africa, the daily disdain and underlying aggression in chars as
they faced their employer’s, men and women; comrades being picked up
by the Special Branch or plainclothes policemen or police spies, being
detained after being questioned, brought before a court of law,
imprisoned on Robben Island. There was no talk of a coloured man
called Georgie Botha’s apparent suicide in this room where my voice
rose and rose and rose higher and higher making an imprint, burning
it, a hole in the head of Marjorie Gilbey. In the heads of those
privileged whites who also came to the studio. I wanted to achieve
what they had.

All those gold stars stuck in their books. I didn’t mind the silver
ones but gold spelled something marvellous; something magical.
Something accomplished wonderfully; magnificently. I never got red
stars. Seeing a red star gave me a start, a headache started
throbbing, butterflies in the pit of my stomach started to flit as if
I had failed a test at school, got all the sums wrong, spelled the
words incorrectly. You only got a red star when you hadn’t learnt all
the words to the poem, stammered and needed prompting from Miss
Gilbey. There was no talk of the Rivonia Treason Trial, George Bezos,
what was in the newspapers about it, the stories that were running
internationally and a man called Mandela.

There was no talk of coloured men like Dennis Brutus and the poet
Arthur Nortje who was born in Port Elizabeth, in South End which was
now a suburb where white people lived comfortably, well off behind
their high walls, their dogs and electric fences. Nortje later won a
scholarship to study literature at Jesus College at Oxford. It was on
Dennis Brutus’s recommendation that he got that scholarship. But I was
only six and didn’t know anything besides school and my family. I was
just a colored girl, innocent and wide-eyed, six years old with
skinned knees from playing amongst the teachers’ cars, wearing North
Stars when I came to Marjorie Gilbey’s Studio for Speech and Drama.

A child bullied by the older kids from other standards, tormented by
them as they stalked me speaking in high pitched, squeaky voices
making me cry. Mandela was just a ghost of a man. The essence of the
man never showed the outward shame of humiliation from his
persecutors; the Afrikaner wardens who spoke English poorly at the
prison on the island. He never showed pain or suffering. His spirit
was the spirit of a child, unfettered. The work of his soul continued
to live in the outside world, outside of Robben Island where he was
imprisoned, living in his supporters, garnering more and more praise
There was nothing, nothing of men being found hanged in their cell,
tortured with burning cigarettes, told to strip naked so that they
could be searched or a detainee slipping on a bar of soap.