South Africa: The Untold History in My Grandmother's Dompas

Holding on to the Reference Book that determined where my grandmother was and wasn't allowed to go during apartheid gives me important insight into the complexity of her life.

I am in possession of a 59-year-old document that bears the words Reference Book-Bewysboek on its cover. It is more familiarly known as the dompas. It belonged to my paternal grandmother, Manhlapho Eliza Tshandana, though it states her name as Eliza Tshandane. This document is a tangible part of my history. It feeds into the building blocks that comprise the person I am, the one I'm hoping to be and the one I dreamed I would become.

I came into possession of the document in April 2017, the day after my dad's funeral. We were packing up to go home. Some of my relatives were packing valuables, others were getting my dad's more valuable furniture ready for removal to their homes for safekeeping. Some were dealing with the leftover food and yet others were discussing the weekend's activities in hushed tones - I call it gossiping, but they are older than I am so let's say they were being "sound conscious".

When I say packing up to go home, I mean all the sentimental objects that had belonged to my parents were being examined. In the midst of this "packing" process, I found the Reference Book-Bewysboek. I used it see it on top of my parents' wardrobe while growing up and I remember thinking that my grandmother looked strange. At the age of eight, I did not notice that she was wearing a white jersey, I just thought she had no shoulders.

When I came across this document again in 2017, I knew immediately that it was one of the things I had to keep, even though I didn't know why. I asked my father's sister for permission and she said the mere fact that I wanted it meant I would take good care of it, and she gave it to me.

My grandmother died in 1979. This was years before I was born, so I have had no direct contact with her except through the blood I carry proudly inside my body. I don't know when she was born, I don't know if she ever went to school. I don't know when she got married, I know she married Mr Moet Tshandana from Mehlolo ea neng, Matatiele, my paternal grandfather, about whom I know even less.

My grandmother, the feminist

From the little I have gathered since I became the keeper of this Reference Book-Bewysboek, I have learnt that Manhlapho was a feminist. I learnt that she had a difficult life, that she broke many of the boundaries that restrained her as a black woman living under apartheid, and that she could out-talk anyone.

I also know that I look very much like her and that I have little mannerisms that remind both my aunts of their mother. I get my smart mouth from her and my brains, too. Manhlapho used to refer to herself as isihlakaniphi esilala emthini sivuke singawanga (the smart one that falls asleep on a tree and wakes up without falling).

When my mother was still alive, she would talk about her. But not in great detail as she never really lived with my grandmother and my father would tell us to let her rest in peace every time we asked about her.

My grandmother gave birth to seven children: Zolile, Skhetshekhetshe, Nomtandazo (my sister is named after her, they are both the firstborn girls in the family), Sthembiso (nicknamed Katsi Iyathaba, or happy cat), Sphiwo (nicknamed Blom Sunday, or Bloom on Sunday), Nomathoyisi (which means toys) and, lastly, my father Luvuyo Emmanuel (who was nicknamed Comrade).

Katsi Iyathaba was my favourite uncle. He never worked except to herd cattle and hunt. He was funny, a great storyteller, and he would regale us with his hunting escapades when we took shelter under our fruit trees to escape the brutal December heat in Matatiele. I loved him mostly because he would give me his share of cake or chocolate or biscuits.

My father had many stories about his brother that he told us throughout the year, while we were away from home. This helped us understand, appreciate and love him, and it helped us get to know him better. When we went home, we were always talking and laughing behind his back, and he knew this and loved it.

'I'm telling you!'

My father's ultimate threat when we were naughty as kids was a pointed finger, followed by, "I'm telling you!" My uncle used to mimic him, pointing his finger and saying, "I'm tell yous!" It made us laugh until our bellies hurt, while my father chuckled softly. I loved that gumbooted, blanket-wearing, hunter uncle of mine.

The tragedy of Manhlapho's life became her strength and it began long before my father was born. After she gave birth to Katsi Iyathaba, her marriage broke down for various reasons, including physical abuse and infidelity. Refusing to accept it as normal, Manhlapho packed up her belongings and all but her eldest child, Zolile, and moved back to her home village.

She was an uneducated, unemployed mother of four children, probably in her early 20s. As an umabuyekwendeni (marriage returnee), she left and never looked back. In the Hlubi and isiXhosa languages, there are special names reserved for unmarried mothers like my grandmother and me, and they are not flattering. They are designed to highlight, insultingly, what such women have been through. Even the children of unmarried women are sometimes forced to bear these difficult names.

I don't know what Manhlapho's emotional state was, I assume things were extremely unbearable for her to have made such a decision. And I suspect that moving back home was not easy either.

Traditionally, once a young woman is married off, she is understood to no longer belong to the family of her birth. She may have been made to feel shame, would certainly have received dirty looks and been the subject of gossip. She was seen as a failure and must have been tormented in spirit. It's likely her children heard some of the unflattering things said about her, because she refused to allow herself to become a punching and kicking bag.

A woman landowner

After she had settled her children in their new home, Manhlapho left for Durban to look for work as a domestic worker. It was through this type of work that she earned enough money to clothe and feed her children, but the turning point in her life was the acquisition of land.

The chief of the village where her children were settled gave my grandmother, a single mother, land to build a home for her children and a peaceful sanctuary for herself. The area was not the best, being near a steep cliff, but she was the first woman in the community to be given land. I do not know why she was given this land or what the conditions of her land ownership were, but I do know that the land, that home, now belongs to my younger brother, which means she still owns it.

Manhlapho raised her children on her own for several years. She reconciled with her husband, but never returned to Mehlolo ea neng. If he wanted to see her, he would come and visit at her home. Manhlapho and her husband had three more children, the last being my father. I'm told she was so proud of owning her own home that every morning she would wake up and sit next to her rondavel with her knees bent and drawn up to her chest, and look into the distance.

Manhlapho particularly enjoyed being greeted by passing villagers. Her response was either, "Have you passed greetings to your family?" or she would ignore their greeting and talk to herself about how she really needed peace and quiet in her home, without buzzing flies.

Visits mapped

Manhlapho's firstborn daughter, my aunt Nomtandazo, got married and moved to her husband's home. Later, she and her husband moved to Boksburg, east of Johannesburg.

Every aspect of my grandmother's life has been told to me by a third person. But what the dompas of this intelligent, funny, loving woman does for the first time is map her visits to her newly married daughter in Boksburg between 28 July 1958 and 17 April 1969.

It breaks my heart to know that after everything she did to protect her children, working in brutal conditions in Durban to feed them, it took years for the Municipal Labour Office to grant her time with her daughter. This permission was only granted in 1969, for five days.

As a mother, I am well aware that when my daughter Mangaliso is 40 years old, she will still be my baby girl. I will not be answering as many whys as I did when she was a toddler and I will not be asked to remove food particles from between her teeth. But it would be torturous to be dictated by laws almost like Arundhati Roy wrote that "it really began in the days when the Love Laws were made. The laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much."

In the case of my family, the laws in question were not laws of love. They were the harsh Group Areas Act and the Suppression of Communism Act, both of 1950, the Criminal Laws Amendment Act and the Native Labour (Settlement of Disputes) Act and the Public Safety Act, all of 1953, as well as the Riotous Assemblies and Suppression of Communism Amendment Act of 1954. All these acts and laws and amendments together became the community's love laws - mother and daughter laws.

According to Manhlapho's Reference book-Bewysboek, she never set foot in what was then Transvaal province after April 1969. A decade before her death, it does not state how many times she was refused entry. She may have had a new dompas, but this is unlikely as most of the pages are still unused and the first page bears the date: 27/2/78. It could have been the last time it was used. She could have been turned down more than she was allowed to see her daughter and grandchildren.

I often wonder where Manhlapho got such courage. I often wonder if I possess her strength. I don't think I do, but I find comfort in knowing that I have a strong resemblance to her and that I have something of emotional value that I will leave for Mangaliso to safeguard and, maybe one day, give to my grandchildren as my aunt did for me.

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