Published in the Sunday Times
In this extract, Jonathan Jansen pays tribute to the mother whose sacrifices helped him and their siblings achieve success despite the odds
Song for Sarah: Lessons from my Mother by Jonathan Jansen with Naomi Jansen (Bookstorm). Also available in Afrikaans as Lied vir Sarah: Lesse van my Ma
“When you thought about it, everything seemed to work against the Cape Flats mother, from family dislocation to financial hardship, to absentee fathers, to the relentless pressure of gangs and drugs. As an energetic teenager involved in church youth leadership in the southern areas, this single question would haunt me during the obligatory huisbesoek (house visits): how on earth do these mothers do it?
Consider Mrs Volmink from Belgravia Estate in Athlone who put four boys and two girls through tertiary qualifications. One son leads a university, another is a medical school dean, and the other a prominent public sector lawyer; in their number you would also find a distinguished teacher and one who made his career in the training and development of civil servants. The eldest daughter died after a car crash because the whites-only ambulance would take only her pale friend. For long periods of time Johanna Volmink raised the children alone. Hardship was ever present in her home and yet not a single child fits the stereotype represented in comedy routines or violent novels or the evening news. When it came to human decency, academic achievement and community service, Mrs Volmink achieved much more in her home than any of the white families I knew in the well-to-do suburbs of Upper Claremont and Wynberg Proper.
As I pondered that haunting “how” question about these mothers over the years I realised that the answer was in front of me, all around me, even gave birth to me. That Cape Flats mother was Sarah Susan Johnson, married Jansen. Suddenly it all made sense. How they dealt with their pasts. How they organised their homes. How they raised their children. How they made sense of politics. How they managed affection. How they drew on their faith. How they communicated core values. How they thought about education. How they led with their lives.
The products of their labour were no accident, as the poet Shirmoney Rhode would tell Litnet of the grandmother who raised her at Nomme 20 Delphi Straat (the 2016 book title) in Elsies River:
Ek is ’n produk van haar 3am prayers
En harde werk of course
(I am a product of her 3am prayers
And hard work of course)
The Cape Flats mother was not faultless. Who is? To the children growing up, the mother was seen as being too harsh at times but was always deeply respected. This praise song is not, however, about the failings of our mothers but about the fact that they succeeded at all. None of the children was perfect. Whose are? To the mother the child was never one to be abandoned in the wrong but to be picked up again and again, and nudged towards what was right. And they did this work of correction day after day, for weeks followed by months, and year after year, sometimes even into adulthood and marriage.
The matriarchal figure hovered over that child for life. Many stories have been told on the Flats of a small-bodied mother reaching out to deliver retribution to the tall, well-built son who stands there quietly as he takes the timid smack to the face or the ineffectual punch to the body. She had earned the right to reprimand her grown child. This story of the Cape Flats mother, and of many mothers across the length and breadth of South Africa, will be told in this book.
Being the eldest in the family, my siblings suspected that I was favoured by my parents. Of course I felt differently because of the constant pressure from my mother to “set the example” as the eldest. “Firstborn”, my sister would nevertheless tease me, and that will be my third-person voice in the main text. For a reality check, I asked this sister of mine to add in her own reflections on our mother as the only girl smack bang in the middle of two older and two younger boys.
Naomi Jansen has the knack of saying and seeing things as they really are. One day that sting in her commentary really got to me as a boy so I chased her along the very short route from the kitchen to her bedroom. By dint of practice she managed to dash into the room, close the door and secure the latch bolt lock in one and the same swift action but it was too late. I ran right through the flimsy green planks of that wooden door. The personal shock probably saved my sister from further repercussions although I never could raise a hand against any of the siblings.
Her sharper eye and tongue therefore qualify Naomi to give another view of our mother. My sister’s voice appears in italics as “Naomi remembers”. In appropriate places she shares her own experiences and insights into our remarkable mother. Sometimes Naomi’s recollection or interpretation of events is different from mine, and that is fine. It is what gives this work of memory an added and special value.
“While you are under this roof,” my mother would often chide, “you will do as I say.” Under this roof is both a telling metaphor about us and the interwoven tiles above us. Sarah knew that she had little direct control over what happened in the harsh outside world. We would all grow up one day and make our own decisions as working adults and parents of children. There was little our mother could change about that. But while under her roof, the rules applied. That was where she had authority over the five children and, as will be explained, also over her husband. There was not much overhead roof to speak of in the small council house, but anyone who stayed in that confined space, including a string of relatives, would abide by Sarah’s rules.
It was under Sarah’s roof that I learnt how to live and where she would teach us how to die. Under that roof I learnt the value of selfless giving and the importance of personal discipline. Sarah did not only tell, she showed. And nothing impressed more heavily on the children’s consciousness than what my mother taught us about the ethics of work. She laboured day and night, literally, as a shift nurse. “Nobody ever died of hard work,” she would say all the time and you knew that offering a medical science rebuttal might lead to a premature meeting with your Maker.
Mrs Sedras, Mrs Volmink and Mrs Jansen are not alone. There are thousands of mothers spread across the Cape Flats and throughout South Africa who deserve recognition for their heroic efforts in raising families under difficult conditions. On one hand, this book could be read as an attempt at recovery of “the other mothers” whose stories have been buried by unrelenting stereotypes of women from the flatland areas of the Cape. On the other hand, such heroic mothers are found in every community where ordinary people struggle to make impossible ends meet. This work of recovery is offered, therefore, as a song of gratitude for all mothers.
Or to borrow from Diana Ferrus in A poem for Sarah Baartman:
I have come to take you home
Where I will sing for you
For you have brought me peace
The floppy brown purse
Nothing would test Sarah’s resilience more sorely than when the children went to university. Apartheid created universities for people they labelled by both race and ethnicity. Since Firstborn was deemed coloured, his destination was the University of the Western Cape in Bellville; the University of Cape Town was so much closer but they could not have him. The young student was also proud enough not to plead for a government concession (the permit, they called it) to attend a white university and specify a course not offered at UWC to justify studies in nearby Rondebosch.
The long journey from Retreat in the southern suburbs to Bellville in the northern areas took forever. And it was costly. One Monday morning Firstborn desperately needed money to take the taxi, train and bus to get to university. Hiking, as he normally did when there was no money, might get him to campus too late for a scheduled chemistry test. So he slunk into the bedroom where Sarah was in a deep sleep after working the hospital night shift. “Does Mummy have any money?” he whispered and instantly woke her up.
Sarah knew that she did not have a cent but nevertheless reached for her flat brown purse, opened it up and pretended to search for coins among the scribbled papers inside. There was nothing and the tears started welling up in her eyes. That day Firstborn decided to drop out of university and look for a job; the pain on Sarah’s face was simply unbearable.
Of course that was the last thing Sarah wanted and so one day she arranged with an uncle to collect Firstborn and drive him to Bellville while persuading him all along the way not to give up. If Sarah had not made that arrangement Firstborn would still be drifting between Anchor Yeast where he started in a laboratory with far too few skills and helping a brother from the church sell his fish on Prince George Drive, the M5 which linked the white suburbs to the north with the whites-only Muizenberg beach on the False Bay coastline. Where Sarah found the money none of the children ever knew, but from that day there were always a few coins in her purse “just in case” Firstborn needed them. But he never asked again.