Forged in the Furnace, we become Steel by Shakira Shaik

ssThe sixties was a time of many restrictions for non-whites in South Africa, unlike the freedom loving “flower children” of the West who waged philosophical battles on war interspersed with smoking pot and free love. Here we lived a life within the all encompassing institutionalized racism of apartheid, whose evils permeated the very fabric of every family, and the macrocosmic patriarchal system of rule was reflected within the microcosm of the family unit.

My earliest recollections of my childhood is sitting on a carpet babysitting my newborn sister while my mom cleaned out the new first floor apartment we would move into that night. The first floor was sub-divided into three flat-lets occupied by two couples, and now our family of four. A family of five, the Chetty’s lived upstairs, and we were to share a long and lasting family friendship with them. The area bordered the sprawling township for Indians, called Chatsworth, where we had many relatives on my Moms side but scarcely visited.

My family was Muslim and we had moved into a predominantly Hindu Community with one Christian neighbor. They had converted to Christianity as a result of their fathers drinking problem, the mother often claimed. The father continued to drink and occasionally threw out the family into the street at night, however, the family had inherited some support from the congregation who prayed for their salvation and they coped better with their alcoholic father as a result. It always amazed me though, that they would have to hide in bushes, in other people’s yards at night and not in their neighbour’s homes when the father was particularly abusive. To me they should have received more support from their neighbours, who stoically refused to get involved and rather whispered gossip about the previous nights events, amongst themselves, instead. Because of the fathers neglect the children were always dressed very shabbily and looked less well nourished than the rest of the children in the neighborhood.

Religious tolerance was encouraged by my father, and while my mother never professed to love all religions as passionately, she was never intolerant, and her friendships with all the neighbor’s flourished and she was always invited to tea, festivities and functions, where her presence seemed to be appreciated. For my brother, sister and I, this meant that Diwali, Eid and Christmas was a very exciting time, where all our expectations would be fulfilled, and we would join in the festivities communally.

My parents were fluent in English and spoke Urdu only in the company of older extended family members. It was even by then discouraged that any of their children should have accents which would gain them mocking in school and insults from any whites they may come into contact with in later life. We never became fluent in Urdu, even though my dad believed we would pick it up easily, by visits to the “drive-in” to watch Hindi movies every other weekend. To this end, he would buy all the tapes of the movies we watched and sang lustily in the car on road trips. (He actually had a beautiful voice, and sang with passion) These tracks though, would serve to drag each movie to three hours long, and with no sub titles and we would quickly get bored.

At the drive in, we would get pop corn and if we were lucky sweets. We would curl up happily on the thick bedcover made of old clothes and bits of fabric sown together, (godri) to stare at the stars until our heroes’ next fight with the bad guys. All the bad guys looked like they were related, and shared the same arrogant look, had curly hair and bushy eyebrows, thick moustaches, and often greasy and dark skins, no matter which film you watched. I wondered whether being a bad guy is not one of those professions, which are handed down by father to son, generation after generation, like the family jewellery business. Our hero ( the main O) never failed to overcome these bad guys, whether he vanquished them easily or whether it took him a lifetime, being old and grey and bent over with intense suffering before he witnessed his rivals fitting demise.

In truth our community was united by our similarities, rather than our differences. Apartheid laws controlled where we could live. We were thrown together into demarcated areas according to race.

The laws also dictated how we were allowed to earn our money? The poverty was generic, and it was a stronger tie than the dividing forces of religious intolerance, add to that the rich and vivid memories of the riots perpetrated by black men trucked in by whites. It was better to band together in harmony with other Indians in the hope that your numbers were large enough to deter future attacks. Many older Indians refused to drink certain fizzy drinks as a result of having seen and heard the role of the soft drink giant, in the organized rape and butchering of the peace loving and deeply spiritual Indian population in Durban, in a genocide that was initiated by the apartheid regime, and left a divisive rift between two groups who both suffered under the harsh laws which prevailed.

The home language and the way we prepared our meals had subtle variations. The uniting force was the overwhelming spiritualism, which was to be seen in the Hindu’s salute to the sun in the mornings and their dedicated abstinence from meat on select days of the week; the porridge and goat prayers, the Muslim’s call to prayer; the month long fast during Ramadan and the Christian congregation which gathered at the top of the hill for their Sunday morning church service.

The church had a neatly manicured fenced lawn. That fence was often scaled on weekdays, so we could gain access to the play field, which had swings, a slide and a roundabout on sea sand. Our young but fervent convictions to our parents religions and the fear of burning eternally in hell was the only reason we never ventured up the hill on Sundays, even though we knew the Christian children were religiously treated to cakes and biscuits after the church service.

Intelligence and education was a much-valued commodity and it was often repeated that they can steal and take away everything from you but the one thing they never could, was your intelligence and the paper once you had it. Only later did I find out that not all the children in the neighborhood got as good grades as my brother and myself, and since my brother was consistently being top of the class, this gave my parents an elevated status in the community, which made my father very proud.

Still later I was to discover that the paper that no one could steal (while they made off with everything else) was actually the school leavers’ certificate. This entitled you to office jobs or even entrance into college, to train as a nurse or teacher. Then you would be able to buy your own house and never have to make other people rich while you sweated blood and tears to pay for the roofs over your children’s heads.

Dad was very artistic, but he toiled in the building industry, mostly high-rise buildings, doing brick laying, to provide for his young and growing family. Dad was a good reliable bricklayer and an even better carpenter, which meant that once the building reached roof height, he could stay on as a carpenter. He lived in a time were unions didn’t exist and if they did, they had little powers. So, within the building trade, companies hired when a workforce was needed, and fired with little recompense, when the building was completed. Workers rights depended on the wills of the foreman. The foreman had to be inspired to “like” you by your attitude, and execution of your task in the shortest possible time. It also drew scathing criticism from other slower workers who felt that you were sucking up to your boss for favours. Brown-nosing helped, but it disgusted my dad, who felt his skill was all he needed.

Few people had bank accounts and fewer had bank balances, it was impossible to save, so you worked hard, and each week’s earnings kept you with enough to pay the rent, the instalments on your car, if you were so lucky to have one, and your family fed. This meant survival, and having entrepreneurial spirit during the times when people were laid off  or when work was scarce. No laws protected the workers, and no one complained, they were just glad to have jobs when they did.

Luxuries were few and far between, but, I truly never felt that we were poor. Once a month a beggar would come to the door, usually on a Thursday. My mom would visit all her stores of dried lentils, rice, flour and sugar, and create neat packets with newspaper, where she would pour out a cup of each. The beggar would leave but not before offering her bountiful blessings in this and the afterlife, which made her blush with humility and I knew she was happy to hear him say the words. She would explain that as a Muslim, it was one of the five pillars of Islam that you were to give alms to the poor, a tradition I still practice.

We lived in Africa, but the group areas act separated the different race groups, which meant we seldom saw “black or white people.” Some “blacks” would come around dressed in flowing tunics and skullcaps and my mom would allow them into the house to recite verses from the Quran. She stressed they weren’t ordinary “blacks” but were learned scholars in Islam. Their melodious voices would fill the basement flat while we sat and listened with reverence, and a bit of wonder at their dark toned skins and their short tightly curled hair. They would be given small amounts of change, some tea, and would leave, satisfied. My mom would dismiss any discussions about their skins and hair that I would try to begin by saying they were Muslim and should be respected as such.

Sometimes we would see a “Zulu” walk down the road carrying a wooden staff that had a rounded end called a “knob Kerrie,” later they would come to be known a “traditional weapons.” It was the only thing that allowed them to walk down the road without being ripped apart by the neighbourhood dogs, who were normally passive. In the presence of these strangers, they would animatedly bark and harass the man until he left the area, with legs intact but his pride surely tested.

I don’t think it mattered to these harassed men, that the The Pan Africanist Movement led by Robert Sobukwe, had adopted a new approach from the previously peaceful protests to the Apartheid Government. This being in response to the new “Grand Apartheid laws, which intensified repressive “pass”laws which forced Blacks to carry the “dompas” (dumb pass) at all times and meant to restrict their movements.

Would he have imagined how the challenge of his brothers to arrest them for not carrying a pass, was met with bullet fire by a group of 300 policemen, killing 69 and injuring around 189, making the 21st March, a day of protest that would never be forgotten?

Did he hate even more the Indians in their nice homes and children, like me playing unaware in their gardens as he summited the hill to walk into the narrow lanes of squalor and see the kids playing in the dirt which he had to call home?

Did he think, maybe, that we all lived as pawns in a grander declaration of a race displaying superiority over the others?

Or did it all not matter if he would have to beat his wife that evening, when the home brew was not to his liking? Enacting further the humiliation and sense of defeat he had to face in the country that otherwise was his by default of earliest occupation.


2 thoughts on “Forged in the Furnace, we become Steel by Shakira Shaik

  1. Your summation of these events/the way we embraced each others religious differences and still having a closely knit community in spite of the hardships we faced. Our parents made sure in spite of the little we had to appreciate and be thankful for whatever it is we received.


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