Essays - Autumn 2014


A South African family of privilege kept its secrets

By Sheila Kohler | September 8, 2014
Photo courtesy of the author
Photo courtesy of the author


As small children, my sister and I would hold hands and run down to the bottom of the garden to escape from our nanny, to be on our own together, and to play a game called Doll. We took turns being the “doll,” who had to lie silent, immobile, and unblinking in the bamboo and do whatever the “mistress” told her to do.

That was the rule of the game.

I still see my sister staring at me in silence, her eyes glinting with tears, shaking her head: no. She was the one with big blue eyes and the adorable blond curls, whereas my eyes were an indeterminate grayish green and my brown hair dead straight.


“You have to, you are the doll,” I said with conviction, as though nothing could be done about it.

She gazed at me and then rose stiffly, doll-like, her pink cheeks turning pale, going slowly through the bamboo and across the grass to the edge of the stone fishpond. She bent down and scooped up a tadpole out of the dark water and swallowed it with one gulp and then ran up the bank to John.

This was Johannesburg, South Africa, during apartheid. We lived in a large square house with a vast garden that included a golf course, a swimming pool, and a tennis court, all kept up by hard-working, badly paid black servants.

In the garden alone worked 14 grown men, though they were called “garden boys.” They weeded and watered the flowerbeds, the vegetable garden, and the fruit trees. They mowed the smooth lawns, which sloped down to a wishing well, and then out to a wild place of tall bamboo and bulrushes.

John, a tall, thin Zulu, was the one who protected us, who caught the big armoire that almost fell on my sister, walked us to the school bus stop, carrying our satchels slung over his shoulder like assegais, holding our hands and looking around warily, watching out for what he called skelms, anyone who would hurt us.

When I was seven years old and my sister nine, my father died. John was the only servant to remain with us. All the others departed. Even the nanny, Miss Prior, an Englishwoman hired by my father through an advertisement in The Lady, eventually walked off in a huff, saying, incomprehensibly to my childish mind, “These children would be better off in an orphanage.”

Then we left the big house and garden we loved, our ridgeback dogs, and the numerous cars, including my father’s Rolls-Royce.

I have a photo of my father looking pleased with himself in his double-breasted suit, leaning casually against the bonnet of the Rolls with its silver fairy. I have so few memories of my father. He and my mother, who was 20 years younger than he was, lived in one wing of the big house, and we lived in the other. We rarely saw them, since my father left early for work in the morning and came back at night after we were in bed. My mother went shopping in the morning and slept most of the afternoon, before drifting off into a world of cocktails on the veranda while the blue hills in the distance disappeared at dusk.

She told us very little about her life. Though I don’t imagine she had ever read Voltaire, her philosophy of life was like Candide’s: all for the best in the best of worlds. Not before we were teenagers did she sit us down at the dining room table and murmur that she had been married once before. She had eloped at 17 with a Jew, and her parents had annulled the marriage. More than that she would not say.

She told me only when I was planning to divorce my own first husband that our father had actually divorced his first wife in order to marry her. Even then she tried to keep many of her secrets to herself, including the possibility of a baby from her first marriage, and the fact that our father’s first wife had apparently lived in the house with the newly wed couple for six months before she died.

Before my father died, he and my mother traveled all over the world for 18 months, to buy different types of indigenous timber. Upon his return to Port Elizabeth, the town where he was born, he fell ill with a coronary thrombosis. At the same time, I became sick with scarlet fever—this before penicillin—lying alone and immobile, flat on my back in the nursery, watched over by a strange night nurse and a day nurse.

It was John, I remember, who slipped up the stairs and surreptitiously brought me a cake for my birthday with seven candles for me to blow out.

After my father’s death, we moved into a one-bedroom flat in the Johannesburg suburb of Parktown. John was housed in the back, in one of the windowless servant’s rooms, but he came in every day to polish the parquet floors, polish the silver, polish our shoes, even the soles of our shoes. He prepared the meals, which he served in dignified silence, a blue or red sash running across his starched white uniform, going from his shoulder to his waist and ending in a tassel like a decoration of valor.

He would knock the bottle opener against the different types of soda on the sideboard, and we would nod to show him which one we wanted.

Once, walking carelessly naked in the corridor, a nubile slim thing by that stage, I bumped into John, who rolled his eyes heavenward in horror.

He spoke very little English, and we were never taught Zulu, so it was only later that I learned the tales John must surely have known: of the evil spirit Tokoloshe and the exploits of various brave and treacherous Zulu kings. Later I was to read of Shaka’s childhood and how he was bullied by the other boys because of his illegitimate birth but went on to become a great general with a lust for power under the Mtetwa chief Dingiswayo, whom he eventually killed.

I read about Shaka’s successes in battle and his mastery of the spear, about how he became increasingly powerful and cruel but never took a wife, putting many people to death, including any woman who was bearing his child. When his mother, Nandi, died, Shaka killed anyone who did not show sufficient sorrow. I learned of how the Zulu chief Dingaan and the prince Mhlangana put Shaka to death, and how Shaka said while dying, “You kill me thinking you will rule, but the swallows will do that,” meaning the white people who made their houses out of mud as the swallows did.

Once, when I was much older, I remember John saying solemnly, “The white man has failed us,” and I wondered what he had expected the white man to do, but he never told me. Yet somehow without words we knew he loved us, as we loved him, indeed, believed he would give his life for us.

I remember my mother wrinkling up her small nose and pointing into a dank cupboard and telling John, “Clean it up, John. It smells Zulu,” and he bent down from his great height with a rustle of his starched uniform and without a word cleaned the closet on his hands and knees.

What shocked and hurt me particularly, even as a small child, was that I could see that my mother had no idea how insulted this proud and diligent man must have been. John, she always said fondly, was one of the family.

Such was the world we grew up in, until we were sent to boarding school when I was 10 and my sister 12. There my sister and I were separated for the first time: I was in the junior and she the senior school. We were put to bed early in the evenings, when the sun was still up. I tossed and turned in the long dormitory, in my narrow bed, missing my home and above all my sister.

On Saturdays she would come to me to wash my hair. We would sit out on the lawn, side by side in the sun, playing the gramophone, listening to music, my sister gently brushing out my long thick hair for me and washing my comb and brush.

We were taught mainly by well-intentioned, homesick spinsters who had left England reluctantly and who now gazed across the dry barren veld, longing for the little lambs in the spring and the hedgerows, “hardly hedge-rows, little lines / Of sportive wood run wild …” We read the 19th-century books that described a strange world where snow fell silently thick at Christmas and red holly berries decorated the mantelpiece, while we sweated in the heat of the arid landscape.

In a way, none of us belonged there, neither the pale girls who longed for their homes nor the exiled teachers, though no one complained. The teachers made it clear that ambition was not seemly for Christian girls and that we should silently turn the other cheek, learn to forgive, whatever the offense might be. We were meant to accept our fate cheerfully.

I tell you all of this, though I am not sure it explains what happened to my sister. Perhaps it could have happened anywhere and at any time. Perhaps it was simply a matter of luck—or rather, the lack of it.

During her anthropology studies at Wits University in Johannesburg, my sister met a handsome blond Afrikaner studying to be a heart surgeon. I remember her telling me about him when she visited me in America—where I was living with my young husband—on the occasion of the birth of our first baby girl.

“Mummy’s against it,” she said, holding my little girl lovingly against her shoulder. My sister loved babies.

“Why? A handsome heart surgeon, and you always said you wanted to be a doctor,” I said.

“Well, he’s Afrikaans—and you know what she thinks of them, going around saying they beat the natives with a shambock and commit incest on their deserted farms. And the family is quite poor. There are innumerable brothers and sisters. The father does something on the railways. The mother is plump and wears terrible hats. You know what a snob Mummy is.”

Also, my sister told me, an old girlfriend of her handsome surgeon’s had come to the house to beg her not to marry him.

“Why not?” I asked.

“She would not tell us why. I presume she is jealous,” my sister said pensively, stroking her long dark lashes between finger and thumb.

It soon became apparent, once they got married, that there was terrible trouble, though my sister said nothing about it. On one visit, she did tell me a story. An awful thing had happened to a friend, she said. A young wife, married to an up-and-coming doctor, had given a big party for her husband’s friends and family. She cooked for days, making chicken in a basket for all the guests. In the midst of the festivities, she looked around for her husband but could not find him. She went through all the rooms of the big house and even into the garden but finally found him on the gold carpet in the study with another young doctor, having sex.

“It was such a terrible shock,” my sister said putting her hands to her heart. “What do you think she should have done?”

“Kicked them in the balls; thrown them out of the house; alerted the authorities,” I said.

“Oh, she couldn’t do that! It wouldn’t have been possible. They would have both been struck off the doctors’ rolls, their careers ruined.”

“What did she do?” I asked.

“All she could think to do was to call his father into the room,” my sister said, her blue eyes filling with tears, which was when I realized that, of course, she was telling me her own story.

“This happened to you?” I said.

“I promised not to tell anyone,” she said.

“Well, you didn’t tell anyone,” I said and sighed.

Then there were signs of beatings, bruises, and black eyes. The children were beaten until they were unconscious, I found out years later. There were sexual overtures made to her children’s friends. The parents complained. Still, my sister never reported any of this to anyone, simply retreating from time to time to my mother’s cottage, which was in the garden of her big house. But she always returned to her lawful husband, the handsome, successful surgeon who had worked with Christiaan Barnard at the Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town. Soon another baby would appear.

“Why don’t you leave him!” I would remonstrate.

Once she asked me to go to the lawyer for her.

“Why don’t you go?” I said.

“I can’t,” she explained. “He has me followed.”

“Leave the country,” I suggested. “Take the children. Come and stay with us.”

“He has all their passports. He would never let them go,” she said.

On a trip back to South Africa, I saw the lawyer. He said, “If your sister cannot get herself to come and consult with me, personally, how can she get a divorce?”

In the end there were six children, the youngest only three when my sister’s husband finally drove his car off the road and into a telephone pole, on a quiet dry night, no other cars on the road. Perhaps he intended to kill them both, but he was wearing his seat belt, and she was not, and her wrists and ankles were broken on impact before she died.

When my mother called with the news, I said, “It’s not true.”

She said angrily, “I’m afraid it is true.”

When I returned for my sister’s funeral, I went to the morgue to see her. I’m not sure what prompted me to do something of the kind. Perhaps this beautiful young woman’s death—she was 39—seemed so impossible to me, I wanted to make sure she was really dead.

The man at the morgue was reluctant to allow me in, but when I insisted, he showed me into a cool, silent, and empty space. Then they wheeled her in.

They had covered her damaged body completely with a white sheet but tilted her smooth, waxy flower face up to me, as though she were the doll again and was obediently showing me that she was indeed truly dead.

When I suggested to my mother that my sister’s husband should be prosecuted, she shook her head. “No,” she said. “It’s impossible. Even if we could prove it. Think of the children. We must avoid a scandal at all costs.” Then she added, “He has been sufficiently punished.” She visited him in the hospital where he lay, damaged it was clear, though how much no one seemed able or perhaps willing to say.

All of this I have written about in so many fictional and nonfictional forms, but surely the straight truth of it needs to be told, for once and all.

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