In order to make sense of this story, I guess I need to give you a little background …
Talking, discussing, arguing, debating were all BIG in our family home. There were few subjects (and as we got older, no subjects) that were not up for discussion.
Politics was (obviously) a biggie, to the detriment of several friendships but hey, that’s life for you …
Dad sat to the far, far left of us all, finally liberated as he lost his job (of which he was immensely proud but that’s another story) and he could finally say whatever he liked (Castro for giving the Americans the continued finger, he loved my growing interest in Che Guevara). Mom sat near to him, on the pretty far left. I sat between them. Rich and Cath were too young to make the subtle distinctions but even then they knew the difference between left wing and right wing.
And occasionally Dad, for devilment would throw in a very left hook … (in the 1994 elections, he voted ANC, my mother voted DP, I voted DP locally and ANC nationally, a superb recipe for graceful, calm, pre-, during- and post-dinner chat).
You also need to remember that we were pretty poor by White South African standards. We had a big house (bought when men were kind and their voices soft) but not a whole lot of money and when Dad lost his job we were plunged into a financial abyss which lasted pretty much the rest of my parent’s lives …
In South Africa at the time, white women reached their majority at 21. You could vote at 18, but you couldn’t open your own bank account or own property or enter into financial agreements or do anything legal. So turning 21 was a Big Thing, normally celebrated by a massive party, humungous presents (cars were not unusual) and all manner of material shit.
Worth noting that if you were a black woman, you never were granted majority status.
I had returned from my sojourn in the big shitty and was living at home, temp working and I didn’t have any savings. Mom and Dad were putting my brother through college and my sister through school and spending every cent they had on surviving.
And then I was about to turn 21, so we did what we usually did. We argued, fought, changed sides, debated and discussed it. I was outwardly not giving a shit, which drove my father up the wall. Inwardly, I would have been happy to go for a big slap up, drunken meal.
My poor Mum was caught between us, not entirely sure what I wanted (I’m not sure I was either, I was just desperate not to make my parents feel bad about not being able to afford the bash they wanted) and trying to please Dad (unusual for her, she didn’t live her life that way) who was trying to celebrate the upcoming majority of his eldest child, on a shoestring and hating it.
And bang on the time all this was going on, there was a shift in the country. Not only was I about to become an adult, but things were moving slowly, ever so slowly towards the country’s freedom. Nelson Mandela had been released two years before, Winnie had had to make an abrupt, complete turnaround from banned, harassed and tortured freedom fighter to unofficial First Lady (something no-one sane would ever be able to truly accomplish).
You have to understand that when people were imprisoned for political reasons, they ceased to exist. The SA government had a great trick (may he who thought of it rot in hell forever). They “banned” people. “Banned” people were not allowed to be seen in public. They were not allowed to be quoted (to do so, was a criminal offence, punishable by serious amounts of jail time). As was publishing their photos. So to all intents and purposes, they just disappeared from view.
And so it was that I only saw Mandela’s face when I was 16. I only read Steve Biko at the same time because these things were banned. There were so many people I had heard of, whose names were whispered in ears, whose legacies lived on, past their broken bodies lying lifeless in police cells, their blood staining the floor.
But Winnie? Despite bannings and harassment and constant fear of a drawn out, tortured death, she loomed larger than life. She stood up to the oppressors, bold, tainted, beautiful Winnie. Somehow, despite having her children taken from her embrace, years of solitude whilst her husband had his health ruined by hard labour, oppressed, rejected, scorned and spat on, her own anger spewing into hate, she stood like a giant.
Whilst the Black Sash ladies stood for peace and unity, she stood for defiance. When they spoke of reconciliation, she spoke of taking back the country which was her birthright.
With her metaphorical matches in one hand and a tyre in another, she inspired fear and hate and love in equal measure.
Dad had a soft spot for her broken, passionate, anger-filled soul. He was always the mouthpiece for the unspeakable, the tainted, the ones no-one wanted to acknowledge. And so he was with Winnie. He did not for a moment condone anything she was reputed to have done (and confirmation of that was at that time still just well-informed gossip) but he saw her fire, her bravery and her passion when most others just saw her anger.
And so we debated long into the night and finally agreed on a party. I would buy the alcohol, my parents would provide the food. We had enough money to celebrate with 40 people. Family had to be included, as did close friends and neighbours. Which left me about 4 guests. And so it went around the houses again.
Eventually Dad said “fuck it, I think we should invite Winnie”. “Winnie, who?” I asked.
“Mandela” said Dad.
There was a stunned silence. “You’re kidding”, I said.
“No” said Dad. “Everyone hates her, let’s show her some love and appreciation. I bet she’d enjoy your punch” (I had a reputation for lethal fruit punch).”
My mother, having had enough of this, dissolved into hysterical tears. “You’re not inviting THAT woman to Boudie’s party”. “Yes” said Dad, “I am. I’m going to contact her office tomorrow.”
I knew then he was deadly serious. I crept off to bed, leaving them still debating the issue.
The more I thought about it, the more I liked it. We’d horrify everyone else but … we’d been doing that for years, on and off. Might as well make a big splash.
Maybe she’d bring along her bodyguards. Oh god, we’d need to feed them all. Maybe not.
All the extended family (several of whom understood but were scared shitless for us, several of whom hated what we were doing but loved us anyway and several of whom no doubt thought we had actually come from Planet Zog and were going to humour us in case we zapped them with space rays) would be appalled.
You can tell I remain resolutely 14 years old inside, can’t you?
But did I really want Winnie at my party? In all honesty, I couldn’t decide.
Dad must have had a rethink in the morning. When I got home from work, I asked him. “Hey Dad, have you called Winnie yet?” My mother glared at me, hard.
Dad pretended to be deaf. “What, who? Called who? When?”
“WINNIE! Have you called Winnie yet?”
“No, been too busy, will do tomorrow”.
Mom erupted. The debate continued. Mum was concerned that as Winnie was attending everything, including the opening of small envelopes, that she might actually well pitch up if invited.
I retired to bed after dinner with a good book and left them to sort it out.
In the morning, nothing more was said and there were too many other things to talk about. And as the days passed we sort of forgot about it.
And the night of my 21st birthday party arrived and we had an awesome time. I made two types of punch (alcoholic and non-alcoholic), someone switched the labels around and the first thing we knew about it was small children passing out all of the place, closely followed by the sudden over-animation of a very teetotal neighbour.
At the end of it, when it had all been sorted out and designated drivers had realised that their wonderful moods were nothing to do with the ambience and everything to do with the fact that they were now in no state to do anything except weave about uncertainly (several people stayed over as a result), Dad bottled the remaining punch.
He loved my punch in a way no-one else probably will again. It was exceptionally alcoholic and once bottled, it would re-ferment and he would drink it over weeks, bit by bit. Some years and several parties later, a batch would ferment so
well badly that the bottles exploded all over the garage.
It didn’t take long to collect everything and put it in the sink, pick up the bottles and bag them and before too long, at silly o’clock (4am I think) we sat down, Dad with a final glass of punch saved from the bottling, me with a cup of tea. “Ah,” he said, “great party. Don’t tell your mum but I still wish I’d invited Winnie”.