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African Writing Archives


Gertrude Makhaya


Gertrude Makhaya

G B Makhaya is a writer and businesswoman based in Johannesburg. In the 90s, she was a top 10 finalist in the South African National English Olympiad and was also the first runner-up in the ERA/Sales House short story writing competition, the leading short story competition at the time. More recently, she was a member of a ground-breaking writers collective at Oxford University, where she completed graduate degrees in economics and business as a Rhodes Scholar.


 Four Women

in gratitude to Nina Simone, who believed in us all…


Lerato finally looked over her shoulder. She had felt the watchful presence follow her from aisle to aisle and could no longer bear to ignore it. Hostile eyes met her glance. They belonged to a short, middle-aged woman. The woman’s attire, a cheap navy suit made out of some concoction of synthetic materials, did not flatter her. Flat, shapeless shoes and a string of fake pearls completed her mock-classic outfit. She wore an irritated expression on her face.

‘May I help you?’

‘No, thanks, just looking,’ was Lerato’s curt reply.

The woman offered her a quick, sharp, little smile. ‘There’s some really nice marked-down stuff in the basement.’

‘Really? Is that where you shop?’

‘Look, I’m just trying to help you. You have been drifting around all this time. Check the basement and you might actually find something nice that you can buy.’

Lerato processed the woman’s words: something nice that you can buy; something nice that the likes of you who don’t know their place and drift around expensive shops wasting everybody’s time can afford to buy.

Lerato swiftly dropped the shirt she was checking out and stormed out of the shop.




The Mamabolos led genteel suburban lives in a house worthy of a Garden & Home shoot. The scrapping of the Group Areas Act meant that they could finally live in a “decent area” as the woman of the house, Pauline Mamabolo, liked to say. They were the best non-white neighbours any respectable area could ask for – they were nothing like the noisy, headline-grabbing types who dragged their ancestor-worshipping ways all the way to the suburbs, insisting on slaughtering animals in their backyards, she would explain in unguarded moments.

Bogosi, their eldest child and only son, was the first black child to be admitted to the exclusive St Paul’s boarding school. Many doors had opened for their rising star, leading to a scholarship from the Nkululeko Empowerment of the Previously Disadvantaged Fund to pursue African Studies at Harvard. That was the ultimate achievement in their new world - to be able to say that you had lived and studied overseas. Bogosi was fast becoming a formidable deal-maker in the Johannesburg office of a global investment bank. Lerato, their daughter, was studying towards an undergraduate degree closer to home, at Wits University.

There was to be a wedding in the family. Bogosi was getting married and the Mamabolos saw the upcoming festivities (with the reception to be held at the country club where the patriarch, Zeb, was the first black member) as a perfect opportunity to show off their achievements, or to inspire others, as they called their exhibitionism.

A hard-working, smart and honest man can prosper under any system. That was Zeb’s mantra. He constantly reminded people about how hard he had worked to get to where he was - no affirmative action and black economic empowerment necessary for him, thank you very much. He was the first university graduate in his family, as anyone who knew him could tell you, his drinking mates especially. After a few more drinks loosened his tongue, he would remind them that in his youth he made so much money that he even convinced a certain Mr. Jacobs to allow him to marry his famous daughter.




For a man named Zeb Mamabolo to marry a woman named Pauline Jacobs was not a straight forward matter. That sort of thing did not happen in the seventies. Blacks married blacks, whites married whites, Indians married Indians, coloureds married coloureds and so forth. But Zeb found a way to break the rules to marry a coloured woman. Not that Pauline would have obeyed his father if he had refused to bless their union. Zeb was one of the most eligible bachelors in the area and she was already carrying his child.

Pauline was a famous beauty queen at the time. She won so many beauty contests that she claims she had lost count. For a while, her face became synonymous with Luxe Beauty Soap. But at the height of her career, she disappointed all her fans by falling pregnant.

Her relatives were appalled by the announcement of her engagement to Zeb. They vowed that they would never cross that veld separating the coloured and the black township to visit Pauline’s Soweto home.

Her mother had cried bitterly the last time that they spoke openly about her marriage. She had gone down on her knees and pleaded: “We are poor and your father was never much. But you could make something out of yourself. Why marry one of them? Do you know what they say about us? They call us mongrels and say we have no language, no culture. But the white boys like you. Everyone says so. Why don’t you give one of them a chance and skip the country? I can take the baby off your hands.”

Pauline was silent.

Her mother had continued. “I guess the communists have filled your head with lies. We come from the Cape. Our ancestors are white settlers, Malays, people like that. We have very little black in us. We are different. That’s why we have our own townships, our own schools and we don’t have to mix with blacks. We have nothing to do with them, nothing at all. Your father - he’s a drunkard - he was just excited to be paid lobola but I am telling you the truth. Please listen to me and don’t throw your life away.”

“Get up, please. If you want to ever see me again, you will never speak to me like that.” Pauline staunched the tremors she felt inside, it was too late to turn back.

Zeb’s mother, Dipuo, was also struggling with her the union. A primary school teacher, she had been forced to face the world alone when her husband had died young, leaving her with four children to raise. She brought them up with discipline, faith and love (in that order) and expected her sons to practice law or medicine in the townships, and her daughters to become teachers or nurses. Those were the respectable options of the day.

Dipuo had a special bond with Zeb. As a boy, he was shy, hardworking and very intelligent. He reminded Dipuo of her late husband. The last thing she expected from Zeb was a beauty queen for a daughter-in-law. She wanted a hard-working, humble and God-fearing daughter-in-law who would take care of his Zeb. She had her eye on her best friend’s daughter, who had attended Catholic schools in the North and like Dipuo, was also a primary school teacher. Zeb had very different ideas.


The wedding was attended by people Zeb’s family and friends had only seen in the magazines. The pictures made it into the Sunday paper. His relatives from the North talked about the day for years to come. The wedding gown was said to be an import all the way from America. Dipuo could not understand how Zeb could be so extravagant when their neighbourhood was practically on its knees. The money spent on that dress could sponsor a poor child in her school or feed a starving family for months.

There was a Sesotho wedding song that no wedding was complete without. Before black consciousness made some inroads, people sang its lyrics with gusto: Come ye all, come and see this beautiful bride, she looks like a coloured woman. Today, they sang: Come ye all, come and see this beautiful bride, she is in fact a coloured woman. This bride was the real thing. That history of pain, violence and silence that gave birth to Pauline’s forebears was forgotten at times like these. For the pale, dainty variety of female beauty, it seems no sacrifice is ever considered too much.

When they finally sat in the tent for the speeches, the speakers were clearly taken with the bride. The obligatory advice was gentler than usual, there was very little about a woman enduring the hard times and obeying her in-laws. The speakers were more concerned with counseling Zeb and praising him for his wonderful choice. His aunt captured the mood of the day.

“Zeb, my child, you have made us proud. You have brought us a beautiful woman, one of the most beautiful in the country. I can just see the wonderful children you are going to have, with lovely noses and that great complexion! You must treat this woman well. She is your treasure, your gift from God.”

Dipuo had silently observed it all. She felt nothing for this new Mrs. Mamabolo.

The troubles would start soon after the honeymoon. As custom dictated, Zeb and Pauline had to live with Dipuo for some time. Pauline considered bogadi a nuisance and begged Zeb for their own house. Dipuo set out to turn the beauty queen into a good wife for her son. That was what bogadi was all about. It was the mother-in-law’s duty to help a young woman to become a good wife and Dipuo would not turn away from her task, monumental as it seemed, given the young wife she was presented with. She decided to go easy on Pauline for the first few days after the honeymoon. Her daughter-in-law seemed to need the rest. Who knows what kind of honeymoon a woman like her had arranged? She could already sense the changes her well-raised son was going through.

The new Mrs. Mamabolo sometimes rose just before midday only to dress up and go out to meet with her old friends in town. It took a few weeks for Dipuo to realise that Pauline intended to always wake up after Zeb had left for work and to never cook real meals. Dipuo was struck by a bout of fear for her future grandchildren and tried to get Pauline to wake up early, clean, cook and do the laundry. Pauline had listened carefully to all that her mother-in-law had to say only to pass it on to the young girl she subsequently hired. It was the first time that Dipuo ever had a maid in her house. Zeb quickly ended his wife’s bogadi and bought a house a good twenty minutes’ drive away from Dipuo.

After some time, Pauline reluctantly promised that she would learn her husbands’ ways and would raise their children to appreciate the best of the culture of the BaPedi and also the best of her own coloured heritage. Above all, she would raise them to be something new that they would all figure out together, something beyond the confines of the past. She knew too much about living in that in-between world of being better than some but never good enough to others. She hoped her children would grow beyond all that in spite of what society was likely to tell them.


Zeb’s career in the insurance business flourished. The company he worked for wanted to enter the township market and hired educated young Sowetans like Zeb. It was a good time to be in Zeb’s shoes. The government had decided to experiment and offer some breathing space to the black middle class slowly emerging in the late seventies and early eighties; a buffer class whose role would be to pacify the masses and to keep the ‘communists’ at bay. Zeb was evangelical about insurance. His team visited the schools, offices, doctor’s rooms, shops and shebeens in the area and soon thousands of professionals and working people in his part of Soweto were saddled with all kinds of insurance policies that they didn’t always understand. His most potent ally in business was death. He would tell potential customers vivid tales of sordid pauper’s funerals and destitute orphans, and their purses would snap open.

Like his mother, Zeb wanted his children to associate with only certain kinds of people. He always reminded Pauline that he did not want his children to become thugs who steal from people and who throw stones at policemen. Pauline, having had to deal with policemen during her time in the free-spirited entertainment world was always ambivalent about Zeb’s viewpoint.

“But, lovey, those kids have a right to be angry at the police. The police are not fair towards us, let’s face it Zeb.” Pauline had learned to say us like she meant business. She said it (along with ‘our people’ and ‘our situation’) like she was about to raise a fist and march the streets.

“Oh, Beauty! You don’t understand these things. Those kids are thugs. They refuse to go to school and they snatch bags from old women. They’ll never get anywhere in life. Do you think I achieved all this by sitting on a street corner all day? Or running around in the streets? You should see the way they look at my car. I don’t want Bogosi and Lerato to become anything like them. We come from a proud family. Their grandmother is the first female school principal in Soweto.” Pauline, otherwise known as Beauty during heated discussions, began to feel impatient.

Ja, Zeb I know all about that. And it’s exactly the point, don’t you think?’ Pauline felt her voice beginning to rise, ‘Your mother was able to raise you and your brother and sisters. But the other children, do you think they have educated parents? And they don’t have much of a future either. At the end of the day, no matter how hard they work, they will still have to say baas to some man and earn peanuts. Young people don’t want that anymore. That’s why they are fighting the system. They are the ones who are keeping the struggle alive.’’

Pauline’s accent became more pronounced when she was excited. Zeb always frowned when that happened.

“They think they can change this country by throwing stones and burning schools. Wake up, Pauline! They are only hurting themselves. You think I don’t fight apartheid? You think I am a sellout because I drive an expensive car and I am friendly to my white baas? Let me tell you, Pauline. It’s people like us who are going to triumph. We cannot fight white people the way these boys are doing. The boers will crush us. So don’t tell me about the struggle. I don’t want my children shouting slogans. I want them to get an education. Do I make myself clear?’’

Pauline sighed and kept her thoughts to herself.



Pauline was becoming increasingly anxious about the wedding arrangements. Her future daughter-in-law seemed to want to take every decision on every detail - a South African woman would be more compromising, she thought. Then she smiled as she remembered her late mother-in-law. So this is what it feels like. But Tola was much surer of herself than she had been when she married Zeb. She had been beautiful and well-known at the time, but she had sensed that her mother-in-law only saw a poor, coloured girl from a troubled family.

Faced with the proud and dignified Mamabolos, all Pauline had to offer were good looks and a façade of glamour and sophistication. She definitely managed to triumph in the gene pool. Lerato and Bogosi got her fair skin and wavy hair. But her gifts did not seem to be appreciated. Bogosi was marrying a tall, dark, big-boned Nigerian woman he had met during his time in the US. Her skin was a rude blue-black, the kind you couldn’t make excuses for. You couldn’t say that she had been in the sun for too long recently or that she was ill. Anyone could tell that she must have been born with that deep, dark colouring. This was the woman Bogosi said he loved.

Tola annoyed Pauline by the way she carried herself with the easy grace of a woman too sure of herself. But how could she be so trusting of herself? From the day she had met Tola, Pauline had tried to discover the source of her confidence. Tola was from humble beginnings. She was very educated but she had bled for those prestigious degrees. She had worked various jobs at once to survive, living far from her home in a community that only accepted a part of her. Where were the scars from all those grinding years?

Pauline had overheard a few youngsters describe Tola as beautiful and striking. Maybe Tola had got it into her head that she was attractive. When she became a frequent visitor to the house, Pauline had showed her old Drum magazine covers from her beauty queen days. She had looked over the covers and mouthed some feeble, empty compliments. She was more interested to know whether Pauline had ever hung out with the famous Drum journalists - the likes of Nat Nakasa, Todd Matshikiza and Lewis Nkosi. Pauline had not known them; they were at Drum before her reign on the Johannesburg social scene, but she felt compelled to add that she would not have been interested in men like them anyway. They lived recklessly and were dirt broke drunkards. Tola had seemed shocked by Pauline’s estimation of the men she admired.

“Ma, you seem lost in thought. What’s the matter?”

Heish, Lerato. Don’t frighten me like that. Why are you home so early anyway? Are your lectures over for the day?”

“Don’t leave the door unlocked if you are so scared then. I only had morning lectures today. Then I decided to go shopping and this absolutely racist bitch ruined my day. I mean, there I was, innocently looking at stuff and...”

Pauline shook off thoughts of her mysterious daughter-in-law and focused on Lerato.

“Lerato Mamabolo, I will not have you speak like that in this house and you know it. Now that you are in university you think you can do and say as you please but I will not stand for it. You may think that you are cool and fresh but you will not swear in my presence. Do you understand me?”

“She was racist. Why should I be polite about her?”

“I don’t know what they teach you at university…”

That was it - now that you are in university this, now that you are in university that… Lerato snapped.

“Ma, from the beginning of the year...ever since I started university, you have used every opportunity to try and put me in my place. It’s like you have a problem with me going to university. I know you want me to worry about finding a husband. You don’t think I should be as ambitious as Bogosi. That is so wrong and old-fashioned.”

“Come on, ‘Rato, you know I want you to do well. But you should still remember to behave like a lady. I want you to be a happy woman someday.”

“No, you want me to be exactly like you. Pa has offered to pay for you to study through Unisa ever since I was in primary school and you always found an excuse not to do it. Now, you want to take your frustrations out on me.”

“Well, I did not have time for some correspondence degree, and do you want to know why? So I could raise you and Bogosi properly. But I sometimes wonder if you kids are grateful. Bogosi is ashamed of me, I know it. He brings his arrogant friends here and they listen to loud Congolese music all the time and have no consideration for the neighbours. And you - do you think I don’t see how you look down on my relatives? How you tell all your friends about how great and strong and intelligent MmaMamabolo was and you never ever mention my parents? ”

“It’s not like they respect us. They are always saying terrible things about Pa. Always going on about how lucky we are that we don’t look much like him. They hardly even visit us Ma.”

“As if you ever want to visit them.”

“It’s not safe to visit there, Ma.”

“But that’s where I’m from my child.”

Too much had changed since those days when Pauline had made her tough choices. She had vowed to raise her children to transcend the past. In fact, she was now convinced that there was nothing beyond the certainties of the past but confusion. Here were two black children whose parents’ good intentions had led them to a white world that predictably rejected them; and who hid their pain by embracing their ‘roots’. In high school, Lerato had stopped listening to rock and turned to rap. In the process, she had ditched her northern suburbs’ accent for what she believed to be an African-American twang, a black accent she could adopt without seeming too township. Bogosi had taken a gap year to “explore Africa”. Bogosi, who could hardly find his way in Soweto, wanted to know Africa. Things didn’t turn out as Pauline had imagined.

“I am sorry Ma; I didn’t mean to yell...”

Lerato’s voice softened as she tried to restore some peace. But Pauline was not to be appeased.

“No, Lerato, you are going to listen to me. I sacrificed a certain freedom to be a mother and to be with your father. I could have built something for myself, I could have skipped the country but I chose your father over everything. That grandmother you glorify thought I was not good enough for her son and she never fully accepted me. Maybe I didn’t try hard enough but she never gave me a real chance. She treated me like a slow, lazy pupil she had to endure for a year before passing on to another unfortunate teacher. And she poisoned you and Bogosi. You are ashamed of me when you should be so proud.” Pauline could feel herself veering into dangerous territory, but she wanted to be heard for a change. “I am sure you would rather look like that joke of a model, Alek Wek, than me since now everyone has decided they are African. Ha! Ten years ago people didn’t even know that there was an African country called Burundi. But it’s the new South Africa now and you can be whatever you like and do as you please. Your father and I raised you good but now you are ashamed of us just because we don’t have prison numbers on our CVs.”

“It’s better to have fought for your people than to be a bloody self-hating apartheid collaborator. You are right - I am ashamed of you.”

Words cannot be swallowed back. When they are as foul and bitter as the nastiest vomit, you can’t even try. For as long as she could remember, Lerato had desperately wanted to liberate her mother from her little world. But she had been too impatient. Pauline sometimes said something that made you sit up and listen, something that made you think she was not as shallow as she seemed. Her father was a different case. He was driven by success, and true to his word, he could learn the rules of any game. Now he was always in the news. A top Johannesburg businessman, the genius behind a new successful black company, a man from a previously disadvantaged background who had made it, that was the story the powerful Zeb Mamabolo told about himself. He did not even notice that he had left Pauline out in the cold. He always did what had to be done.

What would Tola, her wise sister-to-be, say about this mess? Lerato was embarrassed by her new secret habit. She had many imaginary conversations with Tola. In real life, they had little to say to one another. She could never find the right things to say to her. She wondered how Bogosi could keep up with this captivating creature. How did it feel to have passionate conversations with this woman, to walk with her, to hold her hand, to go to bed with her and wake up next to her? She could see those fiery eyes and knowing smile in her mind.

Tola would probably chide her for having been so judgmental, so thoughtless. And she would be right. It’s not that she was ashamed of her parents. They had just chosen a different path. They had dared to put up a white picket face in the middle of a war zone. They had looked at the beast and refused to acknowledge its power. Maybe that’s how Tola would see it. Lerato knew her grandmother would have been impressed with Bogosi. It dawned on Lerato what she had to do. Humour her mother - take her out, tell her how gorgeous she still is, anything to make amends. Then with her help (and Tola’s), maybe Pauline could finally take pride in being a strong Mamabolo woman.



The women, tired of the ceaseless arguing, had decided to resolve the matter over lunch. They would eat all day if that’s what it took. It didn’t help much that Lerato was perched on the fence. The big debate was over Tola’s wedding dress. Tola had consulted with one of the hottest designers in the city. She had been very reluctant to share details about the dress; thus arousing Pauline’s suspicion. Pauline had questioned Tola for weeks. When the dress was almost finished, Tola had invited Pauline and Lerato to a fitting.

The dress was orange with brown trimmings. Burnt orange, actually, according to the hip designer. There was no doubt that Tola looked beautiful in the outfit. Her long, luxurious dreadlocks burst out of the elegant head wrap. The dress was long and strapless and showed off her voluptuous body. On the bust, an exquisite arrangement of multi-coloured beads formed a striking disk. The dress was made for her body. She looked regal and bootyliscious all at the same time.

Pauline was horrified. The tense discussions began.

“Tola, I wish you could just be reasonable. This is your wedding day we are talking about. I am suggesting a good compromise. You can still wear that dress at the reception. But you can’t walk down the aisle like that. We can get a nice, cream dress for the main event since you don’t like white. But not orange.” That’s a colour favoured by those dirty, rural Shangaans who hail from the northern province, she continued in her head.

“But Pauline, I am not trying to have a very Western wedding…”

Pauline cut her off. “You are going to remember your wedding for the rest of your life, Tola. You might be excited about this designer, and you might be thrilled by the idea of an orange dress but you will regret it. Think about it.”

“Pauline, please, we put in a lot of effort in designing that dress. I know I will always love it. And I will have great memories of my wedding day. Bogosi was also skeptical at first but he saw how much I wanted an original dress that says something about the kind of woman that I am, not what society has to say about looking all angelic and innocent.”

“Has Bogosi really seen that dress?”

“Well, no, he trusts my judgment and I described it to him in detail. And he respects this designer’s work.”

“Did you tell him that it’s orange?”

“Oh, Ma! You make it sound like Tola wanted to walk down the aisle naked. I mean, I understand where you are coming from but it’s not that bad. It’s actually quite funky.”

“Orange is not a very classy colour and we are trying to organize a classy wedding. Everyone will be there. I can just see the picture on the front page of the Sunday Times. Our enemies will finally get a chance to laugh at us.”

“Pauline, I wanted a small, quite wedding in the first place; without the media. I wanted the kind of wedding where the bride actually enjoys herself like everyone else. But every time I try to involve you in the planning, you shoot down all my ideas.”

“Tola, I haven’t really interfered so far but you have to understand the way we do things…here. You have to understand the situation of the family you are getting married into. It’s unfortunate; sometimes it’s quite a burden, but people expect certain things of us.”

“I am sorry but I think you have to accommodate me on this one. I don’t mean to be difficult but people here are changing. People are willing to experiment, to create new traditions. Isn’t it so, Lerato?”

“To be honest, in some circles people are still conservative. But they will come around when they realize who designed the dress. I mean this guy is on fire. He recently designed an outfit for the first lady to wear at the opening of parliament.”

Pauline shook her head and laughed.

“Don’t tell me about the first lady’s wardrobe. God knows what she’ll be wearing to your wedding, Tola. And on which table are we going to place her and the husband? They are always intellectualising. They are so dull.”

“You know Ma, she’s trying to promote Afro-chic design. She actually has a wonderful sense of style; some people are just too uptight to notice.”

“I am sick of this attitude of yours, Lerato. Everything always comes down to how I am not African and I just don’t get how things are done nowadays. A person could walk down the street wearing tasteless, badly cut clothes and it’s OK because it’s suddenly African?”

Lerato looked away in embarrassment. Tola quickly intervened.

“All I was trying to say is that the dress won’t be such a big deal these days. It won’t be long before someone does something that seems even more radical.”

Lerato saw the defeat in her mother’s eyes.

“That’s what it’s all about for you youngsters, isn’t it? Always looking for something even more radical to do… I hope you know what you are doing. Let me be straight with you, my girl. I am sure Bogosi goes along with everything you do, you are his fascinating African princess, but be careful. You and I are not that different, you know. When Zeb married me, he thought he was making this big statement to his old-fashioned mother. I thought I was very special, this beautiful coloured woman marrying this man who adored every inch of her. And I didn’t care what anyone thought, especially not his family. But when times got tough, and I am going to say this in front of you Lerato because everyone, even you my child, everyone knows about your father and his fooling around with struggle women, a struggle he never used to have time for when it was actually happening, but never mind…when times got tough and I needed my mother-in-law’s help, I wished I had been more humble. So you don’t care about what I think, both of you, but I’ve seen it all girls. You think you are on top of the world, but little do you know that the very things people glorify you for could become devalued anytime.”

“It’s just a dress, Ma.”

“No, my child, it’s never just a dress.”

“No, Pauline. The problem is that don’t think your son should marry a kwerekwere woman, isn’t it? Bogosi has disappointed you so. Not only did he go for a foreigner, but he went for an African who looks nothing like the fair princess you dreamt of.” So even Tola could be ruffled, Lerato observed.

“Tola, I don’t have time for this. I have seen this movie before. Wear your dress. Wear it.” Pauline turned to Lerato. “I am a stranger in my own home. Why should Tola care what I think? ”

They sat in silence, sipping their drinks, each lost in her thoughts. The waiters stayed away from their table; such was the depth of their silence. They looked like a family in mourning.

“Ladies, we have a wedding in a few weeks. We are all connected now. We should be on the same side. Sorry to say this Tola, but that dress will need as many advocates as it can get.”

Strangely, they all laughed, perhaps for different reasons, but laugh they did.

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