From the Archive | There you are under the cows 

In the early 1980s, Anna Mazibuko was in Driefontein living with a grandmother and unable to get permission to find a job. She recounts her life, starting from when she began work at 12.

On 9 August 1984, women took to the streets of Johannesburg. They held placards with the words, “Women unite against Botha’s new deals”, “Our sons won’t defend apartheid” and “You have struck a rock, you have touched the women”. The women were saying, these are our problems. They are caused by apartheid and the system of racial and economic exploitation in South Africa. Why do these problems exist in South Africa and where did they come from? In Vukani Makhosikazi: South African Women Speak, the authors try to give answers. In their own words, black women talk about their lives. They speak of their families, their jobs, their joys and hardships.

This is a lightly edited excerpt from Anna Mazibuko’s story as told to Jane Barrett, Aneene Dawber, Barbara Klugman, Ingrid Obery, Jennifer Shindler and Joanne Yawitch in their book Vukani Makhosikazi: South African Women Speak (1985, Catholic Institute for International Relations). 

Related article:

Anna Mazibuko is 41 years old. She lives in Driefontein, an area in the Eastern Transvaal which is threatened with removal in terms of the government resettlement policy. She has lived in Driefontein since 1983. She lives with an old woman whom she refers to as her grandmother. The two women, who have the same surname and may be distantly related, discovered each other at a time when Anna was in desperate need of a home, and when the old woman was lonely and in search of company.  

Anna’s story reflects the rootless existence that many women born in white farming areas are forced to live. She shifted between work on farms and work in white kitchens. Always insecure, she moved from job to job in the search for more money for her children. The search finally led to Driefontein – where the prospects of employment are nil …

Anna’s story

“The first place I worked was on the farms. I worked in Amersfoort [South Eastern Transvaal]. in the yard of Jan Niekerk. I was 12 years old and my job was to look after the children of the nonnatjie – his wife. But at that time I didn’t earn any money. I just worked for a plate of food. 

“Then my family moved to Morgenzon in the Eastern Transvaal. It is near Standerton. I was 14 then. I worked on a farm and we used to plough there. We didn’t earn wages then. That was the time when you got some of the crop, but there was no crop that year, so we moved after six months. There was no crop because there was no rain. I ran away from the farms and went to the town of Morgenzon and worked for a doctor. I earned R3 a month. I left that job because the missus was very mean. I was then 15 years old.

“So I went to look for work with other whites and found a job with a woman. But she was very poor. Her floors were made from cow dung. She paid me five shillings a month. But she made me a pretty dress so I had something to wear. She made it with her own hands. But I only stayed four months and then I went to some others called Groenewald. There I did everything – wash, cook, clean the house. There I earned R3 a month. I stayed there for six months and I left and went off again. 

Related article:

“So then I went to Holmdene [Eastern Transvaal] and stayed with my sister on a farm. That man’s name was Swanepoel. I was paid R4 a month doing lots of different jobs. I was expected to work as hard as an adult but very quickly. I had to weed, thresh the mielies and bind the mielies into bundles. I really worked there. For every sack of mielies I got five cents. It had to be absolutely full and white inside. 

“In the farms you work very hard – even today people still work like that. I lived with my sister in Holmdene for a year. The boss we were working for left and so we went to Standerton when the family home moved there from Morgenzon. This was after my father died. 

“I lived in Standerton with my brothers for a while. I worked for Mr Viljoen who is now a very important man in Pretoria. He is now called Doctor Viljoen. He was the superintendent of the township in Standerton. Then he went to Ermelo, and then to Nelspruit. He was the superintendent and so his job was to smash down the townships and make them pretty. He spoke very good Zulu. He had four children, but I’ve forgotten their names. I used to look after them. He demolished Ermelo location and made Phumule. And in Standerton he demolished all our tin houses and made ‘Losmachine’. In this way he progressed eventually to Pretoria. 

“He was never a doctor of bodies. He was a doctor of demolition. He’s got old now. I used to wash and clean and cook. I earned R8 a month from Mr Viljoen. In that time everything went according to permission. I didn’t have permission from the farm I was born on to work in the town. Dr Viljoen fixed me up and got the permission. After Dr Viljoen I worked for another household. But that woman was impossible. She was really kwaai [strict]. So I left there. I ran away. I ran away from a lot of places. I’m not prepared to work for whites who make me cross.

“So then I worked for another boss in Standerton – also earning R8 a month. I left that place properly, because my permission had expired. So I left and went back home. When I went home I had a baby. She only lived for one year and a month. She died. So I left. 

Getting married

“I decided it was the time to get married, so I set off to find a man. The one I found was no good, but I had many of his children. I had nine, but five died. I still have four children. They were all the children of the man I married. Three of them were boys. 

“That man was from Standerton. He’s from the farms, and he’s there until today. I couldn’t agree with him so I left. Last week, I went to look for my children. I found the youngest who is 10. The only one I have with me is my daughter. The three boys are with him. I am separated now from that man. But I said to him he should keep the children, because I knew when I left I’d be very poor. 

“Life on the farms is very hard. It’s very heavy. In Standerton where I lived with the father of my children we would get up at six in the morning. The woman of the family (that is me), would have to start cooking and the man would have to start milking. Even now, he’s still milking at six. After cooking for the children and my husband I would go to the farmhouse and do the cooking and cleaning. I earned R12 a month working for Mr Human and his wife and daughter­-in-law. 

“At the farms there’s a lot of ploughing. If it does not rain you’re in a lot of trouble. My husband has always earned R30 a month and a bag of meal. And he would get the corners of the fields (the agterskot), after the reaping. So if the crop died, you died. The white farmer never gave us extra. And yet he knew my husband was a man with a wife and children. In the years when there was no rain, those were the years when our children died. 

Related article:

“My husband used to have two cattle. I am not sure if he still has them. He had three wives. The first one left in 1969. She couldn’t bear it. The first wife lasted for eight years. I stayed for 17 years. I realised I could never bear the way of life on the farms. I’d rather work for R40 a month and know that I’ll get clothes and food. But there you never know. 

“Even now that man is still milking at six o’clock. Every afternoon at 4pm he calls them in again to the shed and sits down beneath them and starts again to milk. That’s the law of the whites. Whatever the weather, wherever you are. There you are under the cows. In the morning after the milking he must go out and plough the fields on the tractor, skoffel [weed and hoe the fields], start again to plough the fields, skoffel the fields … and at 4pm he must get off the tractor and get under the cows.

“’Next morning same thing. Then when he’s finished ploughing and skoffeling, back to the cows. After he’s milked the cows he must go to make cream on the machine. And after the cream he can go home. That was his life. Day in and day out. As for me, my life was [in] a white lady’s kitchen – day in and day out. All for that Rl2. 

“There were only two black households on the farm. That boss was dirt poor. His father died and he had to take over the farm. Before that he lived in a caravan, going from place to place with his children. When he got here to the farm he found us already here. That first year we certainly ploughed. We got 1 800 bags, as well as sunflower seeds.That’s where he got the money to buy the tractor. 

Anna leaves

“I left in 1979 on 6 January. When I went I left another woman behind. That was his last wife. I left my children because I could see no other way out of it. My husband gave me R10 a month. I was supposed to buy everything for my children and myself. I couldn’t manage. So I said goodbye. In the same way, his first wife left him. And we left the young wife. But she’ll also leave. She’s got four children. But she’ll leave too. In the six years the new wife was there she had four children. Only one died. 

“Last week, I went to see my children. They are really suffering now. At least when I was there I used to buy some things with the kitchen money. I used to get second hand clothes from whites. Now that I’m not working there’s nothing I can do for them. At the time when I was working I used to send them clothes at Christmas. 

“I sit at home because I can’t get registered, and they suffer. Because they have no shoes and they have to walk to school their feet are cracked. That is the greatest poverty of my life – my children. But the eldest is alright. He’s now working at Bronkhorstspruit. He got a job in Standerton with LTA, a construction company, and was transferred to Bronkhorstspruit. I went to try to find him to ask for money but I couldn’t find him. When I left my husband, I went to look for a job and I found one in Piet Retief in the Eastern Transvaal, working in the houses of men who were making the dam. In Piet Retief, they refused to register me. This was in 1982. 

Related article:

“I worked for one woman for nine months. During that time the police arrested me and locked me up again and again. My missus would get me out. They kept saying I must go back to Standerton. I kept saying, back to what in Standerton? I have no mother, no father. My father died in 1962 and my mother in 1982. And so I had to leave, and I began to search for a place. So I went to look for my grandmother. 

“So I came to Driefontein. I thought I could find a place to live, which I could have as an address and get registered. By luck I foµnd my grandmother. I now live with her. I’ve been here for a year now. But the problem is I still can get a contract and permission to work. So we haven’t got money. I am really struggling. Now I’m really platsak [broke] because I went to visit my children and that finished me. If I could just get registered I could get a job easily, because there are jobs. 

“There is only one in the family who is alright now. That is my one sister who now lives in Soweto and is married. There were 10 of us, and eight lived. The rest of us are not married anymore. We have all really suffered. One sister lives in Standerton, and she’s got a house. But she has no children. She has nobody. Her two children died. My other sister is still in the kitchens in Standerton. She managed to bribe a pass. She bought a pass. So she’s working. You can buy it from any white who will write a letter to say you were born on his farm and left it. 

“But you get caught. Many of the whites have already been caught. Because once they’ve caught the white, he betrays you. Then they put you in jail. There are lots of people who have tried it and some have succeeded. When you get evicted from Standerton you get evicted to KwaNdebele [bantustan north of Pretoria]. What happened to my father in the end was that his young wife had a lover, and she and her lover killed him and left him in the forest. When we heard he had died I knew that was the end. Before that I always used to think that no matter how poor I was I could go back to my father. His place on the farm is now lost. His father was born there, and his father’s father. My father’s wife’s lover was arrested because he was found with my father’s pass.The case was heard in Standerton, and he got seven years. 

A hard life

“Yes, I’ve had a hard life. It all started because my father deserted my mother in 1948 when I was seven years old. My father got another young wife and my mother went off with me and my brother. It was because of that we had to work. She really suffered for us. Working in the kitchens was a new thing. In those days we used to get mielie meal and eggs and would trade for sugar and things. In the time that I lived with my mother I thought and thought of a way to change things. I came up with getting married. I thought by getting married I would get my own place. So I tried it, and it was terrible. So I left. And until today I’ve never solved that problem. 

“So today I’m living here with my grandmother – the mother of one of the many brothers in my father’s family. My main problem is still the pass. What I want is permission to work anywhere, not just in Piet Retief or somewhere. In Wakkerstroom, if you can get a pass you can work in Joburg or Sasol. Of course you can’t go to Natal, but Joburg is good enough.”

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.