Old black people must sleep. Apartheid is gone

Anyone who has parents will relate. Why do these geriatrics wake up early, even on weekends?

I decided to spend the night at my folks’ yesterday. Besides the pampering I get, I am told it is the right thing to do, especially if you are still lucky like me to have one or both of your parents.

We went to bed at about midnight. I was also sipping on good chardonnay as we were catching up on neighbourhood gossip. So by the time we went to bed, I was sure we were all tired.

But I swear these sadists were up by 6.30am. And by 7.15am, they were plonked on the couch and glued to the screen watching nothing they could not have missed.

“Is there a law that says you have to wake up early?” I asked. I did not expect an answer. None was offered.

I blame apartheid. Yes you heard me well. In fact, I blame Ntate Mqwathi. Other than the fact that there was an apartheid “law” that punished blacks for being “lazy”, there was also the municipality police, disaffectionately known as the blackjacks.

In Dobsonville, Soweto were I was born and where my folks still reside, Ntate Mqwathi was arguably the chief of the blackjacks. On paper, Ntate Mqwathi and his boys – in reality they were never boys but grown ass angry men – were hired to enforce city laws and maintain order.

That they did from time to time. One of Ntate Mqwathi’s men, Rueben was begrudgingly loved for trawling the townships looking for children who bunked school. He would tie them behind his bicycle and take them to school.

Our parents loved Rueben. We wanted Rueben to fall.

But if there was a task that Ntate Mqwathi and his men did with faultless passion was to harass black families in the comfort of their homes. There was a by-law that insisted that everyone living in any residence, must have a “permit” to do so.

And it was Ntate Mqwathi’s job, not only that, pride and joy, to make random visitations to our homes at ungodly hours to check on the permit, count every head in the household and make sure everyone is accounted for.

The knock on the door at 3.54am was not as traumatic as the words that followed as clockwork once Ntate Mqwathi had arrived: “Gqoka sihambe”. That’s Zulu for “dress up and let’s go”.

This meant that the head of the house – those days most of these were men – had to quickly put some clothes up, pull out the permit and follow Ntate Mqwathi. Outside there would be a queue of many other men bitterly obeying the law.

Only heaven knows why our fathers sheepishly followed Ntate Mqwathi and his army of no more than four blackjacks, who were never armed, except for handcuffs, which were strangely so revered.

Occasionally Ntate Mqwathi and his men would also carry sjamboks and batons, just to keep in line (pardon the pun) the clever blacks who so much as thought about revolting.

No one dared to break away and go back home. And when they arrived at the “charge office” Ntate Mqwathi would make them account for strangers (read extended family) in their homes and make them pay fines. Of course these were bribes because the fines were never accompanied by receipts.

And so, for many years our parents got used to waking up early. If not to go to the charge office with Ntate Mqwathi, certainly to go to the city to work in the factories. They would carry that through to weekends.

And we the children would suffer for this. I remember how my only brother and I had to wake up early. One of us would clean inside the house, scrubbing and polishing the cement floors. The other would sweep around the dusty yard and then polish the stoep, which was mandatory in township homes.

On Sundays we would be made to wake up early again to go to Sunday school to pray for one thing or another. I prayed for Ntate Mqwathi to disappear.

But I digress.

Today, many years after Ntate Mqwathi is gone, I hope literally and figuratively, and apartheid and its silly laws is history, my parents still wake up early. For what?

There are times when I look at a lotto outlet, fantasise about buying a winning ticket, only to hire a full-time maid for my very old parents. But for the sake of the maid, whose bosses will wake up before her, clean the house for her and even make tea for her, I always walk away from that R3.50 ticket.

Somebody must tell our parents apartheid was outlawed in 1994, permanently.