Every book has its cover page, and on the cover page there is a title. Mostly, we look at the title of the book before reading it; we analyse the outside before opening it. The same applies to human beings. We discuss someone’s life without knowing his or her story. We only hold onto the fact that he or she did this at that time. Judging without facts.
My mother was once called a jailbird by a relative and I was in the house when that happened. They were having an argument that led to the fight and I heard everything. They were arguing about money.
At the end of their argument, I heard this lady calling my mom a jailbird. I was curious because I wanted to know what a jailbird was. I sat down with my mother later on and asked her what that was all about. She told me that it was about the money that she borrowed from the relative and that she was taking too much time to pay.
Then I asked about the “jailbird” part and I saw a tear rolling down her cheek. I started to get worried and asked myself if what I asked was wrong? She said it was OK, and even though I was worried, I wanted to know more about this jailbird thing.
She started by showing me her home, which I knew, the home for the lady who just called her a jailbird. My mother told me that she was the one who was working and built that home. There were five houses in one yard. You know how Xhosa’s operate: they build many houses in one yard so that everyone can have a space of his or her own and all those houses will eventually belong to the heir, a male heir, once the older person dies.
In the mid ‘80s, my mother was working as a clerk in the government’s Department of Justice. She had four kids by then and the youngest one was 18 months old. I was not born at that time. She was the third born in her family and their father passed away when she was nine years old.
She and her brother were the only ones who were working in the family. Her brother was a miner at De Beers in the North West Province. He would only come home once a year due to the Apartheid era, so my mother was the breadwinner and she supported that entire family. She had other siblings and they were married, so they had to bring their children to be raised by their grandmother. That too, was my mother’s baggage and that is why there were 18 children.
Things were hard for her. Each month, sometimes twice a month, she had to buy groceries. Before the month ended again, they would come to her asking for more groceries. It was very difficult for her and she couldn’t cope.
Everything was on her alone, starting from school fees. It was better on uniforms because my uncle would buy them and bring them during the December holidays. He would buy quality things so that they would last them for another year.
The situation of her family made her feel depressed because she had her own kids and she was a single mother. She could have supported her own kids better instead of taking care of other people’s kids. Money was an issue, because she was earning very little, and yet she had to continue to provide.
In 1988, her son was only two years old. She got arrested for fraud as she had to find a way to make quick money so that things could be easier for her. She stole some money and deposited it to another account so that it could not be linked to her.
She was working in the Maintenance Office. People who paid maintenance would deliver the money direct to the offices and it would be registered. It was her job to sign for that money, but sometimes she would not commit it to where it belonged, but she would write it in her diary so that she could replace it when she got paid.
Later on, it was discovered that the books were not balancing and there was a huge amount of money that had disappeared. Investigations took place and my mother and two of her colleagues were suspended from work until the investigations were over.
It turned out that they had stolen the money and they were arrested for fraud. It was hard for my mom as she thought of her family. Who was going to support them now that she was behind bars?
Her sisters were laughing at her, saying: “We knew that you were a crook! So, you have been stealing money all along? We thought that you were a hard worker, but you are a thief!”
She said nothing to them because she knew that the reason she was stealing was because of their children. Judging her was not a solution. They should have supported her instead of judging.
She didn’t mind being called names: crook, jailbird and all those words that describe a criminal, because she was helping them at that time. Yet even today, they still judge her for something she did 30 years ago.
She was sentenced to 18 months in prison with no fine and she served her sentence to the fullest. When she got out of prison, she had to find a job to support her children, but no-one wanted to hire her because she had a criminal record. Remember, even in our days, if you have a criminal record, no one wants to hire such a person. It was hard for her, but her family didn’t stop laughing at her. She ran away from home and left her kids behind.
She had no choice but to leave because everyone was talking about her and others were saying: “Miss Office is out of jail but she will never be in another office now!” Those words didn’t sit well with her, so she went to Welkom to stay with her older sister who was the only one who supported her during that hard time.
Things are still awkward between her and her sisters and my mother is staying in a shack because the money that she worked for was used to feed the “Nzuzo Nation”.
People will judge you till you go to the grave, unless you sit them down and tell them your story. I am so proud of her, because she didn’t give up on life. She is my inspiration.
They judged the book by its cover, and they still do. She is 63 years old and they still call her a jailbird!