All my life I’ve been accused of being aloof – perhaps it is this character flaw that prevents me from comforting Nofirst as she sobs bitterly, relating how her son took his last breath at the hands of the Delft mob justice (not uncommon in townships). Common sense tells me to get up and give her a bear hug, to show her that my heart bleeds for her, because it does. But I’m too awkward a person to show any level of affection or sympathy.
So instead I hold on tight to my wine glass which she’s filled to the brim with Iron Brew. I shift uncomfortably. The black crate I’m sitting on is biting into my buttocks, the pain is unbearable. Her grandchild, whom she’s cradling, begins to wail as if someone pinched him. She quickly composes herself and dashes to the makeshift bedroom to grab his bottle. She feeds it to him and picks up where she left off.
“I received a call from someone whose name I’ve forgotten,” she recalls. “The person told me to come to Delft. Something bad had happened to my first-born son.” Nofirst takes a deep breath and looks at the corrugated roof of her shack, to prevent tears from streaming down her face. “When I got there, I found my son in a pool of blood, his skull crushed, he had also been necklaced.” Her voice trails.
“I’m so sorry,” I murmur looking down at the glass in my hands – wondering how an interview about how the Cape Town water crisis is affecting those that live in Khayelitsha has turned into this harrowing story. But then again, I remember how grown-ups in my culture are masters of moving from one topic to another.
“I spent most of my life doing odd jobs, so I could put them through school. But none of them have amounted to anything. Phelo dropped out in Grade 11 and started running with the wrong crew, doing drugs, mugging people and bringing stolen Plasma TV’s, irons, kettles, phones home.” She buries her head into her grandson’s chest, and starts to sob again. “I never wanted any of that blood money. I am poor, but I cannot accept things knowing that someone probably lost their lives for my son to obtain their valuables,” she says blowing her nose.
“On his birthday he came over to see me, driving a car I have no doubt was stolen. He asked for a birthday present. I didn’t have a cent on me. I went next door and asked the woman who lives there to lend me R50. I gave it to him and said, “Phelo sana lwam, amangomso obubomi ubuphilayo asengcwabeni – Phelo my dear child, this life you are living will lead you to an early grave.”
“I’ve stopped, Mama. I’m a taxi conductor now.” He told me, she says, mimicking the way her son spoke. “That was the last time I saw my child. Next time I saw him… was to pick up his brains on the street. People calling me names. What they don’t know is that every night I lay awake praying for my sons to change.
“There were times Phelo would come here and talk about how his friends were being killed like flies. I thought that would scare him into turning his life around. But it didn’t. He died like a dog,” she recalls staring into space.
“My son did terrible things, but he was not a bad person. He was driven by circumstances. If I could afford to give him a better life, there would have been no need for him to break into people’s houses and he would still be alive today.”
“Don’t blame yourself Mama, you did all you could for your son, but he chose a different path,” I tell her. My phone rings, it seems to jolt Nofirst out of her trance.
“Oh, my child, I’m sorry I dumped my burden on you. She puts her grandchild on the mattress and gives me a hug. It’s all it takes to undo me. I sob on her chest quietly. I tell her I have to go.
A bit later as I flag down a mini-bus taxi she says, “Sana lwam, I hope you never have to endure what I’ve endured in this life.”
Spending time with Nofirst made me realise we are quick to blame people like her for the actions of their children. “They have no home training whatsoever!”
What we never think about is how mothers like Nofirst try everything they can to bring up children that are upstanding citizens. As they say, it is easy to sit in a comfortable corner and judge those who aren’t in the same position as us.
Nofirst did her utmost for her children. With her domestic work salary, she put two of her children through matric, and when she realised her late son had no intentions of going back to finishing school, she saved money so he could do a security course, and he worked a few months as a security guard. But then he went back to his shady ways, which ultimately led him to his untimely death. Surely Nofirst should be supported, and not rejected.
Tell us: What can society do to help parents like Nofirst?