Monthly Archives: June 2014

It’s not easy being a feminist

I became a feminist of sorts long ago in a country where male chauvinism was traditional in both the white and the black communities. Not that South African women were left entirely outside the loop of male-dominated affairs. As early as the 1980s South African Airways had at least one female pilot. I know this for a fact because I was on the short flight from Johannesburg to Harare during that time when a woman’s voice came over the intercom, introducing herself as the pilot and welcoming us on board. The three redneck Afrikaners in the seats behind me sniggered derisively. “I hope she doesn’t have to go and have a pee while she’s supposed to be flying the plane,” one of them said, to the great amusement of his fellow Neanderthalers.

I first became aware of my feminist stirrings three years before Germaine Greer’s The female eunuch was published. At the time I was a mere twenty years old and working as a junior clerk in the Administration for Coloured Affairs in Cape Town. I had dropped out of university earlier that year and had unsuccessfully applied for jobs as a cigarette company rep (with company vehicle), trawlerman (I loved the sea), waiter on the Cape Town/Johannesburg train (I enjoyed traveling), and ladies’ underwear rep (don’t ask!). At long last I managed to secure a junior clerical position in the Misconduct Section of the Administration for Coloured Affairs. Our job was to punish misconduct by Coloured teachers.

There were seven of us sitting in desks positioned in two rows, with a glass wall at one end of the room beyond which our boss, Mr Van Deventer, sat and kept an eye on us from his office. Teacher misconduct embraced a wide range of misdemeanours. One of the most common of these, apart from unsatisfactory work, chronic absenteeism, drunkenness and making sexual advances to schoolgirls, was sexual relations between unmarried male and female teachers. The Administration for Coloured Affairs punished such behaviour under the provisions of Section 16 (i) of the Coloured Persons Education Act of 1963. Our job as clerks in the Misconduct Section was to write letters to offending teachers, advising them of the action that the Administration was taking against them under the provisions of the Act.

When an unmarried female teacher became pregnant to a male teacher, the standard penalty for the male teacher was a fine of sixty Rand, which was equivalent to three months’ salary. However, the female teacher’s appointment was immediately terminated without benefits and she was banned from teaching for a period of three years.

As a naïve twenty year old I took it upon myself to write a submission directly to our big boss, Mr Du Plessis, who had a large office on the floor above ours. In my submission I pointed out the inequity between the severity of the punishments that were meted out to female and male teachers in these circumstances. I suggested that this should be redressed by allowing a female teacher to return to teaching three months after her baby had been born.

I was summonsed to Mr Du Plessis’ office. I had barely had time to admire the size of his public service floor mat when he started berating me, his little moustache wobbling wildly on his upper lip with anger. “How dare you, a junior clerk, try and tell the Administration that its policy is wrong? Who do you think you are that you can write to me and comment on things that you know nothing about? Senior people set the policy, not junior clerks!” He raged on in this vein for a while longer before telling me to get out of his office and that he did not want to hear from me ever again.

Later, having emigrated to Australia, I worked for five years in the late 1970s at the Glen Waverley Library, which had a staff of 13 people. I was the only male staff member. During that time that I became better acquainted with women. Having had no sisters and having married young, the only women that I had known reasonably well until that time was my mum and my wife of the time. It was here that I realised that the majority of men of my age treated their wives and girlfriends pretty much as doormats.

One young woman, married to a plumber, complained to the others how her husband never cleared up anything or helped in the house, apart from fixing the odd thing. His clothes would lie on the floor wherever he had taken them off, the dirty dishes would be her responsibility to wash up and she did all the washing, cooking, ironing and cleaning. I thought that this was outrageously unfair, taking into account that she and her husband were both working fulltime.

“Just leave his clothes where he left them, and leave the dirty dishes in the sink,” one of the other female staff members, who was single, advised her. “That will soon make him sit up and take notice.”

The woman with the plumber husband reported a week later that it had taken her a whole weekend to clear up the mess. The clothes had just piled up higher and higher on the floor and the dirty dishes had merely increased in number, until she could stand the mess no longer.

On a very hot January day in 1980 I went with my fellow staff members from the library to have lunch at a pub in Clayton. On the way back to work afterwards I stopped at a red traffic light in my battered old Holden station wagon. Four of the women were in the car with me. My window was wound down because the Holden did not have mod cons such as air conditioning.

Unexpectedly someone said to me through the window: “Hey, mate, how do you do it? How do you pull all those women?” It was a bloke who was working on the road. His mates were consumed with mirth at this witticism.

I was quite embarrassed at this exhibition of male sexism in the presence of my female workmates and apologised to them for it. “You know, I don’t even think of you as women,” I said.

None of them responded to this and for the next couple of weeks there was a distinct chill in the air towards me from the women at work.

It’s not easy being a feminist.

Broken lives under repair

On a cold, windy winter’s morning they arrived in dribs and drabs at the featureless community meeting hall for an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. They were a mixed bag of people, from young and quite attractive through to the older ones, some of whose faces bore the signs of their long battles with alcohol and drugs. I’ve tootled along to the meeting to support someone who has a history of addiction.

It takes an iron resolve to overcome a severe addiction. The non-addict cannot imagine the daily torment of withdrawal which includes mental and physical anguish, enormous craving, depression, mood swings and stress levels so high that one feels as if one’s body might explode at any moment into a flaming inferno.

Addictive behaviour is firmly embedded in the genes of my mother’s side of my family. A number of my relatives became alcoholics and drug addicts and I was heavily addicted to smoking myself when I was young. At the age of thirteen I was already unable to get through a day without having a puff. Once I had reached the age of consent and I no longer had to skulk out of sight to have a smoke I quickly progressed to being a chain-smoker. Before I had even properly opened my eyes first thing in the morning I would light a cigarette or pipe and draw the smoke deep into my lungs to relieve my craving for nicotine.

I had tried many times to break the habit. In my late twenties I ‘cold-turkeyed’ and did not smoke for nine months, before taking up smoking once again. It was not until I was 32 years old that I succeeded. At that time I was so determined to stop smoking that I told myself I would die before I would smoke again even once, and I damn near died from the withdrawal symptoms because they were so severe. Years afterwards I still had recurring dreams of lighting a cigarette and deeply inhaling the smoke. Breaking my addiction to smoking was one of the most difficult things that I have ever done in my life.

The first person that I spotted outside the hall was one of my own people, an African who is a successful businessman from Uganda. I introduced myself and we first chatted about African affairs, as one does when one meets a fellow African. Then he confided to me that his wife had divorced him four years earlier. He was so heartbroken that he had purposely tried to drink himself to death, but he had survived and in the process he had become an alcoholic.

I told him that I had been through a divorce myself once. “Does the pain ever go away?” he asked me plaintively, and then added “I wish I could be married again, even if it is to someone who gives me a really hard time. That wouldn’t matter.”

During the meeting he recounted how he was shopping a few days earlier when he spotted a bottle of alcohol-free wine on the supermarket shelf. As he was about to put it in his trolley, a little voice in his head told him what would happen if he went ahead and bought it. He slapped himself on the side of the head for effect as he spoke. One bottle of alcohol-free wine, the little voice said, and the next one will surely be wine with alcohol. “That was my little victory for the week, putting that bottle back on the shelf.”

He had gone to see the movie Flight, in which Denzel Washington plays the role of an alcoholic pilot. In one scene the main character was in hospital and he had a water bottle by his bedside that contained an alcoholic drink. “Damn, I was so angry when I saw that. I thought I was the only one who had invented that water bottle trick!” He laughed heartily, his white teeth dazzling in his coal black face.

A man in his forties with a sorrowful countenance became an alcoholic after his daughter had died and he had found himself incapable of coping with his grief. He has had a couple of bad days during the week, he said, but he has survived them and has managed to stay clean. The others congratulated him and he smiled shyly.

There was an older bloke with a battered Akubra hat who wore his shirt inside out. “Why do you wear your shirt like that?” one of the others asked him.

“I do the same with me socks so I can wear them for longer before I have to wash them,” he explains.  He had been to Queensland for a holiday and while he was there he had stuck to his routine of going to AA meetings. He has not touched alcohol for twenty years, but he knows what he has to do to stay sober. For him, addiction is a lifelong affliction which he cannot afford to allow back in through any small crack in his routine.

The person whom I had accompanied to the meeting to support hung his head when it was his turn to speak. He has fallen off the wagon over the weekend, taking mega-doses of painkillers. “I can’t even remember the last few days,” he mumbled, “but I’m still going to try to be clean.” The others all offered unqualified encouragement. They have all been there before.

An attractive woman in her early thirties talked about her addictions to alcohol, heroin and crystal meth and how they had brought her to her knees. She was softly spoken and talked hesitantly about her love for her five year old son, who was being cared for by her mum whilst she was undergoing an extended residential rehab program.

One fellow recounted how he would go on a binge drinking session every time that he had an argument with his wife. He would disappear for days, drinking himself into oblivion in a park and regularly ending up in hospital, nearly dying on a couple of occasions. Another bloke responded laughingly, “Hell, I used to pick a fight with my wife on purpose so that I could storm out of the house and go on a drinking binge!”

Listening to these people who are trying so hard every single day to repair their broken lives, I was filled with admiration for their heroic efforts against their powerful demons. Instead of finding a group of hopeless hobos at the AA meeting as I had anticipated, I discovered some articulate battlers from every walk of life, supporting each other daily on a treacherous journey through life that the non-addicts have been spared.