I met Frieda in Seattle Coffee Shop one Sunday afternoon. She was sitting on the sofa and I asked her if she would keep an eye on my handbag while I picked up my coffee. She was snazzily dressed, well-coiffed and ramrod straight. When I returned from the counter, we struck up a conversation.
She told me she had another hour to go until she reached her five-hour parking limit of R20 ($2). She’d had lunch at Woolworths, walked around a bit “looking at all the beautiful things”: and then come in for a cappuccino. “I come here every Sunday, you know, to pass some time.”
Frieda is 81 – and has seen South Africa evolve through Apartheid to a Free and Equal Democracy. In 1950, she and her family had been forcibly removed from their home by the passing of the Group Areas Act; a law created to split racial groups into different residential areas of any town or city.
The aim of this act was to reserve the best and most developed areas for white people. Black, Indian and mixed race people were assigned to the more rural outskirts of the major metropoles. Once the areas had been defined: anyone living in the “wrong” area was required to move, or else be forcibly removed. Living so far from the centre meant that people had to travel vast distances to get to work. But it also meant that they were removed from basic amenities, such as hospitals, police stations and other emergency services. This created a sense of chaos and isolation, which, of course, was what the Government wanted.Shame is the worst thing that can happen to a man. My father had a successful business in District Six, but we lost everything that weekend. His spirit broke. He realised that the country that he loved so much did not see him as a man. And after a while he started to believe that was true.
You never get over the loss of a sister. My sister was very pale-skinned. She could easily pass as white. When we were young we used to sit upstairs on the bus and travel from Athlone to town for fun on the weekend. We would eat naartjies and the whole upstairs would smell of them. I always think of that time when I smell naartjies. She was reclassified in 1960 and we never saw her again. We knew where she lived and sometimes I would catch the bus past her house to see if I could see her. But I never did. My mother never spoke of her again. It was like a hole had opened up in our family. No-one wanted to go too close to the edge in case we all fell in. It was a secret that swallowed us all. I should never have married young. But my family picked a man for me when I was 18. I didn’t have a choice. He was very good to me but I did not love him. And he knew that. I only stayed until I could find someone else. And then I took my children and I left him. I broke his heart and I was unkind. I regret that more than anything else I have done in my life.
What you see is not always what you get. My second husband was a pastor’s son. But he was a gambler too. I didn’t know this until a man came to our house to take the car. It was like a sickness. My husband lost everything. And I lost myself. I turned my back on him in our bed. When he needed me most I was cold. And it stayed that way until he died. If I had been a warmer wife, maybe things would have been different. But I was so angry. Even when I heard him crying in the night, I could not touch him
Race never goes away. I know that now. I have white friends and I invite them to my flat and I ask my family to join. But I have to warn them not to say anything out-of-place. Nothing that happened was my friends’ fault. My family sometimes won’t come. What Apartheid did to our thinking is like a stain.
Depression is the enemy of old people. It can take hold of you any minute if you are not careful. I take myself out of the house when I hear it coming. Go somewhere and talk to someone. If it gets you – it doesn’t let you go.
I had to go back to work in my sixties. I rent out cars for a living and that means I am outside all day and I meet lots of people. I think that is important – because it keeps me young and interesting. What else am I going to do? Sit in my flat and wait to die? Besides I need the income and a woman must be practical about these things.
I keep myself looking good. I do small things like colour my hair and paint my nails. I wear perfume whenever I leave the house. You never know whom you might meet. You shouldn’t be alone in this life, dear. It is always better to have a partner. You must remember that.
Before she headed home, Frieda agreed that I use our conversation in a post for C&S; but refused a picture. “I don’t want people to recognise me, and think I am getting above my station,” she said. “Use some pictures from that time. And tell them we had fun too. Even though what I have said today doesn’t make it seem so. We did have fun too”.
(Images found in the South African Public Archives. Claasen is not Frieda’s real surname, she asked me to use an alias. A Naartjie is a small, peel able citrus fruit.)