Last Days with My Father

Ultimately – it’s about pain

Not always in a bad way, though. The sad, dull pain of absence I had felt for the years I was prevented from seeing my Dad was eclipsed last year by the joyous pain of being able to spend so much time with him as a carer and to ensure he could reconnect with so many of his old friends. All of us in some way shared some difficult moments with him: we got angry, weepy, silly, wistful but – worst of all – at times we felt completely and utterly helpless. We shared some extremely precious moments – especially when his sense of humour came to the fore. His reaction was classically “Dad” when I confirmed that I had successfully been accepted into the MSc African Studies course at Oxford… by St Hugh’s.First elation and then just a tinge of exaggerated fake disappointment “oh – not Trinity, then?”

Being a carer for a parent carries a sense of having come full circle but at the same time, you have to recognise that there will be no long term gain in the way that there is with watching a child become more and more independent. The trajectory is not the same – it will inevitably be downwards. The only question is: how steep?

Mornings would often be his most confused time. He would sometimes insist that I update him on “our children”. Where were they? Were they well? Who was caring for them? That we were his first thought on waking was reassuring but I realised then that he was losing some level of control – things were starting to slip away at the edges. At least I could reassure him in return: “We’re doing just fine, Dad. Vu is well and she will see you soon. I am well and here with Antony, we’re doing OK, Dad,” and he would relax – bringing himself gently back into the moment.

Later in the day, he would often be much more engaged, and, although he might not always participate fully. He would enjoy listening to music, brightening up massively when Miriam Makeba came on the radio, and conversations and would sometimes interject with his own observations or comments. When we could see he was more engaged, we would get him doing physio and working on his mobility. Those days, it felt as though he would keep going for much longer. Then there were other times when he would suddenly just shut down – and worse were the times when his illness would prevent him eating or drinking. The most painful thing to watch was when he would take in a mouthful of food or drink but then he would freeze and just hold it in his mouth until he choked. Those days were tough – he couldn’t provide the control to spit it out; he couldn’t swallow (possibly some dysphagia, which is common with dementia patients); but neither could we do anything to help and we would just have to try and keep him safe.

In our case, his decline turned out to be much steeper than hoped. In the end it was extreme, and I am not sure whether he was happily letting go, having been able to reconnect with his family or wearily giving up after going through so much. I know that he wanted ultimately to return to South Africa but he also wanted to not to be a burden. He suffered one of the worst illnesses I can imagine for someone like him: a dementia which allowed him to retain a lot of his memories – he never forgot who we or even occasional visitors were – but which deprived him of control almost completely at times. His capacity to live was ultimately thwarted by the illness of his brain, which prevented him from taking in the nourishment he needed to stay alive and fight infections. There is no way to be angry at a disease like that, though. My Dad was unable to do anything about it and we, as family and carers, were helpless in the face of its destructive influence.

Being a child and caring for a parent is tough – that parent-child relationship often played out when my Dad would shout at me for trying to get him to eat more. But that rebellious child in me wouldn’t back down easily – and therein lay (at least part of) the rub! I was a stubborn, bolshy, opinionated teenager (no surprises there – where did I get that from? Actually, it probably came from both parents, to be fair – Mum had her own feistiness as her family fondly remembers!). So of course we had our share of clashes as I was growing up. I suppose that just as he was trying to make me more able to cope with the world growing up, I was trying to keep him resilient and more able to fight infections so that we could bring him back home. Should I have tried harder to push him to keep going even for a few more days? Would that have been crueller in the long run? There is only one answer because it’s what I did in the end – I accepted that there is an end to life and we all tried to ensure it was as peaceful and pain-free as possible.

My Dad has often not been good at addressing difficult or emotional issues head on, though, and this was terribly apparent when he was more lucid. He would prefer to talk in metaphors or around the subject. It was irritating at the best of times but more so when dealing with health professionals, who are often just looking for a straight answer! And so, I would just as often be an interpreter as well, having to explain his jokes or turns of phrase. For example, “there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark,” was his euphemism for needing the loo. But one of the most important talks we had was when I was questioning bringing him to the UK. He had physical strength, but I wasn’t sure whether it would be too much for him. He could clearly see that I was distressed, and he said gently, “Don’t worry. You are doing the right thing. You have done the right thing and you will do the right thing, I know,” Those words meant so much and have kept me going the past few weeks. He had often said in the weeks leading up to his coming to the UK, “I just want whatever gets us all to be together again,” although the unspoken part was “one last time”.

I heard so many people talk about my Dad’s many amazing talents and achievements – and his humility only makes this more important. We knew how playful and loving he could be, but it has been important to hear from others how he touched their lives. He served his people and his country in fighting for freedom and, as an active member and representative of the ANC, ensuring that the world did not ignore the plight of those struggling under Apartheid. Later, as South Africa’s Ambassador, he ensured that South Africa’s representation in the world was dignified, deliberate and diligent. In both of his postings, I remember the staff fondly talking about how he made the role his own – he took it on as a full-time job and did his homework. Several times, they remarked on how unusual it was for ambassadors to be in the office at 8am and staying for the whole day!

I will miss so much about him, but in many ways, these past few years without any access to him have also given me a template for how to survive this. I wish my Dad had spent more time to help me learn better isiXhosa (although he was impressed at how much I had managed to pick up along the way informally) and I wish he had taught me the history of my family and his struggles in particular. I wish he had shared more of his stories – my sister and I had asked him so many times to write a memoir – and it is a shame that so many of these will be lost. But most of all, I will miss the small things, like never again hearing anyone call me “Me-tali-toe”; his beautiful singing and funny dancing; his cheeky wink and – of course – his extreme dimples!

Rest in Peace, Dad.

A Look Back in Anger (although feeling way more chilled about it all now)

In reviewing this blog site, I just realised a couple of things: firstly, how rarely I blog; and secondly, that I never actually got around to writing up any of the stories from our extended holiday in South Africa last year.  The whole holiday was incredible and I’m a bit disappointed with myself for not writing it up in more detail while it was still fresh in my mind, but on the other hand, it gives  me a bit of licence to be more floral in my telling now, right?

Thanks.  Although I suspect now that this will be less florid than I initially intended. Oh well.

I don’t quite remember when Ant and I had that first conversation about us living in South Africa (my first draft, written while sitting in my living room in Oxford, said “here”… this lets you know where my heart and mind are currently!) for three months, but I do remember that we booked it almost as soon as the airlines made the tickets available.  Before I’d even worked out how to take 3 months’ holiday from work. The main issue was that we had to wait for the return dates to become available.  I wasn’t checking daily but certainly weekly.  I wanted to maximise our time there, so I booked for exactly 90 days… This caused some other issues later on down the line when we tried to leave on what we thought was the 90th day and got ourselves banned for a year for overstaying by 1 day. By then, though, we knew a lot more about how bureaucracy works in South Africa – which is generally slowly, inconsistently and highly inefficiently.  My thoughts on that may yet find their way into another set of scribblings. Anyway, we decided we definitely wanted to have Christmas and New Year in Oxford and would fly out to South Africa some time in early January.  As we would be staying a while, we wanted to get the feeling of having a home there, so we also found ourselves a place of our own – Airbnb had come along at just the right time for us and South Africa is well placed to take advantage of the options.

It’s a funny thing, but almost as soon as we set up South African phone numbers and got ourselves online, so many things slipped into “being at home”, although our days were probably busier there than they were back in Oxford.  We were back in touch with some of my family, who would pick up the phone just to catch up and check on us or arrange to drop by in a way that so many people don’t seem to do when we are home in Oxford. After a few weeks, feeling as though things were sliding solidly into place, we decided to start looking at a few houses (not seriously, of course, just to see what we could get… honest).

Almost the first thing we did after settling in a day or so was to drop by my Dad’s home (his wife’s house) to see if we could get through to him and – after what had by then become our usual frustrated, fruitless attempt at getting someone to answer the gate, we left a Birthday card for him.  At that point, I assumed that we should be able to achieve something more in our extended stay – we had 3 months to drop in at random times, after all. A few things had changed since our last visit to the house – the solid wall had been damaged by a fallen tree last time we tried and had now been replaced by a metal fence, so we could see around the house and a little way into the yard for the first time.  A dog barked in the yard and we could vaguely hear childrens’ voices at the back of the house, probably in the courtyard away from the road. We could also see my father’s Range Rover parked further up the drive and another car blocking it in closer to the gate.  After our initial shouts, the childrens’ voices stopped and the house went still – there were a few windows open on the ground floor as well as upstairs, but no one acknowledged our presence so, after about 30 minutes, we left the card with our contact details and went back home.

Something niggled at me for a while – with the change to the external wall, I wanted to ensure that we still had the correct address and see if we could make any progress in finding more contact details.  So, I did some research and contacted a private investigator. The latter I did a few weeks later, having been unsuccessful in another attempt or two trying to get anyone to respond to our attempts to visit my father. I noted briefly earlier that I wasn’t the only one who had tried over the years – various family members and friends have been blocked via different routes and in the process, we have also heard that there are a few stories being told about the family’s bad behaviour and rejection of my Dad’s wife. To hear my Aunt talk about at least one of these stories is infuriating and heart-breaking. She doesn’t need to go into detail but it’s clear that she was not believed even by people whom she thought knew better.  For my part, no one knew us (my sister and I), so apparently found it easy to believe that we had no interest in knowing, caring for or supporting either my Dad or his wife. It hurt to hear tales of reports that painted us as hateful, ungrateful and uncaring daughters who rejected his re-marriage so cruelly. That this is a lie is pretty much a waste of words and time, though. We had been cut off from contact very effectively – we were just shut down.

I can’t quite remember what I thought when the report came through from the private investigator – I certainly wasn’t sure where I might take things from there but they came up with phone numbers and were even able to confirm how recently they had been activated.  The first two were mobile numbers registered to my father – one had only been activated a few months previously, so should still have been active.  The third was a landline.  The first mobile number went dead (no longer active) while the second went straight to voicemail every time I tried.  I left voicemails nonetheless fairly certain that there would be no way my Dad would ever pick them up himself.  The landline turned out to be a wrong number – no one of that name there and it certainly wasn’t for the correct address. The frustration of the experience is unbelievable – I shook every time I picked up the phone to try calling – trying to anticipate what my Dad might say after all these years.  Would he be able to talk for long? Would he even know how long it had been? Would he even know who he was talking to? What if he just didn’t want to engage?  What then?  But none of the numbers worked and by then, we were already into March!  I don’t recall who first suggested a legal route – maybe it was just a confluence of many conversations but Ant was certainly behind the final move and it seemed that there were only a few limited options left.  Calling at the house, we had once or twice managed to talk to neighbours and tried the numbers they had for them to no avail. One other time, a young man passing confirmed that he knew the family and thought that the “old man” was well looked after but “the old lady could be so strange with people”. My cousins had even tried to make contact via her sons, but those routes soon fizzled out. None of us were getting anywhere and it seemed about time to try something more formal, although at that stage I had no idea what might mean for us.

I tried a few people connected with various strands of the law and eventually a cousin suggested that we should try filing a missing persons’ report with the police. The attempt to do this (and, I assume, to avoid the associated paperwork) led to two visits to the house accompanied by the police. On the second attempt, I managed a glimpse of my father through the fence.  He and his wife emerged from the house and his face leapt into a brief smile when he recognised me and we waved to each other.  However, after that, things went downhill.  I was accused of lying, neglect, harassment and apparently extortion. At one point, the police officer appeared to accuse me of trying to trick him and I was left confused and frustrated.  I had not said a word other than to greet my father during the entire exchange. On the other hand, we were told that – under no circumstances – would we be allowed access at all.  Meanwhile, I was being denounced as a nasty, uncaring child who “…had never even given her father so much as an orange.”

Seeing my father so confused by this exchange, is probably when I resolved that this could not end there – Mrs Khoza had stood in front of us and lied.  She had – in almost the same breath – told the police that we had access whenever we liked and denied it at the same time. And they had believed her.  The last thing I wanted was for my father to believe her lies as well. He had to know that we still cared and thought about him; that he still had friends who, on losing contact with him, had sought me out and maintained a friendship; that he had been prevented from having an active connection to his family; that he had been denied this basic human right. The next day, we approached lawyers to bring an action in court to allow me access to my father. We wanted to bring the action for the whole family but, after a few discussions, we rationalised that, if we wanted to make an urgent application to the courts, it would have to be in my name because we could clearly show that I had very limited time – our flights home were fixed (oh the irony of our overstay!). The next few days were hectic but we got affidavits signed and somehow papers were served to bring an action for access to my father against his wife. Our attorneys were incredulous during this time, by the way. They couldn’t quite bring themselves to believe that someone would use access to a father against his children – they were much more used to the father filing for access to the children.  But then, they had never met Mrs Khoza. I could see that they would have to see this for themselves – although they were naturally very happy to take our money! The day that papers were served, our attorneys soon confirmed our worst fears – Mrs Khoza wanted to fight the action.

The exchanges that followed were baffling in many ways – at least one attorney had refused to take her case initially – but the fact that she intended to fight the action clearly confused the attorneys as much as anything else. Did she have some sort of counterclaim she could bring? Had we harmed Dad in any way? Could she have some other reason for preventing access? What weren’t we telling them? That was the subtext. By mid-afternoon, though, the response had changed and the attorneys came back with an offer to meet with my father informally the next day. As we had no guarantee that this would then mean anything more or even that it would be honoured, we agreed that we would be happy to meet him before the courts opened but otherwise, we would go ahead with the action. As no one turned up at the agreed meeting point the next morning, Ant and I headed to the courts. Having to sit back and watch the judge pick apart other cases was just another example of how far off the tourist trail our trip was. Even worse, was watching our advocate in court looking as though he couldn’t argue a case for toffee. At one point, I muttered my frustration to Ant and complained that we couldn’t go up there ourselves… Next thing I knew, Ant was up and striding to the front of the court… to the horror of our attorneys who hissed him back loudly. We didn’t go back into court after that, but clearly something was going on with both sets of attorneys and we were finally told that we would all meet at Mrs Khoza’s attorneys’ offices and arrange something more formal for the next day (our last day in South Africa).  This is the time when I finally got to speak with my Dad after years of having heard nothing – he confirmed that yes he did want to keep in touch but dismissed his lack of contact as his own fault: he didn’t like to use the phone and still hadn’t got the hang of those computer things! We didn’t have much time alone then but, when Mrs Khoza returned, she told us in no uncertain terms that we would not be welcome to have any form of relationship with her. We were not welcome at her home among other things and she went on to chronicle the sacrifices she had had to make in looking after my Dad with no help from the family!  I couldn’t even begin to categorise the disconnect but both sets of attorneys definitely stopped looking at me with that “sideways” glance. Hearing her rail and rant showed another side to her – especially given everything that we had just gone through.  When we were left alone, her attorney apologised profusely for his client’s behaviour and attitude!

We made plans for a more formal meeting the following day at Norwood mall when we would be allowed to spend time alone with my Dad.  The phone call to cancel came – as expected – early the next morning. Apparently, Dad was far too ill to go out that day.  So, we suggested that we should meet at a nearby clinic or at the hospital instead of a mall… We had lunch with my Dad later that day – he showed no signs of any fatigue and seemed confused when we asked if he had recovered from his illness.

The time we spent with Dad then was wonderful after everything we had all been through – it wasn’t really time for just us, though – we tried to connect him with as many family members and a few friends during that lunch but we also tried to find out how things worked for him. Did he have a phone? “Oh no – but you can phone any time,” (really, Dad – how if no one will answer the phone to us?). Did he want to maintain contact with people? “Oh yes – but it’s not easy to use the phone.  I forget”. At the end of the day, he clearly wanted to maintain his relationships – we just had to work out how that could be achieved. After a lovely couple of hours, we left my Dad in a bookshop, handed over to his wife and one of her Grandchildren. I knew then that that was only the start of a more complicated battle and I fully expected to have yet more frustration down the line.  We wouldn’t have a phone number for him or be able to maintain any form of communication in the meantime, but we had established some important rules: Mrs Khoza was now subject to a court order that required her to allow me contact with my Dad and we could use the principle of that order in future.

We had options.

An Unexpected Series of Events this Gawe Christmas

For some time now, spending time with my father has been a tricky point to consider in many ways.  How does one explain that his wife doesn’t allow the family any contact except under a court order?  Well – if you refer to previous blogs, there is not so much an explanation but an outline of some of the difficulties we have faced. Armed with such a court order from earlier this year, though, I thought we might have a better chance than ever of getting to see my Dad this Christmas/New Year and we might even be able to get a few people together to celebrate his 80th Birthday.  So, with many a finger crossed, we all booked our travel and a place to stay in Johannesburg.  We started the planning process in August, which included the process of contacting attorneys to agree on contact times/locations etc.

Come December 26th – 3 days to the party – we still hadn’t heard anything from the other attorneys and we were getting worried.  All the attorneys’ offices could well be closed for an extended holiday, so the lack of response was worrying.  Still – what was even more worrying was the call we got from my sister saying that she and my niece had been refused boarding!  South Africa’s immigration laws had changed since they last travelled and my sister could not now travel alone with her daughter without a signed, certified, original affidavit (not just any old letter) from her father.  It being Boxing Day, there was no way they were going to be able to resolve that on the day, so they had to steel themselves for a trudge back home and see what they could do the following day. Meanwhile, Jonas, Ant and I flew out frustrated that there was nothing we could have done to help.

I can only just outline here the obstacles that had to be overcome the following day – my niece’s Dad was enjoying his family Christmas and had to drive back into central London to find a working solicitor, following which he then drove them to Heathrow, only for them to have to be put on standby (luckily, there was no charge – BA recognises the issues that documentation can cause!), so all they could do was wait and fret. Meanwhile, in South Africa, my attorneys had received contact from Mrs Khoza’s (my father’s wife – I do not refer to her as having any closer relationship than that – I have my reasons) attorneys stating that they were not actually instructed by her to act other than to respond to the initial court order.  They tried to absolve themselves completely of all responsibility and stated that they had no contact details to act further.  This meant that we would have to return to court – with the earliest date possible now being Saturday 30th.  So, we decided to delay the party by a day in order to give the attorneys a chance.  So far – no luck on any count.  No father, no sister, delays and stresses at what seemed like every turn. But we did still have options! When my sister phoned to let us know she was finally through security and heading to the boarding gate at speed, I burst into tears – it wasn’t just the stress of their hellish day but I finally saw a little light on the horizon… We still had options!

28th December is my Aunt Nqa’s birthday but we only had time to send a quick message to her on the day and in the meantime, other family members were gathering in Jo’burg and we settled into our temporary home but we still had nothing formal from the attorneys.  Time was not on our side and finally, the attorneys suggested that we should try one last visit to Mrs Khoza’s house to try and make direct contact.  So, the next day, we headed out to see what we could do at the house.  Initially, there was no response, although we could hear a TV or radio in the house and occasional movements around the place.  We continued to wait and try making contact until eventually we spotted someone at a downstairs window.  We tried one last shout at the tops of our voices and were amazed when it seemed we had finally got through.  Mrs Khoza brought my father to the gate. It opened and my father stepped through. It shut and was locked immediately.  Despite several attempts to engage her, she just walked straight back into the house. But – my oh my – there in front of us stood my Dad.  He greeted us all so warmly – but it was so unexpected… when should we return him? What about his medication? Wouldn’t he need more than just the clothes he was standing in (in South Africa, you are expected – it may even be a legal requirement – to carry a valid ID card)? But we also couldn’t leave everyone standing outside the house, so we returned to our rented home and there reunited my Dad with his brother and other family members. Dad was lovely – although slow to engage at first and we realised quickly that we were in a tricky situation when he admitted that he didn’t know his wife’s phone number to call her. So, we’d have to go back to the house and by this time, the attorneys had arrived to discuss next steps – how long would he be staying with us, what medication did he have and when did he need it next, etc?  There were still so many questions that needed to be answered, so we went back to try and engage with Mrs Khoza more formally (ie with the help of the attorneys).  However, we were frustrated once more – with no response.  The attorneys then decided to involve the police and try to get her attention using the sirens and uniformed officers’ assistance.  Still no response. Eventually, we gave up and left a letter with our contact details and a request to liaise more formally about my father’s visit with us.

From this point on, the Gawe family went into full problem-solving mode. We had to organise clothes (at least for overnight but maybe longer if we didn’t hear from Mrs Khoza), medication and maybe more depending on how long he stayed with us. The attorneys suggested we not try to make contact again but, having managed to sort out his medication at the hospital, he asked to return to the house and we reluctantly took him there.  With bated breath, we tried one last time to get a response at the gate but to no avail and we returned to the house with my father and settled in for the night. By this time, Dad was settling into the whole idea and had already started to tease and joke and return to a little of his old self.  We weren’t sure how the morning would be for him, but we were so grateful when – in the morning – he seemed to improve again and took everything in his stride, particularly as some old friends started to arrive for his unofficial Birthday braai. It was a wonderful day, with some amazingly typical Jo’burg weather – glorious sunshine at times followed by thunder and hail in the evening.  The house was perfect, though – the braai was on long enough to cook up enough food for an army and there was plenty of space to accommodate everyone inside.  Dad worked the room like an old pro and seemed not to tire at all.

By contrast, Sunday (New Year’s Eve) was a day of codas – we had to say goodbye to everyone at some point – with the hardest being my son, sister and niece, whose time with Dad/Grandpa was so very limited. This was also the day that we finally heard from Mrs Khoza – although not directly. Contact came via a phone call from Norwood Police station.  At this point, although we had been witnessed in our attempts to make contact, we’d had no confirmation that our note had been received, so we were at least now able to confirm that she was able to contact us, although she refused to do so directly and actually told the police that she wanted us to stay away from her home from now on.  Although she knew that the court order had stipulated that both parties would appoint attorneys, she insisted that our attorneys should be the ones to liaise with her. This then meant that the earliest we would be able to make contact would be Wednesday 3rd January, when my attorneys returned to work. There was not much to do, then, other than to entertain Dad and try to put him in touch with a few of his old friends.  Oh – and see in the New Year when I gave up and encouraged him to bed finally at 1.30am.

We had a couple of uneventful days, watching Dad getting more and more confident, lively and mischievous by the day.  He was keen to return to his home – if just to pick up a few belongings – but he wanted to stay with us as long as we were in the country, so we were at least reassured that we were not trying to keep him against his will but realised as time went by that he was more confused about the lack of contact from his wife.  We had to ensure, therefore, that we were doing everything we reasonably could to put him in touch with her, although our attorneys advised that we shouldn’t try to get access to the house without an agreement in place. Instead, they did as she asked and requested a meeting to discuss more formal arrangements. Our worst case scenario was that Mrs Khoza would not respond and would not engage again but would not make any further contact (resulting in some sort of de facto but unconfirmed rejection), but we hoped that some reasonable accommodation could be made such that he would at least retain contact on a regular basis with the family.  In the end, we were right to plan for the worst, as Mrs Khoza has still (almost a week later) not contacted anyone. The impact on my Dad was palpable initially – he was clearly upset at her lack of response – and the next few days meant rushing around to try and get him a temporary ID, a flight down to his brother’s home and some other basics.  We managed a lovely lunch at Marble in Jo’burg on his actual birthday but he was quite subdued having to go to the airport the next day.

Since then, we have maintained contact for the first time in over 6 years – we have a phone number for him which I will maintain, his brother is taking care of his health needs and setting up much-needed appointments, and we can hear that he is again quickly returning to his singsong self, remembering old nicknames for me (no – I’m not telling here) and enjoying some of our old joke formats: “Hey Nomtha, Vuyo is not as stupid as I look,” he says. “No, Dad,” I respond, “… she couldn’t be…”.  We still don’t know what will happen from now on – this phase of things is going to be in flux for a while for all of us, and while we can rejoice at his return, I can see that it is with some sadness for him that it appears to be at the expense of his marriage.  Much as we may feel he made a mistake, I have always tried to acknowledge his commitment to the marriage, and so I hope that he is able to make peace with whatever happens next.  I have heard of so many other tales where new wives have prevented the old family from maintaining contact – particularly in South Africa – but not one where there was any reunion with the former wife’s family. But for now, we Gawes (and others) are all enjoying having my Dad back as part of the family.

Does “Talent” really trump “Diversity”?

David Lammy’s article about the lack of diversity in Oxbridge brought up a lot of very interesting response comments.  I would normally ignore those, having read the main article but one in particular set me thinking.  The writer merely stated something along the lines that “talent is more important than diversity”. I then read another article today regarding the treatment of UCT’s deputy  Vice Chancellor, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, outlining a theory that, because of her African heritage (she jokes about her ‘kinky hair’), her qualifications for the role were treated with some suspicion by certain alumni members.

Is it the case, therefore, that we automatically assume talent exists within certain circles (public schools in particular) and not within others?  Is talent inherently related to class or one’s ability to pay for a particular education?  Is talent restricted or linked somehow to privilege?  If we place so much importance on only talent, how do we recognise it?  If we have a diverse population, should we not have the same or similar representation within a “talented” group of individuals?  Are we actually able to recognise it when it is packaged differently?  At public schools, students are not just taught to ace the exams, but they are trained in impressing at the Oxbridge interviews.  Their privilege has already given them access to people, situations and networks which many other schoolchildren don’t even know exist. So – should we look at where we expect to see talent and how we expect it to manifest? It all takes hard work – that is not being disputed – but what happens if, when we look around, we are not even thinking of looking at these other kids? Is it easier to believe that a black African Professor got her job purely because of her colour (affirmative action) and to balance the University’s diversity figures? Was there no scrutiny of her appointment or background checks to verify her capability? Is it easier to assume that she, in no way, possessed a modicum of talent or even reasonable qualifications?

It’s a tricky message to consider – yes we should be very concerned with recruiting talented and capable people, but what happens if we are also assuming that these people will just come to us? How much effort do we need to put into seeking out talent within less represented sectors of the population?

I once argued with someone about the lack of black players within the South African national rugby team. That an England team will regularly field more black players seemed to me bizarre and yet in more than 20 years post-Apartheid, South Africa struggles to find more than a handful of non-white players each year.  His response was that there quite clearly wasn’t the talent among the black population in South Africa… Specifically, he said, “It’s the white man’s game“.  But why? Do black players lack physicality or other skills necessary to play rugby? Really? I argued that they simply weren’t looking in the right places and therefore weren’t identifying or nurturing the right skills.  If the government then had to impose a quota to rectify or even start to rebalance the team, then at least SARU had had plenty of time to look at it themselves without significant results.

My assumption is not that the talent doesn’t exist – it just isn’t being found or sought out. My feeling about Oxbridge is the same. Talent should be considered inherently diverse, but in order to get that to be reflected in our elite institutions will take more work than just assuming it will be found by looking in the same places or by testing people the same way.  While the statement that talent should be considered more important than diversity is not automatically racist or sexist, if your assumption is that Oxbridge should not therefore change or reconsider its practices for identifying and nurturing that talent, I would argue that you are missing an important point. Oxbridge should not be dropping its standards – rather it should look at whether its own assumptions about how best to identify excellence works for more than just a privileged sector of society. In a diverse population, is it an unreasonable assumption that a pool of talented people should reflect this – maybe not precisely, but certainly much more closely?



Remembering Lost Fathers

On December 5th 2013, South Africa lost its most cherished father figure. The world lost one of our most celebrated statesmen. A family lost its father, grandfather and more. There is much to be said about Mandela’s symbolism to everyone – as leader, revolutionary, terrorist, statesman and diplomat that I feel it better to leave that to those who knew him or who will spend the time doing the hard research.

Today, on Father’s Day 2016, I find myself selfishly contemplating the “loss” of my own father, Stephen Gawe. Since 2013, we have only heard sketchy reports that he is alive but have no idea whether he is well. He apparently suffers from dementia and – whether this is as a result of his current medication or otherwise – he has been “lost” to most of his family for more than four years now.

Madiba reminds me a lot of my father in temperament and attitude – at least in my memory of him. I wouldn’t consider that to be overly contrived, but I do think it was deliberate. My father sought to emulate Mandela’s poise and thoughtfulness and – while he may have been a little different in his youth – I think that fatherhood, mellowness and a tendency towards peace was always part of him. While my Mother might tell me to stand up to the bullies and tormentors at school, my Father found this a difficult subject. Mum would often tell me to “kick ‘em in the shins” or call them “pink pigs” in response to the many racist taunts that would send me home in tears. Dad, though, would say very little. I think, for him, it was a case of being unable to express a breaking heart.

My father’s story is, like many other exiles and comrades in “The Struggle”, one that is almost impossible to comprehend but in his admiration of so many of the key players in the story, he is more likely to play his part down than try to talk it up. I am only now starting to build up a sketchy picture of parts of that story – and that is part of the loss. Without wanting to make him live through that time again, I would love to be spending time with him, hearing more of his stories and sharing those with my own family and friends.

I miss him terribly – but am also left unable really to mourn. When we were last in Johannesburg in December last year, we tried to visit but were once again frustrated. Although we could see movement in the house, no one even acknowledged our presence. High walls and a solid metal gate surround him and even his closest family is not permitted entry. My father’s cheeky, intelligent and astute sense of humour and sensitivity means that most of the time we have spent together has been uplifting and positive. However, I feel as though I am now missing all the down beats that come of a full relationship.

My Father is alive but is also no longer able to maintain a relationship with us – his children, grandchildren, sisters, brother and so many dear old friends. It is not for want of trying. We write him, email and attempt to elicit responses. We used to try phoning until the numbers he used went dead. We know my Father is alive… but is he well? Until a few years ago, I was in contact with the Reverend at his church and she would email with news of his decline whenever she could spare the time. Unfortunately, his church attendance has also waned and even she is no longer in contact with him.

Unfortunately, there is almost no way to tell and the latest news via the awful grapevine of South African gossip-mongers is just too painful to recount in any detail. I would like to be re-united with my Father – for us all to be his connection to the past which (if his diagnosis of dementia is correct) might at least be something we can help to manage and understand. It would be a wonderful thing to be able to tell the many friends who ask after him so often that he is “doing well” or even that he is “deteriorating badly but he had a good day last month”…

There is a prolonged and wearing state of partial grieving that goes on in the meantime. Have you ever stood outside your parent’s home and not been allowed in?  You can see them moving around inside but they don’t even come to the door to tell you you’re not welcome? If you have experienced that, you have my utmost sympathy – there is a “loss” that is very difficult for some people to understand. What makes this even more difficult for me to accept is that I don’t even believe that it’s what he wants.

Happy Father’s Day 2016, Dad. I hope you are well and know just how much you are missed by too many to mention.

My thoughts (again) – on Scotland and Independence

Thoughts on Scotland and Independence

I wish I could come up with a better and stronger reason for being interested in the Scottish referendum than “just” considering myself British, but I’m not sure I can. I could push that, for the first two years of my life, I knew only Scotland and spoke with such a strong Scottish accent, my poor (African) mother reported that she was at pains to understand me at times. Or maybe I could stretch to the tentative mention of an Aunt who, during one visit, mentioned that my Great Great Grandfather may have been a Scot. We haven’t been able to work out anything more about that – it helps to explain the pale hue of my mother’s line but without some idea as to who or when, then I guess I’m stretching too far (definitely wouldn’t be enough for me to play for the national Rugby team).

No – I have always loved Scotland and it was my mother’s wish that I be born there. She couldn’t help it that she wasn’t well enough to travel and I was born in England – my Dad was there and our heart was in Edinburgh! Honest.

But either way, any way, we are all of us in the UK affected by the Scottish referendum. I am torn in so many ways – I would love to be voting in this referendum but I’m also glad that this is not my decision to make. There is – what feels to me – a mischievous streak that would love, love, love to see an Independent Scotland. I have no doubt that Scotland as an independent country could thrive – although possibly not with Alex Salmond’s leadership. But I’m proud to be British, and a big part of that pride stems on keeping Scotland within the Union. Emotionally, there is no way to resolve these sides – they take prominence on pretty much alternate days at the moment… And today I think the change has been hourly.

One of the most disappointing aspects to me of the “Yes” campaign has been their lack of any sign of back-up thinking. The “No” campaign is always going to be hampered by the fact that it is – by its very definition – negative! It will always be negativity. Who can see “Yes” and then say that’s a Negative campaign? That’s the first point that David Cameron lost – it may initially only have been 1 point but now it’s too close to call and that 1 point may well prove too much to have given.

But hmmm – what do I feel? I’m a proper swinger. I’ve had too much time off work lately to have ignored the option to go and look at the arguments – on both sides. I’ve looked and I’ve considered. And I’ve been disappointed by the lack of openness from the “yes” campaign as well as the lack of passion from the “no” campaign.

There are huge questions looming. Instead of pushing that “…Westminster will [need to] agree to our position”, why not work on developing an alternative plan or plans? Why not consider unilateral use of the Pound at least in the meantime and work with the Scottish banks to develop an independent currency? Why not develop a plan for an EU application – rather than assume an automatic membership? Why not say what your back-up plans would be?

That’s the thing that would rip the carpet right out from under the “no” campaign’s feet. Europe is not happy but it might be happy to think about new members in maybe 10-15 years’ time. What if Scotland had to wait that long? Why not develop a plan for that now and develop something that might be more palatable, at least in principle.

The No campaign, on the other hand, has been a classic example of how not to run an election/campaign. They have focused on party politics. This is NOT a party political campaign – this is about Scottish independence, which happens to have the SNP as its main driving force. Focusing on the party politics aspect – calling this “Alex Salmond’s plans” or referring to the “SNP” plans is too limiting and it makes a lot of voters switch off. I’d be offended if, on a “yes” day, I were suddenly categorized as a particular “voter”… it shows a singularly ineffective view of the entire campaign. The “no” campaign has completely misunderstood this – and just makes one feel that Westminster’s view is more horrifically divorced from the current feeling within the country than anything else.

Scotland is lucky to have this focus.

Wow – I just had to reread that last sentence which is why I have also isolated it. I’m not sure where it came from but I know it’s what I meant to say. What Scotland has right now is an unprecedented opportunity – voter engagement is higher than it’s ever been in my lifetime – can we ALL learn from this? We do have more of a say in our politics than ever before – we can pressure our parliament, our MPs without having to wait for time in their surgeries simply through social media. But we don’t use it – or we don’t use it well. Why didn’t we have this level of engagement when we had an opportunity to change the way our votes are counted?   We will almost definitely see a majority of people coming out to say that their votes “won’t count/don’t matter” next May but did they take the opportunity to change their voting system when it was offered so that their vote might have more say? Maybe we do just need to offer simpler questions to the country: Would you like a more influential voting system: Yes or No? OK – it’s too easy to say “which system” but that’s effectively what Scotland is voting on, isn’t it? Well no – what they have is an opportunity to vote on something completely different. No ambiguity, no representative level about it (other than the subsequent negotiation, obviously)…

Maybe it’s that that’s my sticking point. I know that the negotiations would still be on a representative basis – Alex Salmond (would he be the lead negotiator if he were voted out of leadership in May?) has already shown that he can get his way over David Cameron (although who knows who will be leading the rUK discussions after May) on some very key points.

An independent committee on how best to implement either Independence or Devolution (including for the rest of the UK) would be best placed to consider the various options which need to be reviewed – maybe we should have put those folks into a bunker already but I can almost certainly say that – were I eligible to vote, I still wouldn’t know which cross I’d have put on the paper tonight and I think that’s no bad thing.

My Thoughts on Women’s Afro Hair

Some time ago (some months as I write), there was a debate (no – not a debate, an unstructured discussion) on Woman’s Hour. The women invited took two popular but unhelpfully extreme positions: “Love the Weave” vs “Only Natural Will Do”.

Clearly Jenny Murray is in no position to comment on her own experience of afro hair and could contribute little (or less) to the discussion and it spiraled into an argument over whether the Weave woman should wear it or not. Useless. On so many levels.  I really desperately wanted to wade into the discussion but I couldn’t properly frame my thoughts at the time.

So I took some time and then almost completely forgot to write them down. The discussion started by comparing Naomi Campbell’s latest (at the time) hairstyle which was “faux naturel” and Lupita Nyong’o’s appearance at the Oscars. Was it a brave thing for Lupita to wear her hair naturally? Some of the discussion seemed to go that way but something nagged at me.

Lupita grew up in Kenya where her hair would not have been an unusual focal point. My experience, growing up in Southampton, though, was likely quite different. My experience may not be true for every Black British woman, but I’m sure there are enough of us who do remember this: “Can I touch your hair?” and before you know it, your head is being patted, pulled and squealed at. It’s not actually a question.

When I did say no, it was often too late – and then you’re accused of being rude; not being any fun; not “playing the game”; or even worse – of being somehow “unfair”. But hang on – since when is it rude to object to someone touching you? Does this sound familiar? What concerns me is anyone who doesn’t wait for the assent – why wouldn’t you wait? We are teaching our young girls to be responsible for their bodies – hair included. We need to teach them to respect others’ as well.

If you don’t need to hear “yes”, do you also presume some sort of authority over that person?   It was this feeling of someone else’s presumption which really made me angry. These girls felt it was OK to treat me like their plaything – did that mean that they thought of themselves as “superior” to me in some regard as well? Was I really just a thing for their amusement? I didn’t think so but something didn’t sit well with me. Then that reaction that my hair in some way wasn’t “right” – or worse that it was icky or scary – formed, for me, a lasting impression. Now when I return to the Women’s Hour discussion, the politics of black hair should really address this aspect of how other people treat your hair – if you’ve had it patted and pulled for years and hated it, why not try to make it less of a thing of interest? I was frustrated that the discussion didn’t attempt to make this point because so many people don’t give it a second thought.

Then my niece wrote this poem, which brought a lot of feelings back – mainly sorrow that she (although living and growing up in a much more diverse area) still goes through this same thing.

No Point

By Ruby Gawe

People keep telling me,

“Can I touch your hair?”

Except there’s no point

because they’re already

pulling my scalp and hurting

my hair.


People keep telling me,

“Can I touch your hair?”

And I can’t say no,

so it’s like my head is stuck

in a crane’s metal jaws


My mum does my hair

and I like it

that way. She does it

really well

then people come

and make it look

like a bramble bush!

Do you think I don’t care?


I wish,

just one day, people will

actually wait for my answer.

F.Y.I it will be no!

The important thing to take from this is – whatever the answer, you need to teach your kids to wait for it and respect it when it comes.  I don’t have any answers to the question of natural or no for Afro hair – and I certainly don’t expect there to be a more measured discussion on this any time soon, but maybe I will have more of these thoughts to hand next time the question comes up!