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.