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.

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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.