Friday, 7 December 2012

Confessions of a "well-spoken coloured"

By Margaret Lenta

Spanner in the Works: One Woman's Journey from Factory Floor to the Corridors of Power (Umuzi) by Pat Fahrenfort is life writing at its best and bravest. No witness to misery, no complaints about injustice, and if there are encounters with the great, we get to know facets of them that we didn't expect.
It's the story of a working woman's life from 15 years old, when she is jerked out of school one Friday and told by her mother that she has a factory job to go to on Monday. The work is deadly and the supervisory staff authoritarian.
The instant change from schoolchild to working woman proves appalling. Employment means early rising - work begins at 8am and Pat's home is far away on the Cape Flats - compulsory overtime and, as she says, if she is lucky (overtime is sometimes required at weekends) a little fresh air and vitamin D on Sunday.
Not all her fellow workers are unsympathetic: some remember their own early days. Hand the pay packet over to Mother as soon as you arrive home. No ''thank you'' can be expected.
Fahrenfort learns that the pressure to learn adult endurance and acceptance of tedium and exhaustion comes not only from the working environment but from home.
When she is laid off, she tells us that her mother "was displeased, and for a week or more she hardly spoke to me".
For some years Fahrenfort continues, despite her employment, to be at the disposal of her mother, pushed from job to job when there's a chance of a slightly higher wage.
Employers and their deputies are casually racist, casually sexist - it takes skill and caution to escape exploitation by a man who thinks it's his right. She makes one mistake: a single night as a stripper in a club, which horrifies her parents and convinces the sexually predatory that she's fair game. It's a brief detour; before long she is back to the world of daily work.

Eventually, she makes her way to clerical work, and it's here that the reader becomes aware of how able she is, and at the same time how indomitable. Through a combination of lying and strategic frankness, as well as intelligence, she becomes a skilled typist and switchboard operator.
There's an unexpected pregnancy and a brief marriage, which Fahrenfort realises will mean harder work, domestically and in the world of employment. She decides marriage is not for her. She does not record sadness or regret, because this is essentially the life of a loner, making it against the odds.
The heading of Chapter 9, "Well-spoken coloured female" is the beginning of many ''wanted'' ads in the period, and summarises not only the racism and sexism of employers, but their condescension and will to exploit. The potential employees aren't women, they are "females". Working as a reporter, Fahrenfort attends court where people charged under the Immorality Act are prosecuted. "The accused was usually female and of colour, the white counterpart seldom being charged".
The times, however, are changing, and Fahrenfort secures secretarial jobs, first at UCT and then at the University of the Western Cape. From there, we begin to recognise names we know, and she is frank about the foibles and vices of the eminent. She also tells us of their occasional generosity, and the way in which they recognise her calibre and (once or twice) point to more interesting work.
What is irresistible is the way in which she remains unashamedly a Cape Flats girl: when a professor's wife fetches her for a dinner engagement, she tells us "[m]y curious mother had come outside, too, in her full working-class regalia - overall, slippers and rollers in her hair." And her language when provoked is always colourful.
From university, she is glad to move on to a job relating to the writing of the new constitution. This involves giving up the certainty of tenure, pension, medical insurance. She does not hesitate.
It's a new world, in which the able and hardworking will get what they deserve. Except that they don't. She has to face that they get what their race group entitles them to. When she tells Trevor Manuel she has applied for a position in his Ministry, "[a]n uneasy silence ensued and then came his blunt response. "Pat, I'm under pressure to take a black person."
Affirmative action is defensible, as Cyril Ramaphosa explains to her, but the recognition, "I'm not black enough" is bitter to her. And she finds the intrigue, petty tyrannies and betrayals of political life detestable. Those who know themselves to be inadequate fear their colleagues. The job, she finds, involves "too much stroking of egos".
Spanner in the Works is many things: the voice of a woman who would not believe that she had no right to speak; an individual's account of the history of the last five decades, and the story of how ideals were replaced by corruption. It's a page-turner, humourous and at the same time revelatory of lifestyles most of us know little about.  - This review was written by the late Margaret Lenta and was published with a short tribute to her. 

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