“I’m telling you my darling, the best thing you can do for yourself is to be emotionally and financially independent and build a life that you can be proud of,” Mary-Anne said resignedly.
The struggle of the day was written all over her face. She was covered with the soot of the Johannesburg‘s polluted streets which had now become her resting place for the night, while her torn olive green coat and jeans draped over her skinny body. Her Caucasian skin was peeling from the effects of the harsh summer sun, and her olive green eyes expressed sadness and despondency as they sunk deep into her sockets.
I was sitting with her on the lawns outside of the Joburg Civic Theatre after the support group meeting that our NGO for vulnerable women and children ran every weekday during lunch. We were chatting about life and all its challenges and happy moments, and we arrived at the point where she decided to pour her heart out.
“I had it all at one time my darling,” she said with a reminiscent smile on her face.
“I enjoyed the perks of being married to a wealthy man. I enjoyed the security and luxury it offered. I was happy knowing that my needs were taken care of, unlike when I was younger and I had to fend for myself because mother was a housewife by my father’s insistence, and my father would sometimes trade his salary for alcohol, leaving us with no money for food.”
“My husband was a mining magnate who founded his own company and held executive positions in various mining companies. I lived in a huge, 5-star mansion in Saxonwold; my wardrobe was filled with designer clothes, the garages had a fleet of expensive cars, and off-course and we were part of Joburg’s elite, a celebrated and highly-esteemed couple in the city’s business and social world.”
“I never imagined that my life would turn out that way as a 20-year-old clerk working at the Post Office. I hated my job, especially my boss who was a misogynist at heart. I kept working so that I could support my mother and myself as my father was unreliable. However, I longed for a man who would love me unconditionally and take care of me. I longed deeply for the kind of love.”
“After I got married, my husband’s success at business was booming, so he made the decision that I quit my job to mind the home while he worked for us. I didn’t think twice about it. I didn’t want to work anyway, but because my husband loved me so much and went out of his way for me, I was happy to make the necessary sacrifices for him. Also, it wasn’t the norm back in the 70s for a woman to chase a career at the expense of her family.”
“As time went on, I became disillusioned with the life I had chosen. I thought that being married was all that I needed to make me happy, but I would still feel lonely and unfulfilled. I frequently dismissed these feelings because they made feel guilty, as though I was being ungrateful for all I had.”
“Having my children made me feel alive again, like I was living for something meaningful. As a mother, you baby depends on you for all their needs, they love you unconditionally, and they need and want your support and company. That is what I loved the most.”
“But off-course, kids grow up and with that, their reliance on a mother decreases. So when my eldest son had moved out of home at the age of 19 and his brother and sister were still in high school, those pangs of loneliness that I previously experienced returned.”
“I worried a lot more about my future, even though I had no reason to. I realized that I had nothing to fall back on in case my husband became incapacitated and couldn’t work. I had no formal qualifications; I hadn’t used a computer in 20 years so I was completely unemployable, and honestly, I didn’t know how to make money. All I knew was how to entertain the wealthy housewives of Johannesburg and how to be the perfect wife and mother.”
“My husband and children were my life.”
“So when my husband spent many hours away from home, and became hot-tempered and secretive with our finances, I started worrying even more. He was always drunk, and starting becoming verbally abusive to the children. Not that he was ever the stellar type father to them through the years anyway; he was more like their meal ticket, keeping them clothed and fed while giving all of his affection to his work. I was too afraid to say something then because I didn’t want to ruin the life we had, especially because of my absolute dependence on him. And with his change in character, I didn’t want to probe it further for fear of what I’d find out.”
“One day, while I was re-organizing our cupboards, I found bank and business letters and MVG cards from a number of casinos. I opened all of the letters, and found out that he had withdrawn thousands of Rands from our investment accounts, including our savings for retirement. He had placed his business assets and some of our possessions as surety for his gambling ventures.”
“I couldn’t believe it. I was angry and afraid. I didn’t know that my husband had a gambling problem. I always knew that he had an insatiable love for money, but he worked hard for it.”
“I felt angry and betrayed because I had given up my life for this man, only to have him piss everything all at casinos. And I was fearful of what would happen to me and the children. We would be destitute if he were to lose anything in a bad gamble.”
“My fears were realized when that bad gamble became a reality, and indeed, everything was lost. There was not a single cent left in our bank and investment accounts, and our home was eventually repossessed to cover his debt. I thought we owned the house after 20 years of living in it, but it turns out that he faulted on payments.”
“He couldn’t deal with the problems that he caused, so after a couple of months, he plunged a bullet through his skull, leaving me alone to live with the mess that he created.”
“I tried to turn to friends for help, but off-course, none of those relationships were real. We were just a bunch of ‘high society’ women who secretly hated each other but needed each other to forget our domestic problems. So they all turned their backs on me. And to make matters worse, I couldn’t find a job. Being a white, middle-aged woman who spent the majority of her life as a housewife made me an unemployable person in contemporary South Africa.”
“I have no family to turn to. My parents died years ago; I have no siblings and my children… Well, my first son is a wife-beating drunk who kicked me out of his home; my other son is an imprisoned drug addict and my daughter went AWOL after her father’s funeral; I have no idea where she is. It hurts me to see what they have become.”
“I should’ve place importance on my education. I should’ve been economically emancipated. I didn’t realize that my relationship with my parents, particularly my father, affected me so much. I did everything I could to be loved, but I failed.”
“Now I’m living destitute on the streets of Johannesburg, having to stand at traffic lights with a cardboard sign that reads ‘no food, no job, please help. God bless’. Do you have any idea how that saps every ounce of dignity I have left? To be looked at like filth, to be judged by people who sometimes say to me ‘you’re a white woman who lived a privileged life because of apartheid. Why are you poor? You couldn’t use your privilege wisely?”
“This is my reality now, and I’ve got to survive. In the midst of the indignity, as well as the real dangers of being a woman on the street, I’ve got to keep me head up and control my present to try and salvage my future,” she said hopefully.
Our chat was intercepted by the project leader, who told us that it was time to pack up for the day. I helped Mary-Anne up to her feet, and we picked up a refuse bag and started to assist in clearing the used paper plates and cups.
After we were done, we said our goodbyes, and off she went into the heart of Johannesburg to a busy intersection to collect some money from generous motorists. She could afford to pay for a warm bed at a shelter tonight if she makes enough money.
* image sourced from www.techmalak.com.