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Good times and bad times

Many people think that I am just a piece of rubbish because I work in the rubbish dump,” says maMotaung. “1 want people to hear my story. Then they can decide if I am a piece of rubbish or not!

A pile of rubbish covers ma­Motaung’s feet. Her face is white from the dust. And the stink of rotting food is everywhere. Ma­ Motaung carried on speaking. “1 don’t really care what people think. I work hard for every cent that I get. And my job is important ­ someone has to do it.


“1 was born a long time ago in Qwaqwa. My family had a small plot there. We grew vegetables, potatoes and spinach. My father got money, working on the white farms nearby. There was not a lot in our house – but there was enough for everyone.

“1 went to school there. I loved my teacher very much. She knew every child in the class. She saw some children did not have food at school. So she asked all the parents to give vegetables.

We cooked them at school – the boys collected wood for the fire and the girls boiled the water. Then everyone got food.

But I did not stay at school. My mother died first. And then my father died a few years later. I was fifteen. There was no-one to look after me. So I went to live with my sister in Johannesburg, in Pimville.


I missed the mountains and open space of Qwaqwa a lot. But living with my sister was exciting. We lived in a yard with lots of other people. My sister’s husband did not get much money. So, my sister used to brew beer.

My sister made lots of money with her beer. We had everything we needed. My sister decided to hire more rooms so that more people could come and drink her beer. But there was one room that was always very quiet. And the men who sat there hardly drank at all.

The landlord used to say that those men were real gentlemen. And my sister used to laugh. One day I asked her why, she laughed. “Well,” she said. “You know that the land­lord hates politics.

Those men in that room are from the ANC. They asked me to hire the room so that they could meet and no-one would worry them.”


I met my husband when I was twenty two. What a nice clean young man he was. We built a shack in Rockville. I found a job in the kitchens. I worked for an Afrikaans family. They were funny people.

They liked me to clean their house and pick up their underpants. But they didn’t want me to sleep there. They didn’t like ‘natives’ so close to them. It was the same in the motor car. I always sat in the back just like a very rich madam.

After two years I was expecting my first child. My ‘madam’ was also pregnant. My husband said I must stop working and rest. When I told my boss, he was very angry. He said I must stay and clean for his wife. She was pregnant, so she couldn’t do the work. He said I was selfish. My husband was very angry about this. He said I must leave that place and never go back.


After my first child was born, I stayed at home for a long time. I didn’t want to work. I just wanted to look after my child. Some­ times my husband complained because I wasn’t bringing home any money. Then, one day an old friend from Qwaqwa came to visit me.

She said she would help me. She worked for some Chinese people. They ran fahfee. They trusted her because she had worked for them for a long time. So she said, “I will come and tell you the number before the fahfee runner comes. Then you can win money and you can stay at home. But don’t tell anyone, not even your husband.

After that I won money nearly every week. But then my husband wanted to know how I got all the money. So I told him about the numbers.

He promised that he would not say anything. But one night he got drunk and told his friends. He told them how I knew the numbers. After that people came from everywhere to ask me the numbers. It was the end of fahfee for me. I was frightened that the Chinaman would hear – and that my friend would lose her job.


I stopped playing fahfee. I found a really good job at a paper mill. I earned R199 a week. I dressed beautifully in those days. And when I fell pregnant with my second child, they gave me three months maternity leave. But the the mill closed down and I was without a job again.

So I went to look for a job in the kitchens again. This time I worked for the De Beers in Mayfair. The pay was bad but they were good people. I took my children with me to work. Their eldest child played with my children. I liked to watch them playing together.


Then Mr de Beer died. He was only sick for a short time. I think it was liquor that killed him. He worked at a bottle store. He often came drunk – and there was always liquor in the fridge.

Mrs de Beer had no money. She left her house – and told me she had no money for my wages. So I lost my second nice job.

I was also having problems at home. My husband started to drink. When I was pregnant with my third child, he told me that he had two children from another woman. He said he didn’t have enough money for all of us. So I told him to bring the children to our house. I said I would look after them.


Not long after Mr de Beer died, my husband died too. I was left to look after all the children with no money. My husband’s other children were difficult. The one boy was very jealous. He said that I loved his brother more than I loved him.

One Saturday, he got so angry that threw petrol over me. Then he threw a match at me. Luckily only my left arm got burnt – and it was not badly burnt. But I was badly frightened.

I ran away from the house. I was frightened this boy would do something worse next time. I took my two babies with me. The welfare took the other three children. I had nowhere to go. I did not know what to do.


I went to Mayfair and I lived in the scrapyard there. I found an old matress with two boards. I made a place for us, between all the old cars. I stored all my things in one old car.

Some friends of mine worked in Mayfair. They visited me and brought food for me and the children. But it was not enough. I had no milk for the baby. He did not grow well like my other children.

Once, when it was very cold, my friend said, “You will die out here tonight. Come, you can sleep in my room but my madam mustn’t hear the children. She will chase me away if she does.” So we crept into her room. We didn’t make a sound.

One day Mrs de Beer came to the scrapyard. She could not believe her eyes. She took me to the pass office in town. Before a week had passed, I had a two roomed house and a job with the Soweto Council.


I went to the office on my first day of work. There was a truck waiting outside. I got a shock when some­ one gave me a big fork and a rake. They told me to get on the truck. Twelve other women were already sitting on the truck.

The women told me what we had to do. The truck took us to different places. Then we had to rake up the rubbish that was lying around. When the rubbish was in heaps, we had to throw it onto the truck. It was very heavy work. I was sore and tired at the end of my first day. But after a few weeks, I was used to it.

Everyone who walked past us had something to say. Some people laughed at us – women doing men’s work. Others felt sorry for us. But I liked the school boys best. Some­times they would stop and help us throw the rubbish up onto the truck.


One day, after about four years of cleaning the streets, my super­visor called me. She said she was going to give me a lighter job. Since then I have worked in the rubbish dump, showing the trucks where to drop the rubbish.

It is easier work but I worry about the dust. One of my sons has T.B. I think it comes from the dust on my clothes. I am worried that that the other children will get it too. The house is so small that the dust from my work clothes goes everywhere.

I will die happy when my son finishes his matric. Then he can help his brothers and sisters. I have done my best to make my children into good people. I think they are good people. I just hope that none of them start to drink and drain their brains in liquor.

When I think of my life, I cannot say that I am happy or sad. I had good times and some very bad times. But I have lived through them all – like many people. I am tired now. I just wish that I could rest.”.


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