Located on the outskirts of the city of Cape Town, The Cape Flats is often referred to as “the dumping ground of apartheid”. Essentially, it is a vast tract of flat or low-lying land earmarked by the apartheid government for the explicit purpose of relocating, often by forced removal, non-white South Africans.
In the early days houses consisted of a handful of rudimentary dwellings but the area has grown into a vast array of suburbs. One of these suburbs is Elsie’s River, where Charmaine Catherine Ziegler, who works in the finance department at GOLD Restaurant, was born in 1962.
Charmaine grew up in what she describes as a ‘normal’ and close-knit middle class family. In the early days Elsie’s River was quiet and more like a village community. The family lived in a rented home because they couldn’t afford a property of their own. While they didn’t have buckets of money, Charmaine has piles of rich and happy memories.
Canvas palaces and velvet carpets
Her father would often load the family into their old blue Chevy (Chevrolet) truck and cart them off to wherever there was a fun fair (carnival). He loved fairs. He also loved camping. In fact, they spent many weekends and holidays “glamping” or luxury camping before the concept was even invented. Her father never did anything in half measures.
Rigging their campsite was more like constructing a canvas palace with add-a-rooms and everything from the kitchen cupboard to comfortable double mattresses and the obligatory blue velvet carpet. Charmaine throws her head back and laughs when she relates how guest visits, usually friends camping in the same vicinity were preceded by her father meticulously sweeping the carpet in an effort to remove microscopic dust.
Lambs, handkerchiefs and Marie biscuits
Initially the middle child of three siblings, Charmaine was the only girl until the age of 17 when the ‘laat lammetjie’ (Afrikaans for ‘late lamb’, which refers to a child born many years after its siblings), the sister she had always wished for arrived. Charmaine’s breaks into a huge smile as she recounts an evening when her sister was five. With her little hand clutching a parcel of Marie biscuits wrapped in a handkerchief, she stood at the front door and asked, “Can I come dancing with you? I even have food for us.”
More than anything, Charmaine’s father adored their mother. Where he was jovial and outgoing, she was quiet and reserved. Together they raised a happy brood with strong Christian principles. Every Christmas Eve the family would go to midnight mass but on Christmas Eve in 2000, Charmaine’s mother passed away just before midnight, 19 months after being diagnosed with advanced breast cancer.
Responding to loss
While grief is universal, people respond differently to loss. Charmaine’s father had expected his wife to recover. He was hopeful right until the end. When she died he fell into a “stil stuiper” (Afrikaans for withdrawing into oneself), more so every Christmas and New Year. In 2013, he developed a heart condition and in the same year was gone.
When Charmaine was growing up, her father would play his music full blast. He was particularly fond of the swing era crooners like Nat King Cole and jazz and blues musicians like Louis Armstrong and the trumpeter, Chris Botti. Often his children would ask him to turn down his music but on the day he died, they played all his favourites so loudly that the neighbours down the street could hum to Mona Lisa as it wafted down the road.
Nowadays when Charmaine thinks of her Dad she plays his music really loud but when she thinks of her Mom, it’s a quieter, introspective experience. Having lost both her parents she says, “I’ve learned that it’s important to be present, to pay attention and to notice everything because it can all be taken away so quickly. I’m learning not see the pettiness in things any more. I know now that the small things are either solvable or irrelevant”.
You don’t need to wear the same ‘genes’
Family is everything to Charmaine. This is evident in her relationships with her husband, children, extended family and close friends. The kind of intimate connection that ‘normal’ or biological family members have is not necessarily limited to the people with whom we share genes. This is certainly true of Charmaine’s connection to her office colleagues at GOLD. She says, “I love Cindy (restaurant co-owner). I just love her. It’s a joy to come to work”. Gesturing with her hand she says, “look at this place. It’s like all of Africa in one place working together and getting along”.