The Last Years in Marabastad

Why you should care

The residents of this South African township were the original hustlers. But apartheid stopped their hustle dead in its tracks. 

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  • CAPITAL CITY
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A few nights ago, my father had a dream about his recently deceased mother. In his dream, my grandmother appeared as her younger self; not young exactly, but still vibrant and untouched by the Alzheimer’s disease that rendered her speechless and immobile in her 80s.

She was taking him to the hospital to visit her friend, the wife of a local gangster who lived up the road from their house in Marabastad, a township on the outskirts of South Africa’s capital, Pretoria. Marabastad was separated from the affluent, whites-only city center by the Apies River and the invisible yet more restrictive barrier of segregation.

When my grandparents moved to Marabastad in the 1940s, apartheid was in its formative years. Segregation laws were still in the process of being formalized, but that didn’t stop the township from being treated as a no-go area for white people, who disparagingly called it the “Coolie Location.”

Despite this exclusion, the township was able to flourish as a commercial hub and multicultural stomping ground for descendants of the Indians, Chinese, rural South Africans and Cape Malays who migrated to the city in search of business and work, both formal and informal. My grandmother, Rabia Ghoor, was a social networker and hustler. She was known affectionately as “Gigi,” with younger people respectfully adding the honorific “Masie,” the word for a maternal aunt in various Indian dialects.

My grandmother sold gold and beef knuckles in the same breath.

She made friends quickly by being the go-to person for buying, selling, talking or just helping out in tough times. When my father recounted his dream to his siblings, their response was: “Sounds like typical Gigi Masie.”

One weekend, I took a walk around Marabastad with my father and two of his siblings, my uncle Shiraz and aunt Gulshan. They showed me their childhood home, the single toilet they shared with two other families — a total of 39 people — and their living room, which was often filled with the secondhand clothing my grandmother bought from people around the township. She would keep what she needed for her family and sell the rest. This was only one of her entrepreneurial endeavors.

In addition to my grandparents and their 10 children, the house was also home to at least 10 boarders at any given time. By eating my grandmother’s food, and at the same table as her family, those boarders came to see her as their own mother. In a way, her hospitality continues — the house is now run as a guesthouse by an Ethiopian man named Salah. He has kept the place in good condition — and added a few more toilets — for guests who, like those before them, have come to this city from rural South Africa and other countries, including Somalia, Pakistan and Zimbabwe.

Outside my grandmother’s house, we bumped into Hamid, a man in his 60s still running his father’s mechanic shop. He reminisced about how my grandmother helped his mother give birth once, and then he pointed to a corner of the shop, where an old African man named Samson used to live in a small makeshift shack. Samson was not only tolerated but also taken care of by the neighbors, including my grandmother, who sent a modest breakfast to him every morning. She was the one who found him frozen to death after one too many cold nights, and she also assisted in arranging his funeral.

Farther up the road was the home of Artie Swartz, the gangster whose wife was a friend of my grandmother’s. Artie was a colored (the South African term for a biracial person). My dad remembered him as looking like a smaller, darker version of Arnold Schwarzenegger. However diminutive Artie was, he and his “lieutenant” Jack Blytz were the local bootleg liquor sellers and bouncers at the Club Bel Air and were not to be messed with.

My father recalled that every day at 5 p.m., Artie would play a game of snooker with local champion Bob Steele at Rhas Billiard Saloon, which was run by a Mr. Rhas and his friendly, fat, cockeyed wife. My father described the games as silent matches with a 5-pound bet that always attracted several spectators.

If a foul occurred that might result in a loss of points, Artie would sometimes ask the audience to confirm whether it was in his or his equally intimidating opponent’s favor. Without fail, every member of the audience would claim not to have seen anything.

My father and his siblings kept talking about how people of all backgrounds existed peacefully together as if it were an exceptional quality of this place. Like other, more famous multicultural neighborhoods, such as Sophiatown and District Six, the fabric of Marabastad’s social unity was irreparably torn apart with the apartheid government’s enforcement of the 1950 Group Areas Act, which assigned racial groups to separate residential and business locations.

The legacy of this law, my father believes, is why racial groups today still tend to live and mix among their own despite 20-plus years of independence and the goal of a post-apartheid “Rainbow Nation.” For him, that rainbow existed organically in Marabastad and ended with its division.

I believe him because few people my age or of my racial background would make the trip to this part of town anymore. Even for me, it’s hard to picture my family living here. On our way out, we passed a corner where a woman has set up a stand selling fried sausages, freshly butchered chickens and toothbrushes. This reminded my father of my grandmother’s special contract with local butchers to buy their leftover meat and bones, which she would sell at a markup. My grandmother sold gold and beef knuckles in the same breath.

“Because of the necessity to survive any way she could and the hardships she had to endure, she linked up with everyone in town who was driven by the same fate,” my uncle Shiraz said. “She was their partner and confidante.”

Hundreds of people from all walks of life attended my grandmother’s funeral. A few days after her death, my family got a heartbroken email from a Tamil man now living in Japan. Thomas had been one the many recipients of Rabia Ghoor’s unsolicited cups of tea over 50 years ago.

“With the death of Gigi Masie,” he wrote, “the tapestry of Marabastad has lost a thread. Experiencing her in that town touched me in a way that changed my values forever.”

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