Qedani Mahlangu. Picture: SOWETAN
Qedani Mahlangu. Picture: SOWETAN

My mother had many faults. For one, she was fanatically Catholic (I use that word very loosely and from a petulant teenage girl point of view, as in Muuuuum, you’re such a fascist).

My beloved mother, God rest her soul, was pious in a way that was … well… difficult for a teenage girl desperate to sow her oats, or eat them. I’m never quite sure what it is that girls do at that meant-to-be wild age. I never was, and all because of my mum.

Her fear was that if she let go of her family she would lose her physical self and become air and float away as a cloud, vanishing when she lost her puff.

So she clung to her children with a stifling grip that cut off our air supply; choked us; made us yearn for rivers to fjord and deserts to cross. Anything that put distance between her strangle hold.

I thought I saw her knuckles turn white with the exertion of holding on.

My mum was fearful in ways that had unexpected consequences. Thunderstorms turned into fearful signs of the wrath of God and my mum would light palm leaf crosses that had been blessed by our parish priest on the Sunday before Easter.

There was usually a long walk, a symbolic procession, to mark the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.

These holy palm fronds, twisted into crosses, would deliver us from the evil, evil that appeared as flashes of light that lit up the heavens.

Lightning that streaked across the sky found secret wells of dread, drilling into the mist of memory, to when Nduduzu died, burnt to a crisp. Mum’s distant cousin and childhood friend was struck down in the veld as he sheltered under a tree.

The fault in her fear was that she instilled in us a wariness of nature’s African aurora borealis, (the southern lights as I like to think of them).

Then there were her headaches, splitting days long agony that demanded my father lower his naturally low timbered voice and that we whisper around the house.

Boisterousness, hard to contain with children, was actively discouraged.

Finding fault with my mother was easy and frequent in the early part of my life.

But all of it paled into insignificance when you looked at her humanitarian record.

Mum was kind to the sick and especially kind to those unable to fend for themselves.

It’s common for mentally disabled people to be reviled.

But the abuse was taken to a ridiculous level in Ezakheni township, near my hometown Ladysmith.

Here mental illness was seen as something fearful, a crime against humanity, and – like those tried for witchcraft in Salem Massachusetts – punished. Often cruelly.

My nanny Patricia made a face and spat over her shoulder as she called “them” devil spawn.

They were, she said, “not right in the head” and as a result had particularly strong magic that could fell an ox, make a grown man fade to a shadow and cause barrenness in healthy women.

Not only were the mentally ill tormented, but their parents – mostly mothers as the majority of fathers left at the first sign of trouble – were also locked into the “crazy” equation.

So appalled was my mother by the treatment of people with mental challenges (and the shaming of their mothers and the fathers who stayed) that she tried, and mostly failed, to correct the erroneous connotations.

There were two things that happened in quick succession that spurred her into action.

My dad had dropped a sick Patricia off in the township in the middle of the day in the middle of the week and found a teenage boy chained to a tree stump. The hot midday sun beat down on his head, his torment heightened as small children threw rocks at him. My parents shook their heads in sorrow.

Patricia came to work one day with a story of how a mob burnt down a shack housing a mother and her mentally ill child, who was also physically disabled.

The woman was instructed to leave the area after someone’s goat went missing.

The child, black magic, fear, hatred, rage. They all mixed into a cocktail of hysteria that saw the crowd burn down the shack. The mother carrying her child on her back hobbled away to set up home, unwanted, in some other part of the township.

That day, my mother began an education programme to end the stigma of so-called madness.

First she invited the women who came selling mealies and vegetables and wicker baskets and beaded food nets on Thursdays to gather under the apricot tree in our garden to drink tea and talk.

She’d raise the issue and was often met with violent opposition. Superstition subsides at snails pace.

Mum got our parish priest involved, but his God was not as strong or powerful as the centuries old fears and beliefs of the people of Ezakheni.

And so my mother began to look for places of safety for those who were unable to take care of themselves, a Herculean task in rural Natal in the 1960s.

The resignation this week of Qedani Mahlangu, Gauteng’s MEC for Health, merely put the death of 94 mentally ill men and women under the spotlight again.

It’s all well and good that she has fallen on her sword and accepted that the 94 deaths happened on her watch, and that she is ultimately responsible.

The actions of her department - moving the patients from a licenced, and therefore monitored, facility to unlicensed homes – resulted in deaths that had nothing to do with mental illness.

The men and women died from dehydration and diarrhoea and epilepsy… and a lack of care.

Here we are in 2017. We’ve come a long way since Mum tried to bribe and cajole her way into finding safe havens for those who were unable to care for themselves.

Yet we have not really moved at all. The stigma attached to mental illness is as prevalent now as it was then.

Those in most need of care and protection are still the most vulnerable.

Our failure to protect those who need our help most says a lot about the world that we live in. I am often ashamed of the human race. 

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