This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
24 Sep 2003: Maharaj, Zarina
POM Zarina, I know I could spend more than one entire interview on your background, on your mother who sounds like the most fascinating of people, but perhaps we could begin by your telling me a little bit about yourself, where you were born, your family, the number of kids in the family. You were born in Cape Town, right?
ZM No I was born in Johannesburg.
POM In Johannesburg? Since you put that right straight away maybe you should speak, not me.
ZM Well I was born in Johannesburg, the fifth child after four boys. My mother had grown up in a Catholic convent, raised by Catholic nuns very strictly, and she had a very strict code of moral behaviour on what she was taught by the nuns. My father was a real pukka Moslem. My mother, when they met my mother had been engaged to the richest Boer farmer in the Western Cape, the only guy who owned a gramophone in the early thirties, the only guy she knew who owned a gramophone. My father was engaged to a woman he was supposed to marry that year, it was 1935 when they met, but what happened was King George V of England died and my father having an entrepreneurial spirit got his sisters to sell black armbands and black ties in mourning of the King and he went all over South Africa selling these things and he happened to knock at the door of the convent where my mother was and she happened to open the door and he tried to sell his stuff to her. And they got to talking and met, etc., etc., and that's where they met. He a pukka Indian Moslem, she brought up as a Catholic with a very funny background and they eloped because it was not on, he as black as the ace of spades, she as white as a lily, should actually marry across the colour line. Even though there was no formal apartheid it was not accepted.
POM Sure. What was her background?
ZM Her father was an Italian, apparently, he was the illegitimate son of one of the Pope's sisters, illegitimate by the carriage man apparently, and was such an embarrassment to that family, the illegitimate child, that he had to be got rid of and was sent via St Helena to South Africa to be brought up by Catholics but never talked about in Italy. He married my grandmother who was Christina Bain who was half coloured and half Scottish, half Cape Coloured and half Scottish. So my mother is a real mixture, she coming from a half Scottish mother and half coloured mother was married to an Italian, married an Indian who was my father. So I'm half Indian and an eighth of everything else I guess, but true South African, a mongrel, a true mongrel South African.
POM Now when you were growing up what identity did you take?
ZM Well my father's family, we grew up in an area surrounded by my father's family in Johannesburg, not by the Capetonian, Afrikaans speaking family who were on my mother's side. So we absorbed the Islamic culture and values. Being the first daughter after four sons I was projected as this really good Moslem girl and I read the Koran several times. I read and write Arabic. I would be shown off when people died and there were ceremonies and I would have to say the prayers to prove what a good Moslem I was, because my mother being a convert to the Moslem religion wanted to, you know, be holier than thou type of thing. Converts are usually even more fanatical than the people themselves. So she wasn't a fanatic in that sense but she wanted us to be accepted in the community and because my brothers were not so good at it in the sense of leading prayers, going to Madressa and so on, school and all that, I carried that burden and I became extremely religious. I used to pray all the time and I would wear the garb and everything, the scarf, keep my arms covered. A real Moslem, a real good example of a Moslem girl. But that was only after we left South Africa when I was 16 years old. Until then I did do all that and did it properly but I played with boys on the Red Square hiding my (scarf) so that they wouldn't see.
POM Did you see yourself as part of the Indian community in Johannesburg?
ZM It was very funny, we never had an Indian identity. We went to the Johannesburg Indian High School, I went to the Bree Street Indian government school in Fordsburg. It still stands there in Fordsburg, I often pass there so I look at it, the Bree Street Indian government school. Then I went to the Johannesburg Indian High School up the road which is now opposite the Plaza, that school is still there. We lived in a house which was right in the middle of the Plaza, which is now the Plaza, so it was within easy walking distance of school.
Our whole community was Indian and coloured. Yes, at some level we identified with the Indian community but because the Indian community called us names like 'half caste' and that sort of thing and because of the way they discriminated against my mother for not actually being Indian, we didn't 100% absorb the Indian culture. We absorbed the Indian culture but not an Indian identity. We would every year fast, 30 days fasting, Ramadan, we would go through all that and then on Eid Day which is the end of the fast we would do all the things that kids of that extraction did. But I don't think we ever really identified 100% with that community.
We did very unusual things. We were the only family in the Fordsburg Moslem community who had a piano, who went for music lessons. My sister went for ballet lessons, I went for singing lessons. My brothers went for guitar and piano lessons. It was unusual at that point. My mother was the only lady there who drove her kids around, either men did it or servants did it or chauffeurs did it. My mother drove us. She was amongst the few women I knew as a child growing up who drove around, picked us up, dropped us, took us everywhere. She did all that herself. So, yes, we were a bit different. The difference was always obvious in the way we lived, in what we ate, the cross-cultural nature of our upbringing. For example, one night curry and rice with roti and all the pickles, eating with your fingers, the next day spaghetti bolognaise Italian style. So there was that kind of I'd call it a cross-cultural we were cross-cultural misfits ever since I can remember, cross-cultural. Today it turns out to be a huge advantage because we fit in anywhere and everywhere.
POM Now I remember from the time we had dinner last year, you said that you knew the Pahads. They were in Becker Street.
ZM They were part of the Becker Street boys. The lived literally, it seemed a long walk in those days but probably a kilometre or two from Fordsburg, up Main Road into Ferreirastown. Yes, our only real association with them was through an incident with my only real association with them was through an incident involving my Dad. What happened was I was with my father, I was about 12 and I was with my father at a picnic at Meer's Farm which is what we tended to do at weekends because there was nothing else. We went on a picnic and it was very hot and I put on a swimming costume - as a Moslem girl to expose myself like this, and I walked with my father to the river from our picnic spot and these guys, these Indian guys, these Moslem guys taunted me and called me names including 'half caste', etc. While on the way back this continued and my father lost his cool, I think he might have had one too much to drink or something, but somebody said this and he gave him a punch and the guy punched him back, etc., but my father won the fight and then we went home and packed our bags and the next week my father, it was my 13th birthday party, it was a Saturday, I was turning 13 that day, my father went to the zoo for a walk and apparently he was pounced upon by a gang, including some members I believe of the Becker Street gang. I don't know who actually physically beat him up because he was so badly beaten up he couldn't remember exactly, but when it was reconstructed and the people who came to apologise to him later included one or two of the Pahad brothers. So that was the incident. That's my first memory of them.
My older brothers, who are older than I am, might have mixed with them at a different level, at dances and things, because there was a lot of dancing on Saturdays at the Springbok Hall and at other venues for black kids and Indians.
POM Did you get any sense growing up, besides being different which you were, of there being this discrimination against all people of colour no matter what - ?
ZM Oh very, very badly. I had some incredibly bad incidents. I was the lightest member of my family. My eldest brother and I, we passed as white. People thought I was Lebanese. I've got a brother who's much, much darker than Mac, black like my father was, like the ace of spades. So we were like a draughtsboard, we were various shades of white to brown to black. When I went for music lessons, for example, for piano lessons the only teacher in Mayfair was a Miss Rom, a white lady, who knew who we were, didn't mind and decided she would teach us to play the piano but we had to walk from Fordsburg to Mayfair which is where she lived, which is a short distance. Nothing happened until I took my brother with me because he wanted to have piano lessons as well, this very dark brother, Dullie. One day we were walking there and this guy shouted to him, "How dare you walk the white girl?" And they beat him to a pulp and I tried to stop them and they wouldn't. That was my first really shocking experience because I actually saw what they did to my brother. I was shocked.
There were days when we would walk in town, central Johannesburg, to Stuttafords and places like that, and we'd be bumped physically by Afrikaner big men like rugby players. They would come with their shoulders and knock us off the pavements and say, "You're not supposed to be walking here." Then when the petty apartheid laws were introduced like you had to have your own bus, that you couldn't although we lived in Fordsburg and wanted to go into Solly Kramer in town, say, we had to wait for the black bus, right? And that really got to me. And when I went for singing lessons and I had to catch a bus I often was late for my lesson and I would jump on a white bus and nobody would know the difference, but when I was with my brother we had to get on the black bus.
So, yes, I began to ask, what the hell is this? Then at school just before we left for England, and I always regret we left at that point, I became politically conscious. I was 14/15 and we had a maid called Emily. I was very attached to her. It began to bother me that she had to get up at 4.30 in the morning to be at our house by 7.30 to start work, and I would say to her, "I don't understand. Why do you have get up so early?" And I used to say to my mother, "You know it's not right. She's got kids at home. Who takes them to school? Who sorts them out?" And I began to get angry about the system.
I have a sister, one sister, we were four brothers before me and I was the first girl so you can imagine what a fuss they made of me, but I've also got a younger sister, Shireen, who is another very dark child, but because she was my only sister we were very, very attached. The real shock is when people noticed we were fairly talented at tennis and my mother always was looking for opportunities for us to develop our talents because she just felt it was so constraining living under apartheid in that community, that music, tennis, whatever but do something. So we went to the Bantu Men's Social Centre, that was the only place where I could formally be trained in tennis with my sister and we turned out to be very good young tennis players. In fact I became the junior champ at the Johannesburg Indian High School.
But one day coming from the Bantu Men's Social Centre, walking from Doornfontein to Fordsburg, walking back on a Sunday morning having spent four hours there - no, that was a different incident. One day in the afternoon at about four o'clock we were passing the library in Johannesburg, my sister and I, and we were very bored. Having played tennis we now wondered what do we do next? We said, "Let's join the library." There was this huge Johannesburg library with a notice outside encouraging people to join and we went in thinking we would join and they said, "What are you?" We said, "Well, we're Indian." They said, "Sorry, you can't join the library." I said, "You mean I can't borrow a book?" And they said, "No you can't. There are libraries for Indians probably in Fordsburg." This was a national library. I remember walking in and being so impressed with the silence and the tables and the huge numbers of books and shelves and I was so excited that I could join the library. Here was a way of spending my time and they said, no, you can't because you're not the right colour, you're not the right race. That was a big shock. Then another big shock was when my sister and I swung on the swings in Zoo Lake. We went to swing with a whole lot of white kids and they told me I could stay but they threw my sister out. Then I left with her, obviously.
Then of course within the Indian community unfortunately, and I will be crucified for saying this, but they actually value white skins. You are considered beautiful the lighter you are, no matter you might be the ugliest thing on earth but the lighter you are in skin colour the more beautiful you are. Some of my father's sisters had those values and they would invite me for weekends and not my sister. I will never forget one weekend, I loved my one cousin, he was an only child and they were fairly rich relatives, we were relatively poor, and it was nice going to them because they lived in a very smart flat. I remember this woman making rather bad remarks about my sister and although I really liked being there and liked being with her son who was my cousin, my first cousin who was an only child and really needed company etc., and we used to have a lot of fun together, I was walking home that night from her place, which was very dangerous when I look back, when they were all asleep I quietly packed my things. My sister was darker than me and she said, "She's not beautiful", and I was offended because I thought my sister was very beautiful.
Yes, so those were some of the incidents but I think one of the incidents that really stands out and it was significant because years later as Mac's wife, as a minister's wife, I sat in an audience with a performer playing music when as a child we were not allowed to go and watch this man. Yehudi Menuhin was in South Africa in the fifties and my mother had encouraged us, as I said, to culturally expand. When she heard Yehudi Menuhin was playing in South Africa she tried to get tickets and they said it was only for whites, but there will be one night when he's practising when Indians can come, one afternoon, one Sunday afternoon, and Africans and coloureds, all the blacks can come and watch Yehudi Menuhin. Again we walked to the City Hall in our Sunday best and it happened we were wrong, it was not the night that we were allowed and I was so determined to get in. We were early enough to somehow smuggle ourselves in and hide under the seats in a corner and listen to him at least string up a bit, but we were discovered within the first 45 minutes and asked to leave. Years later Yehudi Menuhin came to play for Nelson Mandela and we were amongst the invited VIP guests and I actually told him the story.
So, yes, I became very aware and had we not left for England at that very critical moment in my political awareness I think I would have become an activist like most other kids. We organised a march at Johannesburg Indian High School once against something or other and I was in that march but it was the one and only thing I ever did before we left South Africa. My mother left in protest against the whole system.
POM Now was the ANC any kind of presence at all or was the Indian Congress or was there any political structure that one was aware of as a young person?
ZM At that point as a young person all I was aware of was that my mother emotionally supported the struggle. My father, forget about him, he was an Indian businessman, patriarch, concerned only with his own status in the community. He really in his own way I guess was very much anti-apartheid but my own knowledge of who did a couple of things was my mother. What she did was like guys who sold New Age would come to the house, she'd buy New Age, six copies, invite them in for a meal. There was a guy called Sam, an African guy who was a down and out, like a hobo, but my mother and he would sit for hours across the kitchen table drinking tea together and talking about the issues. So although she wasn't formally, she was too bogged down with six kids, and my father didn't actually financially support us very well so my mother always had to look for other ways of making money like cooking and selling door to door food and she got a job at the Carlton Centre when it opened as a telephonist/receptionist at night. She would knock off at four in the morning and walk home to Fordsburg. So she was far too busy trying to look after her family to actually get involved as such but her heart was there.
When we were in London, for example, she was a very weird woman. I remember one day we were on one of those red buses going past Hyde Park on our way home to where we lived in Pimlico and she noticed a gang of like hippies protesting against something and she said, "Let's go and join them." We got off the bus. So she was different, extremely well read. A Standard two education, broken English, we laughed at her so much because she had grown up speaking Afrikaans so her English verbs she didn't know how to plural. In Afrikaans the conjugation for 'is' we say I am, you are, he is, we are, you are, they are. In Afrikaans it's one word, it is ek is, je is, hy is, ons is, julle is, hulle is. So she would transcribe this into the she would think that's how you spelt English so she would say things like 'they is', or 'we is'. Her grammar was atrocious and we'd laugh at her often. In England we actually sent her to school. So she was not formally educated. She left school in Standard two but she started reading Boris Pasternak, she read Solzhenitsyn. Her favourite writer, it's in my poem to her, her favourite poet was Raina Maria Rilk(?). This is from somebody who had never been to school, who couldn't speak English when she met my father. So I found my mother a remarkable woman.
POM You went to England in - ?
ZM In 1960 when the Group Areas Act was introduced. What happened is I was at the Johannesburg Indian High, my brother had just entered Wits University, second eldest brother. He won the Joost de Blank award for literature. He was a writer like you can't believe and they kicked him out because Wits was closed down to blacks that year and they closed down our school, JIHS, and the turned it into a white teachers' training college, the one in Fordsburg, opposite the Plaza. And they declared the Group Areas Act which said that we had to vacate our houses in Fordsburg and we had to go to school in Lenasia, which was according to the Group Areas Act what was prescribed for Indians just like Bosman for coloureds and so on and so forth, and Fordsburg was going to become a white area. It came at a time when my mother's relationship with my father had in any case hit rock bottom. He had stopped supporting the family. We lived on 3 a month, six children and my mother, and I had a bike and I had to go on my bicycle to buy groceries on credit. I knew exactly what my mother was going through because I was the one who did the shopping. I would go to a greengrocer called Katha, Katha means uncle in Gujerati, and I would say, "Can I have this, that and that on credit?" On credit, on credit. And I would go to Mr Patel in Fordsburg and buy stuff on credit, put it on my bike and go home. I was very humiliated one day because, I don't know, one evening - my father's sisters were very arrogant about the fact that they had money and one evening they walked into our home in Fordsburg and we were eating pap for supper and they said, "What is this?" My mother had made a point of saying there is no money to feed the children. She couldn't care less what they thought, this was a fact, and I was I just felt terribly embarrassed. I was very young and I said, "You know what? I'm going to marry a very rich man", I blurted it out, my mother always reminded me, "And I'm going to eat chops and chips every night. I'm going to eat chops and chips every night."
So, yes, this happened and yes we were incredibly badly off. So what happened is when they declared the Group Areas Act and they said we had to move, to get to school by 7.30 in Lenasia I had to get up at four in the morning and walk to Braamfontein station and then get a train with all the mineworkers and other people and my mother was just petrified for us. There were a whole lot of things that made her decide, no. Now because she had white papers my father had bought a shop in Troyeville which was a white area when we were babies. I was born in Troyeville. And that shop still remained in her name even when we moved to Fordsburg and people paid her rent for that shop. I actually went to the shop with Mac about 11 years ago to show him where I was born. That shop in Troyeville she sold when this Group Areas Act came in and she used the proceeds to buy our tickets to England. She had to buy the cheapest possible tickets because she didn't get too much for the shop. It was a shop with a house attached and because there were six of us my eldest brother wasn't going to join us, he was married, so there were five kids and her, six. So to get the cheapest tickets she had to buy at the peak off season which was February. Nobody goes to England in February, it's too cold.
Harold Macmillan had made his famous 'Winds of Change' speech and he was on that ship, the Cape Town Castle, and my mother made us all do a few jobs like packing in trunks, even our curtains and our cutlery so that she wouldn't have to buy anything in England. And we had these huge, massive, silver stainless steel trunks about six trunks. She had literally moved us lock, stock and barrel, dislocating us emotionally, psychologically and it was just a traumatic time because at that point as well my sister and I were being bullied by gangsters in the area who said we were snobs because we didn't want to move around with them. Because you must remember my mother had a fairly religious code of upbringing and she didn't let us go to things that most of the kids went to like discotheques and dances and that. We had to go to the movies with her and my father on a Friday night. We couldn't go on a Saturday with everybody else. So the kids began to think we were snobs and I was doing brilliantly at school and they said, "Ja, because you're academically inclined you think you're better than us", etc.
And for all those sorts of reasons my mother felt it was the right time to move but one of the main reasons which I've forgotten is my brother, this literature guy, very talented, got into heavy cannabis and dagga. He's written a book about how little there was for teenagers to do in those days. What did you do on a Saturday and Sunday? You couldn't swim in
POM Is he living here now?
ZM No, no, he will never come back. He's married to a British woman. His kids have been brought up in England in Surrey. His kids went to Oxford and they play in the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the flute and violin, very British, very settled, very un-South African. His kids haven't even come on holiday.
POM Did he continue with his writing?
ZM Yes. He won the Joost de Blank award and then when he was a first year university student at Exeter he wrote a book called Make a Memory which Seven Seas Publications republished as The Golden City. Then one day Mac and I, not this year's awards but last year, they do a literature award here in South Africa and we happened to be sitting at a table with one of the guys who selects the people for awards and we happened to talk about my brother. And he said, "Enver is your brother. That guy deserves to be awarded even now for this book", etc., etc. But then Enver wrote a couple more books but he needed to make a living and he wasn't being paid sufficiently and he got into editing some magazine or other, the New Internationalist, became an editor. We've actually really split in a very fundamental way because he's got values that I don't really uphold. He's changed a lot.
So that's why when he was at Wits and I was at JIHS and they closed the university and the school down, plus my mother's whole marriage was collapsing, there was every possible reason at that point to get out of South Africa. She couldn't cope with six juvenile delinquents, actually, we were all a law unto ourselves and she couldn't cope and my father was of no help and she really believed that England would be the best for us, not because she really believed that absolutely but it was a stepping stone, a way to sit back and reflect on where we wanted to go from there.
In fact, and that's what makes my mother great, I'll tell you one of the stories that I think symbolises her greatness, is when we were docking at Southampton at three, four o'clock in the morning, having spent two weeks on the ship, she woke us all up and brought us up onto the deck and said, "Those lights, we are in England. I don't know whether I made a terrible mistake. If you one day think about this please try and think of me in a kind way. I'm merely seeing this as a stepping stone. You can always go back to South Africa or you can go on to America or Canada or stay here. I'm just trying to give you guys a chance that in South Africa you would never have had. So one day you might think of me unkindly and say I ripped you out of your comfort zone, whatever, but please don't judge me too harshly." That really stuck with me because she had used the words 'stepping stone' and it stuck with me. One day I'm going to write a book called The Stepping Stone, because she said just see it as a stepping stone. And you know why she chose England? We didn't need visas, we were part of the British commonwealth, we were British subjects. South Africa hadn't become a republic so it was very easy to up and go to a foreign country. She tried to get into Vancouver, she was corresponding with somebody there but it was not easy to get into Canada, as easy, you needed professional qualifications, as easy as it was to get into England. So that's my childhood.
POM So you land in Southampton and you don't know a sinner in the world.
ZM Not a soul. Not a soul. We get on that train and my culture shock starts there and then as I look at those houses, the ugliness of sameness. Every house is the same. That was an enormous shock coming from even Fordsburg which is a slum.
POM A slum with character.
ZM Character. District Six was a slum with character. Here we're sitting on this bloody train and I can't believe that every house looks like that. That was my first real culture shock. I said, "Is this England?" And we arrive at Victoria Station, there was nobody to meet us. Anyway we go into a bed and breakfast and everybody stares at us because we'd been through the Bay of Biscay you know, the sun there, tropical sun in the Bay of Biscay we burnt black to a crisp. We'd never been at a poolside in our lives. We were not allowed to go to the pool at Zoo Lake. At Zoo Lake I would go and sit on the hill and watch the white kids play in the pool and say, "Why can't we swim in that pool?" Now for the first time we've got a pool so of course we spend all our time on deck in the pool and we burnt to a crisp. We didn't know about sun block and all that. I don't know if there was any sun block in those days. My darkest brothers went like black.
So we get on these buses you know, England, and you know those seats facing each other, we take up those, the two of them, the family, and everybody sitting on the other seats looks and I thought, "I wonder why they're staring at us?" We must have been such a sight. We found a basement flat within three days.
ZM In what is called Pimlico, 151 Cambridge Road in Pimlico. There was a South African Indian from Durban who was a chef at Debenhams or John Lewis, he was a chef and somehow my mother had his name and contacted him and he owned this terraced house with three storeys with a basement which hadn't been occupied for yonks. We went in there and the smell of dampness, it was dank, it was dark, damp and ice cold. We were freezing. It had a lounge and a bedroom and kitchen. It didn't have a bathroom or a toilet. The toilet was outside. That's when we learnt to start using the public baths to bath. Another huge culture shock. We slept on our trunks. We took the curtains out of the trunks and made like mattresses on the trunk and it was a very, very difficult, difficult settling in period. That's when I discovered chilblains because if you put a shilling into the meter you could get a gas fire going and we'd sit with our hands literally in it, from freezing cold put our feet in and within days of arriving in England we had chilblains. So yes, it was traumatic, it was horrendous.
My mother's first priority was to get the young ones into school, my sister and I. We had to do IQ tests and God knows what, all kinds of tests. My sister, being younger than me hadn't studied Latin and Mathematics at high school so she got into a Comprehensive school, she didn't get into a Grammar School, and the Comprehensive school was the one right there in Pimlico which was unfortunately full of really bad racists and people were very bad to my sister. I got into a Grammar School, the nearest Grammar School Grammar Schools were designed to take you to university, Comprehensives were designed to teach you a trade. I got into the nearest Grammar School which was Maidavale Grammar, a Jewish Grammar School.
POM Jewish Grammar School, just to complicate things further.
ZM Complicating things further and of course the Palestine/Israeli war was so hot even in those days that they saw me as a Palestinian. That was another saga in its own right. My little sister, she couldn't take the pressure of the attitudes and the racism. There were people who couldn't believe her spelling abilities. Once they said, "You copied this out of a book." We were very good writers all of us. I think it's because we had so little to do in South Africa that we read so much, we read everything that we could get our hands on, and my mother was such an avid reader herself, that we became good writers and my sister would write essays and they would say, "You copied it. OK, how do you spell such a word?" which was in the essay, and she would spell it. Apparently she had a grilling for one hour one day where the English teachers all got together and they made her spell every word they could think of and she spelt it all correctly and they came to the conclusion she shouldn't have been in that school but because she didn't have Latin and Mathematics she couldn't pass the London County Council test to make it into a Grammar School. I had Latin and Mathematics. So she dropped out very quickly and became just I mean she was a waitress, then she became a hairdresser, etc., etc. It's only when she was married and had children, years later in her thirties, that she went to university.
I dropped out of school for social reasons. I was a dropout as well because of well I couldn't get over the fact of a girls school, never mind Jewish. I'd been co-ed all my life. I couldn't understand, at least my sister was still co-ed. I couldn't understand how girls could be so bitchy and then the whole thing of the religion and that. Again, I was so good at English they again thought I beat the English kids at essays and, again, they thought this can't be, can't be. My essays were read out to the school and so on. So, yes, we excelled at that level, we excelled.
POM Your Mum, was she working?
ZM No, my mother had to have an income. We had nothing. My father had threatened that if she left him with the kids he would cut off any money and she said, "Well you never supported us anyway so what's the difference?" She got to England, she pretended that she'd worked as a clerk, because that job was advertised in the newspaper. She'd only worked as a receptionist at Carlton Centre and in my father's shop and in her own shop in Troyeville selling vegetables when we were kids. She had never actually worked in a proper job. Those were proper jobs but not in a clerical job. So what happens is she sees this ad and it's paying about 10 a week and she thought, "What a massive salary!" because our rent was a week and she applies for the job and she lies. She says she's done clerical work and they take her. She was very charismatic my mother, I'll show you some pictures.
POM I see the photographs, a very beautiful woman.
ZM Very charismatic as well. And they took her and within about three weeks she got fairly complicated tasks to do once she had settled in. She came home from work one night and she said, "Zarina, what is a negative number?" So I had to explain the concept of a minus number, of a negative number. I said, "Mum if you've got 12 eggs but you owe somebody 18 eggs what do you own? You own minus six eggs." I spent a whole night teaching her and I showed her how to add a positive and a negative number so she could go and do her clerical work. So I gave her a whole week of lessons on negative numbers.
But that money wasn't enough to support us so she got a job at the Playboy Club as a cloakroom attendant, hanging up the fur coats of the likes of Shirley Bassey and others. Then in the end the clerical job fell away and she became a housekeeper to a very rich Australian family in Knightsbridge while keeping her night job at the Playboy so that she could see us through school. So she was incredible.
My two brothers the writer got a job at Dunlop as a clerk for a week and Adam, the youngest, got a job at a legal firm for 4 a week. He dropped out of school, the one just above me, very, very bright boy, should really have gone to school. Dullie, the dark one, the very black one who had a complex about his colour from South Africa from his relatives, is the first hippie England had ever seen because he wouldn't go to get his hair cut because he said they'd refuse to cut his hair, "I'm too black." So he had hair up to his waist long before anybody grew their hair in England. He couldn't get a job, he was afraid to go and look for jobs and in the end he joined the British army and they accepted him.
POM They cut the hair.
ZM They cut his hair but he had some terrible experiences there. They broke a couple of legs of people and arms of people, called them names, got into real trouble. But he got a fantastic training in the REME, Royal Electrical & Mechanical Engineers. Then he was posted to Libya where he had a wonderful time because of his name, Abdullah, Abdullah Karim, and he was accepted by the Libyans at least. So that's how we grew up.
POM So you dropped out of school after how long?
ZM I arrived there in 1960. I had been in our Standard 8 which for them was Form 3, anyway it was the third year of high school. I had completed my Standard 8. They did tests and that and they put me into their Standard 9, which was Form 4, which was a cinch for me except for the mathematics which we hadn't done to such an advanced level. So I did my Standard 9 there, which is a year before the GCE and then Standard 10 is GEC, matric. I couldn't catch up on physics which we hadn't done in South Africa, and chemistry and mathematics, so I think that's the first time I became aware of discipline and resolution. I said, "You know what? I've got to get through this because I want to leave school and I've got to leave with a certificate." It was the first time I went and purchased my own book of physics and chemistry, not a school prescribed book, one in a book shop that I could understand. And we lived in Camberwell by then, we had moved from this basement flat which was too small with no bathroom into a flat in southeast London, Camberwell, the nearest place to Camberwell it was very close to Brixton. Moved to Camberwell.
What was I saying? We shared a garden with all the other tenants in this block of flats and I would go and hide in the garden because there was peace and quiet and study my books on physics and chemistry and I actually passed. I did very, very well for matric, for GCE. In fact I got a prize for achievement from the school because they didn't think I'd pass except for those subjects like English and Latin. When I got that very good certificate they encouraged me to study A levels, three subjects, but within the first term I dropped out of A levels. So I dropped out when I was about 17 and I became a waitress in a Wimpy Bar. That was my first salaried job and then I bummed around Europe, Sweden, Paris washing dishes and then by the age of about 19 I thought, shit, I should do my A levels and go to university.
But things had got so bad at home I had a boyfriend who was a different religion, he was Hindu and my family were Moslem and they used it as an excuse to try and stop the relationship and I moved out lock, stock and barrel from the family and I went to live in my own little one room in Victoria, close to Westminster College which did the subjects at A level that I wanted to do, evening classes, and I worked during the day as a waitress again and I got extremely good A levels and I was accepted at Leicester University for Philosophy and Mathematics. So I caught up with my maths. So, yes, that's what happened.
POM So now you get to Leicester.
ZM Yes, with this guy, this Hindu guy that my family didn't want me to see, and I married him.
POM Did this include your mother who didn't want you to either?
ZM My mother was very liberal, she had married my father as she was saying to I overheard her in one conversation on the telephone to my father's sister, "I married your brother and I was a different religion and now you're making judgements about my daughter." Because what had happened was I had told my mother we were getting married and she said, "OK, I'll arrange an Imam", a Moslem priest, "to marry you guys." Because it came from my mother I accepted it but when my aunts, my father's sisters started dictating the terms of the marriage I told them where to get off. I said, "You were never there for us. How dare you try and prescribe how I get married."
POM Were they prescribing from South Africa?
ZM No, that one happened to now be in London and my mother had invited her to the wedding and she said she wouldn't come unless an Imam married this guy and had him circumcised. And I told her where to get off. I mean I'm using very mild language now. I said, "You don't have to come to my wedding you so-and-so." I said, "You were never there for us. You dumped my mother as well and now you want to come and tell me (a) who I should marry and (b) how I should marry. You don't have to come to my bloody wedding." I swore really badly on the phone. I said, "You know what? Stop all of you."
My mother was not very happy with the guy I chose, not because he was a Hindu, for other reasons, but she went along and we got married and I was so bloody young, it was terrible. I married at 20 and I only went to university much later. Once I had my A levels I married him, then we moved to Derby. He was an engineer on the RBG 11, Rolls Royce engines for aircraft. He was a very brilliant engineer. We went to live in Derbyshire. Ooh. And from there I applied to Leicester and got in and then we moved to Leicester. I occupied one of my lecturers liked me so much he gave me his house so because he gave me his house I said we have to move from Derby. This is such a beautiful place to live in compared to the hole we were living in. Derby was so racist we couldn't get a decent place to live. It was terrible.
So we moved into Bob McGowan's house. He was our Philosophy lecturer and he asked me to become the caretaker of the house and to make sure the other flats were let and so on. So then we moved to Leicester which was lovely because I just had to walk through a park to get to campus. That was nice instead of travelling. So that's where we lived and then when I graduated I went to Nottingham University to do a Masters in Mathematics under Alan Rose who had invented computers. It was quite a thing.
(Joey comes in)
Joey is the namesake of my mother. My mother was Joey, Josephine.
POM You end up in Nottingham.
ZM I was the only student doing that Masters. Nobody could stand Alan Rose. Everybody dropped out. He was such a bloody awful man, he was so disrespectful of students, so intolerant because he was a genius. He shouldn't have been a teacher. But I stuck with him because I needed to get that Masters to move on basically because I felt a Philosophy degree wouldn't get me a job.
POM So you came out with a Masters in ?
ZM Mathematics and Computer Science.
POM At the start of the computer age.
ZM He had actually been instrumental in designing the very first computers. He was the sort of guy who would on Christmas Day write a paper for an academic journal. He didn't have a life and somehow we began to hit it off, we became friends funnily enough. He didn't think I'd last either. You know why you needed two or three students to attend his lectures because he was going so fast that we would take it in slices and then compare notes afterwards and try to reconstruct the lecture, but when they all dropped out I was left with him. Oh my God! But I stuck with him because I just felt I had to for some reason. I don't know what it was.
Then I got a very good job at General Electric as a Research Mathematician looking into very esoteric things actually, communications, when you communicate on digital communications channels you communicate in symbolically ones and noughts. Your signal goes through as a string of ones and noughts but if there's noise, technical term called noise on the channel disturbing your ones and noughts it will come out as a different set of ones and noughts which can be very, very bad on sensitive communications channels like satellite communications channels or computer communications. So there was a big research area in those years where you had to discover what they called 'error correcting' and 'error detecting' which are such that when you add a code on to a string that's about to be transmitted, depending on what comes out you can work out where the noise upset the original signal.
POM OK. I think. I'll take your word for it. You did a paper, right?
ZM Yes a few papers on it. So I worked there but I was very unhappy in that field. I began to realise that mathematics and research into these very isolated type of areas, solitary work, was not my scene. I should really have done something like law or economics where you interact with people and stuff. I was very, very isolated in that job, very solitary. You had to be, that kind of work demanded that type of focus and attention.
Anyway, I left there and I went into Xerox at the time when they were looking into how to convert their photocopiers into what they called 'communicating photocopiers' where you would put your original document on this photocopier but instead of coming out as a copy on this one it would come out as a copy on that one. That was the birth of the concept of a fax machine. We named that project 'Carol' after Carol who was the PA and secretary to the guy whose concept this was. I worked for three years with Xerox on that, on Carol.
POM So you were part of developing the fax.
ZM Part of a team that invented the precursor, if you like, I wouldn't want to say the fax machine, that's too much, but the precursor to the fax machine. It was put on ice because Xerox didn't have enough money to well they patented the whole concept - but to develop and market it worldwide. It was put on ice while I was there.
Then my mother died and I just felt I had to get out of England. I applied to the University of Algiers, I responded to an ad, I got a job as a lecturer in mathematics at the University of Algiers. But when I realised how discriminated women were, again the discrimination, I realised I couldn't walk on the beach alone for example.
POM All the time while you were in Nottingham working at GE and working at Xerox, did you interact socially or politically with South Africans?
ZM Yes, very strongly. I was a member of Mayibuye, the cultural unit of the ANC there. We were touring Europe. Aziz Pahad used to say about me in those days, "We need people like you back in South Africa with your knowledge of error correcting codes and the research you've done at General Electric and at Xerox and so on, as part of the reconstruction and development programme."
POM Aziz, of course, would be in London.
ZM So was Essop then. By then they were very ensconced in ANC structures and so on and so forth.
POM Was Thabo there?
ZM Yes I met Thabo. I got to know them very well but there was always this thing from their side that in the reconstruction and development you'd be very useful, but I would say, "What about now?"
POM They would talk about the reconstruction and development of?
ZM Of post-apartheid South Africa, how useful I'd be. And I would say what about now, kind of thing. We had a thing where every week we'd get together at somebody else's home. We'd share venues for parties, Billy Nana one day, Essop one week, me one week. Thabo was at many of these dos. [There were some incidents which I won't talk about.
POM Oh come on! I'll give you back a copy of it, OK?
ZM It's fairly confidential, some skirmishes if you like to call it that with Thabo, etc.
POM These weren't intellectual?
POM He wasn't in his 'I am an African' mode? Or he was in it in a different sense?
ZM He was in a different sense.
POM Now we speak the same language.
ZM He tried to use lines of approach which were unusual but he's known me since I was 20 and he was 22. We would bump into each other at the same parties, etc., etc.] I was with the cultural unit. We were very good at what we did, so popular that at one stage the Chief Representative of the ANC, Reg September, in London considered making us professional full time singers and poetry reciters. We cut a disk which made a lot of money and we were very popular. We were constantly being invited back to Amsterdam and we were very popular. That was how I was involved.
POM Now what year would this be?
ZM 1973/74 onwards. Then Mozambique became free. I was very, very frustrated with life in London. My mother had died, there was no actual reason any more. My marriage had collapsed and I had been offered a job in Algiers but I had turned it down and then Mozambique got its independence. One day I was reading the African Communist and there was an advertisement for professionals from Europe to come and fill the gap that the Portuguese had left because after independence a lot of the Portuguese professionals just upped and went back to Portugal and you needed ANC clearance to get a job. I applied and Reg and them cleared me and I was interviewed by Magic, if you remember there was this committee called Magic, Mozambique and Angola something or other. I had a whole day's interview at Magic where they really grilled me. They passed me and I was allowed to go to Mozambique and so I gave up my job at Xerox.
The people at Xerox were blown out of their minds. They said, "How can you be going to that place? You know what? You need a six week break, you're having a nervous breakdown. Take off six weeks and consider the offer we made to you six weeks ago seriously before you decide to go to Mozambique." The offer was I head up the Palo Alto Research Laboratories in California on index processing methods. I had worked on methods of indexing material for the fax machine concept and they said, "Why don't you go and work there in that specific field and you head the unit there? We'll give you a flight, we'll give you a BMW car convertible, we'll give you a US$ salary. Go and do that, don't go to Mozambique. Take off six weeks on full pay and think about it." And I said I don't need to think, I've really thought. I don't need that.
POM You don't need to go.
ZM I don't need that. I said why I want to get out of this, there is more to life than paying off a bond and I turned down their offer. They were stunned. They said, "You actually are having a nervous breakdown." You see six months prior to that decision I had given a presentation to the Vice President of Xerox on the work I had done and they were so impressed. They said, "You actually shouldn't be here, you should be at headquarters in California. You're actually wasted here." I had had this I was going through a very bad phase at that point. Here were these guys in Pierre Cardin suits at the Xerox London headquarters which was round the corner from the ANC offices, and I'd go to the ANC offices at lunch time to sit with a few people and then I'd have to go back into this Xerox atmosphere. And I asked, who am I? Where do I belong? What is my identity? I'm falling between two stools all the way. My parents are different cultures, different religions. I'm neither here nor there religious-wise any more. I left my religion, married a Hindu. You know now I'm caught between the struggle and Palo Alto. I'll never, if I go to Palo Alto, ever get out of it. It will suck me in wholesale. But there's still a chance for me if I go to Mozambique and that's when I decided to apply. I didn't even want to lecture at the university. I applied to be a barefoot teacher in the bush. I so badly needed to find out what I really wanted, that I wanted to be in the bush. They wouldn't put me in the bush. They said, "You have to teach at the university with your experience and your qualifications." So they didn't give me a choice.
POM So you arrived in Mozambique in - ?
ZM 1977. It got its independence in 1975. My mother had died in 1974. I was still with Mayibuye. In 1977 I told Mayibuye I was leaving. They were still going strong. I went to Mozambique. I had just met Mac that year. He had been released from prison I think it was July 1976 but he only arrived in London the following August 1977 with a message from OR Tambo.
POM Yes, yes.
ZM So that August 1977 that he arrived in London, he arrived on 8 August, I remember distinctly because on 9 August we were having a Women's Day, South African Women's Day is 9 August, it was a Saturday, and I was going to sing and recite poetry at that function and he phoned me on the Friday night of 8 August to say he had just arrived from South Africa with a message from my husband's brother who was in prison with him, Laloo Chiba, and he had a message from Laloo. I said, "Well, why don't you come to the Women's thing tomorrow? I'll be there." And he said, "I have been invited by Hilda Bernstein and them so I'll see you there." And that is the first time that I actually saw Mac, was that 9 August and that he actually saw me but he had known me from my letters to Laloo Chiba since 1964 apparently because he read every single letter I wrote, and not knowing that my letters were being shared I wrote in a very uninhibited way which I would not have done had I known all the prisoners were reading them. So they apparently knew exactly when I did my Masters, when I got my job, what I was doing at Xerox. I didn't know. Laloo never indicated to me that they were following my story as if it was theirs. And I would end the letters splurging things and I didn't know. And maybe it's just as well I didn't know.
But Mac apparently got to know me through my letters long before I ever knew him. I knew of him but I never knew him. So when he phoned me on that 8 August he already knew who he was meeting, what he was going to be dealing with.
POM He'd already done the intelligence work for years!
ZM For 12 years, whereas I knew nothing about him. So I was at a serious disadvantage.
POM Which he's tried to maintain.
ZM Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. And he's succeeded in keeping me so disadvantaged. So that's that part. I don't go into all this in my own chapter because I'm writing a short thing. I don't even touch the Mozambique side. That takes us up to 1977 and my leaving London.
POM If you like we'll hold it there for tonight.