We held our breath as the floodgates of emotion burst open.
From the stiff upper lip of the British to the warrior mentality of the African, one of society’s simplistic assumptions is that men never cry. But of course they do.
This week’s story from the kgotla is a case in point, which as I share with you Wezila’s fears and frustrations, you will appreciate how cultural beliefs can derail the course of justice and bring a grown man to tears.
Wezila’s beaten and dishevelled appearance did not tally with the profile of a young engineer who had just arrived from his studies abroad. His overgrown beard distorted his youthfulness, whilst his bloodshot eyes told a story of sleepless nights and hungover mornings. One peek into the ajarred bathroom door revealed that even his best electric shaver had gone unused for weeks.
Dispatching the formalities of greeting with the haste of a man eager to get to the point, he produced a portfolio of photos of his lovely daughter from birth to four years.
Scattering the images across my desk as if dealing a pack of cards, he said: “Kekganelwa go bona ngwanake” – meaning I am not allowed to see my child.
He pointed out that his daughter was born to his girlfriend Chandi when he was studying abroad, and that he had worked part time to send every thebe home to support his child.
All seemed well until his arrival back in the country when he was dismayed to discover that Chandi was not at the airport to greet him.
Later, after he had booked into a hotel, he received an SMS from her to say they had to meet and talk.
They met and she explained that her life had changed two months back. She told him that she had met a wealthy businessman who had offered to buy her a flat and send her for further studies.
In return the man demanded that the relationship with her former boyfriend be pushed into oblivion, and as a consequence Chandi asked him to stop financial support to their daughter.
Wezilanow desperately needed a meeting with Chandi and her parents in order to have his position as a father clarified.
Wezilaarrived an hour before the appointed time and began pacing up and down the kgotla courtyard, barely able to contain his agitation and grief.
When Chandi arrived with her family and the toddler, who was the spitting image of her dad,Wezila leaped for joy and gently lifted up the child.
In return shebeamed a smile back at the man she had never met, but seemed to have waited a long time to see.
Again the floodgates of emotion burst open and we all held our breath.
When he had recovered his composure long enough to release the words that had remained jumbled up in his heart, it was to ask Chandi how she could have abandoned their love for the lure of instant riches.
She had three points in reply.
• Chandi said she was raised in poverty and she did not want to be poor forever, emphasizing with a shake of her head, that there was nothing romantic about poverty.
• The birth of their child had made her aschool dropout, and she now had an opportunity to pursue her studies whilst the kind businessman looked after her daughter.
• In return she must shut Wezila out of her life and that of the daughter.
Chandi’sheavy words fell like a death sentence, once again moving Wezila to tears, his face cupped in his hands as he wept.
Somewhere in between the heart-rending sobs he muttered the words: “Lokantseelangwanafelajalo” – meaning can you just dispossess me of my child like that?
One of Chandi’s uncles requested to say a word and he stood up, half embarrassed by the pain Wezila displayed,but unsympathetic to his cause.
He posed the following questions.
Malome: Did your parents respond to our letter of demand for damages?
Wezila: They were waiting for me to return from school.
Malome: Do you appreciate that in our culture we do not acknowledge you as the father?
Wezila: Yes….but I am the father and I have supported my child from birth. I can show you bank statements.
Somewhat bizarrely the uncle declared that he would like the kgotla to order that Wezila should be a man and stop crying for a child “otla a motsenyakgaba”- meaning his tears would bring back luck on the child.
WHAT WOULD YOU DO AS THE JUDGE?
Chandi wanted to make hay while the rich man’s sun shoneon her, and had made a decision that worked for her.
Wezila’s romantic notions on the other hand had been blown away by the cultural storm that rendered him not only helpless, but childless too.
The only way out of the darkness came from Uncle Malome’soffer that if Wezila paid damages, he would certainly ensure that he enjoyed shared custodyof the child.
The proposal contained enough light for the young man, with a swipe of his arm, to wipe away his tears, and ask how much he should pay.
Malomesaid P8 000 and Wezila promised to settle.
As the family members trooped out of my office, I couldn’t help thinking that there was a desperate need to strike a balance between modern liberal parentingattitudesand the rigid customary law which speaks more of our past than of our future.
Father’s must arise and force society to change the way they look at men with regard to reproductive rights.
There are so many statutes gathering dust on the shelves, but in reality how enforceable are modern laws in the Customary Court Justice system?
This inequality is a breeding camp for anger, violence and gender gaps. Stand up men and allow yourself to feel.
Wezila’s tears, and others like him, should not be in vain.