Grandmother Stories - Apartheid Experiences

Tenjiwe Tutu shares her experiences as a domestic worker in the apartheid years, avoiding the police and narrowly escaping jail time.

Escaping the Police

©Eric Miller

I worked for a lady in Plumstead and later for her daughter, Mrs Truter, in Kloof Street in Cape Town. Mrs Truter told me that when someone knocked at the door, I should look through the little eye hole in the door and, if it was a policeman, I should not answer. Perhaps the neighbors told the police there was a girl there without a pass, because they must have come knocking hundreds of times. But I didn't open the door. They couldn't get me, because I had that glass eye hole.

If I looked through the windows and saw a big car outside, I always wondered who it was and whether they were watching me. If I had been able to leave the house, I would have gone out more and made more friends. But I was stuck inside, so I was lonely. I wasn't happy. At the same time it was good, because I was working and getting something for my children.

That job was a sleep-in job. Sleep-in was good. Sleep-out was bad, because it was too risky. Thursday was our day off and that was risky too. You might not make it back to work the next day.

Hiding in a Hostel

©Eric Miller

One day the police almost caught us, six or seven of us. As we came out of the Gugulethu train station, there the van was in front of us. The police said from the window, "Stop there and produce your pass". I was at the front of the group. A policeman started to come out of the other side of the van. As he did so I thought, 'No, why should I go back into that hole again?

I won't let them get me'. I walked towards the van as if I was going to get into the open door at the back and some people close by were laughing at me because they thought I was going to climb in of my own choice to go to jail. But then, when I was close to the van, I ran like lightning. The others followed, running away too.

I don't know where they went, but I ran around the corner to the big concrete men's hostel, and they let me in. They had low concrete beds, with space underneath the boards where the men kept their clothes. They quickly hid me in one of those spaces and someone sat on the bed. The police came in. They always sounded angry and they didn't talk nicely.

They shouted, "Show us where she is." The men said, "There's no one here. We haven't seen anybody." Then the police started looking around. I could hear the noise that their boots made on the ground, so I knew there were several of them. But they did not find me, because they did not think of looking under the boards.

By Jo-Anne Smetherham