‘It’s arrived, finally” she says, my angel, my protector, the midwife to my uncertain future. ”You can relax now, the money will be in your account in the next week or so”.
”How much?” I ask. Her hands caress the keyboard like a nurse’s might a new baby. She catches her breath, her eyes widen, head tilts over the screen — more than she expected obviously. I suppose she’s not accustomed to doctors (even if not medical ones) claiming from the unemployment fund.
”Twenty-three” she says and looks up expectantly. I hide my disappointment with bubbly bravado.
”O! Lovely, well, I can sort out my car then and maybe do a few other essentials too”.
Inwardly I’m thinking: after six months of waiting and all I get is 23 000! Twenty years of working the salt mines of academia, facing seas of half-interested faces daily, chiselling at mountains of unreadable scripts regularly, going bleary-eyed to bed before rising in the stiff dark of winter to deliver yet another dawnie (earliest lecture of the day) — cold words for a few even colder waifs scattered across hard dark benches in dimly lit halls.
But, of course, she is not to blame, nor can she be expected to understand. Naadiya, Naadiya — even her name is soft and embracing. Her smile is warm in the light of the cubicle from which she daily looks into the confused and pleading eyes of those rising from the benches.
Does she smile at everyone like this, I wonder, or does my whiteness get special treatment? No, she has in her the look of truthfulness. She declines with a wry shyness my offer of a box of chocolates. A small gift for all the help she has been. Unlike midwives, labour department employees are not supposed to accept gifts after the delivery. But I am sure few have been offered any.
I recall the first look she gave me the day I came to her desk six months ago. Was it surprise, with a frown? I shuffled my application forms uneasily, too embarrassed to inquire about the details. They were not filled in correctly.
”Sorry, very sorry, but you’ll have to go back to HR. You need proof that your severance isn’t voluntary. But here, this is my number. Please call if you need anything further.”
The biggest surprise is that I feel no shame. During the first three-hour wait (there would be many more) I became part of this murky underworld family of the unemployed. We sit knee-to-knee on the long brown benches, like the patients in state hospitals. We take strange comfort in the proximity of each others’ bodies.
Maybe we are even comrades in the struggle again – like the old days. There seems a renewed sense of equality between us — we are all of the same class now: the men wearing GM T-shirts, the domestic workers, the young woman beside me with broken shoes who tugs a huge and heavy nippled breast from her torn blouse and gives it to her child. I feel a protective bond. Does it matter if she doesn’t notice?
This mutual camaraderie of desolation is new to me, but does it mean that, now, after so long, I am truly African — no longer one of ”them”, those English whites President Jacob Zuma said were not real Africans and (by implication) should go back ”home”?
”Why would they retrench doctors and teachers?” I can see Naadiya thinking, when I hear the man in the next cubicle being told to come back next month, there’s nothing yet. Maybe his frustration is matched by the recent medical doctors’ strike. Insufficient medicines, not enough beds, not even proper surgical soap (a doctor friend tells me), long hours and inadequate salaries. Who can blame them?
But the young boy-doctor on television complaining that he only brings home R12 000 a month somehow angers me. My wife still has a job — and a PhD and 20 years’ teaching experience, but she brings home less.
”Next!” rings in my ears as I give Naadiya one last smile and walk away past the rows of waiting bodies. How many more waifs can a few women swaddle?
On the wall outside the department of labour building the graffiti of Osama bin Laden punches me with an unexpected ”yes, yes we can” as I walk past.
Past the rows of the walking, sitting or hunching (economically) dead waiting between Britannia and Staines streets, just off Govan Mbeki a stone’s throw away from the frumpish statue of Queen Victoria still looking imperially across the Port Elizabeth town square.
What blank and pitiless eyes she has, I have always thought. Am I then her descendent?
I met Oom Gov twice before he died; once in his own house in Summerstrand. He rose shakily from his chair but stood tall and upright, and shook hands with a smile. His eyes seemed kind. I like to think he would fall upon these living dead (speckled more and more with white faces) with a father’s tears.
Dr Kevin Goddard is an academic who was retrenched from an Eastern Cape university