My colleague Samuel* is the sixth-born son of Ezekiel*, who had two families in the same neighbourhood of Katlehong in Germiston, a town southeast of Johannesburg. Samuel’s father took up with another woman and had two children. Everyone knew about his second family on the other side of the railway tracks.
For decades, his father had a steady job as a maintenance technician for a lift company, and a reputation for being reliable. But on weekends Ezekiel became an entertainer; he played his accordion at weddings and other social gatherings. Alcohol was his weekend indulgence.
Samuel’s father was mostly not at home, especially not on weekends. Samuel remembered one Saturday afternoon when his father drew up in a fancy red car. He’d been paid well and arrived with a once-off abundance of toys. At the end of the afternoon he drove off again. His mother’s attitude was enduring and forgiving. She said simply, “Your father has a good heart.”
There was a man who visited his neighbours frequently and took a shine to young Samuel. He’d stand on the sidelines of the community football field watching Samuel play football with the other boys. The man often complimented him on how well he played and offered him a coin.
Later, Samuel got a place at a university near Durban. When he returned for the holidays, the man always asked, with genuine interest, “How are your studies going? And your sister, how is she?”
When Samuel was 23 his mother became ill and died. In his last year at university, Samuel became sick but doctors could not diagnose the cause. His second-born brother offered help.
“Let me take you to this traditional healer. Don’t tell anybody you know.”
Traditional medicine, sometimes frowned upon, is commonly sought out.
The healer started his rituals, the throwing of the bones, the shaman’s way of discerning the cause of illness. The healer suddenly asked him:
“Who are you?”
“I’m Zwane, Samuel Zwahke Zwane.”
“No, no, no, you are not a Zwane,” the healer said. “Who are you?”
The healer then gave Samuel a packet of dried herbs ground to a powder to be mixed into water and taken daily for one month.
From the time of this encounter, aged 26, Samuel started to ask questions.
“I picked up that my mother’s sister knew my biological father. I wanted to talk with my father about it.
“I confronted him. ‘Are you my father, my biological father?’
“My aunt, the one who knew, was also present. My father was silent. He never answered that question.
“I asked further: ‘Some say Madonsela*, the man who visited our neighbour, is my biological father.’
“Then my father burst out: ‘Who told you that? That is a lie.’ And I could see that he was deeply hurt.”
The aunt exploded and said she would not be silenced. It was Madonsela who fathered both Samuel and his younger sister — the man from the Eastern Cape who regularly visited their neighbours.
Samuel’s father left the room and father and son never spoke of the matter again.
Samuel tussled with two responses: his mother’s morality, and his thoughts about his biological family and the question of lineage and identity.
He shared with me that the longer he lived his own adult life, the more he understood his mother. He wished he would have been able to talk this through with her. After death, there are no more conversations possible.
“There was a stage where I sat down and asked myself: What kind of a mother did I have? I found resolution when I started to consider the circumstances surrounding her. You know, this woman pulled everything together for the good of her family.”
Years after his mother’s death, two men bearing a family likeness visited Samuel. They informed him they were his half-brothers born in the Eastern Cape and working on a mine in the west of Johannesburg. Their father had died. They wanted him to join a family gathering the following Sunday.
Samuel went. The grandmother was also present. She exclaimed when she saw Samuel and called out for a young grandchild to come over. Samuel found himself facing a replica of himself as a small boy.
“What do you want of me?” Samuel asked the family. He had been wrestling with questions of identity since his aunt’s revelation and had reached his conclusion.
“I’ve been raised Samuel Zwakhe Zwane. That was the family I was born into and grew up in. I promised my mother that I would be a leader in this family. I have grown up with the Zwane Zulu family traditions. I don’t now want to change and adopt your different traditions.”
At the time Samuel told me this story he was in his late 40s. He’d shared the story with his boys. His elder son wanted to marry, and traditionally in the letter of request to be written to the girl’s family, it is customary for the line of ancestry to be set out. Samuel felt his son should know that their family surname Zwane, the son’s grandfather, is not the surname of the biological lineage.
“My son asked me: ‘So who are you?’
“ ‘I was made to understand my surname is Madonsela and my father is originally from the Eastern Cape. He came here to work for the railways company.’
“ ‘Did you know him?’
“ ‘You won’t believe this. Yes, I knew this man in passing, but I never knew that he was my father.’ ”
I asked Samuel what he learned from his experience that he would want others to understand. He shared his view that secrets are mostly corrosive. He always felt there was a whispering in the backdrop of his childhood. He favours having no secrets, and that people should work out how to live with the truth.
I thought we’d reached the end of Samuel’s story as we sat in comfortable silence, but then Samuel continued with a surprising addendum.
“Several years ago, I had an affair. It ended. Two years ago, the woman contacted me and told me, ‘You have a daughter who is six years old.’ I did the DNA testing. The child is mine.
I spent two months thinking about what to do. My wife and I had been married for more than 20 years. I have never spent a night away from home. My wife trusted me completely. How would she respond to this betrayal? Should I take the risk of telling her? Would she find it possible to forgive me? How would this change our relationship?
“I spoke to my wife’s best friend, who is married to my brother. She advised me not to say anything before Christmas, to wait for the new year, and to arrange some leave time to be around after breaking the news as well as identify possibilities for counselling. I followed her advice.
“That was almost two years ago. We’re still taking things slowly. My wife met the child’s mother, satisfied herself that there’s no relationship between us anymore. I see my daughter once a month. My boys met their half-sister. My wife has not yet met her. But recently she mentioned that, one of these months ahead, she’d like to come with me when I visit my daughter. It has been very difficult.”
I asked what made him take the risk of sharing his secret. He answered with poignancy.
“I didn’t want to be the man in the shadows, watching my child play sport, and pressing a coin into her hand at the end of the game.”
* Not their real names
This is an edited extract from Helena Dolny’s book Before Forever After: When Conversations about Living Meet Questions about Dying