/ 28 November 2022

Freedom writer, freedom fighter

In the afterword to her memoir Freedom Writer, Susanne Klausen writes, “Her passionate youthful love affair with Green Eyes, a Hindu boy … was a deeply imprinted experience …

The Immorality Act of 1927 opens as follows: Any European male who has illicit carnal intercourse with a native female, and any native male who has illicit carnal intercourse with a European female, in circumstances which do not amount to rape, an attempt to commit rape, indecent assault, or a contravention of section two or four of the Girls’ and Mentally Defective Women’s Protection Act, 1916 (Act No. 3 of 1916) shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to imprisonment for a period not exceeding five years.

I quote the language directly to familiarise the reader with the most impactful piece of apartheid legislature informing Juby Mayet’s journalistic practice. 

Tasked with trawling the courts to report on high-profile cases of miscegenation, her intimacy with the heterosexual white male’s biggest fear situated her in an ideal position from which to rebel. 

Propositioned by the officer who harassed her most, Mayet’s “Fuck off!” befits this hypocrisy, given the immense effort expended by the vice squad of the South African police to arrest white men contravening the Immorality Act.

In the afterword to her memoir Freedom Writer, Susanne Klausen writes, “Her passionate youthful love affair with Green Eyes, a Hindu boy … was a deeply imprinted experience … Her love for Green Eyes must have instilled or at least magnified her belief that differences between people, such as religion and ethnicity, should not matter. The theme of star-crossed lovers divided by the racist Immorality Act would be a central concern in some of her short stories and her reportage.”

An example of such a short story is Future Full of Darkness, which was published in 1955 in the left-wing newspaper New Age, edited by Ruth First and her husband Joe Slovo. Mayet submitted it for a short story contest as a 17-year-old under the nom de plume Sharon Davis. 

Future Full of Darkness is the story of a doomed affair between a coloured woman and a white man inspired by her censured love for Green Eyes. 

The main character is a young journalist, also named Sharon, who falls in love with the green-eyed Max, only for his mother to inform the police. After his arrest, Max commits suicide to preserve some honour, and leaves Sharon facing a “future full of darkness”.

The adult Mayet hosted parties, at which the races intermingled, while keeping a sharp eye out for the police. 

Black people were not permitted to imbibe alcohol under apartheid law but every time a raid occurred, none were near a glass of spirits. The authorities would let themselves into bedrooms to ensure the Immorality Act was being observed, then leave empty-handed, muttering under their breath.

This is not to say that Mayet did not harbour fugitives of apartheid’s favourite law. In February 1966, she temporarily housed a coloured man and his Afrikaner wife at her 72A Beit Street property, two doors down from a police station. Not only did she succeed in smuggling them to Swaziland via Barberton, but she also footed the transport bill.

People went on with their humanity despite apartheid’s silliness. Another example mentioned in the book is the ex-policeman “Killer”, who had an illegitimate daughter with a prostitute of colour. One day, she dumped the baby on his doorstep and disappeared from their lives. 

Killer could be seen around Doornfontein, doting on his motherless child, leading to the question: why was he not stopped and questioned by the authorities? Perhaps there was a tacit acknowledgment among law enforcement officers of the untenable nature of their mission to govern human nature. After all, Killer was one of their own.

Nothing illustrates the indefensible ridiculousness of apartheid logic clearer than Mayet’s brush with the Group Areas Act in 1968. To her credit, she took a dehumanising experience and used it to lampoon the state through her craft, as the Drum article Stand By For the Great Transformation attests. 

The lead image is a duplicated portrait of Mayet captioned as “Malay Juby” and “Indian Juby”, to demonstrate the wizardry of which Pretoria was capable — changing a person’s given race. Mayet had to suffer this indignity after her Indian husband died, leaving her as a Malay illegally living in Lenasia. Her children could stay, having assumed the race of their father, but she had to move to Eldorado Park or apply for reclassification.

Juby, arm in arm with her best friend Harleen Pillay, Johannesburg city centre, undated (Mayet family archive)

Mayet’s impulse for revenge is understandable, given the trauma of having to drag her children to the reassessment. During her five-month incarceration at No. 4 Women’s Jail in 1978, she outlined a five-step purgatory “for those whites who decide 

to remain here with Black majority rule”: “All Whites to be sent to live in the very same ghettoes they have forced us to live in all these years – say for a period of five years. All of them to carry passes to be produced on demand. Curfew in big cities after 6pm weekdays and from 2pm on Saturdays. Only those carrying a special stamp in their passes to be allowed into elite eating/recreational facilities. Singles to live in hostels. In short, a complete reversal of roles.”

As determined as she was to get through it unscathed, half a year in prison left an indelible mark on Mayet. Her family members noticed immediately that the tigress who had fought tirelessly for them had returned a little subdued. 

Her brother Amien, who visited her numerous times in jail, remarks, “They messed her up psychologically. It took her a long time to overcome that part … Cats had a mind she could relate to. She could discuss it with cats … It calmed her down.” 

Her son Ebrahim says, “I could see there was a kind of quiet now behind her eyes … but we never spoke about it.” Finally, sister Mariam recalls, “Many times Juby was there and wasn’t there,” probably suffering from post-traumatic stress.   

Mayet makes light of her “enforced holiday” in the autobiography but that is in keeping with the selfless habit she had of not taking herself or her hardships too seriously. 

According to Klausen, “Such a self-effacing self-image is common among working-class black women born and raised in misogynist and racist societies, who are told in countless ways they are unimportant.” 

The assistant professor of African history is of the belief that not promoting herself cost Mayet recognition. Other factors include that “Juby worked in journalism, and for decades scholars have tended to view journalism as a lesser form of cultural production”. 

The number one “reason Juby has been ignored by scholars is that she was a black woman”, but Klausen hopes the publication of this autobiography will elevate Mayet’s legacy to a place above the skewed, patriarchal narrative that is the South African liberation struggle.

Freedom Writer by Juby Mayet is published by Jacana Media, R280.