‘I’m naughty Kate’, she said, extending her hand, and looking at me over the top of her glasses. Her eyes sparkled, but it was clear she was a force to be reckoned with. She continued making her jewellery, painstakingly threading beads onto cotton, as she told me her story.
‘I have two children,’ she said, a boy and a girl, but there’s sixteen years between them – you know why? Because it’s hard to raise a child when you have no home’. And so began the tale of a courageous woman, fighting for the right to live a normal life – a settled life, with a home, a husband, and children.
Kate lived in the informal settlement of Modderdam. ‘It was good there. We had schools, little stalls where we used to sell our things – veggies and what-what’. Modderdam was demolished in the winter of 1977. Kate recalled the worst thing about the demolition – losing her father’s T-shirt and her garden. Her father had been wearing the T-shirt when he was shot. ‘He gave me that T-shirt when he went away (to a detention camp) and said ‘remember they shot me but they couldn’t kill me’. It was a keep-sake, a comfort.’ In one week the apartheid government left 15,000 people homeless and Modderdam residents became refugees overnight – displaced citizens in their own city.
Kate moved around, living in illegal settlements. ‘I had to leave my boy with my in-laws. They were good people but it was hard. When you’re bringing your child up in someone else’s yard, it’s always your child that does something wrong’. Kate faced constant raids, and lived with a backdrop of violence, threatened arrest, and deportation to her Transkei ‘homeland’. She gave birth to her daughter in the woods after being chased by the police. Shrugging her shoulders, she said it was an easy birth. ‘I just vomit, get a couple of muscle spasms and the baby was there. A man cut through the umbilical cord with a knife he took out of his pocket, and he took a clothes peg from the line to tie it off’. A few days later, Kate volunteered to become one of the 57 fasters in St. George’s Cathedral.
‘I was used to fasting. We fasted at Lent in my house. We went to St. George’s because it was in town, near parliament and the media, and we thought we’d be safer there. We just went to the service in the evening and afterwards we refused to leave’. What they intended to be a three day fast became a twenty-three day marathon. Kate was breast feeding at the time. ‘I noticed that on the third, fourth day that the mile was getting a little bit less. (That was) when the sisters told us that when you drink (only) the water the milk is getting weaker because you don’t have food, something to make it strong. And then that’s when they ….allowed us to have a glass of guava juice in the morning and a glass in the evening. Just to make the milk (stronger)’. Kate recalls: ‘On the 17th day I felt a big change in my body. I was very weak. I couldn’t lift up my baby to breastfeed her. I just sat and … (the) sisters came and did me a little massage and …(by) the afternoon I felt alright again. After that I didn’t have any more problems until the last day’. When the government agreed to issue three month permits and places to stay in Holy Cross to the fasters, the hunger strikers called off their protest.
I asked Kate if she thought she was tough. ‘No’, she laughed. ‘Look, when I was little I used to take my daddy’s cattle to graze on the white man’s land. My sister is a softie – she’s three years older than me, but I look after her’. For two years after the fast Kate continued to live in ‘temporary’ settlements. Finally in 1984 the government bowed to the inevitable and issued squatters in the Western Cape with 99 year leasehold rights. Kate moved to Site C in Khayelitsha. Her sister lives next door. ‘I did that’, Kate told me. ‘When we were given our permits she was given a house three streets away. I went to the planners and told them I was asthmatic and needed to have my sister near me. They told me ‘lady, you ask too much. But that’s what I wanted and that’s what I got’. After a moment she said quietly ‘maybe I am a little bit tough’.
Kate now has a little brick house with two bedrooms, solar heating and hot water. She’s happy. Her dreams of a better life, for herself, her children, her seventeen grand-children and two great grandchildren, are being realised. ‘I can stand at my front door and shout to my son’, she told me proudly. ‘He is a carpenter, an electrician, a plumber – and he also does bead work – this isn’t just girl’s work – work is work’, and again she fixed me with a look of steel. I wasn’t about to argue.
Some of the fasters feel they’ve been forgotten. Some still don’t have houses. I asked Kate if she thought it had been worthwhile. ‘Look, you have to help yourself. We formed a group, applied for a loan to build a house. I even went to India for six months to learn how to do it. I thought I make necklaces and bracelets by putting beads on cotton, it can’t be very different and I wanted to see for myself’.
A steamroller of a woman. Now, Kate assists people to apply for government subsidies and teaches craft classes three days a week. She lives off the income she earns from selling her bead work. Two days a week she can be found at the exhibition at the Slave Lodge, telling people ‘this is the story of my life’. A white South African lady approached us. ‘I’m so ashamed apartheid ever existed’, she said. ‘I helped smash that’, proclaimed Kate. ‘I want this story to be heard’.
I talked to Kate Nicisana at the Slave Lodge Museum in Cape Town in 2013.