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Conversations with my father: Part 3

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Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

When I was a young girl, I was strictly forbidden from digging through my father’s belongings. We all knew he had a collection of things he had assembled during his career as a policeman, which he stored in metal trunks, suitcases and boxes in a wooden shed outside our house. Sometimes when my father was out I would spend hours and hours sifting through his badges, uniforms, watches, bullets, dog tags, pens, pencils, stamps, matchboxes, cassette tapes, photographs of my mother and his police dog Shadow, pipes, pipe cleaners, shoes and shoe polish, and some objects I had no idea the purpose of. As a young girl I spent a lot of time trying to put pieces of my father’s life together.

In late 2008 the world fell apart. My father was diagnosed with a rare motor neuron disease called progressive bulbar palsy. It attacks the central nervous system, and in my father’s case started in his mouth, which became paralysed; the disease then slowly worked its way across his body. He was unable to speak for the last year and a half of his life, and he was unable to eat for the last year. In 2009, shortly after doctors presented us with a prognosis for my father, Kgalema Motlanthe replaced Thabo Mbeki as acting president of the country. His cabinet approved the Early Exit Policy for the Public Service, a policy document that mandated the retirement of some public service employees before they reached their compulsory retirement age. It resulted in my father losing his job with immediate effect. During this time I sat down and wrote out a series of questions for my father.

My father was also the child of a policeman and so the questions I asked him tracked our combined experiences as intimate witnesses of the South African police force from 1946 until 2009 (from the date my father was born until he left the JMPD). My father agreed to collaborate with me however he never answered any of the questions I sent to him. In June 2010, after his funeral – where policemen marched the honour guard and handed my mother the South African flag – I found my emailed questions on a printed piece of paper folded up inside a blue bible under his bed.

As far as the story goes, on 13 June 1976, after my father had been on patrol in Soweto, he made his way to the Park Lane Clinic where we met for the first time. Before we met he went to the toilets in the maternity ward, I presume he would have looked at himself in the mirror and washed his hands and face, which would have contained the pungent residue of tear gas. When he met me, he held me and cried uncontrollable tears.

My father, Elwyn Mattig Pelser, had a removed quality. Throughout my youth he was mostly working. To get to know him, I had to infiltrate his life; which had to be through his work. On the odd occasion, I would go into the office with him. I remember how brown and cold it was. There was a lot of cold metal, rough institutional carpeting, big heavy wooden desks, important chairs, piles of light cardboard files filled with white important papers and large heavy ash trays. We were forbidden from fiddling. The nicest thing about his work was teatime, when my father took me to the cafeteria for Cream Soda and greasy toasted cheddar sandwiches. The grease would ooze through the white bread and stain the paper packet. My father would go and stand outside the cafeteria and smoke a cigarette. He smoked Rothmans, although later he switched to Benson and Hedges Special Mild.

My father grew up in the police force. He was constantly moving around the country, to wherever my grandfather was posted. From what I can put together they were based in Queenstown, in the Eastern Cape, when he was born, then moved to Oudtshoorn and Bloemfontein when he was a boy, followed by Durban, where he completed high school and, later, police college. He used to tell me a story about how, once, he bunked school to enter a tennis tournament. He won. My grandfather quickly pricked his pride. Furious at the fact that he had bunked school, my grandfather pulled my father out of Glenwood College and sent him to police college, where he quickly became a drill sergeant. He was 16 when this happened. Later in his life, after his fiftieth birthday, when we met in cafes around Johannesburg, my father would speak about how strict and mean he became when he was a drill sergeant.

My grandfather was transferred to Pretoria from Durban, and my Father was deployed to a station on the West Rand of Johannesburg. On 7 October 1976 my grandfather, Brigadier Frederick Pelser, sat down in his room in his house in Pretoria and used his service pistol to shoot himself in the head. My grandmother, Aleta Pelser, phoned my mother to say that her son, my father, should urgently go to Pretoria. My father was away at the time, patrolling a border somewhere, and when the message reached him he returned home. Nobody informed my mother what had happened. She tells the story of how, when she arrived at my grandfather’s house with my older sister and I, nobody was allowed to cry.

I grew up around policemen. When my father retired from the South African Police, he joined the Johannesburg City Council where he was instrumental in developing the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police. He was Director in Chief until 2009. I rarely felt fear growing up. It was normal to watch boys at my school marching for cadets, and I was accustomed to hearing the evacuation siren sounding at school, which meant a lazy stroll to the big field. Mostly I remember this drill happening in winter. The grass was white and static, the winter sun hot and seemingly immobile.

I was also used to my father returning home in the late evening and sounding the siren in his light yellow council issue Toyota Corolla, a signal for us to open the gates for him. He would then fill out a logbook recording the distance he’d driven that day from City Deep to the Northern Suburbs. Sometimes he would disarm his firearm. He would show me how to apply the safety lock, remove the bullets and allow me to aim the gun at the wall above their bed. I was not allowed to pull the trigger. Sometimes, late in the night, the telephone would ring. The person on the other side would tell my father that there was someone in their house and could he go over and help them. That made me scared. Mostly, however, I was oblivious to the political pressure my father was living with.

Sometime in the late 1990s, my father dropped me off at the then Johannesburg International Airport. I was flying back to London, where I was living at the time. With some time to spare before my flight we had a cup of coffee. My father told me how radically his work environment had changed, how he now found himself surrounded by a very different set of people than in the past. He said that during one conference he took the opportunity to look around the room and noticed that he was the only person there who had not done time in prison. He considered this for a while, and then realised that if he had been, “on the other side,” as he put it, he would have been the biggest terrorist. But, he said, he wasn’t.

Three months after my father’s death, I found a diary containing a letter written to his father. It was addressed “SARGE”, My Dad, …” It described how my father had kept the service pistol my grandfather had used to kill himself with, and how this action made my father feel strong. The letter was dated October 2008. Written 32 years after my grandfather’s death, it revealed that my father had finally started to mourn the loss of his father.

– Monique Pelser 2012