Thursday, February 26, 2015

Everyone has a story. We forget this sometimes particularly when the people we encounter are unassuming. Take Simon for instance, front of house and head of security at GOLD Restaurant. He stands at the entrance, reverent and smiling - always courteous. GOLD staff calls him “Papa” or Mr. Simon. Even some of the regular taxi drivers who convey guests to the restaurant call him “Papa”. This is because he has that quiet, trusty comfortableness about him to which people are drawn like sinners to a confessional booth.

Behind the smile is a fascinating story full of life events that would surely cripple any spirit. Not Simon. He is one of those rare beings who in the retelling of his story - completely lacking in anger or bitterness - finds opportunity to learn from the “gifts of his experiences”.

A small rural town

His story begins in 1970 in a small rural town in the Eastern Cape called Steynsberg. He is the second born, one of a family of eight brothers and sisters. His father worked as a labourer on white owned farms in apartheid South Africa. His mother was a domestic worker. Simon's parents weren’t formally educated but his father could read, write and was fluent in Xhosa, English and Afrikaans. His father taught him to eat with a knife and fork because one day he knew his children would go places and he didn’t want them to feel embarrassed. His mother taught him to write his worries in the sand and to chisel his wishes on stone. She was wise.

Miner, entrepreneur, prisoner

The Soweto Uprising of 1976 shifted the political topography of South Africa forever. Simon was six. Still he wasn’t to understand the full impact of this until much later when it became personal. His father had left the farms to seek work on the mines. This took him away from home and his family but he would come home when he could, usually twice a year for short periods at Easter and Christmas.

In 1973 he left the mines to seek work in Namibia. Prior to Namibia’s official independence South Africa installed an interim administration in 1985. Simon’s father was told to leave his hard earned house and to discontinue his taxi operation. Refusing to leave his property and relinquish his business, he was sentenced to three years in prison. Released in 1988, he went to Johannesburg and worked for a paint company until his death in 2000. Simon’s father never stopped believing in a better life for his children.

Beaten and detained at 14

In 1984, Simon was fourteen and was part of a group of soccer playing boys. He was the youngest. The oldest was 17. Simon was a defender and his teammates nicknamed him “bricks” or “roadblock”. Nothing got past him.

He and his teammates were excited the day they set out to play a match away from home. But the police arrived, beat them and detained them for six weeks on the grounds that they had “breached politics” for playing outside of their jurisdiction.

New constitution but no rights

It was around the same time that Simon began realising that he was part of something bigger and much more important than just one person. In 1983 the then prime minister, PW Botha introduced a new constitution for South Africa, which allowed for limited window-dressing representation for coloureds and Indians. Black people were still denied the right to vote.

They were not allowed to “loiter” in white neighbourhoods. They were not allowed to gather anywhere in groups for that matter, not even in the townships. They had to “koop and loop” (shop and leave).

Five seconds to disperse

The uprisings and democratic movements around the country in response to the tightening grip of the apartheid government were gathering momentum. Simon attended a peaceful gathering where people were being updated on news of the latest boycotts. The police arrived and gave the crowd five seconds to disperse. Senior meeting members tried to reason with the police who responded by counting down from five. Unable to disperse in time, twelve people were fatally wounded including Simon’s 17-year old cousin who died on the spot.

Joining the cause

“There was no hope,” he says. “No one to protect us. Sometimes when we prayed together or sang freedom songs it was painful and we just cried.” Simon wanted to join the movement like the rest of his soccer friends. He wanted to do something, to be someone. He was recruited by the ANC in Johannesburg and almost left for Lusaka. Not knowing of Simon’s recruitment, but worried about the increasing unrest, Simon’s father arrived and took him to the Ciskei so that he could focus on his studies. Of his friends that were recruited, none survived. They died in service of the cause.

Education is everything

After matriculating in 1990, Simon applied to the Vaal Triangle Technikon to study journalism. He received no reply and, keen to pursue his studies, he went to the Technikon and was chased away by white students. For the rest of that year he performed odd jobs to help support himself and his family.

In 1992, on his father’s recommendation he arrived in Cape Town and stayed with his older married sister. He applied to the Cape Technikon but he was too late for the intake for that year. His father urged him not to give up, to pursue his education. So Simon applied to a business college. Choices were limited and not really in line with his dreams for his future. But by this stage he was willing to do anything to increase his employability in order to help his brothers and sisters with their education. He enrolled for computer programming and bookkeeping.

Gray to GOLD

In 1993, Simon started at Gray Security as a security guard. He quickly moved up the ranks to supervisor and then manager. From 1995 until now, without prompting from his father, Simon has paid for four of his siblings to further their education so that they could follow their dreams and become the contributing members of the free society his parents had dreamed about. Extremely proud of his siblings, he takes no credit for their achievements. Quoting author and wife of the famous aviator Charles Lindberg, he says, “to give without any reward, or any notice, has a special quality of its own”.

In 2009, Cindy, owner of GOLD Restaurant approached him. She recognised something in him that others hadn’t and asked him to come and work at GOLD as head of security. He’s been there ever since. He laughs and says, “sometimes to grow you have to go”.

When he sees people arrive at GOLD visibly stressed and irritable, he knows they’ll leave happy and satisfied. That’s part of the special quality of the place, its people and the food of course.

When he goes home to Steynsberg

When he goes home to Steynsberg to visit his mother he takes with him bottled mineral water. When he was a boy he would fetch fresh spring mountain water, pray over it and give it to his granny to drink. Now he takes bottled spring water to pray over and to wash her feet.

Asked if he has any resentment about the past, he seems almost surprised by the question and says, “I saw a lot of atrocities but there were so many good things in spite of apartheid. Some people never get to experience truly good friends, a loving family and the strong sense of self I had even as a child. I didn’t always have role models close by but true character starts with family. My family is my treasure.”

Looking ahead

He says, “it’s because of all the people and experiences in my life that I always communicate with my heart". He continues, “I don’t have a voice to shout only a heart to communicate”. Simon is unexpectedly thankful for the opportunity to speak about his life, to share his story. He says that, “when you have important things you know if there is no platform for them they die”.

Simon is happily married and has four children. He has every intention of writing his stories down, studying further and becoming a life coach. “We’re all in chains on some level”, he says. “Culture may unite people but no two people are alike and everyone needs someone”. Simon never stops moving forward. Still, he acknowledges that one day, when the time to stop inevitably comes, he’d like to be remembered most as someone original, someone who never pretended to be somebody he wasn’t.

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