“Why after all these years do you emerge to mess up my life?”
If Mpaya had kept a register of the times she had seen her dad, he would have been marked as ‘absent’ for all but a few weeks of her 16 years.
She could also count on one hand the times he had given her anything – a P20 note for a birthday or Christmas present on four occasions, and the occasional contribution of groceries for her impoverished mum.
Her story is not uncommon. The urban customary court is littered with files of youths seeking redress over missing or less committed dads -something that was traditionally unheard of back in the days when the moral definition of family and fatherhood implied a commitment, responsibility and bonding.
MPAYA’ S STORY
As young as she was the frown on Mpaya’s care worn face betrayed the emotional scars of her troubled life as she related her story.
She demanded that the kgotla should intervene between her and her father who had never supported her except that occasionally he called her and said Kana o ngwanake” – meaning, ‘By the way you are my child.’
Growing up she had not attached much significance to his words – it was just a label to a face that filtired through her memory from time to time.
But now at 16 she demanded that her father should add more substance to the title.
She felt that the time had come for Mr Setilo (her dad) to be part of her life because her mother was just not coping.
Setilo was asked to come and meet Mpaya and he arrived in the company of his mother.
I recognised him as a social heavy weight whose elevated position in society was evident from the designed to impressdesigner label, displayedas it was like an advert on the sleeve of his elegant silk suit.
As I was politely going through the routine exchange of greetings I could sense Setilo’s indignation in the angry look he cast towards his daughter.
By way of response he barked out a volley of abuse, his unpleasant words resounding like bullets around the confines of my porta cabin office.
But the little girl refused to be intimidated – there was even the hint of a smile around the curl of her mouth as she returned his gaze.
Then Setilo directed his next words to me: “Since when are children allowed to drag people to the kgotla without starting with the family?”
Setilo rattled on and on in the manner of an outraged headmaster dealing with a delinquent student, before I could explain that social welfare officers had in fact referred the child to me.
Mpaya’s mother Lizzywas asked to shed light on herdaughter’s allegation, and confirmed that indeed Setilo wasthe father and that she had been about 15 when the childwas born.
Lizzy confessed that she had never informed Setilo of the pregnancy because of her youthfulness, but the man had assumed responsibility in a small way by bringing an offering of groceries once in a while.
Visibly annoyed by the revelations Setilo picked up his executive brief case and began to shuffle through his papers whilst threatening to call his lawyer.
In the end he settled instead for a cross-examination of his own.
Turning his attention to his daughter’s mother he asked:
Q: Did your parents ever report the damage to my family?
A: You know that I was raised an orphan and I was only about 15 when ‘you did that thing to me’ at your cattle post.
My uncle was scarred to raise the matter because he worked for your father.
Q: Should I be dragged to court when our cultural procedure of damage notification was not followed?
A: Yes she can because you introduced yourself to the child and you gave her small gifts. Your sisters used to pamper her with gifts.
Setilo turned to Mpayaand hissed: “Why after all these years do you emerge out of nowhere to mess up my life now?”
Without any hint of emotion Mpayadeclares that it is because now she needsfinancial support and knows what a father must do for his children.
She tells him that she wants more than just a P20 note for fat cakes.
Into the silence that ensued I made a list of the points the case had raised:
• Mpaya is fighting at a tender age for a right that should flow to her like the waters of a stream.
She does not seem to care for the luxury of being loved but wants her father to pay for his actions.
• Setilo is angry at being reduced to a miserable dwarf since his social status does not accommodate being questioned by an unkempt 16-year-old girl, even if it is his own daughter.
• Setilo’s defence is that since traditional protocol was not followed he must be let off the hook.
• Lizzy declares confidently that this matter was what ‘now’ the law calls defilement because she was under age when she conceived Mpaya.
• Setilo feels a DNA test must be done to confirm that he fathered the girl.
• Setilo’s mum who sat quietly for a long time seemed to have used the time to do a visual DNAtest and has concluded that Mpaya is her grandchild and Setilo must stop hiding behind his wagging finger.
As the unhappy family filed out of my office with the agreement thatSetilo would undertake a DNA test before determining the way forward, I was left to reflect on the implications of their sorry story.
The difficulty of applying traditional wisdom to a situation where the honoured tradition of fatherhood had been violated just highlighted the shift in attitude towards the role and its inherent responsibilities.
Thesocial welfare office had referred the case to me, and there was little more that I could do other than throw it back to them.
In her formative years Mpaya had looked to her father for love and protection – now she just wanted cash. But in both cases all she got was the mechanical rejection of an ATM machine with ‘insufficient funds.’
The fight for maintenance eventually ended up in the magistrates ’s court.
Where the young woman’s search for love might end is anybody’s guess.