Book Extract: How poverty bred a warrior

Class Action Picture: Supplied
Class Action Picture: Supplied


Class Action: In Pursuit of a Larger Life by Charles Abrahams

Penguin Books

213 pages


One of the first pioneering class actions that lawyer Charles Abrahams would undertake was against the corporate cartel that fixed the price of bread. He has also sued multinational corporates for supporting apartheid and helped secure a R5 billion silicosis settlement from the gold mining industry. In this powerful extract from his autobiography we understand why it started with bread.

After my mother was discharged from hospital, relative calm returned to our house. There was a semblance of normality and even my father seemed his usual self. He came home earlier and we went out as a family more often, in the battered red-and-white combi. The old rattily-tatty engine made more noise than an engine should and most of the time it had to be jump-started with a push. My father explained that this was because the brushes of the starter motor were worn.

But if it wasn’t the brushes, then it was the carburettor that flooded with petrol. No matter how often my father took the combi to his backyard mechanic, it always came back worse than before. So bad, in fact, we joked that the mechanic was fixing it broken. None of this stopped us from driving old rattily-tatty to the beach or to see the New Year’s lights or the Kaapse Klopse (Cape Minstrels). The combi even took us on family trips to Ceres, about 200km from Cape Town, where we saw my father in action. It was his life’s mission to preach among the poor, destitute and mostly drunk farmworkers. This is where I saw the father I loved, different from the one who abused my mother – a father who was kind, gentle and compassionate, treating strangers as if they were his own kin.

It baffled me that someone so deeply religious, who had devoted his life to others, could perpetrate cruelty towards his own wife. As I grew older I wondered whether it had to do with the way in which he interpreted Bible scriptures, such as Colossians 3:18: “Wives, submit yourselves unto your husbands, as it is fit in the Lord.” Whether true or not, my father certainly gave literal expression to Genesis 9:7: “And you, be ye fruitful, and multiply; bring forth abundantly in the earth, and multiply therein.”

By the time I was 12 years old, my siblings included Roseline, Christopher, Marius, Amanda, Ronel and Anneline. After a short break, Johan and Lorenzo were born in quick succession. My mother gave birth to 11 of us in total. Had it not been for a few miscarriages, we would have been an even larger family.

Having old rattily-tatty came in handy, but our three-bedroom house became too small. My mother and father slept in the big room, Mara and Roseline in the small room. The rest of us were squeezed into the middle room. Amanda, Ronel and Anneline shared a double bunk in one corner; Johan and, later, Lorenzo, got a cot in the other corner. Christopher and Marius had to share the double bed with Francois and me. We slept head to feet, like sardines.

The speed at which our family increased far outpaced any increases in my father’s meagre truck-driver’s salary. He received his wages every Thursday and, by the time the bills were paid – the home instalment, the doodgenootskap (burial society policy), the clothing lay-by, the Christmas hamper and the furniture accounts – there was hardly any money left for food. Nevertheless, Friday, Saturday and Sunday were good days in our household and we could even share some food with friends and visitors. On Monday and Tuesday, the lean time set in. Wednesday was touch and go and by Thursday there was nothing left to eat.

Monday at least provided a bit of a bonus. My father religiously brought home a plastic bag full of leftovers from his boss’s Sunday lunch. He called it “skrepkos” (scrap food) and it was meant for our dog, Sheba. It was always red because the beetroot mixed with the rice, discarded potatoes, and half-eaten meat and chicken pieces. This was a meal on its own and us kids had no intention of allowing Sheba to enjoy it all by herself. We’d finish most of it before a few bare bones got anywhere near her plate.

Thursday was a day of fasting with not a morsel in sight until my father returned home in the evening. Kids at school taunted me as a loafer and avoided me on Thursday; they knew it was my begging day.

One Thursday, when I was unsuccessful with my begging, I turned to the school’s dirt bins. Pretending to throw rubbish away, I secretly scavenged for any discarded bread. I found none and knew it was going to be a long, hungry day.

When I got home that afternoon, I went straight to the kitchen to see if there was anything to eat. There was nothing. I drank some water, in the hope that it would ease my hunger pangs, and went outside to sit in the sun. I found a corner next to our house and sat down, head between my legs.

Sheba roused herself and walked sluggishly towards me. I could count her ribs, she was that thin. Her eyes were droopy and, from the way she walked, I knew she hadn’t eaten in days. She licked my face and I pushed her away.

“No, Sheba. Go away! Go away!”

She kept on licking and eventually I gave up. After a while, our neighbour’s back door opened. A big, imposing figure emerged: Mrs Sasman, wife of the schoolteacher Mr Sasman. They had three children, about the same ages as Mara, Francois and me.

She carried a plate of bread.

“Charles,” she said, “here’s some old bread for Sheba. Please give it to her.”

“Thank you, Mrs Sasman,” I said politely. The bread was stale, some of it flecked with greyish mould. Sheba had heard her name and was jumping at me, forcing me to throw the bread on the ground for her to eat. I handed the plate back to Mrs Sasman.

When she closed the door, I dived to the ground, scrabbling with Sheba for my share. She growled at me, having already swallowed most of the scraps. I managed to snatch a few pieces from her mouth before she ran off with the rest. I wiped the sand off and ate. After this meagre meal I went inside to sleep. By the time my father got home that evening, I was still asleep and missed out on the food he brought home.

I was not the only one begging for bread; there were many other kids in my situation. One in particular stood out: Benjamin, a tiny boy from Bishop Lavis. Almost every morning, before the school bell rang, he’d stand at the school gate, begging for bread: “Stukkie diat, asseblief.” (Piece of bread, please.) In time, this earned him the unenviable nickname of “Stukkie Diat”.

One morning it so happened that my mother had wrapped four of the most delicious slices of soft white bread packed with cheese and tomatoes for my lunch. This was an unusual treat and I was looking forward to showing off my bread at school. Usually, I had only dry brown bread, with the occasional smear of peanut butter and jam, wrapped in flimsy Cartwright wrapping paper. As I approached the gate, I saw Stukkie Diat and became anxious. I hid my bread behind my back, but it was too late; he’d seen it.

“Charles, my broe, stukkie diat, asseblief,” he begged. (Charles, my brother, piece of bread, please.)

I acted as if I hadn’t heard or seen him and briskly walked on. But he caught up with me.

“Asseblief, my broe.” (Please, my brother.)

I tried to ignore him, but his little brown eyes stared at me. Djirre, Stukkie Diat. Hoekom vandag van alle dae? I cursed (Jees, Stukkie Diat. Why today of all days?), but I could see he was hungry. I wavered for a moment. My head said no; my heart said yes. Something inside prompted me to hand my entire sandwich parcel to him.

Later that day, I regretted my actions. Not only did I go hungry, but I never got to show off my most delicious sandwiches to my classmates either.


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