Desperately seeking my sister


The year is 1974.

My mother leaves Durban, where we've been living, with her two little girls: my two-year-old self and my one-year-old sister, Maralize. We're bound to Cape Town where she intends to find work. Soon after arriving in the city she takes Maralize and to a friend's sister and asks her to babysit while she goes job-hunting.

She never comes back.

Maralize and I are placed in foster care with the woman my mother left us with. But then Maralize gets meningitis and dies.

After Maralize's passing I play with my baby dolls and call them Mala – the nickname I gave my sister. My foster mom tells me it was very difficult for me after my sister went. I had two losses to deal with: first my mom left, then my sister left me.

I go to live in foster care with other children and they gradually become my family. The house becomes my home and the years pass.

I don't see or hear from my biological mother until the day of my 13th birthday. But she doesn't stay long: she has a new husband a whole new life.

When I turn 18 I get another big surprise. The Wynberg Welfare Department, which had handled my and Maralize's case, gets in touch and tells me I have another sister who was given up for adoption. Her name is Catherine and she is two years older than me.

I am shocked and overwhelmed by the news. I ask the welfare officer if I can have access to more information but I am told it was a closed adoption -- which means no "outsider" is allowed to probe further. I am denied access to a sister I have only just discovered.

I walk out feeling empty but in the train on the way home I know my life has changed. I am not alone in the world.

Still, I have no choice but to get on with my life. In 1993 I marry a good man and we have four beautiful children. But I can't forget about Catherine.

In 2006 I decide to contact the Registrar of Adoptions in Pretoria and am put in touch with an adoption officer. She explains there is nothing she can do as Catherine hasn't contacted their office to enquire about any family members.

This could mean one of two things: Catherine doesn't want to be found or she doesn’t know she was adopted. I leave my contact details with the adoption officer in case Catherine decides to get in touch.

Ten years go by and I decide to contact the Registrar of Adoptions again in case there have been any updates about Catherine. There haven't. "Is there anything else I can do?" I ask desperately.

"Only the biological mother can make enquiries about her," the officer tells me.

And so I request that the biological mother -- who is my mother too -- complete the necessary documents required in order for the search to begin. Finally the ball is rolling, I think.

There are so many stories surrounding my sister’s adoption. That it wasn't legal as the biological mother had not signed the child over for adoption. That it was done through the state. That Catherine was reclassified under apartheid as coloured when placed for adoption. That she was adopted by an Indian family.

I decide to go back to the office where the adoption took place. I contact the welfare office where and am put in touch with a lovely woman who explains the procedure to me.

She checks with her superiors about what information I am allowed access to and finally pieces together a bit of the puzzle for me.

When Catherine was abandoned at three months old Welfare Department took ownership of her. Notification was handed to all police stations in and around Durban, Johannesburg and Cape Town. The state tried to trace her biological mother to no avail. The Welfare Department then decided their last hope was to put out a news broadcast on SABC in January of 1975.

After all attempts to reach the mother proved unsuccessful, Catherine was taken back to Addington Hospital in Durban where she was born in the hope that her mother would come in search of her.

She stayed at the hospital for four months and was then placed in foster care with a couple who adopted her when she was 18 months old.

As I understand, Catherine’s race classification was unknown since she wasn’t registered at birth. I am not sure if this is true but it is believed that in those days children could only be classified at 18 months old when all features or skin tone become evident.

When I first discovered I had a sister I began to hear rumours that a doctor or nurse had adopted her. After hearing some of the facts about my sister's stay at Addington Hospital it would make sense that the rumours were true. Maybe someone who worked at Addington Hospital took a liking to my sister.

We currently have the Registrar of Adoption working on tracing the adoptive parents through Home Affairs. I was told by the officer at the Registrar that tracing can take up to a year and may not be successful.

Should both adoptive parents be deceased then tracing will end. I tried to remain in contact with the adoption officer and I understand how busy she is and that promises to return my calls can't always be kept. Today I found out she has retired. Her last working day was Friday 21 October.

Where to from here?  Does the process start all over again? I have discovered that tracing my sister's file has not begun - the file is still on someone’s desk.

I refuse to give up no matter how emotionally exhausting it gets at times. All I am asking is for someone to help me.  Catherine celebrated her 42nd birthday on 1 November and I pray that by her next birthday I will be there with her.

So for now, Catherine, wherever in the world you may be, I hope you had a very happy birthday, dear sister. Know that you are loved and thought of each and every day. Always in my heart.

Love ?

Your sister Noeleen

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