Reflections in a Waiting Room at the Cape Town Maintenance Court  

Maintenance CourtI wrote this way back in 2011 and I offer it as a tribute to all the women who struggle to support their children alone. It is a sad testament to a system bursting at the seams with  the needs of children who have only one parent who provides. (The carpet hasn’t changed btw)

It’s a drab room: the nondescript institutional blue carpeting shows signs of wear. The antechamber is furnished with mismatched office chairs and scratched tables. Two miniature bright plastic tables and a forlorn matching chair lie discarded in a corner, some long ago attempt to make the place child-friendly.

A muted television plays ancient re-runs of African-American sitcoms, bearing no resemblance to the miserable lives of the inhabitants of the room. Someone has chosen to paint the walls a mellow buttercup yellow, but not even that or the cheesy puppy prints randomly placed on the walls, next to forbidding-looking legal documents, outlining court proceedings, can brighten the mood of the silent occupants.

We’re a mixed bunch: young, old; rich, poor, inhabitants of a wide range of Cape Town suburbs and townships. Two women, absorbed in conversation, sit patiently, from time to time staring at the silent comedians on the screen; another dressed in jeans, is on her Blackberry – deleting messages is one way to pass the time here, I think. A young mom (too young) sits besides me, restlessly picking at her clothes. What is her story, I wonder, or that of the mother and her teenage daughter, who are reading Die Son and seem to be the only people in the room who like each other? I smile encouragingly at them in the sisterhood of the betrayed. Their case is called and the mother leaves the room accompanied by an unlikely ex-partner – a wannabe gangsta-type who ‘rolls’ out on sneakers, having spent the previous hour in the room with his eyes closed while listening to earphones, ignoring her and his daughter.

Everyone here has a story – even the angry matron with steely grey hair who loudly demands that we should all complain vehemently about the delays. People shrug and avert their eyes, embarrassed to be so placid. We’re already defeated, our body language seems to say, no fight left in us.

Only the icy hiss of the air conditioner responds.

Then there are the men: one is pacing, decrying ‘Africa’ as the root of all evil (funny that his own delinquency is probably the reason he is here). The defaulters look nervous and jumpy. Two are jiggling their legs anxiously. I feel no sympathy, imagining the tracks their former wives and lovers have paced, agonising over their financial fears. A well-dressed businessman and his blonde wife sign in as defendants. They’re represented by an energetic attorney whose court gown makes him appear to be a marauding crow. They move into an adjoining room, disdaining our company.

I’ve finished my novel; planned my schedule for tomorrow’s work; bored myself with attempts to erase 913 smses one by one and am now pondering the meaning of it all. A woman on TV holds up a tiny baby triumphantly. Out of the corner of my eye I see my ex-husband watching the show and wonder what he’s thinking. Is he remembering the births of our first four children or imagining the arrival of our youngest, whose advent was celebrated only by the nursing staff and my sister. He, of course, was otherwise occupied with the first of several ’loves of his life.’

Yes, I’m biased – bitter from the years of trying to make ends meet while he swanned around sans thought for his offspring. I wonder if he is scared now – I hope so. It feels good to have a compassionate case worker stand up to him to know that someone will speak for my family now; that ‘Hey, I’m sorry I don’t have money for you,’ will no longer be tolerated.

Men pass angrily in and out of the room, unable to bear the silent censure of all the women present. They glare around them as if to dare anyone to suggest that they are guilty. A dark-haired socialite in too-tight black clothing which reveals her underwear, switches off the air conditioner (despite the sign requesting the public to call an official to do so). She crudely suggests that the bureaucrats need the cold air up their derrières more than we need to be cooled. Her vulgarity raises an awkward titter, but only Mr Let’s-Blame-Africa seems to agree. Then the gloom descends again.

The air conditioner springs to life suddenly, responding to some inner thermostat setting. The cold reminds me of the chill inside me. I’m saddened that I feel nothing when I peer at the sociopath I once lay beside at night. There he sits – a man who once told me my career was not as important as his, because he was the breadwinner – now he sits nonchalantly at the far end of the room reading the newspaper discarded by the mother and daughter team.

Our case is called, the maintenance officer mangling the surname. I no longer care; it’s not my name anymore really. He waves me away dismissively when I ask why we are not going before the magistrate. Where’s the prosecutor I assumed would speak for my family? We are ushered into his office where files cover the desk and floor. My heart sinks. We are one of hundreds of ongoing cases. I hear his standard greeting, intoned in a ritualistic monotone and we get down to business.

My earlier hopes that the system would fight for my children are soon dashed. He isn’t reading the thick folder containing the sad tale of my former spouse’s irresponsibility. He asks me to summarise! How can I explain in one sentence the suffering of ten years of broken promises to support the children he avows he loves? The official doesn’t read the expenses sheet I have prepared, or the copy of the divorce decree where a father of five signed up to pay R12 000 a month and then never did (It’s nearly R20 000 a month now with increments); he doesn’t ask what field the paternal post graduate is in, nor explain to him the realities of his crime (yes it’s a crime not to pay maintenance) Why hasn’t this man prepared for this case? He asks the stranger beside me how much he earns.

‘Two thousand,’ is the reply from the man with an MBA.

I gasp at his audacity and state that he just gave up a job worth far more. My hope for justice begins to slip away as the court officer leans across to take the efforts of ‘job-seeking’ and, closing the file, my should-be knight declares that I have no chance of recouping the nearly million rand of unpaid maintenance we are owed, as this ‘soldier for the ill-treated’ tells me ‘He’s unemployed.’

‘Aren’t you going to make him find work, any work,’ I blurt out desperately.

‘He has no chance of earning more,’ my ‘hero’ pronounces. Will you accept R1 500?’

For five children! From a man who is university educated! How can he just not work?! Why can the authorities not force him to take on more than one job?! After all, I work until midnight, bringing home mountains of extra work.

‘Hang on,’ I say, being the only one to speak for the children: ‘Who will help me support my kids? What about his parents?’ I enquire, doing the maintenance officer’s job for him.

‘Oh there are parents?’ he realises (why didn’t he ask?) and re-opens the file. ‘We’ll subpoena them for two months time.’

Now I feel like a heel, extorting money from old people, even though I know it’s the law and my children’s right. Why didn’t he interrogate the children’s father more robustly; why didn’t he challenge the amount the other admits to earning? Perhaps he is in a rhythm of operating, which allows him to process cases as swiftly as possible, but I come away with impotent rage bubbling within me. The children and I are not a case number! We are living, breathing people. So much for Premier Zille’s campaign to bust maintenance defaulters! This one got away with a rap on the knuckles and his parents will be made to pay. And he will go on living off the current fiancée, possibly even marry this one and breed again (she’s young enough and he never had the snip, even when I begged him to) and the system will shrug its over-burdened shoulders in apathy. How many other mothers have felt the same despair as they rode the lift to the ground floor?

Perhaps it’s time for a lawyer (as if I could afford one!); I’m losing my faith that the system will fight for us.

‘How was it?’ I’m asked when I arrive home.

‘Frustrating,’ I euphemise.

‘May I have a haircut?’

‘Could I have a treat for my school outing?’

‘I need an exam pad for exams.’

‘The washing up liquid is finished.’

‘Will you buy me a new asthma pump?’ I’m asked.

‘No there’s only enough for tonight’s electricity. Perhaps in two month’s time…’ I reply.

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