Heritage is often what we take from our relationships with our parents and other elders, writes LEE MOSTERT, who grew up in Tafelsig and now lives in Johannesburg.
In my case, I had no idea that one day I would be following in my father ’s trading footsteps and be running my own business.
My mother, Eileen, was a shop assistant and my father a dockyard worker. After he retired from the Simon’s Town dockyard, he started to sell plant hangers as an informal trader.
My dad, Walter George Mostert, fondly known as Boeta Wally, became one of the founder members of the 4th Avenue informal trading market in the Mitchell’s Plain Town Centre.
Before situating themselves on that patch of vacant land, the traders were continuously evicted, fined and their goods confiscated from various points in and around the Town Centre.
When they eventually found a spot of land adjacent to the buildings, they fought hard to stay there. They were only six or eight vendors, selling mostly tools and trinkets. My dad sold plant hangers, also known as macramés, which he made himself.
The vendors came from across Mitchell’s Plain and some of them arrived there via public transport with their goods in big, heavy bags. At the time they were only coloured men.
The patch of land was originally intended to be a taxi rank, but after that plan was abandoned the area was left with tarred roads with pavements and dense bushes. The vendors themselves cleared the bushes and the first vendors would be lucky enough to place themselves in prime positions where they would have access to the thoroughfare of Town Centre shoppers.
After they established a committee, the area became vibrant and attracted more vendors with a wider range of goods, including used books, plumbing equipment and brass ornaments.
My father’s stall became the halfway stop for anyone travelling into or through the Town Centre. Once we (my siblings and I) moved out of Cape Town, his stall was the first stop after landing at Cape Town International Airport. He would surprise you with parcels to take back on your return: everything from chips for the kids, to frozen fish, neatly packed and wrapped in brown paper and box tape – as if those items are not available in Johannesburg.
On one occasion my father sent me back to Johannesburg with what I thought was frozen calamari steaks only to find to my shock and surprise that it was a frozen octopus, complete with ink sack still in place. It took me weeks to wash the blue stains out of our kitchen and clothes. I cleaned, cut and served it to anyone willing to taste.
My dad’s stall would also be the place you could hear all the latest gossip. From time to time he would also fill us in on who’s who at the market, who thought he was the boss and who really was “baas op die plaas”.
It was also the place you could get taxi fare or needed to borrow money for rent, electricity or food.
He gave happily when he could and, when he was not able to, a quick run to the stall next door would provide what you needed.
Setting up every day and packing up everything every night was hard work and, as he grew older, my dad employed a helper called Stanley. He taught Stanley everything he knew.
My mother did not work at the time, so the sales from that trade kept our household going. It fed more than just us and at the time it infuriated me that we still have to share the little we had.
During the winter months, my parents would feed the homeless and anyone in need within our community. Our home became an advice office, a shelter for abused women and an informal micro lender.
Although I am the youngest of four, my parents always took in kids in need of assistance, like the little baby my mother looked after who became part of the family. To this day, I regard her as my sister.
That trade also paid for our school fees, clothes, outings and whatever else we needed. My father didn’t take a day off. He never felt too tired to leave at the crack of dawn and to return after dark.
Days before he died on November 26 2003, he was still selling his goods. He survived a heart attack one evening, unbeknown to him, and through the pain and discomfort he and Stanley packed his bakkie and went to work until another heart attack hit him and caused him to collapse at his stall. He was rushed to the hospital and passed away a few days later.
My father’s funeral shut the market down for the day, because all the vendors wanted to pay their respects to him.
We mourned my dad in the hardest way one can. Questions of mortality and what’s life all about if it can be taken away just like that and without warning, forced us to think about what dad left behind.
There were few material things, but plenty of life lessons.
During the first commemoration of dad’s passing, one of my siblings said: “The best way to remember dad is to change lives.” We immediately established the Walter George Mostert Scholarship Trust and, using our own money, put 25 children through matric and university. Our only contract with those kids were that when their lives are changed through the access to education, they would do the same for someone else.
Although the scholarship doesn’t exist anymore, those 25 young lives were changed, and my dad’s memory will forever be honoured in the success they make and change they make to others. Among the 25 there are graduates in economics, administration, accountants, teaching and a medical doctor. It was hard at times providing for so many needs, but it will go down as the thing I am most proud of doing.
In 2017 I found myself without a job and with little means of income. I remembered my dad and what he did when he was in the same boat. He didn’t sit and wait for help from the government, and the last thing he wanted to do was be a burden to his family.
I spent the little money I had to buy goods and travelled from political event to flea market to set up my stall and sell my goods.
Today my stall is a business. I have been shown amazing generosity by friends and strangers alike, but the best lesson learnt is that my heritage is not one of slavery and colonialism but that of a people who make a plan, rise above circumstances and survive.
My business – T-shirts with a Cause – is an extension of my passion. It is a privilege being able to give a voice to the causes I believe in.
I am contesting the local government elections in Ward 87, Greater Johannesburg, and I hope to make my dad and his heritage proud.
• Lee Mostert is a former member of the Mitchell’s Plain Students’ Congress (MIPSCO) and political prisoner who matriculated from Mondale High School in 1991. She is a founding member of the Mitchell’s Plain Development Action Collective, which supports 25 feeding schemes in Mitchell’s Plain.