Endearing tale of journey from District Six to corridors of power



Pat Fahrenfort



Shirley de Kock-Gueller

IF THIS were a simple memoir,

it would be about a woman’s

journey via District Six and

Athlone to the factory floor and

then the corridors of power,

and the exploitation she felt as

a factory worker which turns

full circle into the exploitation

that comes of corruption. But

this is so much more than a

story of hard work and disillusionment.

Fahrenfort is a joy to read.

Her descriptions of people

make one’s heart soar, even

laugh out loud. She’s got a

wicked sense of humour (she

refers to the “r” in Proes Street

as being the most important

one in Pretoria).

Her outspokenness is

endearing, especially if you

know the person she’s talking

about. Her description of former

journalist turned academic

Tony Holiday is so on the

mark. She has a wonderful ear

for dialect and pronunciation,

noting, for instance, Jakes Gerwel’s

description of UWC,

where she also worked, as the

“intellactual home of the laft”.

This renders the book almost

auditory, while another

strength is her ability to create

visual images. She describes

her mother in her “working

class regalia – overall, slippers

and rollers in her hair”, vividly

capturing a familiar picture.

Fahrenfort knew adversity

in abundance, yet there’s very

little self-pity.

She was in a clinic for the

first few years of her life and

had a bad accident later. She

was sent by her strong and

canny mother to work in order

to help support the family when

she was just 15, without even

being able to go back to school

to tell her friends she wouldn’t

be returning.

She lost her much-loved

father to suicide, and later suffered

from depression.

She also spent a lot of time

in job-hunting queues. And,

though the work she was

obliged to do was in many cases

mindless, her mind was far

from worthless and she

embarked on a path of growth,

working her way up, via the

University of the Cape Town

(her descriptions of her colleagues

are jaw-droppingly

frank), the University of the

Western Cape and then in government.

However, most of her education

happened on the factory

floor, and she notes that she has

often been “the wrong colour”

for many jobs – from the age of

15, to when she retired in democratic


Her discretion is commendable

in most places, but tantalising

in others. Most people, even

in the index, have first names

only, and her husband’s name

comes only several pages after

she mentions marriage. The

husband is dispatched when

she realised she had “no talent

for marriage”.

Her relationship with her

daughter Rene is barely

touched on, except where she

tells us that, finally, she had a

house and a car, and that “the

attention and care I should

have given to my daughter I

was now lavishing on my wonderful

granddaughter. I didn’t

want to miss out on a childhood


Fahrenfort is inventive,

hard-working and honest, a

quick learner, capable and

multi-talented – once even

moonlighting as a cabaret


Her book is irreverent, her

spirit infectious, her style

engaging. Above all it is a tribute

to a necessary “spanner in

the works”.

This is a social history well

worth reading.