The JRB presents an excerpt from Patric Tariq Mellet’s autobiography Cleaner’s Boy: A Resistance Road to a Liberated Life.
Cleaner’s Boy: A Resistance Road to a Liberated Life
Patric Tariq Mellet
Read the excerpt
My increasingly vocal left-wing stance on apartheid and class politics was also a source of friction at home, with my mother telling me to tone it down because I was heading in the direction of arrest and having them ‘put a rope around my neck’. ‘Mark my words, you’re going to swing for that cleverness, mastermind,’ she’d say.
Saying that I was being influenced by skollies and that she couldn’t handle me, my mother took the astonishing step of approaching child welfare to ‘take me in hand’. I was summoned to their offices in Cape Town and interviewed by an official, who told me that my mother had requested that I be placed in a reformatory. The welfare officer had consulted with the police and found that I hadn’t been involved in any criminal activity, and that because I was already over sixteen, they could make no intervention.
He asked me several questions, and we talked for about an hour, at the end of which he said, ‘I must admit, I’m surprised, given your history, that you’re such a well-balanced individual. I’d like to give you a word of advice. Now that you’re working, perhaps you should seek accommodation away from your mother, as clearly it’s not working for both of you. Perhaps with some distance between you, a new relationship will develop.’
I was proud that I’d made the transition from unemployed to employed, and was now able to contribute at home and to have some money in my pocket. Nonetheless, the relationship between my mother and I remained uneasy. This was made more difficult when the ghost of my long-dead father was resurrected when, as a sixteen-year-old, I applied for an identity document.
At the department of interior affairs, I immediately complicated matters by telling the official that ‘De Goede’ wasn’t my real name. I had no birth certificate, so could only produce a baptism certificate—on which my mother had put the name of her former husband, not my father. ‘My surname is Mellet, not De Goede,’ I said. ‘I want my real name on my documents.’
The official taunted me about this, saying I should desist from trying to confuse her, and that she could only go on what the paperwork before her said. ‘The baptism certificate is your only proof of who you are, if you can’t show any affidavit from your mother saying otherwise.’ The next issue was the vexed one of what colour I was. Race classification was, of course, a central component of the Population Registration Act. I rejected ‘race’ classification but—under protest—registered as ‘Coloured’ and thus started a war of words with the official, who said that I should be classified as ‘White’, based on what I looked like. I refused to change what I’d written on the form, and in the margin the official wrote ‘Other’. It was an explosive confrontation and compromise.
The official then made a sneering remark. She said, ‘I know what your game is, boetie. You just don’t want to go to the army.’ In 1967, military conscription had become compulsory for all white men in South Africa over the age of sixteen, who would join the South African Defence Force to uphold the apartheid regime, fighting against liberation movements in Angola, Namibia and Mozambique, and often deployed to townships to quell anti-apartheid action. Some allowance was made for religious objectors, but it only allowed for non-combatant service such as the medical corps where all other military protocols except for bearing arms had to be observed.
I lost my cool and told the official, ‘Of course I don’t want to serve in your army, madam, but this application form is about my identity, and you don’t get to tell me who I am or what I am.’ I said that I chose to be part of those in my family whom she called ‘Coloured’, and that that was my birthright, even though the terms ‘White’, ‘Coloured’, ‘Bantu’ and ‘Asian’ were useless because my family had a bit of each of these in us, and I would not be me if I were to cut off ‘Coloured’ from ‘poor White’ or ‘Indian’ or ‘African’.
Again, she sneered. ‘Go tell that to the race classification board,’ she said.
She struck a nerve with that remark. My Aunty Doll’s son, Herbie van Rooy, whom we called Busy, had already gone through what I was experiencing with the internal affairs department, and had subjected himself to the indignity of the race classification board. The reclassification process was fraught, and the board used the mixed criteria of ‘appearance and general acceptance and repute’ and nineteenth-century ‘ethnography’ to decide to what race group a person belonged. Complexion, eye colour, hair texture, genitalia, facial features and bone structure were examined by board officials, and they could summon any relative and examine them in the same way. For Afrikaans speakers, there was a distinction made between ‘white’ and ‘black’ Afrikaans dialects, expressions and pronunciation, for example, ‘bobbejaan’ versus ‘bobjan’ or ‘jakkals’ versus ‘jakalas’. It was a humiliating and Nazi-type process in which ignorant officials molested people in the name of pseudo-science.
Herbie had an ID card that said he was ‘European’, but, unlike me, he was very dark in complexion and had strong Asian features. When he was a youngster, pre-apartheid, there were many ‘Coloured’ people who had some European ancestry who were called ‘European’. He was the only one of my Aunty Doll’s children who’d remained in South Africa, and he was having a difficult time with his ID card because it was seen as fraudulent. So he went to the race classification board, to have his race classification changed from ‘European’ to ‘Coloured’. As he would say, ‘I told them that they can go stuff their “European” up their arse.’ Herbie and I became very close in later years, when I returned from exile. He also spent much time out of South Africa by choosing a seamanship career, but came home to Grassy Park regularly, and had a family with his wife Daisy Falken, who bore him four children, Edgar, Clint, Russel and Vanessa.
So I said to the internal affairs official, ‘You don’t get to tell me what I should do. I’m not asking anyone’s permission to express my identity. I am who I am.’
She had the last word, saying, ‘You little smart-arse communist, whether you like it or not, you will go to the army. We’ll see who wins in this little game of yours. They’ll knock this shit out of you.’ So I was an identity-less person at the mercy of apartheid officials who could decide whatever they wished about who or what I was.
- Patric Tariq Mellet was born and raised in the Salt River, Woodstock and District Six districts of Cape Town. He is a former liberation movement cadre, who returned from exile in 1990. In 2019 the Minister of Sport, Arts and Culture appointed him to the Governance Council of the South African Heritage Resources Agency.
Questions of identity were unavoidable in Patric Tariq Mellet’s life. As a small child he watched as his immediate family were mistreated, arbitrarily classified and separated through apartheid laws. He endured a turbulent childhood, shuttled between foster families responding to his mom’s plea for ‘a home for a well-behaved Catholic boy’ and surviving Dickensian conditions in the ‘Huis’, a hellish children’s asylum in Vredehoek. Despite deception about his birth father, Mellet found a path towards his roots and a sense of self, which sparked the fire of resistance in the young Cleaner’s Boy—a term of endearment that referred to his mother.
Mellet’s autobiography demonstrates a spirit of unbridled defiance. In small and major ways, he liberated himself from an unpromising and tragic early life to a life of undoubtable impact and influence. A freedom fighter, a mystic and always a firebrand.