Cleaner’s Boy: A Resistance Road to a Liberated Life

Patric Tariq Mellet, Cleaner’s Boy: A Resistance Road to a Liberated Life (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2022)

BORN in 1956, Patric Mellet grew up in the ethnic melting pots of District Six and Salt River, Cape Town. His mother Annie de Goede (Huntley) claimed his father, Pieter Mellet, had died in a car crash and even pointed out the precise spot. She maintained this fiction even after the father appeared for five minutes in the late 1960s. Annie worked at a laundry and was known as ‘Cleaner’s’, thus the striking title of this book. With a secretive, fantasist mother and a lying philandering father, Mellet was later to discover he had twelve siblings; and in his forties changed his surname to that of his biological father.

The search for collective identity has been another lifelong task. Mellet discards the term coloured and describes as Camissa African all those with Khoe and San roots intermixed with slaves, white immigrants and black Africans. In other writing he suggests that most South Africans contain an element of Camissa in their genetic make-up. It is a particularly useful concept as it shows up the nonsensical nature of race classification and racism (his Van Rooy cousins were victims of apartheid classification, some deemed coloured, others white), whatever its source, as well as nationalism; and points a way forward for an egalitarian South Africa. His mother lived a ‘furtive life’ (p. 65) as a white in Salt River and Mellet points out that his family was the embodiment of apartheid’s nightmare.

In keeping with his status as an illegitimate halfnaatje, Mellet had no birth certificate and experienced an unsettled childhood of temporary and foster homes. Then he encountered the schizophrenic Roman Catholic Church with four years of what amounted to child abuse and labour exploitation by the deranged Irish nuns of the Sisters of Nazareth. As a teenager he attended the progressive Salesian Institute, a trade school that also dispensed political education and liberation theology, and left it in 1972. This was the year of the demonstration outside St George’s Cathedral in which he participated.  He also obtained casual work on the Cape Town trawlers through relatives.

In his late teens Mellet fell foul of the pseudo-science of apartheid and tried for classification as coloured. But bureaucrats decided that in terms of appearance and general acceptance he was white and, even without an identity document and number, he was conscripted. Several years of SADF abuse followed for his refusal to bear arms as a conscientious objector, including a bizarre posting to Rundu near the border where it was suggested he could simply disappear. There was no support network in those days, nor help from the church. He was finally released from the SADF in 1976, classified as ‘other coloured’ and therefore no longer eligible for conscription.

But he remained under police special branch surveillance as a member of Young Christian Workers involved in the 1976 youth unrest in and around Cape Town, especially Gugulethu, and the following year was part of an aborted sabotage plan. Moving into socialist circles he was involved in printing of samizdat literature and in late 1978, ahead of rumoured detention, left for Botswana with his wife and son.

Then followed two years of unstable life in Botswana and Zambia under the shadow of what Mellet describes as a ‘very dirty war’ (p. 115). After a short encounter with Patrick van Rensburg of the Brigades Movement at Serowe, Mellet moved to Makeni near Lusaka where he was supposed to set up a liberation press. His work was hampered by financial constraints and other agendas. Indiscipline within the ANC, which Mellet attributes to South African incitement, led to the disarming of its members by the Zambians (shishita). By this time Mellet was a member also of the SACP and MK and had clearly found a surrogate family within the ANC. Wolfie Kodesh, Reg September and Benny de Bruyn together with Oliver Tambo were his mentors.

By 1981 Mellet and his family were living an equally insecure life in London before they were finally given a council house in Tottenham. After training at the London College of Printing he worked with Gill Marcus to establish an ANC press and also at the International Defence and Aid Fund. He was a representative for SACTU as well and in an SACP cell with Mzala (Jabulani Nxumalo). In the late eighties at the time of Dulcie September’s murder he foresaw future corruption and the influence of internal ANC mafias. This threatened his jack of all trades role and the general family embrace granted by the ANC to what he describes as ‘suitcase people’. The effects of exile on his children and consequences for his marriage were considerable; and his health suffered from arthritic and other pain.

When the ANC moved back home from 1990 onwards it was dedicated people like Mellet who were predictably overlooked. So were many assets built up in exile. He is correct to identify quislings, factionalists, opportunists and others of dubious calibre who joined the ANC bandwagon in the nineties. Like many he blames a third force, always a questionable and flimsy concept. And, surely, he is grasping at straws when apparently blaming liberal democracy for the wrong turns taken by his movement. A couple of decades down the line it would be its pillars such as a free press and the rule of law that saved South Africa from the worst excesses of state capture and corruption that bedevilled the country ­‒ and ended Mellet’s working life.

Back in South Africa Mellet entered a bewildering number of relationships and jobs. His first job was with Grassroots and the self-help movement that has been an enduring thread in his involvements. In 1994 he was involved in voter education; and, clearly disappointed with the Western Cape results, makes reference to gerrymandering whose possible impact is hard to credit given the party list system based on proportional representation that determines the make-up of parliament. This is where he worked until 2001 with the public education programme that fell under the speaker, Frene Ginwala. He seems to have had enough other public relations duties to become known as Mr Fixit.

There was a brief period of employment at UCT, which he describes as a ‘dead end street’ for new ideas, before he founded Inyaletho with Shelagh Gastrow. Involvement with philanthropy was replaced by re-engagement with social advancement and community empowerment. Another brief and disillusioning experience was as managing director of a foreign-funded NGO addressing HIV/AIDS where he exposed corruption. The struggle, he concluded, had been replaced by ‘something monstrous’ (p. 220). That is undoubtedly so but Mellet has a misguided inclination, like Thabo Mbeki, to place the blame for this on capitalism and Western liberalism. All societies whatever their political economies are vulnerable to corruption, which is a function of individual morality.

Yet Mellet has significant historical and political insights. Studying, researching and writing had turned him into an historian interested in slavery with its modern echoes in human trafficking. So, he joined the immigration service of the Department of Home Affairs. He is refreshingly blunt that the service was run by mafias controlling trade in humans, drugs and every permutation of corruption and racketeering. The sources of slavery and modern-day trafficking often overlapped. There was ‘much malice to negotiate’ (p. 227) in consolidating security at Cape Town harbour in his new persona of Mr Maritime and his enemies made sure he was eventually demoted and transferred to Johannesburg where he tightened the screws at OR Tambo Airport, calculating that a third of the immigration staff were corrupt or incompetent. Exposure of massive transport contract fraud led to false charges based on irregular procedures so just before retirement he resigned in the face of an ‘unrecognisable monster’ (p. 239). Unfortunately, it is all too recognisable to South Africans today.

This is a personal account of the insane consequences of colonialism and apartheid; and the ramshackle lives of those forced into exile. Each case is unique, but similar themes reappear in many memoirs. In coming to terms with the realities of post-apartheid South Africa, Mellet perceptively highlights growing anti-intellectualism: ‘the same bankrupt ideas just keep being regurgitated’ (p. 249). Other justifiable targets of his criticism are democratic centralism, majoritarianism, the developmental state, and mall and franchise culture. He detects salvation in community development, but his support for multiparty rule seems quixotic in view of what is currently going on in local government. And his apparent faith in some sort of socialist outcome is even more optimistic.
Book review by Christopher Merrett, reproduced from his web page, From the Thornveld