It’s Complicated

A Short Story

By Firdous Hendricks

Monday, 12 February 1990

The corners of Amina’s brown box-like schoolbag drummed against her knees to the rhythm of her stride. Her hair was split perfectly down the middle and pulled so tightly into two ponytails that you could see her skin stretch across her skull. Each ponytail was curled into perfect swirls held together with coconut oil. Her right hand curled neatly into her mother, Fatima’s. 

“I can’t believe you’ve been at school a month already. Is Larry still crying every morning?” Asked Fatima.

“Yes mommy,” Amina replied. “Last week, he even cried during the interval. Mrs Abrahams said if he doesn’t stop crying for his mommy she’s gonna give him a hiding.”

“Hoolihar, Sub A is scary for some children shame.” Fatima shook her head.

“It’s not scary for me!” Said Amina, “Mrs Abrahams gave me a gold star last week because I got all my sums right.”

“My clever girl.” Fatima smiled. “Amina, you know, this past weekend was a very important weekend for you.” As she spoke, her eyes traced the lines of the mountain in the distance, as if reading from it. “There is a man called Nelson Mandela, he went to jail for a very long time. He went to jail for you. This weekend, he was finally set free.”

Nelson Mandela. Amina had heard that name all weekend – on TV, on the radio and in almost every one of her father’s conversations with other adults.

 “For me?” asked Amina. “Does he know me?”

“Yes, for you Amina, and for all the other black children in South Africa.” Fatima searched for the words to explain. “You see, this government doesn’t allow people like us to have the same opportunities as the white people, they look down on us just because of our skin colour. Mandela is trying to change that, so they put him in jail. Now that he is free, anything is possible. Amina, you could have the kind of life I could only dream of when I was a little girl.”

Amina could see the front gates of her school coming up ahead. The scholar patrol dressed in bright orange vests stood at opposite sides of the pedestrian crossing with a long yellow stop sign between each pair. A tall boy with grey pants that stopped just above his ankles blew a whistle before ushering children safely across the road.

She stopped walking and tugged at her mother’s hand. Her thick eyebrows tangled into a knot above her green eyes. “Mommy, so are we black? My skin is then white? Does that mean I’m bad like the government?”

“No, my darling, of course, you are not bad!” Fatima’s knees clicked as she knelt down to meet her daughter’s eyes. “Being black or white, it’s not just about your actual skin colour.” 

The shrill sound of the school-bell filled the space between Amina and her mother. She was so confused.

Ag, it’s complicated Amina.” Fatima sighed. How could she explain the hundreds of years of slavery her daughter was born from? How could she put into words a history that used skin and hair to pitch one oppressed people against another? How can a six-year-old understand centuries of mental warfare? 

“You better go; it’s not good to be late.”

Amina looked over at the school gates. “Mommy, I want to go over the skollie patrollie on my own today.” 

Fatima laughed. “Who taught you to call them that?”

“Larry.” Amina smiled nervously.

“Ok jou kleine skollie, I will wait for you by the gate after school.” 

Amina kissed her mother goodbye and waited with the other children for the tall boy to blow his whistle.

Tuesday, 26 April 1994

A juicy patch of overgrown grass and weeds stood like an oasis in the middle of the dull grey sand in Amina’s backyard. She ruffled the thick overgrowth, catching grasshoppers in a glass jar as they sprung up from the disturbance. Her father, Saliem, stood smoking by the vibracrete wall while her grandfather, Oupa, sat by the back doorway in his wheelchair. On the other side of the vibracrete stood their neighbour Uncle Cliffie. Saliem and Uncle Cliffie had removed one of the top slats in the wall so that they could smoke together.

“I’m not voting tomorrow.” Said Cliffie.

“How can you not vote?” Saliem protested. “Our people literally died so that we can have equal rights and now you just gonna throw it all away? Cliffie, you and me were then there binne in the student protests. This is then what we were fighting for!” If the National Party comes into power again I don’t wanna hear you klaar for niks.”

“Listen here, that time I was protesting for us coloureds,” Cliffie replied. “What must I now vote so that the blacks can do exactly what the whites have been doing to us all these years? The blacks are for the blacks. Nobody cares about us coloureds.”

“Cliffie, we are black! This word “coloured” – that is the word the boere made up to control us, brother. You need to free your mind!” Saliem’s brown skin deepened into maroon.

Amina walked over to Oupa and sat on the step next to him so that she could listen in on the conversation. Her glass jar was filled with grasshoppers jumping frantically up against the lid.

“Ha!” Cliffie snapped back at Salim. “Tell me that again when the blacks come for all our jobs. Just watch, if this boesmanne come into power this country is gonna go to the dogs. I will rather vote for the NP, better the devil you know.”

Hey man, jy’s dan ook ‘n boesman. Ek is ook ‘n boesman. Ons is almal boesmanne.” Oupa chimed in.

Amina broke the heated conversation with an unintended chuckle.

“And now?” Uncle Cliffie looked over at her from the wall. “Is jy nou ook ‘n boesman?” 

His words sent everyone into an uncontrollable fit of laughter.

“No man Cliffie man, this little daaling is my English Rose.” Oupa gazed tenderly down at Amina from his wheelchair. “You look just like my grandmother; did you know she was Scots? Ya, onse mense kom van Engeland af.”

Saliem rolled his eyes as he walked over to Amina. “What you got there girlie?”

She shook the glass jar vigorously and tipped it over onto the step. The grasshoppers stumbled around unable to find their bearing. 

“Look daddy they confused!” she giggled.

“Ai die kinders.” Muttered Saliem. He knelt down and put the grasshoppers back into the jar. “Come, let’s release them back into the grass. This is a time for freedom.”

September 1997

The spring flowers bloomed in pots along the tarmac playground and the sun peaked through volumes of clouds creating puddles of warm light where the children had gathered to play. Amina sat alone inside the classroom. Spring had not yet reached the hard-wooden seat of her desk. The cold surface pushed up against her stained school dress. She shifted uncomfortably, trying to lighten the weight of her bottom so that it doesn’t cause another leak. 

The door handle started to shift and Amina blinked her eyes repeatedly to get rid of her tears. But her eyes were stained as red as the back of her dress.

It was Mrs Adams. “Amina, can I come sit?”

Amina nodded and with her eyes fixed on the words and names hacked into the desk, they each had their charms: Junky Funkies, Amy Luvs Gamat, West Side till I die, Lang Salie se ma se poes, Zaida was here.


“I heard about what happened.” Said Mrs Adams.

Amina felt a lump gather in her throat; it was filled with the hard cackles of her classmates. Zaida stood at the centre of it – the maestro pulling the strings to their merciless sniggers.

“You know she only does this to you because she’s jealous of you.” Said Mrs Adams.

Amina wiped a tear from her cheek.

“It’s because you have everything she doesn’t have.” Mrs Adams continued. “You’re fair, you have green eyes, you’re clever. Everyone can see, you’re going places Amina. And I’m sorry to say, but Zaida will most likely just become another coloured high school dropout pregnant by her druggie boyfriend. Jealousy makes you nasty.”

March, 1998

“First Avenue please driver.” Amina cried out from the back of the crowded taxi, already weaving her way to the front. She jumped out of the sliding doors before it came to a halt.

“Don’t be so hastag girl!” The gaatjie called out. 

She wore her Karrimor schoolbag on her front chest, with the padded handles slung over her shoulders. It was a double protection strategy – safe from pickpockets, safe from men staring at her breasts. As she approached the street corner, Amina could see Zaida and her crew huddled outside the Bismillah Superette. A cloud of cigarette smoke hung in the air around them. This was the worst part of Zaida’s day. The only way home, was to pass them. 

She crossed over to the other side of the road and walked briskly. Fast enough to get it over with quickly, but not too fast for them to mock her for it.

“Ooh, here comes the highty tighty whitey.” Zaida shouted from across the road.

“Looking saxy today girl.” A boy in an unbuttoned white school shirt called out.

Amina did a double-check on him. It was Larry.

Wolf whistles. Kissing sounds. Names of her body parts. She kept her head down while her feet quickened around the bend to escape. Just as she disappeared, she heard Zaida’s last words:

“Now why must you keep you like you don’t know me? You wanna keep you sturvy now that you go to that white school. Never forget, you and me come from the same place meisie.”

1998-2002, A Former Model C High School

“Your accent is very strong. I can help you with your elocution if you like?”

“We don’t accept that gangster behaviour here at this school.”

 “Coloured people don’t have a culture or language of their own.”

“This essay is very good. Are you sure you wrote it yourself?”

“Oh my word, why must you always be so gham.”

“You should get a GHD, it will take away all that frizz.”

“Coloured people speak dirty Afrikaans.”

“Your science marks are a bit weak but you might still be able to get in if they need to fill their quota.”

“Why do you always smell like curry?”

 “I’m sorry my mom won’t allow me to go to your house.”

“Wow your dad has a nice car. Is that a company car?”

“Keep your voices down you guys, you can’t make so much noise in a white area.”

August 2000

To Amina, Nosipho was her sister from another mister. They loved the same music, had the same taste in boys, liked the same subjects, had the same political views and shared a strong passion for social justice. They spent their time crafting angry letters to teachers who treated black students unfairly (although they never had the courage to give it to them), they signed petitions, and they volunteered at an orphanage for children with HIV. They considered themselves strong black activists about to change the world.

Amina and Nosipho adored Siyanda Ndude. Siyanda was the only black prefect at their school. She spoke articulately about subjects they pretended to understand – like gender politics and critical race theory.

Siyanda invited Nosipho and Amina to a group she set up after school called the Black Student Movement. It was a safe space for black students to talk freely about their frustrations and tackle racist behaviour they had been experiencing at the school.

Amina was excited but also nervous, there was so much she had to share. The students sat in a circle and started taking about their experiences. At first, they switched erratically between English and isiXhosa. As the conversation became heated their movements became more and more animated and their voice rang out impassioned in the language of their hearts.

Amina sat nodding trying to pick up words she had learnt from Nosipho. She laughed when they laughed, shook her head when they seemed enraged. 

Siya caught a glance of Amina and interrupted one of the student’s speeches. “Hey guys, maybe we should keep it to English, Amina doesn’t understand Xhosa.” 

Everyone stared at Amina blankly.

“It’s ok.” Amina said nervously. “You should be able to express yourself in your own language.”

“Yes we should.” Said a girl, glaring at Amina from across the circle. “And this is literally the only safe space for us BLACK students in this school where we can do that without getting into trouble.” 

“Yeah what is she even doing here?” Amina heard another voice mumble. She couldn’t make who it came from.

“I consider myself black.” She responded boldly. 

A muffle of sighs and sneers snaked around the circle.

“Come, let’s go Amina.” Nosipho nudged her side. 

“No Nosi, I should go. You stay, it’s important for you to be here.” 

Amina stood outside and heard their voices start up again. She could hear her name on their tongues. As she turned away, she caught her reflection in the window. Pale skin, freckles, bright green eyes. She could understand their reaction. To Amina, her face was constantly in conflict with her soul. 

“Salaam Amina,” a voice called from the other side of the quad. “We bought a vienna and chips parcel. You want?” It was Malikah, the head of the Muslim Students Association. She sat with a group of 5 other girls; they had just finished their committee meeting. Amina joined in the feast as they debated who makes the best Gatsby. 

“No ways!” Amina joined in. “Cosy Corner’s chicken tikka Gatsby wins over Golden Dish full house any day!”

“Amina you must join the MSA, next week man. You know wherever we are, there’s always a lekker dite.” Said Malikah with a moustache of bright red tomato sauce.

“Yah I think I will.” She replied.

Amina wondered if any of them considered themselves to be black.