Believing that it’s so often an exposing light that facilitates healing, we continue our series investigating how people live with depression, now the world’s leading disability. Meet ARTHUR MNGXEKEZA, a man who’s determined to persevere through his emotional challenges. Here he describes his uniquely South African childhood, then explains how depression set in and how he copes with it
‘I’m learning to be honest about my depression. It’s probably a lifetime thing but it’s not the end of the world’: Arthur Mngxekeza | Photo: Leentjie du Preez/Grace Photography
Arthur (38) was born and raised in Gugulethu, a Cape Town township. He was educated at Bonga Primary School and Bishops College, to which he won a scholarship. He now works as a project manager at internet company Innotel and as a school diversity consultant. He is also director of an educational trust. He has an 18-year-daughter, Anathi, and a son of 12 named Avumile
‘I was born to a mother who was clever enough to organise my birth at the private hospital where she had a cleaning job. This meant that I didn’t need a pass to live in town, which is what most black people had to have in those days. My mother worked as a night-time carer in Sea Point, a residential area reserved for white people, and did cleaning jobs at weekends, so I had more toys than other children and felt quite privileged.
Mom was not with my father but she used to drop me off at his mother’s house on the way to work. Though she was away at night and in college studying during the day, she gave it her all and I never felt neglected.
When I was three, we moved to a shack at the back of a family’s house, a very common thing to do in those days. While Mom worked and studied, I was left with cousins and the rest of the community. Around 13 of us lived in a two-bedroom house: five boys in one bed, girls in another and adults on the floor. We had an outside toilet and all washed out of a big plastic bowl. As the second youngest of about nine children I was quite low in the pecking order and the water was quite dirty by then: I didn’t want to use it! There are people who still live like that in the townships and don’t know what it is to be able to shower.
South African township life in which Arthur grew up, and where it was government policy for black people to be educated to become ‘drawers of water and hewers of wood’ | Photo: Leentjie du Preez
Mom did everything to shield me from township problems. At this time, gatherings were banned in the country and the townships were heavily guarded by the army. We lived next to the cemetery and there was a lot of unrest when activists were buried. There was teargas and shooting the moment the ANC’s banned anthem, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica, was sung. I would stand on top of our shack and see what was happening, sometimes I’d even see Archbishop Desmond Tutu there. It looked appealing to us teenagers, like an outing to the park. Mom, who worked for generous white people, had a different view. She said: ‘If you get political, where are you going to end up? Jail!’
whites weren’t superior
Most people I knew aspired to be ‘white’ which meant well off, with a nice pool, a big house and someone to clean it. But our primary schools were starting to be staffed by political activists who taught us that whites weren’t the superior beings our parents said they were. I remember my teacher filling me in about apartheid injustice and explaining it was government policy to educate black people to be ‘drawers of water and hewers of wood’.
Arthur’s mother, Matilda (66): a primary school teacher and tour de force who is still teaching and nurturing children today | Photo: Leentjie du Preez
Mom kept me away from my dad because he couldn’t fit into the structure apartheid forced upon him. He was an intellectual who loved history but the best job he could get as a black person was driving. He became an activist and dealt in illegal diamonds and drugs to make money.
My dad wasn’t suitable as a father, but Mom loved the way he debated and they remained good friends, even though they were the first black people in the Western Cape to get legally divorced the western way. I never had a relationship with him, and it was my grandfather who was a dad to me. He died when I was nine and I felt a great sense of loss. When my first baby, Anathi, was born I remember feeling huge pain that my dad had not been in my life and resolved to use that pain to love my child more.
By the time I was in grade 5, my mother had trained as a teacher and I went to the primary school where she taught. She herself had received a decent education at a Catholic school and thanks to her working on my early childhood development, I was the smartest in the school. I was good at maths and had lots of friends who were older than me, even some gangsters.
While recognising Khayelitsha township suffers many social ills, Arthur is proud of many aspects of it and chooses to stay there at weekends with his family | Photo: Leentjie du Preez
At that stage although state schools were racially divided, private schools were allowed to accept different race groups. Mom knew someone with links to Bishops, a top boy’s private school in Cape Town, and fixed her sights on getting me in somehow. First, she got me free extra lessons courtesy of the German School. Being busy with these kept me out of a lot of trouble. This was fortunate: some of my peers had started to smoke tobacco, dagga [marijuana] and benzene at the age of eight.
Mom applied for me to go to Bishops and I took the scholarship exam along with 350 boys from all over the country. I was one of four awarded it.
Bishops College, to which Arthur won a scholarship, is generally considered to be one of South Africa’s top schools
The first time I visited Bishops I had mixed feelings. The scholarship boys were taken on two tours and I was amazed by the small classes and the confidence with which the boys interacted with the teachers. For the first time in my life, I realised we in the townships were being fed an education that wasn’t good enough.
Our tour guides were grade 11 boys, and one told us the school fees were R28 000 a year for boarders. I was in charge of some financial affairs at home and knew that though my mum was one of the highest earners in Khayelitsha, she only earned R1650 a month! I kept probing: what did these boys’ parents do to earn that kind of money?
Arthur points out the meal schedule at the Kwasebuncinaneni Bam Educare Centre, of which he is a trustee. ‘It provides a safe and academically-focused place for young children in Khayelitsha,’ he says. ‘Sometimes working parents leave their children with us overnight to ensure safety from family members who are victims of substance abuse and poverty’ | Photo: Leentjie du Preez
When I was offered the scholarship, my primary school teacher said to me, ‘Most activists would say, don’t take this opportunity: the whites will brainwash you. But an ANC man like Nelson Mandela would say, take everything this institution has to give you. You’re not here for yourself, don’t simply aim to become rich but take what it offers and bring it back.’
So I started Bishops at 13 and I got through it with that mindset. I struggled quite a bit: partly because the academic standard was so high but also because quite often people were racially driven. If something got lost, they said, it’s the black guy. Once, an Italian boy accused me of stealing. He told the housemaster, who questioned me about it, implying that he too suspected me. When I told a friend I had been falsely accused, he went storming off to the housemaster and screamed at him! The housemaster apologised!
Even though my friend, who was white, had stood up for me, I felt a shadow hanging over me for the rest of my time at Bishops. It’s only about a year ago that I realised how much it affected my grades and confidence.
Then and now: Arthur’s children, Anathi and Avumile. ‘If I can get my children to think about other people as Jesus did, it’s more than half the battle,’ says Arthur
Later in my school career, a black pupil taught me about the American civil rights movement which was very enlightening for me and really gave me hope for South Africa. By the end of my time there I found a purpose, being black and proud, which I felt needed, and still needs, to be articulated.
I still hold my Bishops education in high regard and am involved with the old boys’ union. I left the school angry but empowered with better understanding. I had also learnt that there was more to life than being well off materially. The white, middle-class homes I visited also went through problems such as divorce. Furthermore, it had been enlightening to meet some white people who, while privileged, did not subscribe to superficial living because they saw that life was bigger than this. Some of my friends came from liberal, purer homes and it was good to discuss life with them. My feelings about aspiration and wealth were quite mixed up: while I too felt it in one way, I was critical of it in another.
I started studying for a BSc at the University of Cape Town. However, it wasn’t what I wanted it to be. Armed with an excellent education, most white students were running circles around the black ones: the white privilege issue remained. I spent one year at UCT and left for financial and academic reasons. I remember sitting with my friend on UCT’s Jammie steps considering our financial burdens and dissatisfaction with the academic racial divide. That day, we both decided to leave.
Focusing outwards: Arthur at the educare centre | Photo: Leentjie du Preez
I found a job in telecommunications, met my first wife and we got married when I was 21. We started our family young. Anathi was born prematurely at 28 weeks. She looked like a little newborn bird and her life was touch and go. It was very urgent, there were four specialists and she had to have a huge injection of steroids. I didn’t have much of a faith at that stage – going to school chapel every day can inoculate you against it! My mum had become a charismatic Christian and I had thought she was going mad but now I thought about God and prayed for my baby girl.
I think I started to feel depressed when I was in my mid-twenties, and worked in Johannesburg for telecoms company MTN. I masked it by socialising a lot, working out at the gym and dipping my head in work until 10 years later I realised I was very lonely. I earned well in Jo’burg, had a full social life and a very fit body but this did not bring happiness. The depression manifested through fatigue, temper tantrums and rash decision making.
Ayanda and I grew apart and our relationship started to grow toxic due to depression in both of us. I moved to Cape Town and eventually tracked down Andiswa who I’d known since childhood, and we are now married. I’m now working as the executive chair of Kwasebuncinaneni Bam Edu-care Centre, project manager at Innotel internet company and as a social transformation consultant.
When I’m depressed I’ve noticed my body shuts down and I spend lots of time sleeping until I realise, oh gosh it’s getting to me again. It usually links to financial problems. But I get counselling and allow myself naps where possible. I also take anti-depressants, exercise and accept that life is not always a bed of roses.
Sustenance at the educare centre | Photo: Leentjie du Preez
My GP in Khayelitsha has given me a good perspective on it. He said to me: you matured very quickly, went to a school very different to your background, you’re working hard at putting your own kids through good schools, you’re allowed to get tired and feel like slowing down. You’re concerned people are doing better than you? Well, allow them to do better than you! The guy who was at the bottom of the class who now has a great IT business? That’s normal!
This has helped me count my blessings. So while my scholarship to Bishops may have put me in stressful situations, it also got me away from something worse. I look back at what you would call genius kids from the top of my primary school class who didn’t get scholarships because they didn’t have a mother like mine who understood what education means. They had no opportunities and some even went on to become drug dealers.
I believe in something bigger than me, something supernatural that is there to help me. Christ suffered for me and was able to give up his own life because he thought about the other. If I can get my children to be sensitive to these things that’s more than half the battle, and it’s great to see Anathi becoming big on social justice.
Arthur and his wife Andiswa with Anathi and Avumile. My GP said, ‘You’re working hard at putting your children through good schools? You’re allowed to get tired and feel like slowing down!’ Acceptance, exercise and anti-depressants help him persevere through his depression
God has been great. Even when I was far from Him I believe he was looking out for me. I also believe He’s got a better life waiting for us.
I’m now facing up to the fact that I live with depression. It’s a thing, probably a lifetime thing, and it’s not the end of the world. I’m coping! King David was depressed and I sometimes wonder if St Paul had it when he talks about his ‘thorn beneath the skin’. So I let the pain humble me and remind me of others who have far less than me.
If I feel low I tell myself, wake up, our kids are at the best schools and we have such a great support structure. Yes we have things to pray about such as finances because my work is largely in charities so it’s small, rather than the larger one I could find in Johannesburg. But Johannesburg wasn’t easy either: I was lonely and got divorced there.
Okay, so I can no longer afford fancy clothes and pointy shoes but I’m part of a community where I am seen as a role model and can try to serve and encourage others. I can go to a shebeen and say, ‘Dude, it won’t hurt to get your child from school considering his mother works till 7pm’ and be appreciated for it!
‘I believe in something bigger than me, in God. I believe He’s got a better life waiting for us,’ says Arthur | Photo: Leentjie du Preez
I don’t touch alcohol. When I was about 10, I saw what it does to great people. There was a recession in SA in the mid 80s which didn’t affect the white minority but a whole load of men in the townships lost their jobs and started filling up the shebeens and destroying their livers.
Andiswa too is suffering from depression which comes and goes and having experienced it myself helps me support her rather than think she’s weak. I’m as supportive as possible when her depression comes. We are both learning to be honest. I encourage her to take it out on God rather than the world: He’s listening and He’s got a father’s heart.
Andiswa’s a phenomenal woman who’s had to work since she was 17. Life hasn’t been easy for her. She’s now keen to study psychology to help others, which I fully support. It’s such a positive use of one’s depression.
My past is a single-parent home in a township in apartheid South Africa, I can’t carry on thinking it didn’t affect me. It’s normal for someone to feel down then come back up. I’m very optimistic about the future!’
Arthur’s wife Andiswa also suffers from depression but aims to use her experience to help others | Photo: Leentjie du Preez
If you feel that you or someone you care about is not coping or is struggling with prolonged anxiety, make sure to get help! Consider contacting your GP or the South African Depression and Anxiety Group.
Alternatively, consider the Dealing with Depression course at Christ Church, Kenilworth, Cape Town, starting 16 July 2019. It’s for anyone experiencing depression or supporting someone going through it and runs every Tuesday night for 4 weeks. Attendees have no obligation to be church members. For details, click here