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Making Sense of Seniority: Conversations from the Field

This blog is conversational, where Prof Elena Moore, Lindeka Mrengqwa and Lulamile Mabe explore experiences of seniority, research and older persons care in a peri-urban informal settlement in South Africa.

About the researchers:

My name is Lindeka Mrengqwa, a 30 year old mother of one beautiful, smart young lady, born of a strong black woman who always emphasized the importance of education. I did my undergraduate and honours studies at the University of the Western Cape, where I fell in love with the world of research. I majored in social science , psychology and linguistics. My research interests focused on infertility, specifically amongst young married women. I have always been interested in studying underprivileged groups in society, which is the reason behind my interest in older persons.

My name is Lulamile Mabe, born and raised in rural areas in the Eastern Cape. I came to Cape town to further my studies. I did electrical engineering, during the year I realized it wasn’t something I wanted to for the rest of my life. The following year I enrolled in university of the Western Cape in Social Sciences, majoring with psychology and women and gender studies, that’s where my curiosity about research began. I always enjoy interacting with people especially the older persons. I joined SIFAR in 2018, as research assistant where my love working with older persons has grown even bigger.

Can you tell me a bit about your experience of working with older persons? 

Lulamile: I’ve been working with older persons since 2018, there is nothing much different from what we are doing in this programme. What an older person needs…they need to be seen, to be understood and you want to be respectful…so that’s where you have to start. An older person might feel like the outsider. Older persons are excluded from the community, as soon as they see us (the young generation) they start like feeling like, what do we ‘Want from them?’ ‘What are you here for?’ Older persons don’t normally get visits from young people, they are the excluded generation.

Working in this programme was a continuation of what we know to expect, we want to build trust so we can be a part of their life, not going there and getting information and going away. Sometimes the elderly start to close up, they don’t want to open up because of their experiences of what happened to them, or maybe they don’t trust us, the younger generation.

Most of the time an older person will ask ‘What do you want to do with this information? Why are you here? What change is it going to bring?’, we have to explain the research and that things don’t just change overnight, we have to do the research first, find out the things that are needed in the community. maybe we have to change policies. So that is my experience in this programme mostly with older persons.

 Lindeka: I’ve been working with older persons for several years. My experience with working with older persons…I don’t know how to really vocalise it in a way that will give justice to it. Older persons are always so friendly, really, it’s always so pleasant to speak to older persons and they always want to share, but I find that it’s different speaking to elder women as opposed to elder men. The way I approach elder women is different from the way that I approach elder men, maybe it’s because of that awareness that men grew up in a different era. It is the patriarchal system where, as a young female, I know how, or the expectations of how I should approach elderly men, as the person who is the head of the house and other cultural concepts, and I know how to approach elder women.


What does seniority mean to you?

Lindeka: It is a tough question. For me, when I see an older person, I see a wealth of knowledge. I see someone whose been through phases of life that I’m still at, and I admire them in the sense that they’ve survived, regardless of what they’ve, their challenges or decisions they’ve made  -they survived. The fact is that they were once 30, and they survived and they’re now 75 years old. They have survived raising kids, they have survived, you know, so I admire them for the fact that they have successfully made it through and survived stages in life that I’m still navigating.

Elena: And can people have seniority, where it is not about age, it’s about position or status either in the community, or in an organisation?

Lindeka: I’m not sure…I’m not sure if I think the two link together. The more you live and go through experiences, the more knowledge you gather. I’m not sure if I can say at my age, I have seniority… Unless I have seniority over people that are younger than me. I think there is  something special that comes with age, that comes with growing older and seeing different eras.

The people we speak with are people who survived apartheid and they will tell you that we came to Cape Town before it was even legal for black people to move to Cape Town, but they made ways through, and we have worked in different markets. Elders worked in an era where it was illegal to employ a black person, and we (South Africa) transitioned (into Democracy) and there was freedom that black people could work anywhere that they wanted to work. So, yes, I think there’s something special that comes with age and being able to transition through different phases of life and different political eras.

Lulamile: Being an elder simply means that you have to be put first in everything that you do. As an older person you have to be placed high in everything that you do, we have to respect you, we have to give you the right of way whatever like if we are in the shops, home affairs and everywhere we go. We always have to respect the elderly, that’s what seniority means to me.


How have your thoughts on seniority shifted or being shaped by this work?

Lindeka: I think it has. It’s dawned upon me that the older persons that we’ve worked with have been parents since the time that they had their kids, and they are still parents to great great grandchildren. They’re still parenting until their last moments on earth. You know you; I have this perception that you parent your own kids, they move out, they have their families and they parent then you just play the role of a part time grandparent. I’ve seen that in this township older people are still parenting because sometimes parents are not available.  Older persons are playing the role of a parent, not of a grandparent, not of a great grandparent but they’re still parenting.

Lulamile: …it is very sad because from what I have seen, majority of older persons feel neglected, they don’t just feel like from the community but even by their biological children. It is heart-breaking going in a household and it is an older person, he is there alone, there is no one in the house and they can’t walk. I see especially in Khayelitsha older persons are not visible in Khayelitsha. They are invisible, even in their own homes from people in the household and it is much worse outside. It is very painful.

We are supposed to give back to our elders, they raised us. I find that the only time we care about older persons is when they have something, like social grants. Seeing an older person alone, they are helpless when there is no child around, I have encountered that many times. Older persons will tell us “I don’t know why I am still alive I feel like God can take me now., its time. I have raised them (their children) but it’s so difficult for them to take care of me now”

I’ve questioned that a lot because I couldn’t understand what will make you neglect your grandmother or your family, so I have to question  to try understand. Unfortunately, in many families grandmothers are still there and their daughters or son pass away they are left with their children now. I think there is a gap between the younger generation and our elders, and we are not aware about what care means.

I feel like we don’t understand what care means. In most cases when we are talking about care we think about material things like ‘what can you do for me’, ‘if you cannot do anything for me I don’t consider that as a care.  I think it is that gap, in what is considered as care and that’s why I try to understand it differently. There is a gap of not understanding how and what care is,  care is not only material things and finances.


Can you talk about the gendered and generational experiences with working with older persons?

Lindeka: When you approach elderly men, it is about respect and showing them respect, because you are taught that you should give elderly people a certain amount of respect, and that respect shows in the way that you speak to older persons, the way that you carry yourself around elders, in the way that you frame your questions. You must address elder men as “Tata”, “Okay, tata, how is…”, when you enter into the house for example, its “Molweni tata, njani” (Hello, how are you) and you must have that “tata”, you know because its isiXhosa and you can’t just say “hello, how are you”.

The way that elderly women relate to me as opposed to elderly men is also different, because men will take a more guiding role, while elderly women take more of like a friendly, peer, sisterhood role, even though I might be younger than them but because we are both women, we will speak in a way that elder women know I can relate to what they are talking about. Elderly women will be more flexible. So, it’s a bit different. We have also learnt to ask people’s clan names for example, you introduce yourself, ‘This is where I am from, this is my clan name’, our elders relate so much to that and start telling you about their clan names and they’ll start saying relations that, “oh I know someone who’s the same clan name as you, and we used to live together there, there and there”, so it’s those cultural things that sometimes come up and matter.

So I might frame a question differently depending on who I am speaking to. I find that there are gendered roles in a household, when asking the older men about things they will say ‘no I wake up and then my wife makes the breakfast’, and you realise that in this household the roles are very gendered. You start framing the questions differently as, “What do you do in the house?”, “What do you help with around the house?”, but I try to make sure that I’m still asking the same question, that the purpose of the question is still the same.

Its also like a cultural thing, as a men you are supposed to hold a certain kind of dignity, especially when you’re an older man. An older man comes with a lot of respect in our culture, so the older you are, the more respect you have. So, you carry yourself in a different way. Sometimes I feel like older men try their best to make sure that they give us ‘what we are looking for’. Older men make sure that they share their experiences because they want the purpose of the visit to be fulfilled like, to feel like they’ve given us ‘what we came for’.

It is more or less the with elder women, the minute you ask the first question, it’s a conversation. Elder women usually tell us about not being able to get an education as a woman, and the way education was not valued at that time. It was more farming and livestock, uhm, so it’s yes, it’s different.

When you come across older persons that have been through a lot and still going through a lot its, its heart-breaking. Older people will tell us that, “you know I’m suffering for a long time”, you know, “I came to Cape Town and suffered but in a different way but I’m still suffering now”, so you know its heart-breaking to see those type of stories. Life hasn’t really gotten better for some older persons, they are still in a township with a high crime rate, there’s drugs everywhere, and you have this RDP house which you got for free and you are thankful for that because there was no way you could have afford it, uhm, but the environment, you are still there as an older person, it still doesn’t do any good for your mental health or physical health or any kind of positivity that comes out of it. So, I guess its bittersweet, I mean you look at the positives and then you look at the negatives that are all around.

Lulamile: With the men I have interviewed in this programme, there was an understanding between them that many of them are not working, they are old  and they need to be taken care of.. There are a lot of complaints in the house, for example, ‘sometimes I want to leave her alone but I will come to my senses…this is my parent I can’t leave them alone’. Many caregivers feel like that, for the sake of peace it happens in houses. Sometimes the housework has to be divided between the caregiver who is the grandson and he has to go and cook at the back (of the property) separate from the care receiver. We need to understand that older persons become more difficult with age, so I think it is a gap in understanding care.


This blog is a conversational piece which speaks to The Family Careigiving Programme’s Research Study in South Africa  and released in November 2023. 

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