Image: Illustration: Simphiwe Mbana

My father and I sit across from each other at Tashas. I do most of the talking. Because we never had this type of relationship growing up, at times the exchanges are laboured. Words, I have been told, are nothing but complicated airflow. Yet, I persist, because it’s all we have. After a brief silence he says, “I am not sleeping, I am closing my eyes because this is how I listen now, Lebo. I get tired easily.”

Since his stroke, life has been more difficult than different. My father has gone from being one of the most influential businessmen in the country to a subdued, partially disabled, and dependant vestige of his former self. I once took an Uber and the driver recognised my surname and asked, “Is your father still the president’s special advisor?”

That man, that avatar of a human, I believe, I have to believe, is still the same man sitting here before me today, in a wheelchair, learning how to walk again. It’s 10am on a weekday in January 2024, and the collective mood, on a Geiger counter of optimism, is sitting at six. Bafana Bafana. Siya Kolisi. My Emmy Award. My dad’s toast arrives, and it needs to be cut up into smaller, bite-sized pieces.

My grandmother was a staunch Jehovah’s Witness. As a teenager, I spent school holidays in malls trying to sell The Watchtower magazines to irritated non-believers, running errands in a race against time. I was 14, I had braces, I had zero confidence, I sold zero copies. Later that year my gran passed away and left me a massive inheritance. I used the money to buy my first camera and thus my journey as a filmmaker began. My service to the kingdom didn’t go unnoticed

Back home I would page through the magazines, curious why no one wanted a raffle ticket for the exclusive 144 000 club competing to secure a place in heaven. The magazines offered a boldly specific rendering of that heaven: aggressively lush; lots of fruit (with a special emphasis on grapes); an indescribable number of lambs, waterfalls, and smiling white people with silky long hair. It was the most important and most central desire in my life.

You couldn’t imagine my mortal satisfaction when we arrived in Paraty, Brazil, on a family holiday. I had a profound belief that I’d found the closest thing to heaven or paradise, possibly a combination of both. Paraty is small seaside town. It has one entrance, cobbled stones laid out with a perverse perfection, quaint restaurants filled with customers who know exactly what to order, hotels with owners who live on the premises, beautiful Brazilian people and, at the edge of the town, a port that opens up to the most heavenly waters. The Watchtower could never compete.

The water was sky blue, gentle, warm, and full of fish. I’d jump in and swim to a small boat. The boat would sail out to sea, we’d catch fresh fish and eat it on the beach with beautiful Brazilian people. My father had flown our entire family there on holiday, first class. We were, by any social metric, rich. We had big cars, big houses — yes, houses — overseas trips. My dad was a powerful businessman and his success was no secret. A Wikipedia page listed him as one of the most influential Pedi men of all time. He was the hardest-working person I knew and thus my equation for wealth accrual was formed, shaped, and solidified.

We’d catch fresh fish and eat it on the beach with beautiful Brazilian people. My father had flown our entire family there on holiday, first class. We were, by any social metric, rich.

My notion of wealth was limited to material things, tangibles that the rest of society had agreed were reliable wealth indicators. Good God, that seafood was amazing. My father and I didn’t have a particularly intimate relationship. He was a loving provider, a workaholic; his dedication to our family was communicated by the extremely soft lives we had but came at the massive sacrifice of not being able to form soft bonds. No one could blame him for this. This was what he knew, this was what he practised — he was adhering to the principles of the parenting zeitgeist of the moment. It was 1997 and the overwhelming consensus was that meritocracy was not only a pillar of wealth but also a pillar of society.

I reach over and remove a breadcrumb that loiters on his chin. His stroke hit his left side; cognitively he is still extremely sharp but most of his left side is limp, and that’s where the loitering breadcrumbs play. They offer an opportunity for a tender moment. Cleaning food from my father’s face is as intimate as intimate gets. Here is a man who advised presidents on how to run a country, now with hindered capacity, struggling to look after himself without assistance. I remove the breadcrumb with my hand and not a paper towel; the physical touch feels necessary. He needs to know how much I love him and that I am dedicated to looking after him, like he looked after me, like he looked after the whole country.

Moments like these characterise our relationship now and have completely changed my notion of wealth. My father and I talk regularly, we hang out a lot. Now, my idea of wealth is measured by the quality of my relationships, that of my father and me being a primary example. Materially, our family life has changed a lot. No more big cars, no more first class, no more seafood in Paraty. Now that those material distractions are gone, we have more opportunity to focus on each other. That may just be all that matters.

Lebogang Rasethaba is a filmmaker and Emmy Award-winning director.

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