Posted on October 27, 2013
I got involved in a whole to-do this week, family feuds and all, but it really made me think about how important paperwork or records can be, even after a VERY long time.

The Boss came in late last week - seems some old duck in the room next to his ma's in the old age home was on at him on the phone this morning. She wants his to try to sort out a family problem because the Boss's ma was boasting about how her son got all her affairs sorted out quick-quick. But guess who has to sort this one out. Me, of course! Number one's too busy to deal with this himself so it ends up being my problem. So here's the story:

It seems there was this couple: Oupa, a bus-driver, and Ouma, a housewife, and their three children - one boy and two girls. Now this family lived together in one of those small houses in the suburbs in the 1940s. In the 1950s Arthur, the son, joined the civil service, making his way through the ranks until he was in quite a senior position in Pretoria. He married Lettie and had four children. Oupa and Ouma's middle child, Doreen fell in love with the teller at the local bank and married him and had a daughter. Daisy, Oupa and Oumas 'laat lammetjie" stayed at home and got a job as a clerk with some big company. Whenever Oupa and Ouma had a problem they called in their son Arthur to sort it out. So it went on until Oupa died in the 1970s, Arthur in the late 1980s and in 1990. Doreen's husband died in 1992 and she had to move in with her daughter because she didnt have the funds to live on her own. Daisy just stayed on living quietly in the Oupa and Ouma's house.

Then Daisy fell and broke her hip and had to move into an old-age home. Yes, you guessed it, she moved straight into the room next to the Boss's ma. Now, Daisy was not happy, she always said she was going to move into one of those retirement villages where she could play cards in the clubhouse to her heart's content and have someone deliver her meals three times a day! But first, she had to sell the house she'd been living in since the 1940s.

That's where things started falling apart.First Doreen said the house didn't belong to Daisy, it belonged to Ouma, her Ma and that Daisy had just been living there, off the fat of the land, so to speak, ever since Ouma had died. Then Lettie, Arthur's wife, had a go at Daisy too. She said that Ouma had always said that when she died the house would have to be sold and the money divided among the three children - Arthur, Doreen and Daisy. Then Daisy said, no, Ouma said she could have the house and maybe leave it to the grandchildren when she dies. So these three old ducks - because Arthur's wife says she must get her dead husband's share - are start doing their sums: if Daisy sells the house and keeps the money she gets R600,000, and no one else sees a cent. If the money is split among Ouma's three children - even though the one is late - then Doreen, Daisy and Lettie get R200,000 each. If the money goes straight to the grandchildren then surely Doreen's daughter should get half - R300,000, and Arthur's four children should share the other half, getting R75,000 each. Or should they just divide the money by five so the each of the grand-children get R125,000 and leave Daisy to manage on her pension in frail-care? Or maybe by eight ... I tell them to stop all this nonsense and wait until we can find the Title Deed to the house, because this will show who the legitimate owner of the house is.

Nobody knows anything about any paperwork. This means I have to get the Title Deed from the Deeds Office - what a mission. Then, surprise, surprise, the Boss tells me that Daisy says there are some papers in the dressing table of her Ma's old room back at the house. Maybe I can find something there? So off goes Doreen and next thing she arrives at the office with this big vacuum cleaner box full of papers for me to go through. This is a real family archive full of old letters, Christmas cards, photographs, a couple of diaries, a very old passport showing that Oupa once visited Rhodesia, a handful of odd certificates, lots of old bills and a 2013/2014 TV licence! I spend quite a lot of time going through this stuff and learn all sorts of things about the family on the way. I get almost to the bottom before I hit gold! There's a copy of the Liquidation and Distribution account drawn up by the executors of Ouma's will and attached to it is the Deed of Transfer showing that the house has been registered in Daisy's name. So I write a letter to Doreen and Daisy and send an email to Lettie to tell them that Daisy can sell the house and do anything she likes with the money because I have found the proof that it belongs to her and her alone!

Daisy starts looking at adverts for retirement villages with frail-care facilities but Doreen and Lettie get cross, very cross. Then there's another whole round of 'but Ouma always said' and 'what about the grandchildren's inheritance', and I put my hands over my ears and realise I need to go back another step.

The only way to stop the quarrel is to find Ouma's will and check it to see whether she said anything about what should happen to the house if Daisy died or moved out. I go through all the papers again; I can't find it. So off I go on another treasure hunt, this time to the Office of the Master of the High Court in the Department of Justice, where all the wills processed since 1951 are filed. The website looks very efficient, so I send an email requesting a certified copy of the will - luckily the Liquidation and Distribution Account has all the right dates and reference numbers and I attach proof of payment of R9.00 into their bank account to cover the costs and then I wait and wait for a response. Two weeks later I phone to find out when I can expect to hear from them, but the official just laughs and says, 'That email on the website doesn't work anymore.' So I re-send the documents and then I wait some more. Another week later I telephone and tell the official, 'These old ducks are driving me mad, please can't you just sort this out for me quickly!' and five days later I sit with the copy in my hand.

Now there's trouble: big trouble! According to Ouma's will, if Daisy moves out of the house she must sell it and split the money with Doreen or Doreen's daughter if Doreen is already late. Daisy's shocked because now she'll never be able to afford a nice retirement village. Doreen's smiling as if she's won the Lotto because she never expected to have all this money, and her daughter's smiling even more because she's the one who's going to get to spend it! Lettie's furious because she and her children get nothing, not even after everything Arthur did for Oupa and Ouma!

I'm just the messenger here and I'm half happy, half sad.

I'm pleased because though I've always understood why records matter, and why it's important for the government to keep records safe, I've never seen how this affects people so personally. I'm particularly pleased to see that these important records are in safe hands and that they can be accessed quite quickly when they are needed.

I'm happy that in this case the records put an end to all the speculation and provided the evidence needed to help sort out the problem in the present, and to allow Ouma's 'voice' to be heard even though she is long gone. But I'm sad because it's tearing the family apart. Lettie's livid that she and her children have been left out in the cold. She says it's not about the money but it hurts to think that she and her children were so heartlessly discarded after Arthur died. She's suspicious too about why, when Ouma told her the money would be divided between all three children, her will, which was signed a month or so before she died, says otherwise. Lettie's muttering about 'that Doreen' and 'that Daisy' turning Ouma against her and her children, and swearing to give her sisters-in law one last piece of her mind and then never speak to them again!

This is the kind of human story that researchers can only imagine when they examine the dispassionate records of the past.

Mak (from Makhado) is an Archival Platform correspondent based in Gauteng.