[OPINION] Is old age really all the rage?
The ANC Women’s League hosts its Molo Makhelwane Campaign in Pretoria this week. To mark the occasion, they will hand over a house to Gogo Rametsi, a 130-year-old woman living in Hammanskraal.
When you’re 130, you have lived through two world wars, you have seen apartheid, you have seen democracy and you have seen Jacob Zuma. I love old people. I love the stories they have stored and all the memories they’re able to share, their eyes blinking images of a black and white past.
The oldest person I ever spend time with is my grandmother. She’s just over 80 now. To be honest, the only stories I know about her past are the ones my mom has told me. My gran doesn’t remember much. She also can’t hear very well, so conversations are hard. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be 80, so 130 seems completely impossible. I know personally, that I would never want to be that old. But props to Gogo. It did make me wonder though: what’s life really like for centenarians? I’m 33 and I want to escape life and politics and basically the world all the time. I can’t imagine being here for over one hundred years.
I did some research and found a report from Die Burger newspaper that tallied South Africans over the age of 110 at 2,797 and citizens between the ages of 100 and 110 clock in at 15 581. I had no idea!
In terms of provinces, KwaZulu-Natal takes first place with the biggest share of centenarians. Gauteng gets bronze status, with just over 900 citizens who are over 100 years old, with Gogo Rametsi one of them. These numbers are not verified, nor are the ages. It’s hard for black South Africans who are that old to rely on memory alone for their exact ages; a lot of them do not have paper work and many were brought over as labourers from other parts in Africa without records.
Not much has changed. The bigger percentage of citizens who have reached this ripe old age still live in rural areas where they eat food they have grown themselves. South Africans who are cut off from big metros, where diabetes and heart disease lurk in the kitchens of cheap fast food places, are more likely to eat a diet filled with fresh vegetables. Lifestyle: One of the key contributors to mortality rates.
There aren’t many other studies in South Africa that focus on people over the age of 100. There are even fewer when it comes to what it actually feels like to be that old. Is it filled with gratitude and cherishing time moment to moment, or do these people live with dread? Do they think of death often, or do they long to live forever? And most importantly, are they lonely? When you live to be 100, you face the loss of loved ones around more than anyone else. The possibility of your friends, siblings, your spouse and even your children leaving you is extremely high. I have to wonder, is 100 the loneliest number?
Women are more likely than men to get this old, most of them are widowed, but I was really surprised to learn that only 3% of 55,000 centenarians said they were lonely. We must of course take into consideration that this study was conducted on mostly middle-class citizens in the US where at the time of the study, health facilities and access to care for the frail was much better than it is here, therefore not only increasing the likelihood of aging healthily but also the likelihood of being cared for in a facility where they are surrounded by their peers - going to dances, playing bridge and possibly even dating again.
Still, I cannot get the image of someone’s great grandfather or grandmother staring out the window and hoping for a visitor for the past 30 years of their life (possibly) only to have no one pitch up. Worse still, a South African in the same position, living on the outskirts of a quiet town while any family she has left potentially works in a metro far away.
I don’t know if any of the above is true for Gogo Rametsi. There isn’t a lot of information out there about her. If I could ask her just one question, I would honestly want to know her thoughts on our sitting president. Boring I know, but this is a woman who has seen the Broederbond formed and dismantled, the National Party win and lose. She has seen Mandela imprisoned and freed. She has witnessed the capturing of land, and heard utterances of the promise to retrieve it, and she has dwelled in the landscape of over 20 years of democracy in South Africa.
What would Gogo have to say?
Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a commentator on gender equality, sexuality, culture, race relations and feminism as well as ethics in the South African media environment.