She cares for the aged and those less fortunate

Not too long ago, a drunken man, barely able to stand on his own two feet, staggered into a party for the elderly and mouthed this epitaph: "When you're gone ma, even the dogs of Alex will join the funeral procession to pay their last respect at the graveside."

Not too long ago, a drunken man, barely able to stand on his own two feet, staggered into a party for the elderly and mouthed this epitaph: "When you're gone ma, even the dogs of Alex will join the funeral procession to pay their last respect at the graveside."

That's a mighty vote of confidence and what everyone in Alexandra township, a spit away from Sandton in northern Johannesburg, would want to see inscribed on Marjorie Manganye's tombstone when she has gone to the world beyond.

The woman dubbed the "Mother Theresa of Alexandra" is ancient and tiny-boned. But then, they say dynamite comes in small packages. She also bears an the uncanny resemblance to our health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, albeit in a miniature form - a well-preserved bonsai with a huge heart.

My encounter with this lovely 76-year-old pensioner, inaugural recipient of Sowetan's Nation Builder of the Year and the Presidential Baobab Award, occurred, incidentally, at another Christmas party for the elderly and the infirm at Ithlokomeleng Centre for the Aged and Disabled.

But the young and able-bodied were in greater numbers and no one, least of all Madge - you can't think of her as a pensioner - granny-minded. The huge pool of the uninvited tells a story of a people whose dream of a new South Africa is deferred.

Alexandra, the only Johannesburg township within a whisker's touch from the city, has defied apartheid and won. It is peopled by struggle heroes who refused to be moved further away by apartheid laws that designated their place a "grey area", whatever that meant.

However, it may have won the fight against racial injustice, but it is losing the greater war - the war against social injustice. Unemployment is rife. Crime is just as bad and the general conditions have not changed much since the days of white rule and black humiliation.

Hence people, young men and women, who should be eking out a living, came in great numbers.

At one stage the queue leading to the food station was a hundred people deep from every direction. There was shoving and pushing and minimum edge way.

They were all there. I saw a young beautiful woman with an underfed baby on her back. Her face was "black 'n blue", as we say in the townships. Yet another victim of abuse.

And yes, I saw a young man there - no more than 25 - whose upper jaw faces Israel and the lower part points to Palestine.

At the end of the line stood "Mother Madge" with her small army of volunteers dishing out food for the multitude.

I looked at her, all dressed-up and wondered where she got all the energy from. Girls her age should be sitting under a tree counting their blessings.

But there she was dishing out meat. Township legend has it that she didn't sleep more than a wink for days leading to last week's party. Ever the organiser, ever the perfectionist, she wanted to ensure that everything ran like a dream.

The interview had to wait, you see, because momma wanted to make sure that everyone got his/her fair share of meat.

She's notoriously generous. On occasions like this, she wants everyone to go home bellyful.

To be in close proximity to her when she dished out was in itself a chore. I couldn't cross the great divide. No quarter was asked and no quarter was given.

Hungry people don't easily give way to easy passage.

I was touched.

But then, after she had done her fair share of catering, I followed her to the centre's recreational hall, I was again amazed by the power this woman wields in her community.

Like a proverbial biblical story, the sea of people parted. No one wanted to disrupt her march to the other side of the centre.

I saw youngsters in their Superga takkies, Levi dungarees and scalp caps paying their silent respect to her. And yes, I saw octogenarians, embers of fire from their long dead eyes shining from the sockets of a life that has seen so much.

There and then, as I followed in her footsteps, I knew that I was walking in the shadow of a giant. There and then, I knew I was in the company of greatness. You can't buy that.

The story is a bit winded.

A farm girl born and raised in what is today known as Fourways, halfway between Johannesburg and Pretoria, she landed up in Alex in the early 1960s.

Alexandra was something she was not prepared for. There was a lot of suffering, just a scream away from Sandton, the African centre of opulence and white mischief. People who should not have died of preventable diseases died. Gangs ruled the roost and people who converged on this great commune were generally hopeless.

Within months of coming to town, Madge went into action, volunteering at the local clinic.

Within a month, she was asked by the powers-that-be to become a full-time staffer, so great was her contribution.

Unarmed, with no formal nursing skills, she went to Bothaville Settlement, a nursing school in KwaZulu-Natal to prepare herself for the job at hand. However, her nursing and social work were not top of her priorities at that stage. There were bigger mountains to climb, bigger fishes to fry.

But it was this one incident that changed her life forever.

She volunteered to take the aged to their pension points and help them through the bureaucracy. As she told me the story, her eyes misted up and I almost felt like hugging her.

"There was this old mamma," she says, "she was so tired. She asked me to find her a place in the shade while waiting for the 'pay people' to come."

She didn't make it to the queue. When her time came to collect the all-life-saving stipend Marge went to wake her up where she had left her. She was as cold as anything cold could be. "Stone dead," Marge told me, wiping a tear from her eye.

That indignity of a black, elderly woman dying in the queue for a miserly state pension became a turning point for her.

"I could no longer stand idle as my people were humiliated. I had to do something, however small, to alleviate their plight."

When she talks about her people, she's not exclusively talking about black, African, Alexadrian people. She's talking about all people. Recently, the police came knocking at her door and told her a long story of a white boy found starving and cold in the nearby suburb of Norwood.

"Bring him to me," she told them.

I saw the boy, happy and with a renewed zest for life the other day.

To me, that's affirmative action motherhood.

And let's, ye scoundrels, heed the wise words of that drunk.