Known as Mickey to some and Xolile to others, Michael Kent celebrated his 80th birthday at the weekend. This despite a number of illnesses and setbacks.
Michael is familiar to many people in the Plumstead area, where he has lived and served the community for decades. But what few will know is that he is known by the name Xolile to Xhosa people in the community.
“I was given this nickname by the ANC council. It means at peace, or the happy one.”
Michael speaks Xhosa fluently. This is not surprising because he spent the first six years of his life only speaking the language. That was a while ago when, as a boy, he lived in Alexandria in the Eastern Cape. Michael was 6 when his dad died of tuberculosis, and his mom died two years later, and he was parted from his sister who went to live with an aunt.
In 1957, he qualified as a teacher while living in Graaff-Reinet, and two years later, while waiting for a post to Wellington Primary School, he met Ansie. He got the teaching post one year later but also contracted TB and went to what was then Westlake Hospital for treatment.
Having survived TB, he moved back to the Eastern Cape but not for long. In 1962, he got a post to Timour Hall Primary School and soon heard that any teachers planning to get married should do so before January 1963 as they would receive four increments of salary. It was a once-off offer they could not refuse, so Michael and Ansie left for Keimoes in the Northern Cape where Ansie’s family lived, and they hurriedly tied the knot.
“The family thought we had to get married, but this was not the case because Michelle, now 47, was born nine years later,” laughs Michael.
Michelle was born with both hips out of their sockets and was operated on by Dr Christiaan Barnard when she was 7 days old because her pulmonary veins were not going to her heart.
In 1962, Michael decided to go back to university and worked as a bus conductor while studying.
Meanwhile Ansie was holding down three jobs. Apart from teaching she had an answering service for a doctor and baked wedding cakes at night.
After graduating, Michael was promoted to vice principal at John Graham Primary School and took over as principal in 1983.
With the change of government in the 1990s, rumours were rife that teachers would not get a pension, and so he took a package and early retirement.
Sitting on his backside is not something that suits Michael, and in 2000 he joined the civic association as a provisional councillor until 2011.
He then became chairman of Heritage South Africa, dealing with proposals for fracking in the Karoo and other issues.
In 2015 and the following year he served as vice-chair of the Diep River Community Police Forum. However, after a hip operation at the age of 78, he resigned.
“But I still receive calls about residents’ lights being out or their water off. But I help them because I know the ropes.”
Sitting in the lounge which was once the veranda, the family home is in disarray with furniture and boxes piled high and workmen coming to and fro.
Ansie explains that she and Michael – along with 180 other people, including some with disabilities – have been caught in a scam and have lost their pension.
“However God is helping us through these problems,” she says.
They have now divided their home and created two apartments they can lease out. And to subsidise their incomes Michael is baking rusks, which they call Oupa’s Rusks, and Michelle is baking muffins that they sell at Ferndale Nursery.
Anyone who attended the civic meetings under Victoria bridge will recall Michael’s “kaas broekies” as well as other treats of cakes and sandwiches.
Michael has also had a few health scares in recent years: in 2002 he had a triple heart bypass and was diagnosed with a slow type of leukaemia, and a prostate cancer diagnosis followed in 2015, along with a more recent diagnosis of dementia.
As for their 55-year marriage, “We never talk of divorce but murder… There’s a well in the garden that is no longer in use but it’s a good place to put a body,” he laughs.
The family celebrated Michael’s birthday at the Dutch Reformed Church in Ophir Road where the women of the church catered for 30 family and friends who visited from far and wide.