June 30, 1990. There was no way I could keep away. Didn’t try, didn’t think of it, wasn’t a consideration.
I’m sitting center field, Oakland Coliseum on a searing summer afternoon with 72,000 sweaty, restless human beings. More crowd here than I’ve ever tolerated. Have already waited two hours for him, more time than I give anyone.
I won’t talk to him. He certainly won’t talk to me. Hell, he won’t even see me, never know I’m here. If an aide whispered my name into his ear the sound would be meaningless. But I’m not here for him to know I’m here. Here for me.
I owe him.
I’ve never been sure precisely what it is I owe him, but I’ve felt debt for years now.
I could babble some mumbo-jumbo about admiration, common humanity, inspiration, but that’s junk talk, the kind you hear from low-rent therapists. And not what I feel. I feel personal debt. Feel it as clearly as if he’d made bail for me back in 1972 Watsonville, Georgia, when I was popped for marijuana and believed prison was forever.
He arrives finally, after two hours of singing, dancing, dozen introductory speeches, incessant appeals for money. The crowd stands, provides an ovation, banners wave, music pumps from 100 stadium speakers — set stage right, stage left — cranked up, up, up.
The man begins speaking, one hears that increasingly familiar, measured, dignified voice sprinkled with those slowly rolling guttural rs. He thanks the crowd, recounts all the good works the Bay Area has done for his struggle, asks for more. Then, leaving prepared text, “I must add that since my arrival in this country I have received several letters from organizations and individuals from the first American nation, the American Indians. In addition, with those letters I have received valuable if not priceless gifts from them. Just this morning I received another message. They had wanted to robe me at the airport, but unfortunately our convoy had left before arrangements could be made for them to perform this ceremony.”
The crowd “Ooh”s.
“When the robes came with their letter, I was already here. I then requested the mayor to allow me to meet this delegation, which is lead by Mr. or Miss Booker. Unfortunately, we were unable to contact them, despite diligent inquiries by the mayor. These letters, which I’ve received, describe the conditions of the American Indians here. And I can assure you that they have left me very disturbed" Booming applause.
“If I had the time, I would have visited their areas, spoken to their leaders and organizations, and brought from them an authoritative picture of the difficulties under which they live. But unfortunately, my schedule is very tight, and I cannot carry out this wish.”
Thirty thousand spectators sigh. Yes, well, too bad, but that’s the way the world turns. Busy, busy people — busy lives — what’s next?
“But I can assure the leaders of the Indian community that I will return in October, and, with the permission of my organization, which I am sure I will get, I will visit the Indian areas in this country and get a briefing from the Indian community. We will exchange views as to what I could do to help them in their struggle.” You son of a bitch, Nelson Mandela. You loony son of a bitch. I’ll bet you’ll confer with Indian leaders, I’ll bet you’ll do precisely that, zany as it seems now. The thing about you that Ted Koppel found out, President Airhead discovered on the White House south lawn, is that beneath your gray hair, kindly bearing, dignified speech, well-tailored suit, is hard rock, the kind that makes experienced miners weep. You didn’t do 27 years in South African jails, step outside at the age of 71, resume family responsibilities, lead the African National Congress, begin revolutionary talks with a recognized and powerful government, embark on a protracted world tour, even, by God, write your own speeches, all without missing a single beat, because you’re made out of sugar candy.
You’ve always had that quality, Mandela. Turned imprisonment inside out: became the man who refused to leave jail until the Republic of South Africa agreed to terms — your terms. American Indians are going to be in for a hell of a surprise this fall; so will American politicians if they think you’re going to bumble around, collect some headfeathers, go “bogga, bogga, bogga.”
Christ, you just stand up there, speak the truth as you see it, don’t you? Seems a reckless thing to do in this country, highly dangerous. We don’t let a lot of people get away with that. Be warned: they’re not used to it over here, Mandela. It’s been decades.
May 8, 1986. I am the only passenger on 30-minute shuttle from Jans Smuts International Airport to Johannesburg’s city center. Jo’burg’s population is three million plus, and its downtown bears an uncanny resemblance to Atlanta, Georgia: a skyline of new, vacuous-looking 40-story buildings, television towers and, at 9 p.m., deserted streets. It’s 26 hours since California. I stumble onto pavement prepared to surrender. “Anything, I’ll tell you anything, just no more airplanes.”
The downtown bus terminal is closed. Clutching a stuffed backpack, I walk into the Johannesburg railway station, Africa’s largest, which is modeled after Mussolini’s Termini — 80-foot ceilings, marble floors — epic Italian Fascist. Here, there, footsteps echo against concourse walls. I petition random pedestrians, begin informational panhandling, “Where are the cheap hotels?”
In this manner I find myself, on a chilly fall night, trudging Elloff Street toward the Springbok Hotel in downtown Jo’burg, accompanied by two white men from Cape Town. They’re in search of a quick beer between trains. We agree to a round at the hotel bar. Over Castle draft, my companions begin what I will come to know as the Standard White South African Line: How conditions in South Africa are changing so fast, “In five years we’ll be just like the States.” How no outsider can understand their problems. How whites receive no credit for all the changes, how apartheid is almost gone, how blacks are too ignorant to run a country: “Look at the rest of Africa.” The speaker turns to me, his face torqued with anger, “Five years ago there would never have been that tawdry scene in the lobby.”
I’m baffled. What tawdry scene? Next morning I realize: This hotel is integrated. Blacks are sitting in the lobby.
I came to South Africa with mixed motives. I’ve always been a travel junkie. Flying to Africa was irresistible. Also, RSA is a hell of a story and one that’s going to be around for a long time — attractive ingredients from a writer’s perspective. Mostly I’m curious. What is going on here? South Africa’s white, racist rule is transparently easy to see, so easy it blurs everything else about the country.
Unfortunately, I’m here illegally, one of those tacky little facts that so often clutters life’s really interesting moves. South Africa doesn’t hand out many journalist visas these days; in fact they don’t hand out any, so I said the hell with it, materialized at RSA’s Beverly Hills consulate, spoke through a triple-paned, bulletproof glass window, got myself a tourist visa.
“And why do you want to visit South Africa, Mr. Daugherty?”
“Game parks. Always wanted to see big, big game in big, big parks.”
Morning — 5 a.m. — can’t sleep. Find downtown Jo’burg train station, watch thousands of blacks hustle into work. The station is segregated. Blacks come by train at 6:30 a.m. An hour later, whites arrive in new cars, filling up city center. It’s as if blacks arrive early just to tidy up.
I spend this day in the public library reviewing RSA’s mainstream newspapers. Other than the excellent, tiny, 12,000-circulation Weekly Mail (a descendant of now-defunct Rand Daily Mail), the South African press is debased. Major newspapers offer nothing more than battlefield reports: “THREE MEN DIED LAST NIGHT.” Only rarely does an article evaluate or analyze the current domestic war. Worse, the press does not tell its mostly white readers about blacks. Rudimentary stuff like who their leaders are, what they believe, what they want.
Eighty percent of the population is ignored, leaving whites inside their own self-created, self-maintained fantasy bubble.
Wandering downtown Johannesburg, I’m struck both by how rich it is and, even more, by the staggering amount of personal service in shops. It’s an aspect of life long gone in the United States. Wages for blacks are so cheap (rent a truck and, for another $1.25, rent a black) that all shops have stand-around guys. A fast-food place may have six people working, then another three hanging out in case there’s something to do. When I check into a hotel, two blacks appear to carry my one backpack. In the morning two more arrive at my door with coffee. Three attendants per car are standard at gas stations. There are a little more than one million white households in South Africa. There are over 800,000 black maids.
South Africa is particularly cheap for Americans. The rand has fallen from $1.79 to 46 cents; this marks the welcome return of the nine-dollar hotel room, two-dollar-50-cent dinner, 53-cent beer served in First World plush surroundings. It is so cheap that I actually rent an automobile, a brand new Volkswagen Golf, which I inaugurate by driving into a warehouse, creating a four-foot gash along the Golf’s left flank. South Africans drive on the British side of the road, a particularly elusive highway tip.
Which turns out to be fortunate. When dealing with immediate stress, I usually get a cup of black coffee. Across the street is a fast-food joint. I place my order, which, in a nation with a passion for coffee served with cream and sugar, I’ve already learned must be made in the following manner: “Black coffee, please. That’s coffee black with no cream or sugar, just black coffee, no cream, no sugar. Black coffee only, without the cream, without the sugar. Black coffee, please.”
A minute later, from the kitchen: “Tell the gentleman with the speech impediment his coffee’s ready.”
The voice belongs to Ramona, store manager. She’s 32, tall, blonde, agreeable. We chat over coffee, arrange a date for tonight.
Ramona has an apartment in Hillbrow, a ten-block area of what passes in Jo’burg for International Yuppie. There are cafes, restaurants, movies, street people selling crafts, and rarest of South African scenes — an integrated crowd strolling after dark.
Ramona lives on the ninth floor, shares a flat with an Afrikaner roommate. Monthly rent — $175.
I arrive at 8 p.m., ask to be shown the town. One block beyond Hillbrow, I ram a curb, bounce off the base of a street lamp, which creates another, deeper wound on the car rental’s left side.
We arrive at the Smugglers, a local hot spot in the suburbs, where we meet Ramona’s Afrikaner roommate Kristine and her boyfriend from “Rhodesia.” Smugglers is jammed; takes 20 minutes to get past front door — belly up to hardwood bar. Eight soldiers are here, in uniform, working on several pitchers of beer.
I order drinks. The soldier on my right leans towards us, says, “You an American?”
I’m talking to an army captain doing township duty; he’s English descent, mid-30s, nice guy. (All South African males are conscripted into the army for two years, then put on reserve for ten more.) He’s doing two months’ active duty this year, his partner three. For the first time he has been assigned township patrol “to back up the police.”
“I thought township duty was all regular army.”
“They ran out of people.”
I ask, “How bad is it?”
“Some of the things I’ve seen in the last two weeks I don’t want to talk about.” “Like what.”
“Young blacks playing soccer with human heads. School basements filled with explosives. Little kids throwing petrol bombs. Don’t get me wrong, mostly it’s boring. Most of the time we sit.”
“Come on, there’s been too many reports of the army tear gassing and shooting activists’ houses.”
“There’s some of that. Afrikaners are hard. Eighty percent of army officers are Afrikaner, and I have seen squads tear gas neighborhoods. Not much you can do if your commanding officers approve.”
He goes on to say that the only people who give them trouble are kids between the ages of 12 and 25.
“In ten years it’ll be 12 to 35.” The captain swallows. I wonder if he’s ever thought of that before.
He mentions his young son. He’s worried for him. “I might leave the country,” he says, then unconsciously, returns to standard South African line: “No one understands; blacks are ignorant; look at the rest of Africa.”
And yet I like him.
One question I ask every white South African is, “What do you think is going to happen over the next 20 years?” This is always a show-stopper. The question is treated in the same way as, say, exposing yourself at a family Thanksgiving dinner. The act is so gross, so embarrassing, that people respond as if it’s not there, as if it’s not happening. That’s the near-universal white South African response to questions about the future. When pressed, that response turns to anger. Press more, and most everyone admits that South Africa will be a black state, never failing to add that chaos and poverty will follow.
By this time, Ramona’s roommate is eyeing me, has long since sailed past simple rage, is moving straight ahead into a life-long bond of committed hatred. What’s surprising is that she’s a young executive secretary, a business school graduate, does not live on a farm in Transvaal with seven bearded brothers oiling rifles and beating field hands on humid days. She’s mainstream.
I drop the gang off at 4 a.m. Weeks later I learn that the following morning, Ramona’s roommate and the Rhodesian had a breakfast conversation about having me murdered. As told to me, it was a joke, but also not a joke — one of those gray areas where wish, truth, and humor combine.
Next morning I begin making the rounds, schedule interviews with a well-known activist teaching at University of Witwatersrand (he has since been “detained”); with Brendon Berry, president of the National University Student Association, who has recently returned from discussions with then-banned African National Congress in Zaire; and with a black reporter writing for one of Jo’Burg’s major newspapers.
All say they are watching closely to see whether the ANC will be able to organize black townships. For two years, the ANC has been concentrating on weeding out state-approved black counselors, mayors, township civic leaders. Over 600 of these officials, seen as collaborators of the white government, have left office, others threatened, and still others forced to resign.
In Alexandra and many other townships, residents have formed street committees whose members include everyone living on the street except overt government collaborators. Representatives are sent to a township civic association that deals with everything from when and where to use boycotts, collection of refuse, curriculum for ad hoc schools, administrating people’s courts, down to how late shebeens (speakeasies) may operate. The goal is to operate townships without any involvement of the white government.
Richard, a black reporter from the Johannesburg Star, South Africa’s largest newspaper, has a more detailed perspective. He says that lifting pass laws came ten years too late. Events have gone too fast. Now, no one is interested in reforming pass laws, integrating downtown, or allowing intermarriage. No one cares anymore. The only thing that counts is the transfer of power. Blacks intend to take power. There will either be an orderly transfer of power or it will be seized.
Whites will move toward negotiation, but not in time, and not far enough. Richard foresees a protracted struggle. Tactics will be endless stay-aways, boycotts, and sanctions.
Richard’s job is getting increasingly dangerous as more and more frequently, soldiers fire at black reporters working townships. His car has a half a dozen bullet holes. “So far they have only shot at me from a distance, but someday....” Working a township beat is hazardous and frustrating. You go in, getting in often requires dodging army, work the day’s story — say South African Defense Forces, at 3 a.m., while patrolling a shanty street, and for the hell of it, for a reason no one knows because the army is not in the habit of telling anyone, they tear gas a street, maybe machine gun a few houses. Richard drives out the next day, interviews residents, takes photos, returns to his office, writes story. Now comes the institutional work — trying to get his piece past white editors who simply don’t believe him. Since white South Africans never, that is, never, go into black townships, whites, even white newspaper editors, live inside fantasy when it’s time for these stories.
If and when he can sell the article to his editor, then comes step two. The policy of major South African newspapers is not to print stories of this nature unless there is an official response. So Richard gets on the phone, calls the army, reads his story, asks for comment. Army PR guy says, “I’ll get right back with you.” An hour passes, another hour. Richard calls again. Again, “We’ll be right back with you.” Another hour. Richard’s on the phone again, army still not ready with a statement, deadline comes and goes, no statement, no story, tomorrow is another news day.
Richard and I are at lunch in an Indian township. Discretion pays, also Richard wants to be paid, wants ten bucks for talking to me.
I sigh, “Is this really necessary?” Richard explains even though he works for the largest newspaper in South Africa, he doesn’t make that much money.
I pony up ten bucks.
I’ve been in country a week, already sick of its racism. Among whites, race is a constant subject that is brought up in loops. Ordinary whites chat normally for a few minutes, then drop something racist, then move on to sports, fashion, family affairs, more racism, back to job, romance, racism.
A typical situation: I’m sitting in a cheap restaurant with an Indian; I ask the black counterman if he has a sandwich.
"No, none here.”
The Indian jumps in: “But you can get.” “Yes, Baas, I can get.”
The Indian looks at me in triumph, as if to say, “This is how you deal with them.” Evening. Ramona and I uncork a bottle of white. It’s a quiet, brisk fall night. I ask if she’s been following the unrest.
"We blank that out. We don’t think about it.”
Next morning I break camp and head for Brits, a rural city of 15,000, 100 kilometers north of Jo’burg. It’s an Afrikaner stronghold supporting the Afrikaner Resistance movement (AWB is the Afrikaans acronym), a homegrown Nazi outfit dedicated to old-time apartheid. They view government “reforms” as heresy and have established their own military arm, the Storm Falcons. Their goal is to create a Boer government consisting of Northern Natal, Transvaal, and the Orange Free State, which would be eternally white. The area is also filthy with followers of the Reconstituted National Party (HNP), which also calls for a return to traditional apartheid. They have become so popular so fast that, ironically, both parties call for immediate national elections.
Brits has an eight-block-by-two-block commercial district. Across railroad tracks lies the black district, one-story mud homes, occasional businesses. I check into Hotel Overberg. Tony Eston, the white manager, greets me — beckons two blacks. Four of us walk outside to the Golf, retrieve my one backpack.
Tony asks what brings me to Brits. “I’m working for an Alaskan mining company, doing preliminary economic surveys.” “Oh, you must meet some people,” he says, takes me to meet Neil, a local merchant who is sitting with his sidekick, a fat farmer and born-again Nazi. Tony and I find chairs.
Neil asks, “Do you have any Alaskan money or something you can show us?” “It’s American money. I don’t have any artifacts. A driver’s license.”
"Oh, that would be fine.”
I have never been so thoroughly ID’ed. Each man examines my license, looking at every block, corner, number and address.
Finally, the last man is done. Wide smiles. The house band is instructed to play “North to Alaska.”
Exactly what am I doing here?
“I’m surveying South Africa to see if the political situation is stable enough for outside investment. I’m particularly interested in the severity of unrest at different locations around the country.” Neil volunteers, “We have no problem with blacks here. In this area there are 28,000 whites, 250,000 blacks. Relations are excellent. We don’t have demonstrations or unrest.”
“Blacks know their place. The national government is creating unrest by its policy of appeasement. We will never allow blacks to take over our country.” There is silence, then, “What does the rest of the world care about little South Africa?”
His buddy remarks, “We have God on our side, and therefore we are the majority in Africa.”
I mention that newspapers are carrying stories about Afrikaners arming and training in paramilitary outfits.
“Of course we will defend what is ours. We will never allow blacks to take control. This is our country. Look at what they’ve done to the rest of Africa.”
The fat farmer is reading a pamphlet that explains that whites should “arm themselves, stay armed, and make sure you know how to use your weapons. If attacked, shoot to kill. We can talk later. Beware of your servants. Remember... the tame dog is the one that bites hardest.” Tony escorts me to another table, introduces Oscar Joos, who’s having dinner with a young, white woman. Oscar owns a hotel here, drive-in theaters in two provinces. Dressed elegantly with the right touch of gray hair, he’s 50 years old, in excellent shape.
Oscar’s been to the States many times. Speaking in a heavy Afrikaans accent, he asks what my impressions of South Africa are. I reply that it seems to me that revolution has begun in earnest, it’s only a matter of time until blacks take control.
I ask, “Why do you stay?”
“Pattrik. The style of life here is good. I have a yacht, a villa on the beach, a guest house — you must come down — a Mercedes. I have many things. All that cost me $300,000. In the States, that setup would cost millions. But yes, I am placing money overseas. It is difficult because of currency restrictions, but I will be ready.” There are over five million whites in South Africa. When blacks take over, they are not all going to get on a plane and leave. There are not that many planes, and there is nowhere for five million people to go. But Oscar will be an upstanding, legal immigrant somewhere in the West, playing tennis, smiling at integrated locals. A lot of Oscars will.
I’m delivered to a drink-stained table whose occupant is Louis Gerrit. Gerrit’s tall, comes with a red working-man’s face. Today is his 52nd birthday, and he’s very nearly drunk. Gerrit says he used to own a 68,000-acre ranch in “Rhodesia.” Four years ago, the government ordered him to leave — NOW.
I’ve already had more then a belly full of “Rhodesians” and their party line, begin watching the door.
“I am not a South African. I have never voted. These people are crazy. I am not like them.”
I’m thinking, “Riiight, partner, whatever you say.”
“South Africans don’t know anything. I’ll tell you a secret. Something no one in this town knows. I am married to a black woman.”
“Why in hell are you telling me this?”
“Because you are passing through, because it’s my birthday, because sometimes you have to tell secrets.”
She was a field hand, working Gerrit’s farm in Zimbabwe. They fell in love. Now she lives 25 kilometers away in one of the homelands, won’t set foot inside Brits.
A flaccid arm waves at the room. “These people would think it’s a sin.” He refocuses two blue eyes, leans close, and in a little boy’s shaky voice pleads, “But it isn’t — is it?”
“No. No, it isn’t a sin.”
Early next morning, two blacks knock on my door, carrying coffee and hot rolls. In the hallway another asks, “Hi, Baas, do you care for anything?”
“No, thanks. I’m not your boss.”
I get no response. He’s got his role as commercial chattel that helps keep me in my role as Baas.
And you know what’s frightening? I’m starting to like it. I like not doing laundry. I like having several people take care of me for a pittance. It makes me feel important. Like this is the way life should be — constant, omnipresent, personal service. It’s pleasant having everyone ask if they can do something for me, being at my command, acting subservient. Racism has a seductive quality to it — I’m special and better; doors should open for me. It’s an addiction, whites in South Africa are hooked, it’s starting to nibble on me.
The Volkswagen takes another salvo on the way back to Jo’burg, loses right front headlight when I smash into a loading platform.
Later that night, Ramona asks how I liked Brits.
“It’s where Germany won World War II.” We attend local live theater. Intimate building, good acting, lousy play. We hold hands, rub legs. There is, of course, not one black in the audience.
Next morning is May Day. Blacks are calling for a national stay-away, the first in fever 25 years, to lobby for a May Day holiday. The holiday demand is bogus. Today’s stay-away is actually a test to see if blacks have the ability to stage national work stoppages. Press, government, whites, blacks, Indians, colored, everyone is waiting to see how effective today’s action will be.
Six-fifteen a.m. — city train station. No one is coming into town. (Official totes will put absenteeism from Soweto at 99 percent.) Whites in Johannesburg react as if they are enduring some kind of natural disaster. There is no one about to prepare food, make coffee, clean stores, empty trash, deliver newspapers. At Ramona’s shop, whites offer to help cook, one volunteers to deliver sandwiches next door. There is a pervading sense of manic good will — “We’re all in this together, ho, ho, ho” — but around the edges of that is fear.
I drive out to the university. Two buses have been chartered to carry interested students out to a legal May Day rally in Soweto.
Buses are late and it’s mill around, mill around. I begin chatting with a cameraman from the BBC, who says that filming in black townships is precarious. He’s been shot twice by the army, also fears blacks. The only satellite feed out of RSA is controlled by the South African Broadcasting Corporation, which makes copies of all foreign raw film footage, turns them over to police. Subsequently, that film has been used at trials.
“Now we tell them [blacks] to let us know if something is coming down so we can film from the rear.”
He asks what I’m doing here.
“Writing a story.”
“Got a working visa?”
“Don’t get caught. They will ding you. Stay away from other reporters, and don’t get near government people.”
Two buses arrive gushing thick black clouds of oil. Both buses are loaded to the tits. The mix is 50 percent black, 30 percent Indian, 20 percent white female. No white males.
Everyone is singing freedom songs and swaying in their seats. It’s 1962 Peace Corps heaven jammed with 20-year-olds. I’m 42, with one hell of a lot of miles on me and stand out here like spilled industrial motor oil on snow. I walk down the aisle clutching a bag of fast food, beer, cigarettes. Every head follows.
“Alaskan. Alaskan guy here. Just an Alaskan guy from Alaska wanting to see the rally. Hi-ya, hi-ya, hi-ya.”
It’s always astonishing how often simple babbling works. I sit down, buddy up to a young lady, Frances, continue to babble until everyone settles down again. Frances is a sophomore, studying law. This is her first trip to Soweto.
Buses stop at a colored hospital, just outside Soweto, to let people use rest rooms, sign attendance lists so that all will be accounted for on the way out.
Soweto has shopping centers, modern housing. But once past that membrane, you are in reality — dirt streets, crooked roads, no water, no electricity, tiny red brick matchbox houses.
Twenty minutes our buses arrive at Orlando Stadium, which looks like a high school football stadium built in one of America’s tougher ghettos 30 years ago. South African army awaits in three hippos (armored cars each holding a squad of soldiers). Police (blacks and whites) are here, videotape us getting off the bus.
There is a slight snap in the air. Men wear worn but clean sweaters and pants; the style is to leave one’s shirt hanging out beneath sweaters. Women favor Western dress. Many, many people wear the black, green, and gold colors of the ANC. As it becomes warmer, T-shirts appear. Most popular are yellow-and-red UDF shirts with the logo “UDF UNITES-APARTHEID DIVIDES” and the red-and-black National University Student Association offerings, “RELEASE POLITICAL PRISONERS.” Eventually, whole sections of the stadium are colored by political T-shirts.
Arriving spectators are shepherded into groups of 200 outside the stadium. The procedure is very organized, black rally marshals everywhere. My group is assembled, and we are directed into the stadium through a 20-foot open gate. We enter onto the track. There is a tremendous cheer. Good God, they’re cheering us.
Suddenly, a red-and-white banner is thrust into my hands. I grasp it, look up at 50,000 blacks who pack the stadium, singing, dancing in their seats. I have never seen so many people in one place express such joy. I have never seen such wide smiles. Mow, my group of 200 begins to dance and sing, moving along the track’s perimeter. The “dance” is a slow jog — bodies bob up, down from knees.
The stadium is bobbing, weaving, dancing along with us. Unbelievable. Fifty thousand people jab arms, clench fists, sing freedom songs.
We dance 100 yards, stop, turn toward stadium seats. Spectators in this section are on their feet. They sing the same haunting, rhythmical song we do but now toss part of the song to us. First men sing a lyric, then women, now my group. Then all of us sing chorus.
And it continues. We dance another 100 yards, stop in front of another section. Again, everyone is on his feet, dancing, singing with us. We travel completely around the oval stadium, greeting and being greeted by each section.
After we have danced the full lap, my group is seated. Over the next two hours, delegation after delegation arrives. Each contingent dances, sings, encircles track. Finally, speeches begin: Elijah Baraju (currently imprisoned), president of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu); young radicals; more trade union
people; and Winnie Mandela, who is one king hell of a commanding speaker. (“I say to you today the time will come when I will order you to stand up and defend yourselves. You are the power.”) The audience doesn’t applaud speakers, they sing to them. I’m as high as I’ve ever been in my life.
It’s 3 p.m. We’ve been here five hours. Frances and I are sucking down last beer, relaxing in the stands with our backs toward the dirt parking lot. On that field are 40 buses, 20 cars and army. I glance over, watch as two soldiers approach buses, begin slashing tires. (This is a legal rally.) BOOM: Now soldiers tear gas the stadium. It’s funny how they did it. They could clear us out anytime but instead choose to lob a tear gas canister, wait 20 minutes, lob another, and so on.
More army hippos appear, take position half-mile west. An army helicopter arrives, circles overhead. After an hour’s foreplay, the pace is pumped, tear gas canisters begin landing in clusters of twos and threes. We are sucking smoke. The crowd breaks around us as two canisters arrive in the same place at the same time. Everyone bolts. We run down rickety steps toward two available exits, pushing around and over others who are in the way. I can see a dozen people on the ground. I can feel panic. It hangs. I can touch it. I can smell it.
Another tear gas canister explodes, and we surge forward again. Speakers shout for order. At the last instant, in a supreme collective moment, all of us stop at stadium’s exits, sway and then shudder.
Tear gas drifts off, people slowly, very slowly return to their seats. I turn to Frances, “That was close.”
It’s coming on to 4 p.m., tear gassing continues, as does tire slashing. My lungs and face are fire. A speaker calls for students from Witwatersrand to board their buses. It’s getting out of hand, time for noncombatants to go home.
Miraculously, our bus tires survived. Driving out we pass a squad of soldiers, some raise their automatic rifles, point them at our heads, some cup hands over their crotch. I’m happy as hell to be going. As we drive on, blacks walking along dirt streets or from their yards or leaning out matchbox windows applaud, smile, raise their fists. My bus is singing; we are expansive.
Our two buses pass a gas station where three army hippos stand watch. Soldiers instantly mount vehicles, dart onto the highway, quickly overtake, pull over our second bus. People aboard yell for our driver to stop. He doesn’t.
A dozen shrieking voices, “Stop, stop. We can’t leave them there.”
The driver drives.
More screams. “Oh my God, my God. Stop the bus. Stop it, stop it, STOP IT!”
Males standing in the aisle advance on the driver, who halts, removes ignition key, bolts out the door. We are on a slight hill, about 600 yards ahead of our second bus.
We disembark, look down the slope, watch as army surrounds our companions. Soldiers break bus windows with rifle butts, fire tear gas at point-blank range. We hear screams, observe students crash through sealed windows attempting to escape gas. Those that made it outside are forced to spread-eagle, forced to lean onto the coach, gasping billowing white clouds of escaping tear gas.
On our bus, now a dead beast without a key, people are debating what to do. It’s incredibly democratic — quaint — in other circumstances it would be charming. People vote to send a delegation back to the first bus. Four people are elected, leave. The bus then democratically votes to get off the bus. We get out. After five minutes, the group votes to get back on the bus. We mount up. Five more minutes, a vote to get off the bus. Off we go. Next vote, I vote to stay put and take control of mv own self.
Forty-five minutes later our elected delegation returns. We vote to hear their report inside our bus. We are told that the first bus had been arrested. After the arrest, it seems that the army commander, who refused to give his name, realized he had a problem. Many students had gashes, deep lacerations. A lot of these students were white women. This means complications. Army medics arrived. Blacks refused to be treated by South African army medics. Consequently, nine people were sent to the hospital and the rest allowed to leave.
Which seems like a splendid idea, except that we have no ignition key. The bus is still voting to get on and off itself. I’m standing outside, positioned next to the hood ornament. I’ve already been tear gassed twice today and would prefer great outdoors if there’s going to be a third round.
We wait. Where the fuck is the driver? We are dead meat stranded in Soweto. The bus has just completed one of its stand-outside votes, 46 of us mill around beside the vehicle.
A woman screams. Christ, here comes the army. Three hippos appear, stop 20 yards away. Soldiers stand, place rifles to shoulders, sight us down. Tear gas canisters explode at our feet. More screams, shrieks, ragged panic. Students fly over the roadway, away from the army, toward the colored hospital.
Every soldier’s weapon is upon us. The army commander bellows into a bullhorn, “Stop right there!”
Everyone freezes as in a children’s game — arms, legs, heads frozen in awkward, even humorous Tin Man, Scarecrow poses.
Soldiers fire another round of tear gas. We break, run onto hospital grounds, stream past bewildered employees, who look up, see army, join us. Running, running, running. I tell Frances to hang back for a second. If the army crosses into the hospital, we’ve got to break away, hide in one of many small outbuildings. The assumption being that if troops dare come in here, then they’re going to clean house. We hang back, watch main gate.
It takes an hour, but our group begins to reform, one, two at a time, inside the cafeteria, the one we stopped at this morning.
Jesus, here comes our bus. Behind its wheel is our bus driver. People are so relieved to see the beast that our driver’s past indiscretions are forgotten. There is a vote to get on the bus and make a run for Jo’burg. After we are all seated, Curtis, a black organizer, boards, says a great truth. “Comrades. Welcome to the struggle. We must do this every day. You must become more disciplined.”
Out a back gate, circle around to the freeway. No army. We enter roadway, seven miles from city center. No army. There is a spontaneous collective release. This has been a remarkable passage for many of us, and now it is over, and there is going to be hot dinner with no tear gas tonight.
We begin to sing.
Two miles from downtown Jo’burg, the six-lane freeway splits, one side arching towards town, the other arching east. Here the freeway is elevated 20 feet or more, with high-fenced railroad yards to the right and what looks to be an enormous slag heap to our left. Straight ahead and below is another freeway. There are no offramps for miles. Right at this split, our bus blows a tire. We are forced to park precisely on the fork, traffic zooming left and right.
Straight away, the bus votes to get off, then on again. In the middle of the second vote cycle, I hear familiar high-pitched scream, “Oh my God, it’s the army.” More screams. Every head jerks. People charge off the bus into oncoming freeway traffic but soon stop. There is simply no place to go. Frances and I are outside, using bus as shield against traffic and army, trapped like bugs in a jar.
At this moment, Johannesburg police arrive in patrol cars. They huddle with the army. For an unknown reason, army departs. No one believes it. City police stand around, order us back onto the bus, then leave. We elect a runner, who is sent up the slag heap to find a telephone, call bus company demanding replacement. We wait 45 minutes, passing time voting to get off and on bus. Our runner returns, reports that bus company is closed for the night. Another runner is elected, sent to call friends who have automobile connections. We’ve been here two hours.
That’s enough. I make a general announcement, “Fuck it, I’m going to walk in. Does anybody want to go with me?” No takers.
There’s about 13 inches of curb to walk on in pitch darkness as freeway traffic hurls past me, coming so close I still don’t like to think about it. I take first off-ramp, get lost, wander into a black area. A group of blacks play soccer underneath ancient street lamp, call out, “Hey, mon, you don’t want to go in there.”
They give me directions back to white Jo’burg. Twenty-five minutes later, I stroll into a sleaze bar, tell red, balloon-faced bartender to pour double brandies until my taxi arrives. I pick up my car, which I’d parked at the university, and once again am tapping on Ramona’s door.
She gives me a deep kiss, takes my hand, asks, “How was your day?”
Riggs and I are sharing daytime fun: a black guy and a white guy driving around townships, at risk both from South African security forces and militant blacks who, understandably, regard a white inside a township as turf provocation.
Riggs directs me around a corner, and the thing is done before I see the cluster of armored cars and combat troops at the next intersection. Instantly, I turn down a side street.
“Riggs!” I shout, taking another left. “Riggs!” I scream, taking another right. “You have a genuine talent for directing us into the nearest fucking nest of security assholes. I’m here illegally, remember? The army has the guns, remember? Bad things are going to happen if we keep driving into the goddamn army.”
“Do not get excited,” says Riggs, in his quiet way.
“I’m excited, Riggs. I’m very, very excited.”
“Patrick, what did you expect? This is what we do every day.”
A township is one of those governmental service areas that has given South Africa the worldwide reputation it currently enjoys. Townships come in all shapes and sizes. Their populations can be as small as 6000 or as large as the one and a half million plus estimated to be living in Soweto. Older, established townships are close to urban centers; you enter off four-lane city streets as if you were headed for any suburban neighborhood. Newer ones are built well out of town, accessible by two, three, four entrances.
Townships also come in all races. Indian townships look like upper-middle-class American suburbs; colored townships have the look of a working-class San Diego neighborhood. Black townships bottom out in traditional Third World. But even here there is variety: In larger black townships there’s a full range of living standards, from flat-out misery to a section in Soweto called Millionaires’ Row. It’s the proportion that’s out of sync; a handful of livable islands surrounded by an ocean of shacks.
Riggs is my “handler.” To arrange entree into townships, a foreigner needs to find one of the progressive organizations (United Democratic Front, Black Sash, South African Council of Churches) that have offices downtown. At least one black — typically two or three — will volunteer to show you around, protect you, introduce you to anyone you’d care to talk to.
Which is how Riggs and I met. I’d arrived a couple nights ago after merciless trek from Jo’burg. Hooked up at UDF office in downtown Cape Town yesterday. Been cruising townships ever since, courtesy of the able Riggs. It’s been three months since his release from Robben Island prison. He’d done two years for firebombing what he explains was a collaborator’s house. “The man was an informer,” R explains. “He’d been responsible for the detention of many activists. He was warned many times.”
Riggs is black, 25 years old, five foot ten inches, thin, graceful body, conspicuous intelligence. His brown eyes are deep set, his posture Marine Corps erect. I’m struck by his immense energy, also his steadiness. He has a quality of purpose, of absolute knowledge about who he is that is so intense you feel it across a room with your back turned.
Riggs and I hurry along in my rented Golf, now home to several weeks of to-go coffee cups, newspapers, pieces of dead animal flesh — the greasy, fat-soaked kind that humans purchase when traveling long distances.
Riggs directs me into the colored township of Bontelheuwel, where, he says, there has been unrest recently. The township’s high schools have a long boycott history, usually initiated by students, usually protesting police actions or detentions. Two days ago, security forces detained a mathematics teacher. In response students have planned a demonstration, with school boycott to follow.
Since Bontelheuwel is a colored township, buildings, though old, are maintained. There is electricity and running water, primary streets are paved. We drive in, keeping to side roads. Dead on is Arcadia High, a slab concrete building surrounded by a high, barbed-wire-tipped fence.
Christ, the area is filthy with police. We stop, watch three redneck cops 50 feet ahead, who, in unison, realize that parked in front of them is an automobile, an automobile occupied by one black and one white.
Three cops advance. Now two ambulances arrive, squeal to a stop in front of our car, momentarily blocking police. At this same instant, several students are being dragged from the high school. Once outside, police surround each student, begin beating them with rubber sticks (slamboks). Our three approaching cops hesitate, decide to join the fun already underway. I throw Volks in reverse, back up as slowly as I can manage, make a U-turn. Am experiencing intense, full-body trembling, which causes Golf to lurch-pause-lurch in response to unmanageable right foot now involuntarily jerking gas pedal.
My companion gazes out the passenger window. The son of a bitch actually appears serene. I scream, “Riggs. This is it, partner. No more fucking army. I don’t care where we go but NO MORE FUCKING ARMY!”
“We will go over to a comrade’s house. There are some people you should meet.”
Riggs has “organized” a braai for me in the black township of Langa. Braai is South African for barbecue. We stop at a colored shopping center for beer. Inside, every customer stares at my white face, then glances at Riggs. It’s the second look that does it, delighted grins, arms shoot out, “My God, how long have you been out? How are you? You look so well!”
Nine p.m. Thirteen of us surround a barbecue pit in what passes as a yard, although it’s little more than a 15-by-15-foot dirt alley. Beer is opened, chicken fries. It’s a fine, clear autumn evening. I’m thinking how few stars there are down here and how brightly they shine.
Activity alternates between talking politics and singing freedom songs. Everyone believes America is supporting South African racists; no one can understand why. They think that if they can get people to see apartheid, see living conditions, see the humiliations, see the army, the entire world would be on their side. At least half tonight’s guests have been detained. One man rolls his right trouser leg, points at two bullet holes. Another has done three years on Robben Island. Another was detained for six months; when it was over, his jailers walked him out police station’s front door, rearrested him, walked him back in — laughing.
Chicken is flipped, our cook remarks that his detention meant solitary confinement. “I was very afraid, because I didn’t know if I could survive. But now that I’ve done it,” he says, “I’m not afraid anymore.” Everyone nods. Doing it once takes fear away. In fact, Robben Island prison is called the University of Robben Island; political prisoners are housed together, spend time studying politics, discussing strategy. They call being detained “going on government holiday.”
One of tonight’s guests is an Arcadia High School teacher, the same school Riggs and I fled from earlier in the day. I ask what happened.
“It was vicious. Police came into school, into classrooms, pulled students out to the hallway. Waiting in corridors were more police who beat, whipped students as they ran past. Forty children were injured severely enough to be transported to the hospital.”
“What’s going to happen?”
“I don’t know. Students are having a meeting. They will probably boycott school again.”
“This is student run, no adults?”
“Oh, yes. They don’t trust us.”
I ask the group about whites: Are they doing much? I’m told whites are involved, play a significant part.
“I can’t believe that,” I object. “If shooting really starts, whites aren’t going to be there. They’ve got no experience, no training, no lifetime of being stomped on, only an intellectual commitment. They’ll go home anytime they want a break.” Many protests. “No, no — whites, many whites are with us. A great many more than you think. It is an interracial struggle. Whites are welcome, whites have fought, whites have joined.”
Jesus, this is nuts, standing in backyard of a South African hovel arguing that whites can’t be trusted.
Eventually, conversation moves on, singing continues too, as does gossip: Who’s in jail, who’s been killed. Stories of beatings and news of the world. Denmark is going to halt all trade with South Africa; Duke University has voted for divestment, University of Washington has not.
By midnight I’m done. Riggs asks, “Where are you staying?”
“You got me.”
“Comrades, Patrick needs a place to stay tonight.”
Next morning, Riggs takes me over to meet Ahmed, an Indian journalist working for a small Moslem newspaper. We drive down dirt alleys into a compound behind a ten-foot cement wall. Riggs points to an ancient exterior staircase. We climb, stepping past broken wine bottles to the third floor.
Ahmed is five-foot-two, dressed in dirty, brown, baggy clothes, sporting a dirty brown goatee. He’s spent five years working in India but returned because “This is where the story is.” Ahmed suggests lunch, takes us to a local, colored fast-food joint. All employees, all patrons, stop what they’re doing as we arrive. It’s that rare to see a white here. I look outside, make visual sweep in search of army or police.
I ask Ahmed about black-on-black violence, which is pushed daily by the South African government and its supporters. You’ve heard it: “Blacks want to run the country, but they can’t even make peace among themselves. All the necklacing, all the mob attacks against innocent people, this is blacks killing their own.”
This kind of violence is happening, Ahmed says, and there are some gangs of blacks who use unrest as an excuse to rampage. But it is important to remember that a lot of blacks are making a good living out of apartheid. Black policemen are relatively well paid to enforce race laws, as are township landlords, certain black businessmen, and members of township councils. There’s a whole infrastructure of blacks in South Africa who make excellent money as allies and instruments of the white racist government. They live in large, expensive, modern houses, drive new cars, have a stake in keeping the status quo. If apartheid went down, they would too. Activists in townships are persuading, threatening, sometimes killing these blacks because they see them as the enemy. There’s another reason too: “We can’t get at whites. We’re separated from them, miles from town.”
I inquire after local black collaborators. Ahmed says they’re conservatives, mostly older people who resent young activists for bringing the army down on them. They are particularly strong in Crossroads, a series of camps near Cape Town that house 100,000 squatters. Conservatives have an organization known as the Fathers, or Witdoeke, which is backed, sometimes armed by army or police. For years, the government has been trying to move Crossroad squatters into one of the homelands or to the new township of Kayelitsha six miles away. Recently, the government proposed that if 60,000 people would move, 35,000 could stay. As a carrot, the government promised to rebuild Crossroads, make it a modern township. The question is: Who will stay and who will go?
I ask if we can get into Crossroads.
Riggs replies, “That can be organized.”
Crossroads is poorest of poor. I see a mass of shanties, broken by a 20-foot-wide sandy footpath. Shacks are built with scrounged tin sheets. Here and there women squat, cooking food, others are pissing on the ground. Shanties go on, with no breaks, no yards, maybe a foot in between, maybe nothing.
Three of us knock on a tin hut. The owner is gone, but his teen-age daughter invites us inside. Ahmed explains why we have come — to educate an American journalist. Her younger brother appears from a back room and is sent to fetch the “comrades.” Ahmed explains that there have been shootings recently, that a turf war has developed between comrades and the conservative Witdoeke over who will control the camp. Farther into Crossroads is what is called the “no go” area, an area, it is said, even the army avoids.
Four young blacks enter. Their spokesman is Macibo. Three of the comrades are very tough looking, with scarred faces and broken, yellow teeth. One man has been blinded by what he tells me was army buckshot. Another has full-body tattoos, his right bicep declares, “Baby, please love me.” Macibo walks into the back room, returns, shows me a pistol. It’s a whipped cur of a pistol, a 40-year-old .22 handgun, pitted, worn stock and barrel. Macibo beams, radiates love like dad holding a new baby.
I ask Macibo about necklacing. He says that necklacing is rare but that “the people are like a wheel, and the people cannot allow anyone to stop the progress of the wheel.” I ask if this is what most Crossroads residents believe. “No,” he says, “there are many older conservatives, many collaborators here. Farther inside the camp, the struggle is much more racial. Young people gather around at night, sing songs about killing whites. Would you like to go back in there, into the no-go area of the camp?”
I give a shrug, not a yes, not a no.
Everyone stands up. Outside, Ahmed and Riggs drop out, head back. Four of us march into Crossroads. Christ: bizarre, mutant-shaped people standing in doorways, open sores on legs and arms, misshapen faces, untended broken limbs, distended bellies. Some are obviously ill. Others prepare dinner in the sand, using grease-caked pieces of scavanged metal as grills. Hovering around, everywhere, are flies, millions of flies. As we walk farther in, silent stares become a bit harder. Occasionally, residents approach our group, ask why we are here.
Four of us walk 45 minutes, a blur of continuous nightmares, pain in every glance, agony on the hoof. It’s betrayal, momentous betrayal — this could only happen when human beings disown other humans — utterly. Night sky now. Macibo announces it’s time to turn back.
Shit! Someone’s thrown a rock, a fairly crisp shot landing on my left shoulder blade. The comrades pivot, shout, “Leave him alone!” Macibo tells me, “He didn’t know what he was doing, he didn’t know who you are. You’re safe with us.”
The eerie part is that I do feel safe. I do believe these guys will look after me, keep me away from places I shouldn’t be.
On the way out, Macibo tells me about the leader of the Witdoeke, Johnson Ngxobongwana. Johnson is a very wealthy man, he says, been in power for a long time and is very strong. It is known that Johnson receives money from the government, is allowed to keep sheep and cattle within Crossroads.
(Later, back in America, I learned Crossroads’ final resolution. The Witdoeke set the camp afire, burning 40,000 people out of their homes.)
I drop Ahmed off at his newspaper. Fifteen minutes later, Riggs and I are back in what, for me, is getting to be the surreal white world of lush houses, new cars, freeways, huge office buildings. Having a vehicle in South Africa has become an essential artifact, as far as getting to know activists — I’ve made it a point to be available for side trips, packing groceries, running chores. Tonight it’s into Cape Town to fetch one of Riggs’s girlfriends from work. She’s astonished to see a car, a white face, and Riggs.
The only place where a white can confidently invite blacks for a drink is a five-star hotel that charges three times the going rate. I drive downtown to Inn on the Square. Riggs and Marcia are like kids at Disneyland, trying very hard not to be delighted (“Yes, yes, this is quite nice”). Riggs makes a great show of discussing enormous beverage list with Marcia, but two pairs of wide eyes peek over the menu casing the luxurious room and luxurious people in it (“Yes, yes, quite nice”).
After drinks, we drive over to an Indian township where Riggs has organized another dinner. Living standards here are only a click or two down from whites: small but very modern houses and subdivisions. We drive well-paved, lighted streets into a cul-de-sac. Arbee, a diminutive Indian woman, answers our knock, invites us into the kitchen. In the back yard, Arbee’s husband climbs out from underneath a banged-up 75 Toyota, claims a chair at the table. He’s 25, colored, shy, friendly. The couple lives here illegally. (By law, if an Indian and colored marry, they must live in a colored township.) The atmosphere is so snug, kitchen so friendly, that for the first time since I’ve been in South Africa, I feel at home. We sit around the kitchen table, drink beers while Arbee works, moving back and forth from counter to stove, making jokes about the fancy hotel where we had our lavish happy hour. This is the first time in weeks I’ve encountered a normal conversation. Sports and sex and books and travel and TV shows and relatives and falling in love and jobs and neighbors and even, Lord help us, automobile engines.
I’d made arrangements to spend the night with Riggs. On the drive over, I realize he’s embarrassed because, frankly, Riggs lives in a dump. There’s a six-by-eight-foot room called a kitchen, although its sole appliance is a Coleman stove. His living room, not much larger, contains one beaten couch and what I think is a rug. The bathroom is outside and shared by an indeterminate number of neighbors. Bedroom is a double bed circled by an 18-inch walkway. Marcia and Riggs point to the bedroom, takes 15 minutes to talk my way back onto living room floor.
Morning begins with Riggs pouring abominable coffee. “I’ve been thinking of what you said about whites. There is someone you must meet.”
We drive Marcia to work, then push over to white, residential Cape Town and a large English Tudor home, ring bell. A plump, distinguished-looking white woman, dressed in bathrobe and curlers, answers the door. She invites us in, apologizes for the confusion. “I’ve had a very busy morning. My daughter is having her first hangover.”
Sara is 55, five feet tall, with crackling, energetic eyes and short black hair. She puts on water for tea, goes upstairs to dress. Later, after tea and sweet rolls, served by her daughter, we settle in.
Sara says that as a child she used to hike the hills outside Cape Town and read revolutionary poetry, thinking it all very dramatic. As a young teen-ager, she attended Modern Youth Society, a nonracial group that provided night schools, games, lectures, foreign-language classes. Nationalists came to power in 1948, immediately began building the structure of apartheid. She says it really hit her, the brutality of it, when the Group Areas Act was passed. The government forced blacks and coloreds to move from neighborhoods they’d been living in for 20, 30 years. On one street in her neighborhood, two elderly colored men killed themselves rather than leave.
In 1951, then 18 years old, Sara joined the first protest against apartheid. It was a matter of benches, ancient wooden benches located in Cape Town’s post office lobby. She and four white women sat down on benches marked for blacks.
No one noticed. All morning no one noticed. Finally, someone called police, who eventually appeared but had no idea what to do. After much standing about, many conferences, the protesters were eventually charged with creating an obstruction, taken to jail for four hours.
That led, she says, to the first defiance campaign held in the early ’50s. Ten thousand people were put in prison. In those days, punishment for defying apartheid laws was ten days to two weeks in jail; but as opposition grew, the government changed laws, handing down five-year sentences plus lashes. That crackdown broke the back of the opposition campaign and marked the modern era of repression.
In 1954, Sara was involved in the “Call to Congress of the People” campaign, which established the ANC’s political charter. Urban committees formed, and entire villages held discussions on the proposed charter. Sara’s committee received thousands of notes written on torn-up scraps of paper, cardboard, anything that could be used as a writing surface. Letters, postcards came from villages all over the country. Every section of the country elected ad hoc delegates.
Sara’s trip to the convention began in a two-ton truck, along with 25 blacks and coloreds. Police stopped the lot 80 miles south of Johannesburg; the driver was arrested, truck impounded inside the police station’s parking lot, which was protected by a high fence. The conventioneers were left to fend for themselves.
Sara found a nearby phone but could not contact anyone who would drive down from Jo’burg. She attempted hitchhiking with two colored men. They were unsuccessful. Things were getting tense — hazardous. Darkness fell, Sara directed everyone back to the police station, told her group to climb the fence, actually break into the police station impound lot in order to safely pass the night. “In those days for a young white woman — I was sexy then — to be seen with colored men was very dangerous for them. We had nowhere else to go.”
Later that night, a friend found them — he’d been whistling “The Internationale” outside the police station. Frustrated, the man scaled the police fence, discovered Sara under canvas tarps. All the activists re-climbed the fence, made the convention. That convention adopted the Freedom Charter, a document calling for a nonracial, democratic South Africa, which remains the ANC’s primary political declaration.
Sara met Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg a few years later. She calls Mandela “a great, very handsome man. He was always exercising, sleeping on the floor. I felt very special when I was around him.” At that time, Mandela dressed as a chauffeur and drove around South Africa in an expensive Jaguar, making contacts, doing political work. It was a cover that allowed him to get into any section of South Africa without questions. Once, Mandela needed to go to Durban and arranged to drive a rich American there as a camouflage. The American became ill. It became obvious that the man was very sick. Halfway to Durban, Mandela pulled into an Indian township, helped the American into the home of a doctor, who was also a political colleague. After two hours of treatment, the traveler recovered well enough to proceed. When Mandela arrived in Durban, the American leaned forward, thanked him, and said, “I don’t know who you are or what your name is, but I have never in my life seen a doctor receive a chauffeur with such regard and respect.”
Next Sara joined the million-signature campaign supporting the Freedom Charter. Banned in January 1957 — declared a non-person — Sara stayed banned until 1973. For 16 years, she was required to report to the police station every Monday and was not allowed to attend any social gatherings. For business purposes, she was forbidden to be in a room with more than two other people at any time, including family members. Three of us, seated in the same room with coffee cups, she points out, constitutes a social gathering and would have been illegal. “Even now I glance out the window, listen for the odd footstep.”
I ask what coming into the world after being banned was like. She says the most difficult thing was going to a restaurant or a movie; the noise seemed phenomenal, overbearing, distracting.
Sara was arrested in 1960, placed in solitary confinement, not for any particular crime, but merely as a potential state witness. She was warehoused behind two steel doors in an eight-by-ten-foot cell for 94 days. “I was always anxious,” she says, “that someone would come in when I was on the toilet. I was lucky too. My husband found a way, every day, to let me know he’d been there. Legal documents to sign, court orders, property bonds, a friendly guard. I never saw him, but I knew he was there every single day. That meant everything to me.”
Sara has retired from active politics. Lately, she’s been working part-time for an area trade union, occasionally speaking to college groups. Sara’s slant differs from that of the blacks and coloreds I’d spoken to. “I would rather see apartheid made unworkable than the government ungovernable.”
(One month after this conversation, Sara was detained.)
Outside, Riggs asks, “So, what is your assessment of Sara?”
“A remarkable, tough-as-guts woman, and I still don’t think whites are going to be there for you.”
Tired, brutally tired. Can’t remember a night’s sleep. Body functions running metal-on-metal. Coffee, cigarette, junk food, beer intake reaching puberty levels. From here on in, it’s going to be a race between flesh and fascination.
It’s Saturday morning in Durban, Natal Province. Businesses are closed. I take a drive, climb a hill, come across University of Natal. It’s a contemporary, generic college that shares its campus with the recently firebombed Howard Law School.
The grounds are deserted. 1 walk, building to building, seeking anyone to talk to. Eventually, I bump into a colored student and ask directions to the history department. He replies, “Oh, you’re from the States. I’ve been to San Francisco and Minnesota.”
His name is Peter Nakoman, 20 years old, on his way to campus commons for lunch and a meet with his girlfriend.
“Mind if I come with you?”
The cafeteria is full, there’s a line of white students, 35 deep, waiting to enter. Peter, his colored girlfriend, and I take positions. As if one beast, the queue turns, stares. Stares are hard, mean, barely under control. Once inside, 200 well-groomed white students ignore their meals — stare.
After midday gruel, three of us walk to Peter’s dormitory. Only a few colored students are allowed to live on campus. His room is 12 feet by 8, one window, desk top bolted to a wall, one chair, bed.
Two years ago, Peter attended high school in Minnesota by way of an American exchange program. On the wall over his dormitory bed are 30 photographs recording that year. There’s Peter with six white Minnesotans, standing at a farmhouse door — his “adopted family,” mom, dad, four teen-agers, and Peter. It’s wintertime — snow lies fresh on the ground, sky is clear, cloudless; everyone is dressed in bright down jackets. Arms around one another, they look directly into the camera, each has a radiant smile.
Snap — another photo of Peter dressed as a football player. He was a running back on the local high school football team, and here he is on sidelines, holding a helmet under his arm, moments from entering the game — excited — attentive — full of himself. Snap — Peter at a party. It’s in a basement, what used to be called a recreation room. He’s dancing, the room is full of teen-agers; Christ, everyone seems happy, so genuinely innocent. There’s more — shot of Peter in tux with carnation — prom night — big date — nervous. Everyone, in all the pictures, is white, except Peter.
Peter reaches under his bed, retrieves his Minnesota high school gym bag. “I always keep that with me.” That exchange program lasted one year. When Peter’s plane landed in Johannesburg, all South African whites on board applauded. Peter cried. “I know a man shouldn’t cry,” he says, “but I started and couldn’t stop.”
At this university, only one or two white students, an equal number of professors, are friendly to him. Peter spends his time with the few colored students who live on campus. “But you cannot escape.” Three weeks ago, at 3 a.m., police broke into a friend’s room, the room next door, trashed it. Officers threw the mattress on the floor, smashed the stereo, shattered records, destroyed the radio. Looking for banned literature, they said.
Peter has been so soft, so gentle, that I ask him outright what he thinks of the government.
“God, I hate them. I cannot tell you how deep my hate is.”
You don’t need a map or a road sign to know when you enter a “homeland”; it’s where the shit land begins. The road to Transkei follows the Indian Ocean for 100 kilometers south of Durban, then turns inland at Port Shepstone. Landscape along the coast is deep green, with Hawaiian-like grasses and sensual plants. As you turn inland, the highway climbs into an area spotted with arid scrub plants, much like northern Nevada. Locals live on desolate ridgetops in small, round adobe huts, thatched roofs. Another hour’s travel, climate and topography become more severe, something like central Alaska or west Ireland. The scene is tundra-like, with no trees. I have entered the homeland, pardon me, the independent nation of Transkei.
Transkei is one of four “independent” homelands and is the white South African solution to race relations. The white government “gave” a big 13 percent of the total land in South Africa to 75 percent of its population, leaving a mere 87 percent of the land for whites. It was like telling every black living east of the Mississippi that he must move to central Alaska, every black living west of the Mississippi that he must move to North Dakota. More, it’s like stripping citizenship from three-quarters of the American people and making them new citizens — all hail the independent nation of central Alaska or North Dakota. The fact that 99.999 percent of central Alaska’s new citizens have never been there, have no intention of ever going there, would only move at the end of a gun barrel, makes them no less citizens.
Here the homeland system was designed to create a South Africa, where, on paper, whites would be in the majority. Give blacks a bogus citizenship in a bogus, tiny, improvised piece of dirt. It’s simple; you don’t necessarily have to move anybody; in fact you don’t have to do anything, just fill out paperwork and boom, magic, South Africa is a white country with a lot of foreigners living in it. Cinder this system, if these instant “foreigners” living around white cities start to get uppity or if they can’t find jobs, why, round them up and dump them back in their own “countries.” The policy creates an enormous pool of job seekers willing to work for absurd wages because there is no work in homelands. And hey, no sense supplying social services, decent housing, because blacks are, after, all, “transient foreign workers.”
South Africa’s government has recently said there will be no more forced removal of blacks to homelands. They have a said there will be one citizenship for all and have abandoned pass laws. The a lot of things. The fact is that The government repealed pass laws, blacks living in homelands weren’t included. They remain foreigners.
Three of four so-called independent states are hacked up into noncontiguous fragments. Bophuthatswana lies in seven separate pieces spread over three provinces. Transkei has three unrelated appendages; Venda two. Politically, these Frankenstein states outdo even the South African government in repressing their citizens. In Ciskei, Lennox Sebe has proclaimed himself "Life President.” In Venda we have “Life President’’ Patrick Mphephu. In Bophuthatswana it is an offense punishable by up to ten years’ imprisonment to violate the dignity of President Luca Mangope. In Transkei it is punishable by death to advocate that Transkei should be part of South Africa or refuse to recognize Transkei as an independent state.
Homelands enjoy the full run of South African security legislation, which includes authority to ban individuals and organizations, detain anyone without messy interference of courts or defense attorneys, curfews, wiretapping, mass arrests, and fraudulent elections. Typically, homelands’ army and police are run by South African white officials who live in separate white compounds, frequently receive more compensation than black presidents.
About ten miles short of Umtata, Transkei’s capital, I pick up a middle-aged, black female hitchhiker. She’s a schoolteacher returning from a long weekend visiting relatives. We chat about teaching. After a pause she says, “America must be a lousy place.”
“Well, a lot of people think that.” “Transkei is nice, no apartheid here.” “That’s good. Your government treats you okay?”
“Oh, yes. They are our people. The Boer doesn’t tell us what to do here.”
We enter Umtata, which has a small, semi-modern downtown, maybe 20,000 people, something like Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. She points right. “Over here is new housing for blacks. It is nice, huh? There,” she points across the street, “is the colored area.”
We proceed into town.
“What’s that?” I’m looking at what seems to be a high school soccer field.
“That is the stadium for whites. Whites live here.”
South of Umtata is the University of Transkei, which has the look of a small, modern U.S. land-grant college. Opposite is a grand compound running a mile by half-mile, all of it surrounded by a double row of 12-foot security fences topped by coils of barbed wire. Its one entrance is manned by soldiers, automatic weapons. Within the compound are extravagant new houses, black Mercedes limousines.
I ask my guide, “What’s going on in there?”
“Oh, that is where our government ministers live.”
This schoolteacher proves to be one very shrewd hitchhiker. Her house is off the main road, down a series of progressively deteriorating dirt roads, then over half dozen open fields. She keeps assuring, “Not much farther, not much farther.” Finally, after a half hour of crosscountry driving, mercilessly beating the Golf’s undercarriage, I stop the car, laugh. “I got to hand it to you, you got me. Not a lot of people do. But you got me fair and square. Forget about the not-much-further stuff. I’m your prisoner, I’ll take you wherever you want.”
Twenty minutes later, on her orders, I stop 50 yards from a solitary mud hut. She climbs out, walks away without a nod or a thank you, a seasoned pro to the end.
Back on the highway, turn south, pick up speed, wanting to get out of Transkei before tonight’s curfew sets in. It’s about 200 kilometers from Umtata to East London, which is on the coast and inside the Republic of South Africa. It’s dark now, winds have picked up, gusting 60 miles an hour, and it’s raining like banshee hell.
Another hour, make a hard turn into a bend and before me, semi-visible in rain, is a border stop. Jesus, they’ve got a border gate here. This cretinous little homeland, Transkei, has got a border checkpoint. South Africa and its creatures ban all sorts of T-shirts, music, movies, news, bumper stickers, and so on, but it’s not a big jail deal. A big jail deal is possession of banned articles, which are considered to “further the aims of banned organizations” (read: ANC). That’s when they start counting off years. I’ve got an easy five sitting in the back seat. Two cartons of banned ANC literature that in a moment of delirium I had agreed to take from Durban to East London.
Enter modern building, have passport stamped, make way through heavy rain back out to the car, drive 30 yards to a metal barrier, stop.
“Get out and open the doors, please.”
Christ, I’ve found somebody who cares. It’s blowing gale-force winds out there, and this guy wants to do his job. Instant dry mouth, vibrating limbs. I climb out slowly, walk around the car, open trunk, all doors. The ANC cartons are in the back seat, on the floor, along with weeks of studied refuse collection. It’s an exceedingly grim morass in there, a morass of used newspapers, paper bags, a staggering number of plastic to-go cups, soft drink cans, beer cans, cigarette butts, French fries, maps, gum wrappers, portions of hamburgers, bits of sandwiches, pizza droppings, smelly shirts, disintegrating backpack, all dusted with scores of stained, ripped, wet tourist brochures.
The border agent goes directly to the back seat, leans in. Mother of God. Son of a bitch. Busted in some idiot, make-believe country. I watch as he adjusts position, now withdrawing upper body, shoulders, turns grimacing face into the wind. One hand, blind, explores back seat. Solitary hand fumbles a few seconds more, then entire body snaps away from the car. The man gulps air, peers at me as if asking a difficult question, unable to hide professional disgust, “On your way, now.”
After a quiet night in East London, I press on to Port Elizabeth, the most organized center of resistance in South Africa. This province is home to Nelson Mandela, also birthplace to many principal officers of the ANC. Most observers, white and black, believe that if civil war begins openly, it will start here. Port Elizabeth’s townships are organized down to street block level. Blacks have a long history of successful consumer boycotts, rent strikes. In fact, there’s a black boycott going on right now. Downtown white businesses report revenue losses ranging from 50 to 90 percent.
Riggs gave me the name of a colored doctor who is in the “struggle.” Through his introductions I am led to the office of UDF (United Democratic Front).
Today, there is a mass burial in Zwide, one of Port Elizabeth’s black townships. It’s a funeral for 11 blacks who were recently shot by police. Everyone in the small UDF office is going, and I’m assigned three blacks as guides. After the usual maneuvers to evade army, we enter Zwide, pull up to a 20-year-old, gigantic A-frame church. Several thousand blacks congregate, covering every inch of three intersecting streets, listening to services over portable loudspeakers.
My three companions direct me to a side entrance, hand me over to black marshal, a young woman dressed in an ANC paramilitary uniform. She walks into the church, makes an immediate right into an empty room, motions toward another door. I point at my chest, “Me, through there?”
I open the door, take a step. Jesus. I’m on the church stage, facing 700 black faces. I halt, frozen in place like somebody’s imminent roadkill. The church is jammed; every seat, every aisle, every bit of floor is saturated, blanketed with people.
On stage is a speaker’s podium, three long wooden benches seating 25 guests. Four are white. NBC, CBS television crews are stage-left. Directly beneath us are 11 coffins, each coffin guarded by seven pallbearers dressed in ANC uniforms, right hands raised in power salutes. T-shirts communicate now-familiar slogans: “UDF UNITES — APARTHEID DIVIDES”; “BULLETS WON’T STOP US”; “UITENHAGE MASSACRE 21 MARCH 85.”
A UDF man is speaking: “We are a broad-based movement of national liberation and not a political party. Anyone, be he a drunkard, a clergyman, a white, a student, anyone — anyone who feels the pain is welcome.” The congregation ripples with each sentence. A black trade unionist steps up, spins towards five whites, makes a remark that is met with monstrous cheers, by far the loudest response of the day: “Go tell your friends and comrades to come to our funerals,” he shouts. “Tell them how peaceful we are.” The church explodes in agreement.
It’s been two hours, the building is suffocating, unbearably hot. I’m immersed in sweat, body stink. I decide to break, find something to drink. Outside — lean against church wall, light a smoke, close my eyes, take a dozen deep breaths. Eyes reopen, realize I’ve been encircled by residents.
More and more blacks crowd in until I’m pressed tight against stucco. Front rank is 12 inches away. As we talk, people turn, pass my comments to others behind them, who turn, relay to people standing behind them, who turn, and so on. It’s that rare to find a white on their own turf. I ask, “Is there any place I can get a drink of water?” instantly busted as an American. People call out, "Why are you supporting Botha?” I say I am not a representative of the American government, that we don’t talk to each other, hadn’t in years. People laugh but questions proceed. Hundreds of us packed together, sweating, stinking, conducting a seminar on apartheid politics.
Someone hands me a soda, gulp contents, thank assembled convention, return to church, discover ceremony is over, stage empty. Dignitaries have left, camera crews have left, and now funeral procession is carrying 11 coffins out front door.
Outside, huge gaggle of people is dividing itself into groups of 200. Each cluster is kept 50 feet from next by event marshals blowing whistles, waving hands. This gang of humans goes on as far as I can see (subsequently reported to be 10,000). One man tells me South African police place black undercover agents around crowd’s edges. “You’ll be safer if you get in the middle.” The stranger takes my hand, pulls me into nearest cluster’s center. My benefactor holds my hand, continues to hold it for 45 minutes. “You’re safe here,” he says over and over again. Now entire grand mass of people begins to dance, what they call the toyi toyi. It’s a slow jog-jog kind of dance done to freedom songs. “Can you dance with us?” he asks.
“Never been good at it. I’m more of a hopper. But I can hop like a son of a bitch.”
I’m jogging-hopping-dancing with 10,000 others forming a line one mile long. We dance for an hour, dance all the way to the grave site. After a month without a full night’s sleep, eating crap food, living on adrenalin, I’m out of shape but manage to pant my way to the cemetery. It’s a hillside barren dirt field of a graveyard; no trees, no grass, no shrubs, no monuments, nobody around here has money for monuments. Four of us stand on truck bed, look over miles of dusty, dirty houses. On another hillside is a compound of brand-new, expensive homes behind a tall fence. Am told that’s where township counselors and township police live. The South African government moved them out from township proper, installed security fences, 24-hour armed guards.
It’s coming to sundown. My guardians insist I get out of Zwide before dark. “The army will be back soon, if they are not already here.” Clusters are reforming, some begin to jog back to church. An army helicopter appears, circles, circles, circles — low. The four of us run-dance, but this time we run from one group to another. “It’s late,” they say. We run fast, then faster. “You’ve got to go, you’ve got to go.”
We race, jumping from one group of 200 to the next, staying in each flock for a moment, then moving out. My bodyguards ask random dancers to scout for us, run ahead, report back if army has arrived. No one refuses. Now we abandon the procession, sprint through a series of front — blink — back yards then cut back to main drag, joining another cluster of dancing blacks. Still no army. My chest is burning, my legs wobble, almost stumbling now. Christ, will this ever end? I’m on the edge of not being able to run one more step. A stranger sees, tells me, “You must do better than that. Even our old women can run faster than you. They’ve been toughened up these last two years.”
Finally, finally, finally the four of us arrive at church parking lot. First things first. “Does anybody know a back way out of here?” Four partners leap into the Golf. We drive slowly, kneading our way through thousands of blacks. Five blocks later increase speed, find four-lane road, turn right, head toward township exit.
Fuck! There’s army with three hippos. We turn about, drive the length of Zwide, make a left, this time slow. Yup, more army now, in Caspers, which resemble hippos, only bigger. Make a U, try a third way out. More army. We return to the church, take a hard right, travel half mile, spot army four blocks in front. Cocksucker!
I’m directed off the avenue onto a gravel and broken-glass field that was once some sort of industrial building. We drive a quarter-mile over the field onto cement blocks embedded into dirt. The blocks take us to an abandoned concrete sewage tunnel, an underground spillway. We drive on the spillway, which snakes under a 20-foot embankment and, Mother of God, comes up into the white district.
Back in Port Elizabeth, it’s the usual hassle finding a place where blacks and whites can be together. My friends have no desire to be in a fancy white bar; it takes three stops to find a colored bar that will allow me in. I buy for an hour, and of course, we talk politics. A young colored man joins us, says he was at the funeral too, sitting right there in the stadium. All conversations cease. Half our table jumps, “The funeral was at a church, it wasn’t at a stadium. You were never there.” A voice announces, “This man is an informer.”
We leave instantly.
I carry my friends to the central bus station for their ride back to war. We shake hands, I manage, “Thanks for keeping me safe,” watch as they walk off, down a steep hill into the darkened terminal. I wait for a few minutes, pull around, turn back to town, check into a white hotel.