Holiday in South Africa, part 2

Youths carrying the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (African Resistance Movement) flag during a right-wing rally in Klerksdorp in October 1993. Courtesy of The South African History Archive (SAHA).
  • Youths carrying the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (African Resistance Movement) flag during a right-wing rally in Klerksdorp in October 1993. Courtesy of The South African History Archive (SAHA).

Next morning I begin making the rounds, schedule interviews with a well-known activist who’s teaching at University of Witwatersrand (he has since been detained), with Brendon Berry, president of the National University Student Association, recently returned from discussions with the then-banned African National Congress in Zaire, and with a black reporter working for one of Joburg’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, the 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 Star, says 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 increasingly dangerous as more and more frequently soldiers fire on black reporters working townships. His car has a half-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 the 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 fire into a few houses. Richard drives out the next day, interviews residents, takes photos, returns to his office, writes the story. Now comes the institutional work, trying to get his piece past white editors who simply don’t believe him. Because white South Africans never — that is, never — go into black townships, whites, even white newspaper editors, live inside fantasy when it’s time to decide whether to publish Richard’s story.

If and when he can sell the article to his editor, then comes step three. 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 to you.” An hour passes. Richard calls again. Again, “We’ll be right back with you.” Another hour and Richard’s on the phone again. The army is 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 dollars for talking to me. Richard explains that even though he works for a big newspaper, he doesn’t make that much money.

I pony up ten bucks.

I’ve been in country a week and am sick of its racism. It’s everywhere. It’s all the time. A typical situation: I’m sitting in a cheap restaurant nursing coffee. I ask the black counterman if he has a sandwich.

“No, none here.”

A white customer jumps in, “But you can get.”

“Yes, Baas, I can get.”

The white man looks at me in triumph, as if to say, “This is how you deal with them.”

Later that evening I’m back in Ramona’s apartment opening a bottle of wine. It’s a quiet, brisk, fall night. I ask if she’s following the unrest.

“We blank that out. We don’t think about it.”

“I’ll tell you a secret. I’m married to a black woman.”

Next morning I break camp and head for Brits, a rural city of 15,000, 100 kilometers north of Joburg. It’s an Afrikaner stronghold and homeground to the Afrikaner Resistance Movement, a homegrown wannabe 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, also calling for a return to traditional apartheid. The pair 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. I check in to Hotel Overberg. Tony Eston, the white manager, greets me and summons two blacks. Four of us walk outside to the now-disfigured Golf and retrieve my one backpack.

Tony asks what brings me to Brits. “I’m working for an Alaskan mining company, doing preliminary economic surveys.”

Tony says, “Oh, you must meet some people,” and takes me to meet Neil, a local merchant nesting in the bar with his sidekick, a fat farmer and racist zealot. Tony and I find chairs.

Introductions are made, Neil asks, “Do you have any Alaskan money or something you can show us?”

“It’s American money. I don’t have any Alaskan 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 and 250,000 blacks. Relations are excellent. We don’t have demonstrations or unrest.”

“Why not?”

“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 Neil says, “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.”

I mention that newspapers are carrying stories about Afrikaners arming themselves and forming military cadres.

“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 shows me a pamphlet that explains 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 and introduces Oscar Joos, who’s having dinner with a young white woman. Oscar owns a nearby hotel and drive-in theaters in two provinces. He’s dressed elegantly in silver silk suit, light gray-striped necktie, everything complemented by just the right touch of gray in his hair. He’s 46, in excellent shape, and arrogant, arrogant, arrogant.

Oscar’s been to the States many times. Speaking in a heavy Afrikaans accent, he asks for my impressions of South Africa. I reply that it seems to me the takeover has begun; it’s only a matter of time until blacks assume 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 — and a new Mercedes. I have many things. All that cost R300,000. In the States, a setup like that would cost millions. But, yes, I am placing money overseas. It is difficult because of the restrictions, but I will be ready.”

There are over five million whites in South Africa. When blacks take control, whites are not 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 booze-stained table whose occupant is Louis Gerrit. Gerrit is five-foot medium, thin, comes with a leathered working-man’s face. Today is his 52nd birthday and he’s very 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 than a bellyful of Rhodesia (white South Africans will not utter its proper name, Zimbabwe) and begin looking for an out from this conversation.

Gerrit says, “I am not a South African. I have never voted. These people are crazy. I am not like them. South Africans don’t know anything. I’ll tell you a secret. Something no one in this town knows.” Gerrit tries to form a smile. “I am married to a black woman.”

Big, long pause. My mind is spinning, trying to catch a gear. It does. “Why in hell are you telling me this?”

“Because you are in transit, because it’s my birthday, because, sometimes, you have to tell secrets.”

She was a field hand, working on 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 bony arm waves at the room. “These people would think it’s a sin.” He refocuses two brown eyes, leans close, and in a little boy’s shaky voice pleads, “But it isn’t, is it?”

I say softly, slowly, “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 and that invites me to stay 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, putting themselves at my command, acting subservient. Racism has a seductive quality to it — I’m special and better, doors should be opened for me. It’s an addiction. No wonder whites won’t let go.

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, as always, not one black in the audience.

I can feel the panic.

It’s May Day. Blacks are calling for a national “stay-away,” the first in over 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, coloreds, everyone is waiting to see how effective today’s action will be.

Downtown Johannesburg, 6:15 a.m. No one is coming to work. (Official totes will put absenteeism from Soweto at 99 percent.) Whites in Johannesburg react as if they are enduring a natural disaster. There is no one 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 Witwatersrand U. Two buses have been chartered to carry interested students out to a legal, permitted 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 filming in black townships is precarious. He’s been shot at 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 the 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?”

“No.”

“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 smoke. Students embark until both buses are loaded to the tits. The mix is 50 percent black, 5 percent Indian, 25 percent colored, 20 percent white female. No white males.

Everyone is singing freedom songs and swaying in their seats. It’s a Peace Corps hootenanny. I’m 42, with one hell of a lot of miles on me and stand out like spilled motor oil on snow. I walk down the aisle clutching a big bag of fast food, beer, and 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 astonishing how often simple babbling works. I sit down, buddy up to a young white woman, Frances, continue the babble until everyone settles down. Frances is a sophomore, studying law. This is her first trip to Soweto.

Just outside Soweto our buses park in front of a colored hospital to let people use rest rooms and sign attendance lists so that all can be accounted for on the way out.

Soweto has shopping centers and modern housing on its fringe. But once past that showcase membrane, you are in reality, a vast human dumping ground.

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. The South African army awaits in four Casspirs (armored personnel carriers). Police (black and white), are here and 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’s “RELEASE POLITICAL PRISONERS.”

Arriving spectators are shepherded into groups of 100. The procedure is very organized, black rally marshals everywhere. My group is assembled, and we are directed into the stadium through an open gate. We enter onto the track. There is a tremendous cheer.

Whoa, they’re cheering us.

Suddenly, a red-and-white banner is thrust into my hands. I grasp it, look up at 25,000 blacks who have packed the stadium, and are singing, dancing in their seats. I have never seen so many people, in one place, express such joy. Now, my group begins to dance and sing, moving along the track’s perimeter. The “dance” is a slow jog, bodies bob up and down from the knees. Spectators in the stands are bobbing, weaving, dancing along with us, arms stretched upward, fists clinched.

We dance — that is, my group dances. I hop, then stop, turn toward stadium seats. Spectators in this section are on their feet. They sing the same haunting, rhythmic 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 a chorus. Since I don’t know any words, I hum the chorus. Loudly.

And it continues. We dance another forward, stop in front of another section. Again, everyone is on their 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 hour, delegation after delegation arrives. Each contingent dances, sings, and encircles the track. Finally, speeches begin. Elijah Baraju (since imprisoned), president of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, 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.

Frances and I are sucking down the last beer, relaxing in the stands with our backs toward the dirt parking lot. I glance over my shoulder, count a dozen buses, assorted cars, and lots of army. I watch as two soldiers approach a bus and begin slashing its tires, (this is a legal rally). BOOM! Now soldiers fire tear gas into the stadium. It’s funny how they did it. They could clear us out anytime, but instead chose to lob a single tear-gas canister, wait awhile, lob another, and so on.

Another four Casspirs turn into the parking lot, take positions alongside the original four. An army helicopter pops above the horizon and circles overhead. The assault quickens, tear-gas canisters land in batches of twos and threes. We are sucking gas. The crowd breaks around us as two canisters arrive in the same place at the same time. Everyone bolts. We stampede down ancient steps toward two available exits. People push around people who are in the way. People fall down and are walked over. I can feel the panic. I can touch it. I can smell it. I can taste it.

Another tear-gas grenade explodes and we surge forward again. Speakers shout, scream for calm. At the last instant, in a supreme collective moment of restraint, the mob of unarmed boys and girls and moms and dads pause at the stadium’s exits. Tear gas drifts off, people slowly return to their seats. I turn to Frances, “That was close.”

She’s crying.

It’s coming on to 4 p.m. My lungs are burning. A speaker calls for students from Witwatersrand to board their buses. It’s time for noncombatants to go home.

Part two of a four-part story about apartheid-era South Africa. First published in The Monthly, November 1986. Reprinted in the Reader, summer of 1990. In memory of Nelson Mandela.

More Holiday in South Africa: Part 1 | Part 3 | Part 4

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