Holiday in South Africa, part 4

The Boer doesn’t tell us what to do here.

I pull up next to a mud hut. She climbs out, walks away without a nod or a thank you.
  • I pull up next to a mud hut. She climbs out, walks away without a nod or a thank you.
  • Image by Henk Badenhorst

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 runs next to the Indian Ocean for the first 100 kilometers south of Durban, then turns inland at Port Shepstone. Landscape along the coast is lush green, with Hawaiian-like grasses and sensual plants. As you turn inland, the highway climbs into an area spotted with arid scrubs, much like northern Nevada. Locals live on barren ridge tops in small, round adobe huts under thatched roofs. Another hour’s travel, climate and topography become more severe, something like central Alaska or west Ireland. The scene is tundra-like. 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 blacks, 75 percent of its population, leaving a mere 87 percent of the land for whites, 10 percent of its population.

The homeland system was designed to create a South Africa, where, on paper, whites are in the majority. Give blacks a bogus citizenship in a bogus, tiny, improvised piece of dirt. It’s simple and you don’t necessarily have to move anybody; in fact, you don’t have to do anything, just fill out the paperwork and, boom, magic, South Africa is a white country with a lot of foreigners living in it. Under this system, if these instant foreigners now living around white cities get uppity, or if they can’t find jobs, or if it’s Tuesday and you feel like it, why, round them up and relocate them to their homeland. The fact that they might not have ever been in their homeland, might not be able to find it on a map, may be a problem, but it’s a problem for them, not white South Africans. The homeland policy creates an enormous pool of urban job seekers willing to work for absurd wages because there is zero work in homelands. As policy bonus, there’s no sense worrying about social services, decent housing, education, and the rest, 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 also said there will be one citizenship for all and have abandoned pass laws. They say a lot of things. The fact is that when the government repealed pass laws, blacks living in homelands weren’t included. They remain foreigners.

Three of the four so called independent states are hacked 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 range of South African security legislation, which includes authority to ban individuals and organizations and to detain anyone without the messy interference of courts or defense attorneys; also, the authority to impose curfews, wiretapping, mass arrests, and fraudulent elections. Typically, a homeland’s army and police are run by South African white officers who live in separate white compounds. Higher ranks frequently receive more compensation than the black president.

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 there.”

South of Umtata is the University of Transkei, which looks like a small, modern, American land-grant college. Opposite is a grand compound encased by a 12-foot security fence. The entrance is guarded by soldiers holding automatic weapons. Within the compound are extravagant new houses, extravagant new automobiles.

I ask, “What’s going on in there?”

“Oh, that is where our government ministers live.”

The schoolteacher proves to be a shrewd hitchhiker. Her house is far off the main road, down a series of progressively deteriorating dirt roads, then over an open field. She keeps assuring, “Not much further, not much further.” Finally, after the Golf’s undercarriage has taken a merciless beating, I pull up next to a mud hut. She climbs out, walks away without a nod or a thank you.

A pro to the end. Go, girl.

Back on the highway, I turn south, pick up speed, determined to get out of Transkei before tonight’s curfew sets in. It’s 230 kilometers from Umtata to East London, which is on the coast and inside the Republic of South Africa. Winds have redlined, gusting hard enough to push the Golf over the center line, and it’s raining banshee hell.

I make a hard turn into a bend and, before me, semi visible through the rain, is a border stop. Motherfucker, they’ve got a border stop. This cretinous little homeland, Transkei, has a border checkpoint. South Africa and its creatures ban all sorts of T-shirts, music, movies, TV shows, 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: African National Congress). That’s when they start counting off years. I’ve got an easy five sitting in the backseat. Two cartons of banned ANC literature that in a moment of raving fucking delirium I agreed to take from Durban to East London.

I enter a modern building, have my passport stamped, slog back to the car through a goddamn monsoon, drive forward to a metal barrier, and stop.

A white border guard, dressed in full rain gear, says, “Get out and open the doors, please.”

I climb out slowly, walk into the monsoon, and pop the hatch, open the passenger side back seat door. The ANC cartons are in the back seat, on the floor, along with a month’s worth of refuse. It’s a living bog back there, a morass of 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, a disintegrating backpack, all dusted with whatever the wind has blown in along the way.

The border guard goes directly to the back seat, leans in. I watch as he adjusts his position, now withdrawing his upper body, now his shoulders, now, and most providentially, his nose. He turns his head into the wind. One hand explores the backseat. Solitary hand fumbles a few seconds more, then snaps back, away from the car. The man peers at me as if looking at a sewer rat, unable to hide professional disgust, “On your way, now.”

Tell them to come to our funerals

After a quiet night in East London, I press on to Port Elizabeth, the most organized center of resistance in South Africa. Most observers, white and black, believe if civil war begins openly, it will start here. Port Elizabeth’s townships are organized down to the block level. Blacks have a long history of successful consumer boycotts and rent strikes. In fact, there’s a boycott going on right now. Port Elizabeth’s white businesses report revenue losses ranging from 50 to 90 percent.

My friend Riggs gave me the name of a colored doctor who is a colleague. Through his good offices I am invited to visit the local UDF (United Democratic Front) headquarters.

Today, there is a mass burial in one of Port Elizabeth’s black townships. It’s a funeral for 11 blacks who were murdered by police. Everyone in the UDF office is going. I’m assigned three blacks as bodyguards/guides. After the usual driving maneuvers to evade the army, we enter Zwide, park in front of a large A-frame church. Several thousand blacks congregate, covering every inch of three intersecting streets, listening to the service over portable loudspeakers.

My companions direct me to a side entrance, guarded by a black marshal, a young woman dressed in an ANC paramilitary uniform. “Follow me.” 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 forward and freeze. I’m on a stage looking out on hundreds of black mourners. The church is engorged with people: every seat, every aisle, every bit of floor is occupied by mourners.

Onstage is a speaker’s podium and three long wooden benches seating honored guests. Four — five, counting me — are white. NBC and CBS television crews are stage left. Directly beneath us are 11 coffins, each coffin hosted 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.” A black trade unionist steps up to the podium, spins toward the 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 into cheers.

Time passes, I have no idea how much. I’ve learned not to keep track of time in townships. The church is suffocating, unbearably hot. I’m immersed in sweat and body stink. I need something to drink. I move offstage, find a side door, and walk outside. I lean against a church wall, light a smoke, close my eyes, and take a few deep breaths. One more deep breath, open both eyes, and discover I’m encircled by residents.

More and more blacks crowd in until I’m pressed tight against stucco. The front rank is, maybe, a foot away from my face. We begin to talk politics. As we talk, people turn, pass my comments to others behind them, who turn, relay the words to people standing behind them, who turn, and so on. It’s that rare to find a white in their world. I ask, “Is there any place I can get a drink of water?” and thereby bust myself as an American. People call out, “Why are YOU supporting [President] Botha?” I say I’m not a representative of the American government, that we don’t talk to each other, hadn’t in years. People laugh, but questions continue. We are packed tight together, sweating, stinking, conducting a seminar on apartheid politics.

Someone hands me a soda. I gulp its contents in one go, thank the assembly, and return to the church. The ceremony is over, the stage is empty. Dignitaries have left, camera crews have left, and now the funeral procession is carrying 11 coffins out the front door.

Outside, a huge gaggle of people divides itself into like-sized groups. Each cluster is kept separate from the next by event marshals who constantly blow whistles and wave hands. The procession goes on as far as I can see (subsequently reported to be a crowd of 10,000). One man tells me South African police place black undercover agents on the edge of a crowd. “You’ll be safer if you get in the middle.” The stranger takes my hand, pulls me into the nearest cluster’s center. “You’re safe here,” he says, over and over.

Now, the entire grand mass of people begin to dance, what they call the toyi toyi. It’s a slow jog-jog kind of dance done to freedom songs. The man asks, “Can you dance with us?”

“Never been good at it. I’m more of a hopper.” I look front, back, and on both sides, see a mass of black people, as if a single organism, dancing. Okay.

I’m jogging-hopping-dancing with 10,000 others forming a line that goes on for as far as I can see. We dance all the way to the gravesite. Maybe takes 30 minutes, maybe more. 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, which is set on a steep hillside, a 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 a truck bed taking it in. On another hillside is a compound of brand-new homes built behind a tall fence. Am told that’s where township counselors and township police live. The South African government moved them out from the township proper, installed security fences and 24-hour armed guards.

Sundown is near. 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 are jog/dancing back to the church. An army helicopter appears, circles, circles, circles, low to the ground. The four of us run, 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.”

This man is an informer

We race, jumping from one group to the next, staying in each flock for a short time, then moving out. My bodyguards ask random dancers to scout for us, run ahead, report back if the army has arrived. No one refuses. My chest is on fire, my legs wobble, almost stumbling now. Will this ever end? I’m on the edge of not being able to make one more step.

Finally, finally, finally, the four of us arrive at the church parking lot. First things first. I ask, “Does anybody know a back way out of here?” I am told to drive slowly as we work our way through the press of blacks returning from the graveyard. On the other side of the procession, I find a paved road, increase speed, and head toward the township’s exit.

Fuck! There’s army and Casspirs. We turn about, drive the length of Zwide, make a left, this time very fast. More army, more Casspirs.

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 in dirt. The blocks take us to an abandoned concrete sewage tunnel, an underground spillway. We drive into the spillway, which snakes under an embankment and — holy fuck — comes up in a 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 we talk politics. A young colored man joins us, says he was at the funeral, too, sitting right there in the stadium. A bodyguard/guide/friend says, in the coldest tone of voice I’ve ever heard, “The funeral was at a church, it wasn’t at a stadium. You were never there.”

The guide looks hard into frantically blinking young eyes, says, “This man is an informer.”

We leave instantly.

I drive my friends to the central bus station so they can catch their ride back to war. We shake hands, I manage a dimwitted, “Thanks,” and watch as they walk down a steep hill into the darkened terminal. I wait a few moments, soak it in, then start the Golf, turn back to town, and check into a white hotel.

Part four 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 2 | Part 3

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