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