“The man was an informer.”
Riggs and I are sharing daytime fun, a black guy and a white guy driving around black townships, at risk both from South African security forces and enraged blacks who, understandably, might regard a white inside a township as turf provocation.
Riggs directs me around a corner, and the thing is done before I see a cluster of armored cars at the next intersection. Instantly, I turn into a side street.
“Riggs!” I say, making a left turn, “I’m here illegally, 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. I’m very, very excited.”
A township is one of those governmental service units 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 1.5 million-plus estimated to be living in Soweto. Older, established townships were built close to urban centers, you enter on normal streets as if driving into any neighborhood. Newer townships are built well out of town, ringed off, accessible by only two, three, four entrances, each entrance manned by army patrols.
Townships come in all races. Indian townships look like middle-class American suburbs. Colored townships have the look of a working-class San Diego neighborhood. Black townships represent the place where everything went wrong. But, even here there is variety. In large black townships there’s a full range of living standards, from flat-out perpetual 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 slum.
Riggs is my handler. To arrange entry into a township (it’s illegal for me to be in the country, mucho mucho more illegal for me to be in a black township), a traveler needs to find one of the legal progressive organizations (United Democratic Front, Black Sash, South African Council of Churches) that have offices downtown. I’ve learned to walk in, introduce myself as an American journalist, and chat up whoever happens to be there. At least one person, typically two or three, will volunteer to show me around, protect me, introduce me to anyone I’d care to talk to.
Which is how Riggs and I met. I arrived here a couple nights ago after a merciless trek from Joburg. I found the UDF office in 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 a collaborator’s house. “The man was an informer,” Riggs explains. “He’s responsible for the detention of many activists. He was warned many times.”
Riggs is black, 25, 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, and pieces of animal flesh, the greasy, fat-soaked kind humans purchase when traveling long distances in automobiles.
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. Students have planned a demonstration, with a 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 when we can. I make a turn onto a wide, newly paved street and, boom, there’s Arcadia High School.
The place is filthy with police. We stop. Up ahead are three cops who, in unison, realize that directly in front of them is an automobile occupied by one black and one white.
Three cops advance. Now an ambulance arrives, squeals to a stop in front of our car, momentarily blocking police. At this same instant, several students are being dragged down school steps into the street. Once outside, police begin beating them with rubber sticks (slamboks). Our three approaching cops hesitate, decide to join the fun already under way. I throw the Golf in reverse, back up, make a U turn.
My companion gazes out the passenger window. The son-of-a-bitch actually appears serene. He says, “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 at Riggs. It’s the second look that turns dead faces into delighted grins. Hands shoot forward to shake his hand. “Riggs, how long have you been free? How are you? You look so well!”
It’s somewhere around nine o’clock in the p.m. I count 13 of us around a big, oval, well-used barbecue pit. Beer is opened, chicken is barbequed. 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 the living conditions, see the humiliations, see the army, the entire world would be on their side. At least half the men here have been arrested or detained. One man rolls up his trousers to the knee, points to two bullet scars. Another has done three years on Robben Island. Another was detained for six months; when it was over, his jailers walked him out the police station’s front door, rearrested him, walked him back in, laughing.
More Holiday in South Africa: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 4