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.
More Holiday in South Africa: Part 1| Part 2 | Part 3