May 8, 1986. I am the only passenger on the 30-minute shuttle from Jans Smuts International Airport to Johannesburg’s city center. Joburg’s population is three million plus and its downtown bears an uncanny resemblance to Atlanta, Georgia: a skyline of new, vacuous-looking 40-story buildings, television towers, and, at 9 p.m., deserted streets. It’s 26 hours since California.
The downtown bus terminal is closed. Clutching a stuffed backpack, I walk into the Johannesburg railway station, Africa’s largest, which is modeled after Mussolini’s Termini — 80-foot ceilings, marble floors, epic Italian Fascist. Here, there, footsteps echo against concourse walls. I begin informational panhandling, “Where are the cheap hotels?”
In this manner I find myself, on a chilly fall night, trudging Elloff Street accompanied by two white men from Cape Town. They’re in search of a quick beer between trains. We agree to a round at the Springbok Hotel. Over Castle draft, my companions begin what I will come to know as the standard white South African line: How conditions in South Africa are changing so fast, “In five years we’ll be just like the States.” How no outsider can understand their problems. How whites receive no credit for all the changes, how apartheid is almost gone, how blacks are too ignorant to run a country, “Look at the rest of Africa.” The speaker turns to me, his face torqued with anger, “Five years ago there would never have been that tawdry scene in the lobby.”
I’m baffled. What tawdry scene? Hours later it comes to me, a black man and a black woman were sitting in the lobby.
I’m here illegally, and subject to arrest, one of those tacky little facts that so often clutters life’s really interesting moves. South Africa doesn’t hand out many journalist visas these days; in fact, they don’t hand out any, so I said the hell with it, materialized at RSA’s Beverly Hills consulate, spoke through a triple-paned, bulletproof-glass window, and applied for a tourist visa.
“And why do you want to visit South Africa, Mr. Daugherty?”
“Game parks. Always wanted to see big, big game in big, big parks.”
Morning, 5 a.m. Can’t sleep. Get up, get out, wander about, find Joburg’s commuter train station, watch thousands of blacks hustle into work. The station is segregated. Blacks arrive by train at 6:30 a.m. An hour later, whites arrive in new cars, filling up city center. It’s as if blacks come in early to tidy up.
I spend this day in the public library reviewing the Republic of South Africa’s mainstream newspapers. Other than the excellent, tiny, 12,000-circulation Weekly Mail (a descendant of now-defunct Rand Daily Mail), the South African press is debased. You read, “THREE MEN DIED LAST NIGHT,” and that’s it. Only rarely does an article evaluate or analyze the domestic war. Worse, the press does not tell its white readers about blacks. Rudimentary stuff like who their leaders are, what they believe, what they want. Eighty percent of South Africa is ignored.
Cruising downtown Johannesburg, I’m struck both by how rich it is and, even more, by the staggering amount of personal service. It’s an aspect of life long gone in the United States. Wages for blacks are so low, (rent a truck, and, for another $1.25, rent a black) that all the shops have stand-around guys. A fast-food place may have six people working, then another three hanging out in case there’s something to do. When I check into a hotel, two blacks appear to carry my one backpack. In the morning, two more tap on my door with coffee and sweets. Three attendants per car are standard at gas stations. There are a little more than one million white households in South Africa. There are over 800,000 black maids.
South Africa is particularly cheap for Americans. The rand has fallen from $1.79 against the dollar to 46 cents. This marks the welcome return of the nine-dollar hotel room, two-dollar-and-50-cent dinner, 53-cent beer served in a First-World-plush cocktail lounge. It is so cheap that I actually rent an automobile, a brand new Volkswagen Golf, which I inaugurate by driving into the corner of a warehouse dock, creating a four-foot gash along the Golf’s left flank. South Africans drive on the British side of the road. I’ll say it now, this is an evil, made-in-hell way to steer an automobile.
The wounding of the Golf turns out to be a fortunate event. When dealing with sudden stress, I usually get a cup of black coffee. Across the street is a fast-food joint. I place my order, which, in a nation with a passion for coffee served with cream and sugar, must be made in the following manner, “Black coffee, please. That’s coffee black with no cream or sugar, just black coffee, no cream, no sugar, black coffee only, without the cream, without the sugar.”
A minute later, from the kitchen, “Tell the gentleman with the speech impediment his coffee is ready.” The voice belongs to Ramona, store manager. She’s 32, tall, blonde, agreeable. We chat over coffee, arrange a date for tonight.
Ramona has an apartment in Hillbrow, a ten-block area of what passes in Joburg for International Yuppie. There are cafés, restaurants, movies, street people selling crafts, and rarest of South African scenes, an integrated crowd strolling after dark. Ramona lives on the ninth floor, shares a flat with an Afrikaner roommate. Monthly rent is $175.
I arrive at 8 p.m., ask to be shown the town. One block beyond Hillbrow, I ram a curb, bounce off the base of a street lamp, which creates another, deeper laceration on the Golf’s passenger door. It’s getting ugly out there.
We arrive at Smugglers, a local hot spot in the suburbs, where we meet Ramona’s Afrikaner friend, Kristine, and her boyfriend from Rhodesia. Smugglers is jammed, takes 20 minutes to get past the front door and belly up to a hardwood bar. Eight soldiers are here, in uniform, working on several pitchers of beer.
I order drinks. The soldier on my right leans toward me, says, “You an American?”
I’m talking to an army captain doing township duty. He’s of English descent, mid 30s, nice guy. (All South African males are conscripted into the army for two years, then put on reserve for ten more.) He’s doing two months’ active duty this year. For the first time, he’s serving township patrol, “to back up the police.”
“I thought township duty was all regular army.”
“They ran out of people.”
I ask, “How bad is it?”
“Some of the things I’ve seen in the last two weeks I don’t want to talk about.”
“Young blacks playing [soccer] with human heads. School basements filled with explosives. Little kids throwing petrol bombs. Don’t get me wrong — mostly it’s boring. Most of the time we sit.”
“Come on, there’s been too many reports of the army tear-gassing and shooting into activists’ houses.”
“There’s some of that. Afrikaners are hard. Eighty percent of army officers are Afrikaner. I have seen squads tear gas neighborhoods. Not much you can do if your commanding officers approve.” He goes on to say that the only people who give them trouble are kids between the ages of 12 and 25.
I say, “In ten years it’ll be 22 to 35.” The captain swallows. I wonder if he’s ever thought of that before.
He mentions his young son. He’s worried for him. “I might leave the country,” he says, then returns to the standard South African line: “No one understands; blacks are ignorant; look at the rest of Africa.”
And yet I like him.
One question I ask every white South African is, “What do you think is going to happen over the next 20 years?” This is always a show-stopper. The question is treated in the same way as, say, exposing yourself at a family Thanksgiving dinner. The act is so gross, so embarrassing, that people respond as if it’s not there, as if it’s not happening. That’s the near-universal white South African response to questions about the future. When pressed, that response turns to anger. Press more, and most everyone admits that South Africa will be a black state, never failing to add that chaos and poverty will follow.
In memory of Nelson Mandela. Part one of four.
More Holiday in South Africa: Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4