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Holiday in South Africa, part 3

Black townships, like Soweto, represent the place where everything went wrong.

“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.

Sponsored
Sponsored

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.

Fresh meat.

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.

Chicken is flipped, our cook remarks that his detention meant solitary confinement. “I was very afraid because I didn’t know if I could survive. But now that I’ve done it,” he says, “I’m not afraid anymore.” Everyone nods. Doing it once takes fear away. In fact, Robben Island prison is called the University of Robben Island. Political prisoners are housed together, spend time studying politics, discussing strategy. They call being detained, “going on a government holiday.”

One of tonight’s guests is an Arcadia High School teacher, the same school Riggs and I fled from earlier in the day. I ask what happened after we left.

“It was vicious. Police came into school, into classrooms, pulled students into the hallway. Waiting in corridors were more police, who beat, whipped students as they ran past. Forty children were injured severely enough to be transported to the hospital.”

“What’s next?”

“I don’t know. Students are having a meeting. They will probably boycott school again.”

“This is student-run, no adults?”

“Oh, yes. They don’t trust us.”

The conversation turns to whites in the struggle. I ask, “Are they doing much? I can’t believe they are. If shooting starts, whites aren’t going to be there. They’ve got no experience, no training, no lifetime of being abused, only an intellectual commitment. They’ll go home anytime they want a break.”

Riggs protests. “No, no, whites, many whites are with us. A great many more than you think. It is an interracial struggle. Whites are welcome, whites have fought, whites have joined.”

This is nuts, a white guy in a South African black township, enjoying a barbeque and arguing that whites can’t be trusted. Eventually, conversation moves on, singing continues, too, as does gossip, who’s in jail, who’s been killed. Stories of beatings and news of the world. Denmark is going to halt all trade with South Africa. Duke University has voted for divestment; University of Washington has not.

I felt very special around Mandela

Morning begins with Riggs pouring abominable coffee. “I’ve been thinking about what you said in regards to whites. There is someone you must meet.”

We drive Marcia to work, then push over to white, residential Cape Town and a large English Tudor home. “Gracious” is the word I’m looking for. Riggs rings the bell. A plump, distinguished-looking white woman, dressed in bathrobe and curlers, answers the door. She invites us in, apologizes for the confusion. “I’ve had a very busy morning. My daughter is having her first hangover.”

Sara, 56, is small verging on tiny, with crackling, energetic black eyes and short black hair. She puts on water for tea, goes upstairs to dress. Twenty minutes later, after tea and sweet rolls, served by her daughter, are dealt with, we settle in to talk.

Sara says that as a child she used to hike the hills outside Cape Town and read revolutionary poetry, thinking it all very dramatic. As a young teenager she joined the Modern Youth Society, a nonracial group that provided night schools, games, lectures, and foreign-language classes. The Nationalists came to power in 1948 and immediately began building the structure of apartheid. She says it really hit her, the brutality of it, when the Group Areas Act was passed. The government forced blacks and coloreds to move from neighborhoods they’d been living in for 20, 30 years. On one street in her neighborhood, two elderly colored men killed themselves rather than leave.

In 1951, then 18 years old, Sara joined the first protest against apartheid. It was a matter concerning benches, ancient wooden benches located in Cape Town’s post-office lobby. She and four white women sat down on benches marked for blacks.

No one noticed. All morning no one noticed. Finally, someone called police, who eventually appeared but had no idea what to do. Ultimately, the protesters were charged with creating an obstruction, taken to jail, and held for four hours.

That led, she says, to the first defiance campaign. Ten thousand people were put in prison. In those days, punishment for defying apartheid laws was ten days to two weeks in jail. But, as opposition grew, the government changed the laws, handing down five-year sentences plus lashes. That crackdown broke the back of the defiance campaign and marked the modern era of repression.

In 1954, Sara was involved in the Call to Congress of the People campaign, which established ANC’s political charter. Urban committees were formed, and entire villages held discussions on the proposed charter. Sara’s committee received thousands of notes written on torn-up scraps of paper, cardboard, anything that could be used as a writing surface. Letters, postcards came from villages all over South Africa. Every section of the country elected ad hoc delegates to represent them at the congress in Johannesburg.

Sara’s trip to the congress started off in the back of a two-ton truck, along with a dozen blacks and coloreds. Police stopped them 80 miles south of Johannesburg. The driver was arrested, their truck impounded and taken to an impound lot adjacent to a police station. The lot was surrounded by a high fence. Delegates were left to fend for themselves.

Sara found a nearby phone but could not contact anyone who would drive down from Joburg to pick them up. She attempted hitchhiking with two colored men. They were unsuccessful. Twilight turns into night. Things are getting tense, hazardous. Sara directed everyone back to the police station, told her group to climb the fence, actually break into the police station’s impound lot in order to safely pass the night. “In those days, for a young white woman — I was sexy then — to be seen with colored men was very dangerous for them. We had nowhere else to go.”

Later, past midnight, a friend found them. The man scaled the impound fence and discovered Sara under a canvas tarp. Sara and all the delegates re-climbed the fence and made their way to the congress. That convention adopted the Freedom Charter, a document calling for a nonracial, democratic South Africa, which remains the ANC’s primary political declaration.

Sara met Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg a few years later. She calls Mandela “a great, very handsome man. He was always exercising, sleeping on the floor. I felt very special when I was around him.” At that time, Mandela posed as a chauffeur and drove around South Africa in an expensive Jaguar, making contacts, doing political work. It was a cover that allowed him to get into any section of the country. Once, Mandela needed to be in Durban and arranged to drive a rich American there as camouflage. On the way, the American became ill. It was obvious the man was very sick. Halfway to Durban, Mandela detoured into an Indian township and helped the American into the home of a doctor, who was also a political colleague. The traveler received treatment and recovered well enough to proceed. When Mandela arrived in Durban, the American leaned forward, thanked him, and said, “I don’t know who you are or what your name is, but I have never in my life seen a doctor receive a chauffeur with such respect.”

Sara joined the million-signature campaign supporting the Freedom Charter. She was banned in January 1957. She stayed banned until 1973. Sara was required to report to the police station every Monday for 16 years. She was not allowed to attend any social gatherings, forbidden to be in a room with more than two other people, including family members. The three of us, seated in the same room with teacups, she points out, constitutes a social gathering and would have been illegal. “Even now I glance out the window, listen for the odd footstep.”

I ask what it was like, coming into the world after being banned for 16 years. She says the most difficult thing was going to a restaurant or a movie, the noise seemed phenomenal, overbearing, distracting in the extreme.

Sara was arrested again in 1960, placed in solitary confinement, not for any particular crime, but merely as a potential state witness. She was warehoused in an eight-by-ten-foot cell for 94 days. “I was always anxious,” she says, “that someone would come in when I was on the toilet. I was lucky, too. My husband found a way, every day, to let me know he’d been there. Legal documents to sign, court orders, property bonds, a friendly guard. I never saw him, but I knew he was there every single day. That meant everything to me.”

Sara’s retired from active politics. Lately, she’s been working part time for a local trade union, occasionally speaking to college groups. Her slant on the unrest differs from the blacks and coloreds I’ve interviewed. “I would rather see apartheid made unworkable than the government ungovernable.” (One month after this conversation, Sara was detained.)

Outside, Riggs asks, “So, what is your assessment of Sara?”

“A heroic, tough-as-guts woman, and I still don’t think whites are going to be there for you.”

“I cannot tell you how deep my hate is.”

It’s Saturday morning in Durban, Natal Province. I am tired, brutally tired. Can’t remember a night’s sleep. Body functions are running metal on metal. Coffee, cigarette, junk food, and alcohol intake are reaching teenage levels. From here on in, it’s going to be a race between adrenalin and collapse.

Businesses are closed. I take a drive, climb a hill, come across the University of Natal. It’s a contemporary, generic college that shares its campus with the recently fire-bombed Howard Law School.

The grounds appear deserted. I walk building-to-building, seeking someone to talk to. Eventually, I bump into a colored student and ask directions to the history department. He replies, “Oh, you’re from the States. I’ve been to San Francisco and Minnesota.”

His name is Peter Nakoman, 20 years old, on his way to the campus commons to meet his girlfriend for lunch.

“Mind if I come along?”

So, this is where all the students are. The cafeteria is full, and there’s a long line of white students waiting to enter. Peter, his colored girlfriend, and I take positions in the rear of the line. As if one organism, the queue turns, stares. Stares are hard, mean, and sustained. Once inside, well-groomed white students ignore their meals and stare at us.

After midday gruel, three of us walk to Peter’s dormitory. Only a few colored students are allowed to live on campus. His room is small, one window, one desk top bolted to a wall, one chair, and a bed.

Two years ago Peter attended high school in Minnesota by way of an American exchange program. On the wall over his dormitory bed are photographs recording that year. There’s Peter with six white Minnesotans, standing in front of a farmhouse door. There’s Mom, Dad, four teenagers, and Peter. It’s wintertime, snow lies fresh on the ground, sky is clear, cloudless, everyone is dressed in bright down jackets. Arms around one another, they look directly into the camera, each person has a sparkling smile.

Snap. Another photo of Peter dressed as a football player. He’s a running back on the local high-school football team, and here he is on the sidelines holding a helmet under his arm, ready to enter the game, excited, attentive, full of himself. Snap. Peter at a party. It’s in a basement, what used to be called a recreation room. The room is crowded with teenagers. Everyone seems happy, having a good time. There’s more — a shot of Peter wearing a tux with a white carnation pinned to its lapel. Prom night. Big date. Nervous. Everyone in all the pictures is white, except Peter.

Peter reaches under the bed, retrieves his Minnesota high-school gym bag. “I always keep it with me.” His exchange program lasted one year. When Peter’s plane landed in Johannesburg, all the white South Africans on board applauded. Peter cried. “I know a man shouldn’t cry,” he says, “but I started and couldn’t stop.”

Peter says only one or two white students, and an equal number of professors are friendly. He spends his time with the few colored students who live on campus. “But you cannot escape.” Three weeks ago, at 3 a.m., police broke into a friend’s room, the room next door, and trashed it. Officers threw his mattress on the floor, ripped it open, smashed a stereo, shattered records, destroyed the student’s radio. Looking for banned literature, they said.

Peter has been so soft, so gentle, I decide to ask, straight out, what he thinks of the government. I’m curious how he’ll phrase his answer.

“I hate them. I cannot tell you how deep my hate is.”

Part three 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.

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“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.

Sponsored
Sponsored

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.

Fresh meat.

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.

Chicken is flipped, our cook remarks that his detention meant solitary confinement. “I was very afraid because I didn’t know if I could survive. But now that I’ve done it,” he says, “I’m not afraid anymore.” Everyone nods. Doing it once takes fear away. In fact, Robben Island prison is called the University of Robben Island. Political prisoners are housed together, spend time studying politics, discussing strategy. They call being detained, “going on a government holiday.”

One of tonight’s guests is an Arcadia High School teacher, the same school Riggs and I fled from earlier in the day. I ask what happened after we left.

“It was vicious. Police came into school, into classrooms, pulled students into the hallway. Waiting in corridors were more police, who beat, whipped students as they ran past. Forty children were injured severely enough to be transported to the hospital.”

“What’s next?”

“I don’t know. Students are having a meeting. They will probably boycott school again.”

“This is student-run, no adults?”

“Oh, yes. They don’t trust us.”

The conversation turns to whites in the struggle. I ask, “Are they doing much? I can’t believe they are. If shooting starts, whites aren’t going to be there. They’ve got no experience, no training, no lifetime of being abused, only an intellectual commitment. They’ll go home anytime they want a break.”

Riggs protests. “No, no, whites, many whites are with us. A great many more than you think. It is an interracial struggle. Whites are welcome, whites have fought, whites have joined.”

This is nuts, a white guy in a South African black township, enjoying a barbeque and arguing that whites can’t be trusted. Eventually, conversation moves on, singing continues, too, as does gossip, who’s in jail, who’s been killed. Stories of beatings and news of the world. Denmark is going to halt all trade with South Africa. Duke University has voted for divestment; University of Washington has not.

I felt very special around Mandela

Morning begins with Riggs pouring abominable coffee. “I’ve been thinking about what you said in regards to whites. There is someone you must meet.”

We drive Marcia to work, then push over to white, residential Cape Town and a large English Tudor home. “Gracious” is the word I’m looking for. Riggs rings the bell. A plump, distinguished-looking white woman, dressed in bathrobe and curlers, answers the door. She invites us in, apologizes for the confusion. “I’ve had a very busy morning. My daughter is having her first hangover.”

Sara, 56, is small verging on tiny, with crackling, energetic black eyes and short black hair. She puts on water for tea, goes upstairs to dress. Twenty minutes later, after tea and sweet rolls, served by her daughter, are dealt with, we settle in to talk.

Sara says that as a child she used to hike the hills outside Cape Town and read revolutionary poetry, thinking it all very dramatic. As a young teenager she joined the Modern Youth Society, a nonracial group that provided night schools, games, lectures, and foreign-language classes. The Nationalists came to power in 1948 and immediately began building the structure of apartheid. She says it really hit her, the brutality of it, when the Group Areas Act was passed. The government forced blacks and coloreds to move from neighborhoods they’d been living in for 20, 30 years. On one street in her neighborhood, two elderly colored men killed themselves rather than leave.

In 1951, then 18 years old, Sara joined the first protest against apartheid. It was a matter concerning benches, ancient wooden benches located in Cape Town’s post-office lobby. She and four white women sat down on benches marked for blacks.

No one noticed. All morning no one noticed. Finally, someone called police, who eventually appeared but had no idea what to do. Ultimately, the protesters were charged with creating an obstruction, taken to jail, and held for four hours.

That led, she says, to the first defiance campaign. Ten thousand people were put in prison. In those days, punishment for defying apartheid laws was ten days to two weeks in jail. But, as opposition grew, the government changed the laws, handing down five-year sentences plus lashes. That crackdown broke the back of the defiance campaign and marked the modern era of repression.

In 1954, Sara was involved in the Call to Congress of the People campaign, which established ANC’s political charter. Urban committees were formed, and entire villages held discussions on the proposed charter. Sara’s committee received thousands of notes written on torn-up scraps of paper, cardboard, anything that could be used as a writing surface. Letters, postcards came from villages all over South Africa. Every section of the country elected ad hoc delegates to represent them at the congress in Johannesburg.

Sara’s trip to the congress started off in the back of a two-ton truck, along with a dozen blacks and coloreds. Police stopped them 80 miles south of Johannesburg. The driver was arrested, their truck impounded and taken to an impound lot adjacent to a police station. The lot was surrounded by a high fence. Delegates were left to fend for themselves.

Sara found a nearby phone but could not contact anyone who would drive down from Joburg to pick them up. She attempted hitchhiking with two colored men. They were unsuccessful. Twilight turns into night. Things are getting tense, hazardous. Sara directed everyone back to the police station, told her group to climb the fence, actually break into the police station’s impound lot in order to safely pass the night. “In those days, for a young white woman — I was sexy then — to be seen with colored men was very dangerous for them. We had nowhere else to go.”

Later, past midnight, a friend found them. The man scaled the impound fence and discovered Sara under a canvas tarp. Sara and all the delegates re-climbed the fence and made their way to the congress. That convention adopted the Freedom Charter, a document calling for a nonracial, democratic South Africa, which remains the ANC’s primary political declaration.

Sara met Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg a few years later. She calls Mandela “a great, very handsome man. He was always exercising, sleeping on the floor. I felt very special when I was around him.” At that time, Mandela posed as a chauffeur and drove around South Africa in an expensive Jaguar, making contacts, doing political work. It was a cover that allowed him to get into any section of the country. Once, Mandela needed to be in Durban and arranged to drive a rich American there as camouflage. On the way, the American became ill. It was obvious the man was very sick. Halfway to Durban, Mandela detoured into an Indian township and helped the American into the home of a doctor, who was also a political colleague. The traveler received treatment and recovered well enough to proceed. When Mandela arrived in Durban, the American leaned forward, thanked him, and said, “I don’t know who you are or what your name is, but I have never in my life seen a doctor receive a chauffeur with such respect.”

Sara joined the million-signature campaign supporting the Freedom Charter. She was banned in January 1957. She stayed banned until 1973. Sara was required to report to the police station every Monday for 16 years. She was not allowed to attend any social gatherings, forbidden to be in a room with more than two other people, including family members. The three of us, seated in the same room with teacups, she points out, constitutes a social gathering and would have been illegal. “Even now I glance out the window, listen for the odd footstep.”

I ask what it was like, coming into the world after being banned for 16 years. She says the most difficult thing was going to a restaurant or a movie, the noise seemed phenomenal, overbearing, distracting in the extreme.

Sara was arrested again in 1960, placed in solitary confinement, not for any particular crime, but merely as a potential state witness. She was warehoused in an eight-by-ten-foot cell for 94 days. “I was always anxious,” she says, “that someone would come in when I was on the toilet. I was lucky, too. My husband found a way, every day, to let me know he’d been there. Legal documents to sign, court orders, property bonds, a friendly guard. I never saw him, but I knew he was there every single day. That meant everything to me.”

Sara’s retired from active politics. Lately, she’s been working part time for a local trade union, occasionally speaking to college groups. Her slant on the unrest differs from the blacks and coloreds I’ve interviewed. “I would rather see apartheid made unworkable than the government ungovernable.” (One month after this conversation, Sara was detained.)

Outside, Riggs asks, “So, what is your assessment of Sara?”

“A heroic, tough-as-guts woman, and I still don’t think whites are going to be there for you.”

“I cannot tell you how deep my hate is.”

It’s Saturday morning in Durban, Natal Province. I am tired, brutally tired. Can’t remember a night’s sleep. Body functions are running metal on metal. Coffee, cigarette, junk food, and alcohol intake are reaching teenage levels. From here on in, it’s going to be a race between adrenalin and collapse.

Businesses are closed. I take a drive, climb a hill, come across the University of Natal. It’s a contemporary, generic college that shares its campus with the recently fire-bombed Howard Law School.

The grounds appear deserted. I walk building-to-building, seeking someone to talk to. Eventually, I bump into a colored student and ask directions to the history department. He replies, “Oh, you’re from the States. I’ve been to San Francisco and Minnesota.”

His name is Peter Nakoman, 20 years old, on his way to the campus commons to meet his girlfriend for lunch.

“Mind if I come along?”

So, this is where all the students are. The cafeteria is full, and there’s a long line of white students waiting to enter. Peter, his colored girlfriend, and I take positions in the rear of the line. As if one organism, the queue turns, stares. Stares are hard, mean, and sustained. Once inside, well-groomed white students ignore their meals and stare at us.

After midday gruel, three of us walk to Peter’s dormitory. Only a few colored students are allowed to live on campus. His room is small, one window, one desk top bolted to a wall, one chair, and a bed.

Two years ago Peter attended high school in Minnesota by way of an American exchange program. On the wall over his dormitory bed are photographs recording that year. There’s Peter with six white Minnesotans, standing in front of a farmhouse door. There’s Mom, Dad, four teenagers, and Peter. It’s wintertime, snow lies fresh on the ground, sky is clear, cloudless, everyone is dressed in bright down jackets. Arms around one another, they look directly into the camera, each person has a sparkling smile.

Snap. Another photo of Peter dressed as a football player. He’s a running back on the local high-school football team, and here he is on the sidelines holding a helmet under his arm, ready to enter the game, excited, attentive, full of himself. Snap. Peter at a party. It’s in a basement, what used to be called a recreation room. The room is crowded with teenagers. Everyone seems happy, having a good time. There’s more — a shot of Peter wearing a tux with a white carnation pinned to its lapel. Prom night. Big date. Nervous. Everyone in all the pictures is white, except Peter.

Peter reaches under the bed, retrieves his Minnesota high-school gym bag. “I always keep it with me.” His exchange program lasted one year. When Peter’s plane landed in Johannesburg, all the white South Africans on board applauded. Peter cried. “I know a man shouldn’t cry,” he says, “but I started and couldn’t stop.”

Peter says only one or two white students, and an equal number of professors are friendly. He spends his time with the few colored students who live on campus. “But you cannot escape.” Three weeks ago, at 3 a.m., police broke into a friend’s room, the room next door, and trashed it. Officers threw his mattress on the floor, ripped it open, smashed a stereo, shattered records, destroyed the student’s radio. Looking for banned literature, they said.

Peter has been so soft, so gentle, I decide to ask, straight out, what he thinks of the government. I’m curious how he’ll phrase his answer.

“I hate them. I cannot tell you how deep my hate is.”

Part three 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.

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