A South African Odyssey

If Shooting really starts, whites aren't going to be there

Jesus, this is nuts, standing in back yard of a South African hovel, 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.

By midnight I'm done. Riggs asks, "Where are you staying?"
"You got me."
"Comrades, Patrick needs a place to stay tonight."
Everyone volunteers.

Next morning, Riggs takes me to meet Ahmed, an Indian journalist working for a small Moslem newspaper. We drive down dirt alleys into a compound behind a ten-foot cement wall. Riggs points to an ancient exterior staircase. We climb, stepping past broken wine bottles to the third floor.

Ahmed is five-foot-two, dressed in dirty, brown, baggy clothes, sporting a dirty brown goatee. He's spent five years working in India but returned because, "This is where the story is." Ahmed suggests lunch, takes us to a local, colored fast-food joint. All employees, all patrons, stop what they're doing as we arrive. It's that rare to see a white here. I look outside, make visual sweep in search of army or police.

I ask Ahmed about black-on-black violence, which is pushed daily by the South African government and its supporters. You've heard it: "Blacks want to run the country but they can't even make peace among themselves. All the necklacing, all the mob attacks against innocent people, this is blacks killing their own."

This kind of violence is happening, Ahmed says, and there are some gangs of blacks who use unrest as an excuse to rampage. But it is important to remember that many blacks are making a good living out of apartheid. Black policemen are relatively well paid to enforce race laws, as are township landlords, certain black businessmen, and members of township councils. There's a whole infrastructure of blacks in South Africa who make excellent money as allies and instruments of the white racist government. They live in large, expensive, modern houses, drive new cars, have a stake in keeping the status quo going. If apartheid went down, they would too. Activists in townships are persuading, threatening, sometimes killing these blacks because they see them as the enemy. There's another reason, too: "We can't get at whites. We're separated from them, miles from town."

I inquire after local black collaborators. Ahmed says they're conservatives, mostly older people who resent young activists for bringing the army down on them. They are particularly strong in Crossroads, a series of camps near Cape Town that house 100,000 squatters. Conservatives have an organization known as The Fathers, or Witdoeke, which is backed, sometimes armed, by army or police. For years, the government has been trying to move Crossroads squatters into one of the homelands or to the new township of Kayelitsha, six miles away. Recently the government proposed that if 60,000 people would move, 35,000 could stay. As a carrot the government promised to rebuild Crossroads, make it a modern township. The question is: who will stay and who will go?

I ask if we can get into Crossroads.
Riggs replies, "That can be organized."
Crossroads is poorest of poor. I see a mass of shanties, broken by a twenty-foot-wide sandy footpath. Shacks are built with scrounged tin sheets. Here and there women squat, cooking food, others are pissing on the ground. Shanties go on, with no breaks, no yards, maybe a foot in between, maybe nothing.

Three of us knock on a tin hut. The owner is gone, but his teen-age daughter invites us inside. Ahmed explains why we have come - to educate an American journalist. Her younger brother appears from a back room and is sent to fetch the "comrades." Ahmed explains that there have been shootings recently, that a turf war has developed between comrades and the conservative Witdoeke, over who will control the camp. Further into Crossroads is what is called the "no go" area, an area, it is said, that even the army avoids.

Four young blacks enter. Their spokesman is Macibo. Three of the comrades are very tough looking, with scarred faces and broken, yellow teeth. One man has been blinded by what he tells me was army buckshot. Another has full-body tattoos; his right bicep declares, "Baby, please love me." Macibo walks into the back room, returns, shows me a pistol. It's a whipped cur of a pistol, a 40-year-old .22 handgun, pitted, worn stock and barrel. Macibo beams, radiates love like dad holding a new baby.

I ask Macibo about necklacing. He says that necklacing is rare but that "the people are like a wheel, and the people cannot allow anyone to stop the progress of the wheel." I ask if this is what most Crossroads residents believe. "No," he says, "there are many older conservatives, many collaborators here. Further inside the camp, the struggle is much more racial. Young people gather around at night, sing songs about killing whites. Would you like to go back in there, into the no-go area of the camp?"

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