A South African Odyssey

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

I give a shrug, not a yes, not a no.
Everyone stands up. Outside Ahmed and Riggs drop out, head back. Four of us march into Crossroads. Christ: bizarre, mutant-shape people standing in doorways, open sores on legs and arms, misshapen faces, untended broken limbs, distended bellies. Some are obviously ill. Others prepare dinner in the sand, using grease-caked pieces of scavenged metal as grills. Hovering around everywhere are flies, millions of flies. As we walk further in, silent stares become a bit harder. Occasionally residents approach our group, ask why we are here.

Four of us walk 45 minutes, a blur of continuous nightmares, pain in every glance, agony on the hoof. It's betrayal, momentous betrayal - this could only happen when human beings disown other humans - utterly. Night sky now. Macibo announces it's time to turn

back. Shit! Someone's thrown a rock, a fairly crisp shot landing on my left shoulder blade. The comrades pivot, shout, "Leave him alone!" Macibo tells me, "He didn't know what he was doing, he didn't know who you are. You're safe with us."

The eerie part is that I do feel safe. I do believe these guys will look after me, keep me away from places I shouldn't be.

On the way out, Macibo tells me about the leader of the Witdoeke, Johnson Ngxobongwana. Johnson is a very wealthy man, he says, been in power for a long time and is very strong. It is known that Johnson receives money from the government, is allowed to keep sheep and cattle within Crossroads.

(Later, back in America, I learned Crossroads's final resolution. The Witdoeke set the camp afire, burning 40,000 people out of their homes.)

I drop Ahmed off at his newspaper. Fifteen minutes later, Riggs and I are back in what, for me, is getting to be the surreal white world of lush houses, new cars, freeways, huge office buildings. Having a vehicle in South Africa has become an essential element as far as getting to know activists - I've made it a point to be available for side trips, packing groceries, running chores. Tonight it's into Cape Town to fetch one of Riggs's girlfriends from work. She's astonished to see a car, a white face, and Riggs.

The only place where a white can confidently invite blacks for a drink is a five-star hotel that charges three times the going rate. I drive downtown to Inn on the Square. Riggs and Marcia are like kids at Disney World, trying hard not to be delighted ("Yes, yes, this is quite nice"). Riggs makes a great show of discussing the enormous beverage list with Marcia, but two pairs of wide eyes peek over the menu, casing the luxurious room and luxurious people in it ("Yes, yes, quite nice").

After drinks we drive to an Indian township, where Riggs has organized another dinner. Living standards here are only a click or two down from whites: small but modern houses and subdivisions. We drive well-paved, lighted streets into a cul-de-sac. Arbee, a diminutive Indian woman, answers our knock, invites us into the kitchen. In the back yard Arbee's husband climbs out from underneath a banged-up 1975 Toyota, claims a chair at the table. He's 25, colored, shy, friendly. The couple lives here illegally. (By law, if an Indian and colored marry, they must live in a colored township.) The atmosphere is so snug, kitchen so friendly, that for the first time since I've been in South Africa, I feel at home. We sit around the kitchen table, drink beers while Arbee works, moving back and forth from counter to stove, making jokes about the fancy hotel where we had our lavish happy hour. This is the first time in weeks I've encountered a normal conversation. Sports and sex and books and travel and TV shows and relatives and falling in love and jobs and neighbors and even, Lord help us, automobile engines.

I'd made arrangements to spend the night with Riggs. On the drive over, I realize he's embarrassed because, frankly, Riggs lives in a dump. There's a six-by-eight-foot room called a kitchen, although its sole appliance is a Coleman stove. His living room, not much larger, contains one beaten couch and what I think is a rug. The bathroom is outside and shared by an indeterminate number of neighbors. Bedroom is a double bed circled by an eighteen-inch walkway. Marcia and Riggs point to the bedroom, takes fifteen minutes to talk my way back onto living-room floor.

Morning begins with Riggs pouring abominable coffee. "I've been thinking of what you said about 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, ring 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 is 55, five feet tall, with crackling, energetic eyes and short black hair. She puts on water for tea, goes upstairs to dress. Later, after tea and sweet rolls, served by her daughter, we settle in.

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