A South African Odyssey

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

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 teen-ager, she attended Modern Youth Society, a nonracial group that provided night schools, games, lectures, foreign language classes. Nationalists came to power in 1948, 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 twenty, thirty years. On one street in her neighborhood, two elderly colored men killed themselves rather than leave.

In 1951, then eighteen years old, Sara joined the first protest against apartheid. It was a matter of 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. After much standing about, many conferences, the protesters were charged with creating an obstruction, taken to jail for four hours.

That led, she says, to the first defiance campaign, held in the early Fifties. 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 laws, handing down five-year sentences plus lashes. That crackdown broke the back of the opposition campaign and marked the modern era of repression.

In 1954 Sara was involved in the "Call to Congress of the People" campaign, which established the ANC's political charter. Urban committees 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 the nation. Every section of the country elected ad hoc delegates.

Sara's trip to the convention began in a two-ton truck, along with 25 blacks and coloreds. Police stopped them 80 miles south of Johannesburg; the driver was arrested, truck impounded inside the police station's parking lot, which was protected by a high fence. The conventioneers were left to fend for themselves.

Sara found a nearby phone but could not contact anyone who would drive down from Jo'burg. She attempted hitchhiking with two colored men. They were unsuccessful. Things were getting tense - hazardous. Darkness fell, Sara directed everyone back to the police station, told her group to climb the fence, actually break into the police station 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 that night, a friend found them - he'd been whistling "The International" outside the police station. Frustrated, the man scaled the police fence, discovered Sara underneath canvas tarps. All the activists reclimbed the fence, made the convention. That convention adopted the Freedom Charter, a document calling for a nonracial, democratic South Africa that 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 dressed 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 South Africa without questions. Once Mandela needed to go to Durban and arranged to drive a rich American there as a camouflage. The American became ill. It became obvious that the man was very sick. Halfway to Durban, Mandela pulled into an Indian township, helped the American into the home of a doctor who was also a political colleague. After two hours of treatment, the traveler 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 regard and respect."

Next, Sara joined the million-signature campaign supporting the Freedom Charter. Banned in January 1957 - declared a nonperson - Sara stayed banned until 1973. For sixteen years she was required to report to the police station every Monday and was not allowed to attend any social gatherings. For business purposes, she was forbidden to be in a room with more than two other people at any time, including family members. Three of us, seated in the same room with coffee cups, 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 coming into the world after being banned was like. She says the most difficult thing was going to a restaurant or a movie; the noise seemed phenomenal, distracting, overbearing.

Sara was arrested in 1960, placed in solitary confinement, not for any particular crime, but merely as a potential state witness. She was warehoused behind two steel doors 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."

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