A South African Odyssey

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

Sara has retired from active politics. Lately she's been working part time for an area trade union, occasionally speaking to college groups. Sara's slant differs from the blacks and coloreds I'd spoken to. "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 remarkable, tough-as-guts woman, and I still don't think whites are going to be there for you."

Tired, brutally tired. Can't remember a night's sleep. Body functions running metal on metal. Coffee, cigarette, junk food, beer intake reaching puberty levels. From here on in, it's going to be a race between flesh and fascination.

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

The grounds are deserted. I walk, building to building, seeking anyone to talk to. Eventually I bump into a colored student, 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, twenty years old, on his way to campus commons for lunch and a meet with his girlfriend.

"Mind if I come with you?"
The cafeteria is full; there's a line of white students, 35 deep, waiting to enter. Peter, his colored girlfriend, and I take positions. As if one beast, the queue turns, stares. Stares are hard, mean, barely under control. Once inside, 200 well-groomed white students ignore their meals - stare.

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 twelve feet by eight, one window, desk top bolted to a wall, one chair, 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 30 photographs recording that year. There's Peter with six white Minnesotans standing at a farmhouse door - his "adopted family," mom, dad, four teen-agers, 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 has a radiant smile.

Snap - another photo of Peter dressed as a football player. He was a running back on the local high school football team and here he is on sidelines, holding a helmet underneath his arm, moments from entering 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. He's dancing, the room is full of teen-agers, Christ, everyone seems happy, so genuinely innocent. There's more - shot of Peter in tux and carnation - prom night - big date - nervous. Everyone, in all the pictures, is white, except Peter.

Peter reaches underneath his bed, retrieves his Minnesota high school gym bag. "I always keep that with me." The exchange program lasted one year. When Peter's plane landed in Johannesburg, all South African whites on board applauded. Peter cried. "I know a man shouldn't cry," he says, "but I started and couldn't stop."

At this university only one or two white students, an equal number of professors, are friendly to him. Peter spends his time with the few colored students who live on campus. "But you cannot escape." Three weeks ago, at 3:00 a.m., police broke into a friend's room, the room next door, trashed it. Officers threw the mattress on the floor, smashed the stereo, shattered records, destroyed the radio. Looking for banned literature, they said.

Peter has been so soft, so gentle, that I ask him outright what he thinks of the government.

"God, I hate them. I cannot tell you how deep my hate is."
You don't need a map or a road sign to know when you enter a "homeland"; it's where the shit land begins. The road to Transkei follows the Indian Ocean for 100 kilometers south of Durban, then turns inland at Port Shepstone. Landscape along the coast is deep green, with Hawaiian-like grasses and sensuous plants. As you turn inland, the highway climbs into an area spotted with arid scrub plants much like northern Nevada. Locals live on desolate ridge tops in small, round adobe huts, thatched roofs. Another hour's travel, climate and topography become more severe, something like central Alaska or west Ireland. The scene is tundralike, with no trees. I have entered the homeland, pardon me, the independent nation of Transkei.

Transkei is one of four "independent" homelands and is the white South African solution to race relations. The white government "gave" a big thirteen percent of the total land in South Africa to 75 percent of its population, leaving a mere 87 percent of the land for whites. It was like telling every black living east of the Mississippi that he must move to central Alaska, every black living west of the Mississippi that he must move to North Dakota. More, it's like stripping citizenship from three-quarters of the American people and making them new citizens - all hail the independent nation of central Alaska or North Dakota. The fact that 99.999 percent of central Alaska's new citizens have never been there, have no intention of ever going there, would only move at the end of a gun barrel, makes them no less citizens.

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