A South African Odyssey

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

Enter modern building, have passport stamped, make way through heavy rain back out to the car, drive 30 yards to a metal barrier, stop.

"Get out and open the doors, please."
Christ, I've found somebody who cares. It's blowing gale-force winds out there and this guy wants to do his job. Instant dry mouth, vibrating limbs. I climb out slowly, walk around the car, open trunk, all doors. The ANC cartons are in the back seat, on the floor, along with weeks of studied refuse collection. It's an exceedingly grim morass in there, used newspapers, paper bags, a staggering number of plastic to-go cups, soft drink cans, beer cans, cigarette butts, French fries, maps, gum wrappers, portions of hamburgers, bits of sandwiches, pizza droppings, smelly shirts, disintegrating backpack, all dusted with scores of stained, ripped, wet tourist brochures.

The border agent goes directly to the back seat, leans in. Mother of God. Son of a bitch. Busted in some idiot, make-believe country. I watch as he adjusts position, now withdrawing upper body, shoulders, turns grimacing face into the wind. One hand, blind, explores back seat. Solitary hand fumbles a few seconds more, then entire body snaps away from the car. The man gulps air, peers at me as if asking a difficult question, unable to hide professional disgust, "On your way,

After a quiet night in East London, I press on to Port Elizabeth, the most organized center of resistance in South Africa. This province is home to Nelson Mandela, also birthplace to many principal officers of the ANC. Most observers, white and black, believe that if civil war begins openly, it will start here. Port Elizabeth's townships are organized down to street-block level. Blacks have a long history of successful consumer boycotts, rent strikes. In fact there's a black boycott going on right now. Downtown white businesses report revenue losses ranging from 50 to 90 percent.

Riggs gave me the name of a colored doctor who is in the "struggle." Through his introductions, I am led to the office of UDF (United Democratic Front).

Today there is a mass burial in Zwide, one of Port Elizabeth's black townships. It's a funeral for eleven blacks who were recently shot by police. Everyone in the small UDF office is going, and I'm assigned three blacks as guides. After the usual maneuvers to evade army, we enter Zwide, pull up to a twenty-year-old, gigantic A-frame church. Several thousand blacks congregate, covering every inch of three intersecting streets, listening to services over portable loudspeakers.

My three companions direct me to a side entrance, hand me over to black marshal, a young woman dressed in an ANC paramilitary uniform. She walks into the church, makes an immediate right into an empty room, motions toward another door. I point at my chest, "Me, through there?"

I open the door, take a step. Jesus. I'm on the church stage, facing 700 black faces. I halt, frozen in place like somebody's imminent road kill. The church is jammed; every seat, every aisle, every bit of floor is saturated, blanketed with people.

On the stage is a speaker's podium, three long wooden benches seating 25 guests. Four are white. NBC, CBS television crews are stage left. Directly beneath us are eleven coffins, each coffin guarded by seven pallbearers dressed in ANC uniforms, right hands raised in power salutes. T-shirts communicate now-familiar slogans: "UDF UNITES - APARTHEID DIVIDES"; "BULLETS WON'T STOP US"; "UITENHAGE MASSACRE 21 MARCH 85."

A UDF man is speaking: "We are a broad-based movement of national liberation and not a political party. Anyone, be he a drunkard, a clergyman, a white, a student, anyone - anyone who feels the pain - is welcome." The congregation ripples with each sentence. A black trade unionist steps up, spins toward five whites, makes a remark that is met with monstrous cheers, by far the loudest response of the day: "Go tell your friends and comrades to come to our funerals," he shouts. "Tell them how peaceful we are." The church explodes in agreement.

It's been two hours, the building is suffocating, unbearably hot. I'm immersed in sweat, body stink. I decide to break, find something to drink. Outside - lean against church wall, light a smoke, close my eyes, take a dozen deep breaths. Eyes reopen, realize I've been encircled by residents.

More and more blacks crowd in until I'm pressed tight against stucco. Front rank is twelve inches away. As we talk, people turn, pass my comments to others behind them, who turn, relay to people standing behind them, who turn, and so on. It's that rare to find a white on their own turf. I ask, "Is there any place I can get a drink of water?" Instantly busted as an American. People call out, "Why are you supporting Botha?" I say I am not a representative of the American government, that we don't talk to each other, hadn't in years. People laugh but questions proceed. Hundreds of us packed together, sweating, stinking, conducting a seminar on apartheid politics.

Someone hands me a soda, gulp contents, thank assembled convention, return to church, discover ceremony is over, stage empty. Dignitaries have left, camera crews have left, and now funeral procession is carrying eleven coffins out front door.

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