A South African Odyssey

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

Outside, huge gaggle of people is dividing itself into groups of 200. Each cluster is kept 50 feet apart from next by event marshals blowing whistles, waving hands. This gang of humans goes on as far as I can see, (subsequently reported to be 10,000). One man tells me South African police place black undercover agents around crowds' edges. "You'll be safer if you get in the middle." The stranger takes my hand, pulls me into nearest cluster's center. My benefactor holds my hand, continues to hold it for 45 minutes. "You're safe here," he says over and over again. Now entire grand mass of people begins to dance, what they call the toyi toyi. It's a slow jog-jog kind of dance, done to freedom songs. "Can you dance with us?" he asks.

"Never been good at it. I'm more of a hopper. But I can hop like a son of a bitch."

I'm jogging-hopping-dancing with 10,000 others, forming a line one mile long. We dance for an hour, dance all the way to the grave site. After a month without a full night's sleep, eating crap food, living on adrenaline, I'm out of shape but manage to pant my way to the cemetery. It's a hillside barren dirt field of a graveyard; no trees, no grass, no shrubs, no monuments, nobody around here has money for monuments. Four of us stand on truck bed, look over miles of dusty, dirty houses. On another hillside is a compound of brand-new, expensive homes behind a tall fence. Am told that's where township counselors and township police live. The South African government moved them out from township proper, installed security fences, 24-hour armed guards.

It's coming to sundown. My guardians insist I get out of Zwide before dark. "The army will be back soon, if they are not already here." Clusters are reforming, some begin to jog back to church. An army helicopter appears, circles, circles, circles - low. The four of us run-dance, but this time we run from one group to another. "It's late," they say. We run fast, then faster. "You've got to go, you've got to go."

We race, jumping from one group of 200 to the next, staying in each flock for a moment, then moving out. My bodyguards ask random dancers to scout for us, run ahead, report back if army has arrived. No one refuses. Now we abandon the procession, sprint through a series of front - blink - back yards, then cut back to main drag, joining another cluster of dancing blacks. Still no army. My chest is burning, my legs wobble, almost stumbling now. Christ, will this ever end? I'm on the edge of not being able to run one more step. A stranger sees, tells me, "You must do better than that. Even our old women can run faster than you. They've been toughened up these last two years."

Finally, finally, finally the four of us arrive at church parking lot. First things first. "Does anybody know a back way out of here?" Four partners leap into the Golf. We drive slowly, kneading our way through thousands of blacks. Five blocks later, increase speed, find four-lane road, turn right, head toward township exit.

Fuck! There's army with three hippos. We turn about, drive the length of Zwide, make a left, this time slow. Yup, more army now in Caspers, which resemble hippos, only bigger. Make a U-turn, try a third way out. More army. We return to the church, take a hard right, travel half a mile, spot army four blocks in front. Cocksucker! I'm directed off the avenue onto a gravel-and-broken-glass field that was once some sort of industrial building. We drive a quarter-mile over the field onto cement blocks embedded into dirt. The blocks take us to an abandoned concrete sewage tunnel, an underground spillway. We drive on the spillway, which snakes under a twenty-foot embankment, and, mother of God, comes up into the white district.

Back in Port Elizabeth, it's the usual hassle finding a place where blacks and whites can be together. My friends have no desire to be in a fancy white bar; it takes three stops to find a colored bar that will allow me in. I buy for an hour, and of course we talk politics. A young colored man joins us, says he was at the funeral, too, sitting right there in the stadium. All conversations cease. Half our table jumps, "The funeral was at a church, it wasn't at a stadium. You were never there." A voice announces, "This man is an informer."

We leave instantly.
I carry my friends to the central bus station for their ride back to war. We shake hands, I manage, "Thanks for keeping me safe," watch as they walk off, down a steep hill into the darkened terminal. I wait for a few minutes, pull around, turn back to town, check into a white hotel.

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