A South African Odyssey

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

I'm baffled. What tawdry scene? Next morning I realize: this hotel is integrated. Blacks are sitting in the lobby.

I came to South Africa with mixed motives. I've always been a travel junkie, flying to Africa was irresistible. Also, the Republic of South Africa is a hell of a story and one that's going to be around for a long time - attractive ingredients from a writer's perspective. Mostly I'm curious. What is going on here? South Africa's white, racist rule is transparently easy to see, so easy it blurs everything else about the country.

Unfortunately, I'm here illegally, one of those tacky little facts that so often clutter life's really interesting moves. South Africa doesn't hand out many journalist visas these days, in fact they don't hand out any, so I said the hell with it, materialized at RSA's Beverly Hills consulate, spoke through a triple-paned bulletproof glass window, got myself a tourist visa.

"And why do you want to visit South Africa, Mr. Daugherty?"
"Game parks. Always wanted to see big, big game in big, big parks."
Morning - 5:00 a.m. - can't sleep. Find downtown Jo'burg train station, watch thousands of blacks hustle into work. The station is segregated. Blacks come by train at 6:30 a.m. An hour later whites arrive in new cars, filling up city center. It's as if blacks arrive early just to tidy up.

I spend this day in the public library reviewing RSA's mainstream newspapers. Other than the excellent, tiny, 12,000-circulation Weekly Mail (a descendant of now-defunct Rand Daily Mail), the South African press is debased. Major newspapers offer nothing more than battlefield reports, "THREE MEN DIED LAST NIGHT." Only rarely does an article evaluate or analyze the current domestic war. Worse, the press does not tell its mostly white readers about blacks. Rudimentary stuff like who their leaders are, what they believe, what they want. Eighty percent of the population is ignored, leaving whites inside their own self-created, self-maintained fantasy bubble.

Wandering downtown Johannesburg, I'm struck both by how rich it is and, even more, by the staggering amount of personal service in shops. It's an aspect of life long gone in the United States. Wages for blacks are so cheap (rent a truck and for another $1.25 rent a black) that all shops have stand-around guys. A fast-food place may have six people working, then another three hanging out in case there's something to do. When I check into a hotel, two blacks appear to carry my one backpack. In the morning two more arrive at my door with coffee. Three attendants per car are standard at gas stations. There are a little more than one million white households in South Africa. There are more than 800,000 black maids.

South Africa is particularly cheap for Americans. The rand has fallen from $1.79 to 46 cents; this marks the welcome return of the nine-dollar hotel room, $2.50 dinner, 53-cent beer served in First World plush surroundings. It is so cheap that I actually rent an automobile, a brand new Volkswagen Golf, which I inaugurate by driving into a warehouse, literally, creating a four-foot gash along the Golf's left flank. South Africans drive on the British side of the road, a particularly elusive highway tip.

Which turns out to be fortunate. When dealing with immediate stress I usually get a cup of black coffee. Across the street is a fast-food joint. I place my order, which, in a nation with a passion for coffee served with cream and sugar, I've already learned must be made in the following manner: "Black coffee please. That's coffee black with no cream or sugar, just black coffee, no cream, no sugar. Black coffee only, without the cream, without the sugar. Black coffee please."

A minute later, from the kitchen: "Tell the gentleman with the speech impediment his coffee's ready."

The voice belongs to Ramona, store manager. She's 32, tall, blond, agreeable. We chat over coffee, arrange a date for tonight.

Ramona has an apartment in Hillbrow, a ten-block area of what passes in Jo'burg for International Yuppie. There are cafes, restaurants, movies, street people selling crafts, and that rarest of South African scenes - an integrated crowd strolling after dark.

Ramona lives on the ninth floor, shares a flat with an Afrikaner roommate. Monthly rent: $175.

I arrive at 8:00 p.m., ask to be shown the town. One block beyond Hillbrow I ram a curb, bounce off the base of a street lamp, creating another, deeper, wound on the rental car's left side.

We arrive at The Smugglers, a local hot spot in the suburbs, where we meet Ramona's Afrikaner roommate Kristine and her boyfriend from "Rhodesia." Smugglers is jammed; takes twenty minutes to get past front door - belly up to hardwood bar. Eight soldiers are here, in uniform, working on several pitchers of beer.

I order drinks. The soldier on my right leans toward us, says, "You an American?"

I'm talking to an army captain doing township duty; he's English descent, mid-thirties, nice guy. (All white South African males are conscripted into the army for two years, then put on reserve for ten more.) He's doing two months active duty this year, his partner three. For the first time he has been assigned township patrol, "to back up the police."

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