A South African Odyssey

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

"I thought township duty was all regular army."
"They ran out of people."
I ask, "How bad is it?"

"Some of the things I've seen in the last two weeks I don't want to talk about."

"Like what?"
"Young blacks playing soccer with human heads. School basements filled with explosives. Little kids throwing petrol bombs. Don't get me wrong, mostly it's boring. Most of the time we sit."

"Come on, there's been too many reports of the army tear gassing and shooting activists' houses."

"There's some of that. Afrikaners are hard. Eighty percent of army officers are Afrikaner and I have seen squads tear gas neighborhoods. Not much you can do if your commanding officers approve."

He goes on to say that the only people who give them trouble are kids between the ages of twelve and twenty-five."In ten years it'll be twelve to thirty-five," I say. The captain swallows. I wonder if he's ever thought of that before.

He mentions his young son. He's worried for him. "I might leave the country," he says, then unconsciously returns to standard South African line: "No one understands. Blacks are ignorant. Look at the rest of Africa."

And yet I like him.
One question I ask every white South African is, "What do you think is going to happen over the next twenty years?" This is always a showstopper. The question is treated in the same way as, say, exposing yourself at a family Thanksgiving dinner. The act is so gross, so embarrassing, that people respond as if it's not there, as if it's not happening. That's the near-universal white South African response to questions about the future. When pressed, that response turns to anger. Press more and most everyone admits that South Africa will be a black state, never failing to add that chaos and poverty will follow.

By this time Ramona's roommate is eyeing me, has long since sailed past simple rage, is moving straight ahead into a lifelong bond of committed hatred. What's surprising is that she's a young executive secretary, a business school graduate, does not live on a farm in Transvaal with seven bearded brothers oiling rifles and beating field hands on humid days. She's mainstream.

I drop the gang off at 4:00 a.m. Weeks later I learn that the following morning Ramona's roommate and the "Rhodesian" had a breakfast conversation about having me murdered. As told to me, it was a joke, but also not a joke - one of those gray areas where wish, truth, and humor combine.

Next morning I begin making the rounds, schedule interviews with a well-known activist teaching at the University of Witwatersrand (he has since been "detained"); with Brendon Berry, president of the National University Student Association, who has recently returned from discussions with the (then banned) African National Congress (ANC) in Zaire; and with a black reporter writing for one of Jo'burg's major newspapers.

All say they are watching closely to see whether the ANC will be able to organize black townships. For two years the ANC has been concentrating on weeding out state-approved black counselors, mayors, township civic leaders. More than 600 of these officials, seen as collaborators of the white government, have left office, others threatened, and still others forced to resign.

In Alexandria and many other townships, residents have formed street committees whose members include everyone living on the street except overt government collaborators. Representatives are sent to a township civic association that deals with everything from when and where to use boycotts, collection of refuse, curriculum for ad hoc schools, administrating people's courts, down to how late "shebeens" (speakeasies) may operate. The goal is to operate townships without any involvement of the white government.

Richard, a black reporter from the Johannesburg Star, South Africa's largest newspaper, has a more detailed perspective. He says that lifting pass laws came ten years too late. Events have gone too fast. Now, no one is interested in reforming pass laws, integrating downtown, or allowing intermarriage. No one cares any more. The only thing that counts is the transfer of power. Blacks intend to take power. There will either be an orderly transfer of power or it will be seized. Whites will move toward negotiation, but not in time, and not far enough. Richard foresees a protracted struggle. Tactics will be endless stay-aways, boycotts, and sanctions.

Richard's job is getting increasingly dangerous as more and more frequently soldiers fire at black reporters working townships. His car has a half-dozen bullet holes. "So far they have only shot at me from a distance, but someday...."

Working a township beat is hazardous and frustrating. You go in (and getting in often requires dodging army), work the day's story: South African Defense Forces, say, at 3:00 a.m., while patrolling a shanty street, and for the hell of it, for a reason no one knows because the army is not in the habit of telling anyone, tear gas a street, maybe machine gun a few houses. Richard drives out the next day, interviews residents, takes photos, returns to his office, writes story. Now comes the institutional work - trying to get his piece past white editors who simply don't believe him. Because white South Africans never, that is, never, go into black townships, whites, even white newspaper editors, live inside fantasy when it's time for these stories.

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