A South African Odyssey

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

If and when he can sell the article to his editor, then comes step two. The policy of major South African newspapers is not to print stories of this nature unless there is an official response. So Richard gets on the phone, calls the army, reads his story, asks for comment. Army PR guy says, "I'll get right back with you." An hour passes, another hour. Richard calls again. Again, "We'll be right back with you." Another hour. Richard's on the phone again, army still not ready with a statement, deadline comes and goes, no statement, no story, tomorrow is another news day.

Richard and I are at lunch in an Indian township. Discretion pays, also Richard wants to be paid, wants ten bucks for talking to me.

I sigh, "Is this really necessary?"
Richard explains even though he works for the largest newspaper in South Africa, he doesn't make much money.

I pony up ten bucks.
I've been in country a week, already sick of its racism. Among whites, race is a constant subject that is brought up in loops. Ordinary whites chat normally for a few minutes, then drop something racist, then move on to sports, fashion, family affairs, more racism, back to job, romance, racism.

A typical situation: I'm sitting in a cheap restaurant with an Indian; I ask the black counterman if he has a sandwich.

"No, none here."
The Indian jumps in: "But you can get."
"Yes, Baas, I can get."

The Indian looks at me in triumph, as if to say, "This is how you deal with them."

Evening. Ramona and I uncork a bottle of white. It's a quiet, brisk fall night. I ask if she's been following the unrest.

"We blank that out. We don't think about it."
Next morning I break camp and head for Brits, a rural city of 15,000, 100 kilometers north of Jo'burg. It's an Afrikaner stronghold supporting the Afrikaner Resistance movement (AWB is the Afrikaans acronym), a homegrown Nazi outfit dedicated to old-time apartheid. They view government "reforms" as heresy and have established their own military arm, the Storm Falcons. Their goal is to create a Boer government consisting of Northern Natal, Transvaal, and the Orange Free State, which would be eternally white. The area is also filthy with followers of the Reconstituted National Party (HNP), which also calls for a return to traditional apartheid. They have become so popular so fast that, ironically, both parties call for immediate national elections.

Brits has an eight-block-by-two-block commercial district. Across railroad tracks lies the black district, one-story mud homes, occasional businesses. I check into Hotel Overberg. Tony Eston, the white manager, greets me - beckons two blacks. Four of us walk outside to the Golf, retrieve my backpack.

Tony asks what brings me to Brits. "I'm working for an Alaskan mining company, doing preliminary economic surveys."

"Oh, you must meet some people," he says, takes me to meet Neil, a local merchant who is sitting with his sidekick, a fat farmer and born-again Nazi. Tony and I find chairs.

Neil asks, "Do you have any Alaskan money or something you can show us?"
"It's American money. I don't have any artifacts. A driver's license."
"Oh, that would be fine."

I have never been so thoroughly ID'ed. Each man examines my license, looking at every block, corner, number, and address.

Finally, the last man is done. Wide smiles. The house band is instructed to play "North to Alaska."

Exactly what am I doing here?
"I'm surveying South Africa to see if the political situation is stable enough for outside investment. I'm particularly interested in the severity of unrest at different locations around the country."

Neil volunteers, "We have no problem with blacks here. In this area there are 28,000 whites, 250,000 blacks. Relations are excellent. We don't have demonstrations or unrest."

"Why?"
"Blacks know their place. The national government is creating unrest by its policy of appeasement. We will never allow blacks to take over our country."

There is silence, then, "What does the rest of the world care about little South Africa?"

His buddy remarks, "We have God on our side and therefore we are the majority in Africa."

I mention that newspapers are carrying stories about Afrikaners arming and training in paramilitary outfits.

"Of course we will defend what is ours. We will never allow blacks to take control. This is our country. Look at what they've done to the rest of Africa."

The fat farmer is reading a pamphlet that explains that whites should "arm themselves, stay armed, and make sure you know how to use your weapons. If attacked, shoot to kill. We can talk later. Beware of your servants. Remember...the tame dog is the one that bites hardest."

Tony escorts me to another table, introduces Oscar Joos, who's having dinner with a young white woman. Oscar owns a hotel here, drive-in theaters in two provinces. Dressed elegantly with the right touch of gray hair, he's 50 years old, in excellent shape.

Oscar's been to the States many times. Speaking in a heavy Afrikaans accent, he asks my impressions of South Africa. I reply that it seems to me that revolution has begun in earnest, it's only a matter of time until blacks take control.

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