A South African Odyssey

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

I ask, "Why do you stay?"
"Pattrik. The style of life here is good. I have a yacht, a villa on the beach, a guest house - you must come down - a Mercedes. I have many things. All that cost me $300,000. In the States that setup would cost millions. But yes, I am placing money overseas. It is difficult because of currency restrictions, but I will be ready."

There are more than five million whites in South Africa. When blacks take over, they are not all going to get on a plane and leave. There are not that many planes and there is nowhere for five million people to go. But Oscar will be an upstanding, legal immigrant somewhere in the West, playing tennis, smiling at integrated locals. A lot of Oscars will.

I'm delivered to a drink-stained table whose occupant is Louis Gerrit. Gerrit's tall, comes with a red workingman's face. Today is his 52nd birthday, and he's very nearly drunk. Gerrit says he used to own a 68,000-acre ranch in "Rhodesia." Four years ago the government ordered him to leave - now.

I've already had more then a bellyful of "Rhodesians" and their party line, begin watching the door.

"I am not a South African. I have never voted. These people are crazy. I am not like them."

I'm thinking, "Riiight, partner, whatever you say."
"South Africans don't know anything. I'll tell you a secret. Something no one in this town knows. I am married to a black woman."

"Why in hell are you telling me this?"
"Because you are passing through, because it's my birthday, because sometimes you have to tell secrets."

She was a field hand, working Gerrit's farm in Zimbabwe. They fell in love. Now, she lives 25 kilometers away in one of the homelands, won't set foot inside Brits.

A flaccid arm waves at the room. "These people would think it's a sin." He refocuses two blue eyes, leans close, and in a little boy's shaky voice pleads, "But it isn't - is it?"

"No. No, it isn't a sin."
Early next morning two blacks knock on my door carrying coffee and hot rolls. In the hallway another asks, "Hi, Baas, do you care for anything?"

"No, thanks. I'm not your boss."
I get no response. He's got his role as commercial chattel, which helps keep me in my role as Baas.

And you know what's frightening? I'm starting to like it. I like not doing laundry. I like having several people take care of me for a pittance. It makes me feel important. Like this is the way life should be - constant, omnipresent, personal service. It's pleasant having everyone ask if they can do something for me, being at my command, acting subservient. Racism has a seductive quality to it - I'm special and better; doors should open for me. It's an addiction, whites in South Africa are hooked, it's starting to nibble on me.

The Volkswagen takes another salvo on the way back to Jo'burg, loses right front headlight when I smash into a loading platform.

Later that night, Ramona asks how I liked Brits.
"It's where Germany won World War II."
We attend local live theater. Intimate building, good acting, lousy play. We hold hands, rub legs. There is, of course, not one black in the audience.

Next morning is May Day. Blacks are calling for a national stay-away, the first in more than 25 years, to lobby for a May Day holiday. The holiday demand is bogus. Today's stay-away is actually a test to see if blacks have the ability to stage national work stoppages. Press, government, whites, blacks, Indians, colored, everyone is waiting to see how effective today's action will be.

Six-fifteen a.m. - city train station. No one is coming into town. (Official totes will put absenteeism from Soweto at 99 percent.) Whites in Johannesburg react as if they are enduring some kind of natural disaster. There is no one about to prepare food, make coffee, clean stores, empty trash, deliver newspapers. At Ramona's shop, whites offer to help cook, one volunteers to deliver sandwiches next door. There is a pervading sense of manic good will - "We're all in this together, ho, ho, ho" - but around the edges of that is fear.

I drive out to the university. Two buses have been chartered to carry interested students out to a legal May Day rally in Soweto.

Buses are late and it's mill around, mill around. I begin chatting with a cameraman from the BBC, who says that filming in black townships is precarious. He's been shot twice by the army, also fears blacks. The only satellite feed out of RSA is controlled by the South African Broadcasting Corporation, which makes copies of all foreign raw film footage, turns them over to police. Subsequently that film has been used at trials.

"Now we tell [blacks] to let us know if something is coming down, so we can film from the rear."

He asks what I'm doing here.
"Writing a story."
"Got a working visa?"
"No."

"Don't get caught. They will ding you. Stay away from other reporters and don't get near government people."

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