A South African Odyssey

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

Two buses arrive, gushing thick black clouds of oil. Both are loaded to the tits. The mix is 50 percent black, 30 percent Indian, 20 percent white female. No white males.

Everyone is singing freedom songs and swaying in their seats. It's 1962 Peace Corps heaven jammed with twenty-year-olds. I'm 42 with one hell of a lot of miles on me, stand out here like industrial motor oil on snow. I walk down the aisle clutching a bag of fast food, beer, cigarettes. Every head follows.

"Alaskan. Alaskan guy here. Just an Alaskan guy from Alaska wanting to see the rally. Hi-ya, hi-ya, hi-ya."

It's always astonishing how often simple babbling works. I sit down, buddy up to a young lady, Frances, continue to babble until everyone settles down again. Frances is a sophomore, studying law. This is her first trip to Soweto.

Buses stop at a colored hospital, just outside Soweto, to let people use rest rooms, sign attendance lists so that all will be accounted for on the way out.

Soweto has shopping centers, modern housing. But once past that membrane, you enter reality - dirt streets, crooked roads, no water, no electricity, red-brick matchbox houses.

After twenty minutes our buses arrive at Orlando Stadium, which looks like a high school football stadium built in one of America's tougher ghettos 30 years ago. South African army awaits in three hippos (armored cars, each holding a squad of soldiers). Police (blacks and whites) are here, videotape us getting off the bus.

There is a slight snap in the air. Men wear worn but clean sweaters and pants; the style is to leave one's shirt hanging out beneath sweaters. Women favor Western dress. Many, many people wear the black, green, and gold colors of the ANC. As it becomes warmer, T-shirts appear. Most popular are yellow-and-red UDF shirts with the logo, "UDF UNITES-APARTHEID DIVIDES," and the red-and-black National University Student Association offerings, "RELEASE POLITICAL PRISONERS." Eventually whole sections of the stadium are colored by political T-shirts.

Arriving spectators are shepherded into groups of 200 outside the stadium. The procedure is very organized, black rally marshals everywhere. My group is assembled and we are directed into the stadium through a twenty-foot open gate. We enter onto the track. There is a tremendous cheer. Good God, they're cheering us.

Suddenly a red-and-white banner is thrust into my hands. I grasp it, look up at 50,000 blacks who pack the stadium, singing, dancing in their seats. I have never seen so many people in one place express such joy. I have never seen such wide smiles. Now my group of 200 begins to dance and sing, moving along the track's perimeter. The "dance" is a slow jog - bodies bob up, down from knees. The stadium is bobbing, weaving, dancing along with us. Unbelievable. Fifty thousand people jab arms, clench fists, sing freedom songs.

We dance 100 yards, stop, turn toward stadium seats. Spectators in this section are on their feet. They sing the same haunting, rhythmic song we do, but now toss part of the song to us. First men sing a lyric, then women, now my group. Then all of us sing chorus.

And it continues. We dance another 100 yards, stop in front of another section. Again everyone is on their feet, dancing, singing with us. We travel completely around the oval stadium, greeting and being greeted by each section.

After we have danced the full lap, my group is seated. Over the next two hours, delegation after delegation arrives. Each contingent dances, sings, circles track. Finally speeches begin: Elijah Baraju (currently imprisoned), president of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu); young radicals; more trade union people; and Winnie Mandela, who is one king hell of a commanding speaker. ("I say to you today, the time will come when I will order you to stand up and defend yourselves. You are the power.") The audience doesn't applaud speakers, they sing to them. I'm as high as I've ever been in my life.

It's 3:00 p.m. We've been here five hours. Frances and I are sucking down last beer, relaxing in the stands with our backs toward the dirt parking lot. On that field are 40 buses, twenty cars, and army. I glance over, watch as two soldiers approach buses, begin slashing tires. (This is a legal rally.) Boom: Now soldiers tear gas the stadium. It's funny how they did it. They could clear us out anytime, but instead choose to lob a tear gas canister, wait twenty minutes, lob another, and so on.

More army hippos appear, take position a half-mile west. An army helicopter arrives, circles overhead. After an hour's foreplay, the pace is pumped, tear gas canisters begin landing in clusters of twos and threes. We are sucking smoke. The crowd breaks around us as two canisters arrive in the same place at the same time. Everyone bolts. We run down rickety steps toward two available exits, pushing around and over others who are in the way. I can see a dozen people on the ground. I can feel panic. It hangs. I can touch it. I can smell it.

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