A South African Odyssey

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

Another tear gas canister explodes and we surge forward again. Speakers shout for order. At the last instant, in a supreme collective moment, all of us stop at stadium's exits, sway, and then shudder. Tear gas drifts off, people slowly, very slowly return to their seats. I turn to Frances, "That was close."

She's crying.
It's coming on to 4:00 p.m., tear gassing continues, as does tire slashing. My lungs and face are fire. A speaker calls for students from Witwatersrand to board their buses. It's getting out of hand, time for noncombatants to go home.

Miraculously, our bus tires survived. Driving out we pass a squad of soldiers, some raise their automatic rifles, point them at our heads, some cup hands over their crotch. I'm happy as hell to be going. As we drive on, blacks walking along dirt streets, or from their yards, or leaning out matchbox windows, applaud, smile, raise their fists. My bus is singing; we are expansive.

Our two buses pass a gas station where three army hippos stand watch. Soldiers instantly mount vehicles, dart onto the highway, quickly overtake, pull over our second bus. People aboard yell for our driver to stop. He doesn't.

A dozen shrieking voices, "Stop, stop! We can't leave them there."
The driver drives.
More screams. "Oh my God, my God. Stop the bus. Stop it, stop it, stop it!"

Males standing in the aisle advance on the driver, who halts, removes ignition key, bolts out the door. We are on a slight hill about 600 yards ahead of our second bus.

We disembark, look down the slope, watch as army surrounds our companions. Soldiers break bus windows with rifle butts, fire tear gas at pointblank range. We hear screams, observe students crash through sealed windows attempting to escape gas. Those who made it outside are forced to spread-eagle, forced to lean onto the coach gasping billowing white clouds of escaping tear gas.

On our bus, now a dead beast without a key, people are debating what to do. It's incredibly democratic - quaint - in other circumstances it would be charming. People vote to send a delegation back to the first bus. Four people are elected, leave. The bus then democratically votes to get off the bus. We get out. After five minutes the group votes to get back on the bus. We mount up. Five more minutes, a vote to get off the bus. Off we go. Next vote I vote to stay put and take control of my own self.

Forty-five minutes later our elected delegation returns. We vote to hear their report inside our bus. We are told that the first bus had been arrested. After the arrest it seems that the army commander, who refused to give his name, realized he had a problem. Many students had gashes, deep lacerations. A lot of these students were white women. This means complications. Army medics arrived. Blacks refused to be treated by South African army medics. Consequently, nine people were sent to the hospital and the rest allowed to leave.

Which seems like a splendid idea except that we have no ignition key. The bus is still voting to get on and off itself. I'm standing outside, positioned next to the hood ornament. I've already been tear gassed twice today and would prefer great outdoors if there's going to be a third round.

We wait. Where the fuck is the driver? We are dead meat stranded in Soweto. The bus has just completed one of their stand-outside votes, 46 of us mill around beside the vehicle.

A woman screams. Christ, here comes the army. Three hippos appear, stop twenty yards away. Soldiers stand, place rifles to shoulders, sight us down. Tear gas canisters explode at our feet. More screams, shrieks, ragged panic. Students fly over the roadway, away from the army, toward the colored hospital.

Every soldier's weapon is upon us. The army commander bellows into a bullhorn, "Stop right there!"

Everyone freezes as in a children's game - arms, legs, heads frozen in awkward, even humorous, Tin Man, Scarecrow poses.

Soldiers fire another round of tear gas. We break, run onto hospital grounds, stream past bewildered employees who look up, see army, join us. Running, running, running. I tell Frances to hang back for a second. If the army crosses into the hospital, we've got to break away, hide in one of many small outbuildings. The assumption being that if troops dare come in here, they're going to clean house. We hang back, watch main gate.

It takes an hour, but our group begins to reform, one, two at a time, inside the cafeteria, the one where we stopped this morning.

Jesus, here comes our bus, behind its wheel is our driver. People are so relieved to see the beast that our driver's past indiscretions are forgotten. There is a vote to get on the bus and make a run for Jo'burg. After we are all seated, Curtis, a black organizer, boards, says a great truth. "Comrades. Welcome to the struggle. We must do this every day. You must become more disciplined."

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