A South African Odyssey

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

Out a back gate, circle around to the freeway. No army. We enter roadway, seven miles from city center. No army. There is a spontaneous collective release. This has been a remarkable passage for many of us and now it is over and there is going to be hot dinner with no tear gas tonight.

We begin to sing.
Two miles from downtown Jo'burg, the six-lane freeway splits, one side arching towards town, the other arching east. Here the freeway is elevated twenty feet or more, with high-fenced railroad yards to the right and what looks to be an enormous slag heap to our left. Straight ahead and below is another freeway. There are no off-ramps for miles. Right at this split our bus blows a tire. We are forced to park precisely on the fork, traffic zooming left and right.

Straight away the bus votes to get off, then on again. In the middle of the second vote cycle, I hear a familiar high-pitched scream, "Oh my God, it's the army!" More screams. Every head jerks. People charge off the bus into oncoming freeway traffic but soon stop. There is simply no place to go. Frances and I are outside, using bus as shield against traffic and army, trapped like bugs in a jar.

At this moment Johannesburg police arrive in patrol cars. They huddle with the army. For an unknown reason, army departs. No one believes it. City police stand around, order us back onto the bus, then leave. We elect a runner, who is sent up the slag heap to find a telephone, call bus company demanding replacement. We wait 45 minutes, passing time voting to get off and on bus. Our runner returns, reports that bus company is closed for the night. Another runner is elected, sent to call friends who have automobile connections. We've been here two hours.

That's enough. I make a general announcement, "Fuck it, I'm going to walk in. Does anybody want to go with me?" No takers.

There's about thirteen inches of curb to walk on in pitch darkness as freeway traffic hurls past me, coming so close I still don't like to think about it. I take first off-ramp, get lost, wander into a black area. A group of blacks play soccer underneath ancient street lamp, call out, "Hey, mon, you don't want to go in there."

They give me directions back to white Jo'burg. Twenty-five minutes later I stroll into a sleaze bar, tell red, balloon-faced bartender to pour double brandies until my taxi arrives. I pick up my car, which I'd parked at the university, and once again am tapping on Ramona's door.

She gives me a deep kiss, takes my hand, asks, "How was your day?"
Riggs and I are sharing daytime fun: a black guy and a white guy driving around townships, at risk both from South African security forces and militant blacks, who, understandably, regard a white inside a township as turf provocation.

Riggs directs me around a corner, and the deed is done before I see the cluster of armored cars and combat troops at the next intersection. Instantly I turn down a side street.

"Riggs!" I shout, taking another left. "Riggs!" I scream, taking another right. "You have a genuine talent for directing us into the nearest fucking nest of security assholes. I'm here illegally, remember? The army has the guns, remember? Bad things are going to happen if we keep driving into the goddamn army."

"Do not get excited," says Riggs, in his quiet way.
"I'm excited, Riggs. I'm very, very excited."
"Patrick, what did you expect? This is what we do every day."

A township is one of those governmental service areas that has given South Africa the worldwide reputation it currently enjoys. Townships come in all shapes and sizes. Their populations can be as small as 6000 or as large as the more than 1.5 million estimated to be living in Soweto. Older, established townships are close to urban centers; you enter off four-lane city streets as if you were headed for any suburban neighborhood. Newer ones are built well out of town, accessible by two, three, four entrances.

Townships also come in all races. Indian townships look like upper-middle-class American suburbs; colored townships have the look of a working-class American neighborhood. Black townships bottom out in traditional Third World. But even here there is variety: In larger black townships there's a full range of living standards, from flat-out misery to a section in Soweto called Millionaires' Row. It's the proportion that's out of sync; a handful of livable islands surrounded by an ocean of shacks.

Riggs is my "handler." To arrange entree into townships, a foreigner needs to find one of the progressive organizations (United Democratic Front, Black Sash, South African Council of Churches) that have offices downtown. At least one black - typically two or three - will volunteer to show you around, protect you, introduce you to anyone you'd care to talk to.

Which is how Riggs and I met. I'd arrived a couple nights ago, after merciless trek from Jo'burg. Hooked up at UDF office in downtown Cape Town yesterday. Been cruising townships ever since, courtesy of the able Riggs. It's been three months since his release from Robben Island prison. He'd done two years for fire bombing what he says was a collaborator's house. "The man was an informer," Riggs explains. "He'd been responsible for the detention of many activists. He was warned many times."

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