A South African Odyssey

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

Riggs is black, 25 years old, five-foot-ten, thin, graceful body, conspicuous intelligence. His brown eyes are deep set, his posture Marine Corps erect. I'm struck by his immense energy, also his steadiness. He has a quality of purpose, of absolute knowledge about who he is that is so intense you feel it across a room with your back turned.

Riggs and I hurry along in my rented Golf, now home to several weeks of to-go coffee cups, newspapers, pieces of dead animal flesh - the greasy, fat-soaked kind that humans purchase when traveling long distances.

Riggs directs me into the colored township of Bontelheuwel, where, he says, there has been unrest recently. The township's high schools have a long boycott history, usually initiated by students, usually protesting police actions or detentions. Two days ago security forces detained a mathematics teacher. In response, students have planned a demonstration, with school boycott to follow.

Because Bontelheuwel is a colored township, buildings, though old, are maintained. There is electricity and running water, primary streets are paved. We drive in, keeping to side roads. Dead on is Arcadia High, a slab-concrete building surrounded by a high, barbed-wire-tipped fence.

Christ, the area is filthy with police. We stop, watch three redneck cops 50 feet ahead, who, in unison, realize that parked in front of them is an automobile, an automobile occupied by one black and one white.

Fresh meat.
Three cops advance. Now two ambulances arrive, squeal to a stop in front of our car, momentarily blocking police. At this same instant, several students are being dragged from the high school. Once outside, police surround each student, begin beating them with rubber sticks (slamboks). Our three approaching cops hesitate, decide to join the fun already under way. I throw Volks in reverse, back up as slowly as I can manage, make a U-turn. Am experiencing intense, full-body trembling, which causes Golf to lurch-pause-lurch in response to unmanageable right foot now involuntarily jerking gas pedal.

My companion gazes out the passenger window. The son of a bitch actually appears serene. I scream, "Riggs! This is it, partner. No more fucking army. I don't care where we go, but no more fucking army!"

"We will go over to a comrade's house. There are some people you should meet."

Riggs has "organized" a braai for me, in the black township of Langa. Braai is South African for barbecue. We stop at a colored shopping center for beer. Inside, every customer stares at my white face, then glances at Riggs. It's the second look that does it, delighted grins, arms shoot out, "My God, how long have you been out? How are you? You look so well!"

Nine o'clock in the evening. Thirteen of us surround a barbecue pit in what passes as a yard, although it's little more than a fifteen-by-fifteen-foot dirt alley. Beer is opened, chicken, fries. It's a fine, clear autumn evening. I'm thinking how few stars there are down here and how brightly they shine.

Activity alternates between talking politics and singing freedom songs. Everyone believes America is supporting South African racists; no one can understand why. They think that if they can get people to see apartheid, see living conditions, see the humiliations, see the army, the entire world would be on their side. At least half of tonight's guests have been detained. One man rolls up his right trouser leg, points at two bullet holes. Another has done three years on Robben Island. Another was detained for six months; when it was over, his jailers walked him out police station's front door, rearrested him, walked him back in - laughing.

Chicken is flipped, our cook remarks that his detention meant solitary confinement. "I was very afraid, because I didn't know if I could survive. But now that I've done it," he says, "I'm not afraid any more." Everyone nods. Doing it once takes fear away. In fact Robben Island prison is called the University of Robben Island; political prisoners are housed together, spend time studying politics, discussing strategy. They call being detained "going on government holiday."

One of tonight's guests is an Arcadia High School teacher, the same school Riggs and I fled from earlier in the day. I ask what happened.

"It was vicious. Police came into school, into classrooms, pulled students out to the hallway. Waiting in corridors were more police, who beat, whipped students as they ran past. Forty children were injured severely enough to be transported to the hospital."

"What's going to happen?"
"I don't know. Students are having a meeting. They will probably boycott school again."

"This is student run, no adults?"
"Oh, yes. They don't trust us."
I ask the group about whites: are they doing much? I'm told whites are involved, play a significant part.

"I can't believe that," I object. "If shooting really starts, whites aren't going to be there. They've got no experience, no training, no lifetime of being stomped on, only an intellectual commitment. They'll go home anytime they want a break."

Many protests. "No, no - whites, many whites are with us. A great many more than you think. It is an interracial struggle. Whites are welcome, whites have fought, whites have joined."

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