In 1984, when Nelson Mandela was still marking time in prison, I wrote a poem. It was a heavy poem. Something about the moon being black. I no longer remember the poem or its title, but I remember the moon. It was black. I no longer have the poem. I mailed it to a friend who could not be relied upon to look after things. I once produced a collage for him entitled “The Last Known Portrait of God and Her Brother Before Sneaking Out the Back Door.” I no longer have that collage. Neither does he. He tore it out of the frame so he could use the frame for something else. He’s that kind of person.
On that day in 1984, I had been stationed in a part of South Africa known as the Eastern Cape. Many parts of South Africa (not excluding South Africa itself) are named for their geographical locations on the map. I was in the city of Port Elizabeth, which was named not for its geographical location, but for the wife of the acting governor of the area, known as the Cape Colony, at the time of the city’s inception. Steve Biko was buried in a township not too far away. He was a black man who openly opposed apartheid. Those in charge of apartheid opposed him. They won. That, too, had been a black day.
I had just learned I was being sent back to my military base. My services were no longer required in that part of the country. I had not chosen to serve in the army. It was compulsory. I did not have the gall to oppose the regime out of fear of going to jail. A friend who had refused to carry a rifle was made to carry a broomstick instead. Unlike him, my fellow soldiers and I stood at attention but dared not stand up to the imposition on our lives—the imposition of our lives. We were on the threshold of manhood, and the allure of being in the military trumped all rationality. Our job was to uphold apartheid with soccer balls and candy, tear gas and guns.
Our temporary base was tucked behind a popular beach. No one would have known that from the road. We lived in tents and peed into large, conical tubes that had been driven into the sand. This must have been a sight to behold. The tubes were brightly colored and evenly spaced, and beyond the gates of the makeshift camp were beaches, restaurants and a miniature golf course, which we never got to play on. Our days at this point were divided in two. During the first half, which for the purpose of this piece we shall call “night,” we patrolled the townships. Townships were the lively places where black people lived. They had no choice but to live there. We spent our nights in a type of armored vehicle called a Buffel, which is Afrikaans for “buffalo.” Its triangular, water-filled base ensured that it could withstand the force of a land mine. Or so we were told. The other half of our daily routine, which I shall call “day,” was for sleeping. The fragments of time in between were for eating or paying visits to the conical tubes.
There were no conical tubes in the townships, so we just went wherever we could. In hindsight, this must have been insulting. The inhabitants of these areas were restricted in terms of where they could live, sit or eat. They were forbidden by an act of Parliament to spend more than 72 hours in any area demarcated “white.” But we could pee in their streets.
That year, when I wrote the poem, a poem I impertinently like to think of as my “De Profundis” or my “Rubicon,” dark-skinned people began to object to their plight in earnest, specifically in the form of riots and consumer boycotts. Riots were expected, but the message really hit home when those who couldn’t live where they wanted to live discovered they were, in fact, free to shop wherever they wanted to shop. And so, almost overnight, the chosen few who had once earned a living selling their wares to the disenfranchised felt the pain of dwindling sales. And it hurt. Something had to be done. If the white regime couldn’t stop blacks from their incessant bickering for things like equal rights the friendly way, the natives, as they were then called, would have to be shown the hard way.
During the first few weeks of our tour of duty, we made many civilly acceptable attempts at appeasing the angry mobs. We were ordered to play soccer with the many children who roamed the streets. We were also armed with bags of candy, which we were told to hand out to the children. Many parents seemed angry at having their kids commandeered by pink-faced strangers and even angrier at the thought that their children would be better off playing soccer than attending school. We, for our part, were indoctrinated into thinking that the kids should simply be grateful for the candy. Besides, during the riots, had blacks themselves not flagrantly torched many black schools?—an act that the white regime, with ever-increasing myopia, continued to interpret as a sign that black kids did not, in fact, want to be schooled. Of course, what black people were actually trying to convey was opposition to laws such as the one that made it compulsory for students to learn Afrikaans—the language of the oppressor. And who could blame them? Did they not already have several wonderful languages, rich and sonorous, with which to communicate?
I had the desire neither to play soccer nor to hand out candy, but mostly remained seated in the back of the Buffel, with my medical bag at my feet and a book in my hand, delving deeper into the existentialist cup that had been served to me by my age—by my teen age. As one of two company medics, I sat in the lead vehicle of a 10-vehicle procession. The lead vehicle also contained the signaler on radio and the captain in charge of the operation, an Afrikaner with a severe stutter. He would commence each night’s patrol with, “L-l-l-l-l-laat ons b-b-b-b-b-bid,” which is Afrikaans for “Let us pray.” At the time, there were still those who believed that apartheid could somehow be explained away or, at the very least, be excused by religion. How else could one explain the countless priests (and army chaplains) who neither condoned nor condemned the atrocities of apartheid? For some reason, from where I sat in the back of the vehicle, I would often find myself in the eye-line of the captain as he strained to tame his uncooperative tongue to force a prayer upon us.
After a few weeks, a new tactic was introduced. Out were soccer balls and candy. Out was the soldier who would nod off in the seat next to me. In was a Xhosa-speaking African man in anti-riot gear, with a megaphone and a mask to hide his identity. I barely speak Xhosa, but I soon learned his job was to read from a script of what seemed like rationalizations as to why the soldiers who patrolled the townships’ roads and peed in their streets, had a right to do what they were doing. But what logical argument could one possibly have for denying seven-eighths of the population their basic human rights, the very least of which were voting rights, at the very time when other countries were shuttling people into space and organ transplants were becoming commonplace? I could feel the man’s pain as he sat there for hours on end, offering up scripted arguments and hollow defenses from behind a sweaty mask. This arrangement lasted for about a week, and then we were informed that our tolk, as he was known in Afrikaans, would no longer grace us with his presence. Rumor had it he had been murdered, but I could not verify this. Back was the soldier who would nod off in the seat next to me—a welcome relief from the blaring megaphone. Besides, for as long as the black man spun the white man’s yarn from our vehicle, the lead vehicle, we had become the primary target, the head of the snake. No sooner would the night’s ramblings begin than a wave of stones would fly at us like angry swallows. Whenever that happened, out would come the tear gas canisters and rubber bullets, a horrific experience for both recipient and sender. Only the driver of the vehicle, encased in a bulletproof glass compartment, was exempt. As for the rubber bullets—an oxymoron if ever there was one—they may as well have been real bullets in terms of the injuries and deaths they inflicted.
In the early hours of one morning, at a stage when we were sadly becoming numb to the imposition we were placing on the lives of our fellow countrymen and during a lull in the uprisings, we climbed out of the vehicle to drink sickly sweet coffee from a large stainless-steel urn. No sooner had I taken a sip, and no sooner had our verbally challenged captain begun the impossible task of regaling us with a story, than the shots began to ring out. Imagine, if you will, the sound of a bullet ricocheting off a church bell. Such was the sound of bullets flying off the side of the aluminum coffee urn. It was just like in the movies, except that one saw the bits of dust blow up around one before one had a chance to hear the shots. Light is a hare; sound, a tortoise.
There is a Dutch saying that, when translated, reads, “The bullet is through the church.” It found its way into the Afrikaans lexicon during the Anglo-Boer wars of 1880 and 1899. What it means is that a particular situation has reached a point of no return. Ergo, the not-so-rubber bullets that ricocheted off the urn that night.
During basic training, one is taught to observe the six variables of camouflage—the so-called five S’s and one M. The letters stand for Shape, Shine, Shadow, Silhouette, Sound and Movement. These refer specifically to the six conditions one needs to observe when attempting to remain undetected on the battlefield. Some military handbooks include yet another variable: Color. But in South Africa, at that time, only one color was usually important when determining friend or foe. I will leave the assumptions up to the reader.
One Saturday, when we had been given time off, I wandered down the main road that skirts the Port Elizabeth coast, feeling oddly out of place in my civilian attire. I felt as if I was no longer part of this world. I belonged to the night and all that the township had to offer. Declining a game of miniature golf, I watched a fellow soldier kill an octopus in a tidal pool. I did nothing to stop him. The sun was setting, and a song about the recently deceased Marvin Gaye beckoned me to a nearby ice-cream shop. Unexpectedly, a black man sat down next to me. Not directly next to me, of course, because that would have been quite unusual and vaguely defiant, but near to me. We began to talk. Slowly, but with the precise cunning of someone playing a game of pick-up sticks, he began to disassemble the threads of what was quickly becoming a frayed logic. He made an intelligent argument. It turns out that black people can be intelligent, too. And then he began to question me. How many troops were located in my camp of tents and conical tubes? How many Buffels were weaving along the unpaved roads of the townships? And just how long were we planning to stay? He asked questions that covered the salient logistics of the bigger operation. I tried to answer as best as I could, but a realization dawned upon me. What I was doing was tantamount to treason. In fact, it was treason. I was becoming a traitor. I was putting my fellow soldiers’ lives at risk by revealing facts and figures, dates and times. But I couldn’t help myself. The choice had become clear. I could betray my conscience, or I could betray my people. (How many S’s and M’s does it take to hedge one’s conscience?) And that’s when the schism occurred. For the very first time in my life, I asked myself the seminal question: What is meant by “my people”? I can no longer remember the actual conversation that took place in the ice-cream shop, but I remember the disgust I began to feel. In 1978, Steve Biko told a journalist, “White society is quite agreed … that blacks are being denied, and that blacks have to come up, they have to be lifted. A lot of them don’t see that this entails them coming down.”
Was I coming down?
The man thanked me and went on his way, but not before we agreed to a time and a place to follow up our conversation. I knew it would never happen, and it never did. For a brief moment, I was a traitor. For the rest of the time, I was a coward.
The so-called “coloreds,” being neither white nor black, often found themselves caught between two worlds, ideologically speaking. The activist poet Adam Small fell into this category and famously wrote, in his poem “Die Here het gaskommel,” “Die Here het gaskommel / en die dice het verkeerd geval vi’ ons / daai’s maar al.” The Lord rolled, but the dice fell badly for us—that’s all.
In 1994, when apartheid’s final president, F.W. de Klerk, became the first deputy president of the new South Africa, his wife Marike de Klerk—this was after she had had eyebrow surgery to make her look less “sour”— told the press she was hopeful that the new president, Nelson Mandela, would find it in his heart to let the de Klerks remain in the official presidential residency. This, at a time when the 72-hour rule was dead but not yet cold. Is it possible that she, too, needed to “come down”?
In Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five,” the omniscient narrator adopts a throwaway phrase to describe things that are neither good nor regrettable but merely are. “So it goes,” he says no fewer than 106 times, with shoulder-shrugging resignation, about the various deaths and disasters—not excluding the devastating firebombing of Dresden—that cloud the book. The poet’s “daai’s maar al” conveys a not dissimilar resignation.
I have no memory of what I wrote in my “De Profundis.” Not a single phrase comes to mind. The closest I can come to remembering what I wrote that day is a feeling, a feeling that I had transcended some inner obstacle. In fact, I have a clearer memory of the things that took place around me on that day: the roll call in the distance; steaming food containers being loaded onto trucks; the hurry-up-and-wait attitude that prevailed in situations such as these; and the smoking, the endless smoking. I can even remember the shape the words made on the page. But I have no memory of the words. When rivers are crossed—in this case, my “Rubicon”—what is more important? The river or the words that carry one across?
Toward the end of my tour, Mr. Adriaan J. Vlok, then the deputy minister of defense, paid us a visit. He was a studious-looking man, but then again, so was Albert Speer. He and his first wife (a second Mrs. Vlok, ex-wife of the former minister of finance, Barend du Plessis, would later replace the first) wished to thank us for what we were doing. We were ordered to sit in neat little rows on the side of a hill. The ceremony began with a prayer as it always did. God was always, whether He liked it or not, made to bless apartheid. I often wondered what He really thought. Mrs. Adriaan Vlok, who looked absurdly out of place in race-day attire, insisted on shaking hands with each of us separately. And more than that, in an attempt to be cute, she insisted on a little handshake gimmick that kids might perform at school. This gimmick entails shaking hands and then, with thumbs still locked, twiddling one’s fingers as if to wave goodbye. Of course, this childish exercise not only lengthened each encounter, but the ceremony, too. The natives had been getting restless. We were brought in to subdue them. Mrs. Vlok, in her summer hat, not unlike Anita O’Day in “Jazz on a Summer’s Day,” was eternally grateful.
A little known fact is that, in 1970, Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere had the nerve to insult British Prime Minister Edward Heath at Heath’s own dinner table. Mr. Nyerere was simply objecting to what was known as the Simonstown Agreement, under which Britain sold £18,000,000 worth of weapons to apartheid South Africa. In response, Heath was reported to have angrily pounded his fist on the table, saying, “We will drop Africa, and Africa will not be able to pick up the pieces.” No less callous were the words spoken by South African Minister of Justice and the Police Jimmy Kruger upon hearing of Steve Biko’s death from massive injuries to the head while in custody. “I am not glad, and I am not sorry about Mr. Biko. It leaves me cold,” he is reported to have said, provoking laughter at the National Party conference at which he was speaking.
Years later, in mid-2010, I woke up to discover that a pair of mourning doves had begun roosting on the fire escape landing of our building. Windows were immediately shuttered, and voices lowered, in an effort to afford them the necessary peace and quiet to produce offspring. No sooner would an argument arise than it would be quashed in the name of this pulchritudinous development. Nature’s symbol of peace was working its magic on our often-combative household.
One afternoon, as I crossed the street, I glanced back casually to see if I could see tail feathers protruding from the fire escape ledge. Something black and ominous must have forced me to do a double take. I heard myself call out, “No!” But it was too late. With the solemnity of undertakers, two large crows set out to destroy the nests. The doves could only look on with, I assumed, the same level of disbelief I was experiencing. I began to shout, flapping my arms violently, but my administrations were swept aside by a gust of wind and nature’s indifference.
Driving my car later that day, I unrolled the window. Unexpectedly, two birds, in the middle of what resembled a dogfight over Germany, invaded the interior of the cabin. The sound was deafening; the excrement, unexpectedly pervasive. It was a multi-sensory invasion. I struggled to keep the car on the road as I cowered, withdrawing my hands from the wheel to shield my eyes. All the while, my subconscious served up some long-forgotten childhood memory of crows pecking out the eyes of dead lambs.
The next day, the news broke. South Africa’s leading white supremacist, Eugène Terre’Blanche—whose name meant “white earth” and who had adopted a symbol of three black 7s (forming a triskelion) in a white circle on a red background, uncannily similar to the Nazi swastika—had been murdered. He had been macheted and beaten to death by a classic South African combination known as panga and knobkerrie. The first is a sharp blade, traditionally used to cut through undergrowth; the second, a club with a knot of wood at one end. To add insult to injury, if that were possible, his trousers had been pulled down to his knees.
Adriaan Vlok was the only cabinet member ever to admit to, and seek forgiveness for, apartheid crimes. In 2007, in a show of public contrition, he went down on both knees to wash the feet of the Rev. Frank Chikane. As secretary-general of the South African Council of Churches, Chikane had been a thorn in the side of the apartheid government. Vlok had had him targeted for assassination. In Stasi-like fashion, Chikane’s underwear was laced with poison while his bags were in transit at what was then known as Jan Smuts International Airport. The secretary-general subsequently fell ill from organophosphate poisoning, but he did not die. It is not known if the second Mrs. Vlok attended the ex-minister’s public penance, but if she did, it is doubtful she wore race-day attire.