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Arrival in Apartheid South Africa


21 years old, less than a day in the country, and thrown into the harsh realities of this pariah state, I was totally out of my depth. But I'm glad I didn't stay long enough to regard such things as normal.  



For a few hours it appeared I was going to be stateless and stuck in the no-man’s land between South Africa and Mozambique.

My first attempt to enter South Africa had been rejected due to lack of funds, despite a brave little comedy performance that I had given to the border guard.

‘How much money do you have?’ he asked me.

‘Oh, £500,’ I replied, as nonchalantly as I could.

‘Can we see it please?’

‘Of course.’

Then a confident hand headed for the jeans pocket, followed by a look of concern, then increasing panic as I checked each pocket in turn.

‘My God, I’ve been robbed!’ 

He chuckled. ‘That’s quite good! Now really how much do you have?’

‘£10.’

‘Have you a job lined up? Any relatives in South Africa who will guarantee you?’

I shook my head.

‘Sorry then, but I can’t let you in. You need at least £300, so I suggest you go back to Mozambique and arrange a cash transfer to a bank.’

That’s the sort of thing you had to do in the early 1970’s before credit cards.

However when I returned to the Mozambique border post they looked at my visa and showed me it was valid for only one entry to the country, and I had already used that up.

‘Where do I get a new one?’ I asked.

‘In Pretoria or Johannesburg.’

‘But I can’t get into South Africa!  Please! I only left Mozambique 20 minutes ago, and I just need to return to Maputo for a couple of days to get money wired to me. Can’t we stretch the rules and re-use the visa I have stamped here?’

‘I’ve told you it’s a one-entry visa, and you’ve had your visit.’ And he waved me away dismissively.

I didn’t even have enough money to attempt a bribe, so I went outside, sat in the shade and surveyed my new homeland – the 100 yards of scrub that separated the two countries.

It held nothing.  No food, and if there was a water tap I couldn’t see it.  I might have to enter South Africa illegally if need be. Apart from a low barbed wire fence, the border didn’t seem too well defended, but could there be mines or dogs?

A few heavy lorries crossed the no-man’s land while I watched, and I examined them with new interest. That one had a loose tarpaulin that I might be able to wriggle under, or maybe I could hang from their chassis?

Before I resorted to such desperate measures I tried to remain calm. Presumably the border guards would change three times every 24 hours, so I had 2 more attempts.

The second try came as it was getting dark, and ended with defeat. They asked me about my funds and this time I didn’t attempt to lie. I was tempted to explain my predicament, but the man’s manner didn’t encourage it.  I might be attempting an illegal entry the following night, and I didn’t want to alert them to my predicament.

‘Guess I’d better head back to Maputo then,’ I said.

‘That’d be the best idea,’ he agreed.

I then removed myself out of sight and hopefully out of mind, sought a secluded spot and unrolled my sleeping bag. It was a ridiculous situation, but not funny. Not funny at all. One more chance was all I had.

 

South Africa was the end of the road for me, and I’d been dreading getting there.  I needed work desperately, but this was a country where I had no friends, contacts, or employable skills, and in a land where blacks did all the unskilled work. The brutality of its politics made it unlikely I’d enjoy my stay.

The beauty of Cape Town, Kruger National Park, the Drackensburg mountains and the glorious beaches were all over-shadowed by apartheid.

 

I was awake at dawn, but waited until there was a buzz of activity. A car-load of vacationing whites arrived and I slipped into the office behind them, leaving my pack outside. The inattentive might think we were all part of the same group, and they joked with the border guard as she looked at their papers. I saw at least one British passport, and pushed mine forward to sort of co-mingle with theirs. One guy scowled at me, but I gave him a smile, and he relaxed.

‘I’ll give you guys a 3 month stay,’ the guard said, stamping our passports. “You can get them extended in Jo’burg if you need.’

I could have kissed her, but got out before she changed her mind.

 

It was about 300 miles to Johannesburg, so I walked away from the border post and started hitch-hiking. Cape Town might have been a better choice – prettier, relatively liberal - but it was too far away, and Jo’burg was the largest and busiest city.

After a couple of short rides, a car stopped for me. It was so old it was almost a vintage, but it gleamed in the sunlight, immaculate. Inside sat an elderly Afrikaaner couple dressed in their Sunday best. Underneath his homburg hat and her sun bonnet their faces were lined and ravaged by decades of sun exposure.

Unfortunately they were only going 50 miles or so to their farm, and we talked about my plans.

‘That Johannesburg is a sick place,’ he said. ‘Full of depraved scum, drug addicts and the like. Why do you want to go there?’

‘I guess I’ve got more chance of getting work there.’

‘But you don’t know anyone, or have any job lined up! It’ll be tough for you,’ his wife added.

Their clipped South African accents, overlaid with Afrikaans sounded alien, but her maternal concern was touching. I was 21 but still quite fresh-faced.

Pops meanwhile had got off on a roll. “I’ve only been there twice, but you could see a shiftiness and weirdness in people’s eyes. No-one seemed moral or upright, just devious and lost!’ I suspected that a bible wouldn’t be far from his pillow at night.

We drove in silence for a while, then he asked me whether I’d done any type of building work before. Well, I had actually – a year on a London building site. It was about the only work I’d ever done: my 3 days as a waiter and six months as an office clerk were best forgotten.

He turned to his wife. ‘We could put him to work on the fence team I guess? Give him a try at least.’

I thought I’d better be honest.

‘I’ve never done any fencing, but I’m sure I’d learn fast.’

He gave a mirthless smile. ‘Well obviously you won’t have to put it up yourself! That’ll be done by the boys.’

Boys? For a moment I imagined young grandsons or something, and then I remembered where I was.

 

‘There’s a team who’ve been putting up fences for years. They know what to do. You’d just have to oversee them, make sure they don’t slack.’

‘Well that sounds great, if you’re sure.’

‘I can give you a trial anyhow, and we’ll work out a wage where you get board and lodging too.’

‘Fine.’

It did seem fine too. No arriving in a strange city poor and desperate, where my money wouldn’t even pay for a day of hotels and restaurants. Even if the job on the farm only lasted a few weeks, I’d head for town with some funds to find my next job.

They left the highway and drove for several miles through scenery they called the Veldt. Bush, scrub, pampa, cerrado in other countries; a mix of grasslands with small trees, denser along river banks, and a grass that rippled in the breeze, and glowed in the afternoon sun. I’d been travelling for a year, living cheap, always on the move, and this looked a nice place to hang out for a while.

Marius and Katrina were formal and stiff and hard work, but they showed me a nice room and we ate early, and then everyone seemed ready for bed by nine.

‘Early start John,’ Marius told me. ‘It pays to start at sunrise, and get as much done before the heat kicks in. I’ll wake you at 5.’

 

The enemy sun was just peeping over the horizon as we drove down the dusty track raising a cloud of dust, the tools bouncing in the bed of the pick-up, a large reddish hound occupying the seat between us.

‘You don’t know these guys,’ my new boss was telling me. ‘Don’t put up with any shit from them. A few years ago they were living in their tribal villages, just hunting and gathering, and in a short period of time they’ve been thrown into the wage economy, and they are still adapting. There’s nothing wrong with them, but they need treating firmly.’

He’d been talking in such a way since we got up. All through breakfast he’d pursued similar arguments that later I discovered were of the type always used by the South African whites as an attempt at self-justification. How some kind citizen had donated an Olympic swimming pool to a black community, but the simple savages had just used it for washing clothes. How they were ‘just down from the trees’ and needed an authoritarian  hand as ‘it was the only thing they understand.’

I tuned him out, but I was dead nervous about the day ahead. Me, in charge of a whole gang of men, when I couldn’t even organize myself! My nervousness quadrupled when we reached a clearing and the sweeping headlights revealed a mass of black guys, standing, squatting and reclining around piles of machinery and tools.

We got out, and moved in front of the pick-up, and the hound who had loved me stroking its ears and belly, now stood between me and Marius emitting a low rumbling growl as it glared at the workers. The men hauled themselves to their feet as if to attention, holding their hats, and watched us silently. It was uncomfortably like a scene from a plantation house in the Deep South.

‘Morning,’ said Marius.

‘Morning Baas,’ came the rumbling reply, from at least 50 throats. None of the black guys was younger than me, and many were my Dad’s age.

‘This is Baas John. He’s going to be overseer from now on. He’s just arrived from England, and I want you to work for him just as hard as you work for me. Are you clear?’

‘Yes Baas!’

‘We’re carrying on where you finished on Friday. Just a straight line until you get to those trees down by the stream.’

‘Yes Baas.’

They started to select their tools, and one guy fired up a tractor with an auger drill on the back, and another cranked a dumper truck that contained large rolls of wire.

It turned out that the trees he had mentioned were over a mile away.

‘How big is your farm?’ I asked.

’8,000 hectares. It needs nearly 6 miles of new fence. Costing me a bloody fortune. The old stuff had been up for 50 years and designed to keep sheep in. Now we’ve got mostly cows and they kept on knocking it down. We also lost a few to lions.’

‘Lions! Are there many?’

‘My goal is to have none, and we shoot them when we can.’ He called the dog over and opened the door to let it jump in the front seat. ‘I’ve got to get moving. This is Moses and Mbeka, they are the gangers, and know what’s what.  Just keep order, and learn from them. 15 minute break at 10. Half an hour for lunch at 12.30.  Finish at 4.’

I couldn’t see how that was avoiding the heat of the day, but never mind.

He climbed in the vehicle, and with a wave started to drive back down the track. After 50 yards his brake lights glowed, and he reversed quickly back.

‘Forgot to give you this. You probably won’t need it, but it’s sort of traditional for overseers to carry a knobkerrie.’

He left me holding a 3 foot long stick with a round ball at the end, an object that has been used as a club in warfare by the Zulu and Xhosa tribes, and appears on the South African coat of arms along with a spear.

I accepted it reluctantly.

How was an overseer supposed to handle it? I gripped the ball and rested the other end on the ground like a walking stick, but it was a little too short and made me lean uncomfortably.

Should I rest it on my shoulder like a soldier on parade, or hold it in both hands in front of me, or tap it against my lower leg like Colonel Nicholson in the ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’?

All those options either felt stupid or looked unnecessarily threatening to me.

This introduction to South African ways had all been so quick. I was way out of my comfort zone.

The men had all fallen to their allotted tasks, and I felt superfluous, though I did make an effort to follow the procedure. A hole was drilled, a concrete post inserted, and fixed with quick-drying cement, a distance of 10 paces measured out and another hole dug after someone had sighted down the line of posts and made sure there was no deviation. 

Some men went ahead to flail at the vegetation, and cut small trees out of the way. Boulders were rolled aside, ant-hills demolished and hummocks flattened. It all progressed very quickly – more than 100 yards by 10 o’clock.

 

After getting my approval. Mbeka gave a blast on his whistle, and the men dropped tools and sought shade in the lee of vehicles. The sun was already hot, and even I was sweating, although I’d done nothing.

The men drank water, and unwrapped greasy parcels of food. Katrina had prepared me a thick-crusted ham sandwich with pickles that looked obscenely opulent when compared with the scraps around me.

I had sat down with a group of Africans, and I could sense that my proximity seemed unusual and made them a little uncomfortable.

To try and break the ice I told them that I’d travelled through many neighbouring countries, and how I was new to South Africa, and finding the experience strange.

‘In what way?’ asked Mbeka. ‘You mean the heat?’

‘Not only that. Everything is very different here.’

They looked at me with a fairly passive incomprehension, and I should have left it at that. I was a young white guy, talking a bit different than any white they had met, and acting strange. I should have kept within the parameters they’d known since their birth.

Show respect to the white guy. Fear him. Act like you know your place. Keep your scorn and hatred hidden behind a smiling or impassive front.

And me? I should have remained aloof. Not cruel and tyrannical, but distant and strict. But I was 21 years old and liberal, left of centre politically, and completely out of my depth. I didn’t want to be feared, I wanted to be liked. I wanted the josh and banter of a British building site where high-handed bossiness got you nowhere.

I also wanted to show them that I was opposed to the political system of the country.

What a poor deluded fool.

So I gave them a little lecture about race relations in Britain, and how it wasn’t perfect, but blacks and whites could eat together, party together and even sleep together. They looked about nervously as they could undoubtedly get arrested for such talk, and I finished by saying that I disliked the politics of the country.

‘And this!’ I said with a wave of the Knobkerrie. ‘What am I to do with this?’

Their gaze still seemed blank, but for all I knew they might have been hoping I was going to stick it where the sun didn’t shine.

‘Well, I can’t see myself having any need for it.’

The tea break ended, and we went back to work. A lot of muttering was going on, with curious glances my way.

When 25 posts were erected and firmly fixed, four strands of wire were threaded through holes, and pulled tight by the dumper truck until secured in a clamp.

Lunch came, and I was one of the first to sit under the shade of a scrawny sapling. No-one joined me, and that didn’t bother me greatly. My previous conversation had been very one-sided. They ate in small groups, and some lay in the dirt and closed their eyes. I kept an eye on the time, and after 33 minutes I stood up, and nodded to Moses who was watching me. For the next 5 minutes, while I alone was on my feet, Moses repacked his little bag with his sandwich box, took a long swig of water, wiped his hands on a cloth, retied a bootlace, beat his hat against his thigh and reshaped it before placing it on his head, and then finally got to his feet and blew a blast of his whistle.

Mbeka gave a little smirk that I saw was exchanged with several of the men, and everyone returned to their tasks.

Was it my paranoia, or had the productivity dropped off? More chatting and joking was going on than in the morning, Mbeka and Moses were curt to the point of impertinence, and I could feel control slipping away.

I was greatly relieved when 4 o’clock came and we could finish for the day. Marius came to inspect and seemed pleased with the progress.

The next morning I was loaned the pick-up, and drove unenthusiastically to work. As on the previous day the men were lying or squatting in groups, and I got out of the vehicle and looked for the gangers. It was five past 6, so I called to them,

‘OK guys time to start!’

No-one looked at me, and rather pointedly they carried on with their chats.

‘Moses! Blow your whistle.’

‘In a minute baas,’ he said, without looking at me.

‘Not in a fucking minute! Fucking blow it now!’

OOOOH listen to me! Turning into a right little martinet!

He did so, and slowly everyone got to work.

I tried to keep tea break to a rigid 15 minutes, but it was 25 or more before everyone had jumped to my increasingly peevish cajoling.

The loneliness of command weighed on my shoulders, when control was slipping away, and I had nothing to fill my time except see, or imagine, insulting glances or lead-slinging.

As I paced the red dirt, tapping the knobkerrie against my boot, sweating in the hot sun, I began to wish I had the big red dog with me, tugging at a chain leash, and growling under a raised hackle. Maybe I needed a pair of mirror shades and a pump-action rifle like Boss Godfrey in ‘Cool Hand Luke?’   Be a real chain gang overseer, not some sunburned boy switching from appeasement to petulance and foul-mouthed fury.

My attempt to keep lunch break to 30 minutes failed again, with many men openly waving away my orders, and protesting ‘Too soon Baas. Five minutes more!’ while their mates sniggered.

‘Mbeka, Moses, come here!’ I shouted.

“What you want, Baas?’

‘I want you a word with you. Come here!’

They uncoiled wearily from the shade of the tractor.

‘Fucking hurry up!’

I lead them out of earshot of the others.

‘What are you playing at?’

‘Don’t know what you mean, Baas.’

‘Don’t give me that. You’re the gangers. You’re supposed to help me and instil discipline. Breaks are getting longer and longer, and you are encouraging them!’

‘That’s not true!’

‘You know it is. I bet if Marius was here you would behave differently and jump to it.’

They didn’t reply, and didn’t bother to protest.

‘Go on then. Get them back to work, and do your job.’

Time dragged in the soporific stupor of early afternoon, and every time I glanced at my watch, the hands had crept forward only a few minutes. I couldn’t really blame the men for slowing it up in the heat, but when I counted the posts, and compared them with yesterday’s tally, we were 7 fewer. Marius would be sure to see the difference.

I went over to the main team who were drilling and erecting the posts, and tried to urge them with some joshing and humour. I’d attempted to learn some names and treat them as individuals rather than an anonymous gang.

But no-one smiled or took much notice, avoiding my eye.

Then I heard Peter, a huge muscled guy, make a sing-song imitation of my words, in a begging, mincing tone. The others laughed openly.

I’m afraid I snapped.

‘Listen you black bastards…..’ I began in a fury, then stopped aghast at what I’d just said, and saw that my hand with the knobkerrie seemed to have raised by itself to shoulder height.

A couple more days, and I’d end up like any other brutal white overseer in this perverted land.

‘Fuck it.’ Wheeling I stomped to the pick-up and drove away.

I told Katrina that I was leaving, but thanked her for her hospitality, then went and retrieved my back-pack from my room.

It was a long walk back to the road, and I prayed I’d miss Marius who had gone to town, but no such luck.

He drove up to me, and rested a sun-spotted arm on the cill of his window.

‘What’s going on?’ he asked.

‘’I’m sorry, Marius, but I’m leaving.’

‘Anything happened?’

‘Not really.’

He gazed at me quizzically.

‘Let me guess. You tried to treat them with kindness? You tried to be their friend?’

‘Something like that.’

‘And they shat on you, and treated you with contempt? Right?’

I nodded.

‘Ah John. You don’t know these people. They don’t play by civilized rules like we do. To them kindness is weakness. They are brutes who need a tongue-lashing and even a whack now and again.’

‘I’m sorry Marius, I’ve let you down, and you were very kind to me, but I just can’t treat people like that.’

I shook his hand.

“I can’t treat people like that either,’ he said, with a grim smile, ‘But it’s the only way to treat kaffirs.’

Suddenly he’d made it easier to leave. I dropped his hand and strode with a lighter step down the track to the farm gates and the highway.

How I wished I could have started hitch-hiking eastwards back to Mozambique. But I had no choice but to go west towards Johannesburg and deeper into what seemed like the Heart of Darkness.

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