Into South Africa

Part of a five-part series for the SF Examiner

What the government man told me when I arrived was true: if you didn't read the papers, you could live in South Africa and never know there was any trouble. I walked around Johannesburg and Durban with no problems. A few sullen stares from some poor black men, perhaps. But that was all. It seemed very much like home.

Christmas shoppers filled the sidewalks. Decorative Santas and reindeer hung from cables over the streets, swaying in a mild summer breeze.

Cape Town was also tranquil, especially on December 16, a national holiday. That meant shops closed, downtown streets emptied and hushed, and most people–-most whites anyway–-enjoyed the beaches, their pools or perhaps the nearby Stellenbosch wine country.

It was the Day of the Vow, commemorating a day in 1838 when surrounded Afrikaners prayed to God to save them from the Zulu hordes. With His help and superior firepower, they prevailed and Blood River earned its name.

The victorious settlers vowed never to forget their deliverance. And whatever his faith in God, the Afrikaner did not forget the lessons of superior firepower.

So on the Day of the Vow, this year, one could walk the streets of Cape Town in relative safety and, unless he read the papers, never know there was any trouble.

I read the papers every day. The Cape Times was delivered to the room along with coffee and scones, every morning before 8. And every morning the stories recorded a great deal of trouble-–landmines in Messina, border wars, bombings, intertribal warfare, radical blacks burning moderate blacks to death, and commando murders launched by both the outlawed African National Congress and the South African Defense Force.

Every morning the editorial pages and letters from black and white citizens begged the government to end apartheid.

The press's integrity was remarkable considering the many governmental restrictions placed upon it. In South Africa, no “banned person” may be quoted, stories about the police must be cleared through the police, the press isn't permitted in areas of “unrest” and no photographs or recordings may be made of any “unrest situation”.

The penalty for the latter offense is 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. The police define an “unrest situation” at any moment and it usually exists whenever they are present.

On the Day of the Vow, the largest headline read: “Athlone Carol Service Banned.” Athlone was a mixed-race township about 10 minutes from downtown Cape Town. It had been the scene of the infamous “Trojan Horse” massacre two months earlier. Security forces, hiding in boxes on a truck,  jumped up and opened fire on rock-throwing youths.

I called up a South African broadcaster to ask about the potential for trouble.

“I haven't read the paper yet,” he said, “Tell me.”

“There was going to be a carols-by-candlelight service at Athlone’s stadium tonight and it's just been banned. It says: “the organizing committee has asked the public to observe the evening quietly at home and not to go to the stadium...” Blah. Blah... “The committee also urged police to stay away from the stadium to allow committee members to redirect people not aware of the ban.”

“Oh yes. That's trouble then. There will be a massive police presence. The protesters will be there. If you're looking for some action, that's the place.”

“How dangerous would it be for me?”

“Well that all depends. You have to read the situation. If you get in a jam, just keep talking with that accent of yours. The locals like American press. Just make sure they don't think your Afrikaner. And stay away from the police.”

“Would they arrest me?”

“Hard to say. There was one very obnoxious chap from Dallas: the police almost lynched him about a month ago. But then, any fool can get himself arrested.”

“Next to the headline is a color photo of white people holding candles and singing carols a few nights ago in the square.”

“Let me fetch the paper,” he said. In a moment he was back.

“Yes, yes. It's all very absurd–-even more than you think. Carols by candlelight is our Christmas tradition here. But a few months ago, the apartheid protesters started to hold candlelight vigils every Wednesday night.

“They were banned, of course, so they started lighting candles in the windows of their homes or, conversely, holding neighborhood blackouts. Now the activists can tie the two together and force the police to ban Christmas carols. That means the police are, in effect, batting a religious service.

“It's very clever. And make no mistake, very political. For irony, I think you'll find that the Christmas carols were organized by the rather large Muslim population in Athlone.”

Any fool can be arrested, and/or seriously hurt. There was no way I would go into Athlone alone.


In late afternoon, about the time when the dayshift reporters would be arriving at The Cape Times, I crossed the deserted cobblestone of Green Market Square-–the place where 500 whites held their carols by candlelight without incident three nights earlier–-to the newspaper’s stone buildings. A promotional headline on the wall announced “Lions Devour Park Guard.”

I was admitted to the newsroom without challenge. Although a stranger, I was allowed to roam from desk to desk at will. Only five people were there.

“I'm looking for Malcolm Fried,” I said to the young news editor, Jane Arbous.

“He's not in yet. You can wait here if you like.”

“Thanks. I'm Mark Osmun. I'm a writer from America. I saw Malcolm's byline on the Athlone story this morning. Will he be going in there tonight?”

She laughed. “You're a writer from the States? How did you ever get into the country?”

“I'm writing about yachting.”

She grinned. “I see. No, my Malcolm won’t be going in tonight. Tony Weaver will. He usually handles that sort of thing.”

“I was wondering, do you think I could tag along?”

She kept smiling. “Not much yachting in Athlone.”

“I know. But I figured as long as I was here... Look, I'll play by your rules. Just along for the ride.”

“You know, the last person who went in with Tony got shot. Michael Hornsby from The London Times. He got some buckshot in his back-- Ah. Here's Tony, now.”

Tony Weaver entered the newsroom looking like a commando back from a mission–-tired, tense, serious. He wore a multi-pocketed gray bush shirt and dark jeans. Thin, he stood about 6-feet-4. His face’s sharp edged features, high cheekbones and heavy brows made him look like a pre-contact American Indian.

“What do you have?” Arbous asked him as he dropped his camera bags.

“Nothing for tomorrow,” Weaver told his editor in a deep, even voice. “We're still not sure where Shahida Issel is. Her parents think they've taken her to the mental hospital to drive her mad.”

Arbous turns to fill me in. “This is a woman the police have detained since October. They can keep her incommunicado for up to six months. But really they can keep her for as long as they want. She is the ex-wife of a big political fugitive.”

Then to Weaver: “Tony, this is Mark, an American writer. He’d like to go to Athlone with you tonight.”

Weaver shrugged agreeably. “Look, Mark, let me make some calls, sort this story out, then we can talk about tonight.” He sat down at his desk, lit a cigarette, opened a Coke, unwrapped a chocolate bar and began making calls.

In a while, Tony motioned me over to his desk. He leaned back and lit another cigarette.

“So you're here from the States? Who are you writing for?”

The Yacht Magazine.”

He laughed. “Of course. Listen, Mark, does your jacket have a hood on it?”  By coincidence it did.

“That's good. We’ll want to wear hoods so that they won't know we’re white.”

“The blacks?”

“No. The blacks like us. The police. White people are the first ones they come after. They figure if you're white and you're in there, then you're either a journalist or an organizer–-they have this fascist notion that black revolutionaries can't organize themselves–-but in any case, they don't want us there.

“You'll also want some cloth to cover your face from tear gas-–I've got the lemon juice to soak it with. And do you have press ID? Good. You might need that if we get separated.”

“I have no intention of getting separated.”

“That's good.”


At 7 PM, a half-hour from the scheduled start of the banned Carols by Candlelight, Weaver finished his story.

“Tony, we got a call from Athlone" said Arbous. “They said the police have marksmen on the stadium walls.”

“Fine,” said Weaver. “Well, Mark shall we go?”


In the basement garage of The Cape Times a car and driver waited.

“We go with the drivers so that the police don't trash the car when we're away from it,” Weaver said as we approached the white compact.

The Cape Times logo on the car is a mixed blessing. It keeps us safe with the locals but it makes us easy to spot by the cops.” He shook hands with the driver. “Habib, this is Mark. He'll be riding with us.”

Habib Issacs, our driver, was “of mixed race,” a descendant of Malaysian slaves. He was in his 40s and I shook a hand much larger than mine.

“What we have to do is avoid the police,” Weaver said as we sped toward the suburban flatland. “Because once they spot us, once they tell us to leave–-or, of course, if they arrest us–-the party's over.”

“When do they tell you to leave and when do they arrest you?”

“You never can tell. Whenever they like,” Weaver said. “But whatever you do, don't run. That's what happened to Hornsby. He panicked. When they see you run it's like a reflex: they shoot. They figure anyone who runs has done something wrong. So just stand still... Of course, if you see them aiming at you, drop to the ground. Here put this on the floor will you?” He handed me his camera bag.

“Tony, what's the use of a camera? You can’t publish pictures of unrest, even if you are allowed to photograph it to begin with.”

“If I got some remarkable photograph, like, let's say, people being executed, we would publish it. We've already decided that.”

“You’d get 10 years for that.”

“We've already decided.”


Athlone has it's corrugated tin hovels and filthy tenements. But there are also one-story brick houses with fences and yards. The streets are paved. There are gas stations, churches, athletic fields, convenience stores and Kentucky Fried Chicken. The latter, in fact, is a frequent target of petrol bombs–-not because of anti-American sentiment but because organizers know that a burning Col. Sanders makes a great shot for American television.

Sunlight faded as we entered Athlone. The first thing we saw, straddling the street ahead, was an enormous armored personnel carrier. It was the first of perhaps a half-dozen armored vehicles sent to Athlone that night. It looked like a large dinosaur, about 12 feet high and 25 feet long. You expected it to lift its head and attack at any moment.

“Okay, Habib, let's take a quick right. We can go down Belgravia, via around the Stadium.”

After two blocks we spotted a detail of special task force police armed with automatic weapons.

We turned again.

For two hours we drove through Athlone, “ducking and diving,” as Weaver put it, taking quick turns to avoid armored vehicles and squads of special police. Through it all I had a strange déjà vu sensation–-which was strange because I could remember nothing similar. Even the Vietnam war protests had not been like this.

Then it occurred to me: we were playing a video game. Pac-Man. Three-dimensional, real-life, high stakes Pac-Man through the streets of Athlone, South Africa, played against SWAT squads.

“See there?” Weaver asked, “that's the station the kids hand-grenaded after the owner wouldn't sell them petrol for their bombs.”

“Yeah,” said Habib, “we got to watch those kids.”

Tony, pointed: “Up there, that mosque is where the Muslims opened fire on the cops after the Trojan Horse killings. They got on the roof and had a big shootout. The cops finally broke into the mosque. That's a sacrilege, eh, Habib? To enter a mosque with your boots on?”

“Oh yes.”

“Habib?” I asked, “are there a lot of Muslims here?”

“Yes. Maybe 50%.”

“I didn't know Muslims sang Christmas carols.”

He laughed. “Oh, now we do. In South Africa we’ve decided to sing Christmas carols.”


In darkness we parked on a side street. With the coming of night, masses of people and cars materialized. Tony got out to talk with a Marxist organizer he recognized.

I looked out the window and noticed the plume of black smoke rising from the next street. Weaver returned in the next instant.

“Okay,” he said excitedly. “They’ve set the first barricade. My guy also told me it's going to happen at Wembley tonight.”

Habib started the car. “It's hot. It's going to be hot cookies tonight,” he said.

We pulled onto Thornton, Athlone’s main drag. The barricade, a heap of burning, gasoline-soaked tires blocked half the road but we were were able to get through. More tires would be added. The idea was to choke the streets with cars and burning tires to impede police action. Near the pyre, fragments from a newly shattered car window glittered in the street like 1,000 South African diamonds.

The real party, we were told, would be at the Wembley Roadhouse, a hamburger stand a few blocks down Thornton. We parked behind the roadhouse, out of police view. Weaver and I got out, pulled up our hoods and mingled with the ever-increasing crowd.

“Are you hungry?” I asked. “Let me buy you a burger.”

Suddenly every car on the block began blowing its horn, creating a weird cacophony of warning.

“Turnaround,” Tony said quickly. “The police.”

I faced the ordering windows and asked for two Wembley Whoppers. In a reflection on the glass I watched two armored cruisers roll by. A helmeted cops stood up and waved to the crowd, then ducked as a stone sailed over his head. Horns wailed. The cops had waived! And we-–Pac-Man masters, hooded up like Star Wars heroes hiding from the Empire–-were hanging out in the riots zone, eating Wembley Whoppers, waiting for the violence of Muslims singing Christmas carols. Things were getting more bizarre by the minute.

“Does this sort of excitement become an addiction?” I asked.

“Yes, I guess it does,” Weaver said

The horns blared again and suddenly people ran. I sprinted about five steps before recalling Weaver’s warning. It'd been a natural,  almost athletic reflex to the sprint when others did–-no thought. Overcoming that impulse, I stopped abruptly and waited for the shots. None came.

Two more armored cruisers rolled by. The moment the cruisers passed, children carrying tires and gasoline cans emerged from nowhere, running into the street, erecting their barricade and lighting it.

“This should bring them back" said Weaver,. “Let's get near the car.”

As we waited I could hear “Deck the Halls” playing on a nearby radio. Watching the children lighting the tires was strange: this was their glittering Christmas tree, their Christmas game. And it was a game. Even in South Africa a 10-year-old can't be that politically sophisticated. This was a game. The cops were the bad guys. It was like egging the bus on Halloween, though the stakes were higher and that gave it a bigger thrill. And it was that way for adults too. And for reporters. And for police, without whom no game could take place. But it only takes an instant for the game to become real, because many people are playing for keeps.

The climax at the roadhouse came in minutes. An armored cruiser plowed effortlessly through the burning tires. A kid in the crowd lit a petrol bomb and hurled it onto the cruiser. The police fired into the crowd. This time it was teargas grenades. No bullets. No jamboks, rhino whips-–they would be used the next night. This time, the burning gas was enough. The party ended.

“No one got shot tonight,” said Habib as we cruised back into Cape Town.

Outside, the sheer, 3,500-foot rock face of Table Mountain towered above the city. Floodlights aimed at its face made it look like moonlit clouds and not a mountain.

“Do you surf?"  Weaver asked.


“Well maybe we can do some surfing late in the week. I have an extra board and wetsuit. Actually they belong to another reporter who's been detained for the past month.”


The car pulled up to my hotel and I thanked my guides, wondering how it would be inside the skin of that detained reporter.

The black doorman smiled and held the door open for me. “Merry Christmas,” he said.

In the lobby stood a beautiful Christmas tree and “Silent Night” played on the speaker system. On a couch a young white couple in love kissed tenderly. If they could avoid reading the papers they would never know there had been any trouble.