Issue 113, Winter II 1989
The combis that, sending gusts of taped reggae and mbaqanga into the traffic, transport blacks back and forth between township and city, now carry a strange cargo of whites. The street committee in the black township has advised that this is the way to bring them in, the nature of the vehicles in themselves giving the signal to the people that these envoys from outside the siege are approved.
Through the white suburbs. Past bowling greens where figures like aged schoolboys and girls in banded hats genuflect over balls; past the Robin Hood fantasy of the archery club, the whoops of regular Sunday tennis partners in private gardens, the nylon frills and black suits of the congregation leaving a Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk, and the young girls with cupboards full of clothes who choose to stroll barefoot in jeans slashed off at the thigh. Past electronically-operated gates pinnacled with plaster eagles, spike and razor-wire-topped walls behind which fans of water open over flowers and birds sing. Sunday peace. If it were not for the combi owners’ names and township addresses flourished on the vehicles, the convoy might be some sort of charity outing on its way to a picnic.
Mechanical knights visored in steel plating and chain-mailed in thick wire mesh barred the turnoff to the township. Before these vehicles were mounted police and soldiers standing, legs planted apart, with automatic rifles and machine guns.
To most of the white people in the combis, the yellow armored vans and brown armored cars, the stolid figures with the power of death in their hands were ranged like the toys of war children set up. Or it was as if someone suddenly flipped the switch of a program selector and a scene from some miniseries flashed on. Always, before, violence was so thin an appearance in the living room that the shadow of someone’s head, moving across the room, was enough to blot it out. Now, why, it was there, you could see the freckles on a policeman’s forearm. The armored vehicles the people dubbed “Hippos,” the police, guns, were there. Alsatian dogs—once desirable and beautiful pets—were cowed and coiled in readiness to attack, weapons leashed in the fists of police handlers.
Everyone had been briefed: each combi had its marshal. Accept police provocation calmly, leave the talking to those appointed to do it. Lawyers and civil rights leaders among the group were conferring with comrades from within the township who had arrived to meet the convoy in an old American car lumbering low on its suspension. Others were negotiating with the police. They moved, as they argued, from one side of the roadblock to the other, as if literally pulled this way and that in the arena of their contention; a process in dumb show the people in the combis craned their necks to interpret. ... that policeman shaking his fist! Can V you see? Next to the Hippo. He hit him, he’s hit him!
No no no, nobody’s been hurt!
But just look at those brutal clots, that one could press the trigger as easily as he’s scratching himself...
Oh don’t you worry, they'd think twice before firing at us—we’re white.
Alarm and giggling excitement died away into impatience and a new kind of boredom: was it possible to be bored while in an extraordinary situation? In one of the combis a lay nun in ankle socks offered round a plastic bottle of water, and there was a rustle of rolls of peppermints being peeled open. ... the difference is, if we were black wed be singing.