Leaving the laager
HARRY is a worker. He works for me one day a week. He is young and strong and believes that if he works hard enough he will get on in the world. He is wrong, even though I try inadequately to make him right. I pay him ten dollars a day out of my own monthly earnings as a journalist. Slightly above the market rate. And give him a good meal. I find him jobs among my friends.
We have reroofed, replumbed, rewired, repainted and rebuilt large areas of this old house together. If they catch him here before we have finished they will fine me and arrest him and send him back to a place where there is no work. He is black from the South coast of Natal and has no permit to seek or undertake work in nearby Durban. When we finish renovating this house together I will give him a cut - a small cut - of the profits and pay for him to take a plastering course.
I will then take the plane to England with my sons. So they will have the option of not having to fight against those of Harry’s brothers who believe guns and not work will bring changes. Harry himself will take his luck in this land riven by the international frontier between rich and poor people.
We came back to this country to get my children by a former marriage, after their South African mother had reneged on an agreement to allow them to visit me in Britain. I didn’t want them to grow up racists or to fight blacks to sustain a state that excludes them.
When the boys came to us they talked about ‘munts’ and ‘afs’. We said we did not use those words. Now they talk about blacks. They meet black kids in the cafes and sometimes bring them home. But these are not real blacks - they are blacks brought up in servants’ quarters of other white liberals and so have become culturally disinherited. My kids think they are experiencing multi-racialism. They are merely meeting black would-be whites.
Mary is our maid. We pay her 50 dollars a month, slightly above the market rate. She comes in two hours a day four days a week. Some people still pay 25 dollars and expect their servants to be there all day every day from 6am till after dinner. My kids have grown up waited on by such servants and can be persuaded to do little or nothing about the house. We did not want a maid. But we eventually gave up the endless daily battles over small chores and simply employed Mary. We are lucky. She talks fairly freely with us and appears to like us. She asks about England. It is hard not to make it sound like Heaven.
In the city (Durban) bomb explosions - mostly demonstrative - have become a fairly common occurrence, like someone you pretend is not in the house banging around in the attic. They bring people in our all-white working-class street on to their verandahs with uncertain grins on their faces. After a bomb blows up some black workers in the rush hour, Mary asks: ‘These bombs - are they put there by whites or blacks?’
I tell her that when people start talking with bombs you never know who is speaking. Most of the bombs, though, are placed by ANC guerrillas. When there are press reports of police and troops putting down township ‘unrest’. Mary weeps angry tears:
‘This country is no good for us blacks.’
Doris’s employer of several years is leaving for Johannesburg and she has been unable to find other work. She comes to our house, babe in arms, to ask if we will let her live in our unused servants quarters while she looks for work. Strong-minded whites would simply tell her to ‘Fock off’, regarding kindness to blacks as a sign of moral weakness. But we are good liberals. We don’t shield ourselves from reality - we just fail to act effectively.
There are stiff fines for letting blacks live illegally in a white area and the rooms are barely habitable (though better than the open sky.) We listen and then tell her we cannot help her. Inside our house again we rage against the system that bars us from responding in a human way. Then Annie (my wife) runs into the road and tells Doris she can stay, but only for a few weeks.
After she is installed a man comes to the back door. He is Doris’s husband, works on the docks as a migrant labourer and lives in an all-male compound. Would it be all right if he stayed with his wife for the odd night? Three days later we notice another child is living there - Doris explains: the child looks after the baby while she looks for work.
Eventually there are three children living there, with the husband sometimes visiting. We warn her against the children’s making a noise or hanging around the front gate - in case someone reports them to the blackjacks (influx control cops). Doris begs for more time and we realise one of her interests as a mother-provider is just to get her family together in one place at one time.
After three months we find her a job, where they will allow her to keep the smallest child. The other two will have to go to relatives.
The day after she leaves the blackjacks arrive. A heavily-built ginger-haired thug knocks at the door and tells my younger son a neighbour has reported us for harbouring illegal blacks. He pushes on through the house to find the servants quarters empty.
‘Your dad is lucky they have gone,’ he says. ‘We shall come at night to this place and at other times to see if they are back.’ We are left to wonder which of our neighbours has shopped us.
At the paper I work for blacks tell us about police action in the townships. They give us sworn affidavits. Still we do not print what they say - because under the police act you cannot print anything about the police you cannot prove in a court of law. Police by contrast say what they will about ‘agitators’ or ‘terrorists’, The authorities have won the public communications battle hands down, which is why whites no longer know what blacks are really thinking or doing.
There is totally effective control of reportage on anything involving the police, the prisons and the army. It is an offence to print anything that will make the troops despondent or encourage conscientious objection or create friction between different race groups, Because of these laws most newspapers subdue or omit such reports, while daily the authorities commit acts that inspire racial hatred, never mind friction.
Government restrictions are not the only nor even the main problem -- an almost total lack of public support makes it impossible for editors to put up an effective fight. The white public has handed responsibility over to the Government and no longer demands or wants to be informed. Journalists who try to inform them are seen by many as agitators or subversives. Most black organisations stopped confiding or believing in the press as a highly significant means of communication, if ever they did. After four years of writing and news-editing for a semi-national South African newspaper I cannot tell you anything authoritative about the strength or extent of black anger - or for that matter of the spirit of white reform.
The last time I left South Africa I was suffering a physical as well as mental reaction to it. My skin had become alien to me. I wanted to get out of it, as one might throw off a soiled overcoat.
In the months preceding my departure I had stopped going to places of recreation. Going to them (as a white to areas set aside for whites - like the Drakensberg mountain resorts and the best beaches) I was implicitly accepting the exclusion of everyone of a different skin colour. I was haunted by the ghostly horde denied access. Who were these people who put ashtrays down in front of one and took them away and melted into the dark at nightfall?. What were their thoughts and feelings? These were and are questions few white South Africans dare ask themselves.
The skin I was born with remains a uniform that defines my friends and enemies, my privileges or lack of them, where I can go, where I can lie, what sort of education I or my children can get - and it still dictates whom I can, or more specifically cannot, make love to’
Both blacks and whites read skin colour the same way - anticipating a predictable sets of attitudes and behavioural responses. Departure from the norms are achieved only with enormous effort, and generally still incur suspicion from blacks and hostility from whites. Celebrated white hospitality - which has always had more to do with the siege mentality than true expansiveness - still tends to vanish at the first sign of unorthodox views.
Apartheid is not just a set of laws and law enforcement agencies. It defines the whole social, political, economic and mental landscape. It infects the very words you use and through them thoughts you have access to. Blacks and whites no longer substantially share the same language. Whites support the security forces’ against the ‘terrorists’, who many blacks think of their ‘freedom fighters’ engaging the ‘forces of oppression’.
A host of words have come to have totally separate meanings for blacks and whites, with the language of whites becoming increasingly a language of illusion. Their press reports ‘unrest’ or ‘disturbances’ in the townships (implying a normal state of calm) which in the last outburst reportedly left 130 dead, 96 by police action, while black commentators warn of a cataclysmic black anger.
I left the country last time metaphorically washing its dust from my feet, on the day, as it happened, that they announced the death of Steve Biko. I arrived in London, from the land where even fools can become rich if they are unscrupulous enough, with nothing more than a suitcase of personal effects. It was enough to have escaped from the laager to the relative sanity and decency of middle-class Britain.
It took me some months and several journeys to other Third World countries to realise that I had travelled not outwards through the perimeter of the laager but inwards to its core. Or at least to a place so far from the perimeter that the majority of people living there do not know the sources of their own wealth or that their welfare state has distant and not so distant frontiers, guarded inevitably against the clamouring demands of the poor by strong-willed and often brutal people.
South Africa was after all a microcosm of and participant in a social organisation between survivor and non-survivor groups that has its own system of boundaries and its own world map. Which may be why it has become such a whipping boy on the grounds of race - the beating of South African whites while sustaining them in power as part of the rich West’s cultivated self-ignorance about how the world really works. Beneath the issue of race, which has perhaps arisen because the liberation group here was not a class but a tribe, lies the profounder issue of the rich and poor.
That frontier is maintained more from the centres of power than at the perimeters. That is why I am leaving this time with no sense of escape and no sense of moving to a morally superior place.
Anthony Swift is currently deputy news editor of a national magazine in South Africa.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7