Saturday, December 20, 2014

Back in South Africa--again! (1986)

South Africa (1986)

“I’m searching for the spirit of the Great Heart
Under African sky” [1]

A poster supporting the South African forces on borders., Capetown, 1984.
As we approached the Botswana/South African border point at Pioneer Gate, I broke out in a cold sweat. I was in the back of Philip and Regine’s bakkie or pickup. I was travelling with them plus their two children, Marc and Naomi, along with my travelling companion Klaus. We had all met up in Zimbabwe and were now heading through South Africa to go visit the mountain kingdom of Lesotho but first we had to get through Botswana and  South African customs.

Friend Robert Parkinson with the original t-shirt, 2013.
 ‘We should wear the UHURU t-shirts under our other shirts,’ I said nervously to Philip, ‘because I don’t think the South African border guards will strip search us, do you?’

Philip looked dumbfounded. I had already given him one of the shirts, but I still had a few of the controversial t-shirts left in my pack. My friend Mark Holmes and I had made them in Canada. They were silk-screened t-shirts with politically-charged slogans on them, i.e. UHURU, which means ‘freedom’ in Swahili, in broad red letters along with Africans punching the sky with AZANIA and ANC banners fluttering in the background. It was such an explosive topic and politically-charged message that I was earlier assailed by some undercover Kenyan CID man whilst waiting for a bus in Nairobi.
UHURU t-shirt

I was able to get away with a stern warning that time but this was the racist apartheid regime of South Africa that we were entering—quite a different kettle of fish, so to say. After a brief conference in the pickup with Philip and Regine, we realized that if a SA border guard found them in my travel bag that we could all be put in the hoosegow. We did not want that to happen just yet, so Philip pulled our bakkie or pick-up off to the side just before the Botswana border post.

I flicked open the tailgate, jumped out and rummaged through my backpack for the potentially troublesome t-shirts. If nothing else, it was a good excuse to stretch our legs and to put on some shorts as it was starting to heat up.

Philip copied me and removed his shirt.

 ‘Besides,’ I said, ‘they are looking for weapons or other subversive contraband and not for t-shirts.’

Maybe I was bit a tad paranoid but you never knew in RSA what with Afrikaner border guards and all.

Marc, Regine, Philip and Naomi, Klaus, 1986.
I put on three Uhuru t-shirts underneath. Philip just had to cover up the one shirt. We felt like such scofflaws as we cleared Botswana customs and crossed no-man’s land and drove up to the South African customs. We were such a motley crew; the dark-skinned and hulky-looking Philip, the thin very white Regine, hirsute Klaus, hippie-looking me and the two kids who were of mixed ethnicities. The Afrikaner border guards must have wondered what kind of a family we were. They could not figure out if it was Klaus or me who was married to Regine and had one of us adopted the kids. As Philip noted later—maybe they thought he was our manservant or that I was the long lost hippie cousin from Canada.

Waiting in the queue at the border guard’s office, I suddenly remembered that I had to get my South African stamp put on a separate piece of paper. I had to be careful about getting any kind of South African stamp in my passport, especially since I would be travelling overland north of here later on. I had not really thought this part out, as my passport would show that I left Botswana at the border post of Lobatse. Any immigration or custom’s officer north of the Limpopo would know that I had crossed into the racist state of South Africa. Nevertheless, I would take my chances with this. Moreover, because we were en route to Lesotho, the RSA customs guys gave us a ‘transit visas’ which meant we had only 48 hours to get through RSA as quick as possible. This seemed fair enough as we did not want to dally to long in the ‘racist regime’ anyways. I needn’t have worried as we sailed through the customs without any hassle.

 I do not think the Afrikaner border guards realized that I was sweating buckets from wearing the three t-shirts underneath my outer shirt. Usually at airports, someone sweating profusely is usually a dead giveaway that something is amiss. Maybe my Canadian passport fooled them into believing that it was just the weather affecting a Canadian from colder climes. I was also sweating because I was afraid I would get the family into trouble. At any rate, as we left the RSA border post Marc and Naomi spontaneously started to sing the outlawed national anthem of the ANC—“Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika”.
Marc Dineo and Naomi (Nangi), 1986.

I suppose Marc and Naomi were used to singing this at their school in Binga, Zimbabwe. The song touched an emotional chord within me and my eyes welled up under my sun glasses. I did not want the others riding with me in the back to see this. I knew and loved this song, but more importantly I was back in South Africa where just a year earlier, I had a tumultuous breakup with my South African fiancée. The mere crossing into the South African frontier brought back such bittersweet memories.

I do not think the rest of our group knew how cathartic this part of the journey was for me, crossing this border was like crossing my personal Rubicon. Actually, it was hard for me to believe I was actually back in South Africa but at least this time with friends. It seemed, therefore, quite fitting, if not ironic, as I joined Marc and Naomi in singing this banned song in a country, in apartheid South Africa, where it was deemed treasonous to do so. It felt like the right thing to do!


*           *           *


From my diary, a newspaper clipping and quote
 from Desmond Tutu, 1986.
"The world is not anti-South African.
     It is anti-apartheid and anti-injustice."
Our route through South Africa was lined with occasional police checkpoints, which were typically manned by white police officers who were on the look-out for “terrs” or terrorists no less. They would stop us, and then upon looking in the car and seeing that Regine was white, they would just wave us on perhaps because most of us were European and besides we had Zimbabwe plates no less. Quite often, we would see Africans just hunkered down alongside the road begging for rides, chewing on grilled corn cobs and sometimes they would get a lift with another African driving in a bakkie. I was quite shocked that one of the small towns we went by was called Kaffirlaager meaning ‘a place where Africans lived’ which seemed strange as this was Africa after all.

At any rate, I usually sat in the cramped quarters of the covered bakkie where Philip and I would have heated, yet funny conversations, about any subject that we could agree to disagree on. One time, whilst we were having one of our zany talks, Regine almost went off the road or maybe it was a near miss, but at any rate, being in the back of the covered pickup we were tossed to and fro like manikins. After we righted ourselves, and sat back on our pillows, Philip, an excitable guy any time, screamed at Regine, ‘JESUS CHRIST WOMAN, ARE YOU TRYING TO KILL US?’

We all howled in the back and then I took it upon myself to mimic him ever after, which was enjoyed by everyone, even Philip laughed too.

Our big extended family traveled on the blackened road, through verdant farmland, African village kraals and then eventually tired of driving, we pulled into a caravan park on the outskirts of Rustenburg— naturally, it was full of Afrikaner families. We must have looked like a mixed tribe ourselves with Philip, Regine and their kids, along with bearded Klaus and hippie-looking me. We washed up, changed our undies, dressed up in casual wear and decided to treat ourselves to a meal on the town. After being stuffed in the bakkie all day, it was good to stretch our legs and see the town, possibly find some Italian fare.

The Afrikaner Hotel

We went to a fancy Italian restaurant that was run by an Afrikaner bloke and the staff was an all-African. As this was during apartheid and with Philip and the kids considered as ‘coloured’, we were naturally led by the African staff to the area reserved for “Blacks Only”. Unaware of what was really conspiring, we were oblivious to all this segregating crap and stopped following the waiter and instead headed to the cooler outdoor terrace as we had been cooped up inside a pickup all day. As we stepped out onto the terrace, we did not realize that this was a “Whites Only” area.
"White's Only and "Blacks Only "entrances to coffee shop, railway station, 1984.
The ‘African’ guy tried to guide us back to “Black’s Only” area. We protested to the maître d’ but to no avail and we started to create a bit of a scene, so to say. Out of the blue, an older, stern-looking Afrikaner guy came and I thought that there would be a ballyhoo and we would be escorted off the premises or told to go to the “Black’s Only” area. We just told this guy that we did not want to cause a problem but we had been stuck in a dusty bakkie all day and just wanted some fresh air which the terrace offered. We fully expected him to tell us to shove off and I was bracing for his retort.

‘Ach listen man,’ he said in a thick Afrikaner accent, ‘this is my hotel and restaurant and you can sit wherever the bloody hell you want to!’

We were all quite taken aback yet relieved at the same time. In further conversations with him, he turned out to be quite a ‘liberal’ by South African if not by the Afrikaner standards.

‘Jah, I don’t like the way apartheid rules are enforced. Ach man, I don’t really care what colour you are. Sit wherever you want.’

He said as much in Afrikaans to his staff and they nodded approval.

I suppose he would not have been such a bad guy to work for in apartheid South Africa—quite refreshing actually, maybe there was hope for this country after all.

Earlier in the day, we had created quite a scene when we went in to buy groceries at a super-market. It was all-quiet on the southern front whilst we were negotiating the aisles looking for sustenance: spices, coils of boerwors,  boxes of South African wines for Regine and I, a crate of Castle beer for KH, fresh veggies, cans of pilchards and other cheesy comestibles. After all we were in “the Land of Plenty” and the shelves were stuffed with Swartzkat peanut butter, Auntie Oum’s fattening Rusks, lovely jars of Marmite, homemade bread, shanks of beef and lamb, and big roundels of fresh cheese.

"Whites Only" beach near Cape Town, 1984.
A brouhaha ensued when we went to pay for the blame things. Being a mixed bag of nationalities and colours we gave no heed to the looming apartheid crisis that would befall us. Naturally, we just went to any cashier to pay our bills and we would sort out how to divide the cost later on back in the caravan park. As we approached the ‘White’s Only’ cashiers, one of the cashiers motioned that we should use the tills at the end of the row of cashiers. Turns out that these ones are reserved for “Blacks and Coloured Only” and since we had mixed or ‘coloured’ kids and adults that we would have to use this. Philip, Regine and the rest of us were oblivious to the signage that noted the “White’s Only” cashiers and we just waltzed up to the nearest till regardless of colour, creed, religious affiliation or sports team to pay for our goods. There was a momentary uncomfortable pause and then without a to do we just loaded our foodstuffs on the counter and proceeded to pay for it while other staff and South Africans looked on aghast. Seemed quite painless and no animals or humans were hurt during the making of this event.

                                             *                         *                        *

Whilst setting up my sleeping arrangement in the back of the pickup, Paul Simon’s “Graceland” was playing on my Sony shortwave radio. This was the year that Paul Simon’s ‘discovered Africa and its musi and all of a sudden people were talking about the African musicians who had backed up Simon on this album. I thought it was a bit of a sell-out and remember reading an earlier issue of London’s “Time Out” and how reviewers prattled on about how great Simon was to ‘discover’ these unknown South African musicians. It was a crock as these South African musicians had been around for many years and it was partly because they were living under a repressive, racist regime that kept these ‘black’ artists in the dark. [2]

The album was a bit insipid in that Simon went so far as to have an Ethiopian Christian manuscript as the front cover which had nothing to do with the music or the musicians of South African. The Zulu devotional singers from South Africa, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, were the featured artists who actually had more to do with the album’s success than Simon’s whiney voice. Moreover, the main musicians were also from South Africa, from a group called Stimela. [3] While I was traveling in South Africa, and because of the constant fear of retribution for having visited the ‘racist regime’ once I headed back north, I referred to RSA as “Graceland” in my correspondence and my diary—just to be on the safe side especially since there would undoubtedly be numerous police/army checkpoints north of the Limpopo in the Frontline States.

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