As a V.I. pupil from 1963 to 1969, Thor Kah Hoong served as a member of The Seladang Editorial Board ("The Victorian was boring, just Society reports and House reports…"), the Arts Union central committee, the V.I. Cadet Corps ("the headmaster came into the class one day and said, 'Stand up, all the tall boys…'") and was a member of his House athletics, football and badminton teams.
After the V.I., he read for his B.A. at the University of Malaya. He subsequently obtained his M.A. for his study of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.
He served a fourteen year stint at The New Straits Times as a journalist-head leader writer. In addition to reporting on international, political and economic issues, he wrote an eating-out column under the pseudonym Fats. After brief flings at tutoring, teaching and lecturing, Kah Hoong became artistic director of a theatre company Kami Kasih (later renamed Skoob Productions) and, since 1993, has been running his own bookshop, Skoob Books. After the last customer has left at 8.30 p.m. he writes until the wee hours.
Kah Hoong has done theatre for 30 years and has been described as Malaysia's Woody Allen, in the league of the more mature writers-cum-directors-cum-actors. His plays include the three-part Caught in the Middle - a multi-dialect, multi-racial comedy about life in Malaysia which he directed, and Empire of the Senses, an psycho-exploration of the increasing paranoia and impotence of a once omnipotent ruler.
His 1998 one-man show Telling Tales was a two-hour tour de force in which he related tales drawn from his childhood in Brickfields (the main prop was a wooden chair). Kah Hoong is planning a sequel entitled Crime and Punishment based on his school days at the V.I. under Headmaster V. Murugasu.
Following are two short pieces by Kah Hoong, one fictional, the other journalistic.
The word was loud, like thunder drumming on the sky, like the quick anger of a father discovering his son smoking.
Balan, who had just lit the bidi, dropped it to the dirt in surprise, flung it to the ground in an Oh-shit-I'm-dead red alert reflex, the smoke going into his lungs instead of the usual holding in the mouth for a jetting of smoke from the nostrils, or for a snorting, fire-breathing Puff the Magic Dragon, for the O-shaped mouth to try and fail at smoke-rings. The smoke went in and the air came choking out, cough, cough, cough.
The gang turned startled, frightened eyes to the outside, to the black figure of a man outlined in the light, bending low because the ashram floor was only three feet off the ground.
- I said GERROUT.
We got out, scrambling on our knees, bursting out into the open. He was not a father, voice too young, outline too thin. Could be an older brother. One of life's many mysteries, older brothers. Many of our elder brothers also smoked, worse, up to six cigarettes a day. We small-fry with 30 cents pocket money a day, blown at the tuck-shop and 10 cents saved for a try at tikam-tikam, oh God, please, please, please let me win that killer ray-gun, we must look for three one-cent coins lost on the road between school and home, three collected cents for a couple of bidis. We became men when we could inhale the smoke of this foul leaf dried to a bitter essence, inhale it and not choke or cough. But our elder brothers will never treat us as men. They tell tales to Pa and Ma, pleasure for them, pain for us. Our stories were never believed. Of course, most of the tiine we were guilty ... of having fun. That meant the cane. That meant crying, screaming, denying, swear I'll never do it again, promise, more screaming. Scream because it may soften Ma with her often-told memory of carrying nine months of hope, nine months of vomitting even at the smell of food, clenching pain on a hot afternoon, me dragged screaming into life finally on an exhausted early morning. Scream because Pa may get fed-up of the noise, what will the neighbours think. Scream because the bloody feather duster/rotan/slap/stick of firewood hurts like hell. Scream even though all the tears and snot in the world will not move an irrational adult until some vague sense of justice is recovered from the fire of my pain and the ashes of his anger.
- Why you crying?
Whip of cane across the ankle.
- Keep quiet. How many times I told you not to tell lies, to steal rambutans/chikus/papayas/fish in the monsoon drain, you'll fall in and be swept away to Klang River where you'll be eaten by crocodiles/you think I don't know you have been stealing cigarettes from the tin/you think I stupid?
Whack of cane on backside.
- Stop crying. You think your mother and I not have enough problems? Neighbours complaining. Your teachers. Third from the bottom/third in class. Why can't be first? Are you stupid? Want to be rubbish-collector when you grow up?
Lines of fire on calves, back of the thighs, a protective arm that got in the way.
- If you don't stop crying, I'll cane you somemore. Now what must you say?
- I didn't hear you.
- Sorry, Pa.
- You don't look sorry. Now go, go and do your...
All this fearful possibilities in the couple of minutes it took us to get out and a stranger move into the gloom of the space under the ashram. He lays down a package, settles down in our clubhouse.
The clubhouse of the Secret Six - God bless Enid Blyton - Balan, Suri, brothers, Balan a year older, Mat, Brian, Soon Heng and me, Chong. We had secret passwords and hand-signals, changed after long argument every week. We played with the other kids, we were not stuck-up, but we never let the other kids inside the club-house where we had our secret meetings, where our favourite photos of Cliff Richard and Tarzan and Jerry Lewis, the best one, Burt Lancaster as the Crimson Pirate, torn from Movie News, were pasted on the walls of propped-up cardboard, where we kept our lasticks and cherry-guns and knives, where on Sundays we peered through cracks in the floorboards above, blinded by falling dust, trying to catch a flash of flesh, up above, Gopal Shetty teaching little Indian girls to dance, a jingle-jangle of bangles and bells, a thunder of stamping feet above our heads, Gopal clapping his hands, tak ka tum tum, tak ka tum, shouting Stop, stop because somebody danced wrong, because mothers, heavily powdered and perfumed, Indian marmees wrapped like Egyptian mummies in yards of cloth, were gossiping and not respectfully silent.
Now all that was lost to us. A stranger had taken over.
- Hoi, you gerrout. That is our secret clubhouse. Nobody is allowed except for the Secret Six.
There was no reply to Brian's shout. Just the sudden light of a match lighting one of our bidis. Bloody fool! Bloody cheek! Bloody bastard!
We waited. We debated. We all had bloodthirsty suggestions, but no one was brave enough. Then we had to go home for dinner.
Next day, school, was a long, long day. We met in the playground during interval.
- Anybody got any ideas?
- Maybe the fella will be gone by the time we get home.
- Ya, maybe.
- But what if he is still there?
- Then we chase him away. There's six of us. We each carry a stick.
- I will sneak out my father's pen-knife.
Six of us edging close to the ashram and the clubhouse.
- Hoi, you in there. This your last chance. Gerrout or we wallup you.
Silence. A couple of steps nearer.
- Hoi, can you hear us?
The stranger appears from under the ashram in a bent-over rush.
We were screams fleeing.
The next afternoon, Suri called us out of our naps, away from homework.
- The fella gone out. I saw him walking towards the coolie lines.
We ran to check the clubhouse. That bugger had torn down one of the walls and was using it to lie on, Cliff Richard on the underside, rubbed into the dirt. He had not touched our weapons. There was a T-shirt, a short-sleeved shirt, half a loaf of bread, that's all he had. We took the shirts and the bread and ground them into the dirt, into the green wet chicken-shit and hard little black goat droppings deposited by the co-tenants of the space under the ashram. That will teach him not to mess with the Secret Six.
That evening we were playing the finals of the Merdeka Tournament. Nineteen kids in screaming chase of a football. Mat was flying with the ball down the left. Suddenly he stopped. Suri caught up and charged into him, bringing Mat down.
- Foul! Free kick.
- You idiot, why did you stop?
- Accident. Not purposely.
Mat sat up and pointed. We looked. We shit in our stomachs. The bugger was there at the side of the field. He was only about 16 or 18, still very older than us. Suri, the tallest among us, only reached to just above his waist, I don't know how to tell weight but whatever, he was Bigger! Somemore he had this fella with him, Ravi, a gangster from the coolie-lines, real gang one, not like ours. He had failed the Standard Six exam. Got sacked from the Indian sundry shop because he shouted at the boss. He gets into fights at the toddy-shop. Sometimes he stops us, after school, even five cents will do for a cigarette, one time I even had to go to the shop to buy him cigarette with my money. They say he always carries a knife.
We were in trouble. Somehow the other kids sensed it, this oh-shit-we-are-in-deep-shit smell, and they started moving away, running when the stranger and Ravi started crossing the field to us. We didn't move. It was not heroism. There was no panic, not on the outside anyway, Mustn't be the first to lose face, to lose balls, there was no thought, there was no moving.
- Hoi, what are you boys doing?
It was Uncle Ponnuduray, bless his busybody soul.
- I said what are you boys doing?
Ravi takes off, jumps on a bicycle, and is away.
We take off, jumped on the stranger. Why? I don't know. I don't know who charged first or we did it at the same time but whatever the madness, we were on him, thud, thud, not much power but punches finding flesh, the thigh, shoulder, I was hanging on to his left leg, flung off, quickly back to grab a leg, his slipper in my face but hanging on, thud, thud, crack of his arm across Brian's face, thud, what are you boys doing? Stop it. I'll tell your fathers, just a heave and heavy huffing of sweaty bodies, a mass, mess of effort and energy.
- Okay, okay, stop, stop.
We slowly stopped our struggle. I thought we were losing.
- Okay, we share the space. You can use the clubhouse when I'm out.
- When we are there and you come back, you don't tell us to gerrout.
- What's your name?
We never thought to ask him where he came from, why he was staying there, under the brick stilts holding up the ashram. We did wonder where he went in the day, how he found food. We were more interested in the fact that when he joined our football side we ended our losing streak. He was faster and when he wasn't he just slapped aside the kootchie-rats.
What was AWWWSOME was one day when he came to the field, stuck his hands inside his trouser pockets and came out with lots and lots and lots of centipedes and millipedes. Yucks. Awesome. Venga stood there, a grin on his face while these hairy, slimy, creepy crawlies with poison bites which will do unimaginable terrible things, worse than fever, your body will swell up like a pig, your skin turn purple, these things slip-sliding, slithering, gripping with half a million legs, waving another half million, he grips them in his fists, parts twisting and flopping between his fingers, he shoves them at our faces, we were screams fleeing.
It was in the newspapers. We heard it in the streets. Ravi and his gang had gone to Lido to see a show, had spotted two boys from Scott Road, slapped and kicked them and chased them away. The big boys in Scott Road and the coolie lines were always at war, sworn enemies, nobody can really say why, territory, you stare at me I don't like, leave our girls alone, just for the hell of fighting. Often it was just a lot of staring and glaring and bad-words, not too loud unless you really want to fight, fuck you can go on for some time but fuck your mother or sister means must fight, maybe some pushing, but this time the two boys brought back a brother and his gang ... with parangs. When Ravi came out from the show, they chopped off his right arm.
Our area was famous. It was in the newspapers. We heard it in the streets. Awesome. They arrested three Scott Road fellas. Ravi went to court but he didn't say anything, he didn't say those were the fellas who chopped off his arm. He just stood up and said, "We in the coolie lines will settle it our way." Crazy brave. We heard the judge got angry and punished him.
- Did he cry, Venga?
- Ravi, when they chopped off his arm and it was lying on the road, he must have cried.
- What? You think he's a crybaby? You know what he told the judge. He will never cry. His family is trying to cool him down before he goes to Scott Road to kill someone.
- He can kill someone?
Ya, even with only one hand.
Once the others ganged up, picked on me, everybody took turns as victim, it was my turn I guess. The bastards ignored me, then called me names, Fatso, Four Eyes, Pig, oink, oink, then they jumped me, stripped me in spite of my struggles and put kerangga, red ants all over me. When they got bored and relaxed, I broke free, charged, Balan flung a fist, smashed my nose, oh God the blood just wouldn't stop. I inhaled blood until I must have filled all my lungs with blood and still it poured, a red Niagara that will soon leave me a bloodless corpse.
Venga came by.
- O stop it. Don't be a crybaby.
- But they...
- I know, but what's the use of crying? Here, take my handkerchief and wipe the blood. See, it is stopping.
- It's not.
- Don't be a sissy. Girls cry. Heroes don't. Men don't.
If ever I had a reason to cry, I thought it was then, at that moment when the bites of the red ants were visibly growing, swollen red hills pushing up, my nose didn't feel broken but how to tell and all that blood, but Venga was staring, my only audience, so I stopped crying.
Strange, he talk so much, so big about not crying, yet one hot afternoon when the others were sleeping and I couldn't and Soon Heng's mother won't let him come out to play, I went to the clubhouse in case Venga was back, he wasn't, I lit a bidi but it's no fun smoking by yourself, so I went out to roam and saw Venga near the bathrooms and jambans, shithouses of the ashram. Venga was going in and out of the bathroom, water cupped in his hands, throwing it on the wall, rubbing at it with his bare hands, taking off his T-shirt and rubbing, scrubbing the wall with it. Someone had written, scratched into the wall (because the water was not erasing it): Fuck Venga moter.
Venga was crying. I didn't know what to say. Come to think of it, Venga must have a mother, a father, family, surely he is not an orphan, where are they?
- Who did this? Why they do this? It can't come out. Why say bad about my mother?
I didn't know what to say. I didn't know what to do. I went into the bathroom, cupped water from the tub and three it on the wall, again and again. Venga didn't seem to know I was there. He just cried and cried.
When you are 10 years old, time is always now, the past goes fast, tomorrow is too far away, there is only today, now, so I do not know how long Venga stayed underneath the ashram, how long he was with us, I think at least three months, maybe a year, whatever, but one Saturday morning, a police jeep appeared on the street, drove up to the compound of the ashram, four policemen got out, someone, some father had reported Venga, a bad influence on the children, a samseng, a gangster, we heard later that he had run away from a home for bad boys in Malacca, don't know true or not. The policemen surrounded the ashram. Venga tried to run, but they caught him. He didn't really fight, just seemed to give up suddenly. They didn't allow him to take his things from the clubhouse. They put him in the jeep. He didn't look at us, at all the people who had come out to see what was happening, like he didn't know us.
He didn't cry.
© Thor Kah Hoong, 1993
[Author's note: All spelling mistakes and grammatical atrocities are deliberate]
Divide and Rue
Divide and rule. Divide and rue.
South Africa is a land where division has gone wild and complex, much of it bloody and awful.
A visitor to South Africa must similarly divide himself into many minds, splinter into schizoid states to manage in different realities. Only in emphatic division could this visitor accommodate lunch accompanied by champagne and tart reds, spiced with dry, wry talk of the theatre and history, amidst austere winter gardens and vineyards, and... a shit-smelly shanty-town of scrap-shacks and tents pustulent on top of a dump, where the determined talk is of strikes and no schooling.
Division may be a fact of life and death in South Africa, but just like the yin-yang symbol, black and white are foetally, fatally, curled round each other in a historical whole. There is a common history that all parties would like to deny, at least selectively so, because no one likes reminders of loss and blindness.
But the hatred and love, frustration and guilt which are being expressed today are basic emotions rooting back to basic times when land was territory over which tribes and races fought; when a God-driven sense of being indomitable spilled a river of black blood which continues to course, poisonously, through the battered, shattered tribal and racial laagers of South Africa.
The situation encourages blinkered vision, either because a broad perspective reveals much that is guilt-ridden, disgusting or terrifying, or because the man has been reduced to a focused or rage of despair.
(Division is seen even within South African officialdom. South African tourism authorities who wanted journalists in to see that there were fun places in the country, safely isolated, no trouble coming over the veld ... and a South African consulate official in London coolly suspicious of the visa application of a journalist from Malaysia, one of those hit-Whitey countries she has been warned of, and thus promising an official response only after the flight had left. The situation was resolved by a friend from Commonwealth House who called to remind them that they needed friends, but they were not going to get any if they remain as mule-headed as...)
* * *
Gold Reef City, a theme park centred round a gold nilne and a model of early Johannesburg, exemplifies my divided experiences of South Africa.
Black help and white supervisors dressed in sun hats and layered flouncy dresses à la Gone with the Wind Down Swanee River. One corner of the park on entrance, is devoted to screaming people shooting into a watery plunge on logs or hanging on tightfisted to a looping train. There is a sterile, lifeless model of parts of old Johannesburg: an early newspaper; buildings typically fringed with overwrought filigreed metal, looking like oversized garden furniture; an emporium of gold objects.
The main attraction is a tour down into the hollowed depths of an old gold mine. Armed with a helmet and a torch, a visitor is lifted down into a well-ventilated tunnel.
The tour takes in specks of gold and false gold glinting in the light of the torch. No romantic vision here of nuggets of gold hefted in a joy of discovery, but a voracious dissolution of one ton of rock to obtain about four grammes of gold. (Such an ugly waste - so many stunted, blunted lives and so many truncated pyramids of grey slag and gold waste which loom huge all over the fringe of Johannesburg.)
The echoing darkness, the bolts and beams jammed into the bedrock to hold things up, the patches of wet and the cubbyholes of rest evoke a sense of the daily routine down here in a richer past. But the sense is essentially false, another ignorant romance.
Near the end of the stretch of tunnel open to visitors, perched in a dark side-tunnel is a "miner". With just a lit candle for company, this man sits there, hour after hour, waiting for visitors. Visitors move him to stand up, at a lean in the confined space, to demonstrate the driving of spikes into the resistant rock to break up things. He moves to a drill and for a couple of ear-shattering minutes he shudders and hammers away at the rockface.
Then he squats down again in the gathered dark, waiting.
A black man in a khaki uniform; a taciturn troglodyte crouching in his day of darkness.
What does he think all workday long? In that silence, punctuated by drips and the gurgling of rushing water and the approaching chatter of a tour guide heralding a shuffling of shoes, hushed giggles and whispers.
Only a poetically idle mind will hear the clangour of the mine when it was working, ghost roars of trains rumbling, machines clattering, drills shattering and explosions muffled in the depths.
No, the original work is over. No more pushing into the earth until it comes apart at the seams. Now the mine is just the main attraction in a side-show. Life glossed over for family entertainment and education in a Disney-formula of fun and money.
The man is ageless in the gloom. Is he old enough to remember eGoli, the city of gold, Johannesburg, when it was booming with the wealth underfoot? When thousands of black men were in the pits as far down as a mile and a half to worm through heat and noise and dark dust for less than $US5 a month? Was he just hired for this side-show or is he a remnant from the old mine? Did he have to go through acclimatisation in a giant steam bath in simulation of conditions underground? Was he, together with hundreds of men, placed in front of stepladders and told to climb up and down for hours on end, while sweat ran off their naked bodies and men in lab coats listened to their heart-beats and fondled their testicles checking for hernias?
* * *
South Africa does that to me - makes me have hallucinatory flashes of another world while in this whitewashed one my Asian upbringing conditions me to be either clichéd, for coincidence and defence, inscrutable Chinaman or always politely smiling in good-humoured tow of my hosts.
After all, the guide into the bowels of Gold Reef City was charming and informative (selectively,) and there was no reason for me not to be smiling genuinely because everyone was so good-natured (so long as I did not do something so déclassé as to ask for confirmation of my reading that up to fifty, sixty bodies would be chipping away amidst dust, crammed into that hole in the wall where one now disconsolately hunkers).
So I was a collaborationist - in maintaining the polite façade that papers over the divisions.
* * *
No Malice in Fairyland
You are now in Fairyland.
This flip line of graffiti scrawled on a wall in District Six in Cape Town seems to be particularly resonant with significance for South African writers.
In Richard Rive's collection of short stories, Buckingham Palace, District Six, about the "characters" of District Six - the fences and the pushers, the jive talkers and street stalkers - it was the epigraph. Fairyland, a musical conceived by David Kramer and Taliep Petersen, titled itself after this same inscription.
Fairyland is a joyous collection of songs and moves echoing the music popular in District Six in the Sixties: Motown funk such as "Papa was a Rolling Stone"; the smooth platter of "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes"; Malay choir "liedjies"; original numbers with risqué double entendres.
The show must have hit the right chords because Fairyland is said to be the longest running show in South Africa, in the 21st month (in August 1992) of its run and still packing them in the night I caught the show.
It was easy to be drawn in by the slick ensemble portrayal of sidewalk choirs harmonising for the sweet mamas swaying by, and for the sheer joy and hell of it all; of the restless young ignoring the nagging love of parents; of last-row romances and front-row mayhem at the cinema.
In the beginning, Fairyland promised a bit of the edge, showing a fringe culture of a rich brown, yellow, black mix, fleeing from white strictures into the ethnic welcome of District Six or shoved there to mutate in exotic ferment. The musical delivered the flash characters, those trying to rise above the moneyless mob because poverty is anonymous and of grinding insignificance.
The cosy Dock Road Theatre in Cape Town packed in just over 250 people. Most of them looked comfortable, padded, well-fed. All of us laughed at the innocent energies of the young and even faked an ache or two for youthful promise unmet because the young grew into routine and family.
By the time of the sing-along clap and feel good finale, however, I was tapping my feet by rote. I should have registered the tone of the notes in the programme.
District Six was a ... place where music was important, where culture and tradition were revered. That it was impoverished and dilapidated, that there was crime and overcrowding, cannot be denied. But what is important is that it was a place where people had a sense of themselves as community. The place had a spirit. A spirit that made it special. A spirit that is missing in the sprawling townships and suburban developments of today.
The last line betrays the sentiment. The eternal belief in a past idyll turned tawdry by growth and change. Nostalgia, the super good-natured pain-easer that rubs out the sharp edges that rubbed us the wrong way. Trying to bestow mythic stature on the daily and the ordinary, but only succeeding in making poverty and dilapidation and crime cute.
Kramer and Petersen may have wanted to create a musical memorial for a funky, spunky community, but their work exalts a spirit without any suggestion that its exuberance was essentially a frail flowering which fell to the bulldozing blades which flattened the District one morning because whites had decided it was a good location to set their apartments and comfort.
District Six is an iconic point in the history of racial confrontation in South Africa because it is still there, in erased form, vacuously so because the authorities got discomfited by the outrage over the eviction and appropriation and did not get on with the building.
* * *
Down in the Dumps
It is a far drop from the down-at-heel raciness of District Six to the squatter settlement I visited at the edge of Soweto. According to the guide, it was called Dhlamini, but considering our fumbling efforts at finding English sentences in common, I cannot swear that this settlement bears that name.
Anyway, such a dump (literally, since the thousand families are living on top of an old city dump) should not have a name. A name implies roots, permanence, a postal code, historical significance or familial attachment, and the residents, who been there for four-and-a-half years, are there by lack of choice and would prefer to move out to the long promised but never delivered housing.
The place stinks... of geological layers of old rubbish, of the poor huddled in profusion, of clogged drains, of shit. A thousand families queue for water from just one standpipe.
I was in a tent, one of several pitched amidst the usual improvised collection of metal sheets, cardboard and bricks which passes off as houses for poor blacks around all the scabby edges of South African cities.
I was invited to sit on one of two beds/benches/tables which took up more than half of the space in the tent. Taking in, too, the guide and five women of the settlement's governing committee, the tent had just enough space left for a crucifix, a battered chest of drawers, assorted mugs, cups and glasses, several jars of spices and condiments, and a piece of tattered carpeting of indeterminate colour.
Despite the best efforts of my guide, I did not get the names of those women. More of a loss was the flood of fast and furious answers which was paraphrased by my guide to skeletal single sentences: "She says she has three children"; "Yes, it is difficult to get job."
What did come across was their despair over education for their children. A "chalk-down" by teachers in Soweto was threatened, if the Department of Education and Training did not recognise their union, reinstate two dismissed colleagues and withdraw the suspension of 127 others. There had been no effective schooling since the start of the third term. A "stayaway" on Aug 2-3, 1992, organised by the "comrades", was happily extended by the students into another three days of idle "action".
What is the point of studying anyway? Less than 50 per cent will finish primary school. Of those survivors, less than 10 per will matriculate. And of those, less than seven per cent will get jobs.
Not everybody has given up hope. This big mother, who spoke the most vehemently in our largely untranslated exchanges, was driven out of frustration over my inability to understand her to assert in English: "Teacher useless, teacher useless." She went on at length about her 12-year-old son, but an account which brought tears to her eyes had the others spluttering in laughter.
The translation of the intense outburst: "She says she will kill her son if he does not finish school. She is afraid she will die before she will get some money back after all that has been spent on him."
The guide felt that such blunt honesty about the mercenary rewards of bringing up a son would tarnish any romantic notion of the nobility of their oppression and proffered a platitude (which I am certain she did not say) about how she felt education was vital for the progress of...
She was a character. They all were.
The characters of Fairyland are endearing because they have charm and mean no real harm.
These people have character because only character can cling on in a dump, the tail-end of a city's digestive systems.
Fairyland is the soft white underbelly of the Beast.
* * *
Somebody is Out to Get Me
Over the weekend (of 23-24 August, 1992) at least nine people were killed In South Africa. In Silverton, near Pretoria, a young woman was burned to death. It is believed the woman was still alive when she was set alight, police said. The body of a young man was found behind a hostel it Durban Roodepoort Deep mine on the West Rand. In Alexandra, Sandton, a man was injured when gunmen fired several shots from a passing vehicle.
A policewoman, Constable Nhlapho, was injured when a crowd attacked her in Daveyton on the East Rand. An explosion caused extensive damage to the house of the deputy mayor of Soweto. The deputy mayor's daughter injured in the blast.
In Natal, three people were killed and three seriously injured when unknown gunmen opened fire on a kraal in the Makwatini Reserve. One of the dead was detective-constable L.S. Mazipoliko. Unknown attackers opened fire on a taxi in Magabeni, killing two passengers.
The newspaper report above is of no particular significance... and that is its significance. Nobody, except for those who must clean up after and weep over the remains, pays attention to the daily toll recorded in a perfunctory manner by the media. The victims are anonymous (except for members of the police). Gunmen are usually labelled "unknown" because the possible motives for the murderous assaults are many - political differences; faction-fighting; personal rage; random, spontaneous devilry; take your pick - and the authorities cannot find the time or the interest to probe the many and growing number of cases.
In an issue of South African News, a SATour spokesman noted: "South Africa is quite safe for holiday makers. Those pondering a visit to the country should know that the violence is confined to areas well away from the main tourist paths."
There is a pernicious logic to this and other arguments for the comparative placidity of South Africa. Crime is as rampant and violent, if not worse, in the United States, yet tourists still flock there in planeloads. Only certain areas (meaning black areas) are dangerous. You will not be in danger if you hung around smug, snug suburbs (meaning white neighbourhoods).
Yes, every urban centre in the world is plagued by crime and life goes on. But how many cities have the entrances of their hotels locked by nightfall, opened again only to recognised guests? How many have traffic wardens exchanging AK-47 fire with car-thieves?
My hosts checked me into a hotel away from the centre of Johannesburg to avoid the mayhem in the streets. I found out later that it was next to the district with the highest crime rate in Johannesburg. Was I paranoid?
That very morning, just before I surfaced, someone had been mugged right in front of the hotel, and a German guest, who had been seized by an irresistible urge for bananas, had to be dissuaded from leaving the hotel with more than the couple of Rands required for the purchase. He made it to the corner before his shirt-pocket was sliced open. Was I paranoid?
There we were, S.K. and I, strolling along the main shopping strip of Johannesburg, a transverse row of shopping complexes and stores bisecting the centre of town, ringing with the roar of the idle masses while shops rang empty. (Except for this so-called antique shop which had a traffic of drunks, washed-out women and young toughs, handing over thin bands of gold, gimcrack costume jewellery, worn dull old shillings and crowns, most of it junk, for evaluation, being finger-printed to try and keep the trade legit.)
So there S.K. and I were, outside the Johannesburg Sun, poshest hotel in town and one which a colleague had recommended for my stay, to hell with the cost, it was safe. So there S.K. and I were, looking at the familiar sight of a couple of Chinese selling fake watches and jeans out of a shopping-cart, when ... there was a murmuring of many, a roar in the background which clarified itself as a mob pursuing two men. One of these two had a man in tow, dragging him by his hair and one hand which was handcuffed to the other. The prisoner was kicking and screaming. The mob was alternating pleading with the two, presumably detectives, and threatening to attack them.
There S.K. and I were, our mouths open, our street-smarts having deserted us, just yards away, when passions building up to an overwhelming rush prompted the man dragging the shoplifter (so we were informed by a fleeing man) to pull out a gun.
A gun! There, S.K. and I were, our mouths open, just yards away.
"Run, man, run," this frantic black man said, "trouble."
Run? That was undignified. S.K. and I managed a fast walk.
"Run, man, run, you wanna die?" the man said as he pushed his wife across the street.
We walked faster and looked back to see a knife falling out from the prisoner's waistband and at the same time, his captor dropping his gun. The mob rushed. The other man pulled out a gun. The mob backed off. We turned round a corner.
Later I teased S.K., pro photographer that he was, that he had snapped everything in sight in our travels the past few days but had not recorded the incident. And there were the two of us bravely insisting on taking along our cameras (tucked out of sight, hopefully, under our leather jackets) in spite of the fervent advice of the hotel manager not to set ourselves up as targets for muggers.
"What about you? Anyway, you think I'm crazy? We don't know the rules here, how they operate. I shoot them. He shoots me? No thanks."
Was S.K. crazy? Was I paranoid?
You bet, I was paranoid.
* * *
I called upon the Lord in distress: the Lord answered me, and set me up in a large place... All nations compassed me about: but in the name of the Lord will I destroy them... They compassed me about like bees: they are quenched as the fire of thorns: for in the name of the Lord I will destroy them.
That was the kind of thunderous God and rhetoric which dominated early South Africa, when Boers trekked out to wrest the unknown from disease and natives. The 118th Psalm was recited to celebrate the victory of the Battle of Vegkop at the Orange River in 1837. It was the first big battle with the Matabele. The feverish vision of swarming enemies seemed confirmed in the heatwaves of the veld. The Boers cleared the land of threats and in their fear of subversion from within the bloodstream, planted the seeds of a fear of miscegenation.
That was then. Now, the religious strain seems to have shrunk to a pleading whine, the whispers of confession, mea culpas, the clicking of rosary beads, three Hail Marys, 1 am full of disgrace. The speeches of President de Klerk are full of references to "cleaning the slate", "burying the past", "closing the book."
Pick up a newspaper in Cape Town and amidst a page of ads touting phone services - call the sangoma, the witch-doctor for that mysterious ache, for a muti, a love-potion. many numbers to call for sexual advice, talking dirty; aural fantasies; dating/mating lines - there is one that tells you to "feel good about yourself again!"
For US$2 a minute, South Africans can dial-a-confession. Confidentiality is guaranteed. Just whisper all those dark guilts away. Purge yourself. Wipe clean your slate. Bury your past. Close the book.
"There's things to settle between us, and now is the time to do it," the white sinner tells the black sinner in Athol Fugard's new work, Playland. At the end of the play, the white man has cried out the memory of 27 men blown away in an ambush and the black man has defiantly confessed to killing the white boss of his wife because he demanded more than labour of her body.
"Forgive me or kill me. That's the only choice you've got," the white man says.
The play ends with the former option, both characters feeling good about themselves and each other. Sadly for everyone, more and more South Africans, blacks and whites, are choosing the latter mode of catharsis.
* * *
On the ride to the airport, Joseph the taxi-driver, talked about the difficulties of saving a deposit for a 50,000 Rand house, a two-room shack, one of many dotted over a bare-hard, almost treeless landscape. Then he had to find a financial institution which would be willing to lend him the rest; blacks are at a disadvantage because their stability, financial and otherwise, is suspect. After all that, the black house-owner is faced with an annual interest rate of about 20 per cent for many years to come.
On the plane, Joan Goode, on her way to visit mum in London, demonstrates to me what a liberal humanist she is.
"I have nothing against blacks. An Indian doctor has just bought the house behind ours. I am not prejudiced."
I didn't ask her how many blacks or coloureds she knew who could afford to buy a quarter of a million Rand house.
Joseph and Joan. Still not seeing eye to eye. Still talking different languages. Still divided.
Revised from a three part series published in the New Straits Times, 1992
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Created on 8 April 2006.
Last update on 8 April 2006.