Mbulelo Vizikhungo Mzamane (28 July 1948 – 16 February 2014) was a South African author, poet and academic. Nelson Mandela described him as a “visionary leader and one of South Africa’s greatest intellectuals”. He wrote most of his fiction while in exile; it was banned by the Apartheid Censorship board. He was an activist against the Apartheid government and spent many years in exile in Nigeria and the USA. While abroad he spread awareness about the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa.
Mzamane’s story, ‘The Day of the Riots’, is set in Soweto during the 1976 Uprising. It is about how a black man, Sipho, tries to find a way of protecting his family and getting his white colleague, Johannes Venter, out of Soweto unharmed, while the students protested against their school conditions and language policy. It is an insightful and tragic story which shines a light on the lopsided nature of race relations under Apartheid. It captures the changing spirit of the struggle against Apartheid, which spread to the grassroots level and became more militant. It is an example of how writing can be used to serve the purposes of activism.
Author: Mbulelo Vizikhungo Mzamane
‘But can’t you really let me put up here for the night?’ Johannes Venter asked for the umpteenth umpteenth Very many; but an exact number is not known. time.
‘Goodness gracious, no, Mr Venter,’ Sipho answered. ‘Can’t you understand? If you’re unable to leave tonight, under cover of darkness, you have no chance of coming out alive tomorrow, in broad daylight.’
‘But things may have changed in the morning.’
‘Yes, for the worse. Don’t you realise, sir, that those children only let us go because they know me? They may very well start boasting in the streets. And when the older ones hear the story; there’s no telling what will become of us all if they find out you’re here.’
Sipho’s children peered peered Looked with interest. into the sitting-room where he and Johannes Venter were talking.
‘Hambani niyolala nina,’ Hambani niyolala nina ‘Go to bed.’ he said.
They darted darted Ran. back to the kitchen but did not go to bed as he had instructed.
‘No, you just can’t sleep here, Mr Venter,’ Sipho said. ‘We simply must think of a way of getting you out of the township with a minimum of delay. Oh! Yes, I think I’ve got it. I’ll go and report your presence to the police. They’ll be able to escort you safely out of the township. I’ll be back shortly. Just make yourself at home. My wife will keep you company till I return. Would you like something to eat?’
‘No, I’m all right, thank you.’
‘Okay, some tea then. Won’t be long, sir.’
Sipho hurried into the kitchen. His wife, Daphne, and their children were huddled together around the coal stove like a brood brood A family of offspring or young. of chickens.
It was blustering blustering Windy, blowing fiercely or noisily; cold. wintry weather. The wind howled and lashed violently against the windows. Gushes of cold air entered through the numerous numerous Many. cracks on the walls, especially where the walls met the roof. The ill-fitting door was stuffed with paper and cloths to keep out some of the cold air.
Daphne was listening to the children’s accounts of the day’s events when Sipho entered. He closed the door after him.
‘Will you stay with him until I come back!’ Sipho said. ‘I’ll go and call the police.’
‘He can’t sleep here,’ Daphne said.
‘I’m trying to see to it that he doesn’t,’ Sipho said.
‘Kodwa wena ubumusa kuphi lomuntu?’ Kodwa wena ubumusa kuphi lomuntu? ‘But why have you brought this person here?’ Daphne asked. Sipho thought what an unfair question it was. How could she conceivably ask why he’d brought Venter, as though he’d had any choice in the matter?
‘Please, let’s not go into that now,’ he said.
‘Where will you find the police?’ she asked.
‘Where else? At the police station, of course. That’s what they should be doing, protecting people instead of mowing down mowing down Shooting. children.’
‘Baba, they burnt down the police station this afternoon,’ Sandile said. He was their eldest son and was ten years old. Sipho looked at Daphne. She nodded.
There was a loud knock at the door.
Johannes Venter sprang to his feet and made for the kitchen. He stood trembling at the door.
trembling Shivering or shaking, out of fear.
‘Excuse me, there’s someone knocking,’ he said, ‘Do you think they’ve come for me?’
‘Nkulunkulu wam!’ Nkulunkulu wam! ‘My God!’‘ Daphne exclaimed. ‘What did I say? There’s only one thing we can do now,’ she continued in Zulu. ‘You’ve got to hide him outside, in the coal box.’ She quickly sized Johannes Venter from head to foot. ‘He’s not such a big man. He’ll fit in all right. Quick, we’ve no time to lose. Get him out before whoever is knocking comes round to the back door.’
They were talking in whispers.
Johannes Venter was shaking uncontrollably. How did one live under such constant threats? He was made to feel even more forlorn forlorn Unhappy, sad or miserable. by being left out of the conversation which went on in a language he didn’t understand. Nor did he feel the least reassured by being ignored each time he asked to be told what they planned to do with him. Was he going to be surrendered to the mercy of those savage children they’d met running riot in the streets? Why hadn’t he simply dumped Sipho at the entrance to the township and driven home to his wife and children? But how could he have known that he’d be trapped in this infernal place? …those savage children The writer is speaking as a character here. Although he mostly speaks from a third-person perspective, like an outside observer describing what is happening without being involved in the events he describes, in this case he describes things as they would seem to the character of Johannes Venter. This writing tactic is used by many novelists; it is called ‘free indirect speech’. It would not be correct to assume that the writer believes the ‘children’ are ‘savages’. infernal As horrible as hell.
‘Risky! But I can’t, for the life of me, think of anything besides simply letting him out through the window,’ Sipho said.
‘My God! Do you want a white corpse in our yard in the morning?’ Daphne asked.
‘No, no, not that. I guess your plan will do. But don’t open the door yet. While I get him out, you and the children create as much fracas fracas Chaos, disturbance, or disorder. as you can. Get them to sing something at the top of their voices. And start shouting to whoever is at that door that you’re coming. Take your time opening that door.’
‘What shall I ask them to sing?’
‘Oh, anything. “Rock of ages” or something.’
‘But they don’t know that one.’
‘Get them to sing something else they know then.’
‘I know what we’ll sing.’ It was Nomsa, their five-year old daughter. ‘Let’s sing that new song Sandile and Sizwe taught me today, the one I heard the Black Power (only she pronounced it “Powder”) children singing when they came back from fighting the police. Sandile and Sizwe were there, baba. They were all shouting “Black Powder! Black Powder!” and, “Amandla! Amandla!” Start it Sizwe.’
‘I don’t know which one you mean,’ Sizwe said. ‘There were many songs we sang today.’
Sizwe was two years older than Nomsa. He and Sandile went to school in the township. During the day they had been involved in a demonstration, together with children from other primary and secondary schools in the township. They marched through the streets, singing old liberation songs and others they had composed composed Written; come up with. themselves, to protest against the enforcement enforcement The act of forcing or imposing a situation on people against their will. of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in certain subjects throughout African schools. The students planned to converge converge Meet or come together. at the township’s largest soccer stadium to voice their opposition to the scheme.
The police met them in the streets, before they could reach the stadium, and asked them through loudspeakers to disperse. disperse Spread out or break up (as for a gathering). They told the students that in terms of the Riotous Assemblies Act, which the children had never heard about, they were breaking the law by staging a protest march without obtaining permission from the police first.
‘You are here. Give us your permission then,’ someone in the crowd shouted. And the chant caught on, ‘Give us your permission then.’
‘Legalise dagga!’ someone else shouted. There was loud laughter but no one took up the shout.
The police then used teargas to try and disperse the students. Far from scattering about in a disorganised fashion, the students soon developed a technique for containing the teargas. Armed with cloths and buckets of water requisitioned requisitioned Demanded or taken. from nearby houses, they covered their canisters with wet cloths as soon as they hit the ground.
In this way many of the canisters were prevented from exploding. Thus, unable to break the march the police resorted to shooting. At first they aimed above the heads of the crowd, but as the students surged forward resolutely resolutely Purposefully. they fired at their front ranks. Some students retaliated retaliated To return like for like; to fight back. by throwing stones at the police. In the ensuing scuffle a few people were injured, including some police and onlookers, and several children were shot dead.
Incensed Incensed Made very angry. by the police action the students ran riot.
abominable Very bad, evil and oppressive. simultaneously At the same time. deserted Empty, abandoned. contain Keep in a small space or stop from spreading. deployed Organised and positioned to be used for a specific purpose.
‘Amandla! Power!’ they shouted, with clenched fists raised in the air.
‘We’ll burn down all their buildings … Away with the abominable System!’
Working in groups which struck their targets almost simultaneously, the students acted too fast for the police who had come out in large numbers, leaving the police station virtually deserted. While the police were engaged in trying to contain the disturbances which flared up at various strategic points in the township, a group of specially deployed students caught an unsuspecting skeleton staff at the police station itself and set the buildings on fire. Elsewhere, they burnt down the municipality offices and other buildings associated with the township’s administration board, like the post offices, beer halls and the fire department. Some schools and libraries were also burnt down.
There were many whites whose daily business brought them to the township. These included employees of the board, commercial travellers and people working for voluntary agencies which operated in the township. Many delivery vans bearing the names of white companies were stopped in the streets, overturned and set on fire. Buses received the same treatment. In many cases their black drivers and conductors scuttled scuttled To run with quick, hasty steps – almost like an insect. into houses; then retired retired Went back. to their homes or their favourite shebeens to drink the bus company’s earnings. Some whites caught in this were killed, among them a doctor who ran a voluntary medical scheme for children in the township. His body was found in a rubbish bin. Another superintendent in one of the administration board’s offices who was watching the battle between the police and the students unaware of any reason why anyone should wish to harm, was also killed.
A dangerous spirit, such as Sipho and Johannes Venter experienced in driving through the township, still gripped the streets.
‘Sing then,’ Sipho said to his children.
‘Just a moment, please, l’m coming,’ Daphne shouted.
‘Start it, Sizwe,’ Nomsa said.
‘Sing!’ Sipho said.
Sizwe and Sandile started simultaneously, on different keys.
discord Conflicting noise. Mhla sibuyayo!…uKruger ‘The day we return! … Vorster will weep, Kruger will run’.
Nomsa joined in, adding to the discord:
Mhla sibuyayo! Mhla sibuyayo!
Mhla sibuyayo! Mhla sibuyayo!
Kubaleke uKruger …
‘No, no, no, not that one!’ Sipho said.
The children fell silent.
‘Come on, sing!’ Sipho said.
‘Siculeni manje?’ Nomsa asked. Siculeni manje? ‘What should we sing now?’
‘Just sing, anything. Now go’:
‘Rock of ages cleft for me,
Let me hide…’
‘Asiyazi leyo,’ Nomsa said. Asiyazi leyo ‘We don’t know that one.’
‘Okay, if you don’t know that one, sing something you know then,’ Sipho said.
Sizwe suggested they should sing ‘Amabhunu ayizinja’. Amabhunu ayizinja ‘The Boers are dogs.’
‘Not that one either, not that one. Can’t you sing anything without dragging in Boers? Okay, just go on talking then. Louder … Louder, I say!’
The knocking continued.
‘I’m coming,’ Daphne said.
‘It’s okay, Mr Venter,’ Sipho said. ‘Just follow me and do as I say. This side, please.’
Sipho carefully opened the back door and edged out, with Johannes Venter following closely.
The coal-box stood in a corner of the backyard, near the toilet. Sipho had built it himself by joining sundry sundry Various or diverse. planks together. It had a lid with a padlock which was locked every night before the family went to bed. When empty, the box was large enough to hold two children playing hide-and-seek and therefore indifferent indifferent Does not care about; not interested or concerned. to temporary inconvenience.
They made for it.
Sipho felt inside with his hands. It was half-full of coal. There were also some dirty rags, old newspapers, firewood and an axe. He brought out the axe.
‘Climb in here, Sir,’ he said.
Johannes Venter saw the adjacent building and hesitated.
‘Why can’t I hide in there?’ he asked.
‘Sir, the toilet would be the most obvious place for any party to look in,’ Sipho answered. ‘Get in quickly.’
gingerly Carefully or unwillingly. catapult To hurl or throw forcefully. encircled To form a circle around; surround. interred Buried.
Johannes Venter climbed in gingerly. Sipho helped to catapult him in, head first.
‘Lie on your side.’
He did so. He folded his knees, brought them up to his chin and encircled them with his arms. He could feel the sharp edges of the coal and the splinters of wood through his body. He wondered how long he’d remain interred in there.
Sipho thrust thrust Pushed. the axe in his hands.
‘You may need this,’ he said.
‘My friend, please, don’t leave me buried in this place for long,’ Johannes Venter said in a faint voice.
‘I’ll get you out as soon as I possibly can.’
The lid came over Johannes Venter’s body. He sobbed a little and then remembered he must get hold of himself. He tried to fix his mind on his family. When his death was reported to his wife would she be overwhelmed overwhelmed To be overpowered or overcome completely in mind or feeling. with grief? grief Sadness and pain. How would his children manage being left fatherless so young? He offered silent, incoherent incoherent Confused; not making sense. prayers which encompassed just about everybody and everything he held dear. He cursed his fate which had landed him in this pit. His company should have placed him in the office. He should have pressed for an early answer to his application for a transfer. He hated travelling, which often kept him away from his family for days on end. Not even their clandestine clandestine Secret or illegal. outings to Botswana with Sipho could quite compensate compensate Make up for. for this sort of inconvenience. He had last seen his family on Monday, no, on Sunday evening really, because he had left very early on Monday while they were all asleep, and today was Wednesday night. Would he ever see them again? He tried to recall his wife’s face but her image had become too dim. dim Not clearly visible. His head ached where he had landed on the coal. And then suddenly he felt drained of all strength. A sense of unreality assailed assailed Attacked or assaulted. him.
It was strange the way his body felt less and less a part of him. His whole body started to tremble. He no longer had the will or the strength to control himself. His head reeled reeled Spun. round and round. He thought he heard footsteps receding receding Moving back. into the distance. His teeth were chattering badly. He tried to shout, but his breath was leaving him and no sound came out. A deep, deep darkness, such as he had never known before, descended over him.
After shutting the lid Sipho felt pressed. He walked into the toilet and unzipped his fly. Only a few drops trickled out. It had been a false alarm. He flushed the cistern and walked out. He washed his hands from the tap next to the toilet and walked back to the house, whistling.
He stood at the door to listen. There were several voices speaking all at once. A man’s voice could be heard above the rest. Sipho sighed audibly and walked in. It was his friend, Eddie, who had come with his girlfriend, Meikie, a nurse at the local hospital.
‘Heit! Fana’ Eddie greeted. ‘I learn your white man has decided to live with us in the township. Wish I could exchange places with him!’
‘Shucks! Eddie,’ Sipho said and flopped into a chair. ‘Why couldn’t you just tell us it was you? ‘Kunjani Meikie?’ Kunjani Meikie? ‘How are you Meikie?’
Meikie returned the greeting.
‘How could I have known you’d gone multi-racial?’ Eddie asked.
‘It’s no laughing matter,’ Sipho said.
‘Where’s he?’ Eddie asked.
‘Come with me,’ Sipho said.
Eddie followed him out.
They came to the coal box and Sipho said, ‘It’s all right, Mr Venter, it’s only some friends.’
He opened the lid.
‘Mr Venter, you can come out now.’
‘Maybe he bolted out,’ Eddie said.
‘He’s here all right,’ Sipho said.
Johannes Venter did not stir. stir Move or wake up. Sipho shook him hard several times, then turned to Eddie. ‘Lend me a hand,’ he said. ‘I think the poor guy’s passed out’.
They carried Johannes Venter back to the house and placed him on the sofa in the sitting room. He was covered with soot like a township coal vendor. Meikie was quickly galvanised galvanised Strengthened; startled into sudden action. into action. She asked Daphne for a basin of cold water. While Daphne went for the water she loosened Johannes Venter’s clothes.
‘Careful of breaking the Immorality Act, sweetheart,’ Eddie said.
‘I think it’s just shock,’ she said. ‘Nothing much to worry about. He should be able to come round on his own soon.’
‘What do you intend to do with him?’Eddie asked.
‘I don’t know,’ Sipho answered. ‘I thought I’d get the police to escort him home. I guess I’ll have to drive him myself. Some kids saw us come here. I’m afraid the story may soon leak out. Will you come with me, Eddie?’ ·
‘You must be joking!’ Eddie said. ‘Ask Meikie what it’s like there. Just a street away there are bonfires all along the road. And it’s not just old tyres they’re burning: Meikie and I just came from town by taxi about an hour ago. Listen to me, we’ve seen a bit of what’s happening out there and we didn’t like it a bit. Look, I was born in this township. I’ve never seen it so angry, I tell you. We were held up no less than three times and not just by the police either. They’re confining their activities to the outskirts of the township, harassing guys without passes as usual. It was also reported over the radio that, with the police station razed razed Torn down, demolished. to the ground, the army has been called in to deal with the riots. But for the time being those kids have established a virtual government in this township. And you asked me to go and risk my neck out there! Why, I don’t even call that a risk. It’s outright suicide. Let’s talk about something else. Did you hear that similar disturbances have also flared up in Nyanga and Langa townships in Cape Town and New Brighton in Port Elizabeth? All police and army leave has been cancelled. This looks like being bigger than Sharpeville, man. Do you remember how the people scuttled like rats into their holes before those bazookas?’
‘But if we can avoid all the roadblocks,’ Sipho continued, ‘we did it when we drove here, we could probably dump this guy with the police or the army.’
‘And be pulled in to show them who the leaders of the riots are? Forget it, man. Besides, you can’t even get that far without bumping into the students. Listen, chum, our taxi-driver told us that there are checkpoints on all the roads leading in and out of the township and there isn’t an infinite infinite Limitless, uncountable. number of those, the Boers have made sure of that, for more effective control! These checkpoints are manned by the students themselves, on the look-out for whites and sell-outs. And they are very thorough. Have you heard what they did to Chabeli and Rathebe?’
‘Tell us what happened, Eddie,’ Daphne quickly put in.
advisory board A local government structure in townships, ineffective and hated as part of the Apartheid system. unaccustomed Not used to. intricacies Detailed workings. apprentice A learner, a novice; a person who works for another in order to learn a trade.
Chabeli and Rathebe were both prominent members of the township’s advisory board, ‘veteran boardmen’ the newspapers called them. The advisory board’s function was to make the views of the people known to the authorities. But few township residents supported it, so that its elections never drew more than five per cent of the electorate. Nevertheless, the government never failed to point out that the advisory board was the only democratically elected body to represent African opinion. The usual low percentage poll was attributed to the fact that Africans were as yet unaccustomed to the intricacies of democratic procedures. They were still apprentices to civilisation in general and needed the guiding hand of the white man. The alternative, in the Prime Minister’s own words, was, ‘too ghastly to contemplate.’
When the students had first made known their opposition to the compulsory introduction of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction, Chabeli and Rathebe had been most vociferous vociferous Crying out noisily; vocal. in their condemnation condemnation Judgement of someone as guilty; very critical. of the students. They denounced denounced Declared to be wrong. them as misguided idealists, living in the past rather than looking forward. They were quoted in the newspapers and over the radio as saying that the students were cutting their own throats. They were shutting their eyes to the reality of their own situation and failing to take advantage of such opportunities as their parents had been denied in their days, when African schools were still in the hand of irrelevant missionaries and lackeys lackeys Obedient servants. of the British Empire. They said that the demands of modern commerce and the need to foster foster To promote the growth or development of. better race relations and promote peaceful co-existence in such a plural plural Diverse. society as ours in South Africa, with two official languages rested not only on the African’s knowledge of English but also on his proficiency proficiency Skill or expertise. eroded Worn away or lessened. in Afrikaans. In an interview with one Afrikaans newspaper Chabeli pointed out that the importance of English had been gradually eroded in the last fifteen years since South Africa had left the Commonwealth, and that Afrikaans was definitely the language of the future which it would benefit his people to master.
Chabeli, a former primary school Headmaster, was the Chairman of the local school board to whom the students first presented their petition, so that the board could pass it on to the appropriate authorities. Chabeli called the students presumptuous presumptuous Assuming something is true without checking; arrogant. ingrates ingrate An ungrateful person. who had to be protected from cutting off their own noses to spite their faces. As an educationist of long-standing, he told the students, he knew what was good for them. How did they hope to take their rightful place in a future constellation constellation Grouping. of southern African states without an education which was at least as good as their former masters? He ended up by tearing their petition in front of members of the S.R.C., a group of elected student representatives from the township’s various secondary and high schools who had brought the petition.
The advisory board, under the chairmanship of Rathebe, to whom the students went next, treated them with similar scorn. scorn Disdain or contempt.
Rathebe, a bulky man with a drooping stomach, was one of the township’s wealthiest men. He owned a string of businesses in the centre of the township. But it was generally rumoured that he was merely a front for some Indian and white businessmen. He made no secret of his support for government policy which was geared towards providing African businessmen with unlimited opportunity for expansion in their homelands, without unfair competition from English-speaking money-mongers. His outspoken views enabled him to win further concessions concessions Being allowed to set up businesses in a certain place by the controlling authorities. from the authorities to expand his business in the township. Through the representation of Africans like himself the government had agreed to grant leases of ninety-nine years to a certain category of Africans in the urban areas. He was very often invited to parties for business men of all races and entertained lavishly lavishly Excessively or opulently. himself. Only recently he had played host at the township’s only hotel to a group of visiting white M.P.’s. M.P.’s Members of Parliament. He and Chabeli received wide publicity from the news media which referred to them variously as ‘township tycoons’, ‘non-white socialites’, ‘black moderates’ and ‘civic leaders.’
folly Foolishness, wrongness. sparing the rod Not beating your child (it forms part of the saying ‘Spare the rod, spoil the child’). sanctified Important or sacred. posterity Succeeding for future generations collectively. expediency Acting in a way that produces beneficial results rather than doing what is right.
The advisory board was in session when the unrest broke out in the township. Resolution after resolution was passed condemning the students, their teachers and parents. ‘When we were boys,’ Rathebe summed up from the chair, ‘it could never have happened. In those days teachers did what they were paid for and every parent knew the folly of sparing the rod: Let it never be said of us that when the moment came we, in this chamber, were found wanting, that we exchanged our sacred destiny, our sanctified station in life and our duty to posterity for cheap popularity; that we sacrificed our convictions and consciences on the altar of expediency. Let us stamp out these cantankerous cantankerous Disagreeable and difficult to deal with. elements from our midst, unwitting tools of certain well-known agitators, no doubt, once and for all.’
There was deafening applause from the other councillors.
Late that afternoon reports reached the advisory board’s council chambers that arson and looting had broken out in the township, and that some children had been shot dead.
The parents among them immediately thought of their children; business men thought of their property.
The board’s deliberations deliberations Negotiations, discussions. were cut short in the middle of an important debate about the site for a new cemetery, many of the members arguing that the site chosen by the authorities was best suited for the proposed African Development Bank and the first African-owned supermarket. The chairman was in the process of circulating the plans, drawn up by members of the African Chamber of Commerce of which he was president, when the disturbing news came. He called for an adjournment. adjournment To defer or postpone until a later time.
Chabeli and Rathebe were driving home together when they were caught in a roadblock near Rathebe’s shops, where he hoped to check first if all was well. He never got the opportunity.
Roadblocks were common in that area from traffic cops checking on stolen cars, unlicensed ones, cars with no roadworthy certificates, pirate taxis, taxis carrying overloads and mobile criminals of all descriptions.
When their turn came Chabeli and Rathebe discovered that it was only a bunch of school kids still in their school uniforms.
‘What the hell do they think they’re up to?’ Chabeli asked.
‘Exactly what we were discussing,’ Rathebe said.
‘I’ll bloody well teach them who I am,’ Chabeli said and stormed out of the passenger’s seat. ‘You there, remove your little arses from the streets.’
‘Look who we’ve got here, chaps?’ one of the students shouted.
‘Yes, you know me very well. I don’t brook brook Take or accept. no shit from disrespectful nincompoops nincompoops Fools or simpletons. like you. Who do you think you are? Just what nonsense is going on here?’
Rathebe, jangling the keys of his new BMW, left the car idling and came out to check. Standing next to Chabeli, he quickly assessed the situation and felt that he didn’t like what was happening, not one bit. He hoped Chabeli had enough sense to know when it was time to stop poking fingers in and out of the mouth of a growing lion cub which one had been keeping for a pet.
‘This is more than our fair share of luck chaps,’ the same student said.
A growing number of students and some onlookers gathered round them.
‘Just who the hell do you think you are?’ Chabeli asked.
‘It’s the blokes from the Useless Boys’ Club,’ some other students said, deliberately provoking laughter by twisting the first letters of the name the advisory board had newly acquired when it became officially known as the Urban Bantu Council – as a step towards granting the township full municipality rights, the government had said.
‘Just handle them with kid gloves, old boy,’ Rathebe whispered. with kid gloves Gently or carefully.
‘I smell gunpowder here.’
‘I’d stop all this bull-shitting if I were you and go home,’ Chabeli said. ‘Today you’ve brought nothing but shame and dishonour to yourselves and your people. Now be off with you all!’
‘Listen who’s talking about “shame and dishonour”!’ another student said.
The others roared with laughter.
‘Easy now, old chap, easy,’ Rathebe whispered. ‘No need to blow off like that. Leave all this to me. I know exactly how to handle this’.
He appealed for silence from the students and then spoke:
‘Listen to me, my children. You know us very well. We are your people. If there’s anything we can do…’
But neither Chabeli’s swaggering talk nor Rathebe’s pleas had any effect on the students. Rathebe was easily caught as he tried to dash for the comparative safety of his shops across the road. A suggestion to burn his shops, however, was drowned in the general excitement. Chabeli was brought down on his haunches with several blows to his head from a hosepipe.
The two men were made to squat and frogmarched frogmarched To be forced to walk forward by having your arms held and pinned behind your back. to Rathebe’s house, about a mile and a half away. The students clapped all the way to, shouts of ‘Hop! hop!’, while others sang ‘We are marching to Pretoria’.
When they ultimately got to Rathebe’s house his ample ample Large. frame was dripping with sweat. Chabeli’s lanky lanky Ungracefully thin and rawboned; bony; gaunt. body felt cramped all over. Neither man could stand on his feet. The students lifted them to the air and hurled them across Rathebe’s high fence. They landed on Mrs Rathebe’s bed of roses.
‘What happened to the car?’ Sipho asked, as he peeped through the window to see if their car was still parked where they had left it.
‘A group of kids jumped in and drove around until it ran out of gas,’ Eddie said.
‘That’s what they nearly did to us,’ Sipho said.
‘And yet you’re hell-bent on driving this guy,’ Eddie said.
‘How’s he doing, Meikie?’ Sipho asked.
Meikie and Daphne bent over Johannes Venter.
As Johannes Venter slowly regained consciousness, he saw several pairs of eyes peering intently into his face. The eyes terrified him at first. Where had he seen just such eyes before? He tried to place the faces before him without success. He raised his head from the soft pillow and felt a throbbing pain in his head, like some king-size hangover. He felt a scorching scorching Burning. thirst. Soft, solicitous solicitous Caring and careful. hands were pushing him back on the pillow, gently but firmly. There was a hubbub hubbub A loud, confused noise, as of many voices. of voices in the strange room. Finally his roving eyes lighted on Sipho’s face. He felt a slight reassurance. He vaguely recalled that they were on tour together. But what were all these other faces doing in his hotel room, if that is what it was? And the black women, were they the ones Sipho had promised to organise? Suddenly an unreasoning fear took a savage hold on him. With very painstaking effort, rather like a man trying to piece together a crazy jigsaw puzzle, he tried to recall the preceding events, culminating culminating Ending up; to arrive at a final stage. in that evening’s horrific events.
They were returning from a long trip in the north-western Transvaal. Sipho had to drop first in the township before Johannes could proceed by himself to his own home in Mayfair. How more convenient it might have been if Sipho, who did most of the driving anyhow, could drop him in town first! But company regulations had to be observed and they forbade forbade To command not to do something, have something, etc; to stop or prevent. Sipho to keep the company car overnight. As the manager had pointed out, Africans were unreliable and always abused the company vehicles left in their charge. There was Sipho’s own case, for instance, when he had been allowed to keep the company car once because something, though it was very difficult to say exactly what, seemed to put him apart from the rest of them. And then what happened? The next morning he came to work, without the car, and then tried to sell the manager that cock-and-bull story about the wheels of the car having been stolen while it was parked outside his gate. True enough, the car had been found stripped of all the wheels outside Sipho’s house, but only a fool would believe that Sipho himself had not sold the tyres. Only there was no way of proving that. That was the smart streak in them. It needed a white man who understood them very well to harness their native qualities for the good of society. harness To bring out; to bring under conditions for effective use. …for the good of society Here the writer makes use of ‘close third person’ perspective. For a bit, the perspective from which he tells the story follows the perspective of one of the characters, Johannes Venter. The writer is presenting this racist attitude in order to criticise it. For instance, the manager had decided to retain Sipho. But never again was he to keep the company car overnight. Since then they’d had no problems with him. He was very good at his work, too. Of course, you couldn’t expect perfection from them. All the same he was undoubtedly the best of the lot. Not that white salesmen never put company vehicles to private use. But they did so with more circumspection. circumspection Caution and care.
To return to Sipho’s case. When put on an inventory paper his strengths surpassed his weaknesses, to use the manager’s analogy again. As for Johannes, he could never really make up his mind about Sipho. The man frankly puzzled him: Take the case of his qualifications, for instance, which every white man would have displayed with pride. One day after another long trip, Johannes had chanced on Sipho’s certificate displayed on the wall when he helped him carry his luggage into the house. Sipho had a B.A. degree from the Bantu university of Fort Hare. Johannes excitedly promised that he would break the good news to their manager, with a recommendation for Sipho’s promotion to full salesman, in charge of their whole district. Instead Sipho had begged him, and he had seemed in earnest about it, never to divulge divulge Reveal. the information to anyone. Johannes thought that there was certainly some grain of truth in what was said about the Bantu the Bantu A racist way of speaking about all black people. being temperamentally temperamentally Relating to personality or character. unsuited for positions of authority and responsibility. Otherwise, how could anyone with ambition and initiative argue that he preferred the position he held to prospects of promotion based on his educational qualifications? It didn’t make sense either what the man had said about previously having been sacked from several jobs for being too educated! But then Johannes had not pursued the matter because for his own part he had a certain respect for this man upon whom he had come to rely more and more.
Sipho was officially Johannes Venter’s co-driver. Together they did country and covered the whole north-western region of Transvaal, to the border of Bechuanaland – it was now called Botswana, though only heaven knew what was wrong with Bechuanaland, the land of the Bechuana! But he liked Botswana. They often drove across the border to spend a night or two at the Holiday Inn in Gaborone, just as they had done the night before. You could have any number of black women in Gaborone. Nobody gave a hoot gave a hoot Cared. there. And Sipho certainly knew his way about. Johannes Venter thought of how he had come to rely on Sipho more and more in his work. Sipho spoke all the languages of the people among whom they worked; while Johannes Venter could never understand a single word of Bantu; sometimes not even when they spoke English. In the African villages they covered Sipho took complete charge and Johannes Venter did business with the scattered white communities of predominantly Afrikaans-speaking people in the area. But for the African market, the company might as well have given up its north-western operations long ago.
Darkness was setting in when they approached the township. A large hue hue Colour. of red-illuminated the sky. It was like Guy Fawkes’s day in mid-June. The jubilant jubilant Celebrating; showing great joy, satisfaction or triumph. native spirit, Johannes Venter thought. What on earth could they be celebrating?
‘What day is this?’ he said.
‘Wednesday,’ Sipho answered.
‘I know that, what I mean is, what’s all the excitement about?’
‘I don’t have the slightest idea. Looks like the chaos we usually have on New Year’s Eve. I don’t like it a bit. Maybe we’d better use the side streets.’
Sipho swung the car to the right hand and they plunged into the middle of nowhere. It amazed Johannes Venter how these people were ever expected to find their way through such randomly laid out and poorly-lit streets. Talk of mushrooms! The matchbox houses seemed to have been simply planted amidst rocks and debris. debris The remains of anything broken down or destroyed; ruins; rubble. deftly Skilfully. There were potholes as deep as children’s swimming pools, right in the middle of the road. Sipho deftly avoided these and picked his way with the skill of a master navigator. And always a street or two away they could see tall flames and hear wild shouts. The scene reminded Johannes of the Kaffir cities one read about in history or in the novels of Rider Haggard, in those days of glorious savagery under the old kaffir kings; of brightly illuminated Kaffir The writer is speaking in Johannes Venter’s voice rather than his own when he uses this racist term. It would be wrong to assume that he is expressing his own state of mind. illuminated Lit. homesteads on festive evenings, when fires were kept alight the whole night through to keep away wild beasts.
mongrels Stray dogs or dogs of unknown or mixed breed. abrupt Sudden.
They seem to have been driving for ages, into the deep night, across puddles of foul-smelling stagnant water, over piles of rotting rubbish which provided countless interesting smells for the starved mongrels that prowled the area, when their car came to an abrupt halt.
Countless little eyes, like the eyes of so many cats glared at them in the dark.
‘What’s all this?’ Johannes Venter asked.
‘I think we’ve had it,’ Sipho whispered. ‘Listen, don’t panic. My house is only a few yards up the road. I’m well known in this area. It’s only a couple of kids, but you’d better let me do all the talking. I can recognise quite a few of them. They often come play with my kids.’
The note of urgency in Sipho’s voice transmitted itself to Johannes Venter. Their car was surrounded by a crowd of jeering, yelling children. They jerked the car up and down, from rear to front and again from side to side, as if to capsize capsize Overturn. it.
Johannes Venter’s fear mounted. What did they want?
Sipho’s voice reached him in plaintive plaintive Expressing sorrow or melancholy; mournful. tones. ‘Better do exactly as they say,’ he said. ‘It’ll soon be over.’
Many small fists were thrust through the window on Johannes Venter’s side.
Small voices piping instructions at him in English: ‘Clench your fists like this (difficult to see how in the dark) … no, your right fist… Now, say “Power!”… Louder (somebody’ll pay dearly for this) … That’s not loud enough (Gentle Jesu meek and milk!)…’
‘Move closer to me, they want to come in for a ride, only they’ve promised not to take us beyond this street.’
Johannes Venter obeyed without question.
His door swinging open.
A swarm of wildly cheering pickanninnies, pickanninnies Negative word for small black children. singing with so much gusto it hurt Johannes Venter’s ears; some on his lap, others sitting restlessly beside him; some packed close together in the back seat; others precariously Unsteadily and dangerously. hanging to the sides of the car precariously perched on the bonnet and on the roof.
The car, moving at a funeral pace, seeming to sink under the weight of its human cargo, up and down the street, up and down. Sipho’s voice, mingled mingled Mixed. with the voices of the little ones: pleading, imploring, imploring Begging. explaining, persuading.
Then, as suddenly and as inexplicably as they had come, the children disappeared into the thick, treacherous African night. They drove the few remaining yards to Sipho’s house in silence.
Once in the house Sipho explained to Johannes Venter that a riot had broken out in the township. The children they had just met were on their way to join their elder brothers and sisters along the township’s busy streets.
Sipho spared Johannes Venter the knowledge that several whites had already been killed in the streets of the township. He was to learn of all this, and the reasons for the outbreak of violence, from newspapers and the radio the following day.
Johannes Venter was jolted by a further realisation that he couldn’t possibly hope to come out of the township alive that night if he tried to drive home by himself. And Sipho, understandably enough, refused to accompany him. What made his situation even more hopeless was that Sipho wouldn’t hear of Johannes Venter spending the night at his house. What was to become of him?
Then Johannes Venter remembered that he’d been thrust into a coal-box earlier. How had he come out? No matter, he was out and alive.
Voices in some strange language reached his ears. Only this time they were soothing, less menacing menacing Something that threatens to cause evil, harm, injury, etc; a threat. and more reassuring.
‘He will get better by and by,’ Meikie said.
‘We’ve only got one hope, ‘ Eddie said.
‘What is it?’ Sipho asked.
‘We’ve just got to lie low,’ Eddie continued. ‘Those students can’t be in the streets all night.’
‘But they saw us come here,’ Sipho said: ‘They know he’s here. They only need to pass our house and see that car again. What happens if we’re raided?’
‘They’d have long come by now,’ Eddie said. ‘Anyhow, maybe that’s just a risk we must take. Otherwise, if he tries to drive away by himself, then by my mother, who lies out there in Croesus, he won’t get beyond this street. And, as I’ve already been at so much pains to explain, we can’t drive him out of the township, at least not as yet.’
‘He’s still too weak to be moved anyhow,’ Meikie said.
‘But he’s not sleeping here.’ Daphne said. ‘Kodwa amabhunu eniwakhathalele ngani nina lana?’ Kodwa…lana? ‘But why do you care so much for these Boers?’
Daphne again, Sipho thought. What the hell gave her the impression that they were more concerned with Johannes Venter’s safety than with their own? If the worse came to the worse, they’d still have to thrust him out through that door to his would-be executioners, if necessary. But that was no reason not to try. He didn’t want blood on his hands, not even that of a white.
‘What do you suggest?’ he asked.
‘Keep him here until the streets are quiet,’ Eddie said, ‘then drive him home.’
‘Emalahleni!’ Emalahleni! ‘Coal!’ [Put him back in the coal-box.]
‘Oh, please listen, Daph,’ Meikie said. ‘We can’t send him out there in the cold again. He’d die of exposure.’
‘You all think I’m just being a heartless hag, hag Witch. don’t you?’ Daphne said. ‘Have you stopped to consider what will happen if he’s found here? I’ve my responsibility to my family, that’s all. I must think of what’s going to happen to my children first.’
‘Don’t misunderstood me, Daph,’ Meikie said. ‘A mother’s first duty is to her children.’
‘Exactly!’ Eddie said. ‘He nearly passed out for good in that coal box where you want us to send him back. Do you want a dead white discovered in your yard?’
‘All right then, if you think you know what you’re doing,’ Daphne said. ‘But I still don’t think it’s any of my business to look after whites at the expense of my own children.’
She walked into the bedroom, followed by the children. Their excitement and curiosity exhausted, they were now ready to go to bed.
‘Actually, she’s right,’ Meikie said. ‘Why must we expose the children to unnecessary risks? Daphne and I and the children can all go and put up at our place, can’t they, Eddie dear?’
‘Why not?’ Eddie said.
‘Oh! that’s very considerate of you, Meikie,’ Sipho said. ‘But I’m afraid, that won’t be necessary. Eddie is right, if nothing’s happened to us so far, nothing is likely to happen now. Let’s go back to Eddie’s suggestion. There are certain problems of a practical nature. We drive Mr Venter to Mayfair when all is quiet. How do we come back? You know, Eddie, I’m not allowed to keep the car.’
‘Hold it right there!’ Eddie said. ‘You surprise me, man. Here we are, ready to risk our necks for your baas’s sake. Why, man, he’ll have to trust you for once. We won’t walk back after we’ve dropped this fellow in Mayfair. You tell him that. Fortunately your car doesn’t have the company name on its side. They’re burning all such cars which they can lay their hands upon. There was one large Standard Bakery van we passed on our way from town, burning on its side. There were children beside it, munching bread and cakes. I also heard that a group suspected to be thugs broke into a bottle store and made away with most of the liquor. Which reminds me of what brought me here. All this talk about the riots has made me clear forget my purpose incoming here. Meikie, can you bring along that parcel? Might as well hold a proper vigil.’
‘It’s right here beside me,’ Meikie produced a sealed bottle of K.W.V. from her handbag. ‘Actually, I don’t know why I didn’t think of this before, but a stiff tot of this brandy will do him some good.’
She measured Johannes Venter a stiff one and passed it on to him. He swallowed it gratefully and felt its warmth sinking into his tummy. He was feeling much better.
‘Just relax, sir,’ Sipho said, ‘You’re among friends and you need to conserve your strength now, nothing’ll happen to you.’
Something in what Eddie said didn’t reassure him so much. What new ordeal was in store for him now? What did he need reserves of strength for? He looked longingly at the bottle of K.W.V.
‘What have you decided?’ he asked.
Sipho outlined their plan to him, but left out the bit about the car, so that Eddie had to remind him.
‘Mtshele ngemoto phela, ndoda,’ Eddie said. Mtshele ngemoto phela, ndoda ‘Tell him about the car, man.’
‘But my friend and I will have to drive back in the company car. I’ll bring it with me when I come to work in the morning.’
‘My dear Sipho,’ Johannes Venter said, a smile illuminating his face for the first time. ‘I can assure you that’s perfectly all right with me. You know me, my friend, I don’t stand for these company formalities. And I don’t mind telling you this right away. I’ve never seen eye to eye with the manager over this matter of who may and who may not keep the car. After all when we’re in Botswana….’
‘If you agree then, well, then that’s the end of the matter,’ Sipho said.
Johannes Venter made up his mind there and then to recommend Sipho for promotion with immediate effect, to take complete charge of the whole north-western circuit, because he, Johannes Venter, was through with it. They’d either move him into the head office or he was going to look for another job. But either way, he was through with travelling, even if it meant having to forfeit forfeit To give up, to lose. some of the forbidden pleasures of Botswana.
Sipho thought what a narrow escape it had been. Supposing his wife had been listening? And there was no telling yet whether she’d overheard them or not. Why did Venter have to blabber blabber To talk or chatter thoughtlessly. so about their visits to Botswana? Sipho never confided his escapades escapades Reckless adventures. in Gaborone to anyone besides Eddie. His wife hardly knew that he had a travelling document.
‘Will you join us for a drink?’ Eddie said, pouring out the drinks.
‘There’s nothing I’d appreciate better,’ Johannes Venter said.
‘And thank you, my good sir, for all your generosity and this good lady’s, not forgetting your wife, Sipho. I just don’t know how to thank you enough, Mr..?’
Sipho made the introductions, grateful for the way Eddie had expertly steered the conversation from its disastrous course.
‘I guess I’ll join Daphne in the bedroom,’ Meikie said. ‘But, please, make sure you don’t drink until you forget to drive Mr Venter home. The students will be out in full force tomorrow. I fear we’re on the brink of a major catastrophe. Don’t forget your business, please.’
Which is what almost happened!
With the brandy nearly finished, Eddie decided to remind Sipho and Johannes Venter that it was about time they left. Both men were so tight tight Drunk. that it took Eddie close to thirty minutes to convince them that they had to go. He couldn’t have accomplished that much even, if Daphne hadn’t emerged from the bedroom to tell Sipho that as far as she was concerned Johannes Venter would have to spend the remaining part of the night in the coal-box; and that Sipho should follow him there, if he liked. That shook Sipho prattling To talk in a foolish or simple-minded way; chatter; babble. to his senses. But Johannes Venter, who didn’t follow the conversation, kept prattling on about the fact that he didn’t really mind where they put him up for the night because he now felt very much at one with them. He wasn’t one to stand on formalities, he kept on, and Sipho would have his promotion yet, because he, Johannes Venter, was through with commercial travelling, Gaborone or no Gaborone.
It was 3.15 a.m. when they dropped him outside his house – as a precaution they’d put him in the boot – and drove back to the township.
Sipho didn’t show up at work that day.
- What is Johannes Venter’s view of black people? Look for evidence in the story.
- What is Sipho and Johannes Venter’s actual relationship like? Do you think this supports or goes against Venter’s views on race?
- Look at the middle class black businessmen in the story.
- What is their view of Apartheid and Bantu Education?
- What is their view of the student protesters?
- Why do you think they have these views? Look at who they are and their position in society.
- What makes this a Black Consciousness story? Look at how Mzamane describes the youths who confront Chabeli and Rathebe, the relationship between Sipho and Johannes Venter, and how the youths interact with Sipho and Johannes Venter in their vehicle.
- Do you think Venter loses his racism by the end of the story? Why or why not?
- What do you think happens at the end of the story? What is its significance?
- Why do you think a story like this would have been important in the struggle?