BLACK SCARS, WHITE FEARS : Scenes From the Everyday Revolution in Soutth Africa
The road to Avalon, on the edge of sprawling Soweto, ends at a haunting field, an incongruous and lonely break from the surrounding slum. At dusk, the vast expanse appears to be a no-man’s land of wild waist-high grass and weeds. While the rest of the black township outside Johannesburg bustles noisily with numbers it can no longer contain, the only sound across the unkempt Avalon field is the echo of dogs barking in the distance. It is an anonymous monument to recent South African history.
I had come to Avalon to look for Hector Peterson, the black youth who symbolized the turbulent years I had spent in South Africa as a journalist covering the first nationwide black uprising in the 1970s. Dubbed the “children’s crusade,” the violence had lasted 16 months, ending only after at least 570 had died, 3,900 had been injured and 5,900 had been detained. Returning to South Africa this year, exactly a decade after I’d left, I made a pilgrimage to find Peterson, just as I had done on every anniversary of the uprising while I lived there.
Avalon is a blacks-only cemetery. And Hector Peterson’s grave is its most noted site.
Peterson died on June 16, 1976. Like thousands of other students, he had left class to join a peaceful march against the imposition of Afrikaans, the language of early Dutch settlers, on black schools. The protest quickly turned into a confrontation with South African police as students hurled rocks and police responded with rifles. Peterson, age 13, was the first to die. He was shot in the back. At the time, his death captivated the world. A photograph of his limp, bloody body being carried away by another young black, Peterson’s screaming sister Antoinette running alongside, made the front pages of papers around the world--and eventually the walls of the United Nations. A single picture symbolized the frustration and rage spawned by repression--and the price children had to pay to stand up against apartheid.
I hadn’t seen Hector Peterson die, but I had been in Soweto that day and throughout the uprising. What none of us knew back then was that his death would mark a cataclysmic turning point for the last bastion of white minority rule in Africa. A new generation of young blacks assumed the mantle of leadership and escalated opposition from pockets of sporadic resistance to a mass movement constantly challenging, and eroding, white rule. The uprising would eventually lead, on an uneven course, to the sweeping changes pledged by the government this year.
Tracing the three people in that picture became the first leg of a personal journey into the past I had witnessed. I needed to understand what had happened in the volatile interim in order to understand what lies ahead. Armed with an anxious curiosity and a passion for a bountifully lush country, I wasn’t sure what to expect. After living and working there for five years, I had left South Africa angry, not only at the inequality among races, but also at the indignities one set of men could heap on another simply because of the color of their skin. Ten years later, I didn’t think I could stand to be disappointed again.
In some ways, it was a joyous trip. Some things had changed more than I had anticipated they would in my lifetime. A minority of blacks and whites have begun to cross the long bridge that has separated them from the moment of birth in segregated clinics to burial in segregated cemeteries. In other ways it was gut-wrenching. Dismantling apartheid, I discovered, is going to be a tumultuous, painful exercise in healing the scars and fears of the past. The majority of whites, who have paid psychologically for their financial and political dominance, live in a state of anxious aprehension about the price they may have to pay for four decades of apartheid. And the majority of blacks, including another generation of children, have suffered in squalor--walking miles daily to get water from public taps, waiting for places in overcrowded schools and even turning to crime to ease their poverty--as the nation groped slowly for a formula to share power. Despite the crumbling of legal barriers, most blacks and whites are still a color apart.
The entrance to Avalon today looks almost respectable. The rough old track has been widened and paved. Beyond a new brick archway, the road is lined with yellow daisies stretching high toward the blazing South African sun. But inside, little has changed, except the size. Once the equivalent of a couple of football fields, the massive blocks of untended plots had grown so big that I had to ask a black gravedigger to locate Peterson.
“No, you’d never find it now,” he said dourly. He got into my car and we drove over the weather-gutted lanes of red clay, then walked through the underbrush to the 1976 sector. Then he stopped. “There,” he pointed to the ground.
Since I had left, the small cross that marked Peterson’s grave had been replaced by a proper headstone. But late last year, the large slab of marble had been smashed. No one was sure who had vandalized the site. But local consensus blamed a group of whites spotted near the sector that day; not many whites visit Avalon. The pieces, at least, were still in order, and I could see the inscription chiseled into the black marble. “Time is on the side of the oppressed,” it read. “Truth is on the side of the oppressed.”
Peterson’s epitaph was an angrier version of another warning issued 30 years earlier. On February 3, 1960, British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan had stood before the South African Parliament in Cape Town to herald “the wind of change blowing through the continent"--and to give notice that Britain could no longer support white domination. It was a watershed speech that signaled the impending end of Africa’s colonial era. Since then, 40 African nations have gained independence from colonial masters, foreign mandates and other forms of white minority rule. South Africa, however, chose to ignore the message.
The delay has been costly. Vast numbers of a generation--the most politicized in the nation’s history--have been lost, dispersed or silenced.
Mbuyisa Makhubu, the 18-year-old in denim overalls who scooped up Peterson, the young stranger crumpled at his feet, was among the dispersed. Eyewitnesses said that Makhubu had been visiting friends when he heard the initial outburst and went to see what was happening. Although he didn’t know Peterson, Makhubu raced the boy to a clinic where he was pronounced dead. Police searched for Makhubu after the world-famous photograph was published; they told his family that he had posed for the picture. From then on, Makhubu moved constantly for almost three months until he fled, first to Botswana and then Nigeria. Exile was preferable to detention. Makhubu’s family has not heard of him for more than a decade. An international organization tried for two years to track him down, but failed. Several accounts suggest that he has died.
Since 1976, at least 10,000 South Africans have also slipped into exile. Many trained as guerrillas. Others studied. Some just drifted. Another 58,000 of all races have been silenced in open-ended detention, according to the Human Rights Commission. Most have been black.
And even detention could be dangerous: 52 blacks died in police custody. One detainee died after allegedly slipping on a bar of soap, another after allegedly falling off an upper-level floor ledge, though it was later noted that the floor had no ledge, and a third after supposedly hitting his head repeatedly against the wall.
South African security forces had managed to quell the initial uprising through intimidation and force. But by the mid-1980s, the country was again ready to explode. When the government introduced a new tri-cameral parliament in 1984 that brought in Indians and Coloreds but excluded blacks, it did. Black rent increases and protests over inferior black education further fueled the second round of nationwide riots and strikes. By 1985, unrest was so widespread that the government even banned outdoor funerals of “people who died of unnatural causes"--a euphemism for victims of the violence. Mourning the dead, the last remaining public forum for dissent, became illegal.
Over the years, black bitterness has welled up and hardened.
The only member of the trio left in South Africa is Hector Peterson’s sister Antoinette, known as Toto to her friends. She was a cherubic and chubby 16 when her brother died. Now 30, she is a matronly plump mother of two boys. With the help of a black journalist, I found her living in relative obscurity in Soweto. Since the uprising and the photograph and the two weeks of police interrogations that followed, she has stayed away from politics. But she hasn’t forgotten. Her elder son, now 8, is named Hector.
Toto represents the future--and the pivotal question facing South African blacks: Can hope and change overcome the scars?
“I relive a bit of that day every day,” Toto told me in a whisper-soft voice. Without prompting, she went on: “We were at different schools, so it was God’s miracle that we met on the street. I had him by the hand and we were hiding. The police had released dogs and they were beating students with batons.
“I said, ‘Stay with me, it looks dangerous.’ But he saw the students marching and wanted to go with them. A few minutes later I saw a group of boys crowding around something and Hector’s shoe was on the ground.” Then she paused. “I thought he was still beside me.
“He was my only brother, and I miss him.”
She later reflected, “Can I forgive? I don’t know. I can’t say yes because when I think back, all the hatred also comes back. But I may be less bitter about my brother’s death now because of the changes here.”
“Modified concentration camps” was the way a visiting U.S. assistant secretary for Housing and Urban Development described Soweto and other black townships before the 1976 riots. The 26 suburbs of the South West Townships--a name shortened into Soweto--were then an eyesore of gloomy brick matchbox homes, each few blocks identical, lined up on treeless roads or dirt paths. Blacks had no choice about where they lived; the government assigned rental homes in designated townships.
On weekends, I used to photograph life in Soweto. The images are still stark in my mind: women “shopping” at scraggly traffic islands, where used clothing was laid out on sheets on the ground. Men nearby sitting on cans to have their hair cut by outdoor barbers. Little girls doing wash in large tin tubs in back yards or near communal water outlets. A gaggle of boys pushing toy cars, ingeniously fashioned from coat-hanger wire, in mock derbies down worn roads. A man wrestling to hold on to two live chickens he bought from a street vendor.
Soweto then had only one phone for every 27,000 and a single hospital for a million-plus inhabitants. About one-third of its homes had electricity, and even fewer had indoor plumbing. The township had only two banks, two movie houses--limited to showing movies cleared by censors--and no supermarket. Most people spent evenings by candlelight or oil lamps; the coal stoves they used for heat and cooking left the rippling hills covered with an odorous smog.
Yet Soweto, back then, was considered South Africa’s “showcase” black township. The government even offered tours to show how well blacks lived. Most other areas were far worse. The uprising, however, produced unprecedented new pressure--and gradual changes.
Today, Toto lives with her second husband, Meshack Sithole, in the Dobsonville “extension,” one of the new subdivisions added to Soweto since the uprising. Miles of pastel bungalows with sweet little gardens now surround old Dobsonville and the ugly core of Soweto. It’s as if a little bit of heaven has been built on the outskirts of hell.
Toto’s home is pale-pink stucco with a rose-tiled roof. She has a telephone, electricity, running water--"cold and hot,” she likes to point out--and toilets. She doesn’t have a washing machine, but she does have a bathtub to clean the family’s clothes indoors. The Sitholes took out a mortgage on the house on Ramatlotlo Road for $13,200 in 1987; they also have a 99-year leasehold on the land, a change introduced in 1983. A series of government moves between 1986 and 1988 now allows blacks to buy land outright, although few can afford the high prices.
Both Toto and Meshack hold jobs that, in 1976, were restricted to whites under various “job reservation” acts, laws that were repealed in phases between 1979 and 1987. Toto is now a clerk for an encyclopedia publisher. Meshack is a warehouse manager for an automotive parts company; he is the first black to hold the position.
The new opportunities for blacks were created by a confluence of factors: Black boycotts and sporadic violence that occasionally spilled over into white areas forced both local and foreign corporations to recognize that they could not survive if black living and working conditions did not improve. Local and international political pressure, along with the high black birth rate that made whites an even smaller minority, forced the government to accept gradual change for a population it could no longer control--even with brute force. And black consciousness blossomed.
As a result, some aspects of Soweto life have improved. Blacks no longer have to buy live chickens from street vendors. Big Daddy’s Famous Speedchicken rivals a chain of Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets. And shopping is no longer limited to traffic circles or small shops. Maponya’s giant Discount Store has made its owner a millionaire and breeder of racehorses. Barbers still have open-air stands, but hair salons also now coif the hair of men and women. Little boys still play with their wire cars, but Sowetans prefer to boast of the two real Rolls-Royces owned by blacks in the wealthier township subdivisions, such as the one called Beverly Hills.
Toto credits the movement symbolized by her brother’s death for the changes in her life and others’. “His death helped make life better for me,” she said, nodding. “Whites, at least some whites, began to notice our situation. And the government began doing things, some small things, about the way we lived.”
But, like Avalon, only parts of Soweto have a respectable veneer.
When the government restricted the press from Soweto in 1976, I used to do on-camera commentaries in front of the township’s one quasi-luxury: an overgrown three-hole golf course on the border. Today, the golf course is home to 50,000 people, one of five Soweto squatter camps of shanties fashioned from old cardboard, corrugated tin and weathered plastics. The shacks are crammed together so tightly it’s hard to tell where one ends and the next begins. Nationwide, 2.5 million are squatters or homeless.
Soweto, with a population that has at least doubled and perhaps quadrupled since 1976, is bursting at the seams, often forcing several generations to live together. In Soweto’s Jabulani district, the Dhlamini family has 32 children living in one of the old four-room matchbox houses. Ranging in age from 8 months to 18 years, they sleep on the floor, in the kitchen, on any scrap of furniture, all woven together like worms. The standard of misery for countless blacks is even worse than when I was last in South Africa.
The government had tried to control the numbers in the “townships"--the name whites give all-black suburbs--with “influx control” restrictions stipulating that only blacks with jobs in white cities or farms could live outside the 10 tribal homelands. When the laws were repealed in 1986, tens of thousands flocked to townships like Soweto in search of better-paying jobs--or, in fact, any job. Black unemployment has become chronic, up to an estimated 60% in the worst areas. And even for those with jobs the black per-capita income has been more than halved, from $1,460 in 1976 to only $548. The plummeting value of the Rand, the South African currency, and the black-population surge mean that dwindling wealth has to be divided among even more people.
Education, the issue that ignited the uprising, is also straining under the migration and population pressures. In 1976, Soweto had 42 high schools; today it has 67, but 150,000 children are still without schools, according to black principals.
Yet Soweto remains the “showcase” township.
Perhaps more critical to the future than the political and economic disparities is the deep cleavage between the races. It extends well beyond the first generation that went to prison for championing black rights and the second generation that fought street battles to achieve them.
As I got up to leave Toto’s house I stuck out my arm to shake hands with her sons. Hector, a slim, long-legged child who favors Mickey Mouse T-shirts, shyly gave me his hand. But his 2-year-old brother Sylvester pulled away and started to squeal. Toto smiled. “It’s nothing personal,” she said. “It’s just that the only whites he has ever seen are doctors, and he associates them with pain.’
The child’s response was eerily familiar.
In the late 1970s, I had visited a black school in Mamelodi, a Pretoria township, with Jacquie Myburgh, an angel-faced Afrikaner child with a long brown braid, and her mother. As we pulled up to the school’s front door, the students, who had watched us approach from the window, stampeded outside. We instinctively rolled up the windows and locked the doors. For several minutes, dozens of children, age 7 to 12, pressed their faces and fingers hard against the windows, trapping us in the car.
Finally, a black teacher waded through the crowd and tapped on the window. “Not to worry,” she said with a knowing smile. “They don’t want to hurt you. It’s just that they’ve never seen a white child before.” The desperate fascination of those children had remained locked in my memory because it so succinctly defined the absurdity and perversity of apartheid.
It was, of course, only one of dozens of examples. When I lived in South Africa, local newspaper accounts often bordered on the bizarre: There were regular reports of twins classified as different races and forced to live apart because of varying skin hues. One of the craziest stories involved a skull that had washed up on the southern shore. When forensic tests couldn’t determine its race, a local magistrate rented a refrigerator to store it; the government didn’t want it buried in the wrong racial cemetery. One of the most sensational scandals involved a white dominie, pastor of the Afrikaners’ Dutch Reformed Church, who fathered a Colored child by a black mistress he couldn’t legally marry. The scandal, in the eyes of his strict Calvinist faith, was miscegenation; the real tragedy was that, by law, all three had to live in separate areas.
I had to track down Jacquie Myburgh and her family to find out more about what had happened to racial interaction.
Like Toto, Jacquie had grown up with the crisis dating back to the uprising. And, as a descendant of the first white settlers, she represents the pivotal question for South African whites: Can hope and change overcome the fears?
Jacquie has grown into a stunning 22-year-old with big brown eyes. While her mother remembered the incident in Mamelodi, Jacquie didn’t. Her only memory was of making thick peanut-butter sandwiches to take to black children in the townships. But the fact that she couldn’t remember may reflect the difference between generations and the context of their lives. Jacquie now coexists with blacks.
Today she is an environmental reporter for the Johannesburg Star. She sits next to a black reporter. One of her editors is black. She was recently approached by a famed local black saxophone player, who asked her to translate his autobiography into Afrikaans--the language that sparked the uprising--so it would be available to whites. She has also begun socializing with a multiracial group of young professionals.
“I don’t think of a person’s color anymore,” she said with just a trace of the accent that distinguishes Afrikaners from English-speaking whites. “The whole idea is ridiculous when you think about it.
“I’m really quite excited about bringing up children here. I’m not scared of the future at all. I think it’s going to be marvelous.”
Traditionally, Afrikaners have been more conservative than English-speaking whites. They tended to hold the lower-class and rural jobs; they had also settled in South Africa two centuries before most English arrived and fought blacks to gain control of the land. Their fears were evident when the Afrikaner-dominated National Party won power in 1948 and later introduced the concept of apartheid. In the past, most scenarios of the country’s future portrayed Afrikaners as the last hold-outs, rebuilding the lagers, the circling of the wagons of early settlers, to prevent sharing power with blacks.
“I don’t think that’s true anymore,” Jacquie said with a chuckle. “I think we will adapt better. We have a longer attachment to this country. Our past is here and so is our future.”
In some ways, the framework for the future is already here. Jacquie works on Sauer Street in downtown Johannesburg, just around the corner from my old office and only three miles from where I used to live. In 1975, I had an apartment in Hillbrow, Johannesburg’s equivalent of Greenwich Village, a place that buzzed with eclectic shops and cafes. It was legally--and distinctly--white. Most blacks who worked downtown were cleaners, gofers or laborers who took trains back to Soweto at night.
But, now, most of the tenants in my old block are black. So are the majority of shoppers and the sales personnel in the stores. In the decade since I left, downtown Johannesburg has effectively changed color, opening up to all races because there was, simply, no alternative. By the mid-1980s, the growth of the black population--conservatively estimated at about 3%, almost twice the white birth rate--created an unprecedented housing shortage. And the expanding black middle class began to have the means to pay more. The lifting in 1986 of the “pass” laws, which had required blacks to have special papers to get out of the townships, allowed freer movement. And the repeal of restrictions on whites-only parks, restaurants, cinemas and other public facilities changed the climate.
Like many aspects of life in South Africa on the eve of transition, the line between legalities and realities is still sometimes fuzzy. Blacks who have moved into Hillbrow high-rises are breaking the law. But apartheid is now too costly to enforce, so the government has chosen to ignore hundreds of complaints.
The metamorphosis was vividly evident when I went to check out the Diplomat Hotel on Plein Street. In the 1970s, the Diplomat had a legendary bar, a males-only hangout frequented by white mercenaries and assorted cohorts in between jobs. During the wars in Angola, Rhodesia and Zaire’s Shaba, I often tried to get in to find out about the mercenaries’ misadventures and future plans. But I always ended up having to summon the bartender outside to have him relay messages or to convince one of the men to come out and talk.
Today, the Diplomat’s sidewalk billboard boasts: “Exotic Dancers--Best Girls in Town.” The bar throbs in the afternoons with disco or rock as strobe lights flash against the dark walls and showgirls fulfill their billing. At tables around the dance floor, female “escorts,” mostly black, are snuggled elbow-to-elbow with “clients,” usually white. This time, someone shouted for me to come on in.
Interracial socializing, relationships and even prostitution are now tolerated, albeit reluctantly, by the government. And the law proscribing mixed marriages was repealed in 1985. But, again, there is a fuzziness that shows how very far South Africa still has to go. Among the once-dizzying set of laws still on the books and erratically enforced is the Group Areas Act, which segregates the races into their own living areas. So blacks and whites and Coloreds and Asians can now have intercourse and intermarry, but they still can’t legally live together.
Jacquie Myburgh’s optimism that the fuzziness will all eventually be sorted out is not universally shared. The white flight, which began after the 1976 uprising, is once again a subject of intense speculation.
“From the readers’ letters we get, you can see that 90% (of whites) are nervous about change,” commented Tertius Myburgh, Jacquie’s father and the editor of The Sunday Times, one of the largest English-language weeklies. “A great majority of the South African population is walking around in bewilderment.”
The black move into the city was in part triggered by the exodus of thousands of whites to starched-white enclaves in northern Johannesburg. Although many still work downtown, they don’t want to live there--because of the black encroachment, the feared loss of real estate values or the growing crime. “I have a contest with my driver on the way home every night to see who spots the first white,” Myburgh joked. “It’s usually in Bramfontein,” the dividing line between downtown and the white suburbs.
More telling, perhaps, is that more than 165,000 whites have left the country since the uprising. The trend first became noticeable in 1977, when white emigrants outnumbered immigrants for the first time in almost two decades. A poll of white students that year revealed that 65% planned to leave. Talk at cocktail parties reflected the tension. I heard endless conversations among women about what kinds of jewelry and antiques would beat restrictions on cash taken out of the country; among men, it was new or antique cars. Discussions often ended with ratings of kennels, and which was the best for pets to be left behind.
Party talk hasn’t changed much.
“One of the most common questions at parties these days is ‘Where are your children?’ ” Tertius Myburgh lamented. “One of the great tragedies is that so many of the next generation of whites are in California or Toronto.
“People are often surprised when we tell them that all three of our kids are here, that all three are aggressive about staying.”
In Pretoria, the British Embassy is reportedly now issuing 2,000 passports each month for South Africans of English heritage. The British Foreign Office has disclosed that as many as a million whites qualify for citizenship. The U.S., Australian, Canadian and other embassies have been flooded with queries about immigration.
But many Afrikaners fearful of the future are either ineligible for citizenship elsewhere or can’t afford to leave. Some have chosen to join the growing hard-line opposition, ranging from the Conservative Party to assorted neo-Nazi groups, to resist change. Others are just drifting. For both groups, the sense of betrayal--that a fellow Afrikaner, President F. W. de Klerk, is giving away what generations fought to establish--is deep.
In Pretoria, I ran into one of the disillusioned. As I searched for a parking slot, I saw a bearded, unkempt white man motioning madly. He was standing in front of an open space. Like two blacks also working the same block, he sought tips for pointing out space in metered zones. When I left South Africa, no race was allowed to work the streets, and white panhandling was unheard of--especially in the ultraconservative capital.
As I got out, he offered to wash my spanking-clean rental car. Kirk, a 39-year-old Afrikaner, turned out to be a former railway shunter laid off last year. He had to give up his apartment and move in with a friend.
“The way things are going, there aren’t many jobs for me anymore,” he complained. “Whites no longer have guarantees, and it’s cheaper to hire blacks. Everyone wants to hire blacks now.”
When I asked what he thought of the promised reforms, he looked at me as if I were crazy.
“What future do I have now?” he said with an angry scowl. “Whites are finished here. And what country is going to let me in? My family has been here for 300 years.” His despondency about the future was as intense as Jacquie Myburgh’s confidence.
In the decade since I’d left, whites had also been thoroughly politicized and their lives radically changed. There were, as I discovered, no exceptions.
During my last four years in South Africa, Roland Hunter, his parents and his three little sisters were my neighbors in Forest Town, a sleepy Johannesburg suburb of white-washed homes and cottages. The Hunters were the ordinary, nice family next door. Roland’s father, Peter, who finished his doctorate in education at UCLA, was a respected university administrator. Lucienne, his mother, had an uproarious giggle that broke the tension of any crisis. The girls were sweet and spirited.
The last time I saw Roland, he was a 22-year-old economics student, a wholesomely good-looking kid just growing out of lanky adolescence. It was March, 1980, and I had gone next door to ask if I could use the Hunters’ tennis court. “Sure,” Roland had smiled. He didn’t make much use of the tennis court back then.
I had no intention of including the Hunters in this story, but I couldn’t leave South Africa without checking on them. I knew the odds that they would still be there were small, but, when I dropped by unannounced, I saw Lucienne through the window.
After a big bear hug, she wanted to hear about my wanderings and my writing. I then asked about news of the family, suspecting that their quiet lives would be the one constant in the overwhelming change around me.
“Well, we have a bit of news, too,” she said in what turned out to be the understatement of my missing decade.
Late last year, Roland had finished a five-year sentence at Pretoria Central Prison. “Technically,” Lucienne explained. “He should have gotten 25 years to life. That’s the mandatory term for high treason.”
In one of the most damaging espionage cases in the country’s history, Hunter had stolen what the press later called a “trunk load” of South African military secrets. The documents revealed the country’s deepest covert operation: plans to destabilize or help overthrow the governments in four neighboring black states.
Hunter had never before been politically active, and the most telling aspect of his saga of intrigue and espionage was that it was not premeditated. “It was an amateur operation really,” Roland said with a chuckle when I caught up with him later. “I didn’t really know what I was doing. I wanted to be a lecturer, not a spy.”
The turning point was in 1982, when he was drafted. Assigned to the Directorate of Special Tasks, he quickly learned he was in the midst of the army’s “dirty tricks” unit, which ran operations against Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe and Lesotho. His job included handling all the paper work for Operation Mila, a campaign to overthrow the Mozambique government. Hunter was only supposed to file the secret folders. Instead, he copied the documents.
“It wasn’t a moral decision or dilemma. There was no anguish,” he said. Once he read the documents, “what I had to do suddenly became clear, clear, clear.” The operation finally gave Hunter a reason to use the tennis court, where, after carefully wrapping the papers in double plastic bags to avoid water damage, he buried them. Every month for almost a year, he handed over a new set of files to a white couple who provided a link to the African National Congress.
Despite several close calls, Hunter almost got away with it. Then, eight days before he finished his army stint, he was arrested for treason and held incommunicado for several months. The government was eventually forced to reduce the charges against him to avoid a public trial and exposure of other secret documents whose numbers Hunter had memorized. At an in-camera trial, which even his family couldn’t attend, he was sentenced to five years. In 1984, Roland Hunter went to prison.
What had happened to the Hunters, a normal middle-class family, in the intervening decade to change them so dramatically?
“Actually, it didn’t begin with Roland. Catherine was the first one to be detained,” Lucienne replied. In 1983, Catherine, an authoritative, gentle young woman, was picked up under provisions of South Africa’s Internal Security Act--which meant no lawyer, no family visits and indefinite detention without being charged. Her offense turned out to be having the wrong friends. Then a 23-year-old education student, she was seen by security police walking with a white student who was about to go on trial for being an ANC supporter. Unless she testified against him in court, she was told, she would go to jail for five to six years. She held out for nine weeks, then the student confessed. Her testimony no longer needed, she was released.
Five weeks later, Roland was arrested. With the family preoccupied with Catherine, he had not bothered to mention that he was spying for the ANC.
The odds of having two of four children detained seemed a bit unusual.
“Three, actually,” Lucienne chuckled.
Rosemary, the Hunter’s third child, was detained in 1988 under South Africa’s emergency regulations, imposed on the uprising’s 10th anniversary. Rosemary was then student council president at the University of Witwatersrand, and had ties with active black student unions. She was never interrogated, and, after a week, she was released--still uncertain why she was detained.
“Yes, one way or another, it’s been an interesting 10 years,” Lucienne said. On a single night in 1984, Roland’s car was vandalized, seven bricks were thrown into Rosemary’s apartment, and the neighbor’s murdered cat, still warm, left on her doorstep. The phone rang with a death threat. Another time, Catherine’s apartment was the target of three petrol bombs thrown through the windows.
In 1988, the family car was doused with gasoline and then set on fire. Lucienne ran out with a fire extinguisher--which she didn’t know how to operate. “There it was burning, looking like brandy over a Christmas pudding, and I couldn’t do anything about it.” By the light of the fire, she read the directions.
When I kept pressing the Hunters about what had motivated such defiance, the implicit answer was one word: apartheid . Like the black children who took to the streets in 1976, it was simply a matter of anger and conscience coming together with experience at the right moment to express it.
The Hunters have no bitterness, nor do they think of themselves as particularly noble or special. “So many have suffered so much more and so much longer than I have,” Roland said. “I am white, and that counted even in prison.” Although he had spied for the ANC, Hunter was confined to a whites-only jail.
“If we had it to live over, we wouldn’t change any of it,” added Lucienne. “We have all grown enormously. Maybe we played a small part in what’s happened. And, of course, we intend to see it through.”
Despite the de facto changes over the past decade and the dramatic pledges this year of reform to end the apartheid era, “seeing it through” is not going to be easy. Changing laws is only one step; integration and equality for the nation’s four races in day-to-day life are the bigger tests for coexistence.
Some South Africans, such as Roland Hunter, are trying to lay the groundwork. Although he finished a graduate economics degree by correspondence while in prison, Roland decided not to be a lecturer after all. After his release, he plunged into a program called the “One City Campaign” designed to eventually bring black townships and white cities, like Soweto and Johannesburg, together. But it is a process that, by almost everyone’s admission, will take years, even decades to complete. Black scars and white fears are deep and lingering, and somehow, if it is to build a lasting nonracial society, South Africa must find a way to heal both.