Recent ugly events involving police and African-Americans in our country take my mind back to a place and time where and when racial strife was deeply stitched into the daily fabric of life. The place was South Africa. The time was 1985.
Violent protests against apartheid, the official government policy of racial segregation, were raging in townships throughout the country. In August of that year, Victoria Mxenge was being laid to rest in a cemetery near her hometown of King Williams Town. She had been confronted by four men in her driveway on the first day that month and murdered, gunned down and brutally axed to death. Although she was among many who died during the years of South Africa’s uprising, her death assured her a special place in martyrdom, as far as millions of South Africa’s black citizens were concerned.
Victoria Mxenge had been a rising star in the anti-apartheid movement. She was a nurse and a prominent civil rights lawyer who, at the time of her death, was defending sixteen anti-apartheid activists on trial for treason. She was a member of the Release Nelson Mandela Committee, the National Organization of Women, and the Treasurer of the Natal chapter of the United Democratic Front (UDF), a multi-racial collaboration and one of the key anti-apartheid organizations at the time.
I happened to arrive in South Africa the day after her murder, having been assigned by ABC News as the new Bureau Chief based in Johannesburg. Upon landing at Jan Smuts Airport, I phoned the staff in the bureau to let them know I had arrived in country and headed straight to the hotel to get some rest after a fifteen hour flight from London. It seemed I had barely closed my eyes when the phone in the hotel room jangled me awake. It was our bureau administrator informing me that the producers of ABC’s World News Tonight had called wanting a script for a story about the murder on that night’s broadcast.
My response was,”Sure. But first, where is the bureau and how do I get there?” After getting directions, I drove to the office to find the staff in full story-producing mode. An editor was reviewing video tape that had come in from Durban, where the crime took place. A producer was on the phone getting facts, statements and reaction from various sources. We all huddled, hammered out a script and transmitted it along with the video via satellite to New York. It was the first of 45 straight nights I appeared on World News Tonight. South Africa was big news.
A few days later, a producer, video crew and I headed for King Williams Town, nearly 600 miles south of Johannesburg. Ms. Mxenge’s funeral took place at nearby Rayi, her family’s farmland home, a dusty expanse of fields in the Ciskei, a so-called Bantustan or homeland created by the South African government for black residents as part of its segregation apartheid policies.
The funeral was a highly emotional event. Anti-government feelings, already at a blistering pitch, were calescent and heading toward a flaming, feverous level. Violence was on the upswing. On August 11, the day of the funeral, the New York Times reported that in Durban “witnesses said racial strife, which has claimed 65 lives since last Tuesday, erupted again near the city today.”
An estimated 10 thousand mourners attended the Mxenge funeral, a huge crowd by any standard. Her coffin was draped by the multi-colored, black, gold and green flag of the African National Congress. A preacher, raging against the apartheid government, encouraged the crowd to resist and defy Pretoria, the capital of South Africa. “We either surrender to them or fight,” roared the preacher. “We have decided to fight.”
While many black South Africans did join the fight, they were far from unanimous in their struggle. Rifts developed in the black community, especially between the UDF and the Durban-based Inkatha movement, headed by Zulu Chief Gatsha Buthelezi. In black townships and homelands law and order were often kept by black policemen who reported to white supervisors. The black police officers were despised by many local residents more than were whites and the preacher told the massive crowd, “You also have two options. You either join us or we fight against you.”
That exhortation may have helped to incite what happened next, but the huge gathering of mourners was already on an emotional edge. As the funeral service ended, they began to move as one, 10 thousand strong, away from burial site, down a narrow dirt road. Many were singing traditional hymns, others were performing a Toyi-Toyi, an African rhythmic dance, stomping of feet and chants as they moved down the road.
In order to get a clear view of the size of the crowd, the camera crew and I took up positions on the top of a bus parked alongside the road. As virtually the only white people in that sea of angry and sorrowful mourners, I will admit to some trepidation as we watched the ocean of mankind flow past.
Few, however, paid much attention to our presence. Suddenly, there was a disruption in the crowd just below us. For some unfathomable reason, a bakkie, a small truck similar to pickup, was attempting to slowly maneuver through the middle of the mass of mourners. Inside the bakkie were three black homeland policemen. When the people closest to the vehicle realized who they were their anger and emotion reached the tipping point. In a frenzied blur of rage, they began to pound on the truck and to throw stones at it, breaking the windows and windshield. They crowded round so tightly the bakkie could no longer safely move. Some of the angry men began to rock it violently. The policemen panicked. One jumped out and pummeled his way through the crowd. The driver stomped on the gas and the bakkie leapt forward, carving a path through hundreds of people, running over many of them.
As the vehicle sped away, the policeman on foot was chased by several of the mourners throwing rocks at him. He ducked through a wire fence into an open field where the man was caught by his pursuers. One threw a large rock at his head. He fell. They set upon him, beating and kicking. Someone had a container of a flammable liquid. Gasoline. They poured it over the man and set it on fire, burning him to death. All of this took place in front our eyes. We were stunned, staring at the thick, black smoke emanating from the smoldering body less than a hundred yards away.
The crowd, at last, began to disperse. We folded our gear and climbed down off the bus. I had been driving a rental car and had parked it just behind that bus. When I approached it, I saw that the driver’s side window had been smashed with a rock. Pieces of glass were everywhere. I opened the door and began to brush the shards off the seat and dashboard. As I did, I felt a firm tap on my shoulder. I turned around to be standing eye to eye with a strapping young, black man. We stared at each other for a moment. Then he spoke.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“I beg your pardon?” I stammered.
“I am sorry that I broke your window. It was an accident. I meant to hit the policeman with the rock, but I missed. I am sorry.”
I could think of nothing to say except that it was all right, no worries. We shook hands and the young man went on his way.
I stood there, stupefied. Here I had just watched incredible outrage by a frenzied crowd and had witnessed a most horrible death of a human being, yet I was getting an apology for a broken window. It seemed so out of place, out of time. It was unbelievably surreal, but it set the tone for what was to become living and working in a something like a strange 20th century bizarro-world.
Is this what it is like to live in South Africa as a white man, I wondered? How do I reconcile the understandable but unspeakable anger by non-whites with the respectful, non-threatening attitude I had just experienced? How can I appreciate the deep desire of people to live with freedom and equality and the willingness to fight and die for that cause, but still have a willingness and ability to effortlessly live in harmony with other races?
I had been in South Africa at that point for less than two weeks. It was a lot to comprehend.