/ 21 May 2020

Doing acts of journalism

Untitled Collage (1)
Undeniable: Memoir of a Covert War (Jacana Media)

My mouth felt dry. Wedged in the midst of the restless Inkatha [Freedom Party] crowd, I’d lost sight of Kevin [Carter]. If anyone wanted to take out [Mangosuthu] Buthelezi, [Adriaan] Vlok or [Nelson] Mandela, this might be a good time to try, even if the place was crawling with cops.

There was no proof of collusion between Inkatha and the police, Vlok told the crowd; the security forces were under strict instructions to remain impartial. It was strange, and a pity, he said, that both sides had made similar allegations against the police and it was of “utmost importance” that Buthelezi and Mandela meet. He was pulling that “false equivalence” trick: if both sides were blaming the police, they must be innocent, not so?

Buthelezi was probably right when he said it was simplistic to assume a meeting with Mandela would end the violence. But maybe he didn’t want to end it. Just two weeks before, he’d spurned an invitation from Archbishop Desmond Tutu to sit down with other political leaders. He was playing hard to get. All this violence was turning him into a big shot. Here he was, parachuting beyond the walls of his kingdom into the East Rand to address his supporters.

The two visits of the leaders into a virtual war zone pushed the temperature to boiling point. The Mandela entourage, which tried to tour the hostels after Buthelezi’s visit, had been threatened by the hostel dwellers, who were stopped only by the heavy army and police presence.

We’d missed that moment — and the one when a tin roof, weighed down by Mandela supporters, had collapsed metres away from him in Phola Park. Other than that, our story was the same as everyone else’s. It seemed a good time to head back.

“Okay, let’s go.” Kevin reappeared, looking rumpled and sweaty. “I’m dying for a Coke. And I’m starving.”

After being in the crush of so many angry people, the air so thick with malevolent energy, I had adrenalin enough to scale a mountain. I wasn’t quite ready for the office.

As we headed along Khumalo Street, a veritable no-man’s land between the hostels and ANC township residents, I spotted a police bakkie driving into one of the complexes.

“What are they doing in there?” I wondered. Police were arming the hostel dwellers — we knew it — and no one seemed able or willing to catch them. But this seemed brazen.

“Follow them,” I said to Kevin.

“Are you fucking crazy? I’m not driving into that hostel. We’ll get killed,” he fired back.

Anything could happen to us in the warren of those dilapidated, grimy compounds. But the compulsion to follow the police and try to bust them red-handed got the better of me.

“They won’t come near us while the cops are there,” I said. “Surely. And I doubt they would attack us mlungus for no reason. We won’t tell them we’re from the Weekly Mail.”

“Geez, you don’t know these guys. They’ll stick a spear in you first, ask questions later.”

“What do you think the police are doing in there anyway?”

“Who knows, but I’m not going inside that place. It’s madness,” Kevin grumbled.

“Come on,” I badgered. “Let’s just check it out. Follow them. I’m sure they’re up to something.”

I kept pushing, and reluctantly, perhaps sensing his machismo was on the line, he slowed down.


“Yes, really. Come on , Kevin, let’s just do it.”

Grimly, he made a U-turn and drove into the compound. As we bumped along the uneven, dried-mud surface in our low-slung Toyota Corolla, he grimaced. Neither he nor the car was enjoying this one bit.

The Toyota bounced along the rutted terrain, reinforcing our vulnerability. Making a quick getaway was out of the question. And hundreds of pairs of eyes might be on us. It was impossible to know what was going on inside.

We parked beside the police vehicle, which had stopped outside one of the hostels. One of the doors in the compound was open. I jumped out and raced towards it. My heart was beating rapidly and my hands were clammy. I felt a flood of regret. What the hell did I think I was doing? But it was too late to turn back.

I stood in the open doorway, surveying the gloom. In contrast to the dazzling midday sun, it was pitch dark in there. But in the split second that it took for my eyes to adjust to the light, I saw, there in the dank, airless room, a policeman sitting on an iron bedstead next to a couple of hostel dwellers.

When the cop saw me, he jumped up quickly. In the gloom I discerned some commotion, some fumbled rearranging of bodies as I entered the room.

Then he took a couple of steps towards me.

“What do you want?” he asked me. “What are you doing here?”

And now he was blocking my way. “What are you doing here?” I asked.

“It’s n-none of your business. You m-must leave now,” he stammered, a chubby riot policeman in blue. As he walked forward, a beam of light exposed his face. It was flushed red. He looked as guilty as hell.

This is an edited extract from Philippa Garson’s memoir.