THEY ARRIVE WITHOUT WARNING, AND CERTAINLY without invitation. We have never seen each other, but because I am black and they are black and we both had trouble Ekhaya—that means back at home in South Africa—they think what’s mine is theirs, like we are all one big family, man, and we are all in The Struggle, brother. So a guy will land on me, here in Toronto, and stay, and eat my food, and expect drinks, and call London and Johannesburg and Lusaka on my phone. I’m supposed to feel warm inside, because it’s all for The Struggle, Bigboy, man. That is my name—Bigboy! Bigboy Ntuli.
Most of the phone calls have nothing to do with fighting apartheid. It is just that these fellows are homesick. The settled exiles are just as bad. Most have passports, and jobs for at least part of the time, and some have Canadian wives, but their hearts are in Soweto or Crossroads or Sharpeville. Half the time they are telling horror stories about police bulldozers flattening peoples’ homes, and the other half they are complaining that you can’t get mealie meal here. They hate Boers, but one black exile can’t see another without shouting to him in Afrikaans. That is, if they are talking to each other. Normally APO members don’t talk to ANC, and neither talks to PAC, and so on.
They all talk to me, because anyone who is short of money puts pressure on me. Two or three come with a bottle. It is supposed to be a gift, but they settle down to drink it. Only when the bottle is three-quarters empty do they mention the problem, whatever it is, and the money needed to resolve it. They are apologetic, but they are confident, because we are all brothers, eh, Bigboy? and we all owe one another.
Well, they are wrong, I don’t owe anyone except my mother, and she is dead; and Stootoot; and Mr. Ndhlovu, and he is dead.
Mr. Ndhlovu was our favorite teacher. We listened to him even when he was talking about verbs and alliterative concords. If he didn’t like something, he would say, “Come the revolution”—like, come the revolution, we would hang all the school inspectors on lampposts; or come the revolution, Miriam Calata’s little sister wouldn’t be allowed to come to school and disturb our classes; or come the revolution, all the kids would bring lunches and the rest of us wouldn’t have to give up some of ours.
It sounded as if the revolution would be a big holiday, like a special Christmas, with the kids in the township marching and singing “Jesus loves me,”and white ladies giving us sausages and doughnuts and cold drinks; and after that we would have nice clothes and my ma wouldn’t have to work. She would sit with her feet up on the steps and let her swollen ankles drain.
Stootoot and I were Mr. Ndhlovu’s favorite boys. Stootoot’s given name is Harley, so at first we called him Motorbike, like a Harley-Davidson, eh, and then Stootoot, because old-fashioned motorbikes used to go stoo too too, stoo too too. Stootoot made poems, like, “The policeman is a crocodile, he lies waiting in the mud. Hayi, the stench of that crocodile!" Stootoot and I helped Mr. Ndhlovu dig his garden, and he taught us all sorts of things. One was how to make gunpowder. You need one cup charcoal, one cup sulfur, four cups saltpeter. We collected charred wood from fireplaces to make charcoal. The sulfur and saltpeter we stole from a gardening shop. Sulfur looks like yellow candles. Saltpeter is a kind of fertilizer that looks like shiny salt. The right kind is marked “K" on the sack.
To light gunpowder you need a fuse, lake a long string and soak it in fat and gasoline, so that if you light one end, the fire creeps down till it reaches the powder. Sometimes it seems to go out when in fact it is still smoldering. Mr. Ndhlovu said revolution was like that. The shopkeepers, the army captains, the school inspectors, and the other oppressors of the people would think it was dead. However, it was only smoldering, and one day—Bang! It would blow up in their faces. A fellow in our school put a bomb under a police van and lit the string and waited. When nothing happened, he crawled on his stomach to look. The gunpowder blew up: Foooh! Right at him. He’s blind, and his skin is spotted, as if he were an albino. The hospital gave him a sign to wear, saying, I TRIED TO BLOW UP A POLICE VAN, but so many people gave him money that the township supervisor took the sign away.
Mr. Ndhlovu also taught us how bad white man’s liquor was: come the revolution, we would smash the beer halls and bottle stores. Another bad thing was FPCs. Government does not have money for teachers’ salaries, but it has money for FPCs. They are family-planning clinics, places that show women how not to have babies. It is a Botha plot to kill our race, Mr. Ndhlovu said. If no babies are born, what will happen to the black nations? They will wither; meantime white people will have many babies, and then there will be more of them than of us. Black Power needs black people, Mr. Ndhlovu said.
ONE AFTERNOON WHEN THE SCHOOL WAS SHUT down because of a boycott, Godschild Mhauli said, “Let’s burn down the FPC.”Godschild was twenty and in Standard Eight. He had been loving a girl for nearly a year but she had not gotten pregnant, and the other big fellows were teasing him.
Some girls said no, but all the rest of them joined us. We all went with Godschild, because he was in the Sigeleti gang. If you didn’t do what the gang said, they burned you with cigarettes. At the clinic we broke in and smashed windows and doors and made drinks from the medicines. Stootoot found a box of condoms. We blew them up like balloons and tied them round the FPC nurses. Someone started a fire. The FPC burned, and some township offices. Then we heard rat-tat-tat-tat and shouting and screams. Kids ran one way up the road and then back again; there were more shots, and kids lying on the ground. Some were still, but one girl was kicking and kicking. We knew it was Stootoot’s sister Mayelina, because of her pink bloomers. Stootoot wanted to rush out to her, but we held him back. After a little while she stopped kicking. The ambulances came and took the kids that were sitting or crawling. The ones that weren’t moving lay there till the police loaded them on a lorry. Even on the lorry we knew which was Mayelina because of her pink underpants.
I stayed hidden in a ditch until the police van went away. I thought I would be safe, but as soon as I stood up a policeman shouted “Halt!” He had been waiting for fools like me.
At the police station they stripped me, and a black policeman squeezed my bicep with one hand and weighed my testicles with the other. He said, “A fine, strong body. It would be a pity to spoil it. Will you answer our questions, boy?” First I said no, but when he brought out the electric wires, I said yes, yes, I would. “No, Sergeant, I don’t know any Communists. I don’t know any people who hate the government. No, no, please, Sergeant. I can only remember Mr. Ndhlovu. Yes, Mr. Ndhlovu. His first name is Simeon, Sergeant, sir. I don’t know if he is a Communist. I don’t know what is a Communist, except Communists don’t want people to be rich. Yes, Sergeant, I would like to be rich. No, I never heard Mr. Ndhlovu say we must kill white people, only that we must be proud to be black, and black is as good as white. No, he never said we must be African National Congress. I know he is ANC, because he marks our books in green and black ink, like a National Congress flag.
“Please, Sergeant, please, I will remember. Mr. Ndhlovu has some books that he says are dynamite. He says they will blow up the place one day. He hides them under a piece of cement next to his outhouse, sir. His house is in Moshesh Street, sir. It is number one-twenty-seven.”
Next day I saw two guards dragging Mr. Ndhlovu. He was bleeding. The guard who was with me stopped the others and said, “Let the boy see. It will help him remember things when we are talking.” Mr. Ndhlovu looked at me and said, “Bigboy Ntuli, my little brother, do not fight the government. It is better to live. Go well, child of our people.” Then the guards took him away. I heard he died after that. I owe him, because he pretended not to suspect that I had given him away. I am sure he must have known it was me, but he did not want to make my soul sick with shame when he knew we would never see each other again. So I owe Mr. Ndhlovu.
The police let me go that night. The sergeant gave me ten rand and told me about a woman in the township. If I heard anything about ANC or Communists, I should tell her and she would give me money. But 1 never did.
WHEN I CAME OUT, I WAS A HERO, BECAUSE I HAD been in John Voster Square and was still alive. The Sigeleti gang made me and Stootoot members, and said we must avenge the kids that were shot at the family-planning clinic. The leader of the policemen that day had been Sergeant Ballenden. We stole some overalls with ACME DELIVERY on them from a laundry, and borrowed bicycles and went to look at his house. It had big shrubs in the front yard and fruit trees at the back. You could get right up to the house without being seen. We made two coffee tins of gunpowder and went on bikes one afternoon, again in Acme Delivery overalls. No one was about. We dodged through the pretty flower bushes up to the house, into the crawl space, and packed the gunpowder into a hole in the brick foundation. We put loose bricks against it and dribbled the last of the gunpowder along the side of the fuse. Stootoot lit the fuse, and we ran through the shrubs and pedaled off like racers. We were two blocks away when the gunpowder went up. It was not very loud, but it was loud enough. We saw a wisp of smoke, then big smoke, and then we heard fire engines and sirens.
The chain came off my bike. While I was fixing it, a police van came. I don’t think they would have stopped for me, but Stootoot turned back and rode past the van shouting a poem: “We have made a fire, Mayelina. Warm your hands, my dead sister.”I speeded around the corner, but Stootoot went on shouting, “Don’t get cold, little dead sister, warm your hands,” and they caught him.
They did to him all the things they do, but he acted crazy, so he was put in a place for stupid criminals. After a few months he escaped. We heard he was in Cross Roads. The police never even asked me about him, so I knew Stootoot had not said my name. That is why I owe him.
When I got out of South Africa, I didn’t go to train in a guerrilla camp in Mozambique or Zambia. I didn’t want any more of that stuff; I wanted a job and no passes and a civilized country, and I have it. I give a bit of money, and sometimes I go on a march, but I don’t want to know what Botha said or whether Tutu has a following. I never want to go back. I want to shed it all, man.
I THOUGHT I HAD SHED IT. Then one night someone knocked and a big black shape hugged me and said in Xhosa, “Oh, my brother, Bigboy,” and clasped my forearm and then my thumb and did a complicated handshake and repeated, “Bigboy, my brother of the Sigeleti.” My heart sank, but I did the handshake and said, “My brother of the Sigeleti,”and helped him out of his overcoat. Only then did I recognize Stootoot. “Oh, Stootoot, my brother Motorbike,” I said. We did our handshake again, and he produced a bottle of South African brandy. “Look what I brought you—it’s the only baggage I have. The Organization knew where you were, so I was sure I’d be okay once I got here.”
We finished the brandy that evening. Next day I bought a bottle of rye, which Stootoot emptied in a couple of hours. He was insulted when I produced stewing hen for supper. “Have you forgotten, Bigboy, man, chicken is for women? If you were visiting me, I would give you red meat.”He was uncooperative about seeing a lawyer to get his status legitimized. “I thought a man did not need a pass here. A paper is a pass, man.” I gave him money for coffees and lunch, but only enough for each day, because otherwise he would spend what I gave him on beer. The evenings were not much better. After a few hours of “Do you remember. . . ” we had nothing to say—or at least he had plenty to say that I did not want to hear, about bombs and collaborators and how wrong the other black movements were. He could not believe that I was not in a conspiratorial group of some kind. “You can tell me, Bigboy, man. I will never give you away. I didn’t give you away even when they tortured me, did I? Like you did not give Mr. Ndhlovu away. Who do you think did betray him?”
The only thing to do was to get him into the exile community. When someone phoned to say there was going to be a gathering at the John A. MacDonald Bar, and if I was not too proud to mix with black people ... I accepted immediately and took Stootoot.
In ten minutes he discovered another Sigeleti, a big guy called Sipho. I had seen Sipho around for years and never knew he was a Sigeleti. Stootoot kept ordering drinks and turning to me to pay. He recited poems about Cross Roads Camp and bulldozers, and made one up about Winnie Mandela. He made it for Nyameka, who fancies herself a sort of Winnie in exile, and does her hair and earrings just like Winnie on TV. None of these guys has ever been at a tribal ceremony, but the men stamped their feet and the women ululated as if they were doing an ethnic show on TV. They were all having nostalgia highs. Except Subramooney. He’s a Durban Indian, and I think to him it sounded like war songs and mobs of Zulu looters pouring into Durban’s Indian areas.
All the customers who were not in our party left to go and drink somewhere else, except a sad-looking whitey sitting in a corner. One of the girls came and whispered that she had seen him several times. She thought he followed people of our lot around. He was easy to recognize on account of his fair moustache.
Stootoot and Sipho went to the bathroom and came back behind the whitey’s chair. Next thing each had one of the guy’s arms in a twist and they brought him over to us.
“What’s your name?” Sipho said.
“Let me go!" the fellow said. “You’ve got no right.”
His accent was pure South African. He was scared and his eyes were bulging, but he did not shout for help.
“Say your name, white man,” Stootoot said.
“Dirk Maritz,” the man said.
“Say ‘Baas’ when you speak to the ruling race,” Sipho said.
Dirk Maritz said nothing. Stootoot said, “Hey, Boer boy, do like the master says, man. Don’t be cheeky. Your wrist will be no good if I break it, eh.”
Maritz groaned. “Yes, Baas,” he said.
We all gave a little clap, and Sipho and Stootoot relaxed their grip, without releasing Maritz’s arms,
“You Special Branch?” Nyameka asked. She lighted a match and held it near his cheek, singeing a few hairs of his moustache. When the match burned down she lighted another and started singeing on the other side. Maritz sat very still, his eyes on the flame. The bad part is when it reaches a nostril.
“You Special Branch?” Nyameka repeated.
“No, man, no. I’m an immigrant, like you people.”
“Call me Madam,” Nyameka said.
“You say ‘Baas’ and ‘Madam’ nicely,” Stootoot said. He pulled a wallet from Maritz’s pocket and emptied it on the table. There was a medical card, a driver’s license, and a hundred dollars or so. “Like to buy us a drink?”
“With pleasure,” Maritz said. He repeated quiekly,
“With pleasure, Baas,” and looked at Nyameka.
“With pleasure, Madam.”
We all ordered double scotches or double liqueurs.
“Why are you following people around, Boer boy?” Nyameka demanded.
“Madam, I’ve been here a year, and I’m still so lonely, eh. When I’m walking in this part of town, I sometimes hear Madam and another lady talk Xhosa, or even Afrikaans. Tonight I saw these baases and ladies coming here, talking like people at home, and I thought I could just sit in a corner and listen to the voices. It is like inhaling the smell of somebody else’s cigarette, but secondhand is better than no smoke, eh?”
Subramooney came over. He speaks not of Ekhaya but of the fascist white minority regime. “What did you do in South Africa, Mr. Maritz?”
Maritz looked distressed. “Please, man. Don’t hold it against me.”
“Speak up,” Subramooney said. “Answer my question.” He had worked for some years for a criminal lawyer.
“I was a prison warder. At Kraaihoek Jail.”
“Kraaihoek! Hey, Boer boy!” Stootoot shouted. “You were the woodwork instructor!” He released his hold on Maritz. “I was there from ‘81 till I escaped. You used to make us sing.” He turned to us. “He was a good chap. At the end of the class he used to sing, ‘All tools away.’ Then we stopped whatever we were doing and stood to attention and sang, ‘Mallet, chisel, plane, saw. All tools away.’ Come on, sing it, man.”
He dragged Maritz to his feet. Maritz sang quaveringly, “All tools away!” Stootoot responded, “Mallet, chisel . . .” and repeated the phrase with harmonizing variations.
“You were in P Block,” Maritz said. “You were a political, isn’t it?”
“That’s right. A real political. Deadly weapon and member of a banned organization. You remember me, eh. Stootoot looked round at us as if he had been awarded a prize. “He remembers me!”
“Prison warders are torturers’ apprentices,” Subramooney said.
“The carpentry shop looked across the Umfali River to the Panga Mountains,” Stootoot reminisced. “It was best with the mist rising. In the evening big spiders spun webs across the gate of the stone quarry.”
“Ja. Big brown bastards with yellow spots,” Maritz said. “Their eyes were green in the dark. When the train whistle blew at Umfali Bridge, the spiders used to run onto their webs as if insects had flown against them.”
“I never liked those spiders,” Maritz said. “I used to think what it would be like to be a little grasshopper when a spider was tying you up. A prisoner is like that, eh.”
“Your alleged softness of heart does you credit, Mr. Prison Warder,” Subramooney said. “Prison warder is a good job. Large salary and freedom to indulge your racist sadism. Why did you leave?”
“Ag, man . . . ,” Maritz began.
“Call him Baas too,”Sipho said.
Maritz looked reluctant for a moment but said, “Baas, I had a Xhosa girlfriend and the police found out.”
“So you got away and left the lady to face the music.” “No, man, we escaped together, but in Gaberone she met a rich cattle speculator and she left me.” His voice broke as he said it.
“Shame,” Nyameka said. “Shame. He’s a whitey, but a whitey can suffer too.”
“Oh, Madam, Madam looks just like Winnie Mandela would look if she were young,” Maritz said.
MARITZ IS A SKILLED CABINETMAKER AND CAN FIX anything made of wood. He and Nyameka and Stootoot run a repair shop in the northern part of town. They share a house that is always overflowing with refugees or poets or agitators from Ekhaya or Nicaragua or Uttar Pradesh. They’re proud of having Boer sausages and curried mutton and yellow rice, just like Ekhaya. Stootoot now has papers, which may be genuine for all I know.
I went to supper with them last week. Stootoot did the Sigeleti handshake five times and then ushered me in to the other guests, singing, “The lion has entered. Behold, little chiefs! It is my brother, Bigboy.” Maritz proudly held up a bottle of his home brew, labeled CHATEAU KRAAIHOEK. Nyameka turned her head to show me her latest version of a Winnie Mandela coiffure and said, “We feel so guilty about taking Harley away from you.” It took me a moment to realize that she was talking about Stootoot. “You must miss him and his lovely poetic speech. It is so full of the warmth and smells of Ekhaya.”
“There is no grassy pasture that does not have a grave in it,” I said.