Published in The Massachusetts Review Vol. XLIII, No. 1
“Whoever elects to stay here cannot expect to remain unscathed.”
-André Brink, The Rights of Desire
“What’s the bad news? The shit’s going to hit the fan. We all agreed? What’s the good news? The fan won’t be working.” The speaker from Immigration Alliance, whom I’m calling Tommy, is a beefy man, ruddy-complexioned and boisterous. He’s taking the blunt approach, a dramatic contrast to the speaker from Magna International Movers. The Magna man had been cool and polished, at home in his suit. Tommy looks like he sweats through his in half-an-hour. It’s not a bad tactic, though, judging from the audience’s reaction: pleased laughter. It’s the common touch.
I’m at this free seminar because I saw the ad in the paper, one of many. These discreet notices—listed only in some papers, the Cape Argus, say, but not the Mail and Guardian—have, to my mind, taken on the import of a secret society. “Buying prime land in London can be a cinch.” “Canada more like South Africa than you could think.” “Seeking Greener Pastures?” They’re often in the business section, alongside advertisements for American Green Card lotteries and guided discussions on the topic: “Zimbabwe and South Africa: Leader and Follower?” Those corporations old enough to boast their age were incepted between ’89 and ’93.
I pick Immigration Alliance because the meeting will be held at a Holiday Inn in Newlands, a venue I can locate. “Your right to a better future,” is their hook, and it’s projected on an overhead when I enter, along with the guilt-assuaging motto: “We don’t relocate because we want to. We relocate because we have to.” I don’t intend to hire Tommy or his associates for consultation, and fear that my back-up story, should I be questioned on my accent, will not be sufficient. I plan to tell them about Franz, my South African fiancé, whom I desperately want to leave the country with me. I am scared of this country, I will tell them, and dress demurely to further the image. As it is, the desk clerk, a young black man, only smiles politely at me, asking, “Immigration or Cosmetics?”
The conference room is neutrally colored: cream walls, muted green carpet; the maroon fabric of the chairs has a slight, cheap, shine. Predictably, the audience is mostly white, mostly upper-middle class, mostly middle-age. At the front, needing no microphone, Tommy warms up the room like a lounge singer. “Where are you folks traveling from tonight? Cape Town? Stellenbosch? Where else? All the way from Somerset West, are you? Well, God Bless you. Zimbabwe, isit? Up in Uncle Bob’s Country!” The crowd laughs comfortably, realizing that neither they nor their motives will be judged tonight. By a show of hands, most want to go to Australia. Tommy nods, having expected this; sighs like a hard-pressed comrade. He wishes we could all move to Australia, and he and his associates will do the best they can to help us, but he thinks we should also pay attention to the other countries being discussed tonight—England, New Zealand, the US, Canada, especially Canada—because, “If Immigration Alliance can’t get you into one country, we will get you into another.”
“A lot of people sitting down here in Darkest Africa don’t know this, but what you have in the bank matters. Who are the have-nots? Well they’re the Van Strydons, the Van Heimels, the Sittoleys. All those poor okes.” Laughter. “Money talks. Don’t forget that. This is a world of change. You have to prepare every inch.” From next door comes the chirping laughter of the cosmetics seminar, women making up.
* * *
A group of Cape Town businessmen are offering two million rand for information about the recent bombings around the city. The “Name the Bomber” campaign, I read in the Cape Times, will have a 24-hour, toll-free number. The police are “very excited” about this initiative, noting that, “Usually information you pay for is the best information.” Also, I read, the Department of Corrections has accidentally set 160 dangerous felons free among the 18,000 petty criminals released to ease overcrowding in the prisons. No one will be held accountable as, “There will always be human error.”
I have this in mind, as well as Saturday night’s bombing of Obz Café, as I walk to the police station in Cape Town to meet Captain Terblanche. The station is being renovated, surrounded by scaffolding and construction debris. Inside, the elevators are old and barely operational; I have to walk to the basement to catch the car up to the fifth floor. There, following a maze of interconnecting hallways, I find the communications office. Captain Rod Beer rises to greet me.
“No, I’m not Terblanche, but he told me you’d be coming. I’ll be happy to help you.” Tall and angular, with a neat-trimmed mustache and thinning hair, he looks like a fast-food franchise manager: too-short uniform pants exposing his socks, short-sleeved, button-down, striped shirt. He immediately makes me sad, nervously arranging two chairs, “interview style,” in the adjacent room. The room is full of teddy bears; they’re piled in a corner, overflowing their cardboard boxes, and Beer picks one up as he makes room for the chairs. It’s brown, with flowered ears, and a bib that, by now, only reads, “I love.”
“We keep some in the car in case we have to pick up a child from a crime scene and he’s been traumatized. It’s nice to be able to do things like this sometimes, instead. Police and nurses, I think, often see the lousy side of life. These bears are old though.” He sets it down. “What did you want to talk about today?” He is nervous about my tape recorder, when I bring it out, and I have to assure him that, no, I will not be using it for any broadcast media. Tentatively, he begins.
Beer has worked for the South African police for the past fifteen years, having originally been conscripted as part of the reserve force during the mid-80s’ fear of “total onslaught.” Trained and licensed as an officer, he’d acted as one only on the weekends or during crises. In time, he quit his other jobs to be a full-time police officer, countering ANC-related violence. Now, however, he thinks crime is worse. “We’ve opened ourselves up as an international city, so now we have international criminals and gangsterism here. Ten years ago, the only drugs we would find were Dagga and MX tablets. Now we have crack cocaine, heroin, ecstasy. People are caught every day at the airport, bringing stuff in.”
This is his larger rationale for the problems of South Africa—drugs, crime, the bombings—international influences fighting for a share of the new, open market here. Speaking more particularly, he is guarded, emphasizing that what he says is his opinion alone, that he could be wrong. But, yes, he believes Pagad—People Against Gangsterism and Drugs, a Muslim anti-crime group—is responsible for the bombings.
“At first they were very popular. People were getting tired of drugs and crime, and [Pagad] seemed to be very good at killing drug-lords. But then they started threatening Muslim business owners, and now people aren’t so sure about them. It’s vigilantism, the same as community courts, kangaroo courts, street justice. The police are understaffed, so they can’t catch all the criminals. They’re underfunded, so they can’t investigate everything quickly enough. The magistrates are understaffed, so there are thousands of suspects awaiting trial. And the prisons are too small to hold them. So 11,000 criminals were released just this week, and now they’ll go out and break into a house, and steal some things, or steal a car, and end up back in prison, waiting for trial.”
I get the picture: things aren’t working here. And I trust Beer, so timid and resigned, sitting in this office with its walls covered in brainstorming exercises: “How to mobilize communities into becoming Part of the Solution.” “Practicing two-way communication.” I’ve heard another explanation for why the police force is failing in South Africa: after having so-long relied on intimidation and violence to extract confessions, they are now woefully unprepared to fight crime. I don’t mention this, though. Besides rude, it seems irrelevant; what purpose would it serve to scold people trying to correct their past with diversity workshops and teddy bears?
“I don’t want to be pessimistic,” Beer adds, “but I don’t know what’s going to happen here. Africa as a continent seems to have it bad.”
* * *
“Canada. Who here wants to move to Canada? Raise your hands,” Tommy directs. “No one? You’re all thinking it’s too cold, right? Well, let me tell you about Canada. The UN rated Canada the number one country in the world to live in. They’re not scared of new people, unlike some others’ xenophobia. Canada welcomes you with open arms. There’s even an Afrikaans primary school in British Columbia. That’s the impact we’re having.
“These blokes have made management of the weather a science. They have pride in what they do. So South Africans assimilate very well there.” He projects a picture of a Montreal blizzard, snowmen holding rulers to measure the accumulation. “Now, Montreal was frozen for eleven days, but if it had been any other city in the world, they’d have shut down for three months! I told you, it’s a science. They manage around their weather because their country works. Do you see some bergie coming up to you on the street there, with a brown cardboard sign saying, “Can you help?” and “God bless you,” and all that nonsense? No, because they’re organized. In charge of their country.
“Now, you can’t go if you’re a hairdresser, a bus driver, or a bank teller. They have enough of those people, with all due respect. You have to have the skills. Refugees? Forget about it. We’re the Rainbow Nation. We have no refugees anymore.”
* * *
Observatory was car-bombed on Saturday. Obz Café, more specifically, where my roommate, Hanna, and I drink our Irish coffees. The entire facade of the store was glass, and it shattered into a shining million fragments on the sidewalk. Again, the car used was a white City Golf, so again we batted around the tired City Golf jokes for a few days. I’d been driving home from a friend’s apartment and was shunted off onto side streets, Lower Main having been cordoned off. The Obswatch men were edgy and skittish: their supervisor had been injured by the blast, and there were real police officers present to investigate. “There’s been an explosion,” the police said. “Don’t worry, there were only minor injuries. Please go home.” The Obswatch men paced up and down the street, defending the crime-scene tape.
Sunday morning, I wondered to Leanie that the shops were open, and the streets, albeit quieter, were clean and orderly. “That’s Cape Town for you,” she laughed. It is the eighteenth bombing in two years; the eighth this year; the fourth since I’ve been here. She told me a story about “the black girls” (the housekeepers) from her work. They’d been walking up to the bars on Main Road the night before, when a piece of glass landed at their feet. Turning down onto Lower Main, not yet blocked off, they found part of the Golf’s fender in the gutter.
“‘Let’s kick it,’ this one girl said. ‘We’ll get on TV. We’ll get arrested or something and we’ll get on TV.’ So they just stood there,” Leanie said, “just arguing back and forth, what should they do? Kick it, hide it? Leave it alone and go to the club?”
“What did they end up doing?” I asked.
“They went to the club, of course.”
* * *
My conversation with Captain Beer has stalled, so I look at the questions I’d written for Captain Terblanche. What are South Africa’s major problems? Rod Beer replies with a predictable list. Poverty, first. Crime, urban terrorism, AIDS, housing shortages. I mention one of the townships I’ve been volunteering in, how it astounds me.
“That’s Africa,” Beer says. “There’s squatter camps all over. All of these countries are economically in a shambles. All of the governments are corrupted.” He mentions Zimbabwe’s president, Mugabe, saying that while he knows the land was stolen from the blacks, and it’s only right that they should get it back, those farms that are being reappropriated—the white corporate farms—produce food for the entire nation. “Now they’ll be covered with squatters keeping just a vegetable garden, a chicken and a cow. There will be no food for the cities, and their country will fall apart.” Beer, too, is certain that it will happen here. Already there have been 900 white farmers killed. “They are the breadbasket of South Africa. Who will feed the cities if they’re killed?”
The phone rings and as he answers it, I look around the office. There are bumper stickers on the file cabinets: hotline numbers to “Stop Urban Terror Now.” I leaf through the pamphlets Beer has given me, having had to clear a path through the stuffed animals to make his way to the cabinets. One of them, a cartoon mini-opera for “less literate people,” depicts an integrated police unit struggling with the regulations set out by the new Constitution. (“As a good policeman I know that the Constitution was made by all political parties. It is also there to help us,” says Constable Cheryl Helmey.)
“What were we talking about?” Beer asks, returning to his chair. “Oh, poverty.” He recounts the basic maxim: poverty leads to crime, crime—such as bombings, car-jackings, rapes, murders—scares away the foreign investors who might have brought business to Cape Town, and this, in turn, leads to a weak economy, poverty. Like most people in South Africa, he knows the lines; but, like everyone, is lost in the knowledge.
“Just out of curiosity,” I ask him, “what do you think of President Mbeki?” Beer glances down at my tape recorder, which had died two minutes into the interview. I put it away, and he loosens perceptibly.
“I’m not a racist,” he says. “When [Mbeki] was elected I thought, we’ll see what this guy can do. If he can do as much as Mandela did.” We agree that Mandela is tremendously respectable. “Mandela had influence in other countries, he could do things to help them. But Mbeki’s just all over the globe when he’s needed here at home. He should be taking care of things here—crime, AIDS—but he’s off in Congo. Now, I know Congo is part of Africa, and that what happens there does affect us, but there’s so much to do here.”
“This is such a new country,” I say. Beer smiles, mishearing me.
“Yes, it is a beautiful country.”
* * *
“The States?” Tommy asks for hands again. There are few. “Well, what do we think of the Yanks?” Answers call out from around the room: arrogant, loud, go all over the world dressed in golf pants. Tommy laughs. “If you go to the US, though, you’ll see it. Thicker, thinner, deeper, wider. I remember in the 70s, when we were still in the good old/bad old days, and were ashamed of where we came from. ‘Oh you’re from South Africa?’ ‘No, man, I’m Portuguese.’ Well, the Americans, they’re just cruising down the Big Mississippi of Life. I’m okay, you’re okay. Don’t rock the boat. That’s what they’re all about. They’ve done it. They made it.”
“Louder,” someone adds. After projecting a few overheads of the American South, Tommy acquiesces.
“All right, Australia then. That’s why you’re all here, right? Okay. It’s clean, it’s orderly, it’s organized. It’s becoming a very possible destination for many people. It’s almost racing distance from Darwin to Indonesia, north of that’s Malaysia, and all of mainland far East. Millions and millions of people looking for a better way of life. It’s the quality of life we keep talking about. Cleaner air, cleaner cities, cleaner streets. We think they’re very brash like the Americans, but they’re a very genteel people. Age 45? Sorry mate, don’t apply. Sell-by date.”
The man next to me keeps saying, “Jeepers,” and raising his hand to ask Tommy if his speeding tickets will keep him out of Australia. Currently, I heard at the Magna seminar, there are 1-2,000 people leaving South Africa per month. “And most of them are going sideways.”
“English language ability is a requirement for Australia. Why?” Tommy regards us conspiratorially. “It’s the one way they can keep those millions and millions of people at bay who want in. They won’t say it out loud, but it’s true. But there’s more good news for you: they recognize certain cultural languages. And Afrikaans is at the top of the list. There’s another five points for your application.”
* * *
The Monday after Spring break, we all come back to University, and our community service program has started up again. Steve, our driver out to the township, tells the other kids about the bombings. “I can no longer take any liability,” he says, and everyone laughs. “No, I’m serious. I can’t afford to take any, so I’m telling you now. Just this week I lost 10,000 rand because of this stuff. I had a tour group coming, and we had a contract. 300 rand a week for six months. And now they’ve canceled and they’re not coming.”
One of the American volunteers, Ben, laughs, “So, if I go to a club and get my arms blown off, I can’t say, ‘Steve recommended this place to me’?”
“I’m not making any recommendations any more,” Steve says sternly. “If I drop you off at a restaurant, and there’s a bomb, I have nothing to do with it. Okay, guys?”
“Okay,” we say.
* * *
“So, are you staying?” I ask Beer, half-joking. He isn’t surprised at the question, and considers it before answering.
“Yes, I suppose I am. I don’t really have the skills to get a job somewhere else. I don’t have the money to just leave. And, I have a family here. A wife and two children. A lot of people are leaving, though. My son’s best friend, his family has moved to America. I know other people who have set up businesses there. It’s good if they have the courage to start over there, but I’m not in a position to leave.”
We’re coming to a close here. I’ve put away my notebook, and Beer has relaxed in his seat, advising me on tourist attractions I should see. Table Mountain, Robben Island, Cape Point. Telling me about a scouting trip to America he went on as a boy. (“The first time I saw snow.”) He comes back to my question. “I sometimes wonder if I’ve made the right choice though. I worry about my children. I think I’ll tell them, as soon as they’re old enough, to go abroad. To the States, or the UK, and study, or get a job, or anything. Right now it’s not a good time to be a white man. It’s not easy to get a job anymore. Of course, before, it was artificial. We were always the minority. But now things have changed. It makes me wonder if I’ve made the right choice.”
* * *
“If you go to New Zealand, it’s like stepping back in time a bit. The policemen aren’t targets, they’re respected. You have to be 6’1” to be a policeman there. And that’s the women! Car insurance is cheaper there too. Why? Because look at their map. There’s no Lesotho here, no Swaziland or Zimbabwe there. If they steal your car, where are they going to take it? It’s a culture shock.
“But these are all social countries. You pay taxes to get services. We’ve got, what, 52 million people that we know about. About 1.4 million paying taxes. Don’t even brag about dodging the taxman in these countries. You’ll become a pariah. Here, if you say you don’t pay your taxes, you’ll get invited to every braii in town, asking how you did it.”
* * *
I’m having a smoke outside the St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, after the Free Cape Town from Fear march. It was a poor turnout, and there’s nearly as many members of the media here as there are protesters. (The latter with their placards, “Turn Cape Fear back into the Cape of Good Hope,” and, “VW: the People’s Bomb.” I see the owner of Obz Café among them, carrying flowers and a sign that reads, “Sick of the Violence.”) I’d sat through the mass with its representatives from most South African religions; with its statements from community pillars, bomb widows, and an apologetic denial from Pagad, their plea that Cape Town not wrongfully assume Muslims are responsible for the violence. I left during the hymns, and am now watching a local news woman interview a gay white couple about their sign: “The only crime in South Africa is to be white.”
A middle-aged blonde exits the church and stops next to me, sighing heavily. “Boy, that looks good,” she says, fishing in her bag for her own cigarettes. She wants to know the best way to get to the mall at V & A Waterfront. I tell her which way I think it is, asking if she’s from Cape Town.
“I’m new here. Very new. I’ve only been here a year and a half,” she says. “We came from Durban, and Durban is the same as Jo-burg. You can’t just get out of your car in front of your house, you know. You definitely can’t walk around. But now it’s coming here. And I told my husband, ‘If I can’t live here, I can’t live anywhere in South Africa.’” She pauses, scanning the street signs. “But I’m not quite prepared to leave.”
* * *
Tommy’s last overhead lists, “The Big Three: Security, Health, Education.”
“If you answer ‘no’ to any of these questions, you need an assessment from us. Ask yourselves: Can I afford to grow old in my country? Can I raise my children in the current educational system? Am I prepared to take second-rate health care from unqualified practitioners? Be honest with yourselves now; it’s your lives we’re talking about here. Thank you for coming tonight. There’s tea and coffee in the lobby, and you can set up an appointment for your consultation with my associates there. God bless you all. I’ll see you at the airport.”