On February 2 this year, I was jolted back to that day when the riot policeman tried to kill me.
It was quite eerie, because it happened exactly 15 years ago, to the very day, and I hadn’t thought about it for years. It was the man in the car outside my son’s school that triggered those events to return so clearly . . . it was like releasing the pause button on a mental video tape of what happened to me over lunchtime on February 2, 1990. A few hours earlier on that hot day we watched spell-bound on television as South Africa’s last white president, FW de Klerk, opened parliament and surprised the world by announcing the unbanning of the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party, and that he was going to release ANC leader, Nelson Mandela, after 27 years in prison. Across the country major celebrations started. Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city where I still live and work, was unsurprisingly no different, because it has always been a stronghold of the forces opposing the policy of apartheid, whereby the white minority government forced races apart.
I was working as reporter on the country’s only Afrikaans-language left-wing paper, Vrye Weekblad (meaning “independent weekly”) which became famous, or infamous, depending on your politics, for exposing the apartheid state’s shadowy death squads over the previous year. Even though it was Friday, and our weekly paper had already hit the streets early that morning, I wasn’t going to miss any of the excitement of this epoch-making, stupendous day. So I grabbed my camera and rushed to Braamfontein, a city neighbourhood that housed a lot of progressive organisations, a liberal university and leftist labour unions, knowing that marches of elated activists would erupt from there. I wasn’t wrong. A large group of dancing students and workers were already approaching from the university on the wide, hot tarred road, floating towards me on a mirage.
A few city blocks later, as the marchers reached a small lawn of grass in front of a busy restaurant, the feared riot police brought the dense lunchtime traffic in the adjoining four-lane street to a standstill. Not wanting any of these celebrations, they wildly parked their macho vehicles on the pavements with screeching tyres, burped off their sirens, and about 10 of them charged towards the surprised students.
“This is an illegal gathering,” barked the adrenelin-charged captain in charge over his megaphone. “I give you a minute to disperse!!!”
“But the president has legalised gatherings like this,” I tell one of his side-kicks, a young constable with an under-nourished blond moustache. “And as reporter I’m allowed to be here.” Until then journalists were not allowed to cover so-called political gatherings because of emergency regulations. His crazed eyes tell me that perhaps I made a huge mistake. I spoke to him in his mother-tongue, Afrikaans. My pure accent tells him one thing: I am one of those he despises even more than the black activists, a fellow Afrikaner who has sided with the “enemy”.
“Stand aside!” he spits out, as he menacingly taps his heavy black truncheon in his pale palm. “I’m going to get you!”
The constable was a man of his word. It looks slow, but happens very fast. His up-raised right arm crashes down, the truncheon whooshes through the hot air . . . straight for my temple, doing just as they taught him on the advanced riot control course: that’s the place to aim for with your truncheon, if you want to kill.
Thwack!!! He misses my temple by a quarter of an inch.
My knees collapse under me because of the severity of the blow. “No!!!” I think. “Why are you doing it?!” Maybe I’m screaming that . . .
Back to real time: The next massive bolt coming already as I’m going down . . . Thwack!!! On top of my skull. I’m covering my head with my arms. One, miss-timed on the back of my head. Twackthwackthwackthwackthwack!!! Blows raining down pneumatically on my arms, all over my upper body. In a fetus position he leaves me, but after a few yards turns back and as if to say “have a nice day” sprays stinging teargas straight into my eyes from two inches away. And then off to panel-beat a few students and workers. My Afrikaner skull probably too thick for his liking, I tell my friends jokingly later on.
I pick up my camera, bag, and glasses and stumble in the opposite direction into the four lanes of traffic that, fortunately, is still at a dead standstill to stare at this brutal spectacle. Chaos continues as riot policemen chase students and workers into the restaurant across the lawn. The owner, a law-abiding type, holds them down for the cops to assault. I turn away from the traffic and lurch back across the lawn towards the restaurant. My eyes are burning, I wipe over my face and see its not tears but blood streaming down my face, my neck, soaking my shirt. The white restaurant patrons start jeering me. “See, that’s what you get when you mix with the blacks!” one shouts, as the cops start retreating back to their pick-ups.
“Why don’t you sleep with their women then!?” another patron shouts at me to uproarious laughter of his friends. I’m in no mood for their bull-shit. “Bring them!” I roar back. It shuts them up.
Twelve hours later and I have a throbbing headache. There are glaring neon lights in my eyes. “Come get out!” a hand is thumping against the car window of the passenger seat. A half-eaten hamburger lands on the road before me as I try and steady myself next to the car. At least it’s my friend the hippie-journalist, Jon Rees, and not a riot cop. “What the fuck are we doing here?” I ask standing where ambulances normally offload their damaged victims of the weekend madness at the JG Strijdom state hospital, named after one of the apartheid leaders of yore.
“What did you study at university?” he’s demanding. We had spent the night at some prominent commie’s house wildly celebrating the unbannings. I had too much to drink, regaling all and sundry with the tale of my encounter with the cop’s truncheon and the resulting 10 stitches over my head, never forgetting my Afrikaner-thick-skull punchline. On the way back home to our commune we got ourselves hamburgers for the late-night munchies, but I fell asleep after a few bites.
“I did philosophy, but can we go home now I’m completely wasted!”
Jonno was having none of this. “You had serious head injuries and you just passed out. If you can’t tell me about a few philosophers and their theories I’m getting you admitted you to hospital!”
“I’m just pissed, but okay, Plato wrote The Republic’ about, er . . .”
“Oh yes, Marx explained history through dialectical materialism!” I was on a roll. “And Sartre . . . “
“Excuse me gentlemen, but you’re blocking the ambulances’ entrance!” a stern hospital security guard interrupts. “And take your burger along!”
I obviously thought about the assault a lot in the year or so afterwards, especially because I sued the Minister of Safety and Security and had to re-tell the events to my lawyer a few times. It wasn’t going to be an easy case to prove because I never got the cop’s name: they had slyly removed their name tags before they attacked us. My lawyer told me that it made it tough in court if you couldn’t identify the assaulter by name even if you had witnesses, especially if you have a right-wing judge.
The police of course, refused to cooperate. And for once their omnipresent video unit, which attended every political meeting, event or protest I attended in those days, filming all of us ad nauseum, was absent. That made it of course impossible to sue them to get access to any visuals which could identify the riot police. This also confirmed my suspicion that they were “cruisin’ for a bruisin’”. So I settled out of court.
I saw Pale Moustache once again, a week after the incident. An English rebel cricket tour took place in South Africa amidst lots of protests, because a sports boycott against the country was still in place. The police responded in typical violent fashion to these protests. This time the video unit was there filming all of us, media and protestors, from the back of their armoured truck until everyone had dispersed. I was walking back to my car with the air still thick with teargas, and saw Pale Mustache and his mates leaning against their police pick-ups. When they noticed me, they laughed and shouted. I pretended not to see them, got into my car and drove away as quickly as I could, with my ego needing more stitches than my head the week before.
In recent years there have been a series of car-jackings at Johannesburg schools, so many now hire private security firms to help prevent it. That is because the police in our country are under-staffed, under-paid and under-resourced and cannot provide the protection needed. Many of these security officers are ex-cops. My eight-year-old son’s junior school is no different, and there is always a manned security car parked near the school gates at drop-off time.
It was one of these guards that brought all of this back, where he was sitting in the car, looking after our safety. I am still unsure why he specifically brought all of this back so very vividly, all these years later. He wasn’t my truncheon-wielding “friend” - I made doubly sure the next day by driving slowly past their car, having a thorough look. But there are perhaps a few reasons why he transported me back 15 years, some even superficial. He probably had that apartheid policeman “look”: you can take them out of an apartheid uniform, but you can’t take the apartheid uniformly out of them. They also have a way they Look at you. Which brings us to another possible reason: you can take a leftist out of a paranoid era, but you can’t take the paranoia out of a leftist. It’s also possibly what pop psychologists call “unresolved issues” popping up again. Most likely it is all of the above, or even none of them. I still don’t know.
Crawling through the peak-hour traffic to work, I realised all of this had seriously messed with my mood. Not even my current instant feelgood song LCD Soundsystem’s, “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House”, playing loudly on my car stereo could cheer me up. What happened to me back in 1990 is of course insignificant, almost embarrassingly so compared to what happened to many other South Africans fighting apartheid, the majority of them black. Many paid with their lives for the freedom we have in South Africa today. Most survivors have deeper scars than me. We have all been damaged in some way, on both sides of the divide. It remains a miracle that this country, with all its imperfections, has gotten to where it is. And we’ve got so many stories to tell even small ones.
I called a friend, a bright young black film-maker, on my mobile phone. “We should make a movie sort of based on this.”
“Yes, great idea. When you write the script, think what you would do if you did see him again, what you would say to him?”
“Mmmm, I’m unsure. I wonder what made him do it? I think I know, but still . . . that’s probably what I’ll ask him first.”
So what made them do it, and so brutally? A few years ago my old philosophy professor, Hennie Lotter, wrote a book about the transistion from apartheid to democracy, “Injustice, Violence and Peace: The Case of South Africa” (1997; Amsterdam Atlanta, GA: Rodopi), and this helped me answer that question: “White people abused power to benefit themselves.”
And to maintain this state of affairs the apartheid state had to use political violence: “People’s values about politics and attitudes towards other political groups can legitimize the use of political violence. For example, white Christians in South Africa legitimized the National Party government’s widespread use of violence against those resisting its authority. They believed that all people should obey the government that God had placed over them. Their personal beliefs functioned as a built-in legitimization for brutal political repression of, among others, many black fellow Christians”.
By 1990, the National Party had been in power for 42 years, and as Lotter says, “(p)olitical violence has especially powerful effects when political groups use it for a long time. In these circumstances political violence threatens the humanity of everyone involved, because people become desensitized to the effect of violence on other people”. And of course there were no restraints on the security forces, because they felt legitimized in their use of violence. Then in that year came FW de Klerk’s speech unbanning the ANC: “Many security force members resented the changes and found it difficult, if not impossible, to protect the rights of people regarded as enemies only days or months before”. Behind the bully boys of the riot squad though, were much more sinister, shadowy forces, namely apartheid’s notorious secret police, better known as the Security Branch (there were also other nefarious outfits like military intelligence, national intelligence and their sub-units, but the Branch was the most powerful). They were the guys who kept the files, analysed the video material, and more ominously, were responsible for detention without trial during which torture and often gruesome deaths happened.
Shortly before the ANC took power in 1994, paper shredders started working overtime in government buildings, especially those housing its security organs. That was intensified by a directive sent out by De Klerk instructing them to destroy all “sensitive” documents. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up to investigate apartheid atrocities, had a moratorium put on that directive, but not before a large number of these files were destroyed, in the process allowing security forces to cover their bloody tracks. A year later I sent a letter to the ANC’s first police minister, Sydney Mufamadi, requesting my security police file. Sydney acknowledged receipt, but a few months later I got a note from a junior police officer saying there was no record of any file.
The South African History Archive (SAHA) is a research unit at the University of the Witwatersrand here in Johannesburg. Formed in 1988, SAHA has been documenting the struggle against apartheid, through the search, retrieval and preservation of records of that era and beyond. They’ve also actively been trying to access files the agents of the apartheid state so compulsively compiled, even about small fry like me. The dynamic young Sello Hatang is SAHA’s director. His history teacher back in his township school encouraged him to become an archivist because there were no black archivists around at the time. Sello tells me that from his experience there is about a 70 percent chance that they kept a security police file on me and that it actually still exists, but, yes, there’s a chance that it got destroyed.
Through South Africa’s new-ish Promotion of Access to Information Act we are now legally entitled to these files at the government’s National Archives. “The Act says they have to come back to you within 30 days,” Sello tells me. “But it could be up to three months.”
The reason is that those Security Branch records which weren’t destroyed, are in a mess where it is stored at the National Archive, making it a massive task to track down any individual’s file. And the people at the National Archive have only recently agreed to access to these Branch files.
“They have to release it to you once they’ve found it. But they first have to review it to see if there are the names of any spies in there, which according to the law, they have to black out first, you know, to protect lives.”
Why do people want to see their files? “They want to see what the Branch knew about them,” says Sello. “They want to try and put the pieces together of those times, like who was a spy and who shopped them to the Branch. Some just want to put closure to a dark and difficult time.
“Others, want to see how big a threat the Branch thought they were, and then, other people, may just be curious to see what the security cops thought important enough to record about the different aspects of their lives.”
I am curious myself. I know first-hand that the Branch had an obsession with sex and drugs. They once raided a commune I lived in in the mid-80s, and their main aim seemed to have been to find dope, not exactly the most unusual item in a bunch of students’ house. Fortunately they found nothing and just removed a stack of pamphlets. A year or so earlier, a security policeman blatantly asked me to spy for them because “I had a good name amongst leftwingers” (perhaps because I am one, asshole, I thought to myself). Before he left my university residence room, he asked if I’d ever slept with a black woman . . . At that time it was against the law and I gave him a blank look.
Sello chuckled when I retold him these tales. “Yes, that wasn’t unusual for them. They wanted to portray people opposing apartheid as deviants’ in the eyes of the whites supporting their government.”
There was of course also the opportunity for the Branch to try and blackmail some of these young progressives into spying for them, by threatening to tell their parents if they did not play along. I was lucky, because my ‘recruiter’ never came back. He probably found a bigger deviant.
Looking back at them from 2005, these obsessions look faintly ridiculous, and I am fortunate to be able to re-tell these tales as a largely unscathed individual. So, if I ever get my act together and write this script and our ‘based on a true story’ movie gets made, we can even play with a happy ending. Maybe we can make Pale Moustache to be that security guard at my son’s school. Then we can let him save me from a car-jacker, helping him to discover his humanity in the process. But don’t expect the clever use of original video material circa 1990 in our movie. Sello says there’s no sign of any police videotape from those days.
In the meantime, I’m going to re-apply for my Security Branch file. And dear reader, you’ll be the first to know what a great threat I was to the apartheid state.