They were fearful days in 1992 and 1993. Nelson Mandela was free but not elected. Apartheid had been scrapped, the 8pm bullhorn telling blacks to get off the urban streets had been silenced, but civil war seemed a real possibility. Guns were on the streets. At the Star newspaper where I worked in Johannesburg, an empty desk suggested not someone pulling a "sickie" but a probable victim of violence. Before mobile phones were ubiquitous, if someone was missing from work, it was presumed that they had been mugged or worse. There was a procedure. Colleagues and the HR department would ring friends to check. Then hospitals. Then the police.
Violence was random and common. A taxi driver, dropping me off at Saeur street where the Star newspaper was located, pulled out a gun as some black pedestrians were crossing the road. He shouted insults at them as they crossed. But the days when blacks were simply intimidated were thankfully drawing to a close. They too had guns, and pointed them at the driver. This was lunchtime, broad daylight. I begged and pleaded with the driver to put his weapon down. Almost reluctantly, he did and drove off from the lights.
From my window desk, I saw three people killed in four attempted bank robberies over a period of two years. Journalists going to a popular watering hole, about 15 meters across the road form the office, required an armed escort. The extreme right wing group, the so-called the Afrikaner Resistance Movement, known as the AWB, had support among the the military top brass. Rumors of military action against the "betraying" de Klerk government were constant, often dotted with rugby parlance. “Kick-off is on Monday, I heard from a friend.” “No, it’s planned for Wednesday, they are waiting for the air force to come onside.”
The black community was also deeply divided, with militant Zulus in Natal taking up arms against the African National Congress.
The tectonic political plates were shifting against each other.
I rented a house in Orange Grove. All the other houses on the street had been broken into. Walking with my partner on day, I saw a man across the street.
“Look,’’ I said, "he has a shirt just like mine.”
"Tom, let's talk," my partner said.
Apparently, when I was working nights, Niamh, my partner, was assisting the local black community. Giving them clothes, tea and food. We had no weapons in our house, not even a phone. We found out later that instructions had been given not to touch the house of the woman "who gave out clothes".
Then Chris Hani was shot on Saturday, April 10, 1993. It one of those days when the glorious weather seemed to mock the concerns of mere mortals. Surely something this grotesque could not happen on such a day. Hani was the leader of the Umkhonto we Sizwe, Spear of the Nation, the armed wing of the African National Congress . He was young and charismatic. Extremely approachable. The ANC had its head office in Shell House, around the corner from the Star. Their leaders would often come in, Hani among them, and talk to journalists. Often they would go out for drinks with the journalists to a nearby pub with their security guards. No need for armed escorts. Hani was spoken of as a future president. On that April morning, a Polish immigrant assassinated him, but an Afrikaner woman helped police capture him.
The afternoon and early evening of that terrible Saturday, South Africa seemed destined for civil war. The normally busy streets of Johannesburg were quiet. People were subdued. News reports said that Mandela would make a televised address to the nation. It already seemed to late to save the day. As I drove into work, the office blocks of central Johannesburg appeared on the horizon, resembling a graph. A policeman pulled me over at a security check. As I rolled down the window, he leaned in and said my tires were bald and I had to change them. I was driving a battered Mazda, hired from a company called "Rent a Wreck".
I replied, that today of all days, surely, bald tires did not really matter.
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