By Nicholas Asheshov Op-Ed —
I arrived in Johannesburg a few weeks after Nelson Mandela had been sent off for life to Robben Island. For most of the two million Whites in South Africa, and for many even of the 11mn Blacks, this was a relief, a solution. Mandela was an Extremist, a Communist, a troublemaker.
I had a one room flat in Hillbrow, a lively bohemian quarter a dozen blocks from the centre where the offices of the Jo’burg Sunday Times had its offices and where I had found a job as a reporter. Later I transferred to the Jo’burg office of the Associated Press, nearby.
On Saturdays and Sundays I lived it up in the cafes and pubs of Hillbrow and played tennis and swam in the rich swimming pools of the White northern suburbs.
My contact with Blacks was almost nil. When I first arrived, on a flight from Lagos, I was house-sitting for a friend, a lawyer who had the painters in. The painters were, of course, Black. They called me “B’ass,” boss. They were nice chaps. Me, just arrived from England and indeed three years in Peru and Brazil, told them, “I’m Nick.”
Later, in my flat in jolly Hillbrow, today black and white and thoroughly dangerous they tell me, I had a plump Black lady, Sophie, who cleaned for me and other people in the building. By then I had acquired a noisy sports car, an Austin Healey two-seater, which had lost its cockpit hood. If it rained, I got wet. I had offered to take Sophie back home to Soweto, the massive Black township. This was not just Brit kindness: I needed an excuse to go there. It was just as prohibited for Whites to go to a Black area as it was for Blacks to be in a White area, like Hillbrow, without a pass. The Pass Law was a cornerstone of apartheid and on one occasion I got arrested, by a black plainclothesman, for taking photographs of a roundup of illegals. The black cop did not call me B’ass.
Finally I got Sophie to agree to the Soweto trip, though she had never seen my car. In the street the dented but gleaming Healey was parked and ready. I opened the little passenger door for her. She was appalled. “Where am I to sit, Boss?” The Healey had a tiny thin back sort-of seat for a cat and a thin briefcase. Sophie was matronly. It had not occurred to me, and why would it, that she would never want to sit next to me. In the passenger seat, like the driver seat, the passenger’s bum was nine inches off the road.
Sophie could not conceive of sitting anywhere but in the back. She got in but hated every minute of it, especially when we got to the dreary, dry Soweto (South West Township). She refused absolutely to allow me to drive her to her home, children, husband and neighbors.
In the parks, of Jo’burg, Pretoria, Cape Town, everywhere, the benches, side by side were stencilled ‘Nur Blanke’ or ‘Nur Schwarz’: Afrikaans was the language of apartheid. Buses, trains, restaurants, everything was completely segregated. Taxi drivers were white for whites, black for blacks.
The Sunday Times, like its sister the Rand Daily Mail, was anti-apartheid. But this did not mean that they were in favor of Blacks running the country. Whatever it was that they wanted, it, as we know, never happened.
My lawyer friend was once defending a Portuguese carpenter who had been caught having sex with a black girl, a criminal offence. Bary, my friend, asked me to appear as an expert witness to tell the judge that the carpenter in his native Portugal could never imagine that inter-racial sex was illegal. I think he got off, though no thanks to me.
Visiting Japanese were honorary whites.
Once I wrote a story, ‘The Case of the Sun-Tanned Settler’, published worldwide, about a Greek immigrant who was denied entry by the authorities at the port of Durban because he had been sun-tanning himself on the three-week boat voyage from the Red Sea and was now too dark.
The potential for violence was not just from the Blacks. Not long after Mandela was sent to Robben Island, a white teacher called Harris was hanged for a protest bomb that killed several people in Johannesburg’s main railway station. The Sunday Times was firmly in favor of the sentence.
At around the same time, a rich English South African farmer shot President Hendrik Verwoerd at point-blank range at an agricultural show, but the shot did not kill him. My friend Don Royle of the AP got the only photograph of the apparently dead Verwoerd, lying on the ground. Verwoerd, a bleak, pompous figure, was widely despised outside the Afrikaner community. His wife was rather dark and a daughter was clearly mixed race, and newspapers were not permitted to run photographs of her.
TV did not exist in South Africa yet, and the Afrikaners kept it out for many years to come.
Nelson Mandela was promoting armed revolution and so he was a Commie agitator. He was Black, for sure, but it was worse; he was trying to upset the established order where we were on a knife-edge with the Russians and the Chinese Commies.
Not to mention Fidel Castro. The Bomb and missiles were the currency of international conversation. Vietnam was just around the corner. These were, of course, the years 1964-5, when Birmingham Alabama and Martin Luther King Jr. were a center of the great revolution of the ‘Sixties, when not only Blacks but Women and Gays were beginning to emerge as normal people. Indeed, the Young were suddenly, for the first time, flowering all over Europe and the ‘States.
Later, I drove my Healey across the wonderful rolling farming country of the Transvaal and Swaziland, British and Black, to Lourenço Marques, the lively port capital of Mozambique, then still, like Angola, part of the Portuguese Empire under the dictator Salazar, like Franco, a good upstanding non-Commie.
In Lourenço Marques I talked to middle-class White anti-imperialists. These all, in South Africa too, called themselves Progressives. In the evenings I joined White South African Boers in the exciting port bars where Black girls, and boys for that matter, were, unlike in South Africa, very much part of the scene. What a party! A bit like Brazil. For the first time in a year I got a whiff of wonderful Africa.
Speeding back at night across the lonely, wide open Transvaal, I flipped the Healey and, unconscious, was rescued by the police who took me to a local hospital. I woke up after a day or two. There were a couple of uniformed cops on my door. They had found pro-Independence, i.e. ‘Communist Literature’ in my car. Back in Jo’burg, I was ordered to report to the SB, the feared Special Branch, HQ. I was luckier than most. I was released. Evidently I did not belong to what Graham Greene* famously called “the torturable class.” But a week later, I forget how, I was warned and I ran at 3 a.m., in the good old Healey, for the airport and caught a cheapo charter seat in an old Constellation four-prop, via Luanda and Majorca, for London.
The Associated Press was not amused. It had not been my job to create problems with the authorities in Pretoria. Luckily, I got a job on the Daily Sketch, on Fleet St., a Conservative tabloid owned by Lord Rothermere and his wife “Bubbles.” They evidently considered my flirt with revolution in Africa as just a youthful fling.
It was to be three shameful decades before the collapse of the Berlin Wall allowed Nelson Mandela, who President Obama rightly calls the Liberator, to be released to allow him to give South Africa the beginnings of a chance.
*Greene’s ‘torture’ remark came from Captain Segura in Our Man in Havanna. In The Human Factor, a spy thriller, Greene features apartheid Johannesburg including a black girl who escapes with and marries an MI5 Brit who is also a KGB agent.
Nick Asheshov lives in Urubamba. A veteran journalist, noted explorer and entrepreneur, he was editor of the Peruvian Times from 1969 to 1990. This article was also published in Spanish in Caretas magazine this week.