When is it Time to Stop?

Posted on December 11, 2013

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I wrote this story in 1985, when I was 13 years old.

Sitting on my old wooden crate I looked along the wide, pot-holed dirt road in the black township of Duducka. The skinny chickens scratch around in the dirt and the small, thin African children play with their balls and ropes. They sing and shout in the scorching heat and still air, as the sun climbs higher and becomes stronger in the clear, blue sky. The starving cows, sheep and goats are about the only animals apart from the few birds, chickens and myriads of flies, mosquitoes and ants. The vegetation is limited to leafless trees, weeds and dying crops of maize, barley and wheat. The elders sit in their small shelters chatting as they grind small amounts of grain that make up their daily diet. Mothers sit with them, feeding their babies or helping young women carry jugs of water on their heads to the men working on the crops.
Then, from the village end of the road comes a great mob of protestors, shouting and screaming in a rush, grabbing any wood, metal or other objects and flinging them at the armed troops behind them. The police in army trucks duck as the missiles come towards them and continue driving straight into the great crowd of angry men. Perched behind their big wire screens, the white and black police fire their powerful teargas bombs into the mass of African people. The protesters turn away, screwing their eyes shut, trying to escape the effects of the irritating gas. Some run, others hide, while the braver men jump up onto the trucks, shielding their eyes, only to be shot down with rubber bullets.
Soon most of the men have gone, leaving the protest and fight up to the others. Nothing has come of it, as usual and those who remain are taken away into solitary confinement.
The black and white government troops have weapons, while ordinary Africans find power only in numbers. With great efficiency and speed the nationalists maintain an apartheid state. Within a few years they have established a population classed according to race: no inter-racial marriages or sexual relationships are allowed, non-whites are prohibited from living or working in white areas, non-whites are almost entirely excluded from universities and non-whites are restricted from working together in trade unions. Violence and racism are getting worse and my South Africa seems to be slipping towards civil war.
Duducka, my town, has two sections, a crowded village and farmed fields. Everyone has now gone back to work, the chooks are scratching, the kids are playing the elders are grinding and the women and girls are back to their everyday chores. Peace resumes, but it will as everyone knows, be broken so many times again. No one knows what will happen in the future. The South African authorities should realise that it is possible for the crisis to be resolved. Tit-for-tat exchanges have turned the township into a battle ground, a no-go area for whites, where the homes of black police and councillors have been flattened because they had worked for the whites.
The township of Duducka is a sprawl of small brick houses on old, dusty, pot-holed roads. Duducka lacks both electricity and individual water taps and provides only the hated bucket toilet system.
Our town is a crumbling place, situated so close to Johannesburg’s wealthy white suburbs that the contrast hurts.
My house is made up of four old brick rooms with two of them, the kitchen and bathroom adjoining and the other two a little way off across the yard where we let another family live. A bus has been parked in the yard and chickens scratch around in the dust and dirt. In box-houses like mine there is no electricity, the rooms are lit by storm lanterns and the view glimpsed through the rag curtains is of another house close by.
Soon it will be noon. The intense heat was too much for many of the families, so they all came together and walked back down the road to the village to stay inside until it got cooler. As my family moved towards our home, I peeled off the crate where I was sitting and joined the group. When my mother and father, brothers and sisters broke off and continued down the lane towards our house, I entered my home which seemed like a cool room although it was not cool at all.
We got to work at once, first mixing up some lentils and grain with water in a big wooden bowl to make a soup and then eating every lentil one by one, leaving our small bowls looking like they hadn’t been touched. When the eating, sweeping and wiping of bowls had finished, my elder sister Matika and I took two blankets, my second skirt and my baby brother’s shorts to the communal taps and washed them. Later on I collected them, dry and filled a small jug with water. I took a sip and enjoyed the refreshing drink.
When it was a bit cooler and all the jobs had been done, I came back to my crate and thought once again about the questions that blocked my mind. ‘How will the situation in my country end? Will it improve? Will there be a day when blacks and whites both live in our huge country in common peace? Or will the white government refuse to give Africans any rights and slowly kill off the native Africans?’ These vicious thoughts stayed in my mind.
I look over to the cows and sheep in our yard. They have no food or shelter, just bare ground all around them. Will we end up like this? Their lives are so similar to ours in many ways.
It is very cold at night as few clouds travel inland to Duducka so nothing is in the sky to act as a blanket and keep the heat down. When the fields are ready for the night, my father joins the rest of the family at home for whatever food we can manage. We talk amongst ourselves until we are tired enough to lie down and then we share four blankets between the seven of us, on the floor. I hardly sleep.
Later in the evening the air has cooled. There was the droning noise of bombs, guns and army trucks in the streets outside my home. I was lying on the floor for hours thinking and listening. I had not opened my eyes until the lantern flickered at them. It was quite light in the room and as I looked over go my mother lighting the storm lantern, a rubber bullet broke through the glass window and landed on the floor. Mother looked around the room and I
could see the fear in her eyes as she shouted, “Lanik, Lanik!” My father was not anywhere in the house. Mother was at the window, looking into the dark outside at the fight between armed police and a group of activists. My father was involved.
I scrambled to the window to see the mini-war outside. Lights flashed, bombs blasted and people died. Behind the window I heard the cries of helpless people. A bomb exploded. Then it was dead quiet. Someone bashed hard at the door with their fist. We stood there stunned and terrified.
“It’s me. It’s Lanik.” Mother ran to the door had unlocked it. She grabbed father and slammed the door shut. He dived under the blankets and we hid him. There was banging at the door, but this time it was hard wood not fists.
“It is the whites. Do not make a sound,” father whispered. There was murmuring outside our door but before they did anything a police siren went up. Footsteps ran toward it and within seconds police moved away in their trucks.
It is morning as I sit on my crate and armed troops are patrolling the streets, piling last night’s bodies onto their trucks. They are the results of political games. I know this, even though I am only thirteen. A black South African girl has to learn quickly or die. When is it time to stop?
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