It was the men walking towards me. It was my split open bag. It was the way one man held it away from him as if it stank. I was alone at the airport carousel. No more bags coming out of its mouth of plastic sheets. No people leaning over to grab suitcases.
It was a stupid thing to do. To put the books in that flimsy bag. A shopping bag that folded up into a wallet. My mother gave it to me at the last moment. I packed in a rush. I had to have one more swim in the sea. I had to buy all those books. I needed enough for a year. I bought Time Longer than Rope: The Black Man’s Struggle in South Africa and The Second Sex and The Selected Works of Marx and Engels. I bought Freud for Beginners and Really Bad News which both had comics and The Truth about Afghanistan with miniscule text straight from the Soviet Union. I bought too many for hand luggage.
It was how I pictured myself in that inland city, alone at night reading, making notes, pausing to light another cigarette. It was a lie. Smoking made me sick. I spent my evenings drinking with colleagues and friends. My weekends too.
It was my instinct to run. I was frozen. It was my practice to keep quiet if I had nothing to say. If the questions were rhetorical. What are you doing with all these books? I was first born. I was raised to please. I was raised to obey my parents, my teachers. I was raised to see the government as evil.
It was easier to go with the men. I was taken to a small room. I signed a piece of paper with a list of books. I waited while phone calls were made. I was given all my books but one: Time Longer Than Rope with Sharpeville on its cover – policemen standing, bodies lying, red sun rising, red banner shouting BANNED in South Africa. I had instructions to report to the security police.
It was possible my housemates’ phone was bugged. I drove to a tickey box, reversed charges. My mother sounded angry. My liberal mother said: What are you really up to? What are you involved in? Rhetorical questions. My father called a lawyer.
It was unavoidable, the visit to the security police. The lawyer and my editor both said so. I went alone to a slab of brick and concrete, iron and steel. Through gates and gates and gates all unlocked and relocked. The colonel was a surprise. He smiled. He had my father’s square face, similar glasses. He said my book was banned for distribution, not possession. He gave it back. He asked could he phone me from time to time at the newspaper. I shook my head. He said don’t answer now.
It was easy to say no on the phone. It was easy to say no at my next job when an American voice asked me for background information. I told him everything I knew was in my press reports. I knew about the CIA, how they were in cahoots with the government. I knew about the security police spy in every newsroom. Things were black and white and white was bad.
It was because I was white that the small town hotel gave me a good room. It was because he was not that the advocate was turned away. The hotel owner told me it was because there were no rooms available with private bathrooms. The advocate told me he wouldn’t have minded sharing. After my front page report he got an en suite room.
It was a series of court cases. They went on for months. There were charges of public violence, assault, intimidation and malicious damage to property. There were convictions for stoning funeral processions and assaulting teachers. The minors got five to seven cuts with a light cane. The adults were sent to prison for two to six years. There were allegations of police beating confessions out of school children. There was a magistrate who said the reasons behind the protests didn’t concern the court; what was important was that order was restored in the community.
It was a clear divide. The state structures on one side, the civic and youth organisations on the other. The children had been boycotting school for a year. They wanted to elect student leaders. They wanted their headmaster reinstated. The headmaster who also chaired the civic organisation. The policemen did their best to stamp out organised resistance. The community did its best to make government employees feel unsafe.
It was as if I was recording history. I was the only reporter in town. I sat through every word of every trial. I filled notebooks. I returned to my hotel room and bashed out stories on my typewriter. I called the newsroom from the lobby and dictated my reports. I had supper with the advocate in the dining room. He ordered whisky, I drank white wine.
It was a victory of sorts for the defence. More trialists were acquitted than sent to jail. The security policemen who sat behind the state prosecutor didn’t look happy. Neither did the prosecutor. The prosecutor didn’t like my press reports. The way I recorded every allegation of police brutality. The way I quoted the advocate more than him.
It was the last day of the last trial. My last evening in the hotel. My room was on the ground floor. It had glass doors. The curtains were open. I had typed and dictated my final report. My typewriter was zipped into its case. My cassette tapes were in a box. I had packed my clothes. I was packing my notebooks and novels – Marge Piercy’s Vida about sex and political activism and George Orwell’s 1984 because that was the year.
It was a young policeman who knocked on the glass door. He had an accent like my first boyfriend who said fush instead of fish. The policeman invited me to a braai. It was a tradition, he said, at the end of a long trial. Everyone was coming. He had come to give me a lift.
It was the least I could do, I thought. I had taken sides. Silently I had cheered every defence victory, grudged the state each conviction they secured. The magistrate was hosting the braai, the policeman said. He had invited both legal teams. The policeman teased me. He made me laugh. He said it would be rude of me to refuse.
It was because he had an early morning flight that he probably wouldn’t make the braai, the advocate said. I met him in the lobby. I hesitated. The policeman ushered me into his car. We drove out of town. We stopped at a few outbuildings, a concrete dam, meat braaing in a half drum. The magistrate looked embarrassed and left.
It was a choice between brandy or beer or wine, the smiling prosecutor said. A security policeman poured wine into a glass. It tasted sour. The prosecutor gave me a paper plate with a chop and a piece of boerewors. One security policeman put his arm around me. The other took a photograph.