I was tear-gassed, detained and even kidnapped by a gang of teens who had firebombed a liquor store in the middle of a riot and commanded me to drive them away from the police. When they got out of my car, they raised their fists and shouted, “Amandla!” So did I. In fact, I would have saluted anything – they had threatened to kill me.
I went to funerals, sometimes as the only white in an ocean of black faces, and was escorted courteously by marshals to a front-row seat. I had rocks and a gasoline bomb (fortunately it didn’t explode) thrown at my car as police pulled me to safety.
I watched Anglican Bishop Simeon Nkoane, fierce like a biblical prophet, stride into a crowd preparing to “necklace” a suspected informer (by igniting a gasoline-filled tire around his neck) and pull him from harm.
In this civil war, journalists knew both sides equally well. One day, I’d be sitting in an anti-apartheid leader’s living room having tea and, two days later he’d be gone, whisked away by the security police, disappeared for months.
Then I’d be meeting a cordial public servant responsible for enforcing apartheid’s high creed: the pass laws controlling the movement of blacks (“blecks,” as they’d say) in the country.
The anti-apartheid opstoker, or troublemaker, was Curtis Nkondo, vice-president of the United Democratic Front – the legal manifestation of the banned ANC. He vanished into jail 48 hours after I interviewed him in 1984 and didn’t reappear until the following year, when he became chairman of the newly formed Release Mandela Committee, which was soon banned.
The public servant was Wilhelm Fourie, the distinguished-looking commissioner of suburban Cape Town’s Langa influx-control court, which enforced the laws on where blacks could live and work. Five days a week, he pulled his blue Audi up to the yellow one-storey, barracks-like building behind a high steel fence just off the freeway leading into the city, went inside, donned a black robe, acknowledged the greetings of “Good morning, Your Worship” and began dispensing justice. Before the laws he administered were repealed, almost 20 million people had been arrested, fined, imprisoned or deported to so-called independent homelands.
The clergy figured prominently in my South Africa. It was on the doors of priests, Anglican and Roman Catholic alike, that I knocked when I went into townships then burning and bloodied by “unrest.” They knew it was against the law, but they still opened up, introducing me to their communities and letting me use their churches or homes to interview people.
The fierce Bishop Nkoane couldn’t remember my name, but he never forgot my nationality. Once he hid me from security police in a church basement in Soweto. After the thumping of the boots overhead had faded, a door opened and he bellowed: “Come up, Canada. Come up into the sunshine of the Lord!”
Foreign correspondents were required to report regularly to South Africa’s capital to be lectured by the bureau for information (the censors) on objective and balanced reporting.
Sitting in Pretoria one day, I had an epiphany: How, I asked myself, could reporting about apartheid possibly be objective or balanced? Unable to come up with an answer, I soon noticed I was waiting longer and longer for my permit renewals. Brian Mulroney also may have been to blame; as prime minister, he spoke forcefully in favour of sanctions, and was the only Western leader to visit South Africa’s ANC-friendly neighbours.
The authorities were no happier with my successor. Oakland Ross waited six weeks for his first visa, then wrote something the regime didn’t like, was barred for two years, then allowed back in for only two weeks. Before long, he, too, had to return to Canada, and The Globe closed its bureau – until the amazing Stephanie Nolen reopened it in 2003, this time in Johannesburg.
All of which meant the paper had no staffer in the country when Mr. de Klerk turned South Africa upside down and Mr. Mandela walked out of Victor Verster. But to my surprise, the government let me back in, so I could report on the remarkable wake of the release: the period in which hope struggled against fear.