November 1998. The sun hunkers down on the car and connives with the glass of the windows to burn a hole through my flesh. The traffic light at the Corlett Drive offramp turns red. He is in the car behind me. Has he followed me all the way from Pretoria?
He is in the back seat, holding his head; a futile gesture against the heat. Bits of baldness show through fat fingers. He lifts his face. His eyes meet mine in my rear view mirror. Neither of us is surprised. All day, his lawyer has been telling the Amnesty Committee of the Truth Commission how sorry his client is. Nobody believes him.
He has infiltrated my life like a virus. It seems as if no time has passed since he walked into the gym. I remember how the horror of him filtered through the air and sank into the water where I was swimming. It formed a stain on the crystal blue. I asked a woman who was recovering from an accident if she recognised him. She said, “He looks familiar. You don’t know who to trust these days”.
He sweats. He flushes scarlet and deep into the folds of his neck when he heaves on the bicycle. The doctor checks his blood pressure. He walks outside to his gunmetal Volvo station wagon in the parking lot. The physiotherapist tells me he is under terrible pressure. His progress card indicates that he is improving. I notice that my card is missing, along with my file. I glare at him. He looks straight back at me. A deal is clinched. I change my workout time.
In the rear-view mirror on the hot November day where this story opens, I see him say something to his lawyer. I see them laugh. Inducing paranoia is his business. So it was a war, a just war against the enemies of the state. The detailed reasoning behind his counter-insurgency methods is related with passion. While remorse is expected from the amnesty seeker, he must also prove his views were in keeping with those of the political party he represented.
A hero of the old regime, he murdered to keep the state clean. He killed some of the people he befriended. He prefers the term “secret agent” to spy. He saw himself as the James Bond of Johannesburg. Slim then, he wore seventies sunshades and brassy shirts. Those who were around at the time have not forgotten the loudhailer with which he summoned enemies of the apartheid regime to rise up and fight. But there was no tuxedo, no Saville Row suit and tie. No one could really say he had style.
So there were the bombs. The five-year-old girl blasted to a puddle of blood. The bodies that were scraped off the walls. In the dull hall, the victims’ loved ones have been forced to hear talk of amnesia. Sixteen years is a long time, says his lawyer. Anyway, he received his orders from a general who is no longer alive. His mentor denies knowledge of any actions. He is also a general, who taps his cracked grey shoes under the table. What are these two playing at?
The families of the victims are opposed to the amnesty. They are offended by his crocodile tears. “I cannot forgive myself, I did not know about the child”, he says. Nobody wants to see this man walk into the blazing sunlight where his Volvo waits to take him home.
September 1998. The amnesty hearings began last week. There is a short break. He looks straight at me. I swallow, I choke, I force my attention towards his lawyer. He introduces us. When I ask if he will grant me an interview for the newspaper I work for, he says, “You will write that I am a psychopath. Let us see how the hearings go this week.”
He pours water from the decanter into a glass; each action is considered and framed by his pink fingers. The gestures are slow and cruel. He sips deliberately. He flushes. I think about the bicycle we share at the gym. In his presence, the families of the victims, the lawyers and the judge, the commissioners, the observers and the media all seem to diminish. He puffs up, until he is about to explode with denial and lies. There is no more energy in the room.
During the break, we all file into the small courtyard. He brushes past me. I return his stare. The sun lights up the old guard. They are bound by their love of the country and the blood they spilled in its name. It cannot be easy to be an outsider in a world you once owned.
In the beginning I think of each chance meeting with him as an accident.
I am working my way through my shopping list at the supermarket when I see the fingers. They press a loaf of white bread in the same way they would have pressed down on a pen when authorising the request for the bombs, when closing an envelope. I do not want to know what food he eats. I stop at an out-of-the-way garage in Four Ways, after visiting a friend. When he turns up there, I begin to worry. Is he stalking me?
During the hearings the chance meetings stop. We continue to flash our hatred across the hall. He has his lawyer and his righteous beliefs. I have my notebook and my disbelief at his bravado.
A session ends late. It is the Thursday before a long weekend. I remain back, talking to the lawyers. I make a call in the media room. I slam the door shut and the latch is set. When I come out, the building is deserted. I am surprised to find my car will not start. It has been serviced recently. I switch off the engine. I turn it on again. It is dead. The place is utterly quiet. Johannesburg, where I live, is fifty-six kilometers away from Pretoria. There is no one in sight.
I open the bonnet of the car. The engine stares up at me; a gleaming, alien thing. “Need a jump lead?” I jump. It’s him. He parks his car. I watch with horror as he connects my car to his with black and red wires. Up close, his fingers are freckled and covered with light fuzz, like the hair of a newborn rat. Will I ever escape him? He removes the wires and says, “Keep moving and you will be alright.” He snickers.
I drive off, unsteadily, but gain confidence when I reach the highway. Lamplights glare down at the black zero leading nowhere. For the first time in years I talk to God. My forehead is burning. My car starts to chug. He is right behind me. He stops his car. He gets out. He says, “I was wondering if this would happen. If you take the next turnoff you will reach a garage.” I do as he says. My car putters into the garage. I ask the petrol attendant to look at the engine. He says he is not qualified to do this. If I leave my car there it will be attended to in the morning when I return. I sign a paper and fold my receipt. The attendant locks the car inside the garage and hands me my keys. The phone is not working, he says.
I am wondering how I will get home when I see that he has followed me. “Where are you going?” He asks. My neck twists into a spasm, a clamp clenches my jaw shut. “You need a lift?”
My mouth is dry. I ask him if he has a phone I can use. He says no. The night sinks down onto me. Around us, I see nothing but darkness. I seem to have no choice. I take a deep breath. Inside, his car smells of after-shave. A rank staleness makes me want to retch. Now I am sitting in the front seat, beside him. His briefcase is on the back seat. It surely contains a gun but I feel protected by the process of the commission. Also, the quick kill has never been his style.
A Barbie doll in a leopard skin micro-mini dress lies sprawled on the back seat. On the floor in front of me is a rugby ball. I wonder how he will feel when his little girl turns five. Also on the seat is a medical journal. His wife is a doctor. She does not attend the hearings.
We drive into the blackness in silence. He says, “Do you mind if we stop for a short while, I need to see a friend?” I am sitting on the edge of the seat. The seat belt is holding my tension.
We turn down a street as unfamiliar to me as all other streets in this area. We reach a security boon, the entrance to a suburb that has been blocked off from the crime that threatens the country’s stability. He greets the guard and signs a book. He drives down a road and follows a curved street. We reach a double story house, barricaded by a huge iron gate. He opens his window, presses the street buzzer which is connected to the house. “Dis ek”, he tells the person who answers. It is I.
The heavy gates glide open with surprising grace. A man comes to the door. Where have I seen him before? The house is crammed with yellow wood cupboards and portraits of ugly old people in sturdy frames. The kists and washstands are no doubt heirlooms.
“Come through,” he says. He leads us into a dimly lit room lined on one side with mirrors bearing the White Horse and Coca-Cola logos. “Please sit down, would you like a drink?” He turns to me and says, “What will you have?” This is more of a command than a question. “An Appeltizer. No ice,” I say, as if I am in a restaurant.
He orders a martini “on the rocks”. He says, “Allison was stuck so I gave her a lift.” I am taken aback by his sudden warmth. I think about the people he betrayed. They once found him charming too. Someone they could talk to.
“Ah yes, Allison, I have read your articles in the paper”, says our host. “Interesting, confusing sometimes, but always interesting.” He and my host speak to me in English and to each other in Afrikaans. They do not address one other by name. I recognise the host’s grey shoes. I see that the cracks are part of the design. He is the general whom my chaperone is allegedly protecting from the truth commission. Apparently the general could sing. He used to be known as the Elvis Presley of the Security Forces.
The house is trapped in its electrified fence, guaranteed to fry intruders. Television monitors survey the rooms and the shadowy garden. A complex alarm system blinks silently. There is no way out. I ask where the toilet is. The general touches my arm lightly. I pull back as if I have been stung. He smiles. The green bathroom tiles are patterned with leaves. A can of air freshener and a bottle of disinfectant stand guard over the toilet. The room smells overwhelmingly of the essential oils used for pot pouri. Who is responsible for these small, dead flowers and the sticky crocheted toilet roll holder? I wonder how many people live here. Will I ever get out?
I look at my face in the mirror. Makeup has streaked my eyes. I look as if I have been kissed by the devil. I hear the doorbell ring. How many others will arrive tonight? In the bathroom cupboard, I find a magnifying hand mirror, makeup, suspenders and black stockings. I have heard that transvestites like to leave clues to their private lives, but my imagination is running away with me. I do not even know if my host is married. I splash cold water on my face and smear hand lotion into my cheeks. I apply lipstick. When I emerge from the bathroom the general is waiting. He says, “Please join us in the bar.”
Three men wearing brown suits have joined my host and him in the bar. The men stand up when I enter the room. They look at my breasts when we are introduced. The shortest of the three rests his eyes on my pelvis. His eyes dance in a little circle of simulated foreplay. If only I had not worn these damned, tight jeans. I have no option but to sit down on a barstool.
He has admitted to siphoning foreign funds into farms. If these are not the men who roasted their enemy on the spit, they had friends who did it. The man-roasting took place at a farm called Vlakplaas. How do you do this to a man? You take drugs and you drink. You light the fire. You have another beer. More drugs. You kill the man. You chop up his body. Then you let him cook. You drink, you drink, you eat, you drink some more.
“Have something stronger to drink, go on,” says the general. No thanks. My spine and sternum seem to have merged. They send searing pain signals to my brain.
I think of the truth commission. There, he and his lawyer huddle together at the lunch venue. Only an oak tree separates them from the lawyer who is acting for the victims of the families. Now my thighs and hands are almost touching his. Also, I have dispelled body fluids in this apartheid general’s house. My saliva has made contact with this glass, which may once have contained his saliva. I want to spit out my Appeltizer. Instead it spills, as if of its own accord, on the bar counter.
I stand up quickly. “Sit!” orders the general. He wipes the water with an absorbent cloth as if it was an enemy. He opens another can of Appeltizer and pours with great flair. He drops crushed ice and a slice of lemon into the glass and presents it to me before I can remind him that I do not want these extras. He touches my hand. I look at these men. I think again that there is no remorse. Eugene de Kock, who was a commander at Vlakplaas and responsible for hundreds of deaths, said, If I knew about the women and children, I would not have done it.
I think of my body turning on a spit; its tender parts cooked first. My nipples feel dry and cracked under my blouse. They talk about reconciliation, as if it is a brand new theory. “Why does the media not let us get on with this process?” asks the short man. The head of his milk stout has left its frothy footprints; it speckles the moustache that decorates the sneer on a thin upper lip. “We say we are sorry but the journalists think they know better. What is the use of this commission?” They all look at me now. What is this game about? Or is it a game at all?
I press a smile out of my pinched mouth. I look at my watch as if for the first time. It is a transparent Swatch. Through the plastic, I can see the seconds clicking into the mechanism. “Let’s drink up”, he says. I swallow the water rapidly. Suddenly ravenous, I grab a handful of salt and onion crisps. I chew them loudly.
We are about to leave when I see a familiar card at the top of a pile of business cards. It bears the name of my newspaper. I assume one of my colleagues has been here. Then I see my name! I remember later that I gave the card to my captor’s lawyer at the truth commission. I say goodbye. The men stand up. I thank the general politely.
In the car again, I shiver. We continue our journey in silence. I am bewildered but I trust that I will return home safely tonight. He handles his car as if it was the Aston Martin in the 007 film The Spy Who Loved Me.
He would be too heavy for his wife. I imagine her, on her knees for him, the rim of his penis in her mouth. I imagine him holding her head as she waits for those convulsive bursts that signal the end. Maybe she “loves” him. Maybe the stories that have circulated about him and the general are true. Father and son? Sharing and caring?
I cough and loosen my grip on my handbag. It falls to the floor. My hand jerks against the gear lever and connects with his hand. “Sorry.” When I give directions my voice and breathing beat in my brain as if I am swimming underwater. He turns left when I ask him to turn right. I repeat my directions. He ignores them.
I chew the nails of my thumbs and bite them into little pieces. I swallow these pieces. I clasp my knees together so hard that they begin to feel bruised. He continues to drive along dark, unknown roads. The speedometer shows one hundred and seventy, eighty, ninety. Injunctions I have heard on the radio boom in my head, a desperate and loud rumination I dare not utter: arrive alive, arrive alive. I glance at him. He seems bigger, more powerful than he appears in public. A savage loneliness clutches at my heart.
I cling to my seatbelt. Now we are in familiar territory. He is driving past the suburb where I grew up. He slows down. He turns down my old street. He does not look at me once. There is the tree house in which Greg Smith and I used to imagine we would one day rule the world. There is my old bedroom. I miss my mother. I fancy I see her silhouette hovering at the kitchen window; she is waiting for me to come home. She will not approve of the company I am keeping.
My parents moved out of this house ten years ago. My mother died seven years ago. “Excuse me,” I say. He stares straight ahead. Now he is speeding again. We are back on track, en route to my office.
Johannesburg city is deserted at night. By day you can buy your petticoat or bananas on the street. At night the shops are fortified with iron gates. The Tropicana Hotel across the road from our offices booms and bleeds. Those who frequent the bar are keen to preserve the city’s reputation as the murder capital of the world. It is a vile place, this bar. Decades of smoke, spunk and dried tears cake the walls. Those people outside with their torn hair, their missing teeth and dreams, are drunk and famished. Tonight they stagger out of dark corners when they see his Volvo. They are attracted to the lights, the purr of the engine. He slows down. I open the door while the car is still moving. He pulls up at the side of the road. “Thank you.” I run.
The following morning the mechanic at the garage where I left my car says it appears to him that the car has been tampered with. He does not charge me for the minor adjustment he makes.
June 1999. We do not meet for some time. At the amnesty hearings, which follow some months later, it is as if nothing has ever transpired between us. I am there, in the front, taking notes and watching the swelling of his stomach as he breathes. He is there, at the long table under the reconciliation poster; staring the same provocative stare.
For him these hearings mean everything. He is the one seeking freedom and pardon, yet I feel guilty. I have sat with him, in his car. I have been a guest of the people whose reprehensible deeds are now under scrutiny. They are all here. They smile knowingly at me. So this is the meaning of sleeping with the enemy. Anyone I tell will say I did have an option. The only person I did tell was my friend Paula, who ignored what I said about the phones. She said, Why did you not take a taxi home that night?
However, none of what transpired has an impact on my reports. I record details of his privileged white English speaking childhood and his parents who feared for their future. I am able to write with impunity about the boy who went over to the other side for the sake of a war that has been lost hands down.
His mind has been programmed to destroy. He cannot stop its machinations. He says one thing yet does another. Even now, when his future hangs in the balance, he is following its old rhythms. It seems as if he cannot survive without uncertainty.
November 1999. The amnesty hearings were completed in February but it may take a year before the conclusions of the committee are known. Some people are talking about the possibility of a general amnesty. So there I am, all this time later, swimming at the gym when he walks in. If only he would not look at me this way. I may even put up with his continued presence in my life.
But I feel the blood rush to my brain. I call Paula on the mobile phone I purchased after my night out with him. I climb back into the water and wait. I kick my feet and point my toes in order to strengthen my ankles. I wait, as the sweat makes rivulets that flood the rift between his loose breasts. I wait as he dresses and walks away. He takes with him the emptiness and the calculation that I have come so close to understanding. It is warm in the water and I know that Paula will do what Paula has to do. All she will say is, “Amnesty will no longer be an issue for this man.” Today, I am driving away from the petrol station close to my home, when a BMW Cabriolet pulls up close to my car. I could swear that’s the general in the driver’s seat, but I put foot — as they say around these parts.
Diva Du Jour Contribution
...an award-winning short story that relates to the truth commission and the kinds of realities South Africans faced in the years following the first democratic elections…
- Hard Labor
- Women May Suffer Most
- Public and Private
- Remember Human Rights
- Apartment Available: Ulaanbaatar
- The Kids in Mongolia
- Ten Lessons for Peacemakers
- Another Look at Cuba
- Hook, Line and Pinker
- Road Sex
- Booty Politics
- Spotlight: RAWA
From the Shoots
- cuba: Paradox Found
- india: Holy Cow
- new zealand: Stroppy Sheilas & Mana Wahines
- iran: Behind Closed Cha-dors