Volume 22, Number 2

A Place Not Fit for Man

R.A. Joseph

The wind came from the north. Flowing across the veldt, it caused the rickety shanties to groan as if in pain all around Andre. His eyes stung and watered, but not from the wind. The stench of shit permeated the dirty village; urine ran in the streets and tickled the back of his throat. Andre was used to these sickening hallmarks of poverty and degradation, though; he’d been here before. Andre was quite possibly the only white man in Shantytown at that moment and certainly the only Afrikaans; equally certain was that he was the only white man to visit routinely—most were too scared or simply couldn’t stand the smell, sights, or sounds in such a place; A place not worthy of Man. Andre had just mounted the narrow strip of cardboard that served as a sidewalk when he heard footsteps rushing behind him.

—What you doin’ here, you ain’t allowed here!

They spoke in their native language, hoping that the lack of response would be an excuse for aggression. Andre had dealt with this before; in fact it was a constant problem. Always startled to see a white face in Shantytown, the residents tended to be, understandably, aggressive, especially when the person in question was not dressed in riot gear. Andre had discussed the best approach for men such as these with Mkimbe—his friend in Shantytown, and he always followed his suggestions to the letter. Sometimes they worked. The two men who now approached him looked as if they hadn’t eaten in two days—in fact, it had probably been longer—and they had anger and indignation in their eyes, the sort of look only a father unable to feed his children can have.

—Sawubona, I am a friend of Mkimbe.

Andre felt very uncomfortable now, not because he feared a beating—he was used to them, and knew that no one was to blame but himself. No, what made him uncomfortable now was the intense glare of these four dark eyeballs filled with loathing, looking for some small provocation, because even if he were a friend of Mkimbe’s, they could say—and in the past had said—that something just didn’t look right about the man. The men looked him over hard for what seemed to Andre like an eternity, trying to think of a viable excuse to beat this brash white man who, like so many before him, was encroaching on their living space. They turned on their heels and began to walk away.

—You’d better follow us; he’s tendin’ to his people.

Andre exhaled hard and struck out behind them. He knew that they were not happy to help, but a friend of Mkimbes was a friend of theirs—no matter how begrudgingly.

* * *

Andre was 31 and the scion of an old and well-respected Afrikaans family. His father had been a diplomat and one of the architects of the Bantu Homelands Citizens Act of 1970, which reduced the status of the native African population to virtually that of Jews in 1942 Germany. But the Jews had had something to barter with. Items like diamonds, rubies, artwork or anything of value more stable and easier to conceal than Reichmarks would temporarily spare you the wrath of an unfeeling and unsympathetic firing squad. If you had such items. If not, you were spared nothing. Despite South Africa’s abundance of mineral wealth the native South African had none of these items and so was subject to degradation and humiliation. Stomach pains so intense you cried—the only thing your children had tasted for days was bile that had been spit back up from their empty stomachs to burn the back of their throats and make their noses water. Andre felt only shame. He’d been taught since birth that he was better than the ‘others’ who washed his clothes and changed his younger siblings’ dirty nappies. They simply didn’t exist, they did what they were told to do and intruded as little as possible on ‘real’ society. They were ghosts. On the right side of town they weren’t even noticed as they went about their duties—spending their lives serving others who considered their eventual deaths little more than an annoyance. His mother had once asked “Who will get me my morning tea today?” when one of their servants had passed. On the other side of town, however, they were a constant annoyance. If they protested their exclusion from society, the orderly, unarmed black activists were automatically considered dangerous “rioters,” and within moments the entire police force would arrive, beating them senseless, killing many of them. But that mattered little.

Andre could not understand his compatriots’ indifference towards the native people. Wasn’t it, after all, their home too? After finishing law school he began to meet secretly with the offspring of one of their maids, Mkimbe—a large beast of a man to whom Andre would give his schoolbooks after completion of the term. Mkimbe learned much and became a prominent figure among the natives in their fight for equality—or, barring that, human rights. But it was certainly an uphill battle: as the natives’ desire for liberation grew, so too did the number of “riots.” Protests became more and more common, resulting in more and more deaths, and with each protest the police determined to make the next riot the last great spectacular show of force, thereby putting an end to the natives’ wanton and inconsiderate disregard for peace among the whites.

Andre had an uphill battle as well. Opposition from without as well as within—no white African would help him fight for native rights. His parents had passed years ago, shortly after his marriage to Fiona. Her father had been a prominent general and had led, in his younger days, many “riot squads” against the native encampments. The marriage hadn’t been a love match. His parents, both prominent citizens, had wanted to ensure his acceptance into another prominent family upon graduation from university. He’d known it would happen but he hadn’t known to whom. The Van Oudens had been family friends for years, and one of Andre’s most vivid memories of the General, a huge giant of a man, tall, broad and mustachioed, was from a dinner party his parents had thrown when he was 16. The table talk had turned to the recent uprising in Shantytown and the government’s ability to quickly quash the troublemakers. “Nowhere else in Africa do blacks live as well as they do here; poverty is their element— what more do they want”?

Shantytown had existed far beyond Andre’s memory—a plank-and-cardboard appendage to the bustling, vibrant atmosphere of the whites-only city, almost like a chicken coop in the yard of a bustling, working farm. Surviving on chickenfeed, throwaways, and sheer will, the natives were not allowed to enter the city except to work—and even then, only until a certain hour. The Afrikaans said a black man on the streets after 8 pm was certainly looking to rape a white woman or commit some other equally heinous crime, maybe even murder. Because of that the police would actually sit on the border between the two cities worlds apart, waiting for the clock to strike eight. From that moment on any black man who approached the border would be certain not to make the same mistake twice—and if they did, they would not be physically capable of a third offense.

Andre’s first foray into Shantytown had been unsuccessful. As a youth, he had followed Mkimbe's mother back to her home. Andre had been fond of the buxom cook and her stories of the mischief her youngest son was constantly finding himself mixed up with.

—That boy, she would say, always in trouble but he do love his mama. Just like you, Master van Pal

Of course the police had not allowed the fine young man into the dirty, vice-infested Shantytown that night. Instead they called Andre’s house and then drove him home to his confused and worried parents. When Andre had confessed his transgression to Mkimbe's mother, she decided to bring the lad to work with her one day so that Andre’s curiosity could be satisfied. That morning, he ran downstairs and found Mkimbe clinging to his mother’s skirts, and, as André took in the boy’s alien features, he realized he had never before seen a black child. They were the same height; both were lithe, active young men—and yet, Andre realized that the other child seemed somehow different—reserved—afraid, like an old man with arthritis in a china shop, loving every moment he is allowed, but careful, cautious, and worried that if his hands shake a little too much everything can come crashing down around him. And it did. The boy Mkimbe could not resist going into the room. His mother had told him not to, that they weren’t allowed, but here was the boy whose home this was, telling him that he should come to dinner, and then they could play in his room instead of the butler’s pantry. The service area was separated from the main house by a set of double doors in the dining room, large, white, and ornate on the inside, while the side facing the kitchen was filthy, unpainted, and scarred.

—You can do anything in the back of the house, his mother had told him, but you must not go through those doors.

But the strange white boy—Master van Pal, his mother told him to call him—had said that they could play in his room, and his room was on the other side of that door.

What followed was actually one of Andre’s fondest memories. He sat, as always, silently at the table with his family for dinner. Across from him with his back to the gleaming double doors was Owen Roeth, a visiting relation of his father’s who spoke in nervous bursts that reminded Andre of the machine guns he’d seen in American gangster films.

—Love it out here, Owen said.

—like the hills …

—make a nice breeze …

—not like London, no sir …

—bloody cold …

Andre had been sitting upright and perfectly still, sipping his soup, when he thought he saw movement in the corner of his eye. He looked up into two large round, brown eyes peering out from behind the gleaming double doors leading into the kitchen. His eyes began to water as soup gushed from his nose, laughter dying in his throat as he attempted to laugh hysterically at the sight of the boy peering innocently around the door. As he tried to regain his breath and enjoy the vision he heard a chorus of laughter rise up around him. For a moment, he believed his family had seen the boy and found the sight as amusing as he did, but as he slowly caught his breath and regained his composure, he realized that his mother wasn’t laughing, but screaming, horrorstricken at the site of the little “dark” boy invading her pristine dining room. His father had already leapt out of his seat and, bounding across the room, grabbed the boy by his ear and propelled him back into the kitchen, disappearing again behind the gleaming white doors. He’d come so close. When Andre came down for breakfast the following morning he found that his eggs were a bit runny. His mother told him, “That’s what happens when you have to find a new cook overnight.”

* * *

Andre followed the two men through the reeking, soggy dirt streets of Shantytown, never sure whether it was earth or feces he was treading on. He avoided puddles at all costs. The men made their way to the western portion of the town, dodging chicken carcasses and discarded entrails, their filthy, second-hand trainers, shredded by use, hardly serving any purpose at all.

He marveled at the will of these men and their fellow citizens of Shantytown. Relegated to the wastelands and refuse piles of a “civilized” society that shunned the natives in their own land, denied them their health, conscience, and fruits of the land their ancestors had once hunted freely and fought for with great tenacity. They still fought. No longer in evidence were the spears and blowguns of their fathers, but the warrior spirit lived on. Not in the guise of hope but in the confidence of righteous justice, in the desire to know the feeling of never having to look into the eyes of their hungry children and feel helpless again, they used words and solidarity to appeal to the city. They were no longer mute, but that’s as maybe—because just as they regained their voices the city lost its hearing.

* * *

In his senior year at university, Andre had taken a position at an employment agency helping natives find employment as domestic servants in the homes of the white populace. Andre was astounded by the numbers of natives on the agency’s payroll. Almost half the city’s native population had registered to work with the agency that year alone and only a small percentage of those listed were given work. Most anyone could find domestic help in those days; you didn’t have to be wealthy. Many average homeowners had domestic servants. This was because the natives were not able to earn money otherwise, so they worked for anyone who could pay them even the smallest amount. Some worked in exchange for as little as a cot and a crust of bread. André’s parents paid their help a small stipend because they didn’t trust them to live under the same roof. This was common. At the agency one morning André sat with his feet on his small desk in his far-too-cluttered office. He sat with the tip of his index finger in his mouth rubbing along his teeth; he usually did this when lost in thought, too absorbed to realize what a ridiculous spectacle he made to anyone walking past his clear glass outer office windows. As he sat, lost in thought, staring through his outer windows, he watched people move about the city as they passed. Not really seeing them—but looking at them nonetheless. He stared into space, and the poor souls entering and departing the agency moved past him in profile. Something pulled him out of his soft leather chair as if by the scruff of the neck and thrust him into the window he’d previously been staring lackadaisically through nearly banging his forehead on the glass. Could it be? He grabbed his coat off the back of his chair and ran into the corner of his desk, stubbing his toe through his soft leather shoes. Swearing, he jerked his coat on and ran out of his tiny office, through the narrow corridor and into the lobby of the agency and out the front door. Turning in the direction he’d seen this memory moving, he set off as quickly as he could through the human traffic, bobbing his head above the others in an effort to keep track of his quarry—he was certain it was she. It was. As he drew abreast of Mkimbe's mother she uttered a cry of disbelief and fretted over his disheveled appearance, and they spoke for more than an hour. They discussed Andre's life and her life and Mkimbe's life, and as they did André remembered what it was that had made this woman such an important part of his young life. This large, round, affectionate, and boisterous woman cared about him, and he cared about her—regardless. Mkimbe, she told him was active in the native protests, something his mother feared would inevitably result in her losing her only son. Later that week Andre and Mkimbe reunited at his cramped agency office. This was their rallying point, where they would plan and plot their efforts—they would meet every week. At first it was to discuss Mkimbe‘s lessons and the textbooks Andre had given him. Later they would discuss their desire to mount a legal offensive against the state, using the law to their advantage so long as they could, and rallying their people—they couldn't all be killed or ignored.

* * *

Fiona had always chided Andre for his interest in the natives. He was wasting his talents and putting himself and his family in danger needlessly. Weren’t the natives, after all, all going to kill each other anyway? The night before Andre decided to seek out his friend in Shantytown, his wife had been in a particularly foul mood after receiving a visit from her father. It seemed that Andre had been observed consorting with the enemy—namely Mkimbe—outside his office building (under no circumstances were any non-employee natives allowed inside the building, no matter whose friends they were), and the meeting had been reported to General Van Pal’s friend, the head of the state police. “Why trouble yourself—you know you’re ruining your career, don’t you?” she had raged at him that night. He’d always accepted these rows as part of his life, an unavoidable result of decisions made—the cost of conscience. It didn’t matter, anyway. “He’s to be arrested tomorrow,” she said, almost offhandedly. Andre well knew however, that natives arrested in Shantytown did not go to trial or serve prison sentences. They lay in the dirt streets of Shantytown with their mothers crying over them as their life leaked into a muddy puddle.

* * *

The two men accelerated their progress through the makeshift streets as they became more and more aware of events unfolding around them. The sounds of diesel engines and studded rubber tires crushing the dirt and pebbles beneath them caused the ground to shake beneath Andre. Suddenly his collar was too tight; loosening it, he became consumed with the urgency of his task—he had to reach Mkimbe. The police were arriving in droves and to be caught here would mean trouble for him—but he had to risk it.

The two men arrived at a shack slightly less dirty and foul than the rest. One of the men mounted the sidewalk and pulled the door open and pointed Andre inside. He strode to Mkimbe, who raced over from the corner to greet him and they stood—two men from different worlds, completely at ease with each other—until gunshots were heard. Heavy footsteps pounded the makeshift sidewalk outside the shack and a moment later a man ran through the door, practically breaking it down.

—The riot squad is tearing them to pieces

Mkimbe ran from the room and into the street, Andre was behind him, for the first time not smelling the stink or being careful where he laid his expensive shoes. He was oblivious to all but concern for these people and the injustice he had tried so desperately to end. He ran behind Mkimbe, thinking of the troubles they’d had, of their friendship, and of his now-deceased mother. His mind shifted to his own deceased parents and his spiteful wife as he was lifted from his feet and propelled backwards through the air landing hard but not feeling the impact. And as the coppery taste of blood tickled the back of his throat he thought of little Mkimbe peering around the gleaming white kitchen doors before unconsciousness swept over him in a place not fit for Man.