The wounded bakkie limped along. The rear wheels out of step with the front, its gait lame, the chassis’ spine twisted from an earlier clash. Its flanks revealed claw marks from many close calls; the once-bright blue upper panels were bleached bone white by the relentless South African sun. With its best years behind, the pickup truck’s outer skin now shed great swaths of paint, unveiling crusts of dried-blood rust beneath.
Like a tormented animal, it found itself uncertain and fearful among the herd of predatory machines as the powerful and the swift approached their prey. The straggler expected to be picked off at any moment now that these pack hunters had its scent. As they probed for weakness, a Mercedes, menacing and large, worked in concert with an Alfa Romeo. The Italian sports car dashed across the pickup’s front quarter panel, abruptly checking its forward momentum. The larger car rode aggressively on the bakkie’s rear bumper, held in place with two wire hangers, in hopes of forcing a fatal error. The weathered tarpaulin that covered the rear quarters flapped a teasing tail in the wind, as if beckoning prying eyes.
The driver shot a glance over his shoulder, his heart pounding as he willed the Mercedes to move from behind. He turned again, clutching the cracked steering wheel as he stared ahead, resolute. His eyes stung as sweat sluiced into them, the sweltering midday sun unrelenting. He didn’t dare move a hand to wipe his forehead as the Mercedes swerved and the Alfa Romeo slowed.
Then, inexplicably, the metal marauders gave up interest and sped off.
He squinted through the grimy windshield. Another street sign and still he was lost. Frustration grew on his dark, clammy face as he traversed the idyllic playground of the “mink and manure” set. He didn’t belong here, but he had a job to do. It wouldn’t do to disappoint the Big Baas (the Big Boss).
The Big Baas headed a consortium, the first organization granted a license to manufacture television sets. In the flatbed of the wayward truck sat the first dozen TVs produced in the country. These twenty-seven-inch tellies were destined for the homes of lobbyists responsible for persuading the authorities “to come out of the dark ages.” But television still had powerful enemies. It wouldn’t do to flaunt these new machines at this critical moment—hence the secrecy of the driver’s mission.
In 1976 South Africa, after an absurd struggle, a truculent government capitulated and “the devil’s own box” was reluctantly introduced to the Republic. The most advanced nation in Africa finally joined the twentieth century and agreed to plug into the rest of the world. An expectant nation was hoping to witness the first test television broadcast by the third week of January.
Neil Armstrong’s lunar landing seven years prior had proved decisive in the debate—only South Africans never witnessed that singular event. Being deprived of sharing with the rest of the world that seminal moment in mankind’s history had hurt, and so the stubborn government was shamed into change. But they had their Luddites, and change was a long time coming.
Many in the ruling party resented the introduction of television. It was a threat to their Afrikaner culture, a Pandora’s Box of sin, and an unwelcome “window to the world of enlightenment.” In fact Afrikanerdom was split into two camps, the slowly emerging Verligte wing (“the enlightened ones”) who demonstrated the glimmer of a liberal bent, and the Verkrampte establishment (“the conservatives”) who judged any notion of liberalism as weakness.
The latter Afrikaner Christian-Nationalists held sway over the national debate. To them “enlightenment” was a dirty word, almost traitorous, because an informed population could be dangerous and threaten the status quo. By outlawing television they had, until now, effectively controlled the aspirations and expectations of the public; after all, an immature population was a malleable one. But this time the Verligtes had won a rare victory; and things on the ground were about to change.
To the north of the gold fields surrounding Johannesburg sat the “richest square mile in all of Africa,” Sandton. Formerly a suburb of Jo’burg, Sandton successfully divorced itself from the golden city and became a municipality in its own right. Now free of spreading urban blight, the affluent white community of Sandton safely prospered in its exclusive posh enclave.
The color of the driver’s skin disqualified him from living in Sandton (even in the unlikely event he could afford it). The place he called home was bleak and dangerous. It was a bastard—an unloved city within a city. Institutionally named South Western Townships, better known as Soweto, this long-ostracized “black suburb” of Johannesburg was a soulless ghetto. Row upon row of decaying shacks inhabited the featureless landscape. The flotsam and jetsam of lost lives reflected an indescribable waste—carcasses of spent tires, broken glass bottles, rusted oil cans, and dank corrugated cardboard boxes—littered the uneven roads and unkempt alleys.
A pervasive sense of darkness haunted the place despite the cheery brightness of the African sun. No wonder—the place was smothered in a sulfurous gray cloud of wood-fired stoves and gas fumes. And the tramped-down spirit of almost one and a half million souls added to the gloom. Their misery was understandable, being deprived of basic civilizing amenities such as electricity and indoor plumbing.
The overwhelming vrot of the place—the stench of an underserved and overcrowded population—was pervasive. It clung to clothes, hair, and bodies of the township’s inhabitants. This stench remained with a Soweto resident even when leaving the confines of the ghetto.
Soweto’s deprivations made driver Stanwell Marunda’s expedition to Sandton all the more disorienting.
The beaten-up pickup wasn’t his. It belonged to a coworker at the company warehouse. Normally he got around by “green mamba”—the puce-green painted buses reserved only for blacks. These unkempt monsters were unsafe and unreliable. Suffocating diesel fumes, numerous breakdowns, frequent crashes, and inexplicable delays were cause for concern, but the tsotsis—the gangsters—were the greatest threat. They preyed on hardworking commuters, men and women.
Stanwell was terrified each payday. These hoodlums had no compunction about murdering a victim over a meager twenty-rand pay packet. Their killing method was both quiet and bloodless, like the strike of a serpent’s fang; a sharpened bicycle spoke was shunted between the victim’s ribs.
With the threat of imminent death, it’s no wonder these segregated buses were nicknamed after the deadliest venomous snake in Africa, the nine-foot mamba.
“Eish,” Stanwell muttered. “Where am I?” He slapped himself on the temple in frustration. Frozen by indecision, he slowed to a crawl, only to be rewarded with the blaring horn of the irritated driver behind him. Stanwell quickly accelerated.
The house he was looking for was lost behind the high walls and gates protecting the massive homes that inhabited the well-heeled neighborhood. Here, the homes were personal monuments to the affluent, and playground to the architects who indulged them.
Every magnificent home had the derivative look of a Hollywood film set. Faux foreign styles from different eras strove for attention: a mock Tudor neighbored a Mediterranean revival, a Victorian Queen Anne faced a Frank Lloyd Wright look-alike, and a manor house vied with a Southern plantation for its place in the sun. A pity really, considering South Africa had a beautiful authentic look of its own.
It was as if the Western Cape had a monopoly on colonial architecture and prevented other provinces from using it. These definitive, fine-looking whitewashed Cape Dutch-styled homes were modeled from the late eighteenth century. Their classic distinctive features—the flowing, ornate gable soaring in a curlicue above the centered front entrance, with smaller gables boxing in each end, and tall wooden shutters framing the windows—would have added handsomely to the local Highveld architectural scene.
A more modest structure, the indigenous rondavel was used in Sandton as a tool shed or child’s playhouse—although in the countryside and game parks, the humble rondavel was a staple, with its distinctive conical shaped straw-thatched roof, rustic stone wall, and local-content organic floor (sometimes crafted from cow dung).
For Stanwell, owning a humble rondavel would have been splendid. His drab home was a makeshift shanty. The twelve-by-fourteen-foot shack was cobbled together from corrugated zinc panels, discarded shipping pallets, and tin sign hoardings; a large rust-scabbed sign advertising KOO apricot jam served as the focal point of the structure.
Crudely mortared cinder blocks added strength to the corners, and a patchwork of sheeted canvas and plastic, pegged down with bricks and twine, buttressed the leaking roof. As for the windows, they were glassless, with ripped burlap sacks lending scant protection from the elements and nosey neighbors.
This crude structure was built over an uneven floor, with cheap linoleum covering the raw dirt beneath. However, for Stanwell, living in this home was cruder still—it lacked internal plumbing and electricity. For him the niceties of civilization were the communal outdoor pit toilet, a shared garden tap, a wood-burning stove, and kerosene lamps.
Now desperate, Stanwell reached into the glove box hoping to find a map. Mechanically his eyes followed the motion of his hand as he rummaged below the dashboard.
Big mistake! The impact was sudden, sharp, and shocking.
With eyes off the road and hand off the steering wheel, Stanwell had collided with a delivery van parked by the side of the road. The ill-fitting seatbelt, sized to fit the expansive girth of the pickup truck’s owner, conspired with the sudden deceleration to propel Stanwell forward. His upper torso met the steering wheel. It buckled under the stress. With velocity barely spent, Stanwell’s face and head shattered the windshield.
The intense violence of the accident overwhelmed Stanwell’s ability to process what just happened. His ears were assaulted with a crack of sound, then silence. His vision seared with a bright yellow-white flash, then darkness.
He tried opening his eyes. They hurt. Specifically his eyelids: it was as if a cluster of white hot needles had pierced them. Now determined, the need to survive greater than the pain, Stanwell forced open his eyes. His lap came into view. In the ripples and folds of his gray work trousers were fragments of shattered glass, as if mounds of glittering diamonds were trapped there.
Though dazed, he noted the brilliance of the dangerous shards as they sparkled in the midmorning sun. Blood dripped onto his lap; the scarlet fluid went its way over and between the glass crystals before it seeped through his pants and stained the vinyl seat below. Panic set in. He had to get out. Quickly!