Drawing on newspaper articles, memoirs, and little-known histories, William Dicey presents a compelling diary of a very bad year.
Drawing on newspaper articles, memoirs, and little-known histories, William Dicey presents a compelling diary of a very bad year.

1986 – another year from hell

By Time of article published Jan 16, 2021

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The year 1986 was a pivotal one in South African history. It was the year of the vigilante, the year of the necklace – but also the year the talking began. Drawing on newspaper articles, memoirs, and little-known histories, William Dicey presents a compelling diary of a very bad year.

In 1986 he focuses on ordinary people, showing what life was actually like under an authoritarian regime – from the six hours a day that black workers in KwaNdebele spent on buses, to the rebel sporting tours that provided a distraction for white South Africans. Some stories foreshadow the miracle of 1990 – for instance, the deputy commander of Pollsmoor Prison takes Nelson Mandela on a scenic drive around Cape Town, years before his eventual release. Other stories shine a light on our current conflicts. Written in crisp prose, 1986 is a model of historical excavation deftly evoking the spirit of the times.

Vigilantes, unopposed by the police, set fire to homes in Crossroads, near Cape Town, in May 1986. An estimated 80 000 people were left homeless and 60 dead as a result of Witdoeke action in 1986.

William Dicey

On June 12, the writer Elsa Joubert emerged from the quiet of the Archives on to a noisy Cape Town street. Joubert was “ru gekonfronteer” (roughly confronted) by the screams of newspaper boys selling a late edition of The Argus. Everyone seemed to be buying a copy, so she did too. The headline announced that the government had declared a state of emergency.

Joubert, who is best known for Die Swerfjare van Poppie Nongena, a widely translated novelisation of the life of a domestic worker, walked to the bus stop in a daze. She read in snatches and looked at the photographs. There were Casspirs on the streets of Nyanga and Gugulethu. A bread truck had been overturned and set alight. Schools and clinics were on fire. An impimpi had been necklaced.

Everyone on the bus was reading the newspaper. “Ons is almal betrokke,” she thought. We’re all involved. We all feel the weight of the times hanging around our necks like lead. How can we claim not to know? The newspapers scream of atrocities from every corner of the country.

A story about an old man caught Joubert’s eye. It was brief, just a single paragraph, but she was transfixed. As the bus wound its way up the flank of Table Mountain, she imagined the scene. An old man is living on his own in a shack in Crossroads. Government officials arrive. They tell him they’re going to take him to a better place, a place with houses and soup kitchens. The old man dismantles his shack and packs his materials – corrugated iron, cardboard, planks – in a neat pile.

Author Elsa Joubert recounts her memories of the declaration of the State of Emergency in 1986

He places his bucket and his cup on top of the pile. He sits down on his blanket. Nobody comes.

Night falls. Early the next morning, four boys approach. They’re wearing white scarves on their heads. They circle him, circle him, in the grey light of dawn. One grabs at the lapel of his jacket and the material rips. They continue to circle him. “So you’re an impimpi, hey? We told people not to go. We told people to stay and resist. But you still want to go, hey?” The old man starts trembling. “Are you cold, old man? Don’t worry, we’ll warm you.” They set fire to his cardboard and planks. “Sit closer, old man.” They force him into the fire. His clothes catch alight and he burns to death.

The bus jerked to a halt, and Joubert was startled out of her reverie. It was her stop. She climbed out and stared at the placid waters of the Molteno Dam. She climbed the steps to her home, where her children were waiting for her.

“Ons elkeen beleef ons eie armsalige klein vuurproef.” We each experience our own wretched little acid test. Joubert’s came that afternoon. She was busy typing up her notes from the Archive when the telephone rang.

“Madam!” screamed Lucy, a domestic worker who had last worked for her ten years earlier. In the background, Joubert could hear shouting and the smashing of furniture. “Madam! The Witdoeke are killing us and the police are helping them. Can I come with the children?”

The cover of Time Magazine in August 1985 of the first partial declaration of a State of Emergency.

Trying to buy time, Joubert asked, “Which children, Lucy?”

“The children, Madam knows them.”

The children would have been grown by then – Archie in his twenties, the girls a year or two younger.

“Madam, they’re looking for the children! They want to kill them!”

Joubert fell silent as she pictured a black mob coming down her street with burning logs in their hands. They streamed onto her property and set fire to her house.

“Don’t worry, Madam …”

“Lucy, listen …”

Lucy screamed. It sounded as if someone was dragging her from the phone. “No, it’s not the boere!” Lucy yelled. “I wasn’t talking to the boere!”

Joubert was mortified. She tried to call Lucy’s neighbour, the only number she had for Lucy, but the line was dead. “What kind of person am I that I didn’t immediately say, ‘Come’, with open arms, with an open heart?”

When Joubert’s husband Klaas got home, she told him what had happened. He would talk to Lucy, said Klaas, if she rang again. He needed to know how many children, and how old.

Vigilante witdoeke and rival groups fight for control of the KTC and Crossroads informal settlements. Picture: Guy Tillim

His first responsibility was to his family. Lucy was UDF, he said, she was radical, militant. There was a chance violence would accompany her.

There was a knock at the door. Joubert answered. Two members of the PFP, a man and a woman, were collecting tinned food for Crossroads. Joubert questioned them about conditions there, but they didn’t know much. The man was a police reservist. He told her it was nonsense that the police were helping the Witdoeke.

Joubert spent the rest of the afternoon thinking up excuses to justify her hesitation. To no avail: the reproach sat like a lump in her breast. It only got worse when Klaas, a compassionate man, removed his old revolvers from the cupboard and started to clean them.

  • William Dicey is the author of two critically acclaimed books,

The Independent on Saturday

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