The afternoon sun hung low in the sky, as I stood talking to the two canoeists. I could feel my hands shaking, uncontrollably, with fear.
“You look like you have had a huge shock. What’s up?” One of them asked.
“I have just come out of a full-blown political meeting, in that school.” I pointed up to the rural South African school, perched atop a nearby hill.
I could taste the bitter adrenalin from my intense fear. My mouth was still dry even after drinking copious amounts of water.
Down below us, the Umsundusi river wound, through the majestic Valley of a Thousand hills, on its way towards the Umgeni river. From the oft-mighty confluence, both rivers combine their powers and surge towards the Indian Ocean.
I felt strangely distant and removed from this magical scene.
In less than a month’s time, 800 canoeists would climb into their canoes and race between the Kwa-Zulu Natal provincial capital of Pietermaritzburg and the beautiful coastal city of Durban.
They would battle the mountains, the rivers and the rapids for 3 days over the 120km course. Barely 3 months later, South Africa would hold its first democratic election.
It was early 1994. We lived in scary times. People were free to move and yet were still separated by race and status. I was a societal oddity. There were comparatively few other white people who dared venture into rural South Africa on a social/ community liaison basis.
On one side of the river, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) exercised control, on the other the African National Congress (ANC). Some of the leaders and their people, were new to the concept of democracy and inter-party violence was the order of the day. Our media showed the violent scenes and pictures each day.
We had become accustomed to the terrible stories of these troubled times.
“Are you mad?”, asked the canoeist, as his partner nodded assent. “You certainly are braver than I am!” He laughed and shook his head in disbelief.
I was known as the “peacemaker” and had become what was then termed a “white Zulu”. Assimilated into their cultures and traditions and accepted amongst the Zulu people of Enkhambathini, I was beginning to believe that I was indeed at one with the amaZulu. Until now.
It had been over three hours, since I had left the meeting and a gnawing residual fear and emptiness reverberated in my chest. “What was it? I was safe now.” I began to re-live the events.
It was my responsibility to ensure the safety of the canoeists, through communication and initiating sponsorship of schools and clinics, in the poor riverside communities. Natal canoeing was the only sports body with a dedicated development fund for rural communities, and had been since 1982. I had been in the hot seat since 1990.
Wherever there was a clash between canoeists and the locals – I would meet the leaders and their communities, to find ways forward. I had even become a member of the Ngcolosi clan – near Inanda dam. I wore the traditional gear at weddings, funerals and ceremonies and truly felt that I was a “Zulu”.
My travels had taken me to many communities. I had met multitudes of rural people, in schools, halls and churches and had slowly become accepted.
My body language, my inflection, my perception of communities and communication was becoming more and more African each day.
A number of white canoeists had recently called to complain of youngsters throwing stones at them. I went to meet the perennially friendly and helpful Inkosi (Chief) Mlaba of KwaXimba and mentioned the problem. “No problem, Bhungane (my Zulu name),” he said, “come to our meeting on Sunday at 10am. All the people will be there.”
I felt comfortable with his invitation to talk to the local community. This was what I did so well.
So on that hot, humid January weekend I drove into the beautiful Valley of a Thousand Hills. I arrived at the school a little late – to compensate for rural time. I knew that people normally only leave their homes when they see the first cars arrive! And lo and behold, at 10.30 am I was still early!
A few formal looking people in suits, wandered around the deserted school. “Sanibonani,” I greeted. “Yebo! Sawubona.” they responded. “I have come to meet the Inkosi.” “Oh,” they said knowingly. “He will be here just now.”
I was ushered to a seat in a far corner of the schoolyard. The yard was closed in on three sides by lines of classrooms. It was a long way back to the only entrance. As the crowd slowly began to grow, I greeted people and was greeted in return.
An unusual spirit began to build.
This was no ordinary community meeting. Normally all of the older people would shuffle in first. Assisted, or with walking sticks. They would be joined by the Abazali (parents). The youngsters were seldom present. And yet the younger people were streaming in today. Dancing and hopping in the dance of unity and solidarity, they toyi-toyied into the area. (Toyi toyi is a form of political dancing – it often raises fear in those who do not understand it.)
A leader came past and said, “Inkosi Mlaba won’t be long now.” I respectfully responded “Ngiyabonga Baba.” (Thank you father.) And waited for long hours in the hot sun, whilst I thought of my speech.
Suddenly, and unexpectedly, buses began to arrive at the entrance. I could see ANC flags waving. Passengers chanted slogans. The buses rocked with humanity. People were hanging out of the windows and some even sat on top of the buses. “Oh no,” I thought in sudden terror, “I am in the middle of a major political meeting!”
People began to surge into the school. Their faces were shining with excitement. Jostling and sweating they toyi-toy’d their way in.
“Viva Mandela!” called out a leader. “Viva!”, responded thousands of voices.
People came skidding out of the crowd in dance. They began to giya (a war-like dance movement.) They ululated and delighted in their moment. “Viva Samora Machel!” called the leader. “Viva!” roared the people.
“Viva Joe Slovo!” Bellowed the leader. “Viva!”
“Viva ANC!” … “Viva!”
“Viva SACP!” … “Viva!” came the powerful responses, one after the other.
And I was trapped. Between me and the exit were thousands of over-excited and politically-roused Zulus. Freedom and political power was a hop, a skip and a jump away for them. And we all knew it.
This was a new energy.It was exciting and yet it was scary! Gasps of terror rapidly kneaded my heart.
My oneness with the Zulu people seemed to have deserted me. I began to feel very lonely and very white. My mouth was very dry and my heart palpitated at high revs. Colonel Custer, at Little Big Horn, must have felt like I did. “But,” I thought, “at least he didn’t die alone.” I stood out like a lighthouse on a dark night.
And yet someone would come by, every so often, to let me know that the Inkosi would be here soon. And I respectfully greeted all who looked my way. I knew that a few weeks earlier and just a few hundred metres away, bullets had been fired in anger across the river. I knew that many of the people here had been divorced from mainstream society for decades, if not centuries. I knew that they all had many reasons to be angry with people who looked just like me.
I was in turmoil. My mind was screaming, “Go! Go!” But my intellectual resolve was telling me to complete what I had started. Deep fears came rushing up. They burst through my humanness, into my new-found Zulu-ness.
Fear attacked my reptilian brain. It was fight or flight. All reason deserted me, leaving me unmoving, in pure survival mode. And strangely the people around showed me the greatest respect.
A full 3½ terrifying hours after my arrival, the Inkosi appeared. I found out later that he was also the chairman of the Midlands ANC. A very high local political position.
The crowd erupted into an ear-splitting frenzy. All that had passed, paled into insignificance as the crowd surged, danced, viva’d and ululated.
He came to the front. After a lot of excited, passionate chanting, they sang “Inkosi sikelele Afrika.” God bless Africa. Their right fists clenched and held up in solidarity. I can still feel the thrill of their voices, raised in unison. It surged through my physical being. It was unforgettable. An experience to be relished and enjoyed. I stood and sang along, and for a moment I felt safe.
The Inkosi called the meeting to order and said, “There is someone here who is different to us.” The crowd made a sound that would have curdled a Jedi Knight’s blood… “Wooooh!” As silence eased its way back into three thousand throats, he said, “It is Mthimkhulu (my other local name) and he has a few things to say.”
A few people began to call out the praise names of the Mthimkhulu clan. “Mthimkhulu! Bhungane! Makhulukhulu…!”
He waved me forward to speak, and on boneless legs, I ghosted forward. A cold sweat raced across my skin. My face was pale and my rubbery cheeks did not recognise the touch of my fingers. I was a dead man walking.
People reached out in excitement and touched me as I passed. “Bhungane,” they joyfully called. I nodded, greeted and went to stand beside the Inkosi.
I can’t remember much of what I said that day. I know that I spoke Zulu and I know that I sang out the praises of the Inkosi. I asked the people to allow safe and free passage to the canoeists. My carefully planned speech was cut short by fear and I closed with, “The Inkosi knows all about it. He will tell you more. Thank you Ndabezita. Thank you everybody”.
Some delighted ladies ran out and danced a few steps around me. They giya’d! Jabbing at me with their walking sticks and umbrellas and laughed their way back into the crowd. Someone called out “Viva, Bhungane!” And the delighted crowd responded, “Viva”. That was my very own viva! “Long live me?” I doubted it and received the praise from a very scared place, and weakly acknowledged the crowd.
I headed for the hills. For freedom. It was less than 100 metres to my car. Yet it was a very, very long walk that day. As I passed though the crowd, I could feel all manner of imaginary daggers and spears piercing my flesh. Some people smiled, some queried my name and some just stared. All were respectful. I was safe but I was almost petrified with fear.
Much later as I drove away from the canoeists, I asked myself, “Why, when all the signs showed that I was safe, did I have all the physical and mental signs of an impending violent attack? What was it that made me scared when I was so well protected and looked after?
Why? I am a respected member of this community. I am a “white Zulu”. I contribute to this community. I have attended a multitude of meetings. Why was I so scared today”
As I allowed the questions to filter into me, slowly the answers came.
For the greater part of my life, I had read newspapers, watched TV and listened to the radio. Much of what was represented was the “bad” side of various political groups. I had seen black people rampaging through streets and stadiums.
Much earlier, as a seventeen year old, I had been a conscript in the South African Citizen Force. We were told that we were there to protect our families against terrorism, communism, the “blacks” and the ANC. We were the saviours and “they” were the danger.
Suddenly, it came to me. “I had been programmed at a deep level.”
The programme was so powerful that it overrode all of the circumstances. I had been treated with care and respect. I was recognised and announced by the leader of the area and a huge political party. That leader was and is a peace-maker. The people had sung my praises. They had called out “Viva Bhungane!”
I was totally safe!
But the programme spoke differently. It took over my body and clouded my thoughts and actions. It made me shake with fear. It opened up the flood-gates in my adrenaline gland and my unreasonable and illogical fear destroyed my opportunity to speak and enjoy the moment.
The greatest mind authorities bear witness to the fact that the brain merely needs to imagine something for it to appear real. The very graphic displays of violence on TV and the printed media were mentally real experiences.
It was real to me at the deepest level of my being. “When black people toyi-toyi, chant slogans or gather in masses, they are dangerous.” So no matter how well I was treated, my tainted spirit said, “You are going to die. Right here. Right now!” All of the logical signs were swept way by the “program.”
I began to re-evaluate all of my values and actions against this program. And I was shocked. I wasn’t a white Zulu – I was a big white boy from the city, who upon occasion wore skins and spoke Zulu. Many of my past decisions had been made on the basis of colour, race, religion.
On that day in 1994, I had taken my first steps towards true freedom.
Freedom from politics, religious dogma, racism and xenophobia. On the path to experiencing all people as human beings and respecting them for their uniqueness. It is a long road and a welcome one.
We are all programmed in some way. Anyone who was born in South Africa before 1994, is a victim of Apartheid. Until they recognise their particular programmes they will continue to be so.
Anyone born anywhere in the world where there is pro-us and anti-them propaganda is equally a victim. Until they recognise it.