The first three chapters of my novel: "I Can Hear Them Singing Now."
On 16 June 1976, black school pupils in Soweto – the huge black township located on the outskirts of Johannesburg in South Africa – staged a mass demonstration that quickly turned violent when police opened fire with live ammunition. Their protest was against being taught in Afrikaans in their schools and, although the unrest quickly spread to other parts of the country, the police and security forces were soon able to put a lid on it and bring it under control.
However, tensions continued to simmer and the banned African National Congress (ANC), the main organisation in the fight against the government, took note of how effective a mobilised population could be.
Using lessons it learned from North Korean and Vietnamese advisors, the organisation set about press-ganging communities in the black townships into the struggle against Pretoria. Terror and brutality was used to bring those who were reluctant to join, into line.
It was a terrible situation for thousands of ordinary black citizens, who found themselves between the government security forces on one hand and the ANC enforcers on the other.
By the mid 1980s South Africa was effectively involved in a low-level, civil war where black policemen, town councillors and perceived government-collaborators were targeted. Many were murdered and a large number saw their homes burnt down. In addition, a number of bombs were detonated in 'white' areas and rent and consumer boycotts were rigorously enforced by the instruments of the ANC.
The South African government responded by declaring a State of Emergency and cracked down harshly on activists and opponents. Military raids were launched against ANC targets in surrounding countries and the government hanged a number of political activists who were found guilty of murder.
In the 1980s, the purpose-built, gallows in Pretoria Central prison saw 1 123 people die at the end of the rope.
It is during this time that this story takes place.
The tale is completely fictional but some of the characters were real people and the underlying events and descriptions accurately portray the situation and what took place in the country at that time.
News that your neighbours, people you've known for years, are burning down your home, can ruin your day.
But hearing it over the static-encrusted crackle of a Motorola police radio while crouching in the back of a Casspir, armoured police vehicle and not being able to do a damned thing about it, is even worse.
It was drizzling, not hard enough to be called rain, more like heavy mist, but still enough to invade the seams of their clothes and the cracks of their mood. The low cloud seemed to mix with the smoke of burning township houses and smouldering car tires, like cream swirled into coffee.
It was strange weather for that time of year. Normally there was no rain in May and the wet weather arrived only in October or occasionally in September if the country's farmers were lucky and then, most of the talk in the farming co-operatives, was about the promise of a good season.
But there was no talk of farming in the Casspir. Eight men, six black and two white, occupied a blue and yellow armoured police vehicle that displayed the scuffs and scars of previous battles. The days of the South African Police using soft-skinned vehicles to patrol in black townships were long-gone.
The faces of the men glistened as though oiled. Water droplets dripped from the peaks of their soft, navy blue caps and there was a water-sheen that glistened on the steel skin of the vehicle.
“Oscar Two, this is Oscar One...message over.”
“Send...over,” said the radio operator, a chunky, white sergeant with a bulbous gut that revealed his fondness for junk food, brandy and Coke. Secretly he was known as 'Fat Gut'. He pressed his lips against the microphone, as though he intended to swallow it.
The radio was silent for a moment other than a few static cracks and pops.
“Incident of arson at 21 Moroka Street. They say the house is going up in flames and there are barricades across the road. The fuckers aren't letting anyone through so there is probably no point if we call the fire brigade...in any case, it's probably too late.”
The voice on the radio was high-pitched, tinged with both anxiety and excitement, standard radio procedures forbidding swearing were forgotten.
“Roger, Oscar One. Message received. We're on our way but it may take some time. The bastards seem to be burning down the whole township!”
'Fat Gut' replaced the handset. For a moment no-one spoke, the only sound, the engine of the Casspir and the hiss of the radio.
Then one of the black constables swore.
“Stinking sons of whores!” He spat the words out like a lump of phlegm expelled onto a pavement. He shivered and pulled the collar of his rain cape tight against his neck as the rain intensified.
No-one spoke. They all knew 21 Moroka Street was Warrant Officer, Templeton Ngubane's home.
Nobody knew what to say. What do you say to someone when you've just heard his home is being burned down? So they said nothing, preferring to simply sit and stare at the floor of the bowels of the steel vehicle.
Outside the sounds of a township war continued.
“I want to see!” said Ngubane suddenly. “By Christ, I want to see who is doing this to me!”
“Take it easy Temp,” said Warrant Officer Eric Joubert, the other white cop in the Casspir. “Just leave it. There's nothing you can do.”
He placed his hand on Ngubane's shoulder.
Warrant Officers Joubert and Templeton Ngubane had come a long way together. They joined the South African Police Force 17 years earlier, just two months apart and, while they never socialised after hours, they respected each other and, in a strange sort of way, were friends. Each knew he could rely on the other to watch his back when the shit really hit the fan. Ngubane proved that the day he saved Joubert's life when the two of them were lured into an ambush, set up by Umkhonto we Sizwe operatives.
Ngubane's eyes narrowed and his brow creased. A vein throbbed in his temple. He was a large man who was once athletic, back in the days when he was an active amateur boxer. But over the years, middle-aged spread – the result of a keen fondness of the chocolate cakes his wife, Ellen, regularly baked – had crept up and won the battle, more by infiltration than direct, frontal attack. Nowadays, if he wanted a shirt to button comfortably across his midriff he had to get one with a neck size that was an inch or two too large.
He often joked with Ellen it wasn't his gut getting bigger but rather his neck getting smaller!
Templeton Ngubane knew he needed to get more exercise and to cut down on the chocolate cake and he was making an effort – he had started more Monday morning diets, that ended of Friday afternoons, than he could remember. It was a losing battle that he knew he was fighting in vain but he felt obliged to maintain token resistance against his slowly-increasing belt-size.
“Jesus! Don't tell me to relax, Jooba!” he snapped back. “It's not your fucking house they're burning down! I can't sit idly while my home and everything I worked for, for 17 years, is destroyed!
“Maybe it is too late and, maybe there is nothing I can do about it, but, by Christ, I want to see who is responsible!”
“Sure, Temp,” said Joubert. “I understand. I'm sorry.”
He turned to the driver.
“What are you waiting for? Let's get there!”
Up ahead, a barricade constructed of burning tires piled in a heap, next to an over-turned bread delivery van, was erected across the potholed, untarred street. Both the tires and the van burned fiercely and the thick, sticky smoke dirtied the limp drizzle.
The sign-writing on the side of the van could no longer be read, as the paint bubbled and peeled in the heat. Only an 'N' and an 'O' of the bakery's name remained unconsumed in a feeble protest against the firebrands.
The bread van driver was lucky. He was simply a target of opportunity for the band of youngsters who called themselves ANC Comrades. In the wrong place at the wrong time.
They stopped him at the barricade set across the road and swarmed around the vehicle, whooping and hollering.
“Get out!” yelled a youngster who wasn't much older than 14 and who held an unlit petrol-bomb in his right hand.
The driver did not hesitate for even a split-second. He did exactly as instructed and did it fast. He wasn't going to commit suicide for bread that wasn't even his!
“We are confiscating this bread in the name of the revolution and for the good of the people!” the youngster with the Molotov cocktail shrieked. His eyes were wild and crazed. Others began rocking the van from side to side, as they attempted to push it over.
The driver slid out of the van and when his feet touched the ground he started running and did not look back until he could no longer hear the shouts of the mob and was out of range of the stones thrown at him.
“Viva!” yelled another youngster, as someone snapped the padlock on the back doors of the van with a length of salvaged steel, water-pipe.
The double doors were flung open and the bread, destined for shops in the township, was quickly passed to outstretched hands. Then the howling mob toppled the van onto its left side. Petrol spilled from the fuel-cap and formed a little river that began to dam up.
“Stand back, Comrades!” instructed a youngster in a yellow T-shirt, so faded and ragged that it was impossible to read the slogan once printed on the chest.
“Give me newspaper.”
A young woman in the crowd handed him a sheet of rolled up newspaper which he lit and, once the fire had taken hold, he held it up, like a participant in the Olympic Games torch-lighting ceremony. The crowd moved back and then he tossed the burning newspaper onto the puddle of spilled fuel. It exploded with a snapping 'poof' and quickly took hold in the rest of the tipped-over vehicle.
To outsiders and civilians, the roadblock would have looked impressive but a burning, light delivery vehicle and a pile of tires is nothing to an armoured vehicle that weighs more than five tons and is specially built to smash through such obstacles.
“Use the teargas and then go straight through!” ordered W/O Joubert as he peered over the top of the vehicle.
At the sight of the arriving Casspir, the youngsters at the makeshift roadblock dashed for cover between the box-shaped houses that lined both sides of the street. Many in the group were veterans of the township wars that had raged for months. This was not a retreat but rather a temporary withdrawal, so they could plan and launch an attack.
The Casspir drew to a standstill as the driver studied the roadblock, apparently unsure of what to do next.
“Here come the stones!” yelled a constable as a volley of thrown rocks was launched from between the houses on both sides of the street. This was followed by another salvo of missiles that rained down like giant hailstones, as youngsters darted out from between the houses to fling them at the police, then ducked back behind cover.
“Shit!” swore one of the cops as he crouched down behind the side-walls of the Casspir.
A large stone hit Joubert's chin and split it like a rotten tomato.
“Christ!” he blasphemed, his shirt already spattered with blood. “Where the fuck is the teargas?”
His voice was shrill and his colleagues detected a hint of panic in it.
There was chaos in the back of the Casspir. Policemen crouched frantically as stones rained down endlessly.
These kids were prepared, thought Ngubane. They knew we were coming and were waiting for us. He shivered, momentarily remembering the ambush he and Joubert had once survived.
A young constable, fresh out of the Police Training College at Hammanskraal struggled to clip the teargas grenade onto the front of his rifle. Twice he dropped it, as stones clattered like thunder against the sides of the blue and yellow vehicle. His hands were wet from a combination of clammy, fear-induced, sweat and rain.
“Give the damn thing to me!” roared Ngubane. He saw the youngster was getting nowhere. He snatched the rifle and the teargas grenade from the constable who was now trembling so badly it was impossible for him to deploy the grenade.
Ngubane, still crouched, clipped the canister onto the end of the rifle then stood up and prepared to fire over the side of the Casspir at the stone-throwing mob. As he did so, the youngster with the petrol bomb, now burning, ran out from of one of the yards on the right and, from a distance of about 30 metres, flung it at them.
“Fuck! Petrol bomb!” yelled Ngubane, instinctively ducking.
The fiery cocktail, contained in a green wine bottle, arced through the smoke-tainted air, spinning like a booted rugby ball, towards the men in the Casspir. It smashed onto the ground a few feet short of its intended target and shattered in a ball of fire.
“Shoot, damn it, shoot!” Joubert yelled.
Ngubane stood up and fired over the side of the Casspir in the general direction of the stone-throwers, making no attempt to aim at anyone specific.
The grenade-canister bounced once on the road before it hit a woman in the stomach and landed on the road, spinning and hissing like a snake doused in boiling water. It spewed plumes of angry, white gas into the air.
The crowd scattered immediately, running wildly in an attempt to escape the fumes that set their eyes on fire and made them retch so hard they felt they would puke up their own spleens.
“Come back and fight! Not so tough now 'eh?” Joubert yelled after the fleeing youngsters. Behind the houses some kids lit rolled-up sheets of newspaper and inhaled the smoke because this lessened the effects of the teargas.
Joubert held a blood-soaked handkerchief pressed tightly to his split chin.
“Go through! Go through, for God's sake!” Ngubane called to the driver.
Like a steel ramrod the Casspir lurched forward and crashed through the crude barricade. One hundred and fifty metres further on, it turned left into Moroka Street. All of the cops were standing up in the back of the Casspir now, scanning the road ahead and the houses that lined it. Two hundred metres ahead, just before the point where the road curved to the right, a crowd numbering about 100, was gathered outside the Ngubane house. A bonfire burned in the road in front of it.
The Casspir driver braked hard suddenly, causing the men in the back to stumble forward.
“Why are you stopping?” Joubert bellowed. His eyes were red and watery – they'd had no time to fit their gas masks before firing the teargas that hung heavily in the air when they drove through it.
“We can't go any further,” the driver said. He pointed to a freshly-dug trench that stretched across the road.
Like a grotesque, mocking mouth, it sliced across the untarred Moroka Street, four feet wide and three feet deep.
In the distance, outside the house, a 17 year-old schoolgirl tossed a framed photograph of Templeton and his family into the flames.
“What the fuck are you waiting for? Go!” W/O Ngubane snapped at the driver.
Joubert held his hand up, gesturing to the driver to wait.
“We can't, Temp,” he said. “We'll be trapped in that ditch and be sitting ducks.”
It would be suicide for eight men, armed only with one automatic rifle and some shotguns and pistols to try to cross with the Casspir. Outside, beyond the protection of the armoured vehicle, they stood no chance against a determined mob.
“There's nothing we can do here, Temp,” his voice was soft and resigned as he scanned the crowd with a set of battered, police-issued, eight-power binoculars. The enhanced image allowed him to see how more of Templeton and Ellen's furniture was dragged from the house and committed to the fire.
“We might as well go,” Joubert said.
“Give me those,” said Ngubane in a harsh, raspy voice. He snatched the binoculars from the thin white man.
“I need to see this. This is a day I never want to forget. I want to burn into my mind the images of my own people turning against me!”
“Come on, Temp, let's just go,” said Joubert. He gently grasped the large black man's arm.
Ngubane shook him off roughly. Even without the help of the binoculars he could clearly see what was happening. The colour television set he bought only five months earlier with his Christmas bonus was carried out and dropped in the street.
Some of the Comrades wanted to take it and keep it for themselves but their leader, a 19 year-old school-dropout and veteran of the township struggle would not allow it. He wanted to make a point, a gesture the cop would not easily forget.
“Smash it!,” he tersely commanded.
A youth, armed with a metal pipe shattered the glass screen and then, with two vicious blows, broke the wooden cabinet in a shower of splinters.
“This is what we do to sell-out dogs!” yelled a kid who was still in primary school at the powerless Casspir.
“Viva!” he shouted. “Viva revolution! Viva ANC! Viva Nelson Mandela!”
The refrigerator was dragged from the house next and the food Ellen prepared for tonight's family meal was spilled onto the road like wino vomit. Then their clothes were brought out. One by one, suits Templeton purchased over the years for special occasions – birthdays, christenings and funerals – were thrown, like bad rubbish, into the fire.
When a woman waved a small yellow dress with lace around its collar Ngubane's heart sank. Nausea and anger welled up in him and he gagged, fighting an urge not to throw up. All the other things they had destroyed could be replaced, but this was personal and painful.
“Oh God, not that, please!” he whispered. The dress belonged to his five year-old daughter, Thandi. It was her birthday next week and the family planned a special party to celebrate the occasion. Part of her present was that she got to choose a new, special dress, for her party and, like any little girl, she could not contain her excitement when they went shopping for it two days ago.
“Please Mama, let me wear it now, it's so pretty!” she begged Ellen in the shop.
“No, you're going to have to wait until your party,” replied her mother, trying to sound stern.
“Daddy, please speak to Mama! I can't wait that long. Please! Please!” she pleaded.
Templeton shook his head. “Sorry, Mama says 'no' and she's the boss.” He smiled inwardly. Playing the role of good cop with his kids was something he enjoyed.
“Please Papa...” when she used the word 'Papa” rather than 'Daddy' and looked at him with wide, pleading eyes she always got her way. His heart melted.
“Come on, Ellen, let the child wear the dress...it can do no harm.”
Thandi slipped her little hand into his. It was warm and soft as a puppy's breath. He looked down at her and smiled. Thandi had inherited her mother's fine, delicate, exquisite features and was definitely going to one day be a very beautiful woman.
“You big softie. It's no wonder the children get away with anything,” Ellen chided him gently. She smiled. She loved it that he was such a good father. “I don't know how you're tough enough to catch those big, bad terrorists and gangsters that you're always locking up.”
She stood on her tiptoes so she could kiss him on the point of his broad nose.
“But that's why I love you. Go on, put the dress on,” she said, turning to Thandi, who whooped with delight.
The fine, silk fabric disappeared in a puff, as the flames swallowed it. Next, his son, Roger's books and Orlando Pirates posters went into the fire.
Oh God, please, not that, he thought. He clenched his fists and gritted his teeth. In the smoke, a comrade in a yellow COSAS T-shirt, held a white doll by its blonde hair. He paused, as though contemplating its fate and then, with a shrug of his shoulders flipped it onto the burning pile.
How am I going to tell Thandi about this? Templeton thought. Tears welled in his eyes as he struggled to fight back his emotions and hold his composure in front of his colleagues.
That doll was part of their family. He bought it for Thandi when she turned three. He'd hunted for a black doll in all the toy shops he could find in the city but could find none.
“There's not much call for black dolls,” a shop assistant told him. “Don't take this the wrong way, but in all honesty, I did not know blacks played with dolls.”
And then, speaking more to herself than Templeton, she said: “Fancy that, you learn something new every day!”
Ngubane just smiled and bought the doll. The fact it was white didn't bother Thandi in the slightest. She named it Martha, after her grandmother and loved it like it was her sister.
How do I tell Thandi, Martha is dead? he asked himself again.
His growing anger suddenly burst like a popping balloon.
“You bastards!” he screamed, “You fucking bastards!”
His curse was met with waved, clenched fists and jeering political taunts and suddenly he felt drained. More tired than he had ever been in his life. His legs felt ropey and weak. He needed to sit before he collapsed.
“Let's get out of here, I've seen enough,” he gasped.
Jesus, I can't breathe, he thought. I think I am having a heart attack.
The Casspir reversed, did a three-point turn and headed back up Moroka Street. Behind them flames were beginning to lick through the windows at number 21.
The rain had stopped and, with it, the township battles. Reinforcements consisting of additional policemen as well as a contingent of 100 soldiers arrived and the area was locked down tightly.
An uneasy calm settled in, as security forces stepped up patrols and began clearing away the roadblocks and obstacles erected by township youngsters.
House-to-house searches were planned but right now the priority was to properly secure the area. Damage and situation reports were radioed in and logged and recorded at the police station. In just three hours the homes of eight black policemen had been burned to the ground. Three municipal councillors' homes suffered the same fate and four delivery vehicles were either completely destroyed or badly damaged. Eighteen people were in hospital being treated for injuries, mostly the result of rubber bullets but, so far, there were no reported deaths. Two policemen, one of them Eric Joubert, required treatment after being struck by rocks thrown by protesters.
It was obvious to the security force commanders that this was no spontaneous uprising, it was too well-planned and co-ordinated.
Overhead an air force helicopter circled. The occupants scanned the smoking ground below them, ready to report the gathering of any groups. The thumpa-thumpa beat of it's engine reverberated through the alleyways of the township and caused people to hide.
But, for the moment, it appeared the anger on the ground was satiated and most people had retreated into their houses, where they waited and prepared for the inevitable police searches and raids to come.
In the command room at the police station, a police colonel was on the phone to head-quarters in Pretoria. He was put through to a Brigadier in charge of members' welfare.
“We've got eight members and their families who need to be housed somewhere today,” he said, speaking in Afrikaans. “They can't stay in the township. Can you sort something out?”
“Drink this coffee, Temp.” Eric Joubert handed his colleague a chipped, floral-patterned mug of steaming coffee.
Ngubane was a big man who cut an imposing figure but, right now, to Jooba Joubert, he appeared much smaller. He took the steaming beverage without saying anything and held the mug in both hands so it could warm his fingers.
Joubert had three stitches on the point of his chin. He was a small man, thin and wiry with a whipcord body. Every day he forced himself to complete a weight-training regimen at home that kept him as strong and supple as he was when, fresh out of the police college, he was a member of the SAP Greco-Roman wrestling team.
His features were sharp and pointy, rat-like in many ways and, unlike Ngubane whose hairline was receding, Joubert sported a full head of blue-black hair that he kept short and held in place by daily applications of Vitalis hair oil. A thin dark moustache underlined his nose.
Templeton sat on a bench against a wall in the courtyard at the police station. The grey paint on top of the bench was long-since worn away and its surface was rough-scarred, the result of countless people over the years scraping their initials into the wood while they waited to be attended to.
A small, delicately-featured woman dressed in jeans and a black wind-breaker sat beside Templeton. She wore no shoes and her feet were cut.
“Are you cold, Mrs Ngubane?” Joubert asked. Many times before she'd asked him to call her 'Ellen' but he steadfastly resisted. The last thing Joubert wanted was to become too familiar and matey.
“I see you're shivering, I can get you a blanket.”
She shook her head. “No thanks. I'm fine it's probably just the tension and reaction to what happened today.”
“Bring a blanket anyway,” he said to a constable standing nearby.
“You were lucky to escape with your lives,” said Joubert.
“Yes,” sighed Ellen Ngubane. “I saw them coming down the road and knew they were on the way to our house. I grabbed Thandi and we climbed over the back fence and were able to escape without them seeing us. I didn't even have time to put on my shoes.”
She looked tired.
“What I don't get, Temp, is why you waited until this morning to get out. For the past week we heard policemen and councillors were going to be targeted,” said Joubert.
“Why didn't you move your stuff out earlier?”
Ngubane took a sip of the coffee and shrugged his shoulders.
“I suppose I preferred not to believe it. I've lived with and served these people for years. I watched those kids grow up. I probably lied to myself, by choosing to believe they wouldn't turn on me.”
He turned to Ellen and put his arms around her.
“My arrogance in believing that, nearly cost you and Thandi your lives,” he said. “I am so sorry!”
Ellen softly pressed her forefinger to his lips to stop him talking.
“Hush, This is not your fault.”
Templeton crushed her to his chest and held her.
“Thank you,” he whispered.
“Where is Thandi now?” he asked, finally releasing Ellen.
“She's fine. She's with a female police officer who has managed to find a few toys for her.”
“How is she?”
“She's okay. I don't think she really understands what happened.”
Ngubane took another mouthful of coffee.
“Find me a cigarette please,” he said to the constable.
Ellen looked sharply at him then changed her mind and kept quiet. Templeton gave up smoking three months earlier when, at his annual physical exam, the police doctor told him he was fast heading for a heart attack. But at this moment, the possibility of a heart attack seemed insignificant.
The constable handed him a half-empty pack of Gunston plain cigarettes. Ngubane took one and tapped the ends against the side of the matchbox to tamp down loose strands of tobacco. He licked one end, put it in the corner of his mouth and lit it.
“I just didn't believe it would happen to me,” he said, drawing smoke into the depths of his lungs. “Other policemen maybe...but not me.”
If you enjoyed this and would like to read the rest of the novel, "I Can Hear Them Singing Now," purchase it in ebook format here.