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A DIFFERENT TIME

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

A DIFFERENT TIME

The eight-thirty train from Boksburg to Johannesburg was unusually empty. If I had paused to think about that, I would never have boarded. But I hadn't! The only passenger in the carriage, I lounged in the blue vinyl seats, my knees propped up against the back board of the one in front of me, my backpack sprawled across the rest of the three seater.

The dreary industrial areas passed me by. Towers of rust, concrete boxes and little fingers of shiny metal pierced the sky. Plumes of dirty grey and sepia tried in vain to hide their heinous acts. An old mine dump, like a muddy crater, broke the scenery and for a second my senses flared; but all too soon it was relocated to memory, the insipid towers and steel once again stealing the show. I swallowed, my mouth was dry and I wasn't feeling well.

Minutes passed by. I looked at my watch. Ten past nine. I would be in Johannesburg soon. The train jolted, screeching as it began slowing down. Immediately I saw them, all the hairs on my body came to attention. Hundreds of people packed the approaching platform. They were jumping up and down, stabbing at the sky with sticks and spears and placards.

I peered out the window for as long as I dared. The men's torsos glistened with sweat, spear or stick in one hand and a fur shield in the other, little fur cloths covering their privates and wrapped around their ankles. Some faces were covered with white ash or cream. The women, most of them big and fat, some partially naked and others wrapped in colourful blankets, brandished placards. I managed to read one, despite the frenetic crowd: the word INKATHA was scribbled across the top in big, bold letters and beneath it was a picture of a black shield and two spears crossing in front of it.

'Zulus!' I said aloud, then thought, 'what're the chances? The country is about to explode into a bloodbath and I'm stuck in a riot!' Inkatha were the illegal political party representing mostly Zulu people. I glanced at my clothes, wishing my eyes would paint them a different colour, give them another cut, a different texture; but my boots, freshly boned, shone with pride, my trousers remained army issue and brown as did my shirt. 'A real life damn target! I should've gone to school a year earlier. I would've been finished with my National Service and not been in this predicament now.'

My heart racing, I moved away from the window, keeping low in my seat, my eyes fixed on the glass panes. 'My military training is paying dividends,' I thought cynically. I heard people running past, yelling, shouting. Bang! The train rocked as something smashed into it. 'Keep on moving,' I whispered, urging the train on, but it kept on slowing. 'The doors,' I thought aloud, 'don't open!' I grabbed my pack and slid it under the chair. I didn't want anything on me that they might want.

The night before seemed a thing of the distant past. Beer in hand, dancing with friends and strangers and people I'd never see again, the strobe lights illuminating and hiding smiles and faces, the music literally stirring within me, I felt invincible, like I forever belonged to the age I was.

The train came to a grinding halt. I wished that I had my rifle, but instead it was locked away in the barracks. The banging increased, the rocking became more violent. 'Is this it. My last stop?' I began thinking about a million different things; a thought waterfall: where were my parents, what were they doing? I hoped my sisters would forgive me for being a brat growing up, I had never loved before, was it too late, does God exist? On and on my mind roared.

I was crouching down on my haunches, meagrely protected by the seat. I raised myself up, ever so slightly, to be able to see out the window. A Zulu warrior came running towards my carriage, his face rock hard with anger. He wound up, screaming a hellish "Aaaaaaaghhh!" as he unleashed his knob-kierie, a fighting stick with a solid round ball at the end, on the carriage. I ducked, waiting for the explosion of glass. A hollow sound rang out as wood sank into metal. I adjusted my position behind the chair, trying to make myself smaller than possible. I waited for the next strike. This time glass would surely shatter.

Seconds like minutes passed. The thunder of hundreds of hysterical people soaked the sky, the carriage, the cave of my soul. I looked down the aisle. The doors were still closed and it seemed that the noise outside the window was growing quieter. It hit me. They were boarding third class. I was at the back of the first class carriages. That meant that my back was up against the interlinking door separating me from them. Prrrrt, I heard the conductor blow his whistle. There was a bit more thudding and swaying and then it fell silent. With a jolt, the train began moving. I slid across my chair on my knee. The platform was empty. 'They're all on the train,' I thought, 'hundreds of angry people!'

Very soon, the built-up landscape whizzed past. I looked around. Not another soul; but I'd known that, so I shook my head, berating myself for being wishful. On the far side of the carriage, another door beckoned me to step through its portal. However, I couldn't say for sure who or what was on the other side of that door, even though I knew it was a first class carriage. I decided to stay put, I knew what I was dealing with there.

"Viva!" someone cried behind me. And then again, this time louder, "Viva Inkatha!" and then more voices were thrown in, "Viva! Viva!" The chant grew louder. I had another look at that door on the far side. I imagined the chant snaking all the way down to the tail of the train. The word had come alive, the "V" a spear-head stabbing my heart every time it rung out. "Viva! Viva! Viva! Viva Inkatha, Viva!"

I pulled my beret out of its shoulder strap, unwrapped it, put it on my head and with a few expert strokes smoothed it into shape. I don't know why I did it, I just did. My back straightened and my jaw set. The train jerked. I fell backwards, just managing to catch onto the silver piping lining the seats. I glanced up at the door. It was still closed. The train was slowing down. I grabbed my bag from under the chair and walked towards the door in the middle of the carriage. The chant still rang out. Clueless, people milled about on the platform, an old lady, her back bent, lent on her rigid walking stick, a corporate man hid his face behind a newspaper. I feared for their lives. A sign indicated that we were in Johannesburg. I stood in front of the door, adjusted my straps and waited, ready to run.

But before the train had even come to rest, the mob was on the platform, speeding across it, gouging the sky's womb out and screaming, "Viva! Viva!" The corporate man lowered his paper, then dropped it, running before it hit the ground. Everyone was screaming and running but the old lady. She was as ridged as her stick now.

Out of nowhere, some man snatched her up. Her stick fell to the ground. Too late to head for the exit, he headed for the train on the opposite side of the platform, the old lady safely in his arms. The train I was on stopped. I drew in a deep breath. The mob flooded the platform. The man and old lady disappeared behind the closing doors of the other train and then they were gone. An inspector tried to stop the mob to check their tickets but it was a losing battle. They surged past him and scrambled up the flight of narrow stairs. This caused a bottleneck and the tide was stemmed; but the jumping and chanting became all the more vigorous.

The door to my carriage opened. If I reached out I'd touch someone. I stepped back and waited, watching, as face after face passed me like a train of ghosts in a dream. In that moment I felt what I thought was hatred, in reality it was the fear of the unknown, the fear of death that had gripped me. A woman caught my eye as she moved past, leering at me. Something overcame me then; I can't explain it any other way other than a squaring up. I stepped out into the thinning river, my fists clenched, and I walked as a man with the right to be where he was, pushing through the throngs as I went.


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