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States of Emergency

This is the year that people will talk about
This is the year that people will be silent about
The old see the young die.
The foolish see the wise die.
The earth no longer produces, it devours.
The sky hurls down no rain, only iron.

—Bertolt Brecht

Sometime during 1986 I embarked on a period of kleptomania, which lasted for about four years. Mostly I stole books, although occasionally I would slip a lipstick into my pocket. I was a selective thief and lifted my treasures exclusively from De Jong’s bookshop, a small independent bookseller situated over the road from the main campus of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg where I was completing my final year in Comparative Literature and African History—a solid liberal, middle class education.

De Jong’s was dimly lit and crammed from floor to ceiling with books. The cluttered layout was perfect for a book thief. The air was dry with the smell of paper, pipe tobacco, and strong coffee. In the dusty light I would go up close to the shelves, my nose almost touching the spines to see their titles. I was looking for Marx, Althusser, Engels, Bataille, Mapplethorp, just some of the books banned by the South African Government’s Publications Control Board—books containing the ideas that could provoke unrest and moral degeneration were the masses allowed to read them. An afternoon in the murky stacks at De Jong’s felt positively revolutionary in its bookish transgressions.

Rumor had it that the owner, Marcus de Jong, a shy man with wire rimmed spectacles, was a police informer, and certainly it was the only place we could buy books banned under the censorship legislation. But this rumor, like so many others of the time, was part of the strange paranoia crackling in the air and was never confirmed or denied. De Jong remained in business and those who bought from him paid cash, leaving no paper trail for the security police to follow.

The only other place students were able to lay our hands on books such as these was in the Banned Books section at the Willem Cullen University Library, where we were required to fill in permission slips to request our dangerous reading material. Author, Title, Name, Student Number, and Reason for Borrowing. The librarian would unlock a glass case and hand over the incendiary volumes for an hour or two.

I chose instead to sweat in my specially modified thief’s coat with extra large pockets handsewn into the linings. Somehow a copy of Das Kapital skimmed in the warm gloom of the bookshop was much more desirable and alive with possibility than its pale library twin. I wanted to read these books of course, as many of them as I could, but in a country where certain books were forbidden and knowledge censored, there was a need also to own them, to carry them away with me, next to my body and to place them on my shelves in an order of my own determining. And buying them seemed tame compared to stealing them. Textbooks I bought. But these volumes I lifted, pocketed, and spirited away. Here at De Jong’s they were mine for the taking; no questions asked.

Questioning the South African Government became increasingly difficult as the apartheid machine grew more ruthless and paranoid. On the 12th June 1986, four days before the 10th anniversary of the Soweto riots, President P.W. Botha declared a State of Emergency across the whole country. With the State of Emergency came extraordinary powers to clamp down on news, information, and dissent. Coverage of political events was restricted. Curfews and the blanket banning of political gatherings became ordinary occurrences. Newspapers began to print stories with censored portions blocked out, like letters from prisoners of war, in order to give the public an idea of just how much information they were being protected from.

An estimated 26,000 people were detained during this period. The 1967 Terrorism Act allowed for indefinite detention without trial. Interrogation and torture were employed as a matter of course. By detaining key people in organisations like trade unions, political parties, and community networks, the regime hoped that the opposition would be fragmented and less effective. In spite of the number of deaths that occurred in detention, morale in anti-apartheid organisations seemed to stay resolutely upbeat. “There was no question they might kill me,” said Cedric Mayson, a detainee, in an interview many years later, “that they might do anything to me, but we were going to win the struggle. It was a tremendous experience of faith which buoyed me up tremendously all the way through.”[1]

At about that time, I was living in a large two-story house on the corner of Honey Street and Lily Avenue in Berea. The Johannesburg suburb of Berea was once a well-to-do predominantly Jewish area, settled not long after the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand in 1886. By the 1980s Berea had slightly gone to seed in a genteel, blowsy kind of way—a blurring of the edges, some houses falling into dilapidation, their former owners having retreated further away into safer, whiter areas of suburbia. Berea was close to the edge where the city was beginning to reflect its future, the line demarcating where blacks and whites could live according to the Group Areas Act of 1950 was becoming increasingly blurred. It was one of the few white suburbs in the 1980s where black people were able to live, renting out rooms and flats from white friends who had signed a lease on their behalf in what was becoming a “grey area” in the discourse of the time. South Africans were used to seeing all issues in terms of color.

A new mix of people moved into the spaces left by the retreating middle classes—an odd gathering of misfits who were constantly on the move—artists, musicians, young families, mixed race couples, drug dealers, students, and political activists made it the kind of place that felt easy for me to live in. No one stayed at an address for long. We were shifty and uncertain, insecure about rooting ourselves in a city where you wouldn’t want to be pinned down, found out, or classified.

At night, whites and blacks could be seen together drinking, smoking, and jolling. It was as though the future had started to dream itself, almost unnoticed, here in this tiny suburb, right under the noses of the apartheid Baase. Here it was easy to be visible and invisible at the same time. It was easy to be a student by day and then to slip into the flickering nightlife up Rockey Street, a ten-minute walk away, lit up by acid and calmed down by joints that I had learned to roll with one hand from a travelling salesman.

This was the mood of Joburg in the mid-1980s, where everything seemed about to drop off the end of the world as we knew it. Mass protests were spreading with the speed of a veld fire across the Witwatersrand: protests in the townships against rent hikes and the worsening economic situation of ordinary black families. International sanctions were beginning to have a real economic impact. Police stations burned and school children stayed home. Words used in the minutes of the State Security Council included “eliminate,” “neutralise,” “track down and destroy,” “remove permanently from society.”[2] The South African State was constructing its own version of the Final Solution.

At the time I thought that this intensity of violence, political repression, and paranoia could not escalate indefinitely, but I did not know where the line marking the end of this world would finally be drawn. How was I to tip the balance other than to stay alert, be careful and to keep moving? In one year I moved seven times.

Halley’s Comet streaked across the sky in February 1986. This was a time when information was thin on the ground, a time to read signs wherever we could find them. It was not lost on us that Halley’s Comet, that red star shaking down disease, pestilence, and war, had become visible at times of great historical turbulence: the Battle of Hastings, the Great Plague of London, Napoleon preparing for his fateful invasion of Russia. In Governor Van der Stel’s Cape diary of 1682, he records a sighting of the comet linking it to “heavy rains and an insect pest that has destroyed the crops. What will happen when the comet has sunk right down God Almighty alone can tell.”[3]

According to my Calvinist middle class upbringing, we were in a state of Sin and unless I repented, God’s punishment was inevitable. Even though I no longer attended Church or believed in these notions of God, during this time I became deeply superstitious. The Comet was a harbinger of something, and I gave it the mystical attention it deserved.

Although the Comet had been just visible for a few months in the early hours of the morning, what I remember is a warm April evening climbing the hill to the latticed dome of the Yeoville water tower with a six pack of Black Label, a roll of blankets, and a copy of the I Ching I had stolen especially for this occasion. The night was shrill with crickets as we stared into the sky trying to discern the trail of the Comet from millions of starry points. I threw coins on the blanket, squinting at the I Ching, deciphering the hexagram by torchlight. “Listen here!” I shouted to the company, trying to make myself heard above the noise of the party. “It says that strength in the face of danger does not plunge ahead but bides its time.”

Hours later, still trying to see a sign in the sky, I fell asleep. The comet amounted only to a brief smudge across the sky that night— disappointing by all accounts. When I woke, shivering and hung over, like a disciple in Gethsemane, it had passed while I slept.

By 1988, three years into the State of Emergency, I had finished my degree and had occasional employment but was mostly out of work. I read newspapers and listened to the news on the SABC, the South African Broadcasting Corporation, which carefully controlled the content presented to us. It was as though I could hear the static silences where truth had been censored. What the truth was, I could only piece together from other sources—hearsay, anecdote, samizdat pamphlets grubby from being passed around. But it was surely out there, burning in the townships, hanging on a rope, slipping on the soap, falling from the tenth-floor window of John Vorster Square.

It would have been difficult to explain, if anyone had asked, exactly what we were feeling at that time. There seemed to be no end to the creativity of repression. Every week more people were locked up, disappeared, found dead. There were rumors of a sinister Third Force, an escalation of violence in the townships and rural areas, that was ascribed by some to police and army agent provocateurs. When I called my friend whose father was an editor on the Rand Daily Mail, the only opposition newspaper, I waited for the click at the other end of the line before starting to speak, imagining the room full of plain clothes cops, ears plugged in and listening for betrayal.

I broke up with my boyfriend and tried to be alone for a while. I had begun to discern that the more men I fell in and out of love with, the less there was of myself to hold on to. There were too many of them wandering in and out of my life, and I found myself struggling to remember particular details: Who had a mole on their right thumb? Who drank red wine and coke for breakfast?

I befriended Jackie, a fey skinny girl, who introduced me to the barbiturates that would be my new solace: Nembutol, Seconal, and Tuinol, and to the doctor who would provide us with the prescriptions. I visited his office fortnightly, my weight now around nine stone and my clothes hanging loose. He sat behind his desk, a bald dome with glasses. Jackie had told me that he was a morphine addict.

“How are you feeling today?” he would ask me.

“Still anxious and I can’t sleep,” I said using the lines I knew by heart. It never occurred to me then that these might be real symptoms. And then, almost forgetting that Jackie had also instructed me to get Obex, the diet pills, for an occasional upper, I added, “But I am struggling to lose weight.”

One afternoon, with the sound of the air conditioner noisy and intrusive in the room, he said, “I will have to examine you.” He waited discreetly for me to undress behind the curtain. I lay on the table, the paper towel crackling under my hips.

“Right,” he said, swirling the curtain back and bending over to peer at me more closely. His fingers were cool and I stiffened in surprise as he slipped them inside me. The air conditioner chugged above the noise of traffic in Jeppe Street and I lay very still. When he was done he straightened and wiped his hand on a piece of paper towel. He threw it in the metal bin and without looking at me he opened the curtain and returned to his desk. I dressed and collected my prescription from him as usual. As usual I paid cash to the elderly receptionist who I suspected may have been his mother.

The abuses of power continued on a grander scale than ever before with the extraordinary privileges given to the police under the new State of Emergency. People were arrested without warrants, detained indefinitely without being charged, denied access to lawyers and next of kin. Most of those detained, up to 85%, were tortured.[4] Prisoners were routinely beaten, subjected to electric shocks, strangled. Dangled out of windows. Stood for days on bricks, naked and freezing. Had heavy objects tied to their testicles. Sat for hours on imaginary chairs, were asphyxiated with wet sacks over their heads. Stood with stones in their shoes. Fingernails sjambokked until they peeled away.

Did I ask myself how could I live and what I could do in the face of this increasing chaos? I doubt that I was able to frame the problem in such a lucid way at the time, but my own shiftless days and lost nights were the avoidance of an answer, the shrinking back from a responsibility that I had no idea how to accept.

Most properties in suburban South Africa had what was known colloquially as the boy’s room, or the girl’s room where black domestic workers could live close to their employment so long as they had a Pass, an identity document allowing them to live and work in white areas. At 73 Honey Street, the servants’ quarters was a low slung shabby outbuilding along one side of the fence. The tenants, a single family, or perhaps more than one, came and went without us ever having much interaction. Occasionally I would see a thin woman filling her plastic bucket with water from the garden tap, but mostly we had little contact and this just seemed to be the way it was.

If I had been in a different frame of life, I might have got to know them better. I may even have employed the woman to work in the house. God knows there was plenty that could have been done. As it was, at that time I did not care about dirty floors or clean toilets. Occasionally I would leave a bag of fruit and vegetables at their door. Neither they nor I ever acknowledged the giving or receiving of these food parcels.

The Honey Street house had a ragbag stream of tenants, some coming to live there through connections of connections, others just hearing the word on the street that there was a room for rent. Duggie was salesman for a cut price carpet company, a man who lived in the present tense, moving from sale to sale, his life the pure pursuit of the elusive Yes! His signature look was a severe crew cut and suits that pulled around the crotch. The walls of his room were postered with slogans declaring his belief in the rites of capitalism and the fast buck: “Demand more from yourself than anyone else could ever expect!” No one expected much from Duggie anyway. “Don’t sell life insurance, sell what life insurance can do,” he told me one night as I exhaled smoke, my head resting against the cool window pane. “I’m not going to be needing life insurance,” I told him and believed it utterly. Life insurance seemed like the punchline to a particularly unfunny joke.

Barry, an alcoholic preacher and an occasional sleeping partner, shared the spoils with me from the sale of acid tabs and coke to the Friday night party crowd. On Friday nights after dropping a cap we’d sit on the kitchen floor, in a circle reminiscent of Sunday School while he sang Pentecostal hymns from his prelapserian days. Friday night junkies tolerated this, sometimes they wept a little before leaving with their baggie, determined to be a better person after this last lot, seriously.

At some point in the summer of 1987, Minah and Yusuf moved in. The politicos I called them, my dig at what I saw as their useless political idealism in the face of the anarchy spreading across the country. I meant this in every way to be snide. They were fully engaged with the UDF, the United Democratic Front, and came home late, burlap bags brimming with political tracts, red and yellow and bold black lettering: Forward To People’s Power! I used them to roll my joints.

I was furious at them for their involvement, for the place they had found in the Struggle. My boyfriend at the time, an out of work journalist, rolled his eyes at their political naiveté. We smiled in an adult sort of way at their lack of grasp of the nuances of the Marxist notion of the means of production in a post-colonial country such as South Africa. “What they don’t understand,” my boyfriend said as he tapped the marijuana pips out of the Release Political Prisoners pamphlet, “What they fail to see, are the conditions of possibility for lasting revolution.” I agreed with him but couldn’t help thinking that there was something missing in our position, something to do with actual physical involvement. Even stoned I could see that finding your place in the Struggle beats being stoned and talking about it in Marxist terms.

The Struggle came to a head at 73 Honey Street when Minah and Yusuf removed the fridge from the kitchen because they had found the acid tabs taped to the underside of the lettuce crisper. We had finally crossed a moral line with them. I apologised and they accepted, but the next time I saw the fridge it was in their bedroom, a sturdy chain and padlock around its middle to keep the druggies out.

My new boyfriend, an aspiring poet and failed philosophy student, decided we should throw party. We turned the kitchen into a small shebeen and built campfires in the garden. I wore a skirt so tight that I could only take shuffling steps, the tightness over my hips and thighs flaring out in a flounce at the knees.

I wandered around the garden, its boundaries becoming increasingly unfamiliar as the acid buzzed around my body. Lit from behind by fire, the man who would be my next boyfriend was singing, I was lying in a burned out basement, with the full moon in my eyes, his voice breaking with emotion. I touched the back of his neck as I walked past him in search of something I could only vaguely remember the details of.

Someone set up a projector and Marilyn pouted, throwing her head back in pleasure as Some Like it Hot flickered against the garden wall.

If we went to bed that night I cannot remember. What I do remember is that the next morning I was sitting on the back stoop of the house wrapped in a thick blanket and drinking coffee with whisky, managing my comedown. Leaning back in the early morning sun I listened to the ringing of the Sunday church bells. A small figure emerged from the servants’ quarters, his hair tinged red with malnutrition and his nose crusted with snot. He had on a grey jersey, the sleeves too long for his skinny arms. As I watched, he walked to the outside tap and filled a tin mug with water. I raised my hand, thinking I might say something to him, but he did not glance in my direction or acknowledge my presence, and I dropped my hand again.

Staring at his face, I knew with absolute certainty that it was my neglect that was the cause of his kwashiorkor belly, his streaming nose. I knew had to do something. Things could not be allowed to slide in this way any longer. I would speak to his mother and we would make a plan for his future. The boy would be taken care of.

When Monday came, life closed over me like water and I continued my existence—of being unemployed, of not taking responsibility, of getting high and getting by. I saw the boy occasionally playing in the dust outside the servants’ rooms, but still did nothing about the dragging shame I felt at these moments.

Years later I read Rebecca’s Solnit’s discussion of leprosy in The Faraway Nearby. She argues that the loss of feeling characteristic of the disease is symptomatic both of a physical and a psychological state. “The nerveless part of the body remains alive, but pain and sensation define the self; what you cannot feel is not you; what you cannot feel you do not readily take care of; your extremities become lost to you.” Empathy is the way we are able to navigate this gap between loss of sensation and humane action in the world.

South Africa at this time was deadened by pain and trauma. Statistics were just that, facts disconnected from the pain they reflected. As a young woman trying to structure my world view, to find a way to live my life, I had failed to learn what Solnit calls the “navigational power of empathy.”5

On the 8th of June 1990, the State of Emergency was finally lifted by President FW de Klerk. The concerted efforts of the ANC and community groups, trade unions and activists on the ground, myself notwithstanding, had finally paid off. Pressure from the international community and big business finally took its toll on the teetering architecture of the apartheid state. The economic price being paid for unrest and uncertainty was becoming unsustainable. The Rand and the price of gold continued to fall.

Plans were announced concerning the release of Mandela and unbanning the African National Congress and other opposition political parties. We could not see this but we were a mere four years away from emerging into democratic elections, of realising the dream of One Man, One Vote.

Now when I look back, I still do not have a clear explanation for my own political apathy, my social neglect, my cynical take on liberal ideals, my kleptomania, and my addictions. Except to say that I know that these things were inextricably linked.

The root of the word kleptomania comes from the Greek kleph meaning thief. The same word kleph was used for the Greek fighters during the war of independence against the Turks in the 15th century. Thief, brigand, terrorist. The thief re-appropriates was is not hers to own. I see now that theft is subversive on a fundamental, spanner in the works, kind of level. Even so, why was I never brave or imaginative enough for grander acts of engagement in the Struggle? Was it just that my inherent cynicism pushed against the idealism of the student Left or the hopefulness of the UDF politicos? An evening I had spent discussing the “Five Freedoms” over a glass of chardonnay and canapés drove me wild with its futility. Or was it simply that in turning inward I had discerned that small acts of subversion—stealing, dropping out, chasing the dragon—while personally costly, seemed to carry the charge I was looking for? They helped me feel pain even as they deadened it. They helped me do something while doing nothing at all.

Jackie died of an overdose. I delivered the pills to her late one Friday afternoon and didn’t stop to get high with her. Then I wished I had; now I am grateful I didn’t.

After she died, it was as though a very bright light had been shone into the corners of my shabby, neglectful existence. I cannot say that I never took drugs again after her death—that would have been too easy an epiphany—but I never touched barbiturates again. Soon after her death, I was employed by the local library and worked there for the next ten years; my life held fast by books and their logic once again. It felt right to be in a place where books could be handed out for free, where knowledge was available to everyone, where there was no such thing as a dangerous idea, at least for this, the immediate future.


1. “1968-1997 Detention without Trial in John Vorster Square” (Exhibition).

2. Clark, N and Worger, W. The Rise and Fall of Apartheid (Longman 2004), p 92.

3. Quarmby, R. Halley’s Comet in South Africa, October 1985-May 1986, (Delta Books 1985), p. 11.

4. Clark, N and Worger, W. ibid.

5. Solnit, Rebecca. “The Faraway Nearby,” Granta (2013), p. 113.



A previous version of this piece was published in Gutter Magazine 13.

Lynnda Wardle was born in Johannesburg and lives in Glasgow. She received a Scottish Book Trust New Writer’s Award (2007) for a novella and has had pieces published thi wurd, Gutter, New Writing Scotland, and PENnings magazine. She is currently working on a memoir. For more, visit lynndawardle.com.