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.
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.
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.”
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.” 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.