Elsabe peered through the screen door and saw Helen at the piano. She was always reminiscing about her days in musical theatre and had just finished singing, Climb Every Mountain. As Helen closed the piano, Elsabe heard David, “Thank you, darling, that was beautiful.” Elsabe could smell biscuits; David baked every afternoon. They were very useful as neighbours. They kept Uhuru, her four year old, entertained when she was busy and that was nearly everyday. Helen fed him milk and biscuits and they played with the finger puppets that she made for her Grade 1’s at the local primary school. Afterwards, David played football with him on the lawn and read him stories. They were like his grandparents.
Elsabe found him there every afternoon. She would have to do something about his habit of walking around the campus village knocking on doors looking for her. Sometimes he stopped at the Andersons where he played with their twins for a while. Sometimes he played with Mrs. Baloyi’s children but Mrs. Baloyi did not like him because he made the children take off their underwear for his games. That woman didn’t understand children’s natural curiosity.
Suddenly, Uhuru spied her through the screen, jumped out of David’s lap, ran to the door, unlatched it and leapt into her arms. He began crying loudly, “You left me. Why did you leave me? You said you were coming home. Why did you leave me?” This was his usual complaint. Elsabe tried to soothe him but he was too angry. She looked at David and Helen and shrugged. “I better take him home. He’s very tired. We won’t get any sense out of him while he’s like this. Thanks for taking him in.” She slipped out with Uhuru crying in her arms.
Elsabe lived just next door. As she was coming up the garden path with Uhuru, she could hear music and laughter issuing from her living room. Uhuru clung to his mother and cried bitterly. “Tell them to go away. I don’t want them here. Tell them to go away.” Elsabe sighed. It was tough being a single mother. It wasn’t just her job; she was also a member of an underground cell. She walked in to find some of her students, stretched out on the bean bags and cushions, drinking beer, drawing on joints and talking about a comrade’s narrow escape from the security police that day.
“Hey, Elsa, where you been, Comrade? Did Mr. Donkey stop you on the road?” Themba grinned at her over his beer. “That Mr. Donkey, he stands there in the road and he won’t go.” He called roadblocks Mr. Donkey.
Elsabe just smiled. She didn’t have time for Mr. Donkey stories; she had to get Uhuru to bed. He was being extremely troublesome. He didn’t want to stay in the bathtub by himself and each time she tried to join the others, he began screaming and crying. After she had bathed him and put him in his pyjamas, she had to lie down with him because he would not let her go. But, thank goodness, he was very tired and soon fell asleep. And she left him to join her companions in the living room.
She settled down next to Themba, took the joint from him and inhaled deeply. “This is good stuff.”
“Specially imported from Tekwini.” Vusi smiled. “I had to attend the Student Organisation’s National Exec meeting in Durban last week and one of the comrades had stacks. This is compliments of SO.”
“What’s SO up to?” Elsabe enquired.
“Well, SO is organizing a nationwide school boycott. Workers and teachers must go on strike too. We will make the country ungovernable. You can forget about that assignment you set us, Elsa.” Themba laughed as he opened another can of beer.
“That’s what you think,” Elsabe replied. “I am not about Bantu Education. My assignment is part of the struggle.”
Themba pulled her close to him and gave her a deep and long kiss. “Now, do I still have to do that assignment?”
Vusi was annoyed, “Hey, Themba, don’t talk rubbish.” He turned to Elsabe. “What have you been up to today, Comrade?”
“I was at a meeting in the north. Comrade Bafana outlined a plan for setting up civic structures in this region. Then we went to Groot Krans to meet with comrades there who have already begun organizing. They should have their Civic Association set up by the weekend. Hey, we had a close shave in Groot Krans. While we were discussing our plan, the police came. They wanted to know what we were doing there. They looked at me suspiciously.”
Themba smiled. “Yeah, one white face amongst all the Blacks.”
“But then they began to scrutinize Bafana, so I quickly told them that I was a lecturer and all the others were my students and I was simply helping them with a research project. They frowned at me, so I showed them my dog tag from the Department of Education and told them they could telephone the Chief Minister. He would confirm that I am a lecturer at the College. They examined my card for a long time. They were very suspicious but decided to accept my word. Then they told us to get out of there. So we got up and left. Luckily, they didn’t recognize Comrade Bafana. You know they’re looking for him. But these were only the local police. They’re pretty dumb.”
‘Bloody sell-outs. We should show this homeland government what we think of it. We should burn down the Chief Minister’s house.” Themba was excited at the prospect.
Vusi pulled deeply on his joint. “In Durban, they are saying that Mandela will be released soon. You know they’ve moved him from Robben Island to Pohlsmoor Prison. Just imagine it, 27 years in prison. Man, that’s my whole lifetime. I was born in1963.”
“I don’t think I could have survived that long in prison.” Elsabe shivered as she thought of it. Some of the people she had worked with, before she came here, were in prison. She was lucky; she had always managed to escape the security police. She was convinced it was because she was Afrikaans. She believed that the security police, who were mostly Afrikaners, had an innate respect for all Afrikaner women. Besides she had broadcast it widely that her father was a member of the Afrikaner Weerstands Beweging (Afrikaner Resistance Movement). She knew activists would be impressed that she had overcome her rabidly racist upbringing.
The telephone rang. It was Lars, a former boyfriend, a Swede who had long returned to his country taking with him their little son, Sven. Lars was not Uhuru’s father. Uhuru’s father, Martin Brown, had inducted her into the struggle. But he had left the city behind and was working in rural areas setting up cooperatives where poor Black rural women learned how to work together to develop viable businesses out of their indigenous crafts. Although they had separated some time ago, Elsabe had come to this remote part of the world so that Uhuru could be near his father. But Martin worked some distance away and had come to visit only once or twice and only at her request. Elsabe really wanted him to take responsibility for Uhuru in the way that Lars had taken Sven. She didn’t have time to bring up a child. Elsabe was quite annoyed that he could not see that she was as much a freedom fighter as he and a child was complicating her life dreadfully.
“Lars, what a surprise,” Elsabe returned into the mouthpiece. “How are you?” Lars informed her that he was fine and also indicated that Sven was doing well. “Oh yes, Sven. I am glad he’s well.” She listened again and then exclaimed, “His birthday! Oh, how could I have forgotten? Give him a big hug for me. He’s what, seven, eight now?... Thirteen!” She couldn’t believe it. “Is he really?” As she listened, she was beginning to lose her patience. “But this is not a good time. You know the situation in South Africa. The police have gone crazy and I am in constant danger.” But Lars put the boy on the line and she had no choice. “All right then. At the end of the month.” Lars came back on the line. She wanted to scream when he began giving her instructions and demanding assurances from her. “Don’t worry,“ she interrupted testily, “I’ll take care of him.”
She almost banged the ‘phone down. “Can you believe it? Sven is coming down at the end of the month.”
“Who’s Sven?” Themba took a swig from his can of beer.
Vusi was surprised. “You have another child besides Uhuru?”
“Yes. It was a long time ago. I was very young. Lars was crazy about me. That’s why he took Sven with him. It was a way of keeping me with him. Sven is thirteen. I haven’t seen him for... my God, ten years. I barely know what he looks like?”
“You haven’t seen him for ten years? Why is he coming now?”
“Going through some kind of teenage crisis. Wants to get to know his birth mother. I tried to tell Lars it’s not a good time. He said he didn’t actually want to send Sven but Sven was insisting. Listen, Themba, you’ll have to go with me to the airport to fetch him when he comes.”
“Themba doesn’t have a car. I’ll take you.”
“No, Vusi, Themba will drive my car.” Vusi swallowed looking resentfully at Themba, who smiled back at him expansively. Elsabe knew that they were competing for her affections. Not just Themba and Vusi, but all of them. They came here practically every night to imbibe and wait for when she would pick one of them. It was all very amusing. But right now she had a problem. “What the hell am I going to do with the kid? He won’t fit in here. And where am I going to get the money to entertain him. Lars is only paying his airfare.” It was bad enough being responsible for one child and now to have this one on his way too. She was mad; she had thought he was out of her life. She had even forgotten about him. She would have to find people to dump him with. But who?
“Don’t worry,” Themba drawled. “We’ll take care of him. He’s old enough. We’ll teach him.”
“You’ll just get him detained. No, I’ll have to think of something. Boys, it’s time for you to go back to the hostel.”
As the others stood up to leave, she took Themba by the hand and led him into her bedroom. She could hear thick exultation in Themba’s voice as he called out, “Goodnight, comrades.”
The next day, when Elsabe returned from her meeting with Comrade Bafana, she came straight to Helen and David and found Uhuru playing with toys on the living-room floor. As usual he jumped up and cried. She held him close in her arms but she didn’t just leave, as she usually did. She knew that Helen was a very sympathetic woman and had decided to see how far her sympathy would stretch. She sat down and began to tell Helen and David about her troubles. They looked surprised when she told them of Lars and Sven. “I was very young when I met Lars, only seventeen. He was an international journalist; he swept me off my feet. We lived together for a while but he wanted to go back to Sweden, and that ended it all. How could I leave? My destiny is here, in the struggle for liberation. I couldn’t go with him.” She paused and sighed. “Now Sven wants to visit. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I haven’t seen my son for ten years but I don’t have the money for his airfare.” She hugged Uhuru closer. “Oh, how I curse my Afrikaner background. A poor farmer’s daughter living on a remote farm, I have been severely disadvantaged.”
David looked sceptical, “You lived on a remote farm? How did you meet an international journalist?”
“Through the struggle. Through the struggle, of course. But what am I going to do? I need at least two thousand rand for the airfare.” She sighed again. She saw Helen looking at David who was frowning and almost imperceptibly shaking his head. Elsabe sighed again, very deeply. “I suppose I’ll manage somehow.” Elsabe hugged Uhuru and kissed him gently on the forehead. “At least I am here for Uhuru. I missed Sven’s growing up - his father took him away when he was three. Well, what will be will be.” Elsabe stood up, her features set like a tragic mask. “I know I shouldn’t but I was wondering if you...”
David streaked past her to the door. “Well, Elsa, it’s too bad about Sven. Goodnight.” But Helen motioned Elsabe to sit down. She knew David was frantically shaking his head and gesticulating to Helen behind her back. His wife ignored him and he stalked out of the room.
Elsabe sat there, her face buried in Uhuru’s neck. A surreptitious tear dropped from her eye. Helen took her hand, “Look, I have some money in the bank. My retirement savings. When we leave here, we will not be eligible for pensions. I don’t need it now. I can lend you some of it.”
Elsabe turned her beautiful face to Helen, her eyes full of pain and gratitude, “Oh, I couldn’t... not your retirement money.”
“Nonsense. I am quite prepared to make a short term loan.”
“Oh, you are so kind. What would I do without friends like you? I promise, I’ll pay it back by the end of the month.”
Helen made out a cheque for two thousand rand. Elsabe, full of love and tenderness for Helen, hugged her and then disappeared clutching the cheque and Uhuru.
Two days later, when David was coaching cricket, she tapped on Helen’s door again. She hadn’t come to get Uhuru; she had sent him off to Martin in his place in the mountains. He had to take some responsibility for his child. Why should she be the only one? Elsabe’s face was distraught and unhappy as she looked at Helen through the screen door. “Oh, Elsabe, what’s the matter? Please come in.” Helen quickly made tea and served it with some of David’s biscuits. Elsabe munching on a biscuit, perused Helen’s face with large, mournful green eyes.
“I don’t know how to tell you this. You will think I am trying to take advantage of you. No, I shouldn’t ask you. Forget it.” She took a sip from her cup and reached out for another biscuit.
“Ask me what?”
She could see that Helen was concerned and felt sorry for her. So she began to tell her about the time that her father had gone crazy. “He tried to kill the whole family but we managed to escape. He walked all around looking for us, shouting and calling. Wh
n he couldn’t find us, he...,” she clenched her fists and swallowed, “he went out into the veld, put his shotgun into his mouth and blew his brains out.” She shuddered from the effort of choking back her sobs.
Helen was shaking her head sadly. “You are an amazing woman. To have overcome that background? Look at you today. Fighting for democracy.” She shook her head in admiration. “What do you want to ask me?”
Elsabe brushed it off but Helen persisted. Eventually, Elsabe was forced to admit, “I made a mistake the other day. I actually need four thousand rand. I have to purchase a return ticket for Sven. I know I shouldn’t ask you, but I have nowhere else to turn.”
Helen did not hesitate, “Well, I have the money. As I told you, it’s for my retirement. It’s doing nothing in the bank. It won’t hurt to lend it out for a few weeks.”
Elsabe’s green eyes widened with gratitude. She gave Helen a big hug and fervently vowed, “I will never forget this. I promise you, you will have your money back at the end of the month.” Helen pulled out her chequebook again and Elsabe left clutching another two thousand rand in her hand. That night she threw a big party at her house and all her students came. They partied into the early hours of the morning, whooping and singing and laughing.
A week later, Elsabe and Bafana drove down to Johannesburg to pick up Sven. Elsabe had dropped Themba in favour of Bafana, a much more suitable companion and clearly going places. In the expensive new leather jacket that Elsabe had bought for him, Bafana looked very handsome. He was tall, well-built and dynamic; a charismatic activist leader in this rural area. He didn’t sit around telling inane stories about Mr. Donkey. He was setting up civic structures and organising people at grassroots level all over the region. He lived a cloak-and-dagger life and the danger surrounding him was an aphrodisiac. Elsabe was hooked. She clung to Bafana for dear life. And she was aware that he was flattered to have a beautiful white woman at his side.
At the airport, they waited together for Sven, Bafana holding the sign with Sven’s name that Elsabe had made. Eventually, a tall, blond boy approached them. When Elsabe saw him she could not believe her eyes. She threw her arms around him and held him close, so close. She had expected a child and here was this gorgeous boy, almost a man. She held him so tightly and so long that he began to squirm. She let him go and started to shower kisses on him. He looked embarrassed and even frightened. On their way back to the homeland, she sat close to him in the back of the car. It was a long drive home, more than four hours. They made one stop at one of those highway service centres and moved on. She knew Bafana had many pressing engagements the next day and had to be back with the comrades. As they neared the township, they encountered a roadblock.
“Just be quiet.” Bafana’s voice was calm and imperative. “I’ll handle this.”
Fortunately, it was the homeland police. They shone their torches in the car and looked around suspiciously. They asked Bafana to open the boot. They poked around and wanted Bafana to open Sven’s bag. They were looking for arms. Bafana spoke to them in the vernacular and after they had exchanged words, the police told him to drive on.
“What did they want? What did you say to them?” Elsabe’s voice was thick with excitement.
“They are looking for arms. They wanted to open Sven’s bag. I told them I was your driver and that I had brought you and your son home from the airport. I showed them the airline tags and said there was nothing in there but clothes. I told them they could speak to the madam; she is the wife of Major Van Wyk of the security police. He would be very upset to know that his wife had been harassed by the homeland police.” Elsabe laughed, then threw her arms around him and kissed him. “So I am Mrs. Van Wyk?” She laughed again. Then she turned to Sven and told him all about Bafana’s work and what a hero he was. When they got home, she hastily settled Sven in his room. Then she and Bafana disappeared into her bedroom.
In the next few weeks, she was riding around to meetings at all hours of the day and night. She had to be by her man, striving alongside him, facing the hazards with equal courage. She left Sven to find his own way and was delighted when she learned that Uhuru had taken him to Helen and David and they had organized a tea at which he had met some of the teenagers on campus. Thank goodness for that. Now that Sven had many friends, he wouldn’t be a burden on her.
She was very busy and she saw very little of him. He had come to her office once or twice but she could never spare the time to just sit around nattering about inconsequential things. When she came home at night, he would come out of his room but she couldn’t really talk to him, not with Bafana there. In the morning, she just had time to make coffee for everyone and when the domestic worker came, she handed over Uhuru and left. Several times when she brought a few comrades to the house, she would draw all the curtains, and they would plan their next protest action, usually a boycott of schools or a protest march. Before they left for some secret destination, if she saw Sven hanging around, she would tell him “We have very important work to do. If anyone comes to ask for me just tell them that I am at the College.”
He always irritated her with his naïve question, “Will you be at the College?”
“You must not ask me things like that. It is very dangerous.”
“I just thought I’d walk over and we could chat.”
“Oh Sven! I told your father this wasn’t a good time.”
“He didn’t want to send me. I forced him.”
“Well, you should have listened to your father.” And then she was off. Kids were such a burden, especially now in these exciting times. Rumours were flying that Mandela was going to be released soon and the security police had gone mad. Elsabe needed to be with Bafana more than ever now. If they picked him up, she wanted to be there with him, to shock and anger the secret police.
Then it happened, Mandela was released from prison. Bafana told her to go into hiding; he warned all the activists. But like everyone else, she was euphoric and began to celebrate. She sent her students out into the township and in no time, they had pupils pouring out of schools, roaming the streets in droves, overturning cars and attacking anyone who looked like an impimpi. She went with them on defiance marches to the government offices and joined them at night, when they burned the houses of MP’s. But her frenzy died down when the security police began rounding up scores of activists and Bafana and his comrades were picked up.
The day after they got him, army and police vehicles besieged the college. Nobody could enter or leave. Police were crawling all over the campus. And Elsabe knew they had come for her. She was waiting for them but when she opened the door and saw them in front of her, she froze.
“Are you Elsabe Viljoen?” She could only nod. They pushed past her into the house and began ransacking it looking for evidence of treason. She stood in the middle of the room, her eyes, large and expressionless, staring abstractly. Uhuru, who had just woken up, came running to her. She picked him up mechanically and clung to him like a drowning person. A policeman barged into Sven’s room and when he stumbled out to see what was going on, Elsabe turned desperately to him. Policemen, rifling through her belongings, surrounded her. She felt Sven put his arms around her and she leaned against him, trembling violently. Then he was wrapping a blanket around her. What would they do to her? Oh God, what would they do? She had never been detained but she had heard the horror stories. Would she be tortured, raped, killed?
The policemen tore through her possessions and began bagging things. Couldn’t they see that she was just a helpless woman, a mother with her two sons?
Then a sergeant ordered her to pack a bag; she was to be detained. She couldn’t move. She felt Sven guiding her gently into her room and helping her to dress. He packed a bag and took her back into the living room. A policeman grabbed the bag and she screamed. When another was about to grab hold of her, Sven waved him aside and took her to the waiting police car. He helped her in and gave her a hug; she couldn’t respond. Suddenly, Helen was poking her face at her through the car window, “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of Sven and Uhuru.” She didn’t understand. She did not even see Sven or Uhuru or the neighbours standing around the house talking in shocked whispers. As the car drove off, she sat staring straight ahead of her, “How could this be happening? Oh God, my life has come to an end.”