As they drove towards the shopping centre, Surya was laughing because Lindiwe was scolding her as usual for her weekly flutter on the horses. To Lindy, it was decadent; part of an exploitative, capitalistic system, set up to fill poor people with false hopes of instant riches. The government which frowns upon all forms of gambling chooses not to regard horse racing as gambling because it is a source of revenue. And here was Surya, an anti-government activist, supporting it.
When they arrived at the shopping centre, Surya, about to make a right turn into the parking area, had to stop as a white woman, in a nurse's uniform, engaged in conversation with another nurse, was standing in the entrance. Surya gave a little toot on her horn, thinking that the woman had not noticed her. The companion moved out of the way, but the woman, looking up in great indignation at Surya, stayed right where she was.
Surya was puzzled, ‘What's wrong with her?'
Lindiwe glowered. ‘She's just being funny. Because she's white, she thinks you have no right to ask her to move. Go on then, run her over.'
Surya began to move forward, but the woman stood her ground and Surya, doing her best not to ride over the woman's toes, was forced to squeeze past. Lindy was boiling, ‘These damn whites. Think everything is theirs by right. What are you so worried about? If you knock her down, it'll be her own damn fault.'
Surya tried to soothe Lindy. ‘It was just one of those things. She must have been offended because I hooted at her.'
‘So what did she expect? That you should hold up traffic just so she could finish her conversation?'
Lindy launched into a tirade against Whites that continued in the tote office and all the way down to the supermarket. It gave her relief to vent her feelings. Surya, who felt helpless against petty racism, found Lindy's fighting talk a little trying. When they got to the supermarket, in their attempt to get through the crowds, they forgot for a moment about Black-White issues. After picking up a few essentials, they found themselves in a queue that looked fairly short, at least something to be grateful for on this Saturday at the end of the month. They were in a hurry; this was a quick stop to pick up tea and biscuits for the meeting that they were attending in town.
They soon became aware that something was going on ahead of them. A White woman, immediately in front, was having an argument with a Coloured woman in front of her. The White woman was trying to get in before the Coloured woman who it seems had a laden trolley in front of her and two more, just as full, on the side. The woman behind, seeing the three trolleys, was adamant that the Coloured woman leave the queue and line up all her trolleys one behind the other. The Coloured woman countered by accusing the woman of picking on her because she was Black. The white woman then defended herself by saying she wasn't South African. She was English.
Watching from behind, Lindy and Surya were struck once more by the white attitude of intolerance. Surya was afraid that Lindy was going to get involved. But a man approached the scene. Assuming that he was from the management, the English woman complained that the Coloured woman was a making political issue of the situation. The Coloured woman also began to complain, but the man, in a very firm manner, asked her to be quiet and turned his attention to the English woman. He asked her who had been in line first and the woman aggrieved at what she considered to be a confidence trick, complained about the other woman's many trolleys. A White man in front confirmed that the Coloured woman had been in line all along, but he was ignored by all, including the Coloured woman so he went ahead, paid for his groceries and left.
The Coloured woman began to complain again about being abused because she was Black. The man told her again to be quiet and calmly began unloading the goods out of her trolley onto the checkout counter. This took the English woman by surprise. The man turned to her and said that since his wife had been in line before her, she had every right to remain where she was. This man who looked white, was actually the Coloured woman's husband. He told the English woman, who was standing there fuming, that her impatience smacked of petty racism. She protested again that she was English. ‘Yes, and it's you people who have messed up the whole world. Look at the state of this country. It wouldn't have been in this mess if it hadn't been for the English.' The woman turned to her husband who had been standing by their trolley all the while, acutely embarrassed at the scene that she had created.
Lindy began to laugh. The Coloured man seeing Lindy's smiling face suddenly realised that he was the centre of a performance and began to enjoy himself. He marched round the queue and pushing the two offending trolleys forward asked the English woman how she would like him to line them up. He indicated that he could put them side by side or one behind the other. The woman, still recovering from the shock that this was a Coloured man, watched in indignant and humiliated silence as he pushed his trolleys to the counter and unloaded them. Smiling cheerfully at all around, acknowledging the quiet applause of his audience, the man threw out proud remarks that his was Black blood. When he paid for his provisions, the amount rung up was four hundred and eighty-six rands and one cent.
Lindy turned to Surya, ‘You'd think that the supermarket would look after a customer like that.' She was beaming with delight. The fog had lifted from her brow. ‘Oh, I like his style. That is a man. So firm and strong, the kind you read about in romances. Why have I never met one?'
Surya laughed, ‘What are you looking for? A sparring partner?'
‘Oh, got to hell.'
Lindy's eyes followed the couple to the exit and as she turned to speak to Surya, her eyes lighted on the young white man who had tried to speak up for the coloured woman. He was at the cigarette kiosk. She caught his eyes a moment. ‘Liberal White,' she thought, as she dismissed him from her mind.
Soon Surya and Lindy were on their way to the meeting at attorney Vish Pillay's offices. As they pulled up outside the building, Lindy was surprised to see walking ahead of them, the same young man from the supermarket, the one who had tried to defend the Coloured woman. Alarm bells went off in her head: Special Branch! She nudged Surya. ‘Do you see that?' Surya looked up but was puzzled. ‘That chap was in the supermarket just now.'
Surya was indifferent. ‘So what? We've been followed before. Come on, let's go.'
When they entered the attorney's offices, they found the group already assembled there. Vish came forward to meet them. ‘Lindy,' he took her aside, ‘thank goodness you're here. Would you chair the meeting today? I don't want to. It seems that Singh and his friends are determined to make trouble and I want to be free to hammer them from the floor.' Lindy frowned. ‘Please,' Vish persisted, ‘you're the only one I can depend on to keep the situation under control.'
‘Okay, but I don't have your tact.'
Vish laughed. ‘Today is not a day for tact.' Someone came up and whispered in his ear and he left abruptly.
Lindy sat down next to Surya who as usual had found a quiet corner for herself and was observing the human goings on around her. Lindy sighed. ‘Vish wants me to chair. There's going to be more infighting today. Singh's gang is going to be pushing for Congress representation on the Council. '
Surya smiled mischievously, ‘They don't stand a chance against you.'
Lindy was about to reply but Vish's voice broke into their conversation. ‘Lindy, time to get started.'
The meeting began and as expected rose to a fierce battle about participation in government appointed advisory bodies. Singh believed it was the only way to influence government policy. Vish was contemptuous; government appointed bodies were puppet structures, toothless; they gave credence to the government's claims that it was empowering the black communities. Singh's group felt that they had no option but to fight the government from the inside. Vish was scornful, ‘Don't be ridiculous. You will become a figurehead, humoured and ignored. The only way to deal with this is to repudiate these Councils.'
Singh sneered, ‘How? Passive resistance? Boycotts? Strikes? They have never worked.' Vish was adamant, ‘We will call for non-cooperation; no one must accept appointment to the councils.' Singh's cynical laughter was loud and long. ‘There are many opportunists out there. You are asking them to turn their backs on money and status.' Vish snapped back, ‘I am asking us to do that. We have to set the example.'
As Lindy called for order, she caught sight of the young man from the supermarket. She was shocked. What was he doing here? Vish called Lindy back to business, ‘Madam Chair, may I continue.'
Lindy looked up, ‘Before you do, I believe we ought to check credentials.'
Vish was surprised. ‘But Chairperson...'
‘I'm sorry but this is supposed to be a closed meeting, yet I see faces that I do not know.' Lindy directed her gaze at the young man who got up to leave but Vish motioned to him to sit down. Vish turned to Lindy, ‘Let's not waste time ...'
‘I'm sorry Vish, but I'm not satisfied that all those present here, have the same concerns as we have.'
‘She's quite right.' Singh's voice boomed across the room. ‘We should have checked credentials before we started.'
Vish turned to Lindy and in exasperation announced, ‘Madam Chair, your request comes rather late in the day.'
‘I accept that and I apologise. But newcomers must identify themselves.'
Vish became quite annoyed. ‘Madam Chair you know perfectly well that every organisation is infiltrated by spies and sometimes they turn out to be the most trusted members of the organisation.' His eyes were fixed on Singh. ‘If you believe that anything said at this meeting will remain within these four walls, you are quite mistaken. So if we are not willing to take risks, we ought to give up the whole business and accept that we can never be free.' Vish turned to the entire group. ‘ Do we proceed with this meeting or do we call a halt to everything right now?'
Lindy resented Vish's words which made her look like a fool. But she was not going to be forced to give way. She felt that Vish's kindly nature and the careless way he accepted the danger in which he lived, could jeopardise the whole organisation.
During the tussle between Lindy and Vish, the young man had quietly and unobtrusively removed himself from the room. Singh suddenly broke in. ‘Madam chair, I believe the person in question has taken your point. So let us proceed.'
With the issue resolved, the meeting proceeded and the two sides went at it again, hammer and tongs. Lindy thought she was going to lose control of the situation but when the argument was at its height, Vish stood up and demanded the floor. He pointed out that they were there to consider the plight of the people. There was real suffering, despair and frustration. People were living without recourse to the most basic necessities of life and their growth and development was being hindered at every turn. He then produced the most startling facts and figures, described conditions and related experiences that made the petty struggle for power in this room seem like another form of oppression of the poor. He quoted from a document, obviously put together with painstaking care, that brought vividly to mind the misery of the people. ‘These conditions will never change as long as we have oligarchic rule. Now this white government has established advisory councils, and we are being asked to endorse our own oppression.'
After Vish's moving address, Lindy appealed to the meeting to recognise the real issues at stake and it wasn't difficult to bring both sides together until the following meeting.
Afterwards, as Lindy picked up her handbag to leave, Vish came up beside her. ‘You handled the meeting well, except for that one tactless move ...'
‘You mean that SB? Look Vish, I've told you often enough, you're too trusting.'
‘Come with me.' Lindy's eyes were questioning. ‘Come on. Don't just stand there.' He led her into the inner office where she found the young man seated at Vish's desk. He jumped up and stood looking uncertainly at her and Vish.
‘Lindy,' I want you to meet the man whose facts and figures on housing, unemployment and the rest, gave me the ammunition to shoot down those dissident loudmouths. This is Mark Sheffield. He was detained five years ago for his work with trade unions. He's been out a couple of months. You may have heard of him.'
Lindy didn't know where to look. ‘Yes, I have heard of him.'
‘He's been doing research on living conditions in the townships and informal settlements and for obvious reasons has been keeping a low profile. He really shouldn't have been at this meeting today but I needed the material so he risked it for the sake of the organisation which as you can see is in a very fragile state now that the government is dangling carrots in front of our noses.'
Lindy was suffering the most awful embarrassment.
Mark smiled, ‘But you were quite right to be suspicious of me. At any rate, it's all over now and we're none the worse for wear.' He was trying to take the edge off Lindy's acute sense of shame. At this point, Singh came to the door. Vish went out to talk to him, leaving behind an awkward silence in the office.
Mark put out his hand, ‘I'm very glad to meet you. I have heard a great deal ...' His voice trailed off as Lindy turned to look at him.
‘Don't try to excuse me. I should have known better. I'm sorry ... no, not just sorry ...'
‘No, no. Let me finish. I am ashamed of myself. Not just because of my suspicion, but because of my prejudice ... I mean because you are white.'
‘Well, that's what we are all about, isn't it? Overcoming prejudice. We wouldn't have to overcome it, if it weren't there.' Lindy looked uncertain but then Mark said, ‘If you'll forget that I'm white, I'll forget that you're a racist.'
‘Racist! I'm not racist.' The defensive attitude was gone and she was gearing up for a fight when she caught the smile in his eyes. Involuntarily, she smiled back. Well, if she wasn't a racist, it was possible that he wasn't one either.