Thursday, 18 October 2007

Arms, disarmament and urban legends

In almost every country on the African continent, political systems have been in transition for decades, and the transitions don't come easy. Violence, corruption and instability are often hallmarks of the political process.

These factors, however, also inspire urban legends of the strangest variety - particularly in the strange country called South Africa.

The first tale here is a classic from South Africa's pre-democracy and pre-reform days, when the right-wing ran the government and every black person was seen by whites as a potential "terrorist". The late Arnold Benjamin, who used it in his "So It Goes" column in the Star at the beginning of the 1980s, assured me at the time it was current in Johannesburg northern suburbs book club circles.

The mechanically-inclined gardener

... it concerned a lady who hired a casual gardener. She explained that she was waiting for the lawnmower to be repaired, but the new man said: "Let me try to fix it."

A while later, she found he had taken the machine skilfully apart. Not only that, he had laid out the bits and pieces in precise fashion on sheets of newspaper and was busy cleaning and oiling each one. Soon the lawnmower was its old efficient self.

The lady was impressed ... then alarmed. How would an ordinary migrant worker from Botswana acquire that sort of expertise? Wasn't that the way soldiers are trained to lay out the parts of a gun?

She became even more alarmed when she had a look into the gardener's room and discovered - so the story goes - a small stash of weaponry.

The housewife is said to have got to the nearest police station in about 30 seconds flat, but there the story fades out. Not to mention the gardener.

The good news, anyway, was that she did get her lawnmower fixed free.

This legend can also be seen in the light of numerous burglaries and attacks on suburban homes, either involving recently employed gardeners, or where such labour is suspected of performing an inside job.

In the broader society, meanwhile, black youths became more and more unwilling to fit in with the existing political structures. The Tricameral Parliament introduced after the 1983 referendum, which gave coloureds and Indians a form of parliamentary representation, was in fact the spark for the worst violence in this country's history. From 1984 to 1989, the townships became virtually ungovernable. It was this process, as much as growing enlightenment, that persuaded former president FW de Klerk that the old road was a cul de sac.


The disarmed enemy

The "Class of 1984", as the young "comrades" of this era were known (as opposed to the "Class of '76", who had participated in the June 16 Soweto uprising), became increasingly militant, and it became an everyday occurrence for black school children to skip the country for military training. Others stayed behind, to be trained on the battleground of the township streets. One of these, by now an ex-comrade, described the consequences of an ANC slogan of the time, "Disarm the enemy, and arm the people:

By the beginning of 1990, you no longer saw 10111 cars (small Flying Squad patrol cars) in the townships themselves, only on the main roads past the townships. This was because so many of them had been hijacked, and roadblocks had been disarmed.

I know of only one specific case, which happened in 1989. There was a police roadblock on the Soweto freeway next to a filling station in Diepkloof. It was badly situated, and the police could not see what was happening around them - only the road in front of them.

One night, the police suddenly went mad, running around, sirens howling, house-to-house searches. Word went round that the roadblock had been disarmed. A number of armed youths had taken the police by surprise and removed their weapons.

I didn't see the disarmament myself, but I remember the police cars moving about with their sirens going. A few days later the roadblock was moved up the road to a spot from where they could see everything around them.

My informant was unable to place the exact date, and he had not heard of any other specific cases. He was certain it was true, but did not personally know of anyone who had been involved. The incident had been hushed up by the police, who did not want anyone to know how they'd been caught with their pants down.

An urban legend? If it is, it ties in perfectly with the tale of The Killer Potato (from "The Rabbit in the Thorn Tree"), which has township kids in 1976 disarming an armoured car on patrol through the townships by lobbing a green-painted potato through the turret.

In the 1989 version, there are no clever tricks involved, but yet again it plays on the stupidity of the security forces, again it is a disarmament, and again it is hushed up by the authorities.

* This excerpt was originally published in my second book, "The Leopard in the Luggage: Urban Legends of Southern Africa" (Penguin, 1993).

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