The last time I had someone say it to me was a few years ago when I had moved to Central Australia to work. I had seen groups of Aboriginals bedded-down on the sand of the dry Todd River as a taxi drove me from the Alice Springs airport to my new share house. My comment to the taxi driver was that the sight of the black Australians roughing it on one side of the Stuart Highway was a striking juxtaposition against the neat suburban, mostly white houses on the opposite side of the road. His wry response in welcoming me to my new town drove home a reality hidden from urban Australians. Australia has a black history.
So when I heard it again, it caught my attention. “Welcome to Johannesburg” this time was delivered in that unique ‘Seth Africarn’ accent of the Boer. “Lock all your doors,” said my taxi driver. “And do up your seatbelts,” came next. “If anyone approaches the car when we stop at the lights, don’t give them eye contact. They’re only looking for sympathy.“
I asked him how long he had lived in Johannesburg; he said his whole life, “except for National Service.” Sam needed little prompting to start his tale of the evils of the ANC and Mandela, and the injustice of the ending of Apartheid. “It should never have happened. The blacks are tribal and are stealing everything for themselves. They don’t care about each other. You can see that by the way they live.”
So what went wrong? “Bloody de Klerk caved in and gave the country away, for nothing. We had built it, the blacks just took all the benefits. Without us they would still be living in caves,” he grunted.
“If we had been left alone we would have sorted them out. We had them on the run in Angola, and in Namibia. They were migrants anyway, all moved down from north two hundred years ago, killing the people who were here and taking their land.”
How would it have been ‘sorted out’? “Well, we fought them back. We cleared them out. I was in the Army, in the Special Forces, and we made a good job of it. When we hit a village, they knew it. We had to kill them all, the women, children, and we had to kill the babies. Don’t get me wrong, it was terrible. We couldn’t leave the little wretches there to starve.”
Silence for a few minutes. Sam was obviously in thought, his face showed no emotion, his eyes seemed locked on a spot far ahead up the road. “I did a lot of killing in those days,” slowly he spoke. “But if we didn’t kill them, they would have killed us. They would have cut the throats of every farmer and their families, until the land was empty. It was the plan to make southern Africa a Soviet satellite state – Angola was first, then Mozambique, Rhodesia, and then us. You know we were fighting against the Cubans and the Russians. And we cleaned them up too. Heh.
“It was like World War three and the United Nations all together. There were Australians here too, soldiers who’d been in Vietnam. They couldn’t face life at home so they joined us, in the Buffalo Brigade, fighting the Ruskies. They were good fighters, the Aussies. Some stayed here after but most went home to Australia when Mandela came in. And they were bloody good drinkers too. But that’s a big secret, you can’t even talk about that now days. South Africa has its share of secrets.”
Like the nuclear weapons program? “Ahh yes yes, we had the bomb! We had six of them, and we were going to use them against the fucking Cubans. The Americans tried to make us stop developing them, so it was all hush-hush. We tested one once to make sure they worked, and they did. We would have been the strongest country in Africa. Us in the south, and the Israelis in the north, we could have made all of Africa a fucking zone of peace!“
I thought Louis Theroux should have been here interviewing this guy, but no he was sitting next to me driving his Peugeot, running red lights taking me to my hotel.
What happens if we get car-jacked, Sam? “Just do what I do. Take your left hand and show it is empty, then lift the seatbelt out away from your chest like this. Then with your right hand undo the buckle and slowly let the belt go. With both hands in view, open the door and get out, then run away, fast. That’s if they have a gun.“
And if they don’t? “Depends on how big they are. Either drive around them or drive over them, and keep going. But if they get the door open, and they have a knife or weapon, you best run. But if they don’t, I would smack them until they’re crying for me to stop.”
“Once I had a guy get in and put a knife to my ribs. He said ‘Go. Fast.’ So I did. I knew if he got me off the main road into a side road I would be dead – he would get me to stop then cut me up for fun, before taking the car. So I knew I had to stay on the main road and not to stop. I took it up to over a hundred and screamed at him, ‘If you are going to kill me, we might as well both die, right now, I’ll crash the car!’ So I made him throw the knife out the window; he was really scared. And I would have crashed it too, no point being dead and letting him take the car.
“They understand that. Just like how they fought, no good at hand-to-hand combat. Only brave with an AK in their hand. Ha!“
So what will happen when Mandela dies? “Fuck man, it will be like Zimbabwe. They are all corrupt and they will start stealing and killing the whites. They are still jealous of what we have, what we built. Zuma will be like Mugabe, locking up people who oppose him, killing the opposition. It’ll be mayhem.
“But you wait, within two years, he’ll be gone – and we’ll take it back from him. All the former fighters in the Army are spread around the world working protecting mines and as security in Afghanistan and places. Give them the call, and in 24 hours they will be back here. And they’ll take the country back. You believe me, it’s going to happen.“
Tick, tick, tick, the side lights flashed as we turned into the driveway of the hotel. A surprised black face looked out of the security peephole and then buzzed the high iron gate open. It was dark, we drove up the gravel drive, and I wouldn’t see the electric fence and razor-wire on top of the surrounding wall till after breakfast.
Sam said “I’ve got my journals. I could show you if you buy me a whiskey. I haven’t read them in years. They have all the stories, all the details about the campaigns, the battles, the special ops and the fuck-ups too. And I have a shoebox full of photos too, some are very brutal, very honest. They show what it was like. Nobody believes it today. So when? Tomorrow evening, I’ll be here. You wait, you won’t believe what I can tell you.“
I wondered if Sam would show up, or with a clear head think better of it in the morning. South Africa has too many secrets for such a beautiful country. And some will stay secret; we didn’t see Sam again.
Producer Peter Cronau travelled to South Africa with reporter Matthew Carney and cameraman Louie Eroglu to make this report “Cry Freedom: Mandela’s Legacy“.
NB: This story is based on a real events; names changed to protect the innocent.