South Africa in the Sixties

 
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Terese Svoboda

Art by Monica Nouwens

 

We had three servants but we couldn’t afford bacon. If we paid them a living wage or employed any fewer, everyone would know we were Communist. That was South Africa in the sixties. Students—myself, surviving on the dregs of a soccer scholarship; Green, who was supported by a wife working in Jo’burg; his girl Wendy, a lovely golden-haired lass of the braless type who might as well have been our roommate; and Bixby, born to be a stockbroker but momentarily distracted by justice—we were all doing law but were without the resources of parents who had lumber or clever shoehorn patents or, as I remember vividly, sold trusses that made them as rich as Croesus since the taxes weren’t at all terrible then. You could smell the black-market bacon from our kitchen.

Booze cost something between servants and bacon, making our many parties, as I modestly recall, excellent, and the cups washed. But the question for the cops was always: was it a party or a meeting? Too many chairs and they could be used as evidence of an unlawful gathering. Not that we didn’t solicit for members. Wendy was the most vociferous campaigner. At the time, it was not politic to be at all vociferous, it was suicidal. You could be detained indefinitely for just about anything you said, and no one would even know you were in prison. The courts were ridiculous: the prosecutor for the Rivonia Trial simply refused to reveal the indictment to the defense. Our hero Bram Fischer showed us what a real lawyer was made of by not telling the bloody prisoner he was defending that his own wife had drowned a week earlier. This was only a couple of months before Tsafendas stabbed the president to death, the president who, after Sharpeville, thanked the South African police for their courageous, efficient manner with regard to the slaughter.

Our servant Junior did not tell us where he kept the weapons we found for them in case of trouble. We thanked him for not telling us, we liked to wax theoretical about that and the number of times and how hard we would defend them. But soon we would be eligible for the draft and we’d all have to go into hiding. Not Wendy of course. Women were not demanding the privilege of war just yet. Instead, she wrote diatribes about apartheid for underground publications, along with practice legal briefs and real briefs for various poor prisoners. So far her curves and good nature had helped her avoid major trouble: the police were as sexist as anyone else. With nothing but her brains and her mouth, which was quick and half-puckered, she often lured men to our parties who turned out not to be such strict believers, who were more likely informants, who discovered—between losing their arguments and hoping for a kiss—her true passion. She pretended to be not too bright.

Green occupied the rest of her free time, taking every opportunity he could to celebrate his temporary bachelorhood. Each according to his abilities, to each according to his misdeeds, he proclaimed. He rallied us by doffing his cap as the kitty for the party, with or without the capital P. We deferred to him, he was older, he knew what he was doing. We tended toward the furtive, embarrassed by our experimental liaisons, mostly blowhards when the liquor was on us.

 

Bixby and I were revolving around a couple of giggling but sharp-eyed young women from the local teachers’ training, arguing over what happens to capital when all the blacks are put in detention. They had brought a bottle of gin with them, which was just then down to the squints, which is when you start holding the bottle up to the light. Green had retired to his room with Wendy. An hour earlier he’d had a long-distance drunken fight with his wife, when talking to someone for over three minutes on the phone cost a fortune. Unfortunately, she wasn’t impressed by his getting off four prisoners from the post office bombing this morning. Consoling himself, he was sharing the booze he had hidden from us (the hamper, we all knew where) with Wendy between the sheets when the police broke down the door.

They did not knock. Their technique was to terrify, especially in the middle of the night. They were looking to catch Communists either printing up literature or moving little red markers on maps that would prove conspiracy—or having too many chairs. They probably had noticed the lights on late in the house for most of the last week—we had to study now and then, we had final exams—and were certain we were up to no good.

In trying to lure girls to our rooms in the back, we were already close to the door for escape, but Green had to flee out the bedroom window and without the benefit of skivvies, carrying his shoes and pants, running toward his car that was parked around the corner. Like this—Green showed us later how hard it was to leap over the back fence without underwear.

Wendy did her usual innocent routine but it was hard, half-dressed as she was. She’d been in the bathroom, putting in her diaphragm. The police leered and laughed and showed her what they’d do to Green with their sticks. She knew what they could do to her.

There was only one way to get Wendy out of real trouble and that was for Green to confess that he had been sleeping with her. A morals charge wasn’t nearly as bad as one to do with politics, and the judges were law students themselves once. Not being quite the cad he appeared to be, running off, Green turned around and confessed. The police promised not to tell on him—they had his wife’s number—if he would turn informer on the house. They knew or at least suspected that there were real Communists among us, not just scantily clad Wendy who obviously did not understand what she was involved in, poor girl.

Oh, yes, Green said, he would be so happy to turn us in, those blighters. Any shred of information he came across he would readily give up. He would comb through our correspondence, check our school notes, watch where we stopped at cafes, and jot down the names of whomever we spoke with. They handed back his trousers after he signed a paper pledging his fealty. It was only a half day later that he reunited with fuming Wendy who told him off in no uncertain terms and terms that were less certain when he informed her of what he had promised, and what he had planned.

Draped over the various pieces of the furniture broken into bits in our living room, we were hangdog with hangovers when the two of them returned. Our servant Blakeley was making us tea. We thought Green would never return, we were preparing to sing at his wake, and we were certainly thinking of moving elsewhere. The phone had rung several times while Green was out—his wife, mollified by time and temper, ready to make up. Where is he? she shrieked from so far away. There were no classes on a Sunday. Bixby made him out to be suffering for his sins, said he wasn’t able to come to the phone because he was in the toilet. She knew nothing about his Communist tendencies. She did know he drank.

I’m an informer, Green told us as soon as he walked in. Please, feel free. I’ve made a decision, a couple of them, and Wendy and I need a toast. He kissed her then for a while, quite a while, as if he’d already signed the divorce papers.

We laughed and located the very last of the gin. Bixby rinsed out the toothpaste cup and I ran water into the gravy boat and we lifted our glasses to the two of them. Then our third servant, Robinson, whom we’d hired to beat our laundry out on a rock somewhere, showed up with a black eye, and we had to get serious.

 
 

Spring / Summer 2024



Terese Svoboda

A Guggenheim fellow and the author of twenty-one books of poetry and prose including a memoir, a biography, and a book of translation from the Nuer, Terese Svoboda has won the Bobst Prize in fiction, the Iowa Poetry Prize, an NEH translation grant, the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize, a Jerome Foundation video prize, the O. Henry Award for the short story, and a Pushcart Prize for the essay. Her eighth book of fiction, Dog on Fire, has just been published. Forthcoming is the novel Roxy and Coco, and a story collection, The Long Swim.



Monika Nouwens

Monica Nouwens is a fellow of the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam and attended the California Institute of Arts (CalArts). Nouwens is noted for her intimate and provocative portraits set amidst continuously synthetic Los Angeles landscapes of opulence and rejuvenation. Her practice, rooted in activism, is fundamentally collaborative. Her projects include one-person shows at the Netherlands Fotomuseum Rotterdam, Photography Museum Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam, and Rainbow in Spanish, Los Angeles. She has taught at the University of California, Irvine; Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc); Universidad de Monterrey; CalArts; and Canadian Center for Architecture. Nouwens is a recipient of the Graham Foundation Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts Award.



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