If I close my eyes for a moment, I can still see her. An accented voice on the phone transformed into a tiny bundle of frenetic energy, dark of hair, purposeful of tone, striding into the office and demanding to know where my boss was.
In the days before mobiles, in the mid to late 1980s, communication was by phone, pager and by fax, a fairly new invention, as was my electric typewriter. I was yet to get my PC and my switchboard appeared to have come out of the ark, with its own character, bad temper and several buttons that refused to work and one that was broken off completely. So when my boss R, left the office, I had no way of contacting him, unless he was off to a known contact’s house, in which case I may have had a phone number, but this was rare. When that small dynamic bundle of energy, Christina, strode into the office that day, I had no idea where he was so we talked whilst she waited for him.
Over the 18 months I was employed at the Democratic Party offices, I saw a lot of Christina as she worked for the Weekly Mail, an alternative, so-called left wing newspaper in South Africa which was in constant danger of being shut down completely.
A description of South Africa at that time sounds bizarre now – censorship (not only did we have to do without nude ladies but news too) … black stars over nipples and black blocks over articles censored too late to remove from the copy as it went to press. Despite working for the official opposition in Parliament, our phones were tapped, some of us were followed and harassed, our groups infiltrated by spies, we attracted a huge amount of contempt and in some cases, lived life very close to the edge. The constant threat of arrest, banning (see http://africanhistory.about.com/od/glossaryb/g/def_banned.htm), detention without trial or access to legal representation (which could go on indeterminently) followed us all.
Sometimes low-key, it could ramp up frighteningly very quickly. I was 17, already a veteran of the anti-apartheid “scene”, my politics shaped by my parents and honed on a heady mix of brave comrades in many camps, from the left-wing radical side, to communist/socialists to black consciousness Azapo and PAC members.
My parents had been exceptionally active in a campaign in the Cape, where forced removals were taking place in Lawaaikamp. This link http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=BAwbdIk1A74C&pg=PT44&lpg=PT44&dq=lawaaikamp+george+forced+removals&source=bl&ots=8jpO9xQErC&sig=75e8L0pJursCZzSXrZJq-K2KBs4&hl=en&ei=fBezTufyMYyo8APekoGoBQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=3&ved=0CEcQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=lawaaikamp%20george%20forced%20removals&f=false
gives a good idea of what was going on, although I dispute the author’s assertion that the homes were “broken down”. Shacks they may have been, but sturdily built, well-lined with newspaper, some of them had up to six rooms and nearly every shack I saw had a garden where flowers or vegetables tried to thrive in the dusty soil. There was a huge sense of community, a very effective youth leadership and it was these men with whom I spent many long, late hours, typing up statements and documents which we hoped that one day would go some way to obtaining justice.
A group of young activists also investigated disappearances, assaults, imprisoning and deaths of activists. It was a family joke that I learned to type in Xhosa before I did in English, but it is true. In my final year of school, I spent more time in front of that typewriter than I did on my studies.
I am not sure I can describe how it was back then, living in a country which not only killed it’s children but failed to acknowledge them even as human beings. The activists not only trusted and shared ideas with me but let me read their treasure trove of smuggled, banned literature (you could go to jail for even having it in your home). I first encountered Steve Biko, Karl Marx, Ruth First, Che Guevara, Joe Slovo and a host of other brave people in those much-copied, crumpled sheets of paper, smuggled lovingly from person to person and on to me.
I also cannot describe the comradeship that shared danger, an impassioned sense of justice, a large typewriter, 8 – 10 activists and me could generate night after night, ably abetted by a healthy supply of red wine and cigarettes.
Suffice to say, by the time I joined the DP, I was a very angry young woman who my boss did his best to not only keep in check but protect. I did not appreciate the lengths he must have gone to, in order to defend a girl who pitched up to work with t-shirts depicting banned people, who wore ANC t-shirts protesting the ongoing detention of Nelson Mandela, who had open conversations and debates in the office with the only “Black” staff member, Patrick, who was equally well-educated in the various forms of government that might help the people. We probably gave as many heart attacks by his referring to me as his “Cherrie” affectionate slang for girlfriend. Although I wasn’t, it amused both of us to think that people might believe it.
I received a well-deserved slap on the wrist for the chats as I was giving all the little old white ladies heart failure and palpitations by my open discussion of the rights and wrongs of Communism, Marxism, whether Cuba had got the balance right and Che Guevara’s contribution to the freedom of his people.
Christina, with her bravery, her open contempt for the police, her willingness to go to extreme lengths to get at the truth, was someone I admired greatly. She was exceptionally bright and funny. She was also adept in getting herself into scrapes – she once called from KwaMashu to say that the police were doing a house to house search for her and she was hiding under someone’s bed. Could R please come and find her before the police did. He did.
One day, she ran in, chucked a 35mm camera film at me and said “hide this, the police are after me and must not get that. I will fetch it when it is safe.” And promptly ran out again. I put it in the safest place of all, my bra, and continued to work. The police did not pitch up thankfully and I carried that film next to my breast for a week. After a week, the groove it had made in my left breast ached like buggery, so I found a new hiding place for it. In a vase at the house of my boyfriend’s parents :-). I obtained their permission beforehand (mostly because I did not fancy the vase being used with the film still in it), was asked what was on it and denied all knowledge (I had a clue as I knew what she had been working on). A week later, it was safe to go back to her, was returned and Christina had her spread over several pages of the Weekly Mail.
The subject of the photos, who I will not name here, was I believe, the first hit squad policeman to come clean and it was his admissions which forced Dirk Coetzee’s hand and made him go public. Christina hid that man all over the place, moving him at one stage into a friend’s flat. Said friend was overseas, Christina was watering the plants and placed him in the flat. Friend came back early and Christina was paged with the message “who the fuck is B?” Needless to say, she had some explaining to do and had to find a new safe place. And she did.
She seemed to take a shine to me as she took me to meet him, I can’t remember why but probably as a “thank you” for hiding the film. It was a rather awkward meeting, with him naturally suspicious of me; me expecting someone brave and meeting someone so afraid, I could smell it. I could hardly blame him. Had they caught him, he would have been tortured and killed. This was a man who had killed people merely for believing that they deserved to be treated like humans. I was torn between wanting to kill him and wanting to hug him.
Christina was arrested one day and banged up in a local police station. My mother went down to the station with wodges of cash (Christina’s bail money) in her bra and when the police would not release her, stood with a group of women and sang loudly so that Christina would know that they were there and she was not alone. Bear in mind that, at that time, being arrested could mean you were in jail for years, tortured or ended up burnt remains on a deserted beach. So it was no small thing. If memory serves me correctly, she was released soon afterwards and we joked that the police could not stand the sound of my mother singing (she, like me, croaked offtune like a frog with a sore throat).
Christina, like us, also played at being the “white face” for people who needed to move out of the townships and into designated “white” areas. Many of them professional people, some of them simply unable to stay where they were for fear of being killed for their political beliefs, they needed safe places near their workplaces and many of us rented flats for them, pretending that they were our servants.
It took a considerable amount of chutzpah to pull that stunt off successfully, as you not only had to go and sign all the forms but you also had to “move in”, sometimes with stuff that was patently not yours! My mother once “moved in” with a whole lot of ladies’ dresses twice her size.
My Mom was adept at changing her appearance. An early life in theatre and a very slim figure meant that she could work wonders with a few clothes and some changes to her voice and the way she walked. This was just as well as she had to go and pay rent and one one notable occasion, went into the same agency and paid the rent for three or four different flats, changing her appearance each time. Not able to resist taking the proverbial, she asked the security guard outside to hold her change of items (headscarf, bag, hat, jersey) during each change over. Another time, Mom posed as someone’s male driver at a police station and completely freaked the police out that a “white man” was driving a “black man” around.
After I left town and moved to Johannesburg, Christina and I were in sporadic touch over a few things and then lost touch completely. Time moved on, so did we all. I have since learned that in the “new” South Africa, Christina became a science journalist of reknown, able not only to report on science but to engender a love of the subject with students.
It does not surprise me – everything she did, she did wholeheartedly. Her accidental death saddens me greatly – no doubt, she had so much left she wanted to do and she leaves behind three children.
I hope they are comforted by the fact that they, like me, had an incredible, brave Mom who touched and inspired every life she encountered.