South African Stories

R.W. Johnson

The voice on the phone was terrified and tearful. ‘I’m in such trouble, such trouble.’ It took me quite a while to get Josephine to say what had happened. She is the 18-year-old daughter of my domestic servant here in Johannesburg. Josephine, like her two sisters, is a boarder at a school near Pietersburg, 350 kilometres away. In the school holidays the three girls come and stay with their mother, Doris, who lives in a cottage in my garden – I had waved them off back to school only a few weeks before, Josephine, the eldest, shepherding her smaller sisters.

Josephine had left her school to visit cousins in the area over the weekend and, late on the Sunday, had got a taxi back to the school. The driver had dropped his other two passengers and then driven Josephine to his house in a nearby township where he had overpowered and raped her. He had then locked her in a back room, told her that he would keep her there for his pleasure for a month, and then kill her. After that he had gone off to a shebeen, saying he might bring back some of his friends later that night to ‘have some fun’ with her too. Josephine had managed to attract the attention of two small boys in the street and they had helped her escape. She had been back at school for a day but all she could do was cry, she said. I told her I would send her mother to fetch her right away. Doris was almost hysterical when she heard the news but I bundled her into a taxi and told her to hurry.

I rang my friend Brian who runs an epidemiological unit mainly concerned with HIV/Aids. It’ll cost you, he said, but if she can get AZT and 3TC in the first 12 hours you can cut the Aids risk by 80 per cent. Brian has twice had to apply such emergency treatment to nurses working in his unit after they pricked themselves with needles used to draw blood from the HIV positive prostitutes who are the central figures in his unit’s attempt to control the scourge. I explained that it was already more than 24 hours since Josephine had been raped and that 36 hours would probably have elapsed before she arrived. It might still be worth a try, he said, but the antibodies in her blood would be replicating at a terrifying rate by now.

When Josephine arrived I rushed her to a top specialist – a calm Englishman who’d been out here for 18 years. ‘I can’t do without the drama, the dynamism of being here,’ he explained almost apologetically when I asked what a man of his eminence was doing in a crowded, chaotic hospital. He was a keen Chelsea supporter and in between carrying out the tests on Josephine he and I chatted about the great days of Charlie Cooke, David Webb and Peter Osgood. He told me it was already too late to try AZT and 3TC on Josephine but he was cautiously hopeful. ‘To get Aids there has to be mixing of blood, which means there has to be a break in the skin or an open sore due to some other sexually transmitted disease. Chances are that the taxi-driver is a sexually reckless fellow and has at least one of these STDs, so Josephine’s chances of syphilis and gonorrhoea are high but I can deal with that,’ he explained. ‘The key question is whether he was so rough while he was raping her that he broke her skin. It’s because rape is so traumatic that it so often results in Aids transmission. Especially gang rape, of course, which is almost bound to do it.’ That Josephine escaped before the collective ‘fun’ began had, I now realised, been crucial.

After examining Josephine, the specialist told me he could find no break in the skin but he wouldn’t have the results of the tests for another six weeks. ‘In any case,’ he pointed out, ‘at least 20 per cent of all black 18-year-old girls are HIV positive already and that figure is rising rapidly towards 30 per cent. She could have been HIV positive before the attack.’ I told him I didn’t think so: I have lectured Josephine endlessly on the perils of Aids since she was 15, and she is a religious girl. Josephine stayed with us for a week but, despite my efforts, would not talk to the rape counsellor I sent her to.

Jo had told the police about the rape. She had given them the driver’s name and address, and there was even a corroborating witness who knew about other rapes he’d carried out. Josephine remained nervous: the man had told her that he’d kill her if the case ever came to the attention of the police. I phoned several times but they never seemed to know anything about it and there was a lot of fruitless hunting around for a case number. The taxi driver was seen walking around as if nothing had happened. Clearly nothing would be done. Jo recovered bit by bit. Then, at last, test results came through: HIV negative, praise the Lord. With many misgivings she returned to school.

A few days later I looked at my phone bill and realised something was wrong. It was enormously high and I didn’t recognise some of the numbers at all. I left the printout in the kitchen and next morning Doris’s manner told me everything I needed to know. We all make mistakes, she said with a grin. We learn only from our mistakes. The really big mistake, I said, is that you’ve been stealing from me. Over half this phone bill is yours and you’ve been coming into the house specially to make calls, many of them very long distance and for half an hour at a time. I told you the alarm code of the house and you’ve been coming in when I was away and on days when you weren’t working in the house. You have systematically lied to me and cheated me. At a time when I was doing everything I could, paying for Josephine’s schooling, lending you money, spending money on the Aids doctor, the lot. How long has this been going on? It’s just this month, she said, crying now. Sometimes I get lonely in the house and want to chat to my friends so I call them.

I go and check. It’s actually been going on for many months, the amount creeping up all the time. Doris obviously thought I never checked a bill and for a long time she was right. I call her in furiously. I could sack you for this, I say. I told you when I first employed you, I have to trust someone who works in my house, that’s the only rule. You’ll never be happy again with me now, she wept, you’d better sack me.

In the end I say: look, the deal is this. I won’t sack you and you can stay if you want. But the reason I do this is for your daughters, especially Jo. You should beat me, Doris says. You can beat me all afternoon, I will deserve it. I don’t want to beat you, I tell her. It’s not about beating, it’s about trust. It takes time to rebuild trust. I change the alarm code, keep it secret, make her pay for the last month’s calls. It’s all very difficult and sullen for a while.

Jo rings again, an incoherent, frantic message on the answering-machine. As so often with phone calls from Africans made from cafés or friends’ houses, there were loud background voices, slamming doors and much general clatter, but I half-imagined that I heard the phrase ‘raped again’. That couldn’t be right. Then Doris comes tearing in, eyes wild, getting ready to scream. It was right. In South Africa, the rape capital of the world, the odds were in favour of its being right. They reckon that only in 1 in 20 rapes gets reported but even so 131 are reported every day, one every 11 minutes. If you believe the 1-in-20 thing then it’s one every 33 seconds. It’s quite possible: many African men still believe (and will even tell you) that it is their right to have their way with any woman they want, whenever they want.

So we had to go through the whole ghastly thing over again. Jo came down to Jo’burg, this time so traumatised that she couldn’t speak about it to her mother or me for several days. There’d been this man – the husband/boyfriend of a teacher from another school who stayed near where Jo lived. He was a big strong man and he ‘was ‘painted silver around his waist’. He’d begun to tell Jo he loved her; she was alarmed, and told his wife. In the end the man had come to her and told her she already owed him her life, not just because she’d caused so much trouble between him and his wife, but because he’d had to protect her from his wife’s wrath. Anyway, whatever the bullshit, he’d raped her. We told the police, though without much hope. More than 1300 policemen have been killed in South Africa since 1994; the court system isn’t working; criminal justice is a mess; and rape an epidemic. The officers who called dutifully took notes but you got the feeling that one more rape victim wasn’t too big a deal.

This time I phoned the Aids doctor but didn’t go myself. Maybe because it all seemed a bit more routine. In any case, Jo and her mum went without me. It turned out that the test would be far quicker this time, thanks to whatever tests were still relevant from the first occasion. Within five days the doctor phoned me: ‘Well,’ he said. ‘I have the test results. Jo is HIV negative.’ I nearly died twice over before he got to the negative. I phoned Doris immediately. She virtually swooned away. I saw Jo, she rushed to me, clung to me with big hugs, told me that I was the only man she knew who wasn’t a bastard. I tried to work on that. Look, there are a lot of nice men out there, don’t let this thing spoil your life. Only white men are nice, she said. Or some of them. Not all that many, I said.

I was walking on the slopes of Table Mountain that weekend when the call came through on my cell phone: there’d been another attempt to rape Jo. A neighbour phoned. An intruder had unscrewed the handle of the cottage door and let himself in. Doris and her boyfriend Ernest had been asleep in the double bed and Jo had been stretched out on a mat in the passage. First thing she’d known the man was pulling off her pants and trying to lie on top of her. She screamed, Doris woke up and pressed the remote-control button which brings armed men running. They were there within a minute but the man was gone. Jo had no sight of him, just a torchlight in her face.

Back in Jo’burg, I sat Jo down. I’ve installed all manner of extra security, I pointed out: locks here, bolts there, gates padlocked. And whoever it was never realised that your mother had a remote control for the alarm and could bring armed men running like that. No one’s going to try it again. You’ll be safe. But are you telling me the truth? Was this the man who raped you in Pietersburg following you down here? No, she said. So did she have a jilted boyfriend somewhere in the background? No.

The point is this, I said. No one’s ever tried to break into my house: it has a big notice on it saying Instant Armed Response. But people who do want to break in do so because they want to steal, and because they want to steal they try to break into the main house, not the servants’ quarters. But this guy broke in to rape you. The odds against this are millions to one and the odds against it happening just after you’ve been raped up in Pietersburg are billions to one. So what on earth is going on? I don’t know, she said, I only saw the torch in my face. I asked her mother. I don’t know, she said, I can’t understand it, something’s wrong, I agree with you. But she had no more light to shed.

Jo was so scared of being on her own now that she went everywhere with her mother. She couldn’t bear to be in the cottage on her own, a fact I cursed, for I had wanted, above all, for her to feel that this one place, at least, was safe for her. I decided she’d better come and work in my office. It was a perfect solution. Connie, my assistant, made a big fuss of her, introduced her to computers, showed her how to e-mail and fax, how to pull things off the Internet. Jo, a country girl with poor English who’d never seen a modern office, was thrilled, couldn’t wait each day to go to work – and gradually she became useful, a real help.

She didn’t want to go back to school – she was scared the rapists would kill her. It was impossible to have much confidence in the police. In the end she and her mother came up with a solution: they wanted to get the help of Mapogo a Mathamaga (‘the colours of the leopard’), the giant vigilante organisation which centres on Pietersburg. Founded by a black businessman, John Magolego, Mapogo now has 35,000 paid up members, 10,000 of them white – it’s a booming business. It moves into an area, rounds up criminal suspects, beats the hell out of them, drags them behind vans on rocky roads or dangles them over crocodile-infested rivers and gets the ‘truth’ out of them. It doesn’t bother with courts, evidence or the police and it claims remarkable success. Once it moves into an area the crime rate falls to zero. Jo and her mum had heard all about Mapogo. So now they wanted me to phone John Magolego.

I don’t approve of vigilantes, I said. I know the police and the courts are hopeless but once you start with vigilantes where does it stop? Some of the people they beat up – and kill – are quite innocent. What if the taxi driver who raped Jo is himself a Mapogo member? Doris just looked straight through this. Jo must be safe, she said. Here is the number, please phone him. The assumption being that any black man will always take more notice if it’s a white man who calls.

John Magolego, it turned out, was a very calm, pleasant-sounding and well-spoken man. But this is terrible, he said. Raped twice? Of course we will deal with this. She has the names? Good. She must contact my man in Pietersburg and join Mapogo. He gave me the numbers and explained that the Mapogo office was next to a bakery in a township and one of the bakery staff had to run and summon the Mapogo officer to the phone. The first few times he wasn’t there so I rang Magolego again. ‘That is not very good,’ he said carefully. ‘But we have been having a big rally – many thousands came to celebrate our anniversary. I saw our officer there. He must have stayed over. By tomorrow he will be back and I can promise he will deal with your problem.’

Which was just what happened. It will cost you money, the man said in English, and then broke into Afrikaans. After a while I handed the phone over to Doris. She spoke for a while in Sepedi and then put the phone down. You must borrow me 730 rands (£73) she said: 165 rands to join, 50 rands monthly subscription, 15 rands for the Mapogo sticker with the two leopard heads and a 500-rand fine for not having joined Mapogo before. I’m not paying for any of that, I said, you’ll have to borrow from your friends. My daughter must be safe, she said. Good God, I want her to be safe too, I said, but I don’t approve of vigilantes. Magolego is a big man, she said, he can make her safe. Well don’t ask me for money, I said. This could well be tantamount to taking out a contract on these two guys. Do you want them to live? Doris asked. Not especially, I said. But you’re a Christian, Doris, you go to church every morning. God does not want them to live, she said.

Doris disappeared for a while over the weekend. On Monday she said, you must borrow me five hundred rands: I borrow the money for Mapogo from my friends in Alexandra but now I must pay them back. She knew I knew that her friends there lived in shacks. The whole thing was simple and circular, a nonsense to cater for white foolishness. She was full of protestations of gratitude as I counted the money out but the truth was that I had been pulled more and more into her world and she was calling the shots.

We’re waiting to hear from Jo but I realise that I am quite fatalistic about whatever Mapogo does. I don’t really feel differently from Doris about those two guys. If they are removed from the scene many more girls will be safe, and if they just get the shit beaten out of them they’re lucky. More troubling is the possibility that there’s a whole lot going on here that I’m not being told – the usual white dilemma, the fear of being made a fool of. The talk I’d given Jo about trust and telling the truth was pretty much the same one I’d given Doris. And Doris had deceived me about the phone all the time I was helping her. For all I knew Jo was still holding out on me about the intruder. Probably Doris’s story about borrowing R730 in Alexandra was nonsense too; probably what I’d given her had been paid directly to Mapogo. There was no way of knowing for sure.

     *

In my office in Johannesburg we always seem to have a lot of computer trouble. To sort it out I had inherited from my predecessor a computer trouble-shooter called Villiers Strydom, a tall, slim, mustachioed Afrikaner. Villiers, who appeared to live by mobile phone (it was never switched off and you never got him any other way), was famous with the secretaries for promising to come to fix the latest glitch and not quite managing to get there. The resulting aggravation would produce earnest discussions as to whether we shouldn’t dispense with his services and find someone else. But we never did. Villiers did seem very good at his work; and he always arrived in the end, even if not when promised, and he was cheap. He was nice, too: soft, gentle, good-humoured and nothing like the stereotypical bull-of-the-pampas Afrikaner rugger bugger that his name led you to expect. In fact, Villiers greatly disliked that sort of person: he was a passionate citizen of the new South Africa – not just non-racist but strongly anti-racist, anti-sexist and the rest of it. When he talked of the things he so passionately disliked in traditional Afrikanerdom – the straitlacedness, the crude bully-boy racism, the Calvinist parochialism – he could get quite upset, and at those times he seemed quite frail: tears would well in his eyes, his voice would tremble and you would notice again how slender his tall, thirty-something frame was. What turned Villiers on was hi-tech gizmos, the new, the laid-back. Like not a few of his peers, he was a natural Californian born of Boers. He was also, we soon realised, gay. After a while he introduced a young friend, Arthur, who came around with him and learnt his trade, devotedly watching Villiers as he fixed our errant Windows, e-mail and printers.

One day Villiers let us down even more badly than usual and I was getting ready to fire him when I ran into my predecessor. You can’t do that, he said. Villiers really likes all the people in your office. He says they’re the nicest people he’s ever worked with, he’s always going on about it, it would break his heart. Besides, he’s HIV positive. He’s being very brave about it, going to a gym, keeping super-fit. He told me all that one day when he was working after hours. He was tired and because of that got rather tearful and it sort of came out. He says he knows the normal HIV-Aids cycle is only six years long but he’s determined to extend his life by achieving and maintaining perfect health. But you can’t let him know you know. Not long after that we had another breakdown. ‘My fucking machine has got cyber-Aids,’ Helen, one of our secretaries, said in exasperation. After that I had to take her into the secret, too, so that she didn’t say something similar in front of Villiers. Soon everyone in the office knew, but no one said a word. All it meant was that Villiers got a lot more sympathetic mothering, which seemed to bemuse and delight him.

Another day he came in to install some new programs, looking dreadful. His brother had been shot dead over the weekend, he said, and the whole family was in uproar, his mother in hysterics and everyone leaning on him for support as the remaining man in the family. He wept openly over the Windows 98 and Word 97 and seemed about to snap. Next week it was even worse. The bloody police, he said, have got this crazy idea that my sister-in-law shot him. It was bad enough for her already, having her husband mown down, but now they’re accusing her, pushing her around, forcing her to make statements. Now she, too, is in hysterics.

Things went on in this way for a week or so until Villiers looked as if he was going to burst. He fled to lie on a beach with Arthur somewhere up the north coast of KwaZulu-Natal. I spoke to him there on his mobile phone. He was chortling with the sheer pleasure of getting away. When he was back I asked him about his sister-in-law. Oh, that’s sort of settled down, he said. The police have left her alone so she’s calmer now. We’re all calmer now. Anyway, I reckon maybe she did shoot him. My brother was a difficult guy, she might have had her reasons. He winked.

Not long after that, Villiers was upgrading my colleague Susan’s machine when she saw his T-shirt was bulging at the back. What’s that, she asked. Villiers pulled out a giant gun, the sort of Magnum you see in the movies. He was really serious about it all, taking shooting classes, learning how to be fast on the draw, the lot. In Dirty Harry, Villiers said, Clint Eastwood says this is the most powerful handgun in the world so I reckon, OK, they got my brother but they’re sure as hell not getting me. But we thought your sister-in-law did it, we said. Maybe she did, he said. Quite possibly. But anyway they’re not getting me. I always keep it loaded. No use having it otherwise, but don’t worry, there’s a safety catch. This seemed fair enough and we all got used to Villiers moving about the office all rodded up.

Then we got a note saying that Villiers’s one-man show was now to be called Monet Systems. I just like the name, sort of French, was all he would say. A little while later he announced that he was changing his name to Lanchester Monet. English or French? we asked. Sort of both, he said. I just don’t like being an Afrikaner so I’ve decided to stop being one. After a while we got his new business card: Lanchester Jean-Paul Monet. You’re getting more French, we said, but you can’t speak French. I’m working on it, he said: the key lifestyle decision is the name change. You have to call me ‘Lanchester’ now. What with work, Arthur, the gym, the shooting classes and French lessons Lanchester was now frantically busy. We saw him less and less. Our computers were held together with rubber bands, literally. The fax machine would only work if you had it jammed against the wall in a certain position and the printers wouldn’t work unless you unplugged and replugged them at each go. Finally, we called in someone else. Every now and again we get an e-mail from Villiers/Lanchester, but we just say the computers are working OK.

     *

We were driving in a two-car convoy through the Transkei when the thing you’re always being warned about happened. In my rear-view mirror I saw a little girl dash out in front of Carol’s white Nissan. The impact of the bumper lifted her briefly into the air before she landed, rolled over and scurried away down the hillside fringed with huts.

We stopped – a bad move. There are endless stories of white motorists driving through the Transkei, hitting a child and, when they stopped, being set on and sometimes killed by angry mobs. One is always warned not to stop in such an event, the assumption being that the non-existent traffic sense of Transkei peasant children makes such accidents reliably frequent.

But we stopped. What else can you do when you’ve hit a child? Leaving Carol, my 80-year-old mother and my daughter relatively secure in the cars, my son Richard and I plunged down the hill, going from hut to hut asking for the little girl. Directed ever further down we soon found ourselves accompanied – ‘surrounded’ does more justice to the tenseness of the situation – by a crowd of young men with knobkerries. At length we found the girl. She was eight but looked younger, and was being looked after by an old man who had bandaged her knee. She seemed to be basically all right, but extremely fearful as if waiting to be scolded. When I pressed all the money I had on me into her hand she was evidently amazed. I told the old man that she probably needed to lie down. He nodded and took the child inside. As we headed back uphill our escort of young men melted away.

Back at the top two burly Xhosa women had somehow ensconced themselves in the car alongside Carol and my mother, one claiming to be the child’s mother, while the other – who was clearly in charge – was introduced as her friend. The mother, showing no sign of wanting to be with her daughter, had despatched a youth to bring her up while she stuck close to the car. Within a minute the little girl was produced. Carol suggested that we take all three of them to the nearest hospital at Mount Frere in case there was an internal injury of some kind. Once we were in the car the mother’s friend suggested I give her a lift some two hundred miles in another direction while the mother herself began talking of the taxi fare back home. I said I couldn’t help with the lift but would of course pay the taxi fare.

Mount Frere hospital lay in a back street thronged with tribesmen and traders. The town itself is as bone-poor as the rest of the Transkei and there’d been a lot of gang violence in the area in previous months, including several good-sized massacres. Carol and Richard said they’d go into the hospital but that I had better stay and guard my mother and daughter. As she left, Carol beckoned me over and to my surprise pulled a tiny revolver out of her shorts. I shouldn’t need this in the hospital, she said, but you might need it out here. It’s loaded. If there’s trouble just keep the trigger pressed and it will keep on firing. I hid the gun down my shorts and pulled my shirt over it to try to disguise the fact that I was armed. My mother and daughter certainly never suspected that I had a gun. An hour later there was still no sign of Carol, the women or the girl and dusk was approaching. We had miles to go on terrible roads on which animals and people were liable to wander heedless of approaching cars. If we didn’t leave soon the drive would be impossible. I went inside the hospital to investigate. There were no doctors, no nurses, no one even at reception. The place was filthy, the toilets solid with shit and flies buzzed busily everywhere. It was difficult to imagine that conditions could have been worse than this under any preceding regime. The little girl was stretched out on a bare table staring unseeing at the ceiling – in a trance or in shock. Carol and Richard had tried to persuade the two women attendants present that she needed attention or at least a blanket but had got nowhere: looking around I could see no evidence that the hospital had blankets and sheets. In the end we just left our phone numbers and addresses and gave something like twenty times the taxi fare to the girl’s mother and her friend – though we were still unsure as to whether this really was the girl’s mother.

The following day we went to a police station in KwaZulu-Natal to report the incident. The constable we dealt with clearly had a hangover and expressed incredulity that we thought it worth doing. In the end I took the report form from him and filled it in myself. He filed it with the air of a man throwing away waste paper. The regional administrative centre of the Eastern Cape Government in Kokstad professes itself unable to make contact with the Eastern Cape capital of Bisho, so what chance was there that a report filed in KwaZulu-Natal would somehow get through to the authorities in the Eastern Cape? Moreover, the area where the accident had happened had recently seen a great deal of cattle-rustling as well as political violence: minor road accidents were an irrelevant distraction. Later we phoned the hospital and were told that a doctor had seen the girl and discharged her. The main consequence of the accident was that a couple of hundred extra rands had been injected into the Transkei economy, a sort of tariff which might have been exacted over an incident of any kind. Friends shook their heads: that was the Fourth World, they said; welcome back to the Third. We were treated as if we were the victims of the accident, though it didn’t feel like that. The two women, one of whom may have been the girl’s mother, had successfully put themselves forward as victims and got the lion’s share of the money. The money I had given to the real victim, the little girl, was doubtless confiscated by an adult. Throughout the whole drama she never spoke a word.

     *

Not long ago I was trying to locate my friend Michael, and phoned his daughter, Annie, who lives at Hillcrest, in the hills outside Durban. It’s always just a bit tricky ringing her up, because you never know which of her husbands you might get. The first one was Dave, but a few years after she married him she met Jim. She explained to Dave that she wanted to live with Jim and have babies with him, which Dave said was OK, but he looked sad and said it would make him lonely, so Annie said: ‘Well you could stay on if you like.’ He did and is very sweet with the kids. Anyway, this time I got neither husband, but a strange male voice which said no, Michael wasn’t there, or if he was, he was asleep. Who is that by the way? I asked. Hitler, the voice said. I was a bit puzzled and rang Michael’s great friend, David Cohen. I know, he said, that happened to me too. But I didn’t press it. If you’re Jewish you don’t want to quarrel with someone called Hitler.

Hitler, it turned out, was a little Xhosa boy. Africans quite often name children after qualities they like – Beauty, Perfect, Fairness, Golden Miles or Happiness. I’ve even known a Psychology Ndlovu and an Electricity Bengu. But sometimes they use names of people they think are just generally famous (e.g. Nelson). Hitler’s mother, a peasant woman in the Transkei, had heard that Hitler was a pretty famous man. When her Hitler was eight she had her sixth child and told Hitler that there was just no money or food for him. If you stay here in the Transkei you’ll starve, so you’d better go to Durban, she said. It’s a huge city. In a place like that there is always bound to be more money and things that come loose so you can take them. Just keep walking north. It’ll take you several weeks, but you’ll be OK if you keep the sea on your right.

Hitler’s marathon walk must have been quite something: it would have been testing for a 28-year-old, let alone a boy of eight. How he managed to find food as he walked, I don’t know. But one day he reached the big city and became a street child on the Durban beachfront. Unfortunately, there were already many hundreds of other street children there, begging, stealing, mugging and fighting. Once white tramps had slept there but they’ve mostly gone now, either stabbed or chased away by the kids. The competition is rough and after a while Hitler decided to migrate out of town. He found a shop-front in Hillcrest, where he slept under cardboard and begged for his breakfast. During the day he attended a little village school, then came back and begged for his supper in the evening. He’d been doing this for a year and was ten years old when Annie, doing her Saturday supermarket shop, bumped into him and said he’d better come home with her.

Annie’s idea was that Hitler would make a good friend for her own eight-year-old, Ben, and could go to school with him. Everyone told her that street children are ruined by the trauma they’ve already been through, that they are often on drugs or glue, that they all steal and will probably go on to rape and murder, too. The weight of evidence is heavily on the side of such advice, but Hitler did indeed become Ben’s great friend, was utterly delighted to have found a place where you got TLC and square meals, and realised that his mother had been right to kick him out: this was much better than starving in the Transkei. At school he was a bit behind but tried hard.

One thing he tried hard at was running, and he soon revealed a great talent, winning just about every event at the school sports day. At which point he was, inevitably, asked if he was any good at rugby. (By this stage he’d had enough ribbing to understand that there was something wrong with his name, and he announced that he would be Timothy from now on.) But no, he’d no idea how to play rugby. He soon did though: was quickly in the school team and before long in the provincial side, which means that he could one day be a prospect for the Springbok team itself. Lately he had found himself on a rugby tour in the Eastern Cape, which gave him a chance to drop off to see his mother back home in the Transkei. She had done the right thing, he reported: life in Durban was something else, which caused her to wonder whether she shouldn’t kick another few chickens out of the nest. The last I heard, Timothy, as well as the rugby and keeping Annie and her husbands happy with his homework, had taken up marathon running, at which he was looking distinctly promising.

     *

During the 1994 election I went out to a township with a friend who is an extremely literal-minded and evangelical Christian. The township, he explained, was torn between the ANC and Inkatha and their two leaders, Teaspoon Mkhize and Spitfire Dhlamini. At one point in the day I found myself interviewing an ANC warlord while a drugged teenager sat at the door, watching us menacingly, a Kalashnikov across his lap. At day’s end I sat down to dinner with my friend and his wife and he said grace. ‘Lord,’ he said, eyes tight shut, holding each of us by the hand, ‘what about that young boy with the AK-47, what of your plans for him? I think about him especially.’ When he said grace again at the end of the meal, he simply said: ‘Lord, thank you for sending us such a wonderfully interesting country to live in.’