Travel Issue: Pain in the neck

Under apartheid, a white traveler might share a 'black bus.' But the ambulance was another story.

IT WAS A STRANGE TIME to be in South Africa. But times were always strange in South Africa, at least through 1991, the year I spent freelancing from a small Johannesburg apartment. Like so many other journalists and political exiles, I'd been irresistibly drawn there from Zimbabwe, the main "front line" to the north, by the changes that enveloped South Africa in late 1990. I still remember sitting on my sun porch in Harare, listening to the short-wave with a bunch of exiles, the day Nelson Mandela was freed from jail, signaling the start of South Africa's transition to democracy. We felt just as ecstatic as the cheering crowds who gathered to hear Mandela's first public speech in almost 30 years.

But it didn't take long in Johannesburg to realize that South Africa was still full of ugliness. Apartheid was alive and kicking, though petty laws like those governing where blacks could live had been lifted. Almost as potent were the economic and psychological barriers that remained between the races.

I remember a moment standing on the street in the neighborhood I moved into, called Yeoville, and watching blacks and whites pass by each other. The whites were outfitted in the prevailing boho chic, and were on their way to professional downtown jobs or sophisticated neighborhood cafes. Many of the blacks, in worn gardeners' or maids' uniforms, were headed to homes that weren't theirs or to Alexandra township, a dusty labyrinth of shacks and shebeens (living-room bars). These were two worlds, operating on entirely different planes but rubbing against each other on the same street, seemingly oblivious to each other.

Of course, neither world was really oblivious. Racialism ran far too deep for that. South Africa constantly demanded that you choose which world you moved in. It was hard to straddle both, but I tried anyway. I lived in a neighborhood considered "gray"—officially white but bearing a black population that was overlooked by housing code enforcers. Each day, I traveled to the black outskirts of the city to work for the Sowetan, a newspaper staffed mainly by blacks that covered all the township violence and protests that the sanitized white papers glossed over.

LACKING A CAR, I often took the "black taxis," minivans that operated much like buses along routes that catered to blacks. I was usually the only white passenger. Other passengers took my presence in stride until one day, when my singularity was very much noticed.

I had caught a black taxi going to Zimbabwe, where I planned to pay a weekend visit. The daylong trip began pleasantly. I felt myself relax as we moved out of Johannesburg's sprawling, crime-ridden environs, through small towns and bushland that reminded me of Zimbabwe. The bougainvillaea appeared more often, climbing over roadside sheds in purple and red tangles. When streets lay beyond, they were wide, quiet boulevards. The horizon was uncluttered, and everywhere was sky and sunshine.

Unfortunately, though South Africa was far more developed than any other country in sub-Saharan Africa, the thoroughfare to the northern border was a "highway" only by Africa's standards. It had all of two lanes, and a passing car had to use the opposing one. In a country where an unabashed driving machismo cut across all races, people passed on highways like this all the time. South Africa had one of the world's worst auto-accident records.

About halfway to Zimbabwe, we added to that record. I was later told that a car traveling from behind jutted toward the opposing lane to see if the coast was clear to pass, saw it wasn't, and pulled back behind us. In the process, it hit a luggage rack attached to the back of our minivan.

I became conscious that something was wrong when our van spun out of control into an adjacent field, and flipped over. The next thing I remember was wandering around in a daze, blood dripping from my head, amid shouts urging me to lie down. An ambulance soon came, and I was scooped into it. It soon became apparent, however, that none of the dozen or so black passengers was following me on board. Suddenly, apartheid was staring me in the face in a way that could have life-or-death consequences.

AS I LAY THERE ON THE GURNEY, I wondered whether to protest, to declare that I wouldn't go if the other passengers didn't go with me. To my discredit, I didn't, partly I suppose out of shock and partly out of fear of the consequences. I lay stunned and silent as the ambulance transported me to a fancy private hospital in the nearest "white" town, on the assumption that, as a rich American, I could afford it rather than a public white hospital. There I was informed that my neck had suffered several fractures. When the hospital discovered I was broke and uninsured, it threatened to kick me out, until the Sowetan came to my rescue.

While convalescing, I heard that the other passengers had ended up at a hospital in the nearest black township. Rumor had it one of them had died. I have no idea whether quality of care contributed to that death, or even whether the rumor was true. But travel now seems a weightier affair—not just an exotic romp but a gauntlet of physical, emotional, and moral challenges, challenges that I might well not live up to.

I wonder how differently such an accident would be handled in today's South Africa. True, the official democratization that was beginning then has since come to fruition under a largely black government led by President Mandela. But I'm sure the enduring social and economic divisions between the races still permeate the health-care system.

I hope never to find out firsthand. Still, my time in South Africa drove home the point that firsthand is the only way to know the texture of a place—and to see what ambiguities may lurk behind the joyous sounds on a short-wave radio.

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