HAPPY SAD LAND
And From The Case
of The Murder ...
into my South African journey I found myself on the doorstep
of an unusual couple. Alex was a Latvian baron, Geraldine a
blonde Jewish liberal from Johannesburg. She was his second
wife, he her third husband. They lived on Alex's rambling estate
at the foot of the Tsitsikama Mountains, a few miles from the
fashionable stretch of beach at Plettenburg Bay. Geraldine had
been attempting to radicalize this man whose favourite occupation
was lying in his big armchair with a copy of the Spectator and
a large whisky ...
Alex and Geraldine had what you might call an active relationship.
He talked, she interrupted; she talked, he interrupted. Every
now and then, in a fit of frustration, she would cry, 'I should
never have married you!'
Like all white South Africans, they were keen to put me right
on South Africa. The worst people, the very worst, Geraldine
said, were the Jo'burg liberals. 'I tell you,' Alex agreed,
'you'll find more racism in the twelve square miles of the northern
suburbs of Jo'burg than anywhere.'
'The Afrikaner,' said Geraldine, 'out in the sticks, is basically
honest. I'd rather have an Afrikaner than a South African English
'The English are the worst,' said
Alex. 'The bloody colonial English types. They've just stayed
out here enjoying the benefits and doing nothing. At least the
Afrikaner, however misguided, is doing what he thinks is right.'
'An Afrikaner,' said Geraldine, 'treats his blacks, children,
and animals the same. If they do wrong he'll give them a good
hiding. He's very paternal, but if they get sick, or need help,
he'll look after them.'
'And that's what he thinks is right,' said Alex. 'At the end
of the week, he can go to church and look his God square in
the eye and think he's done the right thing.'
'The expats,' interrupted Geraldine,
'they're actually the worst. The wealthy liberal South African
expats. Live in Knightsbridge, say all the right things. Every
year, around 15 or 16 December you hear this whirring sound
in the distance round here. It's the private planes, coming
in from London and Australia and Los Angeles for Christmas.
From mid-air, they phone ahead, to Samuel, whose surname they
don't even know, to get their gin and tonics ready for them
for when they arrive at their houses. They're here for a month
and then they go back to Knightsbridge. And if you meet them
in London they're terribly liberal. But what happens to all
the extra staff they take on over Christmas? What happens to
them when they fly back?'
'Are they over there because they're
frightened?' I asked.
'They're frightened,' said Alex. 'God, they're frightened. They
say they're just spending a couple of years in London because
they want to live somewhere where there's some culture,' he
chuckled his deep chuckle, 'but basically, no, they're terrified.'
We went through to a big stone-flagged kitchen to have some
lunch, and I was introduced to Ernestina and Gertrude. Gertrude
was a Zulu, Geraldine's 'special maid' who had followed her
down from Jo'burg.
'She just seems to think I'm the person she should work for,'
Geraldine explained. 'So here she is, this Zulu alone in a district
full of Xhosas and coloureds.'
Alex opened a fresh bottle of Chardonnay
and we settled down to home-made pancakes stuffed with tuna
fish in a cheese sauce and talked some more about hypocrisy
'There was a period,' Geraldine said,
'when it was fashionable in the northern suburbs to have a black
friend. You know, your token black friend. People would sit
through dinner parties ignoring the fact that whoever it was
would eat their gemsquash with their fingers or didn't turn
up on time. But I remember saying to this friend of mine, "Come
off it, this person isn't your friend. A friend is someone you
can phone up in the middle of the night when you're depressed,
they're someone who's known you for years and years, who doesn't
mind how you are. He's not your friend."'
She was very down on white hypocrisy,
Geraldine. Even to the extent of telling stories against herself.
'I remember I was at this lunch party - in Jo'burg this was
- and one of the guests, a black man, got struck by lightning.
Now I've been trained in mouth to mouth resuscitation, but confronted
by this black guy, lying on the ground, frothing at the mouth,
I just couldn't bring myself to do it. Me, the little white
liberal! I couldn't do it. Isn't that terrible? Luckily he was
OK in the end, but isn't that terrible?' 'You know when I first
arrived here,' she went on, 'I was such a little Jo'burg radical.
I ripped the place apart. I went round the whole estate, mending
roofs here and fixing leaking taps there. I took all the mattresses
out of the house and gave them to the people on the farm, because,
you know, how could we sleep on a mattress, and not them - but
I don't know, I'm getting less radical. Since I've been here,
I've lent the coloured people a lot of money, to do this, to
fix that - '
'How much darling?' interposed Alex, with his fond smile, from
the head of the table. 'Twenty, thirty?'
'A lot of money. And never once have I had a word of thanks.
Never once has anyone suggested they might try and pay me back.'
We had finished lunch, and I wondered whether it was time to
make a move, time to go searching for another dingy hotel.
'You will stay,' said Geraldine suddenly. 'No you must stay,'
said Alex. 'Really. We've got a guest cottage, you can hole
up there and write, or go to the beach and surf, or...'
So I settled into the guest cottage.
It had a large four poster bed, on which floated a soft white
eiderdown. There were white curtains and when you were out your
dirty laundry vanished, the room tidied itself, and your clothes
reappeared, ironed and folded, on the mahogany bedside table.
In the evening, Alex was back in
his crimson throne, a whisky at his side, a Brahms piano concerto
rippling through the room.
'So what about the township?' I asked. 'D'you think it would
be safe for me to go in there?'
'You want to go into the township?' said Geraldine. She turned
to Alex and a look passed between them. 'He should meet Majola.'
'Well...' said Alex, shrugging.
'No, really, that would be brilliant,' said Geraldine. 'You
want something for your book, you come with me tomorrow morning.
Majola's like our local shacklord. You know what a shacklord
is? I shan't tell you any more.' She looked at her husband and
let out a little giggle. 'Alex has only once been into that
'Not true, darling...'
'Once!' said Geraldine, holding up a finger and laughing.
In the morning Geraldine took me
to meet Majola. On the way into town I got a running commentary
on the houses we passed. '70 per cent of these places are second
homes, owned by the richest and most influential fat cats in
South Africa. They're mostly lived in for three weeks a year.
We'll have to take you along Millionaires' Drive later. The
houses are incredibly fancy. A Sardinian villa, a Spanish hacienda,
an English mansion, all pushed up against each other - it's
We turned right off the N2 onto a
dirt track, bumped past a collection of small factories and
warehouses. 'Right,' said Geraldine, 'this is the industrial
estate, beyond which the citizens of Plettenberg Bay do not
go. The shanty town.'
And there, stretching right down the steep hillside into the
valley below, was the same old sight. The shacks. The half-naked
children. The women with Persil tubs on their heads. The dogs.
The smoke rising. 'These people came here when they built the
big hotel in the bay. But then they didn't go away. Then more
and more came. There's absolutely no sanitation here - just
one or two taps. It's truly appalling.'
We went down to find Majola. He was
standing outside a corrugated iron warehouse, leaning against
the windows of a lorry: a tall thin man, with an angry scar
high up on his left cheek, and bleary, bloodshot eyes.
He shook hands with Geraldine and I was introduced as a journalist
who wanted to do an interview. Geraldine left and Majola led
me to his office. It was round the back of the warehouse, through
a room full of small children watching The Terminator on video.
Flames filled the screen. A woman screamed and ran. None of
the kids was over about ten. A few young men at the back of
the room sat on hard chairs or leant against a makeshift bar.
As I came in with Majola, one of them got to his feet, offered
me his chair.
'It's OK,' I said.
'No, no, please, sir,' he insisted.
I sat down.
I was called into the next room,
which was bare except for a desk and two chairs. 'I am sorry,'
Majola said, 'my office is not ready at the moment.' He gestured
at a tall cupboard in the corner, stuffed full of a haphazard
mess of files and papers.
He gave me permission to switch on
my tape recorder and the interview began. I learned that his
name was J Majola. That he'd arrived in Plett from the
Transkei in 1983. That during the State of Emergency of 1986
he'd been arrested because he'd associated with the UDF. That
he'd been held in detention for a year. That he was now head
of the local Civic Committee, affiliated to the ANC Western
Cape. That 'the Civic' was negotiating with 'the Municipality'
for better housing, site and serviced, up on the hill. It all
sounded alarmingly familiar.
After about ten minutes, rather tentatively,
I did as Geraldine had suggested, and asked if there had been
any violence in the township.
'Yes,' Majola replied, 'we did have such things. And I used
to be a victim of harassment - for all those things.'
'You used to be a victim of police harassment?' I asked. Perhaps
this was what Geraldine had meant.
'Yah,' said Majola, staring out beyond
me with his bloodshot eyes. There was a pause. Then: 'And from
the case of the murder, you see, whereas I was not present in
that, you see, only because I'm the head of the organisation,
ANC, Civic, you see, they then decided to arrest me. Even the
day they arrest me they say, "We are just arresting you
because you are the head of these people."
'What was this case?' comes my anxious voice onto the tape.
'Sorry - I don't know about this.'
'There was a case,' Majola replies, 'of someone who was, er
- killed by the people. He was trying to be against the ideas
of the people.'
'He was, what - against the squatter camp?'
'He was just against the Civic -
and - all those organisations the people are forming for themselves.
He used to side with the organisations that are formed by the
'And so - what - did the people just ... rise up?'
'So the people were just angry, and then they decided to kill
Geraldine was waiting for me at the top of the road.
'So did Majola do the murder?' I asked.
'Of course he did!' she said. 'Him
and his henchmen. Come down to the shop and I'll tell you the
whole story. I've got to keep an eye on things. I could do more
business today and tomorrow than the whole of the rest of the
So we drove two hundred yards down the hill and into a shopping
centre full of well-dressed whiteys and shops called things
like Hyperette and Just Biltong. Geraldine's boutique sold fashionable
clothes, duvet covers, cushions. We sat in a back room with
St Leger and Viney samples on the wall, a cork board covered
with clippings from Vogue and Harpers & Queen. Through in the
shop, opera arias played over the CD. Every now and then Geraldine
would jump up to close a sale. Or in a pause in her story I
would hear, 'How's your garden?' ... 'I remember you were building'...
'All your hats, yiss' ... 'Those are virry, virry pretty'...'That's
a naice lingth' ... 'My dear, that's perfict.'
'It was just after the release of
Nelson Mandela,' Geraldine said, leaning towards me and speaking
in a hushed and rapid voice, 'and the place was crazy. It was
a very exciting time, a marvellous time. Anyway, the local sort
of unofficial township leader was called Walter Dlamini. He
was just a totally good man, I mean he had the face of an angel
and the attitudes and social commitment of, you know, the most
evolved and saintly human beings. He worked as a waiter, at
a very fancy hotel down here called The Plettenberg. So he'd
been in the area for years, he had a wife called Patience and
several children, a lot of whom he'd adopted because their circumstances
were bad. And whenever people from his village would come to
Plettenberg Bay he would look after them. And he'd make sure
they got a house, and that their children were OK. If they'd
no money, he'd try and land them a job, and if he couldn't land
them a job ...' Geraldine broke off, and looked me straight
in the eye. 'Mark, he was just the most wonderful man that was
ever born - he had a caliper on his leg - he was just absolutely
'Anyway, his cousin, J-- Majola,
arrived from the Transkei. Walter looked after him, like he
looked after everyone else, only more so because he was his
cousin. He sorted him out a house, he sorted him out a job -
the guy was just a simple guy, and Walter ran the township in
a very - he just organised everybody, he was just good, good,
'During about 1983-4, there was a lot of shit in this country
- the State of Emergency - and Majola was arrested. He had a
pretty grim time in prison, and he came out, I don't know how
much later, cross. OK? Radical, cross. Understandably so. He'd
got involved with the ANC in prison and now he found his cousin
Walter sort of a little bit of an impimpi almost ...'
'Too involved with the whites, you know, soft on the whole thing.
And so he's not that impressed with Walter any more because
Walter's got a bit of a soft attitude, and so two camps form.
The older blacks in the township, guys who've been there a long
time, have got jobs, they're with Walter, who's got a slightly
more realistic viewpoint. And the younger ones, who are now
streaming in from the Ciskei and the Transkei, are with Majola.
Thev're unemployed, they're angry, and he's saying, "Fight!
Fight! Fight!" And Walter's going: "Come on, let's
'OK, next scene is: Nelson Mandela gets released and the whole
thing goes absolutely crazy very suddenly. The ANC was coming
out of the underground. Mark, it was the most amazing time.
It was like the Hobbits. Literally. Like everyone was suddenly
unfurling their ANC banners and wearing T-shirts, millions and
millions of people in South Africa wearing these Nelson Mandela
T-shirts. It was just marvellous, it was two weeks of ... It
'And Mr Majola started taking serious charge in the township.
To the extent that if he decided that any of the older blacks
were informers, impimpis, had even been seen talking to a whitey,
Majola would get them undressed, by his civics, his comrades,
and they'd be paraded through the township at night with no
clothes on, with all these people toyi-toyi-ing behind them.'
'You know, the dance that they do.'
Geraldine got to her feet and boogied across towards the St
Leger cuttings, arms to the front at right angles. 'Have you
never seen it? It's terrifying. Anyway, the indignity of this
was absolutely horrifying, which worried Walter Dlamini immensely.
He tried to reason with Majola and say, "Don't turn on
your own people." This had all been done in the name of
the ANC, and Walter was saying, "If this is the ANC I don't
want to be involved with it."
'Anyway, one night, Walter and some of the older men had a meeting
in the township. To discuss this. And while they were all there
Majola was toyi-toying around the township with his comrades
and really causing unbelievable shit. And he went to Walter's
house, where he'd lived for years, full of these children that
he'd taken in and looked after. And Patience, Walter's wife,
came out of the house to see what the noise was, and they grabbed
hold of her, all these comrades and Majola, and they said they
were going to kill her. One of the kids quickly ran to tell
their father what was going on. By this stage Majola and his
men had set light to Walter's beloved little house. Walter came
back, and there was his wife, in her nightdress, with all these
screaming children being threatened by Majola, his house on
fire, his car on fire. And there he was, this little crippled
man, and they got hold of him and they started to stab him.
With Majola stabbing him right in front with the best, with
these things called knipmes, they're little short knives ...'
Geraldine shook her head and sighed deeply. Beyond in the shop,
the smart white Ascension Day weekenders came and went. 'My
dear,' they said, 'you don't have another set like that, take
it.' And over the loudspeakers came, '0 mio babbino caro.'
'Anyway,' Geraldine went on, 'at six o'clock in the morning
I got a phone call from the local doctor, who says, "Listen,
there's a huge amount of shit going on in the township. Walter
Dlamini's been stabbed, and we've got Patience and the children
in the middle of town in their nightdresses. Can you help?"'
'So I came to town, fetched Patience and the children. My car
was surrounded. The police came, thank god, and we managed to
get the last few children in this big Toyota car we've got,
and I took them home. OK, waiting now because Walter had been
taken to Knysna Hospital. So we spent the afternoon waiting
for news with the children, Patience and me trying to keep the
thing jollied up, waiting for the news ... and the news we got
was that Walter had died.
'And I just can't, I cannot tell you what that was like. Patience
was hysterical. And the children were hysterical. We had all
these elders arrived from the township. The house, the guest
room, the cottage that you're in, were full. Patience was lying
on the bed ... all of a sudden these people arrived, they were
singing and chanting, they were heartbroken. It was the saddest
scene. Mark ... you just ... it was the last ... one of the
great men in the world ...' Geraldine shook her head again,
and sighed, a little too deeply, I thought, to be entirely convincing
as the cynical ex-radical she had portrayed herself as earlier.
'Anyway,' she went on eventually,
'to cut a very long story short, the police went and arrested
Majola. Majola was brought into the cells in Plettenberg Bay.
The jail was marched upon by all the youngsters, threatening
to burn it down. So they moved him. The same thing happened
again, so they let him go.
'Then there was Walter's funeral, which was just appalling.
Majola now said that Walter couldn't be buried in the township.
Now he makes all the rules. So we arranged for Walter to be
buried in New Horizons, which is the coloured area. And afterwards
there was going to be a party, at the creche, which is just
on the edge of the township. After the funeral, I dropped Patience
and the grannies and the children at the cr¸che. And I came
home. And I said I'd come back and fetch her at 5 p.m. Alexander
had gone for a walk. It was a very bad time between Alex and
I, politically. I'm much angrier than he is, much more involved
than he is, and he thought I was endangering my own life. I
was getting terribly, terribly involved. My children disapproved,
everyone disapproved, and they weren't altogether wrong.
'So I went back to fetch Patience at 5 p.m., and as she was
loading into the car with the grannies and the children, a busload
of Majola's supporters came back. They'd been at a rally in
Knysna, and they started getting out of this bus, and Majola
told them to attack the car. These guys were all around - Mark,
it was the most terrifying moment of my life. As I drove off,
I had the one granny, who was just falling out of the car, I
thought she'd just die. Anyway, I managed to get away.
'And the police came to me later and said, "Look Majola's
got a hit-list, and because you harboured the Dlaminis you're
on it, so arm yourself." So Alexander and I went and bought
these 2.2 revolvers and I walked around with a revolver on me,
all the time, for a year. It was lovely.'
Geraldine tried to get Majola convicted, but the authorities
couldn't get a case together. 'Every single person was intimidated.
When I went to speak to them they explained that Walter had
died and they all felt very strongly about that, but they weren't
going to lose their own lives being witnesses, so they backed
off. And things got worse and worse. Majola was just treating
people in the township like' - she shrugged - 'it was unbelievable.
I tried to get people from the ANC down here, but they were
so involved with rallies, they were so involved with ego, that
people became secondary. It wasn't that important that people
were really having a terribly, terribly rough time down here.
'In the end, the ANC guy from Port
Elizabeth, who's a friend of ours, came down, and went to see
Majola. So, obsequious Majola says: Oh no, he absolutely understands.
He'll stop this. He'll do this, that, and the other - and just
bullshitted this guy about the whole thing.
'The ANC guy leaves, Majola calls
a meeting, and says Geraldine Harrison has bought the ANC Eastern
Cape with her white cat money, so they'll now be affiliated
to ANC Western Cape. Everyone likes Majola now, everything's
forgotten, he makes everyone in that township pay him five rand
a week, to keep his Civic Committee going ... I don't know,'
she said, peering once more round the door to see that she wasn't
missing a sale. 'I fought this battle literally on my own. I
got so despondent, with white and black, that I became apolitical.
I became wiped out. I thought: What's happening to me? I'm running
around like a chicken with its head cut off and nobody cares.'