It certainly was a free-for-all! Everybody was there – the little school-boys who hadn’t been to school for months, even old Phineas whose gnarled fingers were digging among the rubble for whatever he could find. Everybody!
And certainly the events of those sunny August days will stay with us for ever. For that one strange week it seemed as if all the constraints of civilization had simply evaporated in Inanda. The rich – the shopkeepers, the landowners, the doctors – had fled, and we, the unemployed, the poor and the starving could just walk into other people’s homes and help ourselves. We didn’t need a second invitation. We climbed in!
Like so many people, I had been unemployed for more than a year when the events of that week unfolded; and this was despite my `education’, so that time came as a blessing for my fellow sufferers and me. I had even scavenged at the municipal rubbish dump in Kennedy Road which is in the Indian group area of Clare Estate. And more than once I had been involved in a bit of `liberating’ that had helped fill my belly. Being unemployed is a terribly frustrating business; your education becomes a mocking thing, accentuating your condition and making you feel even more useless. Actually, I had mostly educated myself. Many of our teachers were a bit of a joke and the syllabi were often irrelevant and ridiculous. But luckily I love reading and I would get books from wherever I could.
The will to live is strong, and we did what we had to do. I was glad that my people were not becoming extinct like many Aboriginal tribes had become.
On the Friday, the fourth day of pillage, I was with a group of people who swarmed along to the picturesque old Ashram nestling among some ancient Banyan trees on a small hill. During the previous night, the people had spoken of starting on it the next day. It was called the Phoenix Ashram and contained a health clinic which provided free medical care, a museum, a Gandhi primary school and some old wood-and-iron homes. Some of the people spoke of a wise man who had once lived there called `Gandhi’. Most of the people had no idea who he had been and what he had done in his life. Of course we had not learned about him at school. I knew very little about him at that time.
A few people were employed to look after the Ashram, but it attracted very important-looking visitors from all over the world. Or so young Zama, who worked there, had said. Anyway, that August day nobody was trying to look after the place; and Zama was just as energetically helping himself to what he could as anybody else was. Absolute mayhem reigned among the lovely old buildings. The noise of doors being ripped off their hinges and windows being shattered reverberated above a continuous cacophony of excited, shouting voices. However, I noticed that the people had not broken into the medical clinic. I ran into an old home and began taking what I could. I felt like a Saxon stripping a venerable Roman lady of her garments. It felt good!
”This is better than the Group Areas Act,” I mused aloud to myself, thinking of the millions of people who had lost their homes because their race had made it illegal for them to live
where they were according to this decree of the government.
A crackly, piercing voice rose above the turmoil and proclaimed,
”Yes, at least this way the poor benefit.”
I turned and saw an old man standing in a corner of the dusty, shattered room. I had never seen him before. His horn-rimmed spectacles, skinny body and bald pate made him look rather vulnerable. How was he going to protect his loot from the others? And there was quite a mean bunch among the citizens who were working so hard that August Friday. I nodded and went outside with a box of stuff. My friends were having the time of their lives. Tall Absalom, the boxer, was carrying off a large wooden window-frame on his head. Gladys, who worked as an ironing-lady for some Europeans, was taking away a whole load of goodies on a rickety wheelbarrow. In the distance, at the border of the riot-torn area, I saw army and police vehicles with their crews standing idly by. They had been spending taxpayers’ money like that for a few days now; but they had made no attempt to intervene, thank goodness. I carefully selected a spot for my stuff and went back into the rapidly disintegrating house. The old man was peering anxiously at a delicate, faded white blouse as I came in. It looked just the right size for a large doll. He held it up to the light, seemingly oblivious of the chaos around him.
Another loony, I thought, as I grabbed an old desk and began dragging the thing out. “This is great,” I observed to the old man, “being free with other people’s enterprises. Maybe this is what the whites mean by the Free Enterprise System?”
He turned then and looked at me; I swear that behind his toothy, insane grin there was for just an instant, a weary, sad look of infinite pain.
“It certainly looks that way,” he replied, and came over to help me with the desk.
“Thanks,” I said, wondering how much of MY stuff he would want. He was strong; I’ll say that much for him. As strong as a bloody ox. We had that desk outside in no time.
A cheer rose from the roof. Some of the corrugated-iron sheets were finally giving way. Carefully, Pieter and Petrus began lowering the iron from the roof. The old man was running his leathery fingers over the ancient desk slowly, like a man will slowly savour his wife’s soft neck for the millionth time. He opened the desk and I saw his eyes come alive as he removed a book from inside. He began flipping the pages and paused now and again to read. I went over to look at the book. The cover proclaimed,
M. K. GANDHI
“You’re wasting time, old man,” I shouted at him, and dived back into the inferno. 11 am on 9 August 1985 at the Phoenix Ashram outside Durban was just not the time or the place for reading.
“I’m leaving,” he said, and I turned quickly to look at him. I mean it was not as if the police or the army had suddenly decided to earn their pay or something. And I hadn’t noticed him take anything yet. There was that weird look in his eyes again. Was it just his strange spectacles? The kind of look that speaks of too much wisdom, too much understanding, too much love. He didn’t have a shirt on and the white cloth wrapped crazily around his thin body was ragged.
“Yay! Old Man,” I called, “there’s lots more loot in here; why don’t you come in?” With his strong arms I would be able to take many more of the things in the place. His lean, dark hand was moving slowly over the desk as he gazed at the old home whose walls were coming crashing down. There was a kind of mist in his soft brown eyes, as they lingered over the splintered wood and the broken iron.
“No point in getting sentimental,” I commented. “In any case the people used to call that `The Empty House’ because nobody lived there. It was a museum of some sort. At least now the people without homes will be making use of it.”
He smiled but there was no mirth in his eyes this time. “That’s true,” he answered. Some-how the old man radiated an aura of dignity despite all the pillaging that was going on all around him. Inanda was in flames. He looked away across the valley to where the police were, then at the desk.
“Look after these things,” he said in his gentle, squeaky voice, “they are of Africa.” I thought that I detected a certain steel in his voice as he continued: “Still the same old brainwashed puppets… puppets on a string, but someday their minds will not be alien to their souls… and then… ” Resignation clothed his face but I thought that his eyes still held a certain fire. He looked quietly at me. But he didn’t finish the sentence. Instead, with a nod of goodbye he turned on his heel and moved off with long marching strides on his sandaled feet. He didn’t appear to really need the long staff he was carrying. And he hadn’t taken anything from the Ashram.
There had always been a kind of unearthly peace in the old Ashram. A kind of freshness, a crispness of the air that left you exhilarated. The peace seemed to suffuse you and calm you no matter what the turmoil in your soul. Till that day when we looted the place. Somehow when that old man turned on his heel and strode off from the Ashram, all the peace in the place seemed to leave with him. I didn’t feel like stealing after that. In fact, I felt quite miserable. I felt, God help me, like a horse in a fox-hunt, like a bullet from a robber’s gun.
But I kept the old desk. And at times when I look long and hard at it, I think I can see the old man’s face looking up at me, and his eyes seem bright with life.
[The author retains copyright to this story. Please do not reproduce without permission]