The October Killings
By Wessel Ebersohn
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2010 Wessel Ebersohn
All rights reserved.
October 21, 1985
The convoy stayed in the shadow of the hillside until after darkness had fallen. By the time the ten armored personnel carriers started moving, the trees on the far side of the valley had long since faded into poorly defined shadows.
The route they were to travel had been carefully planned to raise as little interest as possible. Much of the way would be on dirt roads. They would pass through no towns and were likely to be seen only by the sort of rural people who would watch them with no more than the vaguest interest. According to the planning, the distance of almost two hundred kilometers to the border was going to take a little over three hours.
Each vehicle carried the driver and ten men, seated back-to-back, facing outward in two rows of five. In the leading vehicle, Leon Lourens, nineteen years old, broad in the shoulders, but lean after six months of intensive training, was sitting slightly forward on the thinly padded seat, his hands clasped together between his thighs. His rifle was stacked under the seat along with those of the nine other men.
Like most nineteen-year-olds of his time and culture, Leon was a patriot. He knew that, if need be, he was willing to die to defend his country. Tonight was to be his first commando raid. He did not fully understand the risks he would be facing, but he was confident that he was ready to meet them.
Most of the men were under thirty, but all of the others had seen action along the country's borders. Leon was the youngest and he was excited at having been chosen for so important a mission. He was going to show his comrades and his family, if word ever got back to them, that he was worthy of being selected.
He was aware that his breath was coming in the brief snatches of the overawed and tried consciously to control it. His excitement could not have been greater if he had been on the way to a willing young woman, any young woman, anywhere. It had taken concentration, but his hands were still and he had controlled the tremor in his left knee that he sometimes felt at times of great excitement. Slowly his breathing started to return to something more normal. He had gone through the instructions Captain van Jaarsveld had given them many times in his mind. Now he was fully prepared.
The captain himself was sitting next to Leon and directly behind the driver. Like his men, he too was silent. Leon had never spoken to the captain and the captain had only ever spoken to him in direct military commands. But he was Leon's senior officer and Leon knew that he would follow wherever he led.
According to the briefing the captain had given them, there were between ten and twenty terrorists in the house, which was on a fairly isolated stretch of road a few hundred meters from the nearest neighbor. They expected to reach the track that would take them to the border fence just after midnight. They would approach the fence in darkness, the engines at little more than idling speed. Two men from their vehicle would cut the fence two kilometers from the house. At that point they would be joined by a uniformed scout who would ensure that they got the right house. The six rear vehicles, two of which were empty to accommodate prisoners, would seal off the road on either side. The soldiers from the first two would go straight into the house. They were to shoot only if there were signs of resistance.
Leon's was an almost perfect shot, but he had never before aimed a firearm at another human being. Now there was something he had to know and only the captain could give him the answer. He looked at van Jaarsveld's face, but could read no expression there. "Permission to speak," he said.
"What is it, soldier?"
"Do you expect resistance, captain?" He had turned his head toward the captain and tried to keep his voice low enough that no one else would hear his question.
Now it was van Jaarsveld's turn to examine his face. "There's always resistance."
"Always, captain. When they see they're outnumbered ..."
"They're terrorists. They always resist."
That answered the question. They were going to resist and he would have to fire. But that was all right. That was what he had been chosen and trained for.
By the time the lights of Ficksburg came into view they were half an hour ahead of schedule and had to stop. The men were allowed to get down and loosen up, taking their rifles with them. It also gave them the opportunity to load. The R4 rifle's magazine took twelve shells. Another twelve were kept in the side pocket of each man's fatigues.
The night sky was clear and cloudless. There was no moon, but the brightness of the stars in the dry Highveld air was enough for the men to recognize one another. The lights of Ficksburg were a thin and distant line. "This is it," Leon told himself. "Just another hour. This is what I've been training for. This is the moment." The weight of the rifle felt good. He knew that he was not only an excellent shot, but he was also a quick one. Aiming, even at a distant target, took only seconds. At close range he took almost no time. He was as sure with a rifle as any man in the company, and better than any in the squad.
It took a while to reach the border from the place where they had stopped, but to Leon it felt like the descent of a large aircraft after a long flight. Even if it took half an hour, you felt that the journey was over and you were already there.
The convoy approached the border fence in darkness, up a narrow gully, digging tracks in the crisp veld grass. The two men whose job it was cut quickly through the wire. As it came loose, Leon and the others rolled back a section on either side. In less than a minute they were moving again. The scout who had been waiting at the fence climbed up next to the driver.
At the top of a rise they left the grass and followed a dirt road. Up ahead, Leon could see the first house. In the glow of a yard light two figures dashed away, boys of perhaps ten or eleven, barefoot and in short pants. Their skinny legs and bare feet were vaguely disturbing. In his nineteen years he had seen so many like them and played with them as a child. They were too ordinary to be here. Leon looked at Captain van Jaarsveld, but the captain's face was in darkness. He was leaning forward in readiness to rise.
There were only two houses in the first block. They rolled past them without raising any obvious interest. The next block held three houses, two on the left and one on the right. Leon knew that the house they were aiming for was the one on the right. The first time he saw it, it was some fifty meters ahead and in complete darkness. It was an old corrugated-iron-roofed house, an unevenly supported veranda running down two sides. Even in the darkness it was clear that it had been a long time since the house had last been painted. The captain rose and was opening the hatch on the roof. It was time to go.
Thursday, October 13, 2005
Abigail Bukula was late for the meeting. Being late was not unusual for her, but it was unusual for her to be late when the minister was expected. She had gotten to know him fairly well in the three years she had been with the Justice Department. He had been good to her in the way that powerful older men can be good to intelligent and attractive young women, without expecting anything in return. She did not want ever to disappoint him.
Abigail had run the length of the long uphill arcade from the parking garage to the pedestrian crossing in front of the department's offices. She stopped on the curb, hot and out of breath, hoping that her makeup had survived the exertion. She was wearing a light gray trouser suit that was intended to make her look at least her thirty-five years. She was all too aware that she looked years younger than her actual age and that this was not a good quality when seeking promotion in her country's civil service. As for the trousers, Abigail remembered owning a skirt once, but that was long ago and it had been a gift from an aunt. She had worn it only once and that had been to please the aunt.
It was almost twelve years since the country's first democratic elections, but the names of Pretorius Street, where her car was parked, and Schoeman Street, where she now waited for a pause in the traffic, had survived the attention of government and bureaucracy so far. Both streets still carried the names of pioneering white settlers.
Pretoria was a city in which white anxiety and black frustration wrestled each other with almost equal determination. The anxiety in the suburbs was based on unknowable strictures that the black majority may yet inflict upon them, while the frustration in the black townships rose from a political victory that for many seemed to be in name only. The suburbs were still white and wealthy and the townships were still black and poor.
It was not so for Abigail though. Brought up in exile during the apartheid years, she had been educated at University College, London, and Harvard. The combination of her own ability and the shortage of skills among black South Africans, especially women, had seen her rise from senior professional officer to chief director in just three years. She was just two steps away from the director-generalship of the department. With both the current director-general and most deputy directors-general on three-year contracts, it was not impossible to imagine her in the top position in the department within a few years. Most women in government would applaud the idea. At least as many men, still subscribing to the African notion of male superiority and despite government policy to the contrary, would do what they could to keep her out.
Ahead of her and to her left as she crossed Schoeman Street was the nondescript building that housed the department's offices. As the government machinery had grown over the last thirty years, one department after another had been moved out of the Union Buildings that still housed the presidency, and were now scattered around the city. The modest buildings they occupied belied the standard notion of excessive government spending.
As she came through the checkpoint at the entrance to the building, she flashed her card at two uninterested guards from a private security company. Both had seen her many times, but the system insisted that every card, including that of the minister himself, be shown whenever the holder entered the building.
It was only in the lift, on the way to the fourth floor where the meeting was being held, that Abigail was able to be still. The opportunity lasted only a few seconds, but it gave her that long to compose herself. All day she had tried to keep herself even busier than usual. The busier you are, her barely conscious thinking told her, the less chance you have to remember. And remembering was to be avoided if that were at all possible.
He was going to be there. More than that, honoring him was the reason for the meeting. She had always known that sooner or later this day would come. Now it was upon her.
She had worked out a strategy for dealing with the meeting. She would leave her car downtown as an excuse for coming late, telling anyone who asked that it had developed a fault. She would make sure that she was seen by some of the department's senior people, but would try to stay shielded from the minister, slip away as soon as the main formalities were completed and avoid the socializing afterward.
Already her plan was falling apart. She had left the car downtown and timed her leaving it to get to the meeting late, but despite her intentions, she had found herself running up the arcade. Hot and flustered, she would probably not be as unobtrusive as she had hoped.
Johanna, her desperately busy personal assistant, met Abigail in a passage that was crowded with the overflow from the meeting. "You look like you've been running," the younger woman said.
"My car broke down," Abigail told Johanna. "I hope the meeting's not over yet."
"It hasn't even started ..." Johanna began.
Oh, Christ, she thought. All this for nothing.
"The minister has just arrived, but Michael Bishop is not yet here."
That was his name. It was only the second time she had come across it in twenty years. The first time had been just the day before, when she had received an e-mail instructing her to be at the meeting.
They had reached the door of the meeting room. "I'll wait out here for a moment," she said.
"No–o." Johanna's eyes had grown wide at the idea. "The minister's been asking after you."
"What did you tell him?"
"I said you'd been held up in court." Johanna was a township girl and life on the township streets had taught her to think on her feet. Her parents were schoolteachers, who had insisted on her spending her afternoons studying and had been present to enforce their ruling. Right now, she was aiming for her second degree. She was in her mid-twenties, some ten years younger than her boss, almost as ambitious and unconsciously modeling herself on Abigail. "I said that being held up in court was the only possible reason that you were not yet here. I said I'd tell you that he wanted to see you the moment you got here. I said you wouldn't miss this for anything."
Johanna was out of breath from telling Abigail all the things she had said to the minister. She stopped to breathe. "What did he say?" Abigail asked.
"He said, please. Please bring her to me the moment she arrives."
"The guest of honor's not here yet?"
"No." Johanna's eyes were wide again. "I can't wait. He's so mysterious."
There must have been more than one hundred people in the meeting room. Most were senior government functionaries from the justice department, the men in dark suits and ties, and the women in muted colors. They were the new government elite. Most were under forty, African and looking for better paid options in the corporate world. Here and there a white or Asian face, often belonging to a former trade unionist who had found this new place in which to stay out of the rain, dotted the confined landscape. The only casually dressed people were to be found among the handful of reliable journalists, the kind who knew to be careful about the questions they asked, or perhaps to whom the difficult questions never occurred.
The gathering had split into small, chattering groups, one of which now gathered around the minister. He had spotted Abigail and was gesturing for to her to come closer. "Here she is," he was saying. Around the minister were two directors-general, three deputy directors-general and one chief director who, given his relatively modest rank, was lucky to be included in the company. The minister turned to Abigail and smiled. The other men all smiled too. Whatever they thought about ambitious young women who may yet overtake them could keep for a more appropriate moment. "How are you getting on?" the minister asked. "I've told these gentlemen not to crowd you, that they must give you room to move." He paused only a moment. "Well, Abigail, are they giving you room to move?"
All except my own deputy DG, she thought. She saw the object of her thoughts looking directly at her, lips pursed, like a schoolmaster observing an unreliable pupil. "Of course they are, Mr. Minister. You instructed them to," she said.
The minister laughed. "If only life were that simple." He turned to the men around him. "Do you gentlemen always do as I instruct you?" He led the laughter that followed and nodded with real amusement at the protestations of absolute obedience.
The minister was speaking to the group as a whole now. "This occasion is overdue," he said. "It is astonishing that this hero of the liberation struggle has gone so long without recognition." There were murmurs of agreement from the other men. He turned again to Abigail. "Did you ever meet him during the exile years?" he asked.
How do I answer this? Abigail asked herself. Had I ever met him?
"Did you ever meet Michael Bishop?" the minister asked again.
"I think so," she said. "Perhaps." Oh God, she thought.
"Of course that was long ago. You would have been very young."
Not that young, she thought. "Yes," she said. "I was very young."
"Yes," the minister said, "a genuine hero of the struggle. While the rest of us were getting educated at international universities, he was in the front lines, risking his life. It just shows how sound our nonracial policies are." The last reference was to the fact that Bishop was white. Again, all those around the minister were nodding in agreement. "Now, gentlemen, if you will excuse me for a moment, I need to venture down the passage." (Continues...)
Excerpted from The October Killings by Wessel Ebersohn. Copyright © 2010 Wessel Ebersohn. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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