By Charles Leonard
Every year on this day I think of my riot policeman – the one who tried to kill me the day then-president FW de Klerk announced the unbanning of the African National Congress (ANC), the South African Communist Party and the Pan Africanist Congress, and that he was going to release ANC leader Nelson Mandela after 27 years in prison.
De Klerk also lifted the media regulations that prevented us hacks from covering “riotous assemblies”.
It was over lunchtime on February 2, 1990 that the constable tried to permanently remove me from society. A few hours earlier on that hot day, we watched spellbound on television as De Klerk opened Parliament and surprised the world with his announcement. Across the country major celebrations started.
I was working as a reporter in Johannesburg on the country’s only Afrikaans-language left-wing paper, Vrye Weekblad (meaning “independent weekly”), which became famous – or infamous, depending on your politics – for exposing the apartheid state’s shadowy death squads over the previous year.
Even though it was Friday, and our weekly paper had already hit the streets early that morning, I wasn’t going to miss any of the excitement of this epoch-making, stupendous day. So I grabbed my camera and rushed to Braamfontein, which housed a lot of progressive organisations, a liberal university and trade unions, knowing that marches of elated activists would erupt from there.
I wasn’t wrong. A large group of dancing students and workers were already approaching from the university on the wide, hot tarred road, floating towards me on a mirage.
A few city blocks later, as the marchers reached a small lawn in front of a busy restaurant, the feared riot police brought the dense lunchtime traffic in the adjoining four-lane street to a standstill.
Not wanting any of these celebrations, they wildly parked their macho vehicles on the pavements with screeching tyres, burped off their sirens, and about 10 of them charged towards the surprised students. And me.
“This is an illegal gathering,” barked the adrenalin-charged captain over his megaphone. “I give you a minute to disperse!”
“But the president has legalised gatherings like this,” I tell one of his sidekicks, a young constable with an undernourished blond moustache.”And as reporter I’m allowed to be here.”
Until then journalists were not allowed to cover so-called political gatherings because of emergency regulations. His crazed eyes tell me that perhaps I made a huge mistake. I spoke to him in his mother tongue, Afrikaans.
My pure accent tells him one thing: I am one of those he despises even more than the black activists, a fellow Afrikaner who has sided with the “enemy”.
“Stand aside!” he spits out, as he menacingly taps his heavy black truncheon in his pale palm. “I’m going to get you!”
The constable was a man of his word. It looks slow, but happens very fast. His upraised right arm crashes down, the truncheon whooshes through the hot air, straight for my temple, doing just as they taught him on the advanced riot control course: that’s the place to aim for with your truncheon if you want to kill.
Thwack!!! He misses my temple by two centimetres.
My knees collapse under me because of the severity of the blow. “No!!!” I think. “Why are you doing it?!” Maybe I’m screaming that…
Back to real time: the next massive bolt coming already as I’m going down… Thwack!!! On top of my skull. I’m covering my head with my arms. One, mistimed, on the back of my head.
Twackthwackthwackthwackthwack!!! Blows raining down pneumatically on my arms, all over my upper body.
In a fetal position he leaves me, but after a few yards he turns back and, as if to say “Have a nice day”, sprays stinging teargas straight into my eyes from five centimetres away. And then off to panel-beat a few students and workers. My Afrikaner skull probably too thick for his liking, I tell my friends jokingly later on.
I pick up my camera, bag, and glasses and stumble in the opposite direction into the four lanes of traffic that, fortunately, is still at a dead standstill to stare at this brutal spectacle. Chaos continues as riot policemen chase students and workers into the restaurant across the lawn. The owner, a law-abiding type, holds them down for the cops to assault.
I turn away from the traffic and lurch back across the lawn towards the restaurant. My eyes are burning. I wipe my face and see it’s not tears but blood streaming down my face, my neck, soaking my shirt. The white restaurant patrons start jeering me. “See, that’s what you get when you mix with the blacks!” one racist shouts, as the cops start retreating back to their vans.
“Why don’t you sleep with their women then!?” another patron shouts at me, to uproarious laughter from his friends. I’m in no mood for their bullshit. “Bring them!” I roar back. It shuts them up.
Twelve hours later and I have a throbbing headache. There are glaring neon lights in my eyes. “Come, get out!” a hand is thumping against the car window of the passenger seat. A half-eaten hamburger lands on the road before me as I try and steady myself next to the car. At least it’s my friend, and not a riot cop. “What the fuck are we doing here?” I ask, standing where ambulances normally offload their damaged victims of the weekend madness at the JG Strijdom state hospital, named after one of the apartheid leaders of yore.
“What did you study at university?” he’s demanding to know. We had spent the night at some prominent commie’s house wildly celebrating the unbannings. I had too much to drink, regaling all and sundry with the tale of my encounter with the cop’s truncheon and the resulting 10 stitches over my head, never forgetting my Afrikaner-thick-skull punchline.
On the way back home to our commune we got ourselves hamburgers for the late-night munchies, but I fell asleep after a few bites.
“I did philosophy, but can we go home now? I’m completely wasted!”
My mate was having none of this. “You had serious head injuries and you just passed out. If you can’t tell me about a few philosophers and their theories I’m getting you admitted you to hospital!”
“I’m just pissed, but okay, Plato wrote ‘The Republic’ about, er…”
“Oh yes, Marx explained history through dialectical materialism!” I was on a roll. “And Sartre…”
“Excuse me gentlemen, but you’re blocking the ambulances’ entrance!” a stern hospital security guard interrupts. “And take your burger along!”
I saw “my” cop, Pale Moustache, once again, a week after the incident. An English rebel cricket tour took place in South Africa amidst lots of protests, because the sports boycott against the country was still in place. The police responded in typical violent fashion to these protests.
I was walking back to my car with the air still thick with teargas, and saw Pale Moustache and his mates leaning against their police vans. When they noticed me, they laughed and shouted. I pretended not to see them, got into my car and drove away as quickly as I could, with my ego needing more stitches than my head the week before.
The police settled the case I brought against them out of court and I never found out what Pale Moustache’s real name was. He was kind enough to remove his name badge before the beating.
So, once a year on this day I think of him and I wonder if he is enjoying our new society which many of us – with all its flaws – still celebrate. I hope not.
Charles Leonard is news editor at the Mail & Guardian. He has been a journalist since 1987.