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Back to Jim Crow

It was a typical Sunday morning in 1989 sitting with my now ex-wife in our usual pew when the reading of the announcements began. Bob Hunter, the associate pastor, stepped to the mic. He started to talk about the sister church to Tabernacle Presbyterian Church (TAB as it is affectionately known) in Durban, South Africa. The Church of the Good Shepherd (COGS) was engaged in a number of outreach activities into the Black townships outside the city. He spoke about a mission trip to Durban that was forming to observe the work being done by COGS and share TAB’s own experience ministering to the minority community that surrounded the church.

TAB had been, and still is, a very prestigious church nestled in a once wealthy northside community in Indianapolis filled with stately homes. Many of these homes had been built by bankers, businessmen and politicians, the elite in the 20’s and 30’s. Kurt Vonnegut’s boyhood home is just around the corner from the church. But as a red line was drawn around the community, Block-Busting (the practice by real estate agents to scare white homeowners into selling at low prices out of fear racial minorities might be moving into the neighborhood) followed by White Flight took hold driving down the value of the homes. Many but not all of the white homeowners moved further north to the segregated suburban communities and vacated houses were subdivided into rentals with subpar maintenance. TAB had a decision to make; follow its more prosperous membership to the suburbs or stay and minister to its new neighbors. In the late 60’s, a vote was cast and a stance was taken. The majority of the membership decided to stay and bear witness to its Christian calling. It became a beacon to the surrounding community and the city. TAB created a recreational program for the neighborhood kids that received national recognition. Its gym had given an NBA star his start. I coached my children’s T-Ball teams on its fields. TAB has a long, notable history of serving the “least of these.” The trip to Durban would be a bilateral sharing and learning experience for both TAB and COGS of their ministries to very different yet very similar communities of need.

As I listened to Bob give the details of the trip, a voice spoke clearly in my ear, “You must go.” I quickly turned to see who had just whispered to me. The apartheid laws in South Africa were as egregious as the Jim Crow laws in America had been until they were overruled by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The oppression was dehumanizing, brutal, even deadly. I looked around to see who was encouraging me to make a journey to a country few Black men would dare to take. But no one was there. The pew was empty. Hmm. I turned back as Bob continued. A few moments later, I heard the same voice again say, “You must go.” Again, no one was there. I slowly turned back to Bob. I wondered if my imagination had set itself free from reality. But as I listened my intrigue grew. By the end of Bob’s presentation, I decided, “I will go.” The incident with the voice continued to perplex me. I had heard of people hearing “voices” but thought such people needed counseling, medication or a padded room. Yet, I could not deny what I heard. I didn’t know it at the time that I would hear that voice again.

“Are you crazy!” was a typical answer I would hear as I shared my decision with friends and family. They reminded me of Stephen Biko, an avowed anti-apartheid activist, political prisoner, who died in police custody after being driven for miles over rough roads lying bound in the bed of a pick-up truck. And of course, there was Nelson Mandela, the leader of the African National Congress (ANC) imprisoned for two decades on Robben Island within sight of Cape Town. The US enacted the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, which sanctioned South Africa prohibiting loans and other business activities there. Student protests across the country called for universities to disinvest from their interests there and shamed major corporations. Still the mysterious voice and the lure of adventure was irresistible. My sense of mortality was yet underdeveloped. I would go.

The TAB team as we departed. (L to R) John Byers, Mary Allen, Mary Moon, Vicki Williams, Helen Phillips, Bob Hunter, Dave Mills, Andy Hunter, Susie Anderson and DeWayne Anderson

The flight was the longest I had ever made and my first beyond the mainland. In 1989, South Africa was an international pariah for its apartheid laws and South African Airlines had no landing rights in the US. In fact, it was banned from traversing the air space of every European and north African country between England and South Africa or risk being fired upon. Our 747 used every single inch of runway to get airborne carrying extra fuel tanks in addition to a full passenger and crew complement. As we passed over the White Cliffs of Dover and skirted the coast of Portugal, with the snowcapped Pyrenees Mountains separating Spain and France visible in the distance, the ubiquitous world globe on the shelf came into full, living color relief. Fourteen hours later, we landed in Cape Town. The plane was so completely disheveled as to question its airworthiness. Bodies and debris were everywhere. Abandoning ship was imperative. We then caught a short flight to Jan Smuts International Airport in Johannesburg.

We had a short layover there till our final flight to Durban on the shores of the Indian Ocean. Black guards fingering their automatic weapons stood at the doorways as we filed past from the tarmac. Bob found a seat on a bench next to a Black minister and a young Black university student, both returning home from Germany, and struck up a conversation. As the mission photographer, I began to shoot some pictures from across the corridor. The young man shot a glance in my direction looking concerned as my shutter clicked away. He leaned toward Bob, with an eye on me, and asked Bob if he knew me. He seemed to relax a bit when Bob explained to him who we were and why we were there. He said he had been out of the country for a while and an unknown Black man taking pictures of his reentry was unsettling. Apparently, the political climate was tense and uncertain. It shouldn’t have been a surprise and my first clue that I was not in “Kansas” anymore. But that would be made clearer to me soon enough.

Helen listens in as Bob talks with the young student returning from Germany in Jan Smuts airport in Johannesburg.

That evening in Durban, we attended a braii (barbeque) to meet our hosts from COGS. Dave Mills and I were paired as roommates and introduced to Pat and Myrna Kennedy and their two striking daughters, Kerry, 14, and Katherine, 12. We were given the mother-In-law apartment in their stunningly beautiful home just a short walk from the ocean. I couldn’t have asked for warmer or more gracious hosts. I almost immediately felt at home.

Myrna, Kerry, Pat and Katherine Kennedy, my hosts.

The Kennedy home just a short walk from the Indian Ocean.

The next morning, Dave and I headed to the church for our first meeting with the COGS team that had spent years ministering in the Black townships in the outlying areas surrounding the city. By law, their activities were illegal. But it appeared the authorities looked the other way, perhaps seeing it as lessening their responsibilities. It was as beautiful a day as you would find anywhere on the planet. The sky was clear and blue. A subtle breeze tickled the trees and their shadows danced across the sidewalk. As we made our way, a white man approached, cigarette hanging from his lips. As a courtesy as anyone would do, we made way for him to pass. He slid past Dave but shouldered me knocking me slightly off balance. I politely excused myself, perhaps in deference to his race as I had been conditioned in the states, and continued on. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the man had stopped and stood looking back in our direction, looking intently at me. I kept walking but my mind I began to assess what had just happened. And why the stare.

It only took me a few more steps for that thing about “Kansas” to come back to me. I had been transported back to a time much like the 1950’s era of Jim Crow in the states. “Wake up,” I said to myself. “You are a Black man in a country where the majority of white people see you as just another kaffir (the K-word in South Africa).” It was reminder of the laws in the US that until the 1960’s had assured Blacks (not just in the South) would not forget their place, have their forward progress stunted nor have any hope of breaking free. But this little event revealed that I had an unusual opportunity, one I could not exploit back in the states. My blackness obscured my status as an American citizen from everyone. As far as the whites, or Blacks for that matter, around me knew, I was just another Zulu from the townships. I looked like them. I could disappear into the social fabric, become “invisible” in a way. But as soon as I exposed myself as an American, I would be treated as if I were white! I could choose at will on which side of the social dividing line I wanted to stand by my silence alone. And you can bet I took advantage.

Our meeting at COGS ended and we were given the day to explore Durban. A group of us headed to the bank down the hill from the church. In those days you carried Travellers Cheques instead of currency and would convert them to cash at a bank once you reached your destination. It was a typical small bank branch with glass reaching from counter to ceiling and little, secure pass throughs to the tellers. As everyone pulled out their passports for identification to cash their checks, I realized I had unwisely left mine in the apartment. So, I stood aside and chatted with the others awaiting a window. Soon a tall, Black man in maroon-colored fatigues, cap, polished black boots and a club dangling from his hip, entered the lobby through the rear office door. He slowly strolled through the small lobby surveilling the customers, turned, and took an "at ease" stance in the corner looking directly at me. I was engrossed in conversation with my teammates but noticed the guard’s entry. After repeated glances in his direction, I realized guard's stare had not changed direction or lessened in intensity. I became uncomfortable now realizing I must have been the reason he had been summoned. It puzzled me for a moment but shouldn’t have. I had seen that look before, the stolen glances, in stores in the states. But why was he so focused on me?

About then, a small Black man dressed a bit like a hobbit came through the door carrying a money pouch. He scurried quickly to the counter, shoved the bag under the glass and just as quickly was back out the door. I took a look around the lobby and recognized I was the only Black in the bank. Why would a Black man be standing idly by in the lobby of a bank in a country where very few Blacks would even have a bank account? I quickly turned into the group to face the guard whose gaze remained unchanged and in my Hoosier voice, loud enough to be heard, said something! I don’t remember what! But something! The guard apparently heard me and slowly relaxed his stance realizing I was an American. I had suddenly become white. He looked away, turned and walked outside. Another “Kansas” moment!

The outcome of the 1948 election put the Nationalist Party in control. The Nationalists were largely descendants of the Dutch colonists who established resupply ports, as had the British, along the southern tip of Africa for its Far East and slave trades. Their Platform promised to build upon and formalize the existing segregationist polices enacted by previous British and Afrikaner administrations. The British descendants generally opposed the Nationalist Party but failed to take seriously their promise to implement a more draconian social structure, much like Jim Crow. The Population Registration Act of 1950 classified all South African into specific racial groups. All aspects of common life, work, education, transportation, were segregated without “separate but equal” considerations. Blacks could not live in the cities unless, such as nannies, they lived with their white employer. Blacks had to vacate the city by sunset unless they had a pass, as did Blacks during slavery and from sundown towns post Reconstruction. Consequently, the lack of concern led to low British turnout, which left the door open. Apartheid laws were enacted and British regret was tempered by relief out of fear of Black retribution for the suffering whites had inflicted and the privilege they enjoyed.

As the powerful have done many times throughout history, the government engineered divisions among the Black Africans to weaken their opposition to minority rule. Just as the planter class in the American colonies had created the White race following Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 to set the indentured class and enslave Blacks at odds, the Nationalist vilified the African National Congress (ANC) and sponsored Inkatha, the rival warlords. The resulting conflict worked to destabilize the townships and reduce the possibility of a unified rebellion. The tension was evident in all of my encounters in the townships. I inquired about possibly attending a warlord council. My host discouraged me saying they would kill him. The similarities between the Apartheid and Jim Crow laws are many but based on the same foundational motives, power to accumulate and maintain wealth and the comforts they imbue.

Still, the COGS team went about their work prayerfully well aware of the potential risks of being caught in the middle. The next day we made our first foray into the townships, just a 15-minute drive from the Kennedy’s beautiful home in Durban. The journey there was a clear, visible delineation of the social order. In that 15 minutes, we passed from the pristine neighborhoods of whites with homes surrounded by walls capped with broken glass, through the architecturally intriguing area of Indian merchants and shopkeepers, past the very modest homes of the Coloreds (mixed race peoples), into the Black Kwazulu lands.

The Inanda township was a vast area of rolling hills denuded of trees and littered with huts of mud, tin and whatever else that could be found and made useable. Millions of Zulus, a coalition of once formidable tribes that dominated all of southern Africa, lived in these hills. Transportation was limited to a few cars, buses from the central station and Kombies, (short for Kombinationskraftwagen) VW microbuses that serve as delivery vehicles and taxis. The roads inland challenged even 4-wheel drive vehicles. Women and children wove their way along mine fields of stones while carrying large containers of water on their heads from wells, sometimes over a mile from their hut. Otherwise, there were almost no other service provided. Trash was burned in the ditches alongside the roads. Lean-tos served as roadside stores for everything from used underwear and shoes to unrefrigerated meat hacked to order. But I wanted to know more. I wanted to feel it, to touch it, smell it. Just seeing through the window of a moving van wasn’t close enough. So, I became invisible.

(L to R) Derrick Gumede, Charles Gordon, pastor, Terrence Mpanza and Ernest Shabangu

Derrick Gumede, Terrence Mpanza, and Ernest Shabangu, all ministry students and pastors of churches in the townships, wanted to show me what it was like to be a Black South African. I had no idea what they had planned but I had no hesitation. You see, the day before I was alone in the apartment when a sense of peace, warmth and calm settled in that was palpable. The voice that had encouraged me to take this journey quietly spoke again. This time it was reassuring, affirming that I would be okay; that I would never forget this time. I remember thinking I was imagining this but the words I “heard” were not of my mind’s making. Then it was gone. I felt saddened. I wanted it to stay. It was as if a cozy blanket had been lifted. But I was at peace with whatever was to come. I walked out the front door of COGS into the afternoon sun with my hosts, without my camera or my passport (this time intentionally) and, as far as white South Africans were concerned, I vanished.

The first thing we did was to catch a Kombi to the black bus terminal downtown. Terrence had a friend at a sugar-refining mill that didn't want to miss the chance to meet a Black American. The kombi ride was rather tame considering how many people die in kombi accidents as the drivers hurry at break-neck speed to shuttle as many passengers as possible in a day. The occupants never suspected I wasn't a Zulu until I would say something to Derrick, Terrence or Ernest. The driver craned his neck around to see who I was. All day, I tried not to reveal myself if possible.

At the bus terminal, there were thousands of people crisscrossing the streets, sidewalks and loading areas. Sidewalk vendors were selling everything imaginable, fruits, vegetables, chickens, dried foods, jewelry, even health care products to those boarding the buses, shopping before returning home. As we approached the buses, men began to shout at us waving their arms, trying to coax us onto their bus while the drivers sat revving the engines to create a sense of immediate departure. As I stepped up into a bus, I could see the Indian driver enclosed in a Plexiglas and wire cage with a money window on the side. Wire mesh covered the outside of the windshield. As people got on, they scattered among the rows of bench seats with their purchases, some still alive, held close. Some women were knitting but most of the passengers just stared blankly out the windows preparing for the long walk into the hills that awaited them. Little was left of the day’s wages after picking up a few necessities and paying the 70 cent bus fare. If eye contact was made, most responded with a smile. We sat near the back where I could take it all in.

After a short walk from the bus, we arrived at the refinery where Terrence's friend, Vusi Mdlalose, was a personnel representative. We were checked in by two huge, white Afrikaans-speaking guards. Vusi was young, maybe 25, with boyish looks, medium complexion. He reminded me of Sugar Ray Leonard. He introduced us to his supervisor, a friendly, white, British man of about 35 years. He had just returned from eight weeks in the States and had smuggled a copy of "Kaffir Boy," a book banned by the South African government, into the country for Vusi.

By now it was lunchtime and we headed for the company cafeteria. Vusi sat next to me. Some of the whites that came in gave us a pretty long look. Over lunch, Vusi began to feel comfortable enough to ask the question on the heart of every Black South African I had met, "What is life like in the U.S. and, most of all, for Blacks in the U.S.?" A difficult and tricky question to answer coming from a country that had only ended Jim Crow with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. The overlap of the two social orders would make little sense to people who imagined America as a bastion of liberty and justice for all. A look of hope burned in Vusi’s eyes. I wanted to be careful not to douse the flame. But I also needed to not fuel any political fires before I could get out of the country. I chose my words carefully as I explained that freedom from oppression is not an absolute but a matter of degrees short of anarchy, that the U.S. had come a long way but the journey was far from over.

As we were saying our good-byes, our bus came roaring up in a cloud of dust. A few people tumbled off and we climbed on and into the twilight zone. There were many more adventures that day that took me deeper into the township, deeper into their lives. By the time we headed back to the city, it was dark. It had been an amazing day. I had seen and learned so much. My “invisibility” had given me a ring-side seat to a world I could not have seen otherwise. But there was one last lesson to learn that night.

The last leg of our trip back to Durban was via Kombie again with 15 other grown men sitting knee to knee, facing forwards and backwards. Ernest had left us back in the township. Derrick and Terrence were still with me. The idea of “personal space” did not exist. The smell of the day’s labor was pungent but I had overcome its power days before. It was during the ride I noticed a level of familiarity among the men you would find among families. They asked about or spoke of people they knew of who lived great distances away as if they lived the next hill over. Though strangers, the sense of tribal community was amazing and the distance over which it stretched was astounding. I envied them.

Derrick and the driver began an exchange in Zulu. The driver kept checking me out in his mirror smiling and shaking his head in disagreement to whatever it was Derrick was saying. I kept my silence as I had all day to not blow my cover. Derrick and Terrence began to laugh as the debate continued. This went on for a while before Derrick finally leaned over and explained what was going on. He said the driver didn't believe that I was an American. He argued, at some length, that I was someone he had grown up with in the township and that I frequently rode in his Kombi! He thought that maybe I didn't recognize him because he was driving a different taxi that night. Derrick said, “Go ahead and tell him.” I spoke. The driver’s eyes practically bulged as did those of the remaining passengers! It was as if an alien had appeared in their midst, had been there among them all along without a hint of their awareness. Then the questions erupted. “Are you a boxer? Do you know Mike Tyson? Do you know Bill Cosby?” The entire Kombie exploded into laughter. Really, I was just one of them.

Leaving was hard and not without tears. It had begun to feel like I was home, a prodigal son returning after centuries away, a sense of belonging. Looking back on this short 2-week slice of my life and taking into account what I have self-taught of my own history here over the years, I’m able to more identify with the lives of my ancestors, the fears, motivations, frustrations and disappointments. I gained a deeper understanding of the importance of family, the interconnectedness of the oppressed, and their interdependence having “lived” it in a small way 9,000 miles from home. The voice was right; I will never forget.


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