Chapter Twelve – A Tough Day for Pearce
Pearce Ellison tapped the fingers of his right hand on his briefcase as he sat at a small table at a bed and breakfast in Mowbray, a southern suburb of Cape Town. A day earlier, he had witnessed apartheid when the owners of two accommodation houses in Rondebosch, about five miles away, would not allow him to stay over.
The Group Areas Act was pretty severe on whites who allowed blacks to stay in white areas. The fear was that the blacks could well be ANC operatives, even if they were foreigners like Pearce, the African-American human rights lawyer.
Pearce finished his breakfast and paid the bill for the overnight stay. At least in Mowbray, he had been able to find a more liberal-minded bed and breakfast owner who was prepared to defy apartheid and allow the American to stay overnight.
With sunglasses hiding his brown eyes, Pearce headed off to the main road to catch a cab to get to the centre of Cape Town. Of course the metre cabs did not stop. No man, those were only for white people. Blacks needed to travel in the township taxi.
“Uphi ntata (where to baba)?” asked the taxi driver in Xhosa language to Pearce.
“Cape Town harbour,” said Pearce, as he clutched on to his briefcase.
“Oh, a black foreigner, you don’t sound African,” said the driver as Pearce settled himself in the front seat of the taxi.
“I am from America,” explained the lawyer.
“I wish America would help us end apartheid,” quipped the driver.
“Botha is a mad man. He is not our President. He hates the blacks.”
Pearce couldn’t argue with the comments. The driver was quite possibly that. However, Pearce was fully aware that Botha was doing and saying what he needed to in order to stay in power. If the President appeared weak, the cabinet would work him out and replace him with a hard-line Afrikaner who would be even less accommodating to the blacks of the country.
Pearce kept a close eye on the goings-on on the sidewalk as the taxi headed towards the city. He didn’t see any cops pounding blacks like it was portrayed in the news back in the US. In fact he didn’t see many blacks. That would make sense with the Group Areas Act prohibiting blacks from staying in so-called ‘white areas’.
“What do you do for fun around here?” asked Pearce to the driver.
“There is no fun,” quipped the man behind the steering wheel as he swung the vehicle to the right to avoid a small car. The white driver of the other vehicle hooted at the taxi and pointed the middle finger of his right hand at the taxi driver.
Pearce certainly did not enjoy the manner in which the taxi driver drove his vehicle, but was astounded by the road rage shown between the two drivers. Of course this was much more than road rage. It was racial hatred between the white oppressor and the black oppressed.
As the taxi made a way along the busy De Waal Drive road, Pearce noticed Table Mountain on his left and could see the cable car station at the top. The cable car transported thousands of visitors from the bottom of the mountain to the top each year, from where the whole of the city could be viewed.
Pearce also saw the Castle of Good Hope. Originally, a fort in the 17th century, the old building was demolished, and with tensions between the Netherlands and Great Britain on the rise, a castle was built between 1666 and 1669.
The taxi made its way around the city’s freeway until it got to the harbour area where Pearce thanked the driver and climbed off.
At the gate in full view of the public, a white security guard was busy punching a coloured junior staffer.
“Jou dom donner, hoeveel keer moet ek vir jou die selfde ding vertel (you dumb asshole, how many times must I tell you the same thing)?” said the aggressor.
Quite a few white people were making their way past where the confrontation was happening, but nobody intervened. This was racist South Africa. White was right and black was sub-human!
Pearce thought of getting involved but then was concerned that as a visitor to a foreign country, it may hamper his chances of getting to Robben Island.
He gave the Afrikaner security official a stare, and he got the same back.
“Wat kyk jy (what are you looking at)?” asked the senior official, with his right hand still around the neck of the junior coloured man.
“You can’t treat people like that,” said Pearce.
The senior security man laughed.
“Ek sal doen wat ek lus is tot dat hierdie appies n brein grooi en leer om to luister (I will do what I like until there monkeys grow a brain and learn to listen),” said the Afrikaner.
Pearce thought of taking things further but moved on. His mission was much bigger than liberating one person.
As he walked towards the security office at the ferry area, Pearce began to thank God for allowing him to be born in the US. Not that America was free of racism as it too had its own issues, but nothing like what he had just witnessed.
It took Pearce a good thirty minutes to find the security office at the harbour. He would have got there a lot quicker if the whites had not given him the run-around. Either few knew where the office really was or they were just messing him around by giving the wrong directions. It was probably the latter, he decided.
Through the office window, a tall Afrikaner security officer in a grey uniform stared at him as he approached.
“Hier kom nog een van hulle (here comes another one of them),” said the taller man to his colleague.
Pearce smiled at the two men and focused his attention on the taller one.
“Good morning, sir,” said Pearce.
The taller man liked the fact that a black man was calling him ‘sir’.
“Hoe kan ek vir jou help (how can I help you)?” said the security man, who made a point of speaking only in Afrikaans language to black people just to show them who is the boss.
Pearce shrugged his shoulders.
“I am not from this country,” he remarked.
“I am a lawyer and need to get to Robben Island for meetings.”
“Do you have any paperwork which will give you access to the ferry which goes to Robben Island?” asked the shorter of the two men in the office.
“Well, I don’t but …” quipped Pearce.
“Dan vat jou goed en trek, Ferreira (takes your stuff and leave, Ferreira),” butted in the taller man. The expression that he used was an expression from an old Afrikaans song.
From there, the men ignored Pearce.
“Van Zyl, gaan boot toe met die briewe maar kom spoedig terug (Van Zyl, go to the ferry with these letters, but come back quickly),” said the taller man to his colleague.
“Ek gaan gou koffee haal by die winkel langsaan (I am going to get coffee at the shop next door).”
Pearce watched as the security men headed off leaving the office unattended. He took his chance and charged towards the small office. On the desk were a batch of paper passes which allowed VIPs and other visitors to board the ferry. He clutched one of the pieces of paper and hid it inside his shirt breast pocket as he left the area with speed.
He had just made it back to the main pathway when he nearly ran straight into the tall security man.
“Is jy nog fokken hier, verstaan jy nie dat ons nie vir jou kan help nie (are you still fucking here, don’t you understand that we can’t help you)?”
Pearce did not respond, but walked as if he was going away from the path to the boats. When he noticed that the shorter security man had returned from the jetty, the lawyer made a beeline for the waters.
Once there, he presented his ferry pass to a security man at the boat who looked at him suspiciously. Hey, the black man has a ferry pass so he must be allowed aboard, thought the security official.
It seemed to take forever before the boat was untied from the jetty and headed off to Robben Island with a total of eight passengers.
The sea was quite choppy and the boat tossed to and fro on the waters as the north wind, affectionately known as the Cape Doctor thrust into the bodies of the persons in the ferry.
Time seemed to come to a standstill, but eventually, Pearce watched as the boat approached the famous island where Nelson Mandela and many of his colleagues were believed to be held captive by the apartheid regime.
Pearce was the last to step on to dry land from the ferry and a Correctional Services official greeted him and asked where he was heading.
“I am Pearce Ellison, an American human rights lawyer, and I am here to meet with the person in charge of the prison on the island,” said the African-American.
Pearce was led to the same office where Lieutenant Pieter Erasmus had met with the prison chief Vorster a few days earlier.
“I am very busy, may I help you?” asked an agitated Vorster as he stood up from his desk. Pearce grinned. He was certainly not going to be treated with respect and called ‘sir’ by this Afrikaner in the same way that he was greeted at the harbour security office.
If the Correctional Services man did not like Pearce because he was black, he certainly could not deny the confidence with which the American was speaking.
“Sir, I am here to meet with Mr Mandela,” quipped Pearce.
Vorster’s eyes were raging. He was a busy man and the last thing that he needed now was a wisecrack black, especially a black foreigner, who thought that he could gain access to Mandela.
“How did you get on to the island?” asked Vorster.
Pearce produced the ferry pass and Vorster’s face turned from white to red and then to a blueish colour. Clearly somebody at the security office at the harbour was going to feel his wrath for letting unqualified persons board the ferry!
“Look, I don’t know who you are or what you want here but this is a restricted area and anyway, Mandela is not on the island,” said Vorster in a stern voice.
“You mean that government has transferred Mr Mandela to the mainland?” asked the lawyer.
Vorster was losing patience. He wasn’t used to interacting with a black person.
Keeping in mind that Vorster himself was unaware of whether Mandela had died or had been moved from the island, he chose his words carefully.
“I cannot say where Mr Mandela is, and please understand that I have to ask you to return to the ferry and to leave this island immediately,” said the prisons boss.
Pearce gritted his teeth in as he thought carefully before speaking.
“Look, sir, I don’t want any trouble, I have flown all the way from the US to speak with Mr Mandela and…”
Vorster cut the lawyer short.
“You don’t want any trouble, you say, then why don’t you get off my island and climb back on to the plane that brought you here!” said Vorster aggressively.
“You don’t have any idea of the politics of our country and the challenges that we are facing here!” snapped the prisons boss.
“Actually, I do, but I believe that Mr Mandela is a key role player in getting South African to a peaceful outcome,” replied Pearce.
Vorster’s temper went to the next level.
For a moment, Pearce just stood still and stared at Vorster. He didn’t enjoy being spoken to this way by any person irrespective of skin colour
“Did you not hear me? I said get off my fucking island as in now… fuck off!”
Pearce could feel the heat of Vorster’s raging eyes burning into his skin realised that it was only a matter of time before he joined the ANC men in a cell if he didn’t obey the prison chief.
Vorster screamed to attract the attention of two of his henchmen who were outside his office door.
“De Jongh! Du Plooy!”
The office door opened and two uniformed men with biceps the sizer of Pearce’s waistline came in.
“Vat hierdie ou weg en sit hom op n boot stad toe voerdat ek hom toesluit (take this guy away and put him on a boat to the city before I lock him up)!” ordered the prison boss.
Pearce turned and left the office peacefully.
Clearly access to Mandela was going to be much tougher than he originally thought. He had read stories back in the US that Mandela’s own family often battled to get access to visit him. Now he was finding out first hand.
Pearce walked back to the jetty with the two prison officials behind him. Not a word was spoken between the three individuals.
All the time, Pearce’s mind was racing. He needed to come up with a plan to gain access to Mandela, but that he could only work out when he could know what was going on between the ANC man and the apartheid government.
At the jetty, Pearce was in for a wait as the ferry had returned to Cape Town to fetch other people. He sat on a rock and stared up into the blue sky. The sun was now close to its highest point and he could feel the rays baking down on his shirt.
Perhaps he should not have told Vorster that he is a human rights lawyer – the term ‘human rights’ often scared people who were uneducated and insecure.
His thoughts crossed borders and he began to wonder how South Africa’s northern neighbours, Zimbabwe, would have turned out if their first democratically-elected head, Robert Mugabe, had listened to reason and the people. Currently, both South Africa and Zimbabwe were staring down the barrel and faced with a decision to adapt or die situation.
White minority rule had ended in Zimbabwe in the late 1970s, with the former British colony becoming a republic in 1980. South Africa.
South Africa too, had been a British colony and had become an independent republic in 1961. However, if Mandela was to play the role that Pearce and many others thought he would, the country was about to undergo another metamorphosis.
Back in the prison office, Vorster was on the phone to Pretoria.
Nog een wat stel belang in Mandela. Hierdie keer n swart Amerikaner. Hy vertel dat hy n prokereur is.Vorster (Prison Chief)
“Nog een wat stel belang in Mandela. Hierdie keer n swart Amerikaner. Hy vertel dat hy n prokereur is (another one interested in Mandela. This time a black American. He says he is a lawyer).”
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