Volume 30, Number 3


Stuart Stromin

I untied the brown string on the sack, and I poured out the contents onto the table of Fairview charge office in Johannesburg north. There was a bottle of imported French cognac, a cashmere cardigan, black stockings, a portable radio, a diamond bracelet, a bright quilt and pair of slippers. I checked through the articles, and I nodded quietly at De Jager. He leaned over and signed the register.

“Who brought this stuff in?” he asked the sergeant, who was about to go off duty.

“We caught a piccanin this afternoon,” he revealed, as he removed the pistol from his holster and locked it away in the charge office safe.

“What did he say?” De Jager asked, replacing his ballpoint in the top pocket of his uniform.

“He found it, of course,” grinned the sergeant, “In a ditch…But he couldn’t remember where the ditch was, when we asked him. He led us on a merry hunt for it, though. Then he remembered that, in fact, a friend had given him the sack to look after. But he couldn’t remember which friend it was. Then he told us that it was a white woman he had never seen before…”


“Then I slapped him. Enough is just about enough.” The sergeant slammed the safe closed, briskly twisted the handle to test it and tossed me the keys. “He’s in the cells now. Do you want to check?”

De Jager nodded at me. “Better have a look.”

I opened the desk drawer and grabbed the big bunch of keys to the jail.

The sergeant said, “Wait a tick. I’ll come down with you. I’m on my way out.”

As we walked down the concrete stairs, I asked, “Did anyone report any of that stuff missing?”

“Not at this police station,” he shrugged, “But there is no doubt that its stolen property… We’re holding the boy until we can get his fingerprints cleared. Bound to be wanted for something.”

“Is he from Jo’burg?” I asked, unlocking the first metal door and swinging it open for the sergeant.

“Soweto, according to his pass book,” he said flatly, then he inquired, “Are you on the van tonight?”

“Probably,” I guessed, “Me and De Jager usually patrol together.”

“Keep an eye open for the accomplice. I think he had a mate with him. Shit, these little bastards run like rabbits when you chase them.”

“Sure,” I said, swinging the hefty keys, “What did the other one look like?”

“Black,” said the sergeant.

I unlocked the second door, and then I unlocked the third thick heavy steel door, tugged back the bolts at the top and at the bottom and we went into the jailhouse together.

We peered through the bars at the ragged youth. He was wearing a multi-colored shirt smudged with ink where he had wiped his fingers after his prints were taken, baggy faded trousers held up by a cardboard belt and a pair of rubber sandals made from motorcar or tractor tires; he couldn’t have been more than fifteen years old.

He was crouching on his haunches in the far dim corner of the cell with his head bowed down, as if he was sunk deep in thought. He must have heard us approaching, but he did not look up from the cement floor to acknowledge our presence. The sergeant shouted out to him in Zulu, and he stood up and walked uncertainly over to the bunk without regarding us. But I could see the sour silent anger in his eyes.

“Know him?” inquired the sergeant, pointing at the prisoner.

I shook my head. “Soweto, you said?”

“Mmm,” the sergeant responded pensively, “Soweto.”

We stared at the young prisoner in the cage, and then, examining his wristwatch, the sergeant asked me if I had seen enough. There was no-one else in custody, and we stepped back through the doorway. The metal door clanged shut behind us, and I locked it and bolted it from the outside. We went back through the next door, which I locked, and the one after that, and I stopped to lock it too, and then, the sergeant said good-night and went out to his car, and I went back to my beefy partner De Jager in the charge office.

“The boy okay?” De Jager asked me.

“Seems all right.”

“Ready to ride, then?” the big man wanted to know.

“Where are we going?”

With his thumb, he indicated the line in the Occurrence Book where he had made an entry. “A complaint came in while you were checking the cells. Drunken natives fighting and disturbing the peace in Mageba Road. Maybe a stabbing.”

“Mageba Road is not even our territory, “ I reminded him.

“I know,” he grimaced, “But we can stop for cigarettes at the café on the way there. It’s open late. So I said we might as well go. Ramasheni will look after the station.”

We took our weapons from the safe, checked them and signed for them in the gun register. De Jager—as usual—grabbed a handful of spare bullets from our locker, in case we had to account for missing ammunition if something went wrong while we were out on patrol. He slipped the extra cartridges into the trouser pocket of his uniform. You could hear them rattle and jingle like loose change as he bustled clumsily around the charge office.

“Where did the sergeant leave the keys to the van?” he asked impatiently, finally discovering them beneath a large hard-covered register on the cluttered table. He grabbed his torch from the rack, and I took mine too. I inserted two fresh batteries so that, as I stepped out of the bright room, the beam was sharp and clear. Though the weather was dry, it was a dark and moonless night.

In the van, De Jager made a careful note of the odometer mileage on a scrap of paper, which he stuffed into his pocket among the bullets. We could enter the information into the register later. He switched on the radio, and we reported on duty to Radio Control in Brixton. Then he started the ignition, and we drove away together through the lush northern suburbs of Johannesburg.

At Mageba Road, everything was still, but in the distance of the street, as we approached, we could see the bulky shape and the blue lights of another patrol van. Two policemen were standing on the pavement. We drew closer and De Jager chuckled.

“Serffontein from Randwood Police,” he said warmly, as we pulled alongside the other van, “I used to be partners with him a couple of years ago before I was transferred. He’s a devil.”

De Jager jumped out of the cab, calling out to his former colleague. As Serffontein turned to face him, De Jager clapped his heavy hands on the other policeman’s wide shoulders, smiled broadly and announced, “Serfontein, you old bastard.”

“De Jager,” grinned Serffontein, prodding him good-naturedly, “You are out of your depth. What is Fairview doing in the Randwood area?”

“We came to buy cigarettes,” explained De Jager, as I alighted from the cab, “But the damn Greek was closed.”

“Greek closes early these days,” sniffed Serffontein’s partner, a tall thin man with cold hands and pale watery eyes, “He’s got himself a new color TV, so he closes early now.”

De Jager cursed, “Damn Greek.”

“Never mind, never mind,” shrugged Serffontein, then he smiled, “You can easily have one of mine.” He paused for a moment, and then, with a burst of loud laughter, he exclaimed, “The only problem is—I haven’t got any!…I left them on the table at Randwood.” He patted himself all over his body to prove that he was sure. “You’ll have to come back with us…I’ll get the boy to make you a cup of coffee, too.”

A man, dressed in shorts, came out of a house in the neighborhood to see what we were doing. I waved him away cordially, and he went back to his living-room.

“What happened here?” I asked generally.

“Drunk kaffirs,” said the thin man, “One gashed the other one with a pen-knife on the back of the head. Ambulance took him already. We’ve got the other boy at the back.” He rattled on the metal mesh of the van. We heard someone shifting inside the unlighted cage.

“There you have it,” said Serffontein.

“There you have it,” echoed his partner, “Everything quiet in the vicinity.”

“Then let’s go,” said De Jager, with a shrug.

“Follow us,” invited the thin man, swinging himself back up into the passenger seat of the Randwood van. Serffontein climbed in behind the steering-wheel.

“I’ve got two boxes,” he called out to De Jager, as we watched them drive off down the road.

The dark, tank-like silhouette of the vehicle shrunk down the street, though we could still hear the rumble of the engine as they picked up speed.

Then, all of a sudden, without warning, the Randwood van ground to a violent halt.

“Are they waiting for us?” I asked my partner.

“No,” grunted De Jager, “Just making sure that the kaffir doesn’t fall asleep. Serffontein always makes sure that they get well flung about in the back.”

The brake lights glowed bright red in the tree-lined suburban street.

“You got no cigarettes?” De Jager inquired.


“You want to go?”

“Okay,” I said, climbing into the cab, “Might as well.”

De Jager muttered, “Pity we didn’t bring that bottle of French brandy. We could have had a real party.”

We followed the other policemen to Randwood charge office. There was no-one else there except for the black constable who had fallen asleep over the desk with the date-stamp still in his hand. We all had a good laugh, and he woke up, blinking, and made us each a cup of instant coffee. He made one for himself, as well, in a tin mug, and he took it with him into the back room where he made out the charge for assault with intent, entering the bloody pen-knife as an exhibit on the charge sheet. We sat around the charge office table with our cups, and everyone lit up one of Serffontein’s cigarettes.

Three or four C.I.D. dossiers were lying on the desk.

De Jager picked one up and read, “’I am a black adult female as above-mentioned, residing at the above-mentioned address. On the first of May nineteen hundred and eighty-three, I was walking on a short cut through the veldt from the bus stop to the house of my employer as above-mentioned. I noticed that there were three men coming towards me. I did not give them any cause to assault me. I would recognize the men if I was to see them again…’”

“Raped her?” asked the tall, thin constable, using the police gazette as an ashtray.

“Uh-huh,” De Jager nodded, tossing the docket onto the desk again. He took a sip of coffee and picked up the details of another case. “Why haven’t these gone through to the detective office?”

“Must have come in when we went to check Mageba Road,” guessed Serffontein, “What’s that one?”

“Housebreaking,” answered De Jager, and then, letting out a yell, he slammed his cup down hard upon the table. It smashed into a dozen pieces. The black constable came running up immediately with a cloth to wipe up the mess.

“Take it easy, De Jager,” commented Serffontein, “It’s only a housebreaking. Not an assassination.”

“What’s wrong, De Jager?” I asked my partner.

De Jager regarded me excitedly. “It’s only a housebreaking,” he agreed smugly, “But listen to what is missing from the house.” His eyes were twinkling as he read the list. “One diamond bracelet, value fifteen hundred rand, one bottle French cognac, value, one cashmere cardigan value, one Sony wireless, one quilt, value…and they haven’t even noticed the pair of slippers that has also taken a walk. Serffontein, you can telephone this woman right now and tell her that her property has been found, and we are already holding the little kaffir-boy who stole it.”

Serffontein scratched his head with the top of a ballpoint pen. “What are you talking about?”

“We’ve got the stuff already in our charge office,” De Jager explained triumphantly, “And the thief is in our cells at this very moment.”

Serffontein snatched the dossier from my partner’s hands. “Let me see that,” he demanded, glancing quickly over the document. Then he announced with a tone of exasperation, “De Jager, the woman who made the complaint said that there had been two of them. There were two dirty glasses where they had helped themselves to a liter of Coke and a bottle of whisky. So, where is the other one who got away?”

“I don’t know,” declared De Jager, standing up, “But I promise you that by the end of tonight, I will have found out.”

I stood up too, grabbing a few of Serffontein’s cigarettes from the box on the table.

“This case won’t even get as far as the C.I.D.” boasted De Jager, picking up the docket.

He winked at me cannily, although the other policemen did not see the signal.

“Where are you going to start?” asked the thin man, as we walked out of the Randwood charge office.

De Jager grinned wickedly. “Interrogation.”

It took us four and a half minutes to get back to Fairview.


“Fetch him from the cells,” De Jager told me when we returned to the station. “And tell Ramasheni to come and interpret.” Then he removed the pistol from his holster and unstrapped his thick leather gun-belt.

He left his pistol lying among the papers and the registers on the charge office table. But there was no danger that the prisoner would try to grab it, because, as soon as I had brought the sleepy young Zulu up from the cells, De Jager handcuffed his hands tightly behind his back, jerking the little chain on the manacles so that the sharp steel cut into his wrists. Then my partner stood him in the corner of the room, and, without saying a word, De Jager began to beat him with the strap.

Immediately, the Zulu started gasping and howling, trying to twist his body away from the blows. He pressed his stomach up against the brick of the wall, but De Jager just spun him around again, and, in carefully controlled and well-aimed strokes, he lashed at him harder and harder.

Hands secure, the prisoner could not protect himself, and when De Jager flicked the big buckle of the belt into his groin, he fell to the floor at my partner’s feet. De Jager kicked him twice in the ribs, and then, wiping the sweat from his ruddy forehead, he said to Ramasheni, “Ask him where his friend is.”

Delicately, the black policeman removed his stiff shiny cap and placed it on a wooden hard-backed chair. Pinching the cloth of his trousers, Ramasheni crouched down beside the prisoner, shouted in Zulu, and with a flat palm, slapped him across the face. The thief stammered a reply, and Ramasheni slapped him again. You could hear how the blow stung.

De Jager warned, “Don’t leave any marks, Ramasheni.”

The black constable said angrily, “He thinks we’re stupid, boss.”

“What did he say?”

“He said, ‘Soweto, Soweto,’—that doesn’t give us anything.” Ramasheni stood up in frustration and kicked the beaten youth as he lay on the ground. “That doesn’t mean a damn thing,” he yelled, clenching his fists.

The prisoner was bleeding from where the handcuffs had torn into his flesh.

Ramasheni said to De Jager, “I’m going to kill this boy, boss.”

“Pick him up,” De Jager ordered.

Grabbbing him by the scruffy cloth of his colorful shirt, Ramasheni roughly pulled him to his feet and propped the youngster against the wall. He began to whimper, continually ducking his head and flinching in case someone struck him. But, in his eyes, you could see the sullen spark of resistance.

De Jager looked at me and nodded his head. Then, shrewdly eyeing the prisoner, he said to Ramsheni, “So, he thinks were stupid, does he?”

“Boss, he just says, ‘Soweto, Soweto,’” Ramasheni said bitterly, then he inquired, “What did this boy do?”

“Housebreaking,” I said.

“Took a white lady’s things,” snarled De Jager, stepping forward once more.

The prisoner, anticipating a punch, cowered in the corner.

But De Jager bent over and, fingernails twisting, tugged him painfully by the ear. “Soweto?” he asked in a low, threatening tone.

The prisoner nodded, his head forced into an odd angle.

De Jager grinned slyly. “All right,” he said softly, turning to me, “Load him into the van. In the front. He’s going to show us exactly where in Soweto.”

I dragged the youth to his feet, for he had slumped to the floor again, and I took him to the van.

Ramasheni had to sit in the back. The prisoner, still handcuffed though I had loosened the clamps slightly, sat securely between me and De Jager, who was driving. I reported to Radio Control that we were leaving our area, though De Jager instructed me not to say where we were heading.

Soweto, in the dead of a moonless night, was out of bounds. We were uniformed policemen on unauthorized C.I.D. business, without warrants or reinforcements and a desperate half-battered criminal as our only guide; we knew that—officially—we had no rights to be there. But then—officially—under apartheid, Soweto did not even exist.

That was why there were no street lamps in the township. That was why there were not street names. That was why, among the million Soweto inhabitants, no-one had a proper address. Hunting fugitives there was never easy.

Slowly, we drove the patrol van along the dusty streets down the long untidy rows of shanties. Flat corrugated iron roofs, held down by stones or cinderblock, sooty pipe-straight chimneys, rusty wire fences, squat houses of dull brick or wood, all appeared as gray as ash in the gloom. Even the huge billboards, advertising Marlboro or Castle Lager, along the edge of the patchy veldt, seemed pale. An eerie stillness hung over the unpainted shacks like thick, insidious smoke. Tiny shops, stacked with essentials, were locked for night; tired shutters were bolted across the windows. Every street we turned into was soundless. Only the dust hissed, rising like foam against the tires of the patrol van.

From street to street, we prowled, and each street was the same. Not a murmur of traffic, not a human being was out in the night; terror dictated curfew.

A panga in the darkness; wheeling knobkieries of bone colliding against bone; five thugs with knives and magic totems waiting on the way back from the bus stop; or, at the crack of dawn, on the third-class only trains that ran from Soweto to Park Station, Johannesburg and back again at night, a sharpened bicycle spoke pressed up against somebody’s spine in a crowded carriage; the gangs were so savage that they would rip your back to shreds for twenty rand cash wages.

We moved through the sections following the piecemeal confessions of our stubborn captive. De Jager had to punch him twice, losing control of the van for a moment, and the miserable shivering youth would mumble another direction, a corner to turn, in jaded acceptance of his own betrayal.

Never rebuilt, the black burnt-out school buildings and the smashed liquor stores were our only landmarks. They stuck out like blind lighthouses on treacherous crags, in each silent zone. Diepkloof, Protea, Jabulani. You couldn’t help thinking about the riots. In a way, you could still smell the trace of tear-gas; you could still sense the anger; the huge truckloads of steel and gunpowder, the bullets, the flaming petrol, the stones, the solid leather clubs, green camouflage uniforms, heavy brown boots, wreckage, justice.

In the name of the law, we stopped in front of a small brick house. Someone had tried to grow a flower in the dry soil lining the scanty gravel path. We stared at the dwelling from the cab, and then, dragging the manacled Zulu between us, De Jager and I went around to the back of the van and sprung the padlock on the steel door. Ramasheni got out, and we flung the prisoner into the cage and clicked the padlock closed again. We all gripped our torches in our left hands, so that we had easy access to our pistols, if necessary, and then the three of us crept watchfully up to the front door.

De Jager ordered Ramasheni to keep an eye on the windows in case anyone attempted to escape. Then, his fist clenched, he banged on the door.

We immediately heard movement from inside the house. De Jager banged on the door again, calling out in Afrikaans. We heard voices; someone inside lit a candle.

A tired old woman opened the door. She was wrapped in a thin dirty blanket, colorless in the dimness. De Jager shone his torch into her eyes, pushed her aside with his shoulder, and we barged in; Ramasheni waited at the windows, just in case.

We poked around the first room with our torches. There were four hard metal chairs with straight backs and plastic seats around a small square table in the center of the room. A charred pot of cold uneaten samp stood on the checked plastic tablecloth. The room still smelt of cooking.

The old woman started babbling.

We went into the next room. Posters of soccer stars from Orlando Pirates and Kaiser Chiefs were on the damp walls. There was a bucket in one corner. A candle flickered on a saucer on the windowsill. Two beds, each raised off the floor on bricks, were empty but unmade.

The old grandmother began to weep.

Even before we saw the protruding little heel of the other thief, we knew that there was someone hiding under the bed.