One day in September, I started out on a grand tour of South Africa's Cape Province. I planned to drive from Cape Town to the Cape of Good Hope and then up to the soft mountains of the wine country for lunch at a vineyard. Almost immediately, my plans went awry. Hertz called to say that my car would be late because their employes had not shown. There was "trouble in the location."
The "locations" are townships where blacks and mixed-race "coloreds" live and, indeed, there was trouble. The government had imposed an emergency decree. A student boycott had closed the schools. Blacks fought the hated police and army, but also with one another and, ominously for me, had turned on the occasional white who happened by. I resolved to avoid the locations.
But I could not. On the way back from the wine country, I made a wrong turn somewhere and drove right into a location. It was getting dark. I was the only white around. Sweat popped. I slammed on the brakes. I tried another route. No good. I tried another and then another. I feared the location -- the stonings, the gangs of black youths -- and over and over I heard the voice from the morning: "There's trouble in the location."
Now I have been to that location. I went there via Poppie Nongena, a stunning book about a black woman who lived most of her life where I, out of fear, would not go. She is a rebuke to apartheid, this Poppie, stolid in body, Christian in belief, who simply tells the story of her life. It is an ordinary story, I swear, an unexceptional life of an exceptional black woman living in white-ruled South Africa. It starts slowly in an excruciating crawl of detail, but it gathers speed until it simply rolls over you. It will dominate your days and it will break your heart, but you will never again think of apartheid and not think of the pain of this one woman.
In some official sense, Poppie is a novel. It is actually the slightly-fictionalized oral history of a woman the author, Elsa Joubert, has chosen to call "Poppie" and whose real identity has never been disclosed. (Joubert, a novelist well-known within the Afrikaans-reading community, says only that Poppie lives in the Cape Town area and that she has thoroughly checked her story.) As for names, they hardly matter anyway. Poppie herself is called "Rachel" by her white employers and almost everyone in the book goes by several different names and they move, sometimes with ease, sometimes not, from one culture and language to the next. Only in the brevity of newspaper stories, are the people of South Africa divided between black or white. In actuality, there are blacks of various ethnic groups or tribes, coloreds, Asians and, of course, whites who have their own ethnic groups -- English, Afrikaner or something else entirely. Poppie, for instance, is an "urban" member of the Xhosa tribe. She was born in the northern part of the Cape Province, but spent much of her life in the Cape Town area. Her native language is Afrikaans and although she speaks some Xhosa, the culture of her tribe is just a faint echo from the past. In all but skin color, she is like the very people who oppress her, the white Afrikaners who made apartheid the law of the land. To them, she is black and Xhosa. She cannot live on the Cape.
Because Poppie is a Xhosa who has married another Xhosa, the government tells her that she must live in her husband's far- away tribal area on the other side of that vast country. In American terms, it would be like telling a black from San Diego that she must live in rural Georgia because that is where her family is from. In Poppie's case, the government did not care that the rural Xhosa were primitive in their ways, not Afrikaans speaking, hardly scrupulous in separating the religion of the bush from the one taught in church and that their land, high and scrubby, was so different from the sea-swept Cape. The law said Poppy had to live among her husband's people. "They're raw people, Mama, the hut stinks, I don't want to sleep here," says Poppie's daughter, Nomvula, when for a time she is made to live among her paternal relatives.
Much of the book describes Poppie's struggle to keep her family together and remain on the Cape. Monthly, sometimes weekly, she presents her pass book to the authorities and receives minor extensions -- a month, a week, sometimes more than that. Her life becomes a series of parole hearings in reverse, an endless attempt to keep her freedom, to live where she wants. For 10 years, the bureaucracy yields. Sometimes it hears her pleas, sometimes those of the white employers who value "Rachel" as a good worker. The apparatus of apartheid is huge and cumbersome; nimble Poppie keeps slipping throught the gears.
But even in the Cape life is tough. The men drink too much. (Farmers once paid their workers in whiskey; the result is a predictably high rate of alcoholism.) There is friction between ethnic groups. The police barely maintain order but they are good at harrassment. Public transportation is lousy and because of the rigid separation of the races, almost no one can live near his work. If Poppie is to work for white women in their homes, then she must live with them and not with her family. If she lives with her children, then there is no work.
Slowly, the family shreds. One by one, the children scatter. Alcoholism, violence, have their inevitable result. What poverty does not do, the government will. It tugs constantly at the family, setting harsher and harsher conditions for it to meet. Poppie is finally banished to the east, taking her children with her. Her husband, Stone, remains behind in the Cape to work. A life of hard labor and petty harrassment takes it toll. Ston, always sickly and thin, falls though a crack between First and Third World medicine. Complaining of stomach pains, he goes first to Cape Town's Groote Schuur Hospital, where Dr. Christiaan Barnard performed the first heart transplants, and then to Conradie hospital. "What is bothering you, I can see nothing in your stomach," the doctor there said. "He (Stone) said it bothered him that he was living alone and his wife and children were far away. The Conradie hospital told him: For that there is no medicine."
But what the First World would not provide, the Third would. Stone went to a tribal herbalist who gave him "Xhosa medicine." "It was a good thing I tried to do," Stone said on his deathbed. "It was not my death I sought."
Poppie, a widow with six children, returns illegally to the Cape. It's her home. It's also where wages are higher than they are in the east. Indomitably, she fights both poverty and apartheid -- and the consequences of them both. The riots of 1976 rip through the ocations. Blacks turn on the police and then on each other. Poppie's stepson, Jakkie, becomes radicalized. He wounds a policeman and is forced to flee. The police come for Poppie and her family. She fears not for herself but for her children, for Jakkie has contaminated her family with the germ of rebellion. They will all aid him because he is family and in doing so they will all break the law.
She fears Jakkie will seek to hide out with a son who has remained in the east. Even though she has never sought political trouble, she knows that someday it will consume them all. At 40, she is old and weary but when she closes her eyes she can see the future. "Peace will not come," she says. "Even those that wish for peace will be dragged into the troubles. We will have to grow used to that. About that we can do nothing."
There are words that lose their meaning with repetition. Holocaust is one. Apartheid is another. But if you cannot imagine the killing of 6 million, I will tell you in detail of the murder of one and you will weep. If you can not imagine institutional, legal racism -- if you think, as President Reagan seems to, that it is simply a matter of not voting -- then read Poppie. When in 1979 the book was first published in Afrikaans, it became impossible for the ruling whites to say, as they had before, "But I didn't know." Now they know. Read Poppie and so will you.