A young black man dressed in blue jeans and a denim jacket rushed up to the white man in a dark suit seated at a table in the Holiday Inn bar.
"He agreed. The deal's on," the black man said excitedly. The white man's eyes widened. He crushed out his cigarette and asked, "He said, 'Okay'? For the first and second floors? Good. I'll call Capetown and we'll sign the papers tonight."
The transaction involved "the building down by the bus station" in downtown Umtata. Earlier, the white businessman and his associates, including a well-known South African bookie, had said they were going to start a book-making operation in Transkei.
Transkei, like many African countries at independence, has drawn a horde of self-proclaimed entrepreneurs, some honest, some questionable and some just a bit odd.
During one recent week in Transkei's capital city, one could have met, for example, a woman from Rhodesia who wanted to open a Swedish health clinic, a man selling light bulbs, an entrepreneur who recently got the Transkei government to sign over exclusive fishing rights for 10 years in its territorial waters in return for ridiculously low royalty fees, a Portuguese boilermaker who fled Rhodesia and was looking for a job, and a team of Austrian industrialists and engineers ready to launch a major manufacturing project.
In Transkei, businessmen who approach the government encounter no such inhibitions or wariness about capitalism as they find in many other young African states. They do not get warnings to avoid exploiting the Transkei an people, or demands that part of their profits should be poured back into projects that serve the people.
Instead, the Transkei government is so dogged by the nemesis of its economic dependence on the South African government that it eagerly greets anyone - non-South African entrepreneurs in particular - who offers them ways to reduce that dependence.
With its tourism and commercial farming still in their infancies, and no exportable mineral resources, Transkei appears destined to depend on South Africa for quite a while. This year, South Africa's contribution increased almost $34 billion to $255 million, representing about half of Transkei's current planned expenditure.
In addition, Transkei is also dependent on South Africa for jobs - about a quarter of a million Transkeians annually migrate to South Africa to find employment.
The desire to loosen its economic ties with South Africa appears to be the primary motivating force behind two ambitious projects of the Transkei government - upgrading its airport to international status and building a free port on its coast.
"These are two essential windows to the world, vital links to bypass South Africa," said Finance Minster Tsepo Letlaka.
The port is to be built at Umgazana, now a vast mangrove swamp. According to Letlaka, the initial stages of the port project, including the building of a service road and drilling to determine the rock formation in the harbor, are already under way after the signing of an agreement with a subsidiary of Grand Traveax de Marseille, the company that built the gigantic Caborra Bassa Dam in Mozambique.
These plans sound dubious to independent observers who note that the Transkeian port will contend with competition from South Africa's ports at Durban and Richards Bay, that there is no railroad or highway linking the port site to the interior of Transkei and that the total cost could go as high as $800 million.
Unfortunately for Transkei, if any of the investors prove to be unscrupulous, Transkei has no extradition treaties to get back criminals who might take it for a ride.