South Africa

Small encounters on the road often say a lot about a country and South Africa is no exception.

It was lunch time in East London and a few black workers dressed in look-alike, in-blue jumpsuits were resting in the parking lot under the shade of a tree. A faint aroma of marijuana came from their midst.

Their attention and their conversation turned to myself and a friend, a young black woman, as we drove up and parked next to them.

"She is out for a ride with her madam," remarked one in his own language of Xhosa, which my friend understands. To most blacks in South Africa all white women are "madam" and the only black woman who would be in a car with her would be her maid.

But when we got out of the car, they changed their minds. "Oh no," said one voice, "they must be friends. Look, they are both carrying expensive handbags."

MAKING PLANS over the telephone is the best way to ensure uninvited company on a trip. It worked again this time. When we drove out of East London, headed for a resettlement camp near the farming village of Whittlesea in Cisket, we got an escort to the city limits from the security police.

On the perimeter of Whittlesea two hours later, two new chaperons waited. As we roved about town from pedestrian to pedestrian, stopping, starting, U-turning -- in search of directions to the camp -- our faithful friends stopped, started and U-turned, too. When finally the way was found, another car with two more security policemen -- black this time -- joined the procession.

We thanked our lucky stars that they had to follow us and not we them, since it was a hot day, it hadn't rained for some times and the churning tires kicked up plenty of dust behind us.

While we interviewed the person we had sought, a woman who teaches sewing to residents of the camp, they waited patiently in their cars -- four security policemen tailing three women talking to a sewing teacher out in the boonies. I knew then how Woody Allen felt as he and Annie Hall stood in line to see the "Sorrow and the Pity" and he craved for Marshall McLuhan to appear because he needed him for the moment. I wanted Monty Python.

THE ROAD FROM Grahamstown to the remote resettlement area of Glenmore has very little traffic. I picked up some people waiting for a lift. As we drove off, a melody came warbling from the back seat -- "Sometimes I'm happy, sometimes I'm blue. My disposition depends on you."

The wide smile of the vocalist filled my rearview mirror. His weathered and lined black face was surrounded by flurries of gray hair. That was his way of thanking me for saving him from a long wait or possibly a 20-mile hike. "If God someday says you have only six months to live, then I'd like to come and give you six months more," he went on, trying to express his appreciation in another way.

The ditty he learned in school as a boy. His name? "Jim Dryaloyi, madam."

"What is your African name?"

"Oh, you want to know my Kaffir name. It's Mantayi," he replied, dating himself with his unabashed use of a term that in bygone days might have been acceptable but now is regarded as derogatory even in this racially stratified society.

At the end of our journey I extended my hand to shake farewell and my crooning passenger was astonished. "Oh, you are taking my hand, madam? Thank you, thank you." We shook hands goodbye.

THE REV. PAUL BUTHELEZI is a minister in "the Lord's New Church," which "goes by its Latin name, "Nova Jerusalem,'" he explained.

He acknowledged that he is a very lucky black man. He is one of the few blacks living on a so-called "black spot" in "white" South Africa who has not been forced to move off the land his father bought in 1910 before they made laws against blacks buying land anywhere they wanted in South Africa. The bureaucracy has not yet caught up with the Rev. Buthelezi.

We sat around a table in one of the clay houses he has built on his homestead. Beyond the open door, the sun shone brilliantly on the cloud-draped Drakensburg Mountains that are capped with snow in the winter.

The conversation covered many topics and several hours. Occasionally it became very frank.

"When my people speak to the white man, they address him as nkosis; that means 'my lord.' They know this is how they should address the white man because if you approach him in a way which shows you have a fighting spirit, then you are going to have problems. It's not true that the whites understand my people."