Mo’s smile was gone by then. Remembering the conversation with Achmad had been bad enough – but talking about it was worse.
“You know, that man – the one who helped me get a name – well, he listened to my concerns and I remember him sitting back with a condescending smile. He told me – rather bluntly, I must add – to grow up.”
“What’s your problem, Mo? Do you think you’d get anywhere with the current government under the current conditions? We’re the in-between people, son. We’re not black. We’re not white. We’re a minority in numbers as well as political importance.
“Political power belongs to the north – to the Zulus and the Xhosas and the others. In the Cape you have a different racial spread, resulting in our opinions being trashed by the majority. The only power we have, is the power of money – but how do we get that? With Black Empowerment, the big money quite naturally goes up north.
“But we? We have gangs and drugs and a lot of very clever people. The government is made up of men and women with very little experience and almost no insight in the long-term expectations of common people; they want to dig into the cookie jar as deep as they can get, while they are in a position of power. So, influential businessmen – and not the white variety – are all too happy to voice their support for the government and they do it loudly. They get rewarded with contracts that earn them millions.
“And how do they ingratiate themselves with the powers that be? By cutting them in – shuffling a generous share under the table, see? It’s the most logical thing to do.
“That’s why some of us in the Cape use our brains and play the game. James has read the script, Mo. If he doesn’t play ball, he’s out on his ear.”
So what was the price of integrity, Mo asked? Ahmad laughed at that. “Integrity? She’s a prostitute, Mo. Throw money at her and she lies down with a smile.”
“I can’t remember leaving Ahmad’s house. When I calmed down, I was walking along Adderley Street and I looked around. Cape Town’s streets were filled with litter and beggars. There were whores everywhere, giving me a hopeful eye. I thought back on the bad old days and remembered how clean the place used to be, how orderly everything functioned.
“And I felt the way Cape Town looked that evening.
“Later, I sat down on the promenade and watched the white foam on the waves roll in. I was, I realised, a nobody. I had no father, no schooling, no prospects. I was part Christian and part Muslim. My genes were a mosaic; my name borrowed from an uncle. And the lofty ideals of freedom and fairness? Ah yes, those were only nice ideas, stuff only kids believe in.”
Realisation hit hard. Those terrible days in the damp and lonely cell; the nights of torture and his steadfast refusal to tell the authorities anything – it had been a pointless rebellion. He had been the protector of a system that was destroying the country. Yes, Mandela was still there, but his term of office was almost over – and who will the corrupt government appoint then? There were no great leaders to fill Madiba’s shoes, were there?
In his dark thoughts, three facts stood out quite clearly: the struggle had been in vain and the future promised only a decay of what was still left. That…and the point that he was a nobody with nowhere to go. His loyalty to the cause and dedication to change had born the most despicable fruit. His life, he realised, had been wasted.
“I went home that night. Told my mother that I needed time out. Explained how I felt. She actually understood, much to my surprise. Then I packed a rucksack, took the little money I had, and walked out of Atlantis.
“I’ve never been back.”
On the balmy evening of 6 March 1998, Cape Town rocked to the music of Sixto Rodriguez in the sold-out Bellville Velodrome. He sang about escaping reality. It was a stunning performance by the enigmatic and improbable artist and the audience loved it.
Outside Cape Town, a young man stood next to the N2, his thumb in the air and tears on his cheeks. He didn’t sing about escaping – he was attempting to.
To be continued…