Joseph Lelyveld won a Pulitzer Prize for his book “Move Your Shadow: South Africa, Black and White,” a moving portrait of how apartheid shaped South Africa and the lives of its legally unequal populations.
“Move Your Shadow: South Africa, Black and White,” from Chapter 5
By Joseph Lelyveld
To catch the first Putco bus from the Wolverkraal depot in KwaNdebele, the photographer David Goldblatt and I calculated, we would have to leave the Bundu Inn (a white hostelry that went “international” after finding itself in a homeland) no later than one-thirty in the morning. It is then that KwaNdebele’s first “commuters” start to stir. Wolverkraal was even farther from Pretoria than Kwaggafontein or Frisegewacht. The black settlers of the new state who boarded the bus near there had to ride about 95 miles before transferring to local buses that would take them to factories where they worked, in areas where they were forbidden to live. That meant a minimum of 190 miles every working day in buses designed with hard seats for short hauls on city streets. They were fortunate in a sense — they did have work — but they were spending up to eight hours a day on buses. The distance they traveled annually, I calculated, came to more than a circumnavigation of the globe.
The Putco depot was just a fenced-off clearing in the bush with a tiny shack for the dispatcher and nothing else: no floodlights, no time clocks, no coffee machines, no grease pits. Rain during the night had cleansed the air and drained a layer of clouds that had glowered over the veld at sundown, leaving a light breeze and a full moon to limn the hulks of the ranked buses. I counted fifty-two of them. Two others, I was told, had left the yard at one in the morning to round up the drivers who stayed in nearby “closer settlements.” One of these staff buses had then got stuck in the mud, so Putco was going to be a little behind schedule this morning in KwaNdebele. The engine of the other staff bus, which had rescued the stranded drivers, was the first night sound I heard.
It was about twenty past two when the lights in the buses at the depot started to blink on one by one. Number 4174, which we boarded after being told that it would be the first out of the yard, had one bulb glowing dimly inside a red globe, another in a green globe, casting together an eerie light into a gloom made stygian, despite the clear night outside, by the coating of caked mud on the bus’s windows. A sign near the cage in which the driver was encased declared that number 4174 was certified to carry 62 sitting passengers and 29 standing. I did another quick calculation: The fifty-two buses represented roughly one-fifth of the homeland’s daily convoys to the white areas; the number of “commuters” who were thus being subsidized by South Africa to live beyond the pale — the pun was inadvertent but hard to erase — came to roughly 23,000 on the KwaNdebele run.
At two-forty in the morning, number 4174 left the depot and headed north and east, away from Pretoria, to pick up its first passengers at a place called Kameelrivier. In the Ndebele homeland, it seemed, all place-names were still in Afrikaans — the names, mostly, of the white farms the state had bought up in order to ghettoize the bush. The headlights showed six men and four women waiting patiently beside the dirt road, in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere, when the bus made its first stop, ten minutes late, at two-fifty. At that place and that hour, the sight of a couple of whites on the bus was as much to be expected as that of a couple of commuting walruses. Momentarily it startled the passengers out of their drowsiness. Once our presence was explained, it became possible to ask a few questions as the bus rattled to its next stop.
John Masango, the first man to board, said he worked six days a week at a construction site near Benoni, an industrial town forty miles on the far side of Pretoria, taking three buses each way. Even at the concessional rates arranged by the authorities for KwaNdebele, the total bus fares he paid out in a week gobbled up one-quarter of his wages. He was fifty-three years old, and on days when he was not required to work overtime, he could get back to Kameelrivier by eight-thirty at night. Only on Sundays did he ever see his home or his family in the light of day. Most nights, after washing, eating, and, as he put it, “taking care of family matters,” he was able to get to sleep by ten or ten-fifteen. With four hours’ sleep at home and a couple of hours’ sleep on the bus, he managed to stay awake at work. It was important not to be caught napping; you could lose your job. While I was still thanking him for his patience, John Masango reached into a bag he was carrying and extracted a little rectangle of foam rubber about the size of a paperback book. He then pulled his blue knitted cap over his eyes and, leaning forward, pressed the foam rubber to the back of the seat in front of him; in the final step in this procedure, he rested his forehead against the foam rubber and dropped his hands to his lap. As far as I could tell, he was out like a light.
Emma Mokwena was on her way to a part-time job as a cleaning woman for an Afrikaner family called the Van der Walts who lived in one of the new suburban developments burgeoning on the veld between Pretoria and Johannesburg. She was expected at work by seven in the morning, in time to prepare breakfast for her employers, who rose to face the new day four and a half or five hours after she had to get up in KwaNdebele. She did not, however, have to serve the Van der Walts tea in be, as live-in servants are often still expected to do in South Africa. She worked for them two days a week, for other families in the same suburb on other days. Usually she worked for seven hours, leaving at about two in the afternoon, in time to return to Kameelrivier to prepare dinner for her five children aged fourteen down to two and a half. In a month she earned about $120, of which a little more than $30 went in bus fares. It could have been worse, but fortunately her employers underwrote the $1.20 she spent each day getting from Pretoria to their homes and back. When she saw I was finished with my questions, Emma Mokwena pulled her blanket snug over her shoulders and unfolded the collar of her turtleneck sweater so it covered her face. She then leaned back in her seat, half-slumped against the woman with whom she had boarded, now similarly mummified.
By this time it was only three-twenty, and number 4174 had yet to reach the narrow ribbon of asphalt that connects KwaNdebele to Pretoria. But it had stoppedby enough “closer settlements” to fill all its seats; anyone getting on beyond this point was bound to stand, not just this morning but every morning in the week. There were still nearly two and a half hours to go to Pretoria. Thus some people stood on the bus nearly twelve hours a week. These calculations were beginning to make me more tired than the ride, which was grim enough, especially since I had lost my seat and was now standing, too, squeezed in next to a man who was managing to doze on his feet.
Another “commuter,” a construction worker whose job was at a site in a section of Pretoria called Sunnyside, stood long enough to tell me that he had received several reprimands, each formally inscribed on his work record, for falling asleep on the job. This man represented a particularly telling example of the dramatic changes that have occurred in the lives of some South African blacks, for his family had been landowners in a “black spot” called Doornkop, from which they were expelled along with 12,000 others in 1969. The compensation his family got from a government that never ceases to profess its devotion to principles of private enterprise came to less than $300. The man smiled bitterly as he mentioned the figure. Then, excusing himself, he removed a folded piece of newspaper he had been carrying under his jacket and spread it neatly on the floor between his feet. Next, with the suppleness of a yogi, he collapsed himself into a seated position on the paper with his knees drawn up to his chin and dropped his head.
I looked around. Aside from the driver and one man who was smoking about four rows from the rear of the bus, David and I and a black Putco official who had graciously come along to run interference for us appeared to be the only persons out of more than ninety who had not now dozed off. The center aisle was packed with bodies wound around themselves like anchovies in a can. The motion of the bus threw some happenstance couples, men and women who got on at different stops, into intimate contact. A young woman’s head slumped on the shoulder of the man seated next to her, who was too far gone to recognize his good fortune. Nearer the front a young man clutched restlessly in his sleep at the sleeping woman next to him. Some of the heads lolled backward, but most of the forms were bent forward like that of the man who carried the foam rubber. By three forty-five the bus had reached the highway, and the ride was now smoother. Their heads covered, blankets over their shoulders, the passengers swayed like Orthodox Jews in prayer. Or, in the eerie light of the two overhead bulbs, they could be seen as a congregation of specters, souls in purgatory.