‘Cicadas’ is a short story about the bombing of Magoos and the Why Not bar in Durban, 1986, and the predicament of four white young men called up to serve in the Apartheid military. Published in South Africa’s premier literary journal New Contrast in March 2012 and available here.
My friends used to frequent this bar, (all my anti-Apartheid lefty friends from University of Natal), so it was slightly ironic that this bar was targeted by Umkhonto we Sizwe as a legitimate target. In the story, five white males are partying, debating their own predicament: how to avoid their impending conscription into the South African defence forces. Then you could either go into exile, become a conscientious objector and fight a losing legal battle, simply disappear into Hillbrow and hope they’ll never find you, or feign some disability (even homosexuality was considered a disability that could let you off the hook). Or like many of my friends, you could simply give in, bite the bullet, go against your conscience and sign up.
The invisible character in the story is of course Robert McBride, the bomber himself, and the story also asks the question, what could ‘non-white’ young males do in that time?
There are not many options for young black men either in 1986. Either you go along with the regime as a second class citizen who cannot vote, cannot control your destiny, cannot live, study or work where you want, or you can go into exile in some cold, sunless place. Or you can fight the regime–stand up against it, join the armed struggle, plant bombs, and hopefully avoid jail, torture, death.
After twenty five years I’m still picking shards out of my flesh. At first I drew literal shards from my face, my arms, my back, my legs. Some slid out easily; others crumbled inside my flesh, left small septic shards behind. And later, they were metaphorical. Beautiful crystal shards, spiky jewels.
Contrary to the adage, time doesn’t heal old wounds: it leaves scars, fibrous tissue that won’t soften or ever let you forget. All these pock marks on my face tell a story, The Story, and I tell over and over again, repeating the words over and over until they too harden and scar. And the scars are medals, proof of history, proof of a time when there were bombs and Struggles, and enemies and explosions.
And the ringing in my ears—
The sound of Cicadas–has never stopped since that night.
9:30 pm, June 14 1986
Saturday evening, both Magoo’s and the adjacent Why Not bar on Marine Parade are packed like cattle trucks on the way to slaughter houses. (I hate discos– the smoke, the crowds, the late nights, but I am caught up in something bigger than myself. This is what I do on Saturday nights. This is where we meet–Sean, Gina, Janet, Alan, Caryn–sensitive white intellectuals, anti-Apartheid activists, all of us.
See, that’s me, John, dancing in a circle with Caryn, Gina and Sean. Sean in his tight blue jeans and Durban floral shirt thrashes about wildly, eyes shining, a bottle of Castle beer in his hand. His tall, shaved head bobs above the crowds. Gina is with Sean tonight, though she is officially a Lesbian. Caryn is with me. We are all ideological bedfellows. We inhabit the English Department graduate lounge, have fervent discussions, drink coffee, suck on cigarettes, and study Lukacs, Jameson, Bakhtin, Gramsci. We participate in demonstrations against the Apartheid regime, organise rallies, sign petitions, denounce white liberals. We’re activists. And that makes us very cool. A minority white anti-Apartheid group. Very Cool.
But Sean, Alan, Tom, Steven, me–we’re white males. And in 1986 that puts us in a predicament. All white males, when they leave school, or university are called up for two years to serve their country, to patrol townships, to spit teargas at demonstrating crowds, shoot rubber bullets into the backs of fleeing protesters, fight terrorists at the border; in short, defend an illegal Apartheid State.
There are few options. And my friends have tried them all.
You can flee the country, if they let you out. Go into exile. Live out the war in Europe, waiting to return.
You can refuse to fight, and apply for conscientious objector status. But this is a legal battle you can never win. You either have to go to jail, or if you’re lucky, serve three years community service.
You can ‘go underground,’ just disappear, sever contact with family and friends, hope they won’t find you.
Or you can simply grit your teeth and bite the bullet, and go into the army. Two years, and then it’s over.
There are other options. You can shoot yourself in the foot, disable yourself so you’re functionally ineligible for active service; you can feign insanity. You can commit suicide. You can have a sex change.
Radical options. We’re radical, but not that radical.