Monday, 12 April 1993
It had been raining for three days. Rain without end and out of season. April was usually a month reserved for coolly indifferent nights and mild afternoons, but today it felt as though they were days deep in the toughest weeks of July when all the doors of the city, whether of wood or corrugated iron, remained shut against the cold. There had been a time when Nasreen had loved the Cape winter, had longed for the way it demanded that her family collect in one place, draw the circle close, light the consoling fires. An early memory of her first hail, white and clear, falling, then melting on the maroon-painted cement of Fozia’s stoep and of herself transfixed by the wonder of it. Her grandmother was smoking in the lounge, on the stove something good and hot was cooking. Uncle Waleed was playing a record. Her parents were reading. Alia was asleep on the couch, her toddling legs and arms splayed free. The circle was drawn. The fire lit. Everyone was safe. Then Nasreen heard her grandmother say to Waleed, “Listen to that hail. Poor people going to be soaked to the bone. This is not a night I would wish on my worst enemy.”
And with that, the hail became something menacing and cruel, something to be feared and fled from.
Today was such a day. The rain fell in full sheets, filling the dams, saving farms from drought and washing away homes in the townships. Always, in this place, it was a choice between two things, salvation or loss.
The week had begun with an assassination that had touched off protests all across the country. From Boksburg to Bonteheuwel, from Soweto to Midrand, the streets had been full of men and women lifting weapons, imaginary and real, dancing on the border between anguish and war. There had been placards and fury, threatening chants and open weeping; there had been violent suspicion, ongoing hunger, no voting day set, conspiracy theories everywhere, all that trust, all that talk, gone, evaporated, nothing. A man had been loved and now he was dead and people were angry. For almost a year Nasreen had become used to seeing Chris Hani on television, his round face, his khaki camouflage, his worried eyes. She’d watched him on podiums framed by large banners or standing in a circle of young men who pulled their berets at smart angles, offering salutes and toyi-toyi as a greeting.
She had watched the news, seen the ease with which he walked through the crowds and felt the weight of all his concessions when he had agreed to lay down his arms. “Not like he had much choice,” Adam had insisted, but Nasreen wasn’t sure about that. The way she saw it, for months and months he had supported the hammering out of an agreement with men who had spent all their days and many of their nights ensuring that he would never vote, men who said that all he wanted was to take white wealth and put it into the hands of black criminals, that he was masterminding a bloodbath, that he was too stupid to govern, that he was too clever for his own good, that he craved white women, that he hated white men, that his sexual appetite was insatiable, that he was a filthy communist, that if they’d ever caught him, back then, back in those days when he was on the run, they would have tortured all these thoughts out of him, that all he understood was violence anyway, that he was a coward, that he was a dangerous Africanist, that he was an inconsequential African.
He knew all these things, Nasreen told herself, he understood the depth of their old cruelties, the weight and smell of their snatched privilege, but he still put down his weapon and sat down with them.
“Peaceful transition, my foot,” Zarina had said when the dreadful news was announced (a humiliating ending, a death in a driveway, a killing after freedom). “What kind of peace is this?”
Nasreen thought of him on that Easter afternoon. She imagined him getting out of his car, holding his groceries and newspapers, a little heavy-footed from observing a long week of slow arguments and grudging compromises, thinking, perhaps, about his wife who was away visiting family, or about the supper his daughter was preparing, or reaching further back, as adults always do, turning his mind to the long journey from Sabalela to Dawn Park. Or maybe, she told herself, he was thinking of nothing, nothing at all. She wondered if it had taken a moment for him to understand that he had been shot. She conjured it: how he turned to face the hired Polish gunman who flew by in a filmic blur and shot him once in the chest, three times in the head. She saw how his white trainers pointed towards the car, how around his head blood bloomed like flowers. How in the doorway, his daughter, like her, fifteen, sixteen, raised a hand to her mouth that did not stop her from screaming, a scream heard first throughout the neighbourhood, and then by the alchemy of grief and rage throughout the country. She saw Oliver Tambo arrive, a red handkerchief in his pocket, struck quiet with grief and shock, and his wife Adelaide collapse into Walter Sisulu’s arms. She heard the chant go up: “Hamba, Hamba Kahle Umkhonto, khonto we Siswe.”
There was a question Nasreen could not stop asking. She wanted to know, once he realised what was happening, if he regretted sanctioning those hours at that table; she wanted to know if, during those last moments, he hated them, as she did now. She was convinced he must have, even as she hoped he didn’t.