Angels in desolation

Friday, 6 August 1999

'In such ugly times, the only true protest is beauty,' Phil Ochs once said ...

DAWN was breaking over the magnificent desolation of the Karoo landscape as cats eyes flung themselves towards me along the road pointing toward an infinite horizon.A jingle from my radical student days began dancing through my head. It was a rip-off of the old Woody Guthrie classic that we used to sing when the riot police moved onto campus. (Linguistically sensitive people, stop reading here!)

This land is your land, this land is my land,
From Robben Island, to Modder B,
This land was made for you and me (for you and me)

So f*** off boere, jou ma se moer
This land was made for you and me

Finance Minister Trevor Manuel is probably singing along right now while sitting in the business-class lounge in Gauteng waiting to fly home to Cape Town for the weekend. More's the pity. I needed to be in Africa's capital for a two-day workshop a week ago, and decided to drive.

Call me insane if you like. I certainly thought I was as I took the R101 bypass with its magnificent views over Paarl instead of the technological triumph of the Huguenot tunnel -- and came close to being wiped out by a truck which suddenly decided to turn into the road in front of me. A quick downshift, pedal to the metal, and blitz through a gap that's tighter than a... Never mind. (Will Smith, eat your heart out.)

Beaufort West is some five hours out of Cape Town. I stopped there for dinner at a Scottish family restaurant that specialised in pizzas and offered internet and email access. (I kid you not.) One rump steak and a half-glass of Tassies later, I strapped myself into the driver's seat once again, adjusted the mirrors, checked the gauges, and suddenly began to consider whether I had had too much to drink.

An angel appeared, walking toward me with a cherubic smile upon her delicately sculptored face. I blinked in disbelief as she came closer -- she could not have been older than 12 or so and it was after 10 pm -- and then I noticed her eyes.

They were eyes that were old decades before their time. They spoke of suppressed pain and indifference to that pain. They looked out through a haze of drugged delirium. She rolled her tongue suggestively across her lips with practiced ease.

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I suddenly felt like throwing up.

I know. I know. We read about this sort of thing every so often. We hear about kids that solicit truck drivers and how awful it all is and why doesn't someone do something. But I found myself in Beaufort West, five years into my country's rebirth, realising that the rainbow nation also applied to children who were hookers. They were there in all shades, black, white, pink, light brown, dark brown, khaki...

My angel must have read the horrified expression on my face. She hesitated, the smile dropped, was caught and slammed back into place, and she moved off towards the lights of the truck behind me.

As I headed north of Colesberg toward Bloemfontein the following morning, I thought of her. She would have been on one of those trucks heading north while I slept. She was probably on her way back to Beaufort West already.

She would probably be the first to die. The truck driver's wife would be next, wondering how she could have fallen prey when she had been faithful all of her life. It would take a few more years before the truck driver himself was finally brought down -- but during that time, there would be other angels plummeting into chaos, and he would help them along that path of agony.

And there was not a damn thing I could do.

Dawn was breaking over the magnificent desolation of the Karoo landscape as cats eyes flung themselves towards me along the road pointing toward an infinite horizon. And I began to sing:

This land is your land, this land is my land,
From Robben Island, to Modder B,
This land was made for you and me (for you and me)...