No FEAR, Chapter 4 continued: The Sound That Freedom Makes
by BAR editor and columnist Marsha Coleman-Adebayo
Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo has permitted us to serialize excerpts of her new book, No FEAR: A Whistleblower’s Triumph over Corruption and Retaliation at the EPA. Dr. Coleman-Adebayo incurred the wrath of EPA when she protested the agency’s alliance with corporations that were poisoning miners in South Africa. This week, we continue with Chapter 4.
by BAR editor and columnist Marsha Coleman-Adebayo
“With rates of hunger, disease, and infection that would dismay the civilized world, the high-tech focus was difficult to justify.”
I hadn’t been able to shake the execution. And, while I managed to sleep and keep myself busy enough to keep from thinking about it, still it hung in the air like ozone, invisible until it gets close enough to cloud the view and color it with its undeniable presence. All through the opening ceremony and speeches, through the prayers, and especially through the long speeches the two vice presidents made, I could hear the sound of chalk against asphalt, more abrasive than against a blackboard…..
Tami Sokutu, represented the South African Department of Water Affairs and Forestry and was a delegate to the Gore-Mbeki Commission. During a pause in the breakout session, I had asked him if it would be possible for someone to take me to a township so I could get some other perspectives on the problems facing the people there. “I can take you this afternoon,” Tami said without hesitation.
I let Kathy Washburn, the coordinator for the environmental groups to the Vice President’s office know that I had made arrangements to visit a township. “Good! Leave as soon as you can,” she said.
I told the others in my group that I would be taking a tour of a township and excused myself, returning to my room to change into jeans and a T-shirt, and then met Tami in front of the hotel. I knew him to be a dear, sweet man, perhaps because of an upbringing by parents who had managed to escape the maw of this craven land, or maybe just by the fluke of personality. Whatever its source, he not only drove, he drew me out of my despair and into the life and vitality of South Africa.
We were on our way to find a counterpoise to the preordained—if designedly obtuse—outcome of the Gore-Mbeki Commission: the development of South Africa’s vast emerging market for American goods. This is what always drives policy, no matter the public utterances. There had been ample talk and press about a new era dawning, of freedom from the scourge of apartheid and establishing a government for the people, but behind the policy were American-owned companies lined up to sell turbines and engines and vehicles and devices—not necessarily because they were needed, but because that’s what they were selling. There wasn’t much on the list for the sprawling wastelands in between the Westernized centers.
During the break-out sessions, it was the basic things that were mentioned time and time again, from every township, every region, every pair of pleading eyes. Water. Sanitation. Food. Medicine. Netting. There was no cry for high-tech gizmos for the multitudes. With rates of hunger, disease, and infection that would dismay the civilized world, the high-tech focus was difficult to justify.
…I needed evidence of what the general population was up against. I hoped Tami could provide a more accurate overview than what could be found in a posh downtown Pretoria conference room. Tami Sokutu made it his duty to deliver me into an area with exactly the kind of evidence I had asked for.
“It was the basic things that were mentioned time and time again, from every township, every region, every pair of pleading eyes. Water. Sanitation. Food. Medicine. Netting.”
“Look at these fortresses, Marsha. These are the white people’s homes.” He was referring to the compounds on the high ground where the Afrikaners lived. “Walls, fortifications, armed guards, barbed wire, dogs. They look like personalized prisons from here. But inside there is nothing but the best in furnishings, food, decor. Any black man who approaches them has his life balanced on his head inside a glass of water. They will shoot you for breathing their air.”
Tami was a well-educated and polished man. He understood what his people needed and focused his attention and energy on that. Tami’s car became my classroom. I was taking a crash course in apartheid from a man with an advanced degree in life on the pointed end of the apartheid stick.
“The people who live inside these encampments know they would be ripped to shreds without such measures,” Tami continued. “It is not that the people here are savages – quite to the contrary. We have significant numbers who are fully aligned with nonviolence and Black Consciousness. It is just that there are so many people living in dire conditions.”
Tami’s fight against the apartheid regime was in his DNA. Although he was too young to have witnessed the early galvanizing events himself, he had grown up in South Africa and lived with all of the indignities of that environment, surrounded by the daily conversations, outbursts, demonstrations, and testimonials of thousands of people who had witnessed those pivotal moments themselves. The Sharpeville massacre, the Soweto riot of June 16, 1976. There is a famous photograph from that day of a young student, fourteen-year-old Hector Pieterson, who had been shot and was being carried by another student in a desperate attempt to save him while Hector’s sister ran alongside. Hector was the first to die that day. Tami mentioned this photograph with no apparent emotion.
“They will shoot you for breathing their air.”
“It became the face of apartheid. A horrible, wrenching tragedy. Hector was the first to die. But there is also murder by memory.” He looked at me quickly. “You have heard the phrase? We remember someone to forget them. The same thing is happening in the United States to the memory of Dr. King. ‘I have a dream,’ but not a word about ‘Beyond Vietnam.’ The same thing happens here routinely. In the official reports on the Soweto uprising twenty-three people were killed. ‘People’—not children—as was the case. In truth they were young students. Over six hundred killed, with four thousand wounded. It takes time and diligence to bring the truth to light, but in the meantime the official account becomes accepted as the truth. Murder by memory.
“Here you see the Afrikaners with their swimming pools,” Tami pointed out. Then pointing to a shack on the other side of the road, “and there you see one of the better shelters for kaffers.”
“What does kaffers mean, Tami?”
“Forgive me, Marsha, but I’m afraid kaffers means the same thing here as the word nigger means in America.”
There was a science fiction quality to all of this, except no reassuring narrator appeared suddenly from outside the frame to remind us that this was what it would be like if everything went horribly wrong one day. Everything had gone horribly wrong. The countryside itself, the expanse of valleys and mountains, the air, was breathtaking. It was late afternoon, and the angle of the light heightened the colors and warmth. To absorb all this in any other setting would be spellbinding. But these impromptu shacks—I hesitate to call them shelters because of their flimsy, mishmash appearance—that were somewhere between tents, boxes, chicken coops, and coffins, were strewn everywhere along the drive. Where the land was fruitless and desolate, you found the townships. The prime locations—with trees, water, and loam—were home to the Afrikaners.
“What can you tell me about Black Consciousness, Tami?”
“BC? Well, I can tell you the history. I can tell you the current state of affairs. And I can tell you the likely future of the movement. Why don’t I start with the future, because that we don’t know.” He looked at me and smiled. “It is very likely that within a decade the hope we see flashing its lightning in the imagination of the people will have become reality. We are seeing the transformation Steve Biko described, where the black man no longer sees himself as an extension of a broom or a machine, like it was under the whites. Now it is a black machine.”
“I wrote my dissertation on Steve Biko.”
“Kaffers means the same thing here as the word nigger means in America.”
“Oh, yes. Biko’s reach has been tremendous around the world. It has been tremendous here. You and I would not be in this car, you would not be at this conference, Al Gore and Mbeki would not be discussing how the EPA can support the Mandela government, but for Steve Biko.”
Biko had challenged blacks to emancipate their minds in order to fully participate in the liberation movement, whatever that would take. It would not be possible to take up arms against apartheid if they were still bound to the oppression burrowed inside the word boss. This idea was the tectonic shift that sent tremors through the foundations of the apartheid regime and signaled the beginning of the end. Like all seismic quakes it was most deadly nearest its source, and Steve Biko was the epicenter. The Afrikaners looked up from the seismograph record, nodding their heads: Steve Biko must die.
Tami pointed out subtleties in the landscape that were invisible to me. The places where water ran and where there was none. We slowed from wheeling down a highway to being one of many things moving slowly through the bends and over the bumps in the road. What was endless vista on leaving Pretoria was now narrowed and obscured by a clutter of people, animals, and miserable, misshapen materials tied to trees or poles or nothing at all in what looked like a neighborhood of the absurd. The farther we got, the slower the going among clots of black Africans who looked at us like we were mad. And then it was like a bat had flown in the window and gotten caught in my throat. I was gagging, struggling to breathe, before I realized it was the smell, thick and heavy, of animal waste, human waste, rotting things.
“Oh! This is terrible, Tami! What is that smell?”
“Apartheid, Marsha.” Tami’s face was contorted, his mouth pulled down at the corners. “This is the smell of apartheid.”
He pulled the car as close to a bush as he could get it and turned off the engine. Opening his door, he got out and looked around with his back to me before bending his head back into the car. “Welcome to Alexandra.”
My throat was tightening as I got out of the car. My eyes were watering. I was trying to collect myself so I could engage the people here, while trying also to suppress my gagging. As I came around the back of the car, Alexandra hit me, but this time in my eyes. Nothing—not Ethiopia, not images of the Holocaust—nothing could have prepared me for this. Everywhere, in every direction, for as far as I could see, there swarmed people and animals and filth. The road was a slurry of a dark, mud-like substance that was a mixture of dirt, sewage, dung, and God knew what. I opened my mouth to say something but stopped because I could taste the stench. There were children playing, standing, sitting in the sludge. And flies everywhere, generating a steady hum like bicycle tires on pavement.
“Everywhere, in every direction, for as far as I could see, there swarmed people and animals and filth.”
I felt like I was wrapped in cellophane, hot, unable to breathe. My skin felt prickly. My eyes were about to explode. I had an instant, intense headache. It smelled like someone was burning rubber very nearby, but the odor was thicker, sweeter, and stifling. I watched a woman gather water from a rut with animals standing higher up a slow incline, feeding the trough she was in.
“Tami, how can this be?”
Tami said nothing. He looked at me.
There were close to a half a million people strewn here. And an equal number of animals—goats, dogs, fowl, pigs. Carcasses. The caked stains on the sides of the shelters showed what happened in the rain. It all washed downhill, mixed, swirled, and worked its way into every corner and crook. The prospect was staggering.
“There is no running water. No electricity. No sewers in many parts of this township.” Tami was talking more to himself than to me. “There are no stoves. No sinks. No windows. No screens. There is nothing.”
“My God, Tami! I just want to cry!”
I had never felt so powerless in all my life. I was standing in an incubator of death and disease, a human sacrifice zone. The scientist in me was no match for this. Yet almost instantly, I adopted the same mechanical functioning of everyone I saw mired in this open wound. I moved like I didn’t believe. I asked questions like I didn’t know the answers. What do you use for cooking? Where do you get your water? What do you do with your waste? Where do you go to the bathroom? What do you do with the bodies? An hour passed like an hour on the cross. Eyes looked toward me but not at me. My questions got trick answers. I get my water from puddles. I shit on the ground by the puddle. I eat on the floor with the rats. I sleep on a mat with the animals. I bury my own in the ground.
“There are no stoves. No sinks. No windows. No screens. There is nothing.”
….“Imagine this.” Tami sweeps his arm across our field of vision. “After days of torrential rain, these toilets overflowing, mixing with animal feces, mixing with barefoot children. Look at the marks on the buildings there. That is how high the water rises—all of it sweeping into the homes, the tents, the huts, the sleepers. Dysentery and cholera kill even the strong. But the weak?” He pointed toward a corner that had escaped our attention. “It all leads there. Hundreds. The old. The children. Every year. In the rainy seasons hundreds will be carried there.” He was pointing toward a graveyard.
This was inconceivable, the more so because of the scale. No flood, no fire, no quake, no pestilence had brought this into being. This was the work of man. These people were as maggots to the apartheid regime. Their lives had the permanence of mist. I was so angry when we turned the car around and headed back that I was speechless. I was so crushed by the weight of it all that I had no tears. We were almost halfway back to Pretoria. Not a word had passed between us….
“I’ve seen this before.” I looked at Tami. “Alexandra is a sacrifice zone.”
Tami did not reply. His eyes blinked. The road churned in the headlights, Tami watching, listening. A voice entered the silence like the rumble of the road. It sounded like my voice.
“My great, great grandmother rode away from enslavement in a place like this. On a road like this. Only her vehicle was a mule-drawn wagon. She rode inside a coffin with a corpse.”
Tami watched as he listened.
“Can you imagine? Mile after mile, her uncle drove the buggy, flinching with each bump, fearing it might waken the dead. All the way out beyond the sounds of the plantation. All the way into the sounds of the woods and the breeze that almost sounded like freedom – before the clatter of hooves came with voices and whistles and whips. They tumbled them out on the ground. They tore her from her clothes. Then led her back naked for all to see.”
Tami looked at me. “But she had heard the sound that freedom makes.”
See Marsha on C-Span Book/TV at:www.marshacoleman-adebayo.org.
Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo is the author of No FEAR: A Whistleblowers Triumph over Corruption and Retaliation at the EPA is available through amazon.com and the National Whistleblower Center. Dr. Coleman-Adebayo worked at the EPA for 18 years and blew the whistle on a US multinational corporation that endangered vanadium mine workers. Marsha's successful lawsuit lead to the introduction and passage of the first civil rights and whistleblower law of the 21st century: the Notification of Federal Employees Anti-discrimination and Retaliation Act of 2002 (No FEAR.)