RHODESIAN INCIDENT

As I lay across three irregular shaped chairs in the all-night airways office trying to sleep but prevented from doing so due to the discomfort and my throbbing broken right hand, I mused on the events of the past few days.

It had all started so well, arriving in Pretoria from Rio de Janeiro and finding the people so friendly, the food so good, the climate so amenable and my successful business at the factory I was visiting. With that accomplished I was due to leave for the UK to visit other factories but when my contact in Pretoria heard that my sister and her family lived in Salisbury, Rhodesia he suggested I borrow a company car and drive up there to spend a few days with them. It was not difficult to convince me that this was a good idea.

It was 1971 and South Africa was segregated under a white dominated apartheid government and their northern neighbour, Rhodesia was governed by an illegal break-away white minority regime with a settler named Ian Smith as their head. So I was going from one outcast country to another.

Before setting off in the brand new Hillman Estate Wagon supplied me I called in at a bank to change some traveller cheques. The young man at the counter motioned to a pile of Kruggerand gold coins and asked if I was interested in buying any. ‘No thanks, not today,’ I answered, smiling at the thought. It was one of the most stupid answers I have ever made in my life because, unbeknown to me and I suppose everyone else in the world, the Kruggerands he was promoting cost US$35.00 each, which was the pegged rate since 1946, exploded to over US$800.00 within a few years when the price of gold was de-regulated.

There was a cholera jab to get then, at 1100 hrs. I was ready to set off at a steady 70/80 kph along a good asphalt road with very little traffic and remembering to stay on the left side of the road.

The few days at Salisbury with my sister’s family were most enjoyable but she was concerned when I told her that I had stopped to give African hitch-hikers lifts on the 1,000 kilometre journey. ‘A lot of the territory between here and the border is controlled by the terrorists,’ she said, ‘and they kill or kidnap any whites they capture. You mustn’t give any lifts on your way back.’ When I explained it was mainly for the company because it was a lonely journey with no towns or villages and barely a dozen cars passed once in Rhodesia. ‘If you want company there are people who advertise in the local newspaper wanting to go to South Africa and are willing to share petrol costs. I’ll see if I can arrange something.’

And she did. So on Monday, 19th April I was up at 0430 hrs. and got myself ready quickly, saying goodbye to a sleepy family before making my way, in the dark, to the address given me on the phone, to pick up my passenger. He was waiting on the kerbside by a grass verge fronting on an apartment building. It was 0515 hrs. the agreed time and still dark, the city not yet stirring. We stowed his baggage in the back of the station wagon and set off with the bonnet of the car pointing south. His name was Neville Leeks, a New Zealander who had moved to Australia and had been touring the world since 1968; he was 22 years old. We chatted as I drove and got to know each other a bit. He seemed a pleasant young man with itchy feet. The going was fine and everything seemed well.

After having covered 260 kilometres we were drawing near to our first stop, the township of Fort Victoria where I had stayed the night on the way up, and there he was going to take over the driving. A truck was going along in front of us in the same direction, one of only half a dozen vehicles we had seen on the road since we left Salisbury. It had stopped to pick up three Africans and then moved away, its speed about 30/40 kph and I moved out to pass going at 70/80 kph. As the Hillman drew parallel, without any indication, the truck turned sharply to the right. At my speed, and in the position the car was then in relation to the truck, it was not possible to correct the steering to avoid it without the near certainty of turning over the car in a side roll. As it was, I steered to the right as far as I dared without going into the trees at the side of the road and, at the same time, slammed on the brakes. The car and the turning truck came together with an explosion of showering glass. The windscreen was thrown 20 yards forward and my right hand smashed into the dashboard, but I did not feel any pain.

When I realised that I was safe and alive I first threw up my hands in a gesture of despair that such a misfortune had occurred on this lonely road; then I looked at Neville Leeks; he was on the side of the impact and was bleeding from a number of cuts and seemed quite groggy. We sat there for a while in silence, taking stock. Five Africans descended from the truck and we got slowly out of the wrecked car, I emptying glass pieces from my pockets. My shoes were full of broken glass as were my pockets and even my hair; somehow I was even sitting on the stuff as I got out, and futilely started to remove the glass from the seat. I didn’t know how bad my passenger was, but he continued to bleed from his many cuts, mostly on his left side.

There could be no communicating with the Africans who spoke no English, or so it seemed. A car going to Fort Victoria drew up, the driver asking if he could help and Neville said he would go in with it to get himself cleaned up and to call the police.. I waited on the deserted road with the Africans and the two wrecked vehicles. Passing cars, all local traffic, stopped and asked if they could help in any way, but I always said that nothing was required. Then they wanted to know how the accident happened and was anyone killed? As I waited I noticed a track into the bush that was not sign-posted and impossible to see from the road until right up to it, and I could see that this was where the driver of the truck was proposing to turn before the collision. The sun started to heat the day. The car looked horribly wrecked.

After nearly an hour had passed a police Landrover arrived with a European lieutenant and an African sergeant and they had with them Neville Leeks who was looking somewhat the worse for wear; both the policemen looked immaculately smart. The proceedings that ensued were very partial against the driver of the lorry and it became apparent that we were not equal in the eyes of the police officer, a young Rhodesian. He called the African a ‘liar’ and a ‘fucking wog’ mainly for my benefit, I thought, because he must have known it was wasted on the truck driver who answered questions interpreted by the African sergeant. He addressed me always as ‘sir.’

When we came to our information it sounded incredible, ‘where were you born, sir?’ He asked me. ‘London, England.’ ‘Is that where you live, sir?’ ‘No, I live in Brazil.’ ‘Where were you born?’ To Neville. Answer, ‘New Zealand.’ ‘Is that where you live?’ ‘No, I live in Australia.’ ‘Christ,’ said the policeman, ‘this is the arse-hole of the world and here we have an international pile up.’ It sounded more humorous in his Rhodesian accent, but neither Neville nor myself were in the mood to smile. We gave the information requested and the policeman chalked out the details on the road, then he wrote up his report.. The driver alleged that he had given a signal, his companion agreed with this; the other three Africans had gone off before the arrival of the police. Neville Leeks and I said, no signal was given.

We stowed our baggage in the Landrover and all set off for the Fort Victoria police station. In an interview with the police captain I saw that he was only concerned that nothing should reflect on their side judicially and that the car should be removed from the country at my expense. The lieutenant took me to a transport firm where I paid 19 dollars to have the car put on a train to Pretoria. From here I went on to a travel agency only to find that there was no plane I could get in time for my departure at 0900 hrs. the next day. There were no buses either. The policeman left us on the terrace of the Victoria Hotel. We had a lemonade each, then Neville who was feeling better said that we stood a better chance hitch hiking if we split up. I was thinking the same but preferred the suggestion to come from him. We said goodbye and he went off. I phoned the AA and the town publicity without success, then I saw a Transvaal licence plate on a parked Peugeot car and went over to ask the couple inside if they could give me a lift. The man agreed to take me as far as the border at Beitbridge.

They were a young couple from Johannesburg spending their holidays in Rhodesia. She was Afrikaans, he English but they didn’t volunteer much information about themselves; they were returning to Johannesburg but were making an overnight stop at the wife’s parent’s home in Pieterburg, so that was a a bit beyond the border I could get to with them. They had to wait for me at emigration on the Rhodesian side due to the absence of my car that had been checked in and the official now wanted to know where it was. I asked him to phone the police station at Fort Victoria which he did and on receiving an explanation from there allowed me to go through.

They set me down at a petrol station on the Pretoria side of the town of Pietersburg at about 1800 hrs. and after waiting for half an hour a young Afrikaaner in a Datsun 1600 agreed to take me to the town Potgietersrus. His English was very poor and he drove the car at a hurricane speed while we tried to converse. It was now dark and started to rain so I was not sorry when this hitch came to an end when he left me at another petrol station; I had no wish to gain any local fame as the man involved in two car accidents in two different countries on the same day. I had not eaten for over 24 hours so went into a Greek cafe and had tea with toast and jam. It was more difficult to get a lift in the dark and I waited for an hour and a half, beginning to lose hope as the time passed. An Afrikaaner came up to me by the side of the road and said he also was hitch-hiking. I didn’t much like the look of him, he had a seedy look about him and his presence near me definitely cut down the chances there were of my getting to Pretoria that night.

A Pontiac stopped at the filling station and this man went to speak to the occupants, two coloured men – as people of mixed race are called here. He came back to say they were going to Jo’burg and would give me a lift, but I should be careful with them. I was in no position to be choosy and so went to speak to the driver. He looked at me in a hostile manner but said I could come, his passenger was more open, but they were a doubtful looking pair. The Afrikaaner got in the car as well and soon the three of them were talking in Afrikaans, and in some way I could sense that it was about me they were talking. The atmosphere was tangibly awkward and I was feeling uncomfortable until the car stopped after a distance of about fifteen kilometres when I was stiffening myself for trouble, but it was only to set the Afrikaaner down at a cross-roads, and we drove on.

I was alert but went out of my way to be pleasant as possible to the two men sitting up front, but there is so little contact between the races in this country that there are obvious bridges that one can never cross They drank beer and wine out of bottles as we drove along and threw the empties out into the night. They couldn’t make me out any more than I could them. They said they were partners in jute bag manufacturing and selling and were well off. I was never completely at ease during the drive and they told me that the Afrikaaner was a very bad man as to what he had suggested to them about me. By the time we arrived in Pretoria it was 2230 hrs. and the two men were by this time slightly under the influence of drink. We exchanged addresses and they set me down at a ‘whites only’ taxi rank. I went to the airline office and from there telephoned the security guard at the factory and told him briefly about the accident with the car and asked him to arrange to collect a letter for Mr Malenfant at the desk at South African Airline’s office the following day.

My right hand was badly swollen since the accident and I found it was only possible to write if I steadied it with my left hand, as I set down an account of the accident to the car and explaining what I had done to have it sent to Pretoria. I said I would accept any damage charges and enclosed a box of Brazilian cigars and a package of Brazilian coffee with the letter,  as I had intended giving him these anyway. After this was all wrapped up in a parcel with paper supplied by the young man on night duty at the office I bade him goodnight and set off on foot with my cases to find a hotel as there were no more night-time taxis at this hour.

All this had taken time and I soon found that with one hand unable to carry any weight I could not deal with my cases and returned to the airline office. The time was now 1 o’clock in the morning and I was at the end of my tether. ‘I’ll have to stay here,’ I told him. ‘You’re more than welcome,’ he replied, ‘I’m sorry we only have three chairs.’

APRIL 1971