Her own classroom was in disarray: no teacher present to take the register and boys from the higher standards standing on desks and leaning out of the top windows, the only ones that could open to allow air in. There was a smattering of the usual thirty-five students in the class. In a back corner a group of girls had bunched their desks together into a protective laager. They sat nervously, clinging to each other for comfort. Grace joined them. She started to ask a question but was silenced by Lorraine, an older girl, as the group tried to catch snippets of information from words drifting down like scraps of paper on the wind from the boys, who provided a halting commentary on the activity outside.
“That one, over there! Unmarked police car.” “You can see them, the Boere!”
All week members of the Student Representative Council had been planning this protest. Grace had heard details but she’d tuned them out. There was enough going on at home. Banners had been drawn and placards prepared. The protest would be peaceful, demanding what any sane human being in this society would want: Mandela released, apartheid ended, this gutter education brought up to standard.
The message had been echoing through the courtyards, the hallways and the classrooms for weeks.
Free Mandela! Unban the ANC! Unban the PAC! Bring our leaders back home!
Today it came from a loudhailer in the main quad. Seated at their desks the young girls heard the protest begin.
“Let’s go,” said Lorraine. “Let’s go join it.”
“No, I don’t want to get involved in this,” Claire said. “My parents warned me to stay away from politics.”
Grace followed the debate, not sure whose side she was on, nor daring to insert her own voice. Always the quiet one, always going along with everyone else, she hated herself for not having an opinion and not stating it firmly like these girls could do. What would she say, anyway? She knew apartheid was wrong, but hadn’t it been drummed into her at home to respect authority above all else? Challenge the rules and you could get hurt – at home or at school. She wanted to be decisive and quick, to know what she thought. Instead she just sat there watching Lorraine grab her stuff and leave while Claire’s face contorted with disapproval. Two others remained with them, afraid of the wrath of the policemen lining up outside.
Outside in the quad, the student rally was hitting its stride. “Amandla!”
The crowd, growing denser by the minute, grouped around the head protesters, eager to respond to the leaders’ demands. An older boy stood in the middle of a clearing of bodies, loudhailer glued to his lips.
“We demand freedom! We, the young people, are the future of this country. We want justice! Viva the ANC, Viva!”
“Viva!” the crowd responded in unison. “Viva the PAC, Viva!”
“Viva Mandela, Viva!” “Viva!”
The crowd took over chanting: “Mandela! Mandela! Mandela!”
A tall, lanky boy, made for the role of flag bearer, waved a big green and yellow banner imprinted with Mandela’s image. Grace, peeking out of the classroom door, took it in, wondering: who was this Mandela? Since the beginning of the year his name had hummed beneath the surface of her life at high school. They sang about him, chanted his name, demanded his freedom. He was locked up somewhere, wrongly, for wanting to end apartheid. This much she knew. Nobody knew what he looked like. His picture wasn’t in any history books, newspapers or on television. She had never heard his name spoken at home, not when the going was good between her parents, and certainly not during the bad spells. The image on the flag seemed ghostly, like the only grainy picture of a long-dead relative who had been important and influential, but who you didn’t know at all. Who was this Mandela they were shouting for, really? Would he get them the vote, get rid of apartheid and Botha, and bring peace to the troubled streets? Did he beat his wife? Or would he, if he was free to do so, if she didn’t do things the way he liked?
The chants rose up louder. The group started toyi toyi-ing to the rhythm of the freedom song, spilling out of the quad, ready to take to the streets. Banners waved furiously. Grace ached for the quiet of home, wishing she’d stayed there.
“Fok! Hier kom hulle!”
The sentries who had remained behind in her classroom jumped from the desks and ran out to warn the others of impending disaster.
“The Boere are coming!’
Grace saw Johnny in the quad. He looked her way and waved at her, mouthing, “Go!”
Another wave of boys swept down the corridor. “Out! Out! Get out!” they screamed at the petrified girls.
“Get the fuck out and run home as fast as you can! The Boere are coming!”
Claire, ever the ringleader, declared, “No, we’ll do what we want!”
The group of girls, Grace included, followed her across the classroom, to where some of the boys were still perched as lookouts. Grace clambered onto a desk and strained to reach the top of the window. Row upon row of armoured trucks were rounding the corner of the street next to the school’s front gate, helmeted soldiers protruding, guns ready. For one insensible moment they seemed to Grace like play cars, a convoy of army trucks like she’d seen the littlest kids next door push back and forth, back and forth; cute, harmless blocks of wood. Toy trucks for a staged fight, where the good always triumphed over evil, where everything was cleaned up and packed away afterwards and everyone went home friends. It hit Grace that the armoured Casspirs were blocking off the school gate, cordoning off the way out. An unearthly ringing started in her ears, and unable to stir or look away from the approaching Casspirs, her limbs went limp.
Then, suddenly, Grace was moving fast, out of the classroom as if winged, her feet barely touching the ground. Johnny must have come running up the stairs to fetch her. He had her by the collar of her blazer and was hustling her onward, out, out. In the quad, they stopped to hear the soldiers, with loudspeakers ten times more powerful than the students’, command: “You have five minutes to disperse! Five minutes!”
From every direction children poured into the quad. Like sheep rounded up by an unseen herd dog, bodies ran, walked, churned against each other, not knowing whether to go or stay, not knowing how to leave. Mindful of a stampede, the leaders tried to induce some order. The teachers were nowhere.
Then: shots. One, two, three. A shooting star hung briefly suspended above them before landing in their midst, unleashing its poison. A small dust cloud bloomed into full evil, and Grace knew in that instant that she was going to die. The gas ripped into her, into the delicate tissues of nose, eyes and mouth. The top layer of her skin was being eaten away. She couldn’t breathe. Tried to cough. Gasped for air but swallowed fire. Throat melting, eyes burning out of her head, she could not see a thing. She was aware of only the burning, burning.
She started moving again, without volition, amidst the sea of bodies being swept out by a current to God-knew-where. In the press of bodies the students rounded a corner out of the quad and then Grace was breathing again, her lungs greedily sucking the air. She felt a hand at her back: Johnny’s, pushing her away from the main school building.
“Run, run! Go to the hole in the fence. Run home!”
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