By GENE MUSTAIN, Daily News Staff Writer | Friday, April 29, 1994
RUSTENBURG—The first whiff of the hate in store came when we turned off the two-lane blacktop onto a dusty rutted road and a group of Boer commandos by a parked car glared at us.
One of them, a huge pot-bellied man with a bushy mustache and a pistol in his waistband, shouted some insult we couldn’t hear.
“They think black people are the devil,” said Michele Baird, our black interpreter.
Michele was in the backseat with her sister, Rowena, our interpreter on other days, who had decided at the last minute to accompany us to a press conference called by the Afrikaner Resistance Movement, a neo-Nazi paramilitary group linked to bombings that have killed 21 people in recent days.
“All press welcome,” the press announcement had lied.
Up ahead, we saw several more Boers, dressed in camouflage gear and armed with automatic rifles and shotguns. Several other Boers were in a car behind us, and one leaned out a window, waving a flag with a swastika-like symbol.
We knew a South African Army armored car was at the beginning of the convoy of Boer and media vehicles into which we had fallen. We felt uneasy, but safe.
The road narrowed into one lane by a yellow stone house, the former home of Paul Kruger, an Afrikaner hero. This was to be the backdrop for an announcement by the resistance movement—known here by its Afrikaner-language initials of AWB, that the nation was headed toward “revolution and war.”
The atmosphere turned poisonous soon as we parked and left the car. “Go home,” a Boer woman with a pistol in her waistband said. “Kaffir,” meaning “nigger,” snarled a Boer boy with her.
“I think we should stay in the car, madam,” Michele said to her sister Rowena.
My friend Michael Allen and I argued against it. The place where the AWB leader, Eugene Terre-Blanche, was to speak was 50 yards away. We didn’t want to leave our interpreters, who had become our friends, alone in the car.
We moved up a hill with a crowd of maybe 150 reporters and photographers. We saw one other black person and one Asian. Some reporters were looking at us and shaking their heads. But it was too late to think about whether it was wise for us to be here.
“All press welcome,” the announcement had said.
Michael and I took off some of our press credentials and gave them to Michele and Rowena. I gave Rowena my reporter’s notebook and Michele my telephone diary. “You are reporters now; start taking notes,” I said.
“I don’t like this, madam,” Rowena said to her sister Michele.
We looked around and saw that the South African Army was now nowhere in sight. We found out later they had taken positions in trees several hundred yards away.
Michael moved into a group of reporters at the front. I stayed back with Michele and Rowena. Rowena wrote in my notebook that she was “x-tremely petrified….I’ve done some foolish things in my life before, but this is the pits.”
I saw some commotion in the crowd of reporters pressed toward the front. Only later, because Michael had his tape recorder running, did we learn the ugly words that the man who was to introduce Terre-Blanche had directed Michael’s way.
“There is something terribly ugly behind you,” the man had said to a Boer standing in front of Michael. “Don’t get a fright when you look over your shoulder.”
We did not know that Michael was in the center of the commotion that now wound back down the hill, only that several Boers seemed to be having a shoving match with television cameramen.
A white woman reporter said we ought to leave. “It is getting very dangerous here,” she said.
“Please take my hand,” Rowena said to her.
“Wait until whatever that is down there is over,” I said.
For the amount of time it took for six Boers to punch, kick and smash Michael with a nightstick, we waited, then we walked down the hill—the woman reporter and Rowena in front, me and Michele in back.
“Yeah, kaffir, hold the missus’ hand,” some Boer women under a tree began taunting.
We came upon Michael with his shirttail out and blood on the bridge of his nose.
After he said he was okay and the woman reporter took the madams to our car, I went back up the hill — but some Boer had stolen the beeper. I asked some other reporters what happened, then went back down the hill.
As I did, a Boer told the only other black face in the crowd—a photographer from Detroit—and an Asian woman reporter to stand way back or face the same treatment “the kaffir got.”
Down the hill, I said to one of the policemen, “We don’t feel safe here. Please escort us out of here.”
“You can just follow the road that way,” one of them said, pointing down the narrow road, “and it will lead you to the highway.”
“We would really appreciate an escort.”
“If you leave now, you will be safe,” the cop’s partner said.
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” I said, and we did and were.