A taste of Under the African Sun…

“There’s a protest going on in Adderley Street, guys.” Annie was leaning over the balcony, trying for a better view.

“Go, Annie. Take a photographer with you, and take Deborah.” Ginger gestured towards the entrance.

Deborah seized her jacket and Annie raced her to the lift. In minutes, they were in the middle of the placard-holding crowd marching towards the fountain, where a phalanx of blue uniforms awaited them. Their shouts bounced between the buildings.

Deborah found herself struggling to keep up with the crowd. The Indian girl next to her looked much too young to be there by herself. A copy of Macbeth protruded from her blazer pocket, and Deborah wanted to push it back more securely. An elderly man beat her to it, and they exchanged a look. He looked like an academic type, with his faded denim jeans and leather patches on his jacket elbows.

She was propelled forward by the crowd and noted youngsters, intermingled with middle-aged people, all dressed in casual clothing, all united in a common cause. The air was electric.

“Free Mandela!”

“Amandla!”

“Awethu!”

Deborah absorbed the energy. It was tinged with fear, but the big crowd drew together and seemed to take comfort in their closeness. Apprehension was overridden by a wave of idealism. She looked around to say something to Annie, but she was no longer by her side.

“Ready for this?” A young bearded man pushed through the crowd to get to the front. Deborah nodded uncertainly.

“You’re Chris Jarvis’ girlfriend, right?”

Her stomach spasmed. She needed Chris there. The young man hesitated for a second.

“I’m Tom Smith, by the way, in case you need my name,” he said over his shoulder.

The Macbeth girl stumbled and fell. The crowd surged forward, and a tall, elderly man pulled her up quickly before she was trampled. He put his arm around her shoulder and kept it there as they moved forward.

Tom was addressing the crowd through a loudspeaker. Deborah looked around to see where his voice was coming from, but she couldn’t spot him in the dense crowd.

“Mandela must be released. We must never, never give up!” People raised their fists and shouted.

“Power to the people.”

“Amandla.”

She unclenched her fist as she remembered her role here.

“There is no room for complacency. We all need to get involved. Make this country ungovernable!”

Words swam around in her head, and people pushed in front of her. She saw the speaker up ahead. Strong arms had lifted him so he could be seen. People were cheering and clapping. A piece of cardboard with “real education for all,” scrawled in black khoki pen, flapped in front of Deborah’s eyes, and she stepped out of its way. Bits of cardboard bearing angry slogans waved all around her, and she tried to read as many as she could.

“Nigel, can you get a shot of that placard? The ‘real education’ one?” He was weaving in between people, angling for the best shot.

“We must force the apartheid government to step down. Time for negotiation is over. No longer accept the murder of our children. The power must be in the hands of the people. Dream of a new South Africa!”

“Can you see Tom Smith? He’s the one with the loud hailer.”

Nigel shook his head. “No, I’ll push closer. See if I can get a shot.”

Nigel was snapping pictures rapidly, and the crowd heaved towards the human barrier. Deborah tried to steady herself as they reached the policemen. Her press card was not going to be much protection. Her mouth felt dry. Two policemen grappled with Nigel, wrenching the camera out of his hand.

“I’m a press photographer.”

He was shoved to the ground. Deborah elbowed through to help him. Her hand stretched out, but she was flung back by the crowd. Her head throbbed. She pushed desperately to reach Nigel. She had to find him.

Police coursed forward. Their batons held high, ready for action and daring the crowd to cross the line. She looked into a pair of steely grey eyes, and a shiver ran down her spine. He began thumping his weapon into the palm of his hand as he made eye contact with her.

Batons swung and people scattered in all directions. One minute a loud hailer was warning the crowd to disperse, and the next, tear gas canisters were hissing as they hit the ground. One landed next to her, and immediately her eyes clouded and stung like crazy. Tears welled up. She tried to brush them away to see where she was going, but it was no use. She felt the panic rising in her throat. A hazy mob swam in front of her.

“I can’t see.” She could feel bodies bumping her, but couldn’t make out any faces. “Help me. I can’t see anything.” Her voice sounded far away, and she covered her eyes with her hands.

“It’s okay. Come with us. Grab my arm.”

A voice and strong hands on her shoulders allowed her to breathe out, and she felt herself moved forward.

“I’ll steer you. Stick with us.”

Her knees buckled as she felt a body running into her, and the stranger stopped her from falling. Somewhere in the crowd a woman was screaming. She froze as her eyes cleared a little. Two policemen right next to her wielded batons at a group of students. She could make out the bulk of a policeman swinging at a figure in a blue sweatshirt, curled in a foetal ball. A muddied book lay in the dirt beside the body.

Deborah took a step forward. “Stop it!” She felt herself heaving, sobs rising in her chest. “Stop it. Just stop it.”

The policeman turned, baton still raised. She couldn’t see his face through the sting of tears, but he stepped towards her. She wanted to run but her legs wouldn’t move. She heard Annie’s voice and turned to see a figure pushing through the crowd towards her. Deborah couldn’t make out what she was saying until Annie roughly grabbed her sleeve.

“Run!” Annie growled at her. “Run, run!”

She felt the life return to her legs, and she turned and fled with the others. The sound of Annie’s pounding steps just behind her gave her the courage to run faster, harder. When her legs gave up, she turned back towards her friend. Annie was gone.

Shit! She looked around wildly.

“Annie!”

“Nigel!”

Her screams echoed around her. She’d lost them. She ran towards a young man huddled against the pavement.

“Nigel?” No. It wasn’t him.

Her eyes still stung, but she was beginning to see again. She followed the now smaller crowd to St George’s Cathedral. Her eyes scoured the pews quickly as she squeezed into the shadowed interior, past the crowd at the massive doors. No sign of Annie or Nigel.

Her heart pounded, and she turned away and walked back to the newsroom. The sound of sirens echoed down Adderley Street. People ran in the other direction, to the sanctuary of the cathedral. She dodged a police patrol car as she wound her way between people and resisted the urge to throw up. What if Nigel was badly hurt? And where was Annie? She shouldn’t have left Nigel’s side. She should have made sure Annie was behind her. She’d let them both down so badly. She’d never forgive herself if either one of them was hurt. She forced herself into a jog now. The comfort of the newsroom propelled her forward. With immense relief she found herself back in the newspaper building at last. As the lift door opened, she stumbled out into the familiar, comforting territory of the newsroom.

Nigel steadied her as Annie reached for her hand.

“Chill, girl. Just chill.”

Deborah inhaled the air-conditioned oxygen.

“A cigarette. Please.”

“””cropped-gail-gilbride-fb-ad.1.jpg

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