Three days later, tenants of an apartment in a whites-only sea-front suburb of Cape Town, we presented ourselves at the bonded warehouse. The customs official was overweight with a florid face and fish-bowl glasses. Behind him, stacked on shelves, were our household effects. Over twenty tea chests, all with a clear line of nails four inches from the base which marked the line of the false bottoms. Only a blind man could fail to spot it.
‘What’s in the cases?’ he said. Convinced we had been rumbled, it took a moment to gather our senses. ‘Duvets, colanders, pillows, whisks.’ ‘What else?’ There was nothing else, and neither of us could think of other household items which should have been included. ‘Duvets, pillows, colanders, whisks’, I said. ‘Our home. We’re immigrating.’ ‘You’re immigrating?’ he said. ‘Why didn’t you say?’ The customs official had poor eyesight, and we were white. He stamped the paperwork, and the cases were loaded on to the back of a lorry and delivered to our flat.
We had to buy the envelopes and the stamps. Ronnie had assured us that they would be a common size, and common weight. Given the amount of stationery and stamps required, we were instructed to buy small quantities at a time from as many outlets as possible, so that suspicion would not be aroused. And, he said, wear gloves. Neither the size nor weight of the booklets turned out to be standard but we eventually purchased enough to distribute the contents of the cases without, we hoped, arousing suspicion. Address lists had been included in the false bottoms, typed up on sticky labels. We opened the cases, packed the envelopes, and over days of licking and spitting wore through several pairs of cheap cotton gloves, slapping the sticky address labels on the front. Big names: Nelson and Winnie Mandela. Small names: Joseph, bed 17, hut 34. Heart-rending vignettes of forced migration, arbitrary loneliness, imprisonment. These packages were meant as much for Joseph as for B.O.S.S. (the South African Bureau of State Security).The ANC was alive and kicking.
Mailing the envelopes required the same care as buying them. A few at a time, in post boxes all over town, over days. No suspicion. We filled a suitcase at a time, took them down to our hired car, and dribbled them out across Cape Town. Carey drove, I posted. On one occasion I had left the flat before him, and stepped into the lift with my suitcase. Two policemen got in on the floor below. For the second time, I was convinced I had been caught. Imagined martyrdom gave way to blind terror.
‘Going away?’, one of them said. I did manage to smile, and nod. I think I probably said I was an English visitor, and we were exploring their wonderful country. The lift stopped at the ground floor. ‘Allow me’, the policeman said, picking up my suitcase. ‘It’s heavy. Where is your car?’ I walked alongside him, praying (old habits die hard) that the locks wouldn’t snap. He lifted it into the boot for me. ‘I don’t know what you women carry in your cases’, he said. ‘Have a nice weekend.’
I have very little memory of Cape Town, although recollections of apartheid are seared into my consciousness. A parallel existence propping up a white supremacist fantasy, backed up by unspeakable violence and repression. The horrors of fascism and the anti-semitic and racist holocaust it had released in Europe were still fresh in mind. To be silent faced with the crude inhumanity of apartheid was hard to bear: ‘boys’, who helped us load and off load our packing cases, stripped of the dignity of their manhood; ‘whites-only’ privileges, from buses to benches to public lavatories (always superior and more numerous); the everyday humiliations of black people whose poverty, as they queued while the whites sailed to the fore in separate lines, was all too apparent in their cheap clothes and inadequate shoes. Of course we knew about the iniquitous legislation of the regime, but to see it in action, and be powerless to say anything in case our cover was broken, was hard.
I don’t recall how long we were in South Africa. One week. Two. Perhaps three. We had to dispose of our tea chests, and their contents, but the remote dump we were told to visit proved to be inhabited, wrecks of cars or rough cardboard shacks housing workers and scavengers. It was not a place visited by whites, and we panicked in case we were caught. We returned, repackaged the chests, rang up the Union Castle line, shipped them back home. The next day we were on a flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg, where we would change planes, and head back to England (in those days it was not possible to fly direct).