She wobbled on her swivel chair like an enraged blackcurrant-flavoured jelly baby.
“Why are you travelling together? Going to a party in England, you say? No. I don’t believe it. I can’t believe it. You two white ones can go but you other three wait behind.”
She wouldn’t listen to my explanations. “Shut up, white person. They must speak. You. The black one. Khuluma. Speak.”
OR Tambo would not (I hope) have been proud of her. Our little multi-racial fivesome was divided on racial lines. Whites on South African passports may leave the country. Non-whites must be interviewed.
Twenty minutes later the Dark Three emerged, shaken but allowed to depart on holiday. It had been horrible they said. Brown people of all depths dragged in from the desks and abused. “You are not South African. This is a stolen passport. I don’t believe you. Where did you buy this passport? You don’t speak Sotho so you are foreign. A kwerekwere. Answer me a question. Where were you born? Bushbuckridge? Colenso? They are not in South Africa.”
Whilst Nigerians, Indians, Pakistanis and Somalis were shoved out through the back door and sent who knows where, we were all now free to board our flight. Our passports were probably legitimate. Mine damned well ought to be, it took Home Affairs over a year to provide it. And the system hadn’t picked up any of our outstanding speeding fines or missing vehicle instalments.
The journey to Dubai flashes past in an Arabic whirl of halal snacks and breakfasts. The time is two hours ahead of Johannesburg. Last chance to board for London. No time to shop. We have to run in the desert heat to catch our flight. In and out of white waving kaftans, trying not to tangle in the turbans and travelators.
We’re at the Gate. Another jelly baby. A small lemon-flavoured one. “You three wait here.” Two of us could continue our journey; the other three would have to stay behind for an interview with the British Embassy in Dubai before continuing to the UK. There are so many illegal South African passports that they are filtered out en route to prevent congestion at London’s airports, she explained in broken English. Thank you. Shukran.
“We’re never going to make it to London,” said one of the Dark Three.
“Yes, we are dammit.” I collared the yellow jelly baby and asked her to get the British Embassy on the line. A voice answered. The second secretary. Donald. A Scottish flavour.
I explained. In the new South Africa, I said, South Africans of different shades were now allowed, in theory, by all but our own immigration department, to do anything together including take holidays. I had applied for all the passports myself; I had known the bearers for many years. They were all coming to England for a party. I had enough money, travellers cheques, proof of employment in South Africa, copies of the party invitation, medical insurance. Everything. My poor mother, a Brit, would be mortified if they didn’t come. How could he do that to her?
“I’ll let you all board,” Donald agreed, fed up with my wheedling, “but you’re going to have problems in London.” Thanks, my good man. We’ll take the chance.
Eight hours and two more breakfasts later. Heathrow. Raining. Another blackcurrant jelly-baby, this time with dreadlocks. A quick glance at the passports and the paperwork, five sharp resounding stamps and we were in.
In a broad Jamaican drawl, he welcomed us to his wonderful country of Great Britain. Bob Marley recognised the new normality of our poly-tinted South African group and respected our President’s request that we should pass freely without let or hindrance. Something the said President’s own employees wouldn’t do. And for their information, Bushbuckridge is in South Africa. So is Colenso. Just.
It was cold. We wanted to go home, but we wondered whether the Sotho jelly baby at OR Tambo would let all of us back in. Or just the Pale Ones. Or maybe just the Dark Ones. We’d give it two weeks and find out.