In the closest chamber, with the best part of half a mile of rock between them, a black man by name of Kingsley Longfellow was also lying battered on the rock floor, thrown onto his back by the blast.
Like Steiger, he knew it was important not to do anything too precipitous until his head cleared. Kingsley had worked in the mine all of his life – and although he had witnessed accidents before, this was the first where his very survival was at stake – because he sensed that this time he was trapped.
Unlike Steiger though, he knew he was not alone because the Lord was with him – the Lord his Saviour was down there alongside him, even amongst all the chaos and destruction.
The big man lay in the dark wondering why he could see no light from his lantern. He decided that it must have got itself turned off in the blast – but feeling for the switch he was surprised to find it still switched on. Perhaps something had been broken by the impact? Never mind, it was but a small thing. He was alive and he was lucky.
He had been driving a dumper truck loaded with ore just before the explosion: had driven it away from the rock face, across the chamber and into the tunnel, driving through endless darkness broken only by the light on his helmet and the lights on the front of the truck. The tunnel always seemed to stretch on for ever; but eventually he had reached the junction, that point where several similar tunnels merged and met the rail track. Here the ore was loaded onto trains that would carry it back to the lifts and up to the surface, to be smelted in great foundries that lay on the outskirts of Johannesburg and Durban.
He unloaded his truck, and with an empty load the journey back seemed quicker. As he re-entered the chamber he heard the sound of a rock-fall: It was like an avalanche, as if the whole of the side of a mountain had slipped away and was cascading down into a valley beneath. Then it was followed by the sound of an enormous explosion.
He felt himself being lifted clean off his truck and deposited like a rag doll on the cavern floor alongside the truck. He lay spread-eagled and his heart skipped beats as he heard the sound of the truck tilting over onto two wheels above him. He sensed it was hanging, canted over him and he was sure that at any moment it would topple and crush him beneath its great weight. There was nothing he could do – he didn’t even have time to pray.
For what felt like an eternity the truck seemed to teeter, delicately balanced above him; and he could imagine God’s angel Gabriel on one side, struggling to keep it upright, resisting the powers of Satan who, on the other side seemed, to be intent on sending it crashing down on him.
Then the protestation from the springs told him that the truck had righted. He realised that it was the truck that had saved him: it had sheltered him from the aftermath of the blast and all the debris hurtling through air around him.
His eyes were burning; and he guessed he would find bruises and scratches all down his back from the undignified slide in which his journey ended. Everything about him was in darkness; but otherwise he seemed to be in one piece.
He knew he was in a bad place, sure that he had been cut off from both the lifts and the shaft and the long rickety ladder that led up to the surface. That shaft and ladder comprised their emergency escape route – although in all his time down the mine he couldn’t remember anyone having used it either in an emergency or in a drill. Certainly not in a drill because they never had any.
Kingsley knew that the first thing he must do was to give up some moments to prayer, to give thanks that he had been spared. Only after that would he worry about his predicament and what he could do about it.
He scrambled onto his knees, let his hands fall onto his lap and he lowered his head.
First he gave thanks that he, Kingsley Longfellow, a black and a mineworker, who had few advantages and no privileges except to love and be loved by God, was still in one piece. But he knew that was only a start: Unless they could get to him, he had to find some way to get out for himself.
So now he prayed for strength and a clear head, that his strong body might not fail him and that his mind might think with all the vision of an umfundisi, a wise man. He would need strength and courage and wisdom, all of those things, to claw his way out were those on the surface unable to dig down and reach him.
He had faith; but he wondered, did he have enough faith to get himself out? And would God help him? The Christian in him trusted God; but just the same he touched on the crucifix around his neck as if it were some kind of voodoo charm. It was lucky that God didn’t work in the same way as the Gods of the old religions. You didn’t have a hope if you made any of those gods angry – they wouldn’t lift a finger to help you. Yet something was making him doubt. He had killed a man. Did God condone the use of force – even if for political purposes and in the cause of freedom? He kept a gun hidden in his shack: He had killed a policeman who was beating the life out of a fellow black, believing the man was an activist. Did God condone that? Or would He condemn him to die down here in something akin to hell? And if that was his fate what would the consequences be for his daughter, Anulka? Without the wages he brought back from the mine she wouldn’t be able to sustain herself and her child, the little picaninni, Tom.
Times were hard: most blacks could hardly support their own families, let alone contemplate taking in two extra mouths.
Although herself a mother, Anulka had had not long turned 16. She had never known her own mother who had died giving birth to her. With the death of Nadeli, Kingsley’s soul had been pained as greatly as if his body had been beaten by the police with their sjamboks. But when he buried her he resolved to bury his grief along with her; and from that moment he had given his all to bringing up his beautiful daughter as best he could with some help from good neighbours.
He had named her Anulka, meaning happiness.
True, Nadeli’s death hadn’t prevented her from handing down her beauty to her daughter; and Anulka was certainly beautiful. But more than that, she was bright – feisty and spontaneous in equal measures. Those were not necessarily the best of credentials for a Venda girl, who was supposed to be submissive and subservient to a point of being slavish.
Without the guidance of a mother she had fallen into the arms of a young Venda boy who preferred the glory of life as a guerrilla, fighting against the white man, rather than shouldering the responsibilities of a father.
He could only hope that Anulka had not yet heard of the accident. Right now she would be at the Mission School where she helped the teacher, Mrs. N’dela, to give some basic education to as many children as they could cram into one small room. Tom would be sleeping in a crèche at the back of the classroom. Could Mrs. N’dela, he wondered, shelter them from the news of the disaster? Withhold it from them until they could say whether there was any hope for those below ground? Whether there were survivors or not?
He doubted it. People would already be standing around on street corners gossiping and waiting for news – and news, especially bad news, flew around a slum like Ochatingi like so many vultures squawking over the carcass of a dead dog in the dust beside the road leading out of the township…
Leading to where? Well, it was their only road: it wasn’t even a proper metalled road and it led to nowhere, really. If you walked east along it for five miles you would come to the mine. After that it faded into nothing, its dusty way hardly discernable from the veldt lying on either side. But try to follow it for another ten miles, always keeping the top of the koppie or hill that they called Oppikoppi at your back, and the track began to climb until you came to a proper road, the metalled one that led from Pretoria to Johannesburg.
That’s where Ochatingi was; and it wasn’t exactly a bustling metropolis.
He said all the prayers he could think of; and after that Kingsley began to wonder what was happening above ground. Had they assembled a rescue team yet? Had they started to dig? And here, down below ground, what had become of his fellow miners?
Thirty blacks had gone down the lift. As the gates clanked open they had jostled good naturedly as they surged forward into the cage designated for blacks only. When whites went down the mine they used another lift: The Reservation of Separate Amenities Act had kept blacks and whites apart since 1953, be it on buses, lavatories, the parks or on the beaches. So like the other Bantus, Kingsley used the ‘blacks only’ lift. That was the law.
When the cage reached Level 3 they split into three groups, gangs of ten, one group for each of the three chambers now being mined: So there were nine other blacks working along with him in Chamber 32, as well as Johaansen their Afrikaaner Gang Boss. He tried to recollect who the other nine had been.
Jomo Kumalo was one. Of course he was: Jomo had spoken to him going down in the cage. Could Kingsley wait for repayment of the loan he had made Jomo? It was more than two weeks since he lent him 3 rand. The loan had been so Jomo could pay for a consultation with the Shaman, the witchdoctor – and although it was supposed to be just for a few days it hadn’t yet been repaid.
Jomo believed in witchdoctors – that this one could make a cure for his sick wife. Grabbing Kingsley’s arm as the cage descended, Jomo had asked for time to pay. He promised Kingsley he would get his money – but not this month now. Could Kingsley wait?
Of witchdoctors Kingsley didn’t approve – but if Jomo believed in them and he believed his wife could be cured then that was a matter for him. Anyway it wasn’t a loan from Kingsley; it was a loan made by God, using Kingsley as his instrument. Yes, of course it could wait. Hadn’t the Good Lord’s only son told them how the dishonest steward was saved by compassion, his tolerance and his understanding of the poor?
Where was Jomo now, he thought?
“Jomo?” Kingsley calls. “Jomo! You there, man?”
There was silence.
Then he remembered that Timmi McOobo was another who had been on the shift. It was to Timmi’s wife, Granni McOobo, that Kingsley owed so much. When he was down the mine it was Granni who had looked after the baby Anulka in the early years; and, as Anulka grew up, his daughter and Granni had formed a bond of friendship.
Timmi McOobo was a real krimpie, an old man – far too old to be working down the mine. But in the mines there was work, and for that work there were wages. Every black needed wages. And anyway, if you didn’t have work, the blackjacks, the Peri-Urban police, would take you and throw you into prison – they could throw you into prison for that and many other things. These were the injustices that the activists, blacks mainly but also some enlightened whites, were fighting against.
It was Timmi’s son, Piet, who had fathered Anulka’s child – who, as soon as she had told him that she was expecting his baby, had disappeared.
Piet had a habit of disappearing. Sometimes he would not be seen in the community for several days – and whilst he was away nobody was surprised to learn about some massive explosion at an important installation somewhere in the suburbs of Johannesburg, or of policemen being shot to ribbons in some roadside ambush. Then Piet would mysteriously appear again; and Kingsley knew that one of the reasons Timmi kept working down the mine was to provide a ready source of explosives for his son and the other guerrillas in his band.
“McOobo! Can you hear me McOobo?”
“Anyone? Johaanson, baas?”
He listened again. There was only silence.
Reluctantly he concluded that all of the others who had been with him in Chamber 32 were dead.
And the chambers on either side? Depending on where the collapse had been, one or both could also be cut off. After a few more moments to pull himself together he would see if he couldn’t fix up his lamp and investigate. He would crawl on his knees if he couldn’t manage it on his feet; but he needed to find out where and how severely his passage to freedom was obstructed.
Wondering what time it now was, the black man brought the back of his hand close up to his face. Kingsley owned a watch. It was precious, his most prized possession. It was literally prized for, many years ago, no less a person than the Bishop of Johannesburg presented it to him for being the top pupil in Bible Studies at the Mission School – the same school where Anulka now helped. Often, when things were difficult, he had come close to selling the watch to pay the rent or for some other domestic commodity. But as it had been given to him by the Bishop himself, selling it seemed a shameful thing to do. So he still had it – that even after, one Friday, some Tsotsi gangsters tried to rob him of his wages and snatch the watch. They were thwarted only because Piet Kumalo and his friends were close by and had rushed the Tsotsis, brandishing machetes with such ferocity that, even though the gangsters had a pistol, they had run away.
Battered after all those years the watch may be but it still kept good time. And the small light it gave if you pressed on the winder still worked too, so that he should be able to see what time it was.
The black hand of a black man in a black, black cave held the watch close up to his face, pressing on the winder to light up the dial.
He couldn’t see it.
He rubbed his eyes to be sure. No, he couldn’t see the light and he couldn’t see the watch. And perhaps there were still lights in the chamber too but he couldn’t see them either? Could his lantern still be working, only he was unable to see the light from it?
Slowly the truth dawned on Kingsley: The explosion in the Ochatingi copper mine had cost him his sight. Now he couldn’t see anything at all.