A bush telegraph still operates in Africa. Sometimes it works through the mystical beating of drums, sometimes by way of the footfall of a messenger passing from one village to another; sometimes from the chatter of women gathered at the pumps and standpipes, those hubs of life in the little dorpies, the communities and villages that were scattered across the veldt. But, however, news travels: It spreads up over the koppies and then down along the kloofs, the hills and valleys spreading across a great continent of which South Africa forms only a small part: And it spreads like wildfire.
Piet McOobo first heard of his mother’s death just two days after the tragic fire, although it was another week or so before he heard a wild rumour that she had been killed by the girl who he had once loved, Anulka, the mother of his son.
When news of the fire reached him it filled him with a feeling of guilt and remorse. He knew his mother, with Anulka, had been living alone in his mother’s shack since they had taken his father away. He regretted that he hadn’t made contact, checking at least that things went well with her: There had been nothing to prevent him making a clandestine visit into the heart of Ochatingi during the hours of darkness – even if Ahmed M’fosi would not have approved, saying that he was taking unacceptable risks.
And now it was too late. The shack had been burned to the ground and his mother was dead.
The trouble was his mind had always been elsewhere – usually engaged in planning and executing the missions that M’fosi assigned to him – missions of sabotage and retribution that were bringing him acclaim amongst blacks.
Of course, it also meant that he succeeded in avoiding a confrontation with Anulka. He would have had to come face to face with her and his mother would have taken Anulka’s side. The baby, Thomas, would have bawled too at the sight of Piet in jungle fatigues, his face blackened and hooded to avoid recognition. They would tell him that Thomas cried because he never had a father – not a real father, a human being. They would tell him that Tom’s father was an animal who prowled in the night, stealthily moving through the darkness and killing people – destroying communities and the things that they held dear.
Probably they were right: That is what he did do. But black people weren’t going to free themselves from subjection by going round tickling white peoples’ bottoms with ostrich feathers…
When he heard the rumour that it was Anulka who had started the fire he was about to set out on another assignment. He didn’t believe what he was hearing for one moment – but he resolved to discover exactly what had happened as soon as he had returned safely to their hideout on the edge of the Kalahari Desert. Even if he couldn’t face them, he would like to know that Anulka and Tom went well…
Night was falling when Piet, with two accomplices, set of for the border with Botswana in the back of M’fosi’s truck. It would be daylight before they approached, with Bogobobo ahead of them on the Botswana side.
For a number of years a Zambian mercenary unit had been training ANC guerrillas there. But the army had covertly sent a contingent of special forces across the border on a mission to destroy this nest that bred fledgling freedom fighters and returned them to South Africa to be a thorn in the Government’s side.
When the specials had begun their attack, the Zambian mercenaries hired to do the training tore up their contracts, melting away into the bush. The unit had succeeded in mopping up the school, killing four would-be activists and capturing two more on the way.
It was to rescue these two and to restore damaged pride that Piet had been assigned.
As day broke, Ahmed dropped Piet and his fellow guerrillas, Lundo and Nkosi, at the side of the road leading up to the border. Bogobobo was some fifty miles away over the frontier. They had a long wave radio, AMKs and all the explosive devices they could carry. Ahmed, wishing them well, continued towards the border.
At the policed border crossing Ahmed, now dressed as a wealthy Indian tourist, protested when his papers were held not to be in order. Of course, he was turned back; and, of course, driving along the border and watching for the place where three unmarked trucks were going to cross back into South Africa, he lost his way. As soon as the saw the dust from the approaching convoy, he contrived to break down, there in the middle of the desert. He summonsed their help as they passed; and the soldiers, seeing he was in a serious situation, stopped and obligingly fixed a fault that he had contrived anyway and which he could easily have put right himself.
When they had fixed it, with Ahmed effusing his gratitude, they waived and drove off.
As soon as they had gone, Ahmed opened his picnic box and on the radio he gave Piet the numbers and the exact position, course and speed of the convoy approaching him. All Piet had to do was to decide the optimum ambush point and get himself there in time to place his men and bury his explosives.
Ahmed’s voice came through on the radio. Little was said. Piet consulted his map, marked off the co-ordinates and the trio moved off.
Now the three assassins were all crouched in a donga, hidden from such little traffic as went up and down the road that led to the border and Bogobobo, waiting for the sound of the approaching convoy.
Ahmed had told him that the unit numbered fifteen men. Piet split up his small force: Lundo and Nkosi remained in the donga on this side of the road whilst he crossed over and found cover behind two rocks on the other side.
The mine they had buried was ready to be activated; and it should take care of the lead truck which, with luck, would block the road. The two comrades they sought to repatriate would be in the middle truck, so that one they didn’t want to annihilate.
It was all a matter of timing: He would open fire, concentrating on the lead truck and making the enemy believe that his side was the one from which the threat came. That would give Lundo and Nkosi valuable seconds to take out the third truck with their grenades. Well directed, its occupants should be immobilised. He told them they had five seconds only, from the moment the mine exploded, before they had to drop back into the shelter of the donga and hope that they hadn’t been seen.
Now they could expect retaliation from the middle truck: Those guarding the prisoners would be shocked but unharmed. They were professionals: Their prisoners would be secure; and, quick off the mark, they could be out in seconds, taking cover behind their truck and ready to return fire. But, with Piet firing many rapid bursts from behind his rocks, would they know on which side to take cover?
The fire from his side should influence their decision. It was a gamble but he was banking on them choosing that side where Lundo and Nkosi were waiting, hidden. He didn’t much care for the idea of shooting soldiers in the back but there was a war to be won…
It was a good plan – only it didn’t work out like that: He hadn’t considered that the lead vehicle might have an open-topped cab.
That was a mistake, because the officer, standing on the passenger seat and steadying himself holding on to the windscreen, could see the road both ahead and behind: He must have been surprised to see a pair of boots, Piet’s boots, sticking out from behind two rocks. Calling the convoy to a halt, he lobbed a grenade in the direction of the boots; and the truck had stopped well short of the mine, the others even further behind.
In his donga, Nkosi was wondering if the distance didn’t make detonating the mine pointless. He hesitated; and it was his hesitation that redressed the balance in favour of the guerrillas.
From his side of the road and with the greater amount of a fragmented grenade in his right leg, Piet opened fire. He took out two tyres but otherwise he spared the middle truck. Raking his fire, he shredded the canvas covers of the other two, creating enough of a diversion for Lundo and Nkosi to get throw their grenades. But the distance meant they had to lob them accurately and hard; and their first attempts fell short. They hit against the windscreen and rolled away, exploding harmlessly on one side.
Lundo was screaming at Nkosi for Christ’s sake to let the bladdy grenades go sooner: Nkosi was holding on long enough for them to explode in his hands and blow them both to pieces – but the maniac insisted on keeping them in his hand until the last moment. That, with the next grenade, proved effective: Again the grenade hit the windscreen but this time it was at that moment the grenade exploded, shattering the screen and those behind it.
Lundo managed to reach the canopy with his second attempt – but the grenade rolled the length of the canvas and fell to the ground somewhere behind. It wasn’t wasted because several troops, jumping out of the rear, took the brunt of the blast.
Now Nkosi pulled his compatriot back into the donga. Soldiers were jumping down from the two lead trucks. But in the heat of the moment they took differing views on the better side to shelter; and the confusion was intensified when the officer decided that the best strategy was to make a hasty exit. He shouted for the convoy to roll.
Such soldiers able to scramble out of the rear truck were running to climb into the trucks which, punctured tyres or not, were beginning to move off. That left those who had taken up a position exposed on both sides.
Too late, Nkosi plunged the detonator. As the mine detonated the first truck was clear, and it was the second that took the hit. It rose up, disintegrating as it fell back onto its side.
From either side of the road the three guerrillas continued to pour in their murderous fire – but the lead truck was already accelerating away and it wasn’t going to stop.
There were no survivors in the trucks left behind – but the two guerrillas they had set out to rescue were dead also, killed by the blast of the mine.
M’fosi, who had been looking and listening some two miles back down the road, drove up to join them. He saw Piet crawling out from behind his rock, his right leg lacerated by shrapnel.
They lifted him into the back, M’fosi driving and the other two doing what they could to bind up Piet’s wounds. Ahmed M’fosi knew that, unless they could cover their tracks, the larger part of an angry South African Army would be able to reach the area in a matter of hours. He turned off the road, driving the truck at speed across as much of the rocky moonscape as he could, hoping that their tracks over it would quickly be obliterated.