His mother had been sick, barely able to walk to the community latrine at the end of their dirt track. She sat most of the previous day with a blanket wrapped around her despite the hot weather, and when Joshua returned from work in the evening he had seen beads of sweat pouring down her face. Joshua's brother Eli had been sent to draw their water from the tap, and both the younger children had stayed out of school to help their mother. All through that night Joshua and his siblings heard their mother's groaning and took it in turns to offer her water in the tin cup.
Joshua knew that she needed help, and he hurried to work at the farm of Mr. James the next day.
Oswald James was a good man to his workers. He was not popular with neighboring farmers, especially the Afrikaners, because he looked after the needs of employees, especially when medical attention was called for. Knowing this about his employer, Joshua approached Mr. James.
“Mr. James, sir,” he said, “My mother is very sick. She needs to see a doctor. Will you help us?”
“Did your mother drink water from the river?” Mr. James asked.
“Yes sir. Sometimes when she does the washing in the river she is thirsty.”
“I've told you people time and again that the river water will make you sick. You must listen to me. Too many cases of typhoid fever have carried off people from the township. You must make sure your brother and sister do not drink there. Will you do that?”
When the boy agreed, Oswald James walked to his pickup and told Joshua to get in the truck bed. Both of them knew it was unthinkable for the boy to ride in the front seat with his white boss. They sped along the road and then took a shortcut across the veldt. The old truck heaved from side to side over the untamed country, and Oswald could do nothing about the motion that was tossing Joshua violently in the back. At the edge of the township, Joshua pointed the way to his family’s shack, and Oswald followed him inside, where the boy’s mother lay on the mattress. One look at her told the farmer that she would not last long. Still, he lifted her emaciated body into the truck bed and told Joshua to sit with her as they drove to the hospital.
“Hospital” was a fancy name for the dilapidated building that served the Xhosa community. There were few beds. Instead, mattresses lined the floor, and the woman was transferred to one of these and covered with a blanket. Resources were scarce in the “kaffir hospital,” as it was known among many in the white community, but Oswald knew that the medical staff did their best and would provide a compassionate presence for the dying woman. He was sure that Joshua knew his mother was dying, but they did not discuss how she would not be soon returned to the township, if ever. He and Joshua left her in the care of the nurses, who would do all they could to make her final hours more comfortable. She would have water to drink, aspirin to help with the pain and fever, and whatever else the overworked staff could give.
Oswald would learn the next day that the woman died that night in the hospital. He had the sad duty of telling Joshua and the other children that they were now motherless. Oswald had heard that the father was away working in the mines outside Johannesburg; at least that was the story. Since the father had left, he had made only one return visit to the Eastern Cape, and the pay he had brought with him had mostly been consumed in liquor. Oswald also heard that the man had been abusive and angry throughout the short visit, and he was sure it had been a relief to the wife and children when he returned to the city. They might have managed without him—with the mother’s pay as a maid and Joshua’s as a farm worker—if she had not made the mistake of drinking the river water.
At twelve years, Joshua was the eldest child who, in the absence of his father and mother, had sole responsibility for his two younger siblings. Today there was no food in the shack, but with luck Eli and Hannah would be selected for the lunch program provided by the township’s Methodist church. The teachers at the elementary school chose the neediest children to walk across to the church building, which was a place of worship on Sundays and a lunchroom on weekdays. Two of the church Mamas made a soup out of whatever food (mostly vegetables) had been given and baked pot bread to serve with it. The children also learned some basic hygiene from the Mamas: all were required to wash their hands before receiving food and to brush their teeth after eating.
Joshua remembered his own times in the lunch program. As soon as school was out—about two thirty in the afternoon—the children who had been chosen would try to outrun each other to the church. Joshua was fast and it was not long before Mama Cynthia and Mama Joann began to ask him to help with the food distribution. He would enter the hall a little breathless, wash his hands, and wait for Mama Cynthia to call him.
“You come here, Joshua,” she would say as she began to ladle soup into the plastic bowls. He loved Mama Cynthia, a large lady with hair twisted into a bun. She wore an old pair of men's shoes scuffed at the heels, and a brightly colored floral overall covered her ample body.
“Yes Mama Cynthia–what must I do for you?”
“Take the bowls to the smallest children and go carefully–I don't want to see any of the soup spilled.”
Joshua never spilled the soup, but he did not say so to Mama Cynthia. Mama Joann followed him with chunks of pot bread, the dough baked on top of the stove all morning in well-worn kettles. These two Xhosa women had devoted themselves to providing a daily meal for the poorest children in the township for many years, relying on donations of food from several of the churches around Port Elizabeth. Joshua had loved Cynthia and Joann since he was little more than a toddler. Their lunch program had been a place of safety and warmth because of their presence. He and the other children had a deep respect for the Mamas, who tolerated no nonsense but were always welcoming. Joshua pondered all this as he covered the last half-mile to the James' farm. It would be another long, hot day in the potato fields.
When Joshua arrived at the farm, he and the other workers were given a wooden crate and sent into the fields to fill it with the potatoes they dug from the earth. The farm supervisor would drive his truck up and down the rows of the field, picking up the crates and making a note of the number filled by each worker. Whoever filled the most crates received an extra fifty cents at the end of the day, so Joshua worked hard and fast to uncover the hidden potatoes.
Soon after he’d taken his place in the field, he noticed that one row over was Nomonde, a girl who had been in school with him. She squatted on the ground as she filled her crate.
“Kunjani?” she called to Joshua.
“Not going so well.” He began to tell her of his mother's death. As he did so, he felt a prickling sensation behind his eyes and fought back tears. He knew he had to try to be a man in front of this girl. She was a year older than Joshua and had three siblings to care for since her parents were both dead.
“I'm sorry, Joshua,” she said. “Why don't you take a couple of potatoes home in your pockets this afternoon? I do that every day. I have a hidden pocket under my skirt and no one ever finds out. You can make soup.”
“My mother taught me never to steal. We'll manage. Our neighbors have been helping us.”
“That's all very well for a while, but then they will forget about you. You won't have enough from your wages to buy food from the market, or for clothes and propane, or schoolbooks for your brother and sister. I'll tell you another secret. When I go to the white woman's store to buy mealie meal and powdered milk I wait until I have paid and she is looking away and I put a loaf of bread in the bag. I've done it several times and she has not found out.”
Joshua pondered her words. Could it really be that easy to carry off a loaf of bread? Well, he was not that desperate. He could take care of Eli and Hannah without becoming a thief.
At the end of the day Mr. James gathered all the workers together in the barn before they were paid to make an announcement. “Next week will be Christmas and I'm giving you all a cow. On Sunday morning the men can slaughter and prepare it for a feast, and I will provide bread and soda pop. Your families can all come with you in the evening.”
Joshua joined in the cheering that echoed round the barn. Like the others, he said, “Thank you, boss” over and over, a wide grin on his face.
There were few men in the township’s Methodist church that Sunday morning. Joshua joined several of the older men who were entrusted with the feast preparation. When he arrived the cow had already been slaughtered and now lay in two halves on sheets of corrugated iron. He saw how the blood ran down the grooves, the black flies having a feast. A very large oil drum received the offal and bones as well as some of the less meaty parts of the animal. He helped with the buckets of water that were added to the drum. This was set on a slow fire that would cook the carcass all day. Eli and Hannah, all of the children, would eat well that night. Then his gaze turned to the meat that had been cut into steaks and set aside to be cooked over this evening’s fire, the best to be saved for last.
Oswald James and his wife watched as the caravan of people wound its way along the blacktop road, heading for the James’ fields and the promised feast. Small children ran in and out of the line of grownups, playing their own version of hide and seek. The men walked together, some smoking, others with beer in hand while the woman fell back talking to each other. They had put on their brightest dresses and head coverings, many of them opting for a kind of turban made from one of the bright yellow dusters the white women used for cleaning. The local female witch doctor was with them, Oswald noted, her hair braided into dreadlocks threaded with bones and beads. Some of the women were expert at weaving necklaces and bracelets with intricate patterns out of tiny, brightly colored beads creating patterns, each of which had a specific meaning. This design was worn only by a married woman; this one for a small child; another for a girl newly betrothed. Some of their handiwork found its way into tourist stores in Port Elizabeth but tonight, for Oswald’s feast, it was proudly worn by the makers.
Aromas of stewing meat, Oswald thought, were surely making everyone at the feast begin to salivate. Everyone, that is, except the newly arrived visitor from the United Kingdom, a guest of Oswald and his wife, who looked uncomfortable. Turning aside to Mrs. James she whispered something, and Oswald couldn’t help overhearing.
“Will I have to eat some of that meat from the pot?”
Oswald had taken her to the feast site that morning and had seen how nauseated she had looked at the sight of the carcass swarming with flies and the blood flooding onto the ground. She confessed that back at home there were still butcher shops, and she had to grit her teeth even to enter them when it was necessary to choose a cut of meat.
“Don't worry about it,” Oswald heard his wife reply. “You will find plenty of dogs around who will help you ‘lose’ the meat, though it is not so bad, you know. I will certainly eat some.”
Everyone sat down, the women and children in a circle and the men bunched together close to the cooking pot. In a great flourish, the chief plunged a gardening fork into the oil drum and brought out the lungs of the animal, a much-prized portion. He set this aside and began to remove other meat from the pot, allowing the men to come forward to select the piece they wanted. Oswald’s wife went around the group, giving everyone half a loaf of white bread while Oswald handed out soda pop. Then it was time for the women to receive their share of the meat and to give the children their allotment. Finally the meat that had been roasting on the open fire was cut and passed out: first to Oswald, his wife, and their visitor; then, in the same order, to men, women, and children. When everyone had feasted well, Oswald’s wife brought out a large box of candies and began handing them out to the children, who whooped and danced with delight. Sugar of any kind was rarely in their diet, and their excitement could hardly be contained. The last of the candy was tossed in the air and a free-for-all erupted as the children scrabbled and pushed to scoop up the treasure. Oswald was all too aware that the children of the township were often hungry and were glad to accept any handout that came from white people like him. He’d often see them waiting at the gate of one of the big houses or begging on the main road just outside the township. But that night everyone trudged home happy, well fed, and ready to rest. There was one more day of work tomorrow and then another day off on Tuesday because it was Christmas Day.
At the feast and afterward, Joshua had felt relaxed for the first time since his mother died. Today, after work, he stopped at the store to buy beans and eggs so the children would eat well on Christmas Day. As he was leaving with his purchases, he thought of what Nomonde had told him. Seeing that the storeowner was serving another customer, Joshua reached out for a loaf of bread and slid it into his bag. He knew that what he did was wrong, and he put any thought of his mother watching from above out of his mind. Instead, he heard Nomonde’s voice, warning him that others would desert him and that he must learn to help himself.
“Come back here, you thief!” the storeowner yelled, but Joshua started to run as fast as he could and, breathless, made it home. The storeowner did not know where he lived in the township, though she would recognize him if he went back to shop, which meant Eli would have to be sent to the store in future. Why had he done such a thing? He could still taste the bread they had eaten at the James' farm, a rare treat, and he wanted his siblings to enjoy the same luxury on Christmas Day. Still, he could not excuse his thievery. How he wished he could relive the last twenty minutes and leave the store with only what he had purchased.
Less than fifteen minutes after he arrived home, he heard police sirens, an unusual occurrence in the township since the all-white police force avoided the township and the kaffirs. Suddenly the makeshift door to the shack was kicked in, and three gun-toting cops grabbed Joshua. They began to beat him.
A burly Afrikaner cop yelled at him. “Where's the loaf you stole, boy?” By this time Joshua was bleeding profusely from his head, and one arm was bent backwards by a second policeman who also jerked Joshua's head back by his hair. But he would not cry, would not give these men the satisfaction of seeing his weakness and fear.
“Over there, behind the cook pot,” Joshua said as he waited for the next blow. The third policeman, a small man with mean eyes, grabbed the loaf and broke off a piece. He stuffed it into Joshua's mouth so that he could scarcely breathe.
“Eat it, boy. Taste the flavor of the yeast, the crustiness and softness of the inside. You wanted it badly enough to steal from a good woman who works to make a living. Now enjoy every crumb.”
Joshua tried to lift his hand to his mouth, but it was smacked away with the butt of a rifle. The other two children watched in terror and, turning to them, the cop said, “You see what happens to thieves? Let this be a lesson to you—never, never take something that belongs to hardworking citizens of this country.”
With that he took the rest of the loaf and tore it into tiny pieces, which he scattered on the floor of the shack. As Joshua still struggled to breathe, the first officer thrust handcuffs on him and dragged him into the back of the battered cruiser. As the car pulled away, Joshua saw Eli and Hannah run through the throng that had gathered to watch the spectacle. He was glad to see them going into the shack of a neighbor who had been kind to them when their mother died. He was sure she would take his siblings in. She would give them some of the porridge she’d planned for her own family. She would calm them and dry their tears.
Once at the downtown police headquarters, Joshua was thrown into a cell. He felt urine running down his legs, and his shame over that turned to fear as he remembered many stories of torture that had been reported by those who got out of this prison. Soon he was stripped of his clothes and beaten with clubs until he fell unconscious on the concrete floor. His arm was broken and his legs and buttocks a mass of bruises, though scarcely visible, at least to white eyes, through his dark skin. All night he lay without water or any attention to his wounds and never fully regained consciousness. At two in the morning he stopped breathing.
When the officer on duty came to the cell next morning he kicked Joshua's body, expecting to wake the boy, but soon it became evident that he was dead. In cases like this one, involving police brutality, a friendly judge was usually called to give a verdict of accidental death. The police were in the process of obtaining such a statement when Oswald James walked into the building. With him was Dr. Bagley, his own English physician, and immediately they demanded to see Joshua. The officers tried to deflect these demands, making excuses, but Oswald was not a man to be trifled with. Finally they were allowed into the cellblock where Joshua lay on an old gurney covered in a ragged, foul smelling blanket.
“This boy died of wounds inflicted by your officers,” Dr. Bagley told the superintendent of police after he examined the body, “and you should be held responsible.” Oswald looked on, furious.
“He was a good boy, a good worker, and the only one caring for himself and two other children since their mother died. You people will pay for this!” Oswald said.
The superintendent, clearly astonished, said, “There's plenty more boys to work in your fields, why do you care so much about this one? The fewer the better of these thieving kaffirs.”
“Give me the body, you bastards. He'll have a decent funeral and I'll make sure your sorry asses are prosecuted. You'll see the story in tomorrow's paper. Why anyone would let you be law enforcement officers is beyond me. You don't deserve to live. Get out of my sight.” He thrust his hands up into fists and lunged towards the policemen.
“Leave it, Oswald,” Dr. Bagley said, restraining him. “They'll get their punishment. Let's get out of here.”
Oswald picked up Joshua's body and headed towards his truck. He would arrange a funeral for the child and make sure that the other two children were taken care of. What is more, he intended to prosecute the police, outrageous act or not, and to make sure that someone paid for the boy's death.
Oswald was as good as his word. He hired a lawyer willing to challenge the brutality of his white countrymen against a black child who was perceived as dispensable by the police. It soon became evident that neighboring farmers and other Afrikaner employers in the neighborhood were uncomfortable with his action. In essence they said, “Things can get out of hand. Once we blame police for this child's death it will be like lighting a fire of resentment among the blacks. You know how hard it is the keep them in line. They are lazy kaffirs, all of them. Drop the lawsuit and we'll avoid trouble down here.”
Oswald had been raised in a boys’ residential school with traditional British values, and his strong sense of justice compelled him to refuse the advice of those who predicted an uprising if the lawsuit went through. A few days later a small news item in the local paper reported that action had been taken against local police for the brutal death of a black child, and three officers had been dismissed. The editor had been too afraid of reprisals to print the story on the front page since government censorship prevented publicity for a case that challenged the Apartheid government.
But the news could not be hidden. Oswald soon found himself ostracized by the white landowners all around him. Unbowed, Oswald improved facilities at his farm: a football field where the men could play and a washing area for the women so they would not have to go to the river to do their laundry. He went on to run for Parliament and to secure a place on the small opposition party where the battle for equality was continued through the darkest years of Apartheid.
It would be another twenty-one years before Apartheid ended officially, but many people came to Joshua's funeral, and among those in attendance, there were even a few whites.