Spring time in the still fledgling New South Africa. I was in a white Mercedes, feeling cool though looking a bit of a fool in my borrowed Harley-Davidson jacket, vest and Harley bandana. I was accompanying Paul and Manny, two members of the Soweto-based Eagles, the country's only black biker gang at the time. I had contacted the Eagles after reading about them in the local newspaper, and asked if I could join them one weekend. We were en route to a biker rally in a town called Villiers, a small Afrikaner bastion of the Free State province.
As we filled out our entrance forms at the rally site, a white guy with a handlebar moustache and mullet hairstyle sauntered towards us. "I like your haircut," the man said, stroking the bald scalp of Andries, one of the Eagles. "He looks like a moffie!" (Moffie is a derogatory Afrikaans word for homosexual). As Andries moved to a nearby kiosk, the Afrikaner followed him. "You blacks!" he continued at maximum volume. "There are so many of you, you make this place so dark!" Manny smilingly tugged at the man's T-shirt, pulling him towards us. "Here, come and add some colour then." Unused to such overt racism, I was spoiling for a quarrel, unlike Manny, whose composure was well seasoned. Cruising along in the white Mercedes, playing R Kelly on the stereo, we cut an incongruous swathe through a sea of white skin, curious blue eyes and Ford bakkies. Much like my early childhood in Surrey, I felt uncomfortably conspicuous, like the 'fly in a milk bowl'. We parked and met up with the other Eagles, all friendly smiles, dark skin and leather emblazoned with the Eagles insignia. Their wives and girlfriends, who were accompanying them for the first time, looked very 'Soweto', huddled in their African headscarves and casual knitwear and gossiping nonchalantly in Zulu – in contrast to the white women in their biker garb.
Manny and I ambled around the fields, turning heads wherever we went. On a concrete platform, we watched bikers perform tricks on their bikes. A man in a cowboy hat performed a 'burnout', in which the back wheel of his stationary bike spun furiously, spewing a plume of burning-tyre smoke. The white bikers were generally tolerant; many were very friendly, greeting us in African slang ("Sharp!" – Hello) and stopping to chat. In the previous year's rally, a few die-hards raised the apartheid-era national flag and brawled with the Eagles. But since then, Manny told me, the ANC local government was keeping an eye on things, forcibly confining hostilities to glares or racist taunts guised as jokes. Manny was surprisingly sympathetic to it all. Biker rallies were the last cultural refuge for certain whites, he told me. Not that this was going to deter him. "We've come such a long way in the struggle," he said. "You can't pay attention to that. It's like water off a duck's back." Across the field, four Afrikaner teenagers approached one of the Eagles, Paul, to admire his Harley. "You must have a lot of money to buy a Harley, hey?" a girl of about 15 asked Paul, her arms folded. Paul ignored her. "Excuse me," she repeated with amplified menace. "You must have a lot of money to buy this." How could Paul be so inured to her attitude? I was itching to scold the child.
The sky was now black and the ground had liquefied to a sludge. Some of the white folk padded through it barefoot. We ate boerwors, beef steaks and pap around a barbecue fire, downing tequila shots with a handful of white bikers, who filled the night with howls of inebriated laughter. Shadows of drunk bikers tottered along the tent walls.
Later on, a strip show began in the main tent. As rock music boomed above the crowd's leers and beer slurping, a brunette appeared on stage dressed in army fatigues and wielding a gun. A minute later, from behind a wall of transfixed men, I glimpsed her crawling topless on the floor. One of the Soweto women, Cynthia, was horrified. "White people like this sort of thing, but we blacks, we don't do that. How can a person disgrace herself like that?" she grimaced. "I don't even like to kiss in public!" I was surprised that a striptease could take place in front us women so unashamedly, but there was nothing I nor Cynthia could do; and there was nothing the old-schoolers could do about our presence, either.
I was witnessing a South Africa in transition, a clash and merging of two cultures edging towards mutual acceptance. The Eagles were brave pioneers who – despite their historic racial baggage – had bought into a semi-hostile subculture and handled it admirably. They taught me a valuable lesson in the art of self-discipline and perseverance.
Noo Saro-Wiwa's debut book, 'Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria' is published by Granta
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