A MIDDLE-AGED white lady in a pink angora sweater stepped out of a red Mercedes-Benz, opened the boot, took out a chocolate cake and strode purposefully towards me.
'Why are you taking down car numbers?' 'Pardon?' 'Why are you writing down car numbers in your notebook?' She thought I was a plainclothes policeman. 'It's OK. It's OK. I'm a journalist.' 'Oh, I see. You reminded me of the old days, darling.'
It was the most inappropriate remark she could have made. For there we were in Sandton, of all places, by the door of St Mungo's church hall waiting for the start of the first annual general meeting of the local branch of the African National Congress. Sandton, 20 minutes' drive north of central Johannesburg, is probably the most affluent suburb in South Africa. The vast Sandton City shopping mall, the Sandton Health and Racquet Club, the Sandton Towers office complex, are symbols of the opulent place in the sun secured under apartheid by South Africa's most materially blessed sector, the English-speaking whites.
The Sandton ANC's AGM was to be honoured that afternoon with a visit from the movement's regional chairman, a Soviet-trained former guerrilla who spent 13 years in prison for terrorism. Tokyo Sexwale, an ANC high-flyer who could soon find himself in the South African cabinet, also happens to be South Africa's sexiest man, according to a poll conducted by a Sandton-based Johannesburg radio station whose audience is mainly white and female.
The ladies streamed in, outnumbering the gentlemen by three to one. Blue metallic Audis, black BMWs, more Mercs arrived, disgorging high-heeled apparitions in Sandton City hair-dos and fashionable black. Then the mini-buses arrived, the black taxis, and (perhaps for the first time ever) freedom songs disturbed the green suburban peace. 'Hi,' I said to one of the arriving 'comrades'. 'Hi, sir,' he replied, with a clenched-fist salute.
Sandton has 750 ANC members, half-white, half-black - the black contingent mostly domestic-workers and gardeners.
The choir from the nearby township of Alexandra, one of South Africa's most squalid and densely packed, arrived, boosting numbers to 200. 'Hello comrade,' the white ladies said. 'Hello comrade,' the choristers replied.
Then Tokyo arrived - 'We all call him Tokyo, you know' - in his trademark black leather jacket, bodyguards in tow. On the podium to welcome him with an earnest clasp was the branch's 'deputy chairperson', Alex Anderson. Middle-aged, greying blonde hair, he looked every inch the company MD, the pillar of the golf club board. Another local ANC man explained that the comrade deputy chairperson in fact was an MD, the boss of a successful metal milling company.
'Comrades,' Mr Anderson announced, 'let us welcome the chairperson of our branch, Beata Lipman]' Big cheers. 'Viva ANC] Viva]' trilled Mrs Lipman. 'Viva comrade president Nelson Mandela] Viva]' 'Viva Comrade Tokyo Sexwale] Viva]'
Comrade Tokyo seemed a mite embarrassed to be engaging in the traditional ANC liturgy in such company, even if they apparently were not. He stood up, asked for 'the national anthem' - Nkosi Sikelele iAfrika (God bless Africa) - to be sung, looked on in bewilderment as a forest of gold-bejewelled white fists went up in the air, and proceeded to speak in his sexy baritone without notes for 90 minutes, not once using the word 'comrade'.