Their differing responses to the African National Congress (ANC) call for a general strike and a protest campaign offered a pretty good indication of the way 'the oppressed' responded nationally. I encountered some surprises, and some unexpected insights into the domestic political scene.
The character around whom everything revolves is Henrietta, my maid and everybody's matriarch. Last week she said her younger brother Fisman, who works in a factory which makes ambulances, was very concerned about losing his job if he heeded the strike call on Monday and Tuesday. It was a sentiment I understood to be common among black workers. I was not surprised Fisman should have these misgivings. I had always seen him as an apolitical individual, a meek soul I have been paying for three years to do what I call 'gardening' and he calls 'cleaning'. His main interest, apart from systematically reducing my garden to an ecological disaster area, has always been the Kaizer Chiefs football club. Or so I had thought.
On Friday afternoon, on his arrival from work, I saw a man transformed. I asked him whether he planned to observe the strike, and he responded with a big grin, a thumbs-up and a hearty, 'Yeees, Johnny] Today at work the union man said Mandela phoned all the bosses and told them they must not fire people. Aieee] I like Mandela too much]'
Did he know why the strike was being held? 'Yes. That De Klerk must go. Nelson Mandela must be president]'
I was dumbfounded and struck more forcibly than ever before by the fact that all these notions President F W de Klerk has been entertaining of beating the ANC in a free election are just so much pie in the sky. That perception was reinforced on Sunday, when I received a call from the woman who employs Fisman's wife, Rosie, to clean her house twice a week. She asked me to tell Rosie not to come on Monday. Rosie's reply was: 'Oh yes. I was going to call her myself to tell her I cannot come, because there is a stay- away.' Now if there is one person whom I had always reckoned to be even less politically aware than Fisman, it was his wife. Again, I was stunned.
Some balance was restored the next morning, when two black men pitched up to fix the plumbing. Why had they come? 'Oh well,' one shrugged. 'We don't really know why they are doing this strike. And our boss said we must come to work today.' The boss, sharing the general white paranoia about mass action and ANC 'intimidation', had generously warned his employees to make detours if they encountered any menacing looking black men on their travels around the suburbs.
As for Henrietta herself, she is the one who's always talking about Nelson Mandela and please could I invite him for dinner some time, she'd love to meet him. On Sunday night she told me that her boyfriend, Stanley, who owns a minibus taxi, would not be working on Monday and Tuesday. On Monday morning, my impression of her attitude was confirmed when she did not appear in the kitchen. But although I told her she was free for the next two days, she was unable to repress the urge to set about the usual diligent house-cleaning.
Fisman, compounding my amazement, triumphantly announced he had been to the big march in Pretoria with Mr Mandela. 'I'm so tired, Johnny. We walked and we danced too much] But we have to get blacks to the government there, you know.'
Yesterday he woke up feeling like death, and Rosie asked me to take him to hospital. He had caught pneumonia - a consequence of the march, a disapproving Henrietta was convinced.
'Oh, I don't know about all this mass action,' she said. 'I don't think it's a good thing. It makes people crazy.' She had been told Inkatha people were shooting at taxis bound for the Transkei - ANC country, where her family lives. 'All this mass action, it's too dangerous . . . I don't like it.'