Out of South Africa: 'Beautness of leisure' in a life of peril

JOHANNESBURG - My friend Bheki Mkhize founded a football club called the Mahlabatini Black Heroes in the early Seventies. Stocky, happy, boundlessly energetic, he was the team's goal-scorer, manager and inspiration. They played out of a single-men's hostel in Johannesburg but named the team after the Zulu town where they were born.

They were all 'homeboys' from Mahlabatini, next to Ulundi, the capital of Kwa-Zulu and seat of the Inkatha leader, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi - who is Bheki's uncle on his mother's side.

When politics split the Zulu nation in the mid-Eighties between those backing Inkatha and those the ANC, the 'Black Heroes' faded as a footballing force. They kept playing, but political tensions off the pitch tore the team apart.

Today Bheki, who is 39, has switched his soccer allegiances. His hero is Gary Lineker. His team, Tottenham. Why, I haven't been able to fathom. But it turns out there are a whole lot of people in Soweto crazy about Spurs.

Bheki was in London earlier this month on a week's holiday. I managed to get a free plane ticket through the kindness of a British friend and gave it to Bheki, who works as a security guard, earns about pounds 200 a month and - more than most people I know - needed a break. While in London he saw all the usual sights, Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, the Tower of London.

He also made three pilgrimages to White Hart Lane, where people from the supporters' club took him in to see the players and watch the grass grow.

They also gave him the necessary paper work to start a supporters' branch in Soweto. 'We could get hundreds,' he told me yesterday. 'But the nation is bleeding. It's not the time for pleasure, my friend.'

Besides, these days Bheki cannot go to Soweto, where his home is and where three of his nine children live with his cousin Bongy. For Bheki lives in constant fear of his life. He knows with as much certainty as Dirk Coetzee, the South African police defector hiding in London, that there are hit squads out to get him. The difference is that while Mr Coetzee - 6,000 miles away - enjoys round-the-clock protection from Scotland Yard, Bheki - in the belly of the beast - has only his wits and his friends as allies.

Bheki moved out of his home on 20 February after surviving the fifth attempt on his life in two years. It was lucky he did, because on 4 March two men with guns - one white, one black - turned up at his front door at five in the afternoon and told Bongy they had come to kill her cousin. 'Why?' Bongy asked the white man. 'Because he's in the way of the people who've sent us here.'

The most recent episode, on 9 June, involved Bheki's eight-year-old son, Kingdom. 'He went down the road to buy bread, and when he came out of the shop a man grabbed him, put a gun to his head and told him: 'Tell your father that if we are unable to kill him, we'll kill you. We know where you're schooling'.'

Since then, Bheki said, his son has not been 'normal'. 'He's traumatised. He's always been such a sweet, smiling boy. Now he's so frightened. He's so worried about his father.'

It is not too difficult to see who the people are in whose way Bheki is standing. First, he is one of the millions of Zulus who do not support Inkatha. Secondly, he is a prominent activist in Cosatu, the ANC-aligned union federation and, as such, outspoken in his condemnation of what he calls Inkatha's 'brutality'. ('My uncle, the chief, doesn't want the eyes of the people to be opened to democracy. He wants all to be Inkatha.') Thirdly, having lived 12 of the last 20 years in the hostels, now Inkatha strongholds in the township violence, he retains contacts there and possesses detailed information on those leaders responsible for stirring up the Zulu inmates, as he puts it, 'to war'.

Those same leaders, Bheki's tribal sources have told him, have a hit-list with his name on it. 'The last thing I heard was that they have given instructions not to kill me now, after Boipatong, but to wait until things have settled.'

But Bheki is never settled. I would be shattered, but hardly surprised, if I were to receive a call one day saying he was dead. I have never met anyone more street-wise, more sharp-witted, more hardened by experience who is at the same time so simple, sweet-natured and generous-hearted. He is one of those unselfconscious people who engage complete strangers in cheerful conversation. As he did in a bus in London with an old lady who, on the way to Tottenham, steered him to Wood Green. Strolling there, he told me in his over-excited way, he delighted in what he called 'the beautness of leisure'.

'I walked and walked in London and I felt free and safe, totally safe, my friend. I was in heaven. I saw things that will change my life for ever.

'I tell you: One morning I was in Buckingham Palace, enjoying the soldiers with the big black hats and the red coats, and I met a policeman and we started discussing. My friend, I couldn't believe it] God, I really couldn't believe it] Policemen in London are normal, friendly human beings]'