A portly figure in a blue uniform, he stood in the middle of a dusty little football stadium in Daveyton, a township east of Johannesburg, with some 2,000 ANC supporters in the stands baying at him to go away. Dolefully, for the benefit of four foreign reporters gathered around him, he offered a polite translation of what the crowd was chanting.
'You ugly thing, Tshabalala, we're going kill you tonight] You ugly thing, we're going to cut off your private parts]'
'They do it all the time,' he said. 'They call my home at night. They speak to my wife. They abuse us. They threaten us.'
Did this sort of thing affect his political impartiality in any way? He smiled, shrugged and raised his eyes to heaven before responding: 'I'm impartial. That's all.'
Poor Colonel Tshabalala was only doing his duty. The chief of the 10-strong United Nations observer mission in South Africa, Hisham Omayad, had arrived on his first visit to a black township, monitoring one of the potential trouble-spots during yesterday's ANC-sponsored general strike. The colonel had been instructed to look after Mr Omayad's safety.
Mr Omayad himself, a Ghanaian who is the UN's Director of Political Affairs in New York, was as delighted to be where he was as Colonel Tshabalala was pained. Which was perhaps partly because the crowd, mostly local youths, celebrated his arrival as much as they condemned the colonel's.
It was an eye-opener for the UN envoy. Interestingly, he said he was surprised to see such pro- ANC fervour in a relatively unknown township, having imagined that activism of this sort was confined to Soweto. More interestingly, he remarked to the reporters how uncanny it was that the shrill antagonism which marked the political dialogue between the leadership of South Africa's rival groupings was reflected in identical exchanges 'on the ground'.
Upon arrival in Daveyton at midday yesterday, Mr Omayad, whose escort was a Democratic Party MP by the name of Rupert Lorimer, was met by two local ANC officials and two police colonels, one of them Colonel Tshabalala. The initial exchanges were cordial enough. But then Cindi Mbikwa, the local ANC chairman, raised the issue of a shooting on Sunday afternoon.
As Mr Mbikwa saw it, what happened was that an elderly man - an ANC supporter - riding with three others in a lorry, was killed by a bullet through the windscreen. Colonel Last, asked by Mr Lorimer for his version, said the crime had been solved. The dead man had tried to stab a policeman with a spear and the policeman killed him in self-defence.
This, Mr Mbikwa muttered, was 'nonsense'. But he bit his lip and dropped the subject out of consideration, he later explained, to his UN guest.
A loud, sharp noise suddenly rang out a few hundred yards away, prompting a nervous Mr Lorimer to ask: 'Was that a shot?' Without missing a beat, Mr Mbikwa replied: 'This is Beirut. We're used to it.' And then proceeded to his next point. An ANC march on Sunday, he said, had been trailed menacingly by Casspirs - police armoured vehicles. 'The Casspirs were provocative,' Mr Mbikwa said. 'The Casspirs were protective,' Colonel Last said.
And so it went on, with gathering heat. Mr Omayad looked on impassive before delivering his wry aside to the reporters: 'This is interesting. It's exactly what you heard during the visit by Cyrus Vance when we talked to the ANC and the government.'
Then it was on to the stadium. The people in the crowd - some carrying 'De Klerk: Wanted for murder' posters - were angry. And not only on account of their local colonels' presence. They had written to the police three weeks earlier asking for permission to hold a march to the police station that afternoon but had been denied by the authorities in Pretoria.
This was where Mr Omayad scored his mission's first tangible success. With the help of Mr Lorimer, whose constituency is the leafy Johannesburg suburb of Bryanston, he secured permission from the police officers in attendance for the march to go ahead. Further defusing the situation, Mr Omayad's mediation secured the removal - to jubilation - of Colonel Tshabalala from the stadium.
The march itself passed off without incident and Mr Omayad ended his first day in South Africa's killing fields with a sense of a worthwhile job well done. 'This is far better,' he observed, 'than sitting in New York reading the New York Times.'
Leading article, page 14
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