June 11, 2002
I woke up this morning on the coast of Southern California to an overcast gray day and my 70th birthday. I feel good about it. It comes after a lunatic year in which I directed five productions of my play Sorrows and Rejoicings on three continents—an exercise that lived up to the title of the play in every sense of the word. It left me physically and emotionally drained and made it very easy for me at the end of it to decide that my days as a director were over, in much the same way that I decided a few years ago that I would not do any more acting. Those two roles had been forced on me in my early years of making theatre in South Africa when I discovered that no one wanted to touch the plays that I wanted to write. I had no choice really but to get up there and have a go at it myself.
There are a few other resolutions as well and, taken together, they have given me a sense of adventure as I face up to whatever time is left to me, but now without any clutter to my essential identity as a writer. I’ve reinforced that sense of adventure by replacing the rickety old table I’ve been working on up to now with a beautiful, solid slab of mahogany on four legs—my new “home”—the safest place in my universe.
That year of rehearsal rooms and nerve-wrecking and depressing openings (I never did learn how to cope with them!) gave me no chance to write. All I could do, in the succession of hotel rooms I lived in, was a few vacuous entries in this notebook and a lot of yearning for the time when I would be free once again to explore that ultimate terra incognita, that most outer of all outer spaces—the blank page.
So here it is, the moment I anticipated so longingly during that muscle-cramping year, and the question of course is: What now? It’s not an intimidating question. I don’t think there has ever been a time when I didn’t have at least half a dozen stories that I knew I had to tell sooner or later, the “appointments I have to keep.” And it’s the story of Pumla Lolwana that is commanding my attention this morning. It is just over a year and a half since I read about her and her three children for the first time. I immediately recognized hers as one of those stories I would have an appointment with some day. This is what I read:
December 12, 2000
Mother and Three Children Die in Track Suicide
Cape Town, Tuesday
A mother with a child on her back and two toddlers in her arms stood on the tracks in front of an oncoming train—and when the five-year-old child tried to scurry away, she pulled him back before the family was pulverized under the train’s wheels, Die Burger newspaper reported. The seriously traumatized train driver looked on helplessly as Pumla Lolwana (35), from the Samora Machel squatter camp, and her three children, Lindani (2), Andile (3) and Sesanda (5), died on the railway line between Philippi and Nyanga on the Cape Flats on Friday afternoon.
By Monday night nobody had claimed the bodies of the mother and her three children from the Salt River mortuary. The reason for her suicide, barely two weeks before Christmas, still remains a mystery.
Metrorail confirmed to Die Burger that Lolwana apparently committed suicide. “The train driver is receiving counseling. He is extremely traumatized, because he saw the drama play out in front of him and wasn’t able to stop the train in time,” Metrorail representative Daphne Kayster said.
An industrial social worker who works with train drivers told Die Burger that many people use suicide in front of oncoming suburban trains as their “way out” when personal problems get too much.
Statistics published at the beginning of this month indicate that approximately 400 people die on the train tracks between Cape Town and Khayelitsha every year.
According to an eyewitness, one of the children managed to escape from his mother’s arms. However, she pulled him back and held tightly on to him while the train sped closer. She made no attempt to get away or save her children.
Jaqueline van Rensburg, industrial social worker, who treats up to 15 train drivers a month after accidents, told Die Burger that the drivers work under extremely difficult circumstances and feel guilty whenever anybody dies under their train.
“The drivers feel very guilty because they have absolutely no control over the train. A train needs up to 300 meters to come to a stop. They can’t swerve. They very much want to prevent the accident, but they are powerless.”
The original is a file in my computer: I have now copied it out, word for word by hand, into this notebook. I did that because I feel the need to possess it at a very personal level, to make it a part of my life. Having done that I ask myself, yet again: This moment of “recognition” that has been such a recurring experience in my writing life… What is it all about? How does it work? Why is it that certain stories, faces or incidents from the thousands that crowd my daily life will separate themselves from the others and take on an imperative quality that demands that I deal with them and, in my case, that obviously means writing about them?
That, of course, is what a writer is always looking for—a strong story with an unhappy ending. In my case, however, I know that there is also something else at work, something less easy to define. It involves one of my more important instincts as a writer, because it has chosen the stories I decided to tell. What I recognized in that image, face, incident or three-inch newspaper story that stopped me, is that it held out the possibility of looking at something in myself, even though in most cases I was not aware of this at the time. Only afterward did I realize that these stories, these images, were a shield I had held up so that I could slay a private Medusa.
In the two years that I’ve been here, I’ve never seen a really wild sea like the ones I grew up with on the Eastern Cape of South Africa, when South Atlantic gales lashed the coast. Halfway along my usual sunset walk I did something that doesn’t come easily to me in America: I switched off my neurotic obsession with time and sat down on the sand with no other intention than to watch the setting sun. The last time I did that was in the Karoo, in Nieu Bethesda, on my walks around the village when I would choose a convenient sun-warmed rock and sit down and let time pass, just “be” (to the extent that my restless nature is capable of that meditative state).
Here on the beach, as so many times in the Karoo, it was a gentle breeze, this one off the sea, playing on my skin, which turned the mystery of time and its passing into a physical experience. The sunset was simple and serene—a huge smoky orange globe trailing a wake of golden light on the sea as it dropped slowly to the horizon. I started thinking about Pumla Lolwana again.
The morning session at my table had started off with another close reading of the newspaper story. I took up each sentence and looked at it as carefully as I do the beautiful wave-polished pebbles I pick up on my beach walks. And, just as I do them, I held on to each sentence for a few seconds, turning it over and over before putting it back in its place on the page and moving on. The one sentence I kept going back to and looking at again and again, was the opening one:
A mother with a child on her back and two toddlers in her arms stood on the tracks in front of an oncoming train—and when the five-year-old child tried to scurry away, she pulled him back before the family was pulverized under the train’s wheels.
My mind stumbled and fell over itself in trying to deal with that sentence. No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t take it in, truly understand it in a way that made it possible for me to move on. Was it because I couldn’t “see” it? The sentence is profoundly disturbing, it has a fierce energy in it, but when I tried to turn it into a picture my mind refused to move, all it could do was stare at the horror of it. Because the idea alone—a mother commits suicide and kills her three children with herself—is not enough for me as a writer. Ideas never have been. Some sort of picture or image has been the starting point to everything I have written, and I need one now if I am going to do something with that newspaper report, but try as I may I can’t break the paralyzing effect of that sentence. Pumla Lolwana is shrouded in a darkness my imagination can’t penetrate.
I’ve tried to unblock it by imagining the sound of those few dreadful seconds: the children’s cries, especially the little boy struggling to get away, because he knew what his mother was trying to do, and their names, their beautiful names! Surely she called them out when she tried to comfort and calm them as the train got closer, and then the noise of the train itself, the hooter, the screech of brakes…but even that ploy didn’t work.
Sitting there on the beach at the end of the day, watching the sky fade through a spectrum of soft pastel colors, I had to ask myself why my imagination wasn’t working for me this time. Why wasn’t it creating a plausible fiction as it had done so many times in my past 50 years of writing? I’d never known it to hesitate in that way before. Why now?
As an alternative to the beach, I sometimes walk next to the railway line that connects San Diego to Los Angeles. The walk is a lovely but mildly illegal one. There are signs all along the way in Spanish and English warning that there is danger and that I am trespassing on railway property, but none of the joggers and walkers who use the path pay any attention to them. Along this stretch of the line the tracks are only a few yards in from the edge of a cliff—there is just enough room for the footpath and a swath of purple statice and clumps of elegant pampas grass. Standing at the edge of the cliff you have the delight of gulls and pelicans floating by at chest level.
The passengers on the trains headed north to Oceanside, San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano, Irvine, Santa Ana, Anaheim, Fullerton and Los Angeles enjoy wonderful views of the sea and coastline. It is a very different experience to that of the commuters traveling from Khayelitsha, through Nonkqubela, Nolungile, Mandalay, Philippi, Nyanga, Heideveld, Netreg, Bonteheuwel, Langa, Mutual, Ysterplaat, Paarden Eiland, to Cape Town.
A friend in Cape Town sent me a copy of a video that is show to train drivers on this route as part of their six-month training program. It takes you from the driver’s point of view, from Khayelitsha all the way into Cape Town—a 50-minute ride through a landscape of soul-crushing squalor. At the best of times, the sandy, wind blown Cape Flats, through which the route runs, has little or no appeal; the ulcerous squatter camps of miserable shanties and pondoks are dumping grounds of hopeless human lives. Our proud slogan “The Cape of Good Hope” is a cruel misnomer for the world these people live in.
Thirty years ago, in my play Boesman and Lena, I made a drunk and embittered Boesman describe their pondok on the mudflats of the Swartkops River as “white man’s rubbish.” In a paroxysm of self-hatred he goes on to say: “We pick it up, we wear it, we eat it, we’re made of it now…we’re white man’s rubbish.” That was the old-apartheid South Africa. This is the brave new South Africa. The people who live in these pondoks on the Cape Flats—structures every bit as flimsy and useless against the elements as the one Boesman built—can’t single out the white man as the source of their rubbish anymore, but, in essence, the refrain is the same: They live in a world made out of rubbish, they are the rubbish of that world.
Boesman and Lena was my first deep journey into the world of the pondok, a world that had fascinated me from my childhood when I used to accompany my mom to a butcher in a humble little Colored settlement on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth to buy black-market meat for our boarding house during the strictly rationed years of the Second World War. The nearest I can get to explaining that fascination (it is even here in Southern California when I see the simple homes of Mexican laborers) is to point to the elemental power and simplicity that the gestures and things in those lives acquire because they are so poverty-stricken, so reduced to essentials.
All my life, and I don’t really know why, it has been those humble and desperate little worlds that have fired my imagination; I have tried to imagine my way into their secret life as eagerly and passionately as others do with the palaces and mansions of the mighty. What fascinates me as a writer is the way in which the destitution of these lives can sometimes invest simple things and events, even simple gestures, with huge transcendent values and resonances. So, having made that imaginative journey on the mudflats, shouldn’t it now be possible for me to crawl into the pondok in the Samora Machel informal settlement that Pumla Lolwana and her three children lived?
The story of South African poverty, like the story of poverty anywhere, is made up of a few very stark elements, starting with hunger and ending, as must have been the case with Pumla Lolwana, with a loss of hope. Within that terrible little span of human experience there are a few variables that can be assembled in different patterns. In her case, those variables most likely included the loss of the breadwinner, her man, the father of her children. It could have been a death—those “informal settlements” are violent worlds—it could have been desertion, a man looking for his “way out” when the burden of a wife and three children became too much.
Given those possibilities, can’t I now just get on with it, for God’s sake, and give Pumla Lolwana a fictional reality and deal with her in the way that I did with Boesman and Lena? I wish I could, but the answer is again “no.” Boesman and Lena wanted to live. As devastating as that night on the mudflats had been for both of them, they are on their feet at the end, they walk away into darkness. Implicit in that walk is their will to live, an unconscious act of faith in the next day’s sunrise. That is the fundamental act of faith in my life: There will be a tomorrow worth living.
But I can’t play any fictional games with Pumla Lolwana. That moment when she stands on the railway lines, fiercely holding on to her children, is too final.
I was back at the tracks again this afternoon. I took a moment during my walk to stand between the tracks (when I was sure there were no trains coming) and stare along their length. I had never given them a second thought before reading Pumla Lolwana’s story. But, now, those two parallel rails of steel fascinate me. There is something hypnotic and strangely menacing in the illusion of convergence as they stretched away from me. The trains that come charging past on my walks are huge double-decker leviathans with the driver’s cab up at the top level. Up until now I’ve enjoyed them innocently as images of energy and splendor, which is how the old steam engines of my youth used to thrill me when I was growing up in Port Elizabeth. Now they also have become very unnerving, their power and momentum, their unstoppable force very frightening. The adrenaline rush that comes as they thunder past is no longer the elating thrill of my boyhood; it is fear.
One of them, a northbound Coaster, passed me on this afternoon’s walk. Although I couldn’t see the driver up in his cab, I gave him a wave as the train passed. I don’t suppose he even noticed me.
The Cape Town commuter trains are single-deckers, so those drivers do not ride as high and mighty as their American cousins. By comparison, the driver of the train that killed Pumla Lolwana and her children would have had a very intimate relationship with her as she stood there waiting for him. His was most probably the last human face she saw, provided, of course, that she kept her eyes open until the end. It is a thought that stops time: the two of them looking at each other, seeing each other, locked into a moment that will end the life of the mother and her children and scar his forever. The rest of my walk is a blank. The thought of those few seconds between the woman and the train driver haunted me all the way back to my writing table. I went back to the newspaper report and read:
The train driver is receiving counseling. He is extremely traumatized, because he saw the drama play out in front of him and wasn’t able to stop the train in time.
It takes 300 meters for one of these trains traveling at a speed of 70 kilometers per hour to stop. I’ve never really given the driver much thought, but now it occurs to me that he could possibly help me see her. If I could live through a night on the Swartkops mudflats with Boesman and Lena, then couldn’t I sit in the cab with the train driver for that fatal afternoon run from Khayelitsha to Cape Town?
Unlike the mother, so emphatically identified by her name, “Pumla Lolwana,” and those of her children, his very anonymity is a help. It is in fact hugely liberating. For the first time since starting to live with that newspaper story I feel a surge of energy and excitement because I realize I am free to create a fictional identity.
So here goes: His name will be “Roelf Visagie,” a strong, no-nonsense, down-to earth Afrikaans name. The railways in South Africa have always been the preserve of the Afrikaner, and if there is one South African identity I empathize with it is my mother’s people. The training video that was sent me from Cape Town included interviews with and images of the drivers at the controls of the train. Their faces were those of decent but deeply troubled men who had not been able to stop the train in time—they all had their “hits”—the word used by one of them to describe those accidents. They spoke in muted tones about what it meant: “It’s a life you’re taking, another human being!” “You never forget the first one—no matter how many hits you have after that, you never forget the first one. Doesn’t matter what it is—a cow or a dog or an old man—it’s all the same, it’s a life you’ve taken.”
My Roelf Visagie would be at home in their company, drinking a cold Castle or a brandy and coke and talking about the general fuck-up of the world. I decided it was going to be my Roelf Visagie’s first hit—that is the dangerous side of writing, playing God with the fictional lives you’ve created.
He, of course, had no idea what I had in store for him that Friday afternoon. If anything his life felt and looked particularly good as he settled down in the driver’s cab for the run to Cape Town. He had a devoted wife and two lovely children, a nice house in a quiet suburb and, to complete the picture, he was a white man with a job, and a reasonably well-paid one at that, with a pension fund and medical scheme—no mean achievement in the new South Africa. But what really gave his spirits a lift when he got the signal to pull out of Khayelitsha station that Friday afternoon was his fishing prospects for the coming weekend. He was going to join two fishing buddies for a trip up the West Coast to look for steenbras. They were going to make a whole weekend of it. When the train pulled into Nonkqubela station, Roelf was imagining the campfire, the lovely barbecue smell of chops and boerewors sizzling away on the coals. The next stations were Mandalay and Philippi, and once again the train pulled in and out on time, and Roelf Visagie, with his hands on the brake and accelerator, luxuriated in the sense that his life, like his train, was under control.
The training video gives a good picture of what the drivers on this Khayelitsha-Cape Town route have to contend with. There are, of course, fences on each side of the track, which are meant obviously to keep people off, but these have been broken down or torn through in places so as to provide a shortcut from the squatter camp on one side to the camp on the other side. In the video, one constantly sees people walking next to the tracks or making suicidal dashes across them in front of the oncoming train.
With all that going on, Roelf Visagie would hardly have noticed the woman way ahead of him waiting quietly on the side. But even if he had seen her standing there—a mother with a baby on her back and two children in her arms—what of it? He must have seen at least half a dozen like her already on this run. In any case—come now, man—a mother and her children?! She’s not going to go and do something stupid…until suddenly there she is in front of him with one of the children struggling to break loose, looking up at him, and Roelf Visagie starts to live through a few seconds that will haunt him for the rest of his life. He has his hand on the brake, his foot on the hooter, he is shouting and swearing, but it makes no difference. His life is out of control. It is over in a flash.
It wouldn’t be long before a crowd would gather, pressing against the fence or crawling through its holes, for a closer look at the remains of Pumla Lolwana and her three children. And angry! Oh yes, very loud angry voices: “Haai liewe. Here. Look at them! How many is it. A mother and three children for God’s sake. Is there no bloody justice in the world? Didn’t that bloody driver see her? Why didn’t that fucking white man stop?”
That is why the head office has ordered the drivers to just carry on to the next station in the event of an accident.
Another alternative to my beach walk is along a stretch of Historic Highway 101 as it skirts the Peñasquitos marsh. This one gives me a chance to study the wonderful variety of water birds in the marsh. I had my binoculars focused on a great blue heron when a blue-and-white Coaster rode into its field of vision. Distance and the soft light of the evening had made it a very innocent thing of beauty; it could so easily have been a little toy train on the floor of a young boy’s bedroom and not the terrible instrument a despairing soul would use to end a life.
Back at my table later I read:
Jaqueline van Rensburg, industrial social worker, who treats up to 15 train drivers a month after accidents, told Die Burger that the drivers work under extremely difficult circumstances…
In the training video, the drivers talk about the trauma. The advice given to them by the social worker is to talk about it, the sooner the better and to anyone who will listen.
That is the advice a sympathetic Miss Jaqueline van Rensburg gives a hesitant Mr. Visagie when he sits down awkwardly in her office for a counseling session. The likes of Roelf Visagie do not take easily to counseling, and even more so when it comes from a woman, but Miss van Rensburg knows this. “Whatever you are feeling, don’t keep it bottled up inside you, Mr. Visagie. Talking will help you take control of the experience and put it behind you, so that you can get on with your life.”
But Mr. Visagie does not find it easy. It takes a lot of patience on her side and gentle nudging before the words start to come, very haltingly at first as he clumsily feels his way into the emotional chaos inside him. She listens and watches carefully as he talks, reading signs of anger and confusion, pain and guilt:
“Ja, I know, miss. I know it’s not really my fault, everybody keeps telling me that—you, my wife, the other drivers—some of them have already had as many as 20 hits! Ja, that’s what they call it, a ‘hit.’ ‘It’s because it’s your first one, Visagie,’ they say to me, ‘that’s why it’s so hard. But give it time. You’ll get over it.’ I get so the hell in when people tell me that, miss. Ja. You as well. I know you are all just trying to help me, so I don’t mean to be offensive, but I mean what the hell, if it’s not my fault—and I don’t need anybody to tell me that anymore!—then whose fault is it? Ja, why doesn’t somebody try telling me that for a change instead of all this…” (He leaves the sentence unfinished. Miss van Rensburg interprets the restless movement of his hands as the need for a cigarette. She tells him he can smoke if he wants to. He shakes his head.)
“Must we point our fingers at Metrorail? Ja, why not? They don’t fix up the fences on the side of the tracks where the people have broken them down. God didn’t just put her down there on those tracks you know. She and her children crawled through one of those holes to get there. I’ve given up reporting them anymore because nobody listens. Or maybe it’s the government to blame. Maybe they should take some time off from driving around in their big Mercedes-Benzes and give those people decent houses to live in. And then there’s the woman herself. That’s who my wife points the finger at. Ja, good old Lynette. ‘She’s the one who did it, Roelfie darling. Nobody dragged her and her children onto the railway lines. I don’t know how a mother could do a thing like that but she did. I bet you anything you like she was drunk. So you see, liefling, it’s not your fault.’
“Just like that. I got it from her again this morning. I had another bad night you see. I took the pills the doctor gave me, but the trouble is…I’m sort of frightened of going to sleep, because even with the pills if I wake up it starts again, over and over—I’m looking at the tracks and then…I swear God I didn’t see her until suddenly there she is in front of me, waiting for me, with the children. And you know, like I want to vomit, because it’s all there inside me now, ja, that for my Christmas bonus this year I got a whole rotten stinking bloody squatter camp inside me, choking me so badly I can’t tell Lynette to shut the fuck up, because she doesn’t know what she is talking about, she doesn’t know anything. What can I say to you, miss, who finds it so easy to tell me it wasn’t my fault, because she was ‘looking for a way out of her troubles’? (Pause. This time he lights a cigarette. Miss van Rensburg revises a mental note she was going to put into his file: It’s not anger she’s watching, it’s rage.)
“So you see, miss, why she did it is not the problem. Ag, no, who want to live like that? Who want tomorrow if it means your children are going to be living like that? And while they’re living, like getting murdered or raped or ending up with AIDS and everything else. No to hell with it. I understand why she did it. Any sensible mother would drag her kids through a hole in the fence onto those tracks if that is all they could hope for. No, miss, my problem is why the hell did she have to go and choose my train? Why didn’t she wait for the guy with his 20 hits? He knows how to forget her. Instead she chooses me. There was no way out for me, miss. I couldn’t swerve, I couldn’t stop the fucking train. Ja, I had no more control over the train when she stood there than I did over the day I was born. If you really want to know something, miss, I’m not so sure anymore I got control over anything. That driver’s cab is a trap, miss, and we’re all in there one way or another. We can see it coming, we head towards it at 90 kilometers an hour, but we can’t swerve and the instructions from head office is, ‘Don’t stop, just leave the bloody mess behind you and carry on.’”
And that is as far as I go with Roelf Visagie.
It is either late at night/very early in the morning and I am lying awake in bed. I am listening to a freight train—it is heading south—I can both hear and feel the vibrations of passing train traffic in my bedroom, and I end up thinking about Pumla Lolwana.
Women walking. Always women. Is the reason for that as simple as that early childhood memory I have of my mother, possibly the earliest? She was trudging heavily and wearily up the hill to where we lived and I had run to meet her. She was dispirited and depressed after a bad day in the bakery where she worked. It was a terrible shock to see her like that. She was the central and most important presence in my life. Seeing her defeated meant that my whole world was in danger of collapsing.
In the years that followed, I saw my mother, metaphorically speaking, trudging up that hill many times. Her life was one long struggle, or survival—for herself and her family. But she—and because of her, Lena and Milly and Hester and Miss Helen and all the other women in my work, who draw their inspiration from my mother—were never defeated, and that is the cardinal difference. Pumla Lolwana was. And it is that difference, which maybe now defeats me, and makes Pumla Lolwana the dark mystery she will always be for me. There was no hope left.
Lying there in the dark, I realize that the freight train has long since passed and all is silent once again, that soft sibilant silence of a sleeping suburban world.
By Monday night nobody had claimed the bodies of the mother and her three children from the Salt River mortuary.
Nobody ever did. Pumla Lolwana’s story ends in a sandy windblown cemetery on the Cape Flats where she and her children were given a pauper’s burial. I realize suddenly that there is another personal connection here, possibly the genesis of a theme—burying the dead—which has been there in my work from fairly early on and very much so in recent years.
The story of Antigone captured my imagination at a very early age. It is hard to think of a story that could have been more urgently needed in the apartheid South Africa in which I grew up than that of the young girl defying the laws of the state because the unwritten laws of her conscience demanded that she bury her brother. It was inevitable that sooner or later Serpent Players—the black drama group I started in Port Elizabeth—would take on Sophocles’ magnificent play. The story of that one lone voice raised in protest against what she considered an unjust law struck to the heart of every member of the group.
This production had long-term consequences, leading to the arrest of a member of the group, who then staged a two-character version of the play—just Creon and Antigone—on Robben Island, which in turn led to the writing of The Island. Some years later a photograph of two South African soldiers dumping the bodies of dead Swapo fighters in a mass grave in South West Africa led to the writing of Playland.
And now those of Pumla Lolwana and her three children in the Salt River mortuary. Is that what hooked me when I first read the story? Was that possibly the reason why I couldn’t pass it over, consign it to oblivion as, in fact, time is trying to do to it? Is that why she has haunted me? Must I claim her? Yes, I want to do that. As I sit at my table this morning the deepest impulse in my heart is to claim them as mine. And why not! Nobody else wanted them. Maybe that is what I’ve been trying to do these past weeks at this table, claim her and her children, and bury them in the blank pages of this notebook. With that thought I feel that something has changed inside me.
I say their names aloud, because apart from a few impersonal facts, that is all I have of them:
Pumla Lolwana…35 years old
Sesanda Lolwana…5 years old
Andile Lolwana…3 years old
Lindani Lolwana…2 years old
Those four names have become infinitely precious to me. For all I know, here where I am, 10,000 miles away from where they died, I might be the only person left still thinking and saying them. They tell their own story—starting with those of the two boys, a simple story that speaks of a family that had grown stronger with each of their births; then came little Lindani, the daughter the mother had prayed and waited for. And then, of course, the mother herself: Pumla…which in Xhosa means to rest, to sleep, to find peace.
I was wrong when I started out thinking that I needed to “understand” what happened that Friday afternoon on the tracks between Philippi and Nyanga. That isn’t why Pumla Lolwana stopped my life. It wasn’t either to witness—that thin newspaper report did all that could be done by those who weren’t there, didn’t see it. I had to claim her, for myself. Now, having done that, I have a sense as powerful as the one that made me stop a few weeks ago—I can now move on.
I ended the day with a sunset walk next to the tracks. It was a quiet one. No trains passed. Out at sea there were a few distant pools of silvery light when sunshine broke through a bank of clouds and spilt onto the water. I looked at my wristwatch: 8 p.m. here, 4 a.m. in the morning in Cape Town. When I got back to my table I went online to get Cape Town’s weather forecast: It promised a cloudless, sunny day with light winds and a maximum temperature of 19 degrees Celsius. The people of the Samora Machel squatter camp were in for a beautiful, mild winter’s day.
Athol Fugard’s The Train Driver and Other Plays, containing the excerpt here, was recently published by TCG Books. The Train Driver premiered in 2010 at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town, South Africa, directed by the author, and was published in this magazine in September 2010. Its American premiere was at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles, and it most recently ran at Signature Theatre Company in New York City.