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A Memory by Marshall Riggan

Over the years, I have worked on many film projects in Africa, but perhaps the most memorable and most frightening, was working with a White South African film crew in the beleaguered Black township of SOWETO.
The community of SOWETO (Southwest Townships), just outside Johannesburg, was created in the 1930s as a means of separating Black people from White people, a system that came to be called Apartheid. In the 1980s, when I was there, it was a community of nearly a million people, almost exclusively Blacks. There was only one road in and out and the perimeters were patrolled by government armored troop carriers. It was essentially the largest prison on earth. Yet, the only crime committed by those incarcerated there was the color of their skin.
I remember my first view of SOWETO. We were checking our equipment on a rise overlooking this somber and terrifying place. Rarely have I seen such poverty and overcrowding. It was a sprawling slum, adjacent to one of the richest cities in Africa. No wonder it had been a hotbed of violence and rebellion over the years. You could almost feel it in the air. Just a few years before, high school students rebelled against a government ruling that they had to speak the Africaans language instead of their tribal languages. The students went on strike. One-hundred-seventy-six students were killed and more than 1,000 injured. The violence continued, sometimes rifts between Black factions themselves. Winnie Mandela, wife of Nelson Mandela, with her troop of bodyguards called the United Mandela Football Club, were said to be among those responsible for some of the violent acts. With Nelson Mandela in prison, Winnie had become the leading opponent to apartheid in South Africa. Over the years she had often been jailed, beaten and tortured by the apartheid police for her struggle for the rights of Black South Africans. It was no wonder that her methods sometimes mirrored those of her oppressors.

And so we descended into SOWETO. It did not ease my apprehension to discover that some of our tripod cases contained automatic rifles.
The focus of the film was Baragwanath Hospital. A teeming, chaotic over-crowded and under-staffed institution. Doctors and nurses were overwhelmed by a daily flow of gunshot wounds and victims of beatings and disease, primarily diabetes. The wards overflowed into the corridors. The sounds of suffering were a symphony from hell. I wondered how in the world I could find myself in such a place.
In those days, the government of the U.S. placed sanctions on any trade with South Africa, including medicines. The idea was that cutting off trade would strangle the South African economy and force the government to abandon apartheid. Eli Lilly Corporation refused to abide by the sanctions, believing they would only add to the Black South Africans’ torment, especially by denying them insulin. They hired a film company in Indianapolis to make a film to explain why the company was against the sanctions. And the film company hired me to write it.
I found myself on the horns of a dilemma. Personally, I found apartheid morally indefensible. I thought about turning the job down. Yet I could see some merit in Eli Lilly’s position. And, I must admit, I reallywanted to go to South Africa and experience SOWETO.
So here I was in Baragwanath hospital, carrying a tripod case containing a Polish-made assault rifle on my shoulder, tormented by the decision I had made, imagining I could see members of Winnie Mandela’s United Football Club around every corner.
Not a minute too soon, we completed the filming, packed up, and I returned to Indianapolis with my notes and my misgivings.
I hung around Indianapolis for a while, viewing footage and writing connecting narrative. In those days, downtown Indianapolis was insufferably boring. There was absolutely nothing to do at night but wander the empty streets and wonder if my moral compass had gone wrong. Most nights I went to the hotel bar. I was usually the only customer. So I drank alone, wishing I could talk to some moral authority who might ease my self-doubt. One night I was on my second or third vodka on the rocks when a priest walked into the bar, settled down at a table and ordered a drink. What an amazing coincidence, I thought, my wish had come true. Certainly this man of
God could offer me absolution for my sin of hypocrisy. I was rising to move to
his table, when to my surprise another priest walked in the door and sat down
by the first. They greeted each other like old friends. Obviously, I was
reluctant to burst into their reunion. As I settled back into my chair three
more priests joined the strange gathering of clerics. Now there were five. I
struggled not to break into laughter (It sounded like the opening line of a
joke - five priests walked into a bar…). I passed their table on the way to the elevator; pushed the down button. And when the door slid open, there were two more priests, and I was no longer able to restrain my laughter. I’m sure they thought they had encountered a drunk and I might well become the theme of their future homilies on the evils of alcohol.
I’m not sure there is a moral to this story, other than there is a little hypocrisy in all of us and it can be forgiven, as evidence, the seven priests the
Almighty sent to hear my confession.

Post script: Baragwanath grew to be the third largest hospital in the world, with more than 3,000 beds and nearly 7,000 staff members. The suffering of many of the patients has been eased by medicines from Eli Lilly. The Mandela United Football Club was disbanded, and today Winnie Mandella is revered as the Mother of her country. Of course, Nelson Mandela was released from prison and the apparatus of apartheid was dismantled. The rest is history.

If you enjoyed this memory, perhaps you’d like my latest novel, “The Lost Caravan.” It’s available on Amazon and on the “books” page of my website.