JOHANNESBURG — See this button? It's called a panic button. It was given to me by my hosts at a guesthouse in Johannesburg. If I press it, I was told, men with automatic weapons will appear and possibly spray the street with bullets in order to quell the panic.
People here wear these devices around their necks. Last Friday, my companion, The Fenian Mob, accidentally pressed his.
To be clear, the guesthouse is in a nice part of town. There doesn't seem to be much need for a panic button. We've been walking the streets at night, which we were told would lead inexorably to our slaughter. But the fear is heavy here. White fear. Fear of anything black. It's painful to be around. It infects everything. The white residents live in cages of their own construction, sealed off from the rest of the city. Their houses sit behind towering walls topped with concertina wire. They relish swapping horror stories and wringing their hands over their dire prospects in this country.
"If they decide to start killing us," a young Afrikaner told me in a bar, "we are ready." This was in a town outside Johannesburg where The Mob and I had run out of gas. "We have people ready to respond who know how to handle this situation," the Afrikaner went on, before launching into vague talk of paramilitaries and mercenaries and an Afrikaner prophet named Siener van Rensburg, who predicted doom for this land some 70 years ago. It was roughly at this point that I downed the springbok shot (one part amarula, one part peppermint liqueur) some other bargoers had kindly bought me and opted to retire for the evening.
Afrikaners are a funny lot. Prejudice has grafted itself on to their genome. The fellow I met at the bar, where Bafana Bafana fans had gathered to watch South Africa vs. Mexico, was perfectly friendly. He even seemed progressive. But he was also casually, blatantly, unwittingly racist. "They're just not as smart as us," he said to me, nodding toward our black waiter.
We drove back into Johannesburg, where we proceeded to meet four wholly nonthreatening black girls who took us on a pub/club crawl into the wee hours. I don't know when the panic button was pressed. But when we got back to our fortified compound, a red light was flashing above the door. There was nobody in sight. We began to panic.
In which our correspondent does the Thomas Friedman thing and gleans profound insights into South African culture based on the stray remarks of a cab driver. Today: a voluble Afrikaner cabbie, discoursing on African life.
Everything here is a drama. They hide in the bushes by the wall. The shadows. They wear all black. Black tracksuits. Black wooly cap. They climb into the trees.
I went to Maputo with a buddy. We were tough guys. We bought women and drink. Beautiful Portuguese coloreds. Long hair. Chocolate bodies. If you like your sleaze and drink, it's very good. But be careful they don't give you a Mickey Finn.
Luke O'Brien is a writer in Washington, D.C. He's written for Details, Washington Post Magazine, Boston Magazine, SI.com, and other publications. He'll be filing dispatches from South Africa throughout the World Cup.