Musa Khumalo lives in a shack in one of the many informal settlements dotting the Durban cityscape. Left behind like untold others in the new South Africa. A protest demanding better facilities at their location goes awry. A shot is fired, a corrupt city councillor is killed. A day later, Musa is wanted for murder.
On the run from the police, he fights to clear his name. In the process, he uncovers a case of bribery involving the councillor and a powerful developer. The mystery deepens when Musa realizes that a shadowy assassin is the true killer. Who hired him? Racing against time, Musa puts the clues together until he confronts the killer on Durban’s famous beachfront.
Lincoln Road was inspired by the times I spent in South Africa over the past two decades, in particular my participation in International Human Rights Exchange program that took place in Durban in 2003. It is, as yet, an unpublished manuscript.
Sunday morning began like all other Sunday mornings. Most residents of the informal settlement at Lincoln Road in Durban slept in. Those who worked regular jobs—the gardeners, cooks, maids, nannies, and gofers—had their well-earned day off. Those who didn’t, slept in anyway. Why bother? Nobody was going to offer them work. And those with hangovers? Maybe another day.
Yellow village dogs ambled along the paths, looking for anything edible that might have been dropped overnight. The pickings were meager.
Some had to work, no matter what. The women started fires or struggled with their rebellious paraffin stoves. They made tea, cooked some porridge or heated leftover mealie pap—African polenta as a wisecracking Italian visitor once called it. The men in their lives, for it was usually the women who got ready first, caught a few more winks before they, too, got up, ate a little and caught rickety minivan taxis for whatever jobs were calling them to Durban on a Sunday.
A few minivans idled along Lincoln Road, waiting for the first passengers of the day. Their drivers were the only ones who noticed the five police vans stopping at the intersection of Lincoln and Kings Roads. They took off, figuring it was safer to put some distance between themselves and a roadworthiness inspection.
Nobody saw thirty policemen in riot gear line up by the curb. Nobody heard their commander review the orders. Lincoln Road had yet to open its collective eyes.
A shrill whistle tore through the quiet, much like the beginning of a rugby game. The policemen, helmeted, shielded and swinging their truncheons, streamed into the settlement, breaking down doors and rousing the terrified inhabitants from their sleep.
The screaming of children pierced Precious Silongo’s sleep. On weekdays, she would have been awake already, getting her son Andile ready for school and preparing herself for another day of selling two-rand bags of vegetables by the Durban rail station.
Sundays were different. Andile had no school, and she didn’t want to leave him alone for most of the day. He’d just turned ten and at that age, trouble was never far away.
She opened her eyes. The racket of breaking wood, clattering tin roofs and rough shouts got her up. She stretched. Her back hurt as it always did mornings. Her sleeping mat did as much good as a postage stamp on the hard dirt floor. She stuck her head out the door and saw the blue uniforms advance like rhinos, trampling everything in their way. The cobwebs of sleep disappeared in an instant.
“Andile, get up. Now!” she said.
Andile rubbed his eyes. “Not yet,” he said, yawning. “It’s Sunday.”
That boy was going to be the death of her. Since turning ten, he talked back every time she wanted him to do something.
“No, get up now. The police are comin’. We have to run.”
“The police? Why?”
“No time for that now. Let’s go.”
She pulled him from his bedroll and sat him on one of the two chairs in their single-room shack. His ratty shorts needed washing. Another day. She started pulling them up his legs. He resisted with wounded pride.
“Let me. I’m no baby.”
“Then you better hurry.”
She stepped into her skirt, pulled it up and threw on a threadbare jacket to hide her red T-shirt. There was nothing wrong with the shirt itself. It was of better quality than the rest of her clothes. It was the slogan “Land & Housing Now!”, printed in large white letters across her ample bosom, that meant trouble. She’d worn it eight hours earlier, standing in front of Councillor Naidu, reading the petition demanding clean water and toilets for their settlement. Everybody had worn red T-shirts, but she’d been out in front. The police would remember her.
She yanked Andile outside.
“Ouch, Mama. Let go. I can walk by myself.”
Precious didn’t let go. There was no time to argue. The commotion had brought her neighbors out of their shacks, and that slowed the progress of the police. For the police, it was just an excuse to use their truncheons with full force.
Precious pushed her way through the throng. She was a big woman—a traditional Zulu woman, as she liked to say—and she plowed through the throng like a boat through rough seas. Andile was the bouncing dinghy in her wake.
If only the others had listened to her. Going to Naidu’s ward office with their signs and T-shirts was one thing. They’d done it before. He would listen, then offer to move them to leaky cement block boxes forty miles away. They would refuse and he would tell them to go away. The police would push them around a little. A slow approach, but it had to wear the councillor down eventually.
Going to his house on a Saturday evening was a new strategy. Thandi had called it an escalation. Precious didn’t like it. She should’ve put her foot down. After all, she was the leader of the residents’ committee.
At a junction of two paths, she saw four policemen to her right. That left the uphill route. She yanked Andile forward.
Struggling up the incline left her out of breath. She reached her friend’s shack wheezing for air. Nobuhle stood outside her shack and looked even more gaunt than usual. Her health hadn’t been good in a while, she’d lost weight and her hair had become grizzled. She’d helped plan the protest but stayed home.
“What’s all the ruckus, Precious?”
Precious took another moment to catch her breath. Sweat beaded on her dark round face.
“The police. They’re lookin’ for who shot Naidu last night.”
“Eish! Naidu was shot? Who did it?”
“I don’t know, but it wasn’t one of us.”
“No matter, you are in trouble. They know you. Get rid of the shirt, quick. I can give you something.”
Precious followed her into the shack. The bedrolls were still on the ground and Nobuhle’s three children lay there, rubbing their eyes. Her husband stood bare-chested over a bucket and washed his face. He looked up, surprised.
“Mondli,” Nobuhle said. “Go outside. Quick.”
The man frowned and opened his mouth.
“Out. Now. This woman needs to change.”
He grumbled and left the shack while Nobuhle rummaged in a checkered plastic bag and pulled out a well-washed green T-shirt. Its front featured a ribbon of white petals and indicated that its first owner had successfully completed the 2000 Pear Blossom Fun Run.
“Here, that ought to fit. Quick, give me your shirt. What happened last night?”
“I don’t know. Everything went wrong.”
Precious stripped off her red shirt and pulled on the green one. It was a bit tight, but it was better than wearing a target on her body. Nobuhle took the red shirt and stuffed it between a small chest and the cardboard wall of the shack.
“Can I leave Andile here?”
“Yes, sure. Now run! I can hear them.”
“Thank you, sister. You are a true friend.”
Precious stuck her head out of the door and saw the blue uniforms mass down the hill. Several people wearing the telltale red T-shirts had been handcuffed and were being led away. Mondli grumbled something about trouble-makers. She hurried away.