In Durban, South Africa circa the early and mid 1970s, white hip-pies or freaks weren’t quite as obnoxious as many of their northern counterparts. I should know, I was one of them and I am familiar with those from both hemispheres. White South African society then was not a friendly place for critics of the establishment. Of course, we had an overblown sense of our own importance. But we lived it, and it was important to us, and important enough for the police to pay attention to us. Like any volatile situation, that environment created characters. Some were bullshit artists, others were the real deal, and a few turned out to be bandits, whether they chose to be or not. This is a true story about one such outlaw, Rats Radford.
Rats and I were both residents for a while of a communal hovel on the non-fancy side of Ridge Road, the edge that bordered on Mayville, a tough colored community (people of mixed blood, an official non-white racial classification). The house had a roving community of misfits by white South African standards. There were student activists, musicos, writers, poets, artists, and a few people on the run from the cops. Life there was never boring.
I first became aware of the Rat’s devious shenanigans when my small record collection disappeared. I treasured it, and then it was gone. I’ve always been a vinyl collector, and that was the first and not the only time I had to start from scratch. Rats had sold the entire bunch to a zol (pot) dealer for a score. He never fessed up and I never confronted him. That’s because I liked him.
Some months later, Rats’ older brother came by to try and talk him out of his life choices. The brother was a traveling salesman for the Massey-Ferguson Corporation. He sold tractors to Boer farmers. He was a complete born-again straight, with the hair-cut, the safari-suit, the wife and kids in the suburbs, the Chevro-let station wagon, the whole megillah. It was a painful episode. And he wouldn’t go away. In desperation to escape this lunacy, Rats dropped a microdot of LSD into the brother’s Nescafe. The punisher stayed for three more days, zonked out of his mind. Fi-nally his missus called the police, which is how they found him, blathering on about the meaning of life in his Chevy outside.
We were always broke. Rats came up with a temporary solution. Rob the off-sales (liquor) store of the local hotel. We talked about it at length and had a plan down. Unfortunately, we were all quite stoned on D-Day. We successfully broke into the shop after hours, but nobody could access the till or the safe. Instead, we wound up stealing the cigarette machine, no easy task. It stood proud and center in the house until the police arrived on a regular raid and found it. They nailed Rats and he got the lashes. The rest of us got free Marlboros, barely.
Michael Wadleigh, the bloke who made the original Woodstock concert movie, came to visit. He was on some sort of internation-al mission to find other people he thought were kindred souls. He found us instead. And he knew he had found us, because Rats stole his wallet. We all had a steak dinner the next night on Mi-chael Wadleigh, without his knowledge.
The head of the Durban Police Drug Squad was a particularly annoying arsehole. His name was Colonel Basie Smit. This creep was on a mission. Basie Smit went overseas to Amsterdam to personally witness the pervasion of dope. Our newspapers were full of black and white photos of Basie, with his little Hitler moustache, glowering at Dutch long-hairs lighting up in the park, frustrated as hell because he couldn’t arrest anybody. Basie Smit had it in for Rats. By 1988, promoted to the rank of General, Basie Smit headed up the South African Security Police, an odious war criminal. He was directly implicated in murderous schemes.
One of those fine evening sunsets in Durban, Rats and I were en-joying a joint on Addington Beach. Basie’s men came storming over the dunes, an easy bust on their minds. It was such a shock to the system that Rats plunged his hand into the sand, burying the skyf (smoke). The cops had us in cuffs, while they dug for the evidence. They never found it and eventually gave up. Rats had gone so deep that even the Durban Vice Squad was bamboozled.
I became more political. I don’t think Rats did. When I was out of the country, we occasionally stayed in touch. I heard that he was selling life insurance in Lebanon during the civil war there, which he claimed was a lucrative business. I believed him. But he had fallen in love with the daughter of a Druse militia head-man and there was a price on his head. Rats apparently left Bei-rut in a hurry.
And then lastly I received a postcard. Rats was working as a tour guide on a ferry boat that crossed the English Channel. The card was full of frantically crammed handwriting. From what I could ascertain, Rats was trying to figure out how to steal a tourist’s Canon camera, without knocking him overboard.
A Brooklynite for almost four decades by way of South Africa, Mike Morgan was a founding member of Lurch Magazine.