It was almost eight-thirty when Robert stopped the van on the uneven gravel road at the rear of the hospital. Over the tall grass they could see the lights of the African township in the distance. The road was deserted and there was not a sound in the night. Robert showed Matthew and Antonio the ramp which they would come down from the hospital. Robert put on a doctor’s white coat and began cutting the fence with a pair of wire cutters which he had bought that morning. At the last moment, Derrick decided to take off his dog collar; it made him feel uncomfortable, and he suspected that it was only liable to draw more attention to himself.
Antonio switched on the van’s hazard lights and opened the bonnet so that should anyone spot the stationary Cortina in the darkened road they would assume it had broken down. Robert had cut a hole in the fence just large enough to squeeze through; he handed the wirecutters to Matthew and told him to enlarge the hole once he and his father had gone in. Derrick put the Makarov pistol in his jacket pocket, while Robert slipped the AK-47 inside his white coat. He had already cut a hole in the pocket so he could hold the rifle, its stock folded, with his left hand, keeping his right hand free. Antonio also armed himself with an AK-47 and took up a position across the road, lying in the grass so that he could cover them as they squeezed through the fence.
“Then we went in,” said Robert. “I was very cool. I had taken the Lexotan tablets, and so had my father. I felt very relaxed. Derrick looked relaxed too. We went in talking.
“Derrick is so observant. He was looking and noticing everything – he noticed that there was a trolley there. We were going along the covered walkway, and then we entered the hospital, through a ramp on the side, and we walked down the corridor, and then up the stairs.
“We were talking like doctors, mentioning X-rays a lot. We soon ran out of medical terms, so we just kept repeating, ‘X-ray, X-ray, X-ray…’” Walking slowly so as not to draw attention to themselves, Robert and his father climbed three flights of stairs and then hesitated on the fourth landing, which led to the second floor and room 2R, the intensive care unit. With his free hand Robert pulled out a balaclava and struggled to pull it over his head, but it dropped to the floor just as a doctor came down the stairs. “Good evening,” said Robert, keeping walking and leaving the balaclava on the floor.
As planned, Derrick went ahead to check if the second floor corridor was clear, while Robert waited on the stairs. Robert looked at his watch: it was eight-thirty precisely. He slipped the catch of his AK-47 from “safe” to “automatic fire”.
Visitors should officially have left the hospital, but seated on a bench opposite the intensive care unit were four young Zulu men. They were friends of Constable Edward Ngcobo and they were waiting for him to come off duty after guarding Gordon Webster. One of them, Mlungisi Buthelezi, had been clowning about to amuse the others, pretending to take their group photo. He was chatting to Constable Ngcobo as Derrick McBride came round the corner; Derrick approached a few metres down the corridor, then turned and disappeared. Constable Ngcobo told his friends he was just going to go and have a look to see who this man was.
As Derrick met Robert at the top of the stairs, he muttered curtly, “Abort. Civilians.” Derrick continued down the stairs, but Robert decided to have a look round the corner to check for himself. “As I put my head round the corner, I found myself looking into the machine-carbine of Ngcobo. He froze. At that moment I knew we were already committed and that I would have to attempt to carry out the rescue mission,” said Robert. “We looked into each other’s eyes and I knew there was trouble coming. I reacted. I fired.”
A burst of automatic fire hit the floor in front of Ngcobo and a sliver of shrapnel hit his hand. Ngcobo dropped his HMC carbine and ran in the opposite direction. Derrick looked up from the stairs to see the policeman disappearing.
“He’s gone!” Robert yelled back to his father. “Stay here and see that he doesn’t come back.”
As Robert raced round the corner, followed by his father, Constable Ngcobo’s terrified friends got a blurred impression. Seeing a man in a doctor’s white coat, Nkosinathi Nkabinde simply assumed it was a white man who was waving a rifle in their direction. Siphiwe Shange was so petrified by the sound of gunfire that he thinks he remembers five, six or seven black men invading the ward. Nkabini, Shange and Mlungisi Buthelezi leapt up from the bench, but as they scrambled to escape, they collided after a few yards and fell in a heap.
Robert McBride got another impression. “The people on the benches dropped to the ground, fast, like cops,” he said. “I thought, Oh shit, now we’re in trouble. I fired and went forward – I knew I had to go ahead.
“My mind was clear. Everything flowed. I was in fighting mode. I came to the ward door. Suddenly the smoke from the firing made me angry. I don’t know why, and I swore. I went straight through the plastic swing doors.”
The intensive care unit was a narrow, whitewashed room with seven beds, cluttered with medical paraphernalia, oxygen tanks, ventilation tents, instrument trolleys and intravenous drips. From the information Robert had been given he was expecting Gordon to be in the bed right opposite the swing doors: the bed was empty. “Humphrey!” shouted Robert, using one of Gordon’s aliases. “Humphrey!”
Gordon Webster had in fact been moved a couple of beds further down, but he was unable to respond to Robert’s call because a white policeman was right next to him. There were only two policemen on duty that night, and Constable Johannes Visagie had come on duty half an hour before.
Visagie drew his pistol and fired; at that very moment Robert was turning and the bullet skimmed past him.
“At every step now something was going wrong,” said Robert. “All I heard was a loud explosion. I did not have time to think. I swung round and fired. I can remember the cartridge in the air. It seemed to hang there. The policeman was wearing spectacles and he had what looked like a smile on his face.”
Visagie, winged just below the elbow, turned and ran back into the adjacent sluice room only a few metres away, slamming the door shut behind him. A couple of nurses scattered out of the room and another hid in the corner with her hands over her eyes.
Gordon Webster waved his hand to attract Robert’s attention. He was overjoyed to see Robert, but when he came over to his bed the first thing Gordon said was, “The police will shoot.”
“What police?” asked Robert.
Gordon pointed towards the sluice room. Robert approached the door and as he did so Visagie fired again. Robert was not sure how much ammunition he had left so he held fire as he peered round the door. He saw Visagie crouched in the far corner of the sluice room, aiming. Visagie fired and hit the door fractionally to the left of him, ripping out a fragment of the door. A splinter hit Robert and angrily he loosed off another shot, which missed. Robert pulled the door closed. The original idea had been to lock the policemen in the X-ray room, but now he had to hope that the white constable would remain shut in the sluice room, while Derrick kept watch in the corridor for his black colleague.
Gordon Webster lay naked on the bed, with two intravenous tubes inserted into his arm, one for a blood transfusion and the other a glucose water drip. Robert had been expecting Gordon to be able to walk, but as soon as Gordon swung his legs over the bed he began to buckle, and it was clear he was not going to be able to stand. He was very weak.
Nearby a nurse who had been pushing a laundry trolley was screaming hysterically and holding her head in her hands. “Shut up!” Robert shouted at her, and ordered her to bring the trolley over. The nurse fell silent and did as she was told. The trolley had a flat surface with a hole in the centre for the canvas laundry bag. Robert stood in front of Gordon and placing his hands under his armpits he lifted him onto the trolley, settling him into the circular hole in the centre; unable to help, Gordon was lumpenly heavy. Robert settled him on the trolley so that he was seated almost upright in the hole, his legs straddled on either side to make sure he would not fall off. Robert pulled both the intravenous drips out of his arm.
“Let’s get out,” he said.
Gordon took the AK-47. With both hands now free, Robert propelled the trolley through the plastic swing doors, out into the corridor, as fast as they could go.
There was chaos in the corridor; people were running and shouting, others ducked for cover. As soon as they were in the passage Gordon fired two short bursts, holding the rifle unsteadily with his left hand. There were some people on the ground, and there was blood on the floor. Robert yelled at Gordon to stop firing, and repeated, “Let’s get out of here.”
At the perimeter fence Matthew Lecordier had cut a hole big enough for two people to step through at the same time. He was becoming increasingly nervous as he was caught in a faint shaft of light from a hospital window, and at one point an African nurse in one of the wards appeared to be staring at him. After a few seconds she looked away and Matthew continued till he had cut a section of the fence right away. Then he took one of the AK-47s from the red sports bag in the van and hid in the long grass near to Antonio. The night was unsettlingly quiet; all he could hear was the sound of the crickets in the bush.
“Are you still there?” asked Matthew.
“Yeah,” replied Antonio out of the darkness. “Right here.”
From their vantage point in the tall grass the hospital was brightly lit, and at the window where he had seen the nurse he could see the heads of people as they moved about. Although only a matter of minutes, to Matthew it seemed a prodigiously long wait. After a while, he whispered, “These guys are taking a long time.”
“Yeah,” agreed Antonio. “I hope something hasn’t happened to them.”
Suddenly they heard gunshots; automatic and single fire.
In the hospital, Derrick had been standing guard by the stairway to make sure that Constable Ngcobo did not return to cut off their line of retreat. But as soon as he heard a burst of gunfire he ran down the corridor in the direction of the intensive care unit. When he reached 2R, he looked in and saw that the bed directly opposite the door was empty. It even had a clean covering on it.
“I thought I had the wrong ward and that I should go further along,” said Derrick. “I then ran and turned in the next corridor leading to the left. I passed two doors – the first room I passed was also empty. There was nothing in it and when I reached the second door, I heard more shooting – from behind me, the direction which I had just come. I panicked and ran back. When I entered that corridor… I saw people lying on the floor, two or three.”
Two of Constable Ngcobo’s friends, Nkosinathi Nkabinde and Siphiwe Shange, had been wounded in the leg. A third, Mlungisi Buthelezi, lay there dying.
Derrick, the Makarov pistol in his hand, raced after Robert and Gordon.
“There were a number of people who were all panicking near the steps,” said Derrick. “I fired a shot into the air and shouted at them to move, to move.”
With Derrick holding the back of the trolley, and Robert in front, they began to lift Gordon down the stairs, but as Gordon was clutching hold of the rifle with both hands he was unable to keep himself steady in the trolley basket and he began sliding forward. At first Robert, struggling backwards down the stairs, was able to support Gordon with his shoulder, but after a few more steps Gordon fell off the trolley, cushioned partly by Robert, who also managed to grab hold of the rifle. Robert struggled to lift his naked, helpless friend back onto the trolley, yet after only a few more steps Gordon fell to the concrete floor again.
While Derrick went back up the stairs to make sure they were not being followed, Robert scooped Gordon up under his armpits and began to drag him backwards down two flights of stairs. Gordon clung on grimly to the AK-47, his heels dragging and bumping on each step. When they reached the last flight Robert gently put Gordon down and told him that he was going back up to check what had happened to his father. Painfully Gordon crawled down the last flight of stairs.
Derrick was one floor up, following behind slowly, covering their backs. “Come! Come!” yelled Robert.
On the ground floor they found the trolley that Derrick had spotted as they came in, and between them they lifted Gordon onto it. This was a different type of trolley, with a flat top, and so they were able to lay Gordon out on his back and place the rifle on the rack below. They made quicker progress now, with Derrick pushing from behind and Robert pulling at the front. They came racing down a ramp and out of the hospital into a tarred courtyard. Outside it was dark and the air was cool. Suddenly Robert felt exhausted.
Moments later they had to negotiate another set of steps. At first they tried to lift the trolley with Gordon on it, but both Derrick and Robert were tiring rapidly and Gordon slipped off once more. Robert picked him up and carried him to the top, returning to haul the trolley up with Derrick.
Patients and nurses were crowded at the windows of the hospital as the two McBrides pushed their wounded companion on the trolley the last 45 metres towards freedom. Gradually Robert and Derrick became aware of the sound of singing and shouting. It was coming from the windows of the hospital and the nurses’ home. Patients and nurses were cheering them on; they were yelling encouragement.
There were shouts of “Viva ANC!” and “Amandla!”
“We could hear people singing and shouting,” said Robert. “Then we saw a group of people in front of us, also singing, chanting, even dancing, some were ululating. Some of them rushed towards us. It was a difficult moment because they were blocking our way. Father shot in the air. It was the right thing to do, because they backed off. They started laughing; it was like a movie to them. But they backed off.”
In the nurses’ home to his left, Robert realised they were singing freedom songs in Zulu. As he and his father steered the trolley down the covered walkway towards the fence, a patient came out of one of the redbrick outhouses and sullenly stood in their path. Derrick levelled the pistol at him and slowly the patient turned away and moved aside.
From his vantage point in the grass outside the wire perimeter, Antonio du Preez spotted Robert and Derrick propelling the trolley fast down the walkway. Both Antonio and Matthew could clearly hear the sound of singing and clapping.
The rhythmic chant grew louder and louder as the trolley approached the fence. They were moving so fast that Gordon fell heavily again. Robert could feel his strength failing rapidly. As they neared the fence, he shouted, “Support! Support!”
Antonio emerged from the grass on the other side of the dirt road and pushed his gun through the wire netting to give them cover if necessary.
In the dark it was difficult to make things out clearly. “I was tired, what with carrying Gordon and all the adrenalin, and I was becoming nervous that people would be after us,” said Robert. “Antonio had a floppy green cap on and he looked like a policeman. He began pushing his gun through the fence. For a moment, I nearly shot him.”
Matthew Lecordier came through the fence to meet them and helped Robert carry Gordon through the hole in the fence. “I saw Mr McBride was exhausted,” said Matthew. “We lifted Gordon, one each side of him. Gordon was very heavy. He was so heavy we almost dropped him. He was in pain, I don’t know what he said – he was muttering things but I wasn’t listening.
“He was naked and he still had part of a drip in him. He looked very weak and I could see from the expression on his face as we lifted him that he was in agony. He was moaning.”
They placed Gordon as gently as they could in the open back of the van.
Matthew and Antonio climbed up in the back with him and both took off their jackets to cover him. Derrick closed the bonnet and jumped into the passenger seat. Robert started the van up and pulled away as fast as he dared down the coarse, rutted gravel track. He drove for a couple of hundred yards without his lights on. Behind them, gradually receding, they could hear the sound of the nurses and patients at Edendale Hospital still singing triumphantly. DM
Robert McBride: The Struggle Continues is published by Tafelberg. Bryan Rostron has worked as a journalist and author in Italy, New York, London and South Africa.
"It's the friends you can call up at 4am that matter." ~ Marlene Dietrich