East London, South Africa — Joseph Kobo is a man without a coountry. Make that three countries. More precisely, he is a national -- but not citizen of -- one country that insists he is the subject of a second government.
But that second government has barred him from its territory. And when he sought refuge in yet a third jurisdiction, he was arrested.
Yet all this happened to him without his ever leaving the country of his birth.
The confused reader may well sympathize with Joseph Kobo, who is equally mystified by what has befallen him.
He is caught up in South Africa's complex system of race laws known as apartheid, and no matter what he does -- whether he moves in any direction or stays where he is -- he runs afoul of the country's racial legislation.
And although Mr. Kobo's story may well point up some of the absurdities of apartheid, to him it is a tragic, not a laughing, matter.
Because so long as he is caught up in the quagmire of South Africa's race laws, he is prohibited from living in his own house, residing with his family, or even holding down a job.
"You feel like crying," he says. "You ask God, 'Where did I go wrong?'"
Mr. Kobo, a slight, neatly dressed man wearing wide-rimmed spectacles, traces his problems back to 1976. That year, the area where he was born -- the Transkei section of South Africa -- was scheduled to become an independent country, and its residents were to be stripped of their South African nationality.
This was in furtherance of a plan by the white South African government to denationalize black people, so that whites can claim to be in the majority in South Africa.
Mr. Kobo, as national secretary of the opposition party in Transkei, could see little future there. For one thing, Transkei's independence was unrecognized by any other country except South Africa. For another, he did not want to lose his South African citizenship.
So shortly before Transkei was declared independent, he moved several hundred miles westward, to another area known as Ciskei. Because the people of both areas spoke the Xhosa language, Mr. Kobo took a job editing a newspaper published by the Ciskeian government. Although Ciskei exercises a limited form of self-government, it was -- and is -- still considered a part of South Africa.
In January 1979, however, the quasi-government Ciskei Transport Company was hit by a bus driver strike. And word was passed to Ciskei authorities that Mr. Kobo and another man, Livingstone Malotana, were behind-the-scenes strike leaders.
Both men deny the charge. Mr. Kobo notes he has never worked for the company and stood to gain nothing by a drivers' strike. And although Mr. Malotana was employed by the bus company, it was as a statistician, not a driver.
Nevertheless, both were arrested and detained under Ciskei's so-called security legislation. When they were eventually charged -- after 90 days in detention -- the charge against them was made under a South African government law, however. At the same time, the two men were given 48 hours to leave Ciskei and ordered not to return.
Both men had residences in Ciske, and their wives and children still live there. Yet, their "deportation" from Ciskei split the families. With a critical housing shortage in the area -- and tight governmental restrictions on where blacks may live -- it has proved impossible for them to be reunited. Even after charges against the two were dropped, the deportation order stayed in effect.
Both men moved in with relatives in a black township outside the South African city of East London, but blacks are being forced out of that township under another of South Africa's race laws, to make way for Colored (mixed race) and Indian residents. And where are the blacks being relocated? Mdantsane, the same black township where Mr. Kobo and Mr. Malotana formerly lived -- and from which they have been barred because it is part of Ciskie.
Yet, under South African law, the two men are "illegally" in South Africa, because they are considered "citizens" of Ciskei. And under South Africa's racialistic "pass laws," which tightly control the movements of black people, the men are subject to arrest by the South African police. If apprehended they could be tried, fined or imprisoned, or ordered to their "homeland" -- the Ciskei -- from from which they are barred.
Faced with this unsettling prospect, Mr. Kobo sought -- and obtained -- an audience with George Matanzima, head of the Transkei government (which, four years after "independence," is still unrecognized by the world community). Mr. Kobo was entertaining the idea of settling back in Transkei, where his legal status would at least be less uncertain.
But on his arrival in the Transkie capital of Umtata, he says, he was arrested an detained for 13 months. He was released in early September, without ever having charges filed against him. (The South African government, of course , made no attempt to intercede, since it does not concede his citizenzhip in the white-led republic.)
Now, the two men are, in Mr. Kobo's words "stateless." They have sought help from a variety of Ciskei and South African officials, but without success. For the time being, they stay with various relatives while trying to clarify their legal standing.
But, under South Africa's race law, they are not allowed to hold a job unless they have official government permission to live in a specified area. Neither has that permission, so neither can work.
"It all boils down to one thing," says Mr. Kobo. "The apartheid philosophy. We are not South Africans, not Ciskeians, or Transkeians. We are stateless in the land of our birth."