03/22/2012 09:50 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

My Outing with Apartheid's Enforcers

It was during the twilight years of the evil called apartheid that I moved to South Africa to fight for causes that I deeply felt.

In violation of the Group Areas Act, Hillbrow was a racially integrated neighborhood of Johannesburg. It was also the location of several gay clubs and home to bookstores and the city's nightlife. It was an island of joy in a sea of Calvinist Puritanism. Here, in my apartment looking out toward the clunky Voortrekker Monument, I started a gay newspaper.

There already was another such publication, but it avoided the issues of the day, preferring to report on drag shows rather than acts of state. From the first issue I challenged the censorship laws as immoral. When Winnie Mandela was engaged in homophobic actions and violence, the paper equally condemned her. My politics, for greater individual rights and freedom, were prominent in every issue. Within two or three issues the circulation of the paper equalled our rival, and we were circulated nationally.

At some point the paper garnered attention, and I realized the South African Police were curious. I had already seen police action; I was thrown out of a police station for protesting a beating that took place in front of me, for instance. And they disrupted an anti-censorship conference I attended at the University of Witwatersrand.

So it was not surprising when things took a turn that showed how absurd, vicious, and funny authoritarianism could be.

My experience started the day I visited a friend and my car was in his driveway. When I left to go home I found every tire had been slashed. My friend insisted on reporting this to the police. He was more optimistic than I.

A couple of weeks later two officers rang my doorbell; I had moved to a house nearer the airport by then. I stepped outside, closing the door behind me and making it clear they were not invited inside. They said they wished to ask me about the vandalism -- odd, as I hadn't given my home address when it was reported. One officer asked if we could speak inside about it. I said, "No, this is fine."

All pretenses fell aside, and the officer said they wanted to search my home. I said they couldn't, went inside, and called a judge, who was a friend of mine, and told him the police were on my doorstep demanding to search the house. He confirmed they had no right to do so.

I informed the officers of this. They pulled their trump card. One ran to the police car and radioed in a report of suspicious drug activities at my address. With a "public report" of "drug-related activity" they no longer needed a search warrant.

I argued, but in minutes there were a dozen officers with sniffer dogs charging up the walkway. I insisted that only two officers enter at a time, and that they be accompanied by me -- to make it harder to plant evidence. The sniffer dog found nothing of interest, not even an old bone buried in the garden. But it wasn't over.

The original officers claimed they now had the right to search because they were inside the house. The drug team left, and the first two officers stayed behind. They searched high and low and argued over what could or couldn't be confiscated. Books purchased at Exclusive Books, a well-known bookstore a few kilometers away, were confiscated as "contraband." At one point they debated in Afrikaans whether a postcard of the Venus de Milo was pornography: the armless statue had bare breasts, which were considered obscene, at least on white women.

Eventually they wanted to go to the station to take my fingerprints, in case charges were ever filed. Once outside they realized another officer from the drug team must have driven their car back to the station. They were stranded, and insisted that I drive in my car.

Mine, however, was a very tiny car with just two seats and a small space behind them. One officer had to crunch up ridiculously in the back, hitting his head on the roof with each bump on the road -- and the road was especially bumpy that day. Neither was impressed as I lectured them regarding the immorality of their actions.

One got flustered and angrily said, "You make it sound as if we we're the ones who did something wrong." He was right: I did.

I told him, "I could lecture you about the conflict between rights and law, but I doubt you would understand." This proved so true that he didn't realize that comment was insulting.

No charges were ever filed, but neither was my property returned. However, I started getting odd phone calls from one of the officers. He left messages saying he needed to see me, but insisted on doing so only in the "evening," and alone. I suspected he was another repressed Afrikaner boy conscripted into the police.

I didn't return his increasingly urgent calls. Eventually my attorney called him on my behalf. The attorney pretended we had no idea what the officer really wanted and suggested setting up a meeting where all three of us would be present. The poor boy suddenly couldn't remember why he needed to see me. Shame, he was certainly cute enough by my standards, but it felt too much like the oppressed dating the opressor to ever be considered.

I never saw or heard from him again. The police did have a far less attractive officer sit in his car watching the house after that. But even that ended when I informed him that I had to report him to the police as a suspicious person. He sputtered, "I am the police," and drove off. That wasn't the last I saw of the SAP, but as apartheid waned, their fangs disappeared. For the most part they became toothless dogs, growling with little bite left.