Johannesburg, South Africa: Taxicab Confessions
The outskirts of Johannesburg.
Circa 2009: In some places in Jo'burg, its best to keep your eyes on the road.
Sometimes a perception of a place is clouded by past experiences...
South Africa, 2009.
I’m sitting in Sandton, Johannesburg, a relatively safe suburb in a city of contrasts. The comfort of my hotel feels like an island oasis, separated by electrified barbed wire from the reality that exists only meters beyond. Its easy to get sidetracked in this beautiful country. Its people are as vibrant as its wildlife and it is not difficult to find a smile here. A friend is only a handshake away. But I'm ill at ease. An experience 10 years ago plays on my mind.
I look at the clock on the bedside table and rise from my chair. It is time to go. I exit the hotel. My suit, tie and briefcase are my standard for the meeting I am attending this afternoon - a cold call. I head to reception to catch my ride.
As I hail down a cab, something in my mindset switches and I become acutely aware of the number of eyes on me. The hair on the back of my neck bristles. I’m not dressed for a walk in the sunshine, at least not by local standards. The car leaves the hotel’s perimeter and I check the interior of the taxi and its driver. Everything looks legit. I remove my jacket so I have freedom of movement and then I lock the passenger doors. Finally, I put on my sunglasses and roll down the window closest to me an inch from the top of the frame.
Old habits die hard. I know that inch can mean the difference between a spark plug bouncing off the window pane or receiving a face full of safety glass. Its the small things that count in matters of personal security.
As we ride away from the civilisation of Santon into the suburbs that skirt Johannesburg’s CBD, the scenery changes remarkably and so do the faces. Buildings become dilapidated. In my mind's eye, expressions become predatory. As I watch the scene roll by, my memory kicks in and my grip tightens around the pen I keep in my pocket...
Somewhere in Johannesburg, a decade ago...
I’m in the front seat of a car. The car’s interior is partially burned, and the dashboard is discoloured from past flame. God knows what has gone on in this car. As the it accelerates, so does my seat, periodically rolling backwards, until the driver hits the brakes, causing my seat to rocket forward and smash me into the dashboard. Every time the car stops, the scenario repeats. I wait for the next round, I have no choice. The seat rollers are moving freely, because the locking mechanism is broken. Outside, I see nothing familiar. It is my first night in this city.
I am making my way through the inner suburbs of Jo'burg, a place locals avoid after dark, with a driver I’ve never seen before. My gut tells me it is not the best choice I have ever made, but in hindsight, I had no choice. The driver’s ebony features are briefly lit up as we pass under a street light, he has a thin film of sweat across his face from the humidity. His forehead is furrowed, his eyes focused. I study his exotic features for only a moment, before they retreat into darkness again. I can't read him. He does not talk to me, nor does he make eye contact. He doesn’t want to know me. But that is not unusual for a taxi driver. My eyes shift to the back seat. My friend lies there, sprawled out, head rolling from side to side as the car crawls through the city’s almost deserted streets.
My friend needs a doctor. I gave her my word I would find one. Since I couldn't get a locum to come out at night, I thought getting a taxi to a doctor was the next best choice. But I couldn't get a marked taxi to come out either. So I settled for a car organised by the hotel. The doorman of the two bit establishment, who I had never seen before, made the arrangements. Now I'm on my own and thinking for the two of us. I’m uneasy about the responsibility.
I think back to a week ago, in a café in Capetown, where I sat perched on a stool, sipping a latte and facing a window to the street. Everything was so normal, just a café with that coffee aroma and locals who chatted about mundane local things. I watched two men across the road through the glass. They were talking. The chatter became a heated argument. Then came the blows. It ended with one stabbing the other. The locals around me ignored the scene, instead deciding to continue drinking their coffee, as they chatted about mundane local things. As if it was just another day.
I stop reminiscing and return to the reality of the moment. I notice I'm not smashing into the dashboard anymore. We have stopped moving. A red traffic light blocks our path and the driver keeps his eyes fixed on the road ahead. I take a quick look into the back seat. My friend isn’t moving anymore either. I look to the driver and ask him to hurry. He says nothing as another car races past us and through the red light. He doesn’t respond to me at all. It’s like I’m not even there.
My unease blooms. Something is wrong. My gut is speaking in tongues. I’m trying to register the reason for my tension. Reaching, reaching, reaching… And then it clicks into place, like daylight. An icy chill races down my spine. Oh god…
The other car didn’t stop.
Instinctively, I look out of the passenger’s window. I see nothing as my eyes adjust to the darkness. I look harder, and only after a moment do I begin to see. There are silhouettes moving in the shadows and they are headed towards us. I turn to the driver and grab him.
“DRIVE MAN, DRIVE!”.
For the first time, he turns to face me. His look freezes me inside and my next sentence catches in my throat. Without words, I realise the horrible truth of my error. He isn't going anywhere. I have seconds left until my fears become a reality. Adrenaline hits me and my body stalls, but my mind races to consider the options: If I run, my friend is gone. If I stay, we are both gone. There is no time to struggle with the driver either and he knows it.
The realisation hits home like a physical blow. I'm done. I feel damned. I drop my eyes in submission... and then I see it. Such an innocent thing. Just a simple plastic ballpoint pen the driver has left resting in an open ashtray. To me, it looks like hope.
The pen is in my hand before I make a conscious decision. My hand shoots towards the driver, coming to rest lightly on his neck. His eyes open wide, the shock registering in his features. My mouth opens and I hear myself speak in an calmly alien voice:
Every place has its rules. Learn this one: Never hesitate in Africa.