Stuck in traffic on a downtown Johannesburg street, while giving our kids’ nanny a lift back to her apartment, a shadowy figure filled my window. I turned to look and there was a youngish man, thin, wearing a blue windcheater and his face covered with lesions. He has The Sickness, I thought, as I began to pay attention to what he was saying.
“Give me your cellphone, or I will kill you!” His hand was fluttering and scrabbling at the jacket, as if he was struggling to get at his gun.
As the adrenalin surged, along an almost forgotten and weirdly comforting path from my chest to my limbs, thoughts began racing through my mind. Despite having left space between myself and the minibus taxi ahead, there was no way out of bedlam of Claim Street. Edleen, our nanny, still had a smile on her face. She had no idea yet as to what as was going on.
As the man repeated the order and threat, I decided he did not have a gun at all. A rage was building and between being thankful the kids were not in the car and fantasizing violently about what I was going to do to him.
Swallowing my urges, I growled “Fuck off!” wound up the window and edged forward. He disappeared from view.
“My God,” Edleen muttered, burying her face in her hands. I began, oddly enough, to apologize. Then she apologized to me, shaking. Pretty weird, really, us apologizing because some half-wit was willing to entertain the notion of killing a person for a cellphone.
I was giving Edleen a lift home that day as she had missed the taxis home; wife Leonie and I had been on the set of the Bang Bang Club, a feature film based on the book by Joao Silva and myself.
The filming that day was about the Boipatong massacre of 1992. It is a very strange post-modern experience to see a Hollywood star – Ryan Phillippe – playing yourself better than you. They were re-enacting the death of a nine month old baby who had died in the name of politics and democracy. The props people had called me over to “show me something” in a large nylon shopping bag. It turned out to be the prosthetic of little Aaron Mathope, with a gaping wound in his soft skull. “We tried to make it exactly like in your picture,” the woman said. I shot a picture – as is my wont - turned and walked away down the street of a shanty town trying to hide my tears under my cap.
While Phillippe and Malin Ackerman as the female lead playing Robin Comley were both amazing, the day was stolen by Vusi Kunene. Kunene plays Aaron’s grief stricken father telling Greg/Ryan about how his wife and infant were pointlessly killed on a cold winter’s night in the Vaal.
Memories of death, violence and angry frustration swamped my sub-conscious when that Aids-stricken thug thought he’d choose me as his mobile phone donor of the evening. I wanted to purge it all all, but some sense of restraint, morality or good sense prevailed.
Later, I recalled other brushes with thugs, from the early ‘Nineties. On more than one occasion in Soweto, armed tsotsies had stopped me to hijack my car. Yet in those violent but somehow innocently idealistic times, they first asked if it was my own car or a company car. On hearing it was my own, they simply said “Go,” and looked to another victim.
And so, as we approach a possibly crucial election in which the choices seem to be all about morality, I have to remind myself about what we struggled for. Little Aaron Mathope and his mother did not die for the liberty of someone to think it is okay to kill a person for a second-hand cellphone. Nor for two two almost-victims to apologize to each other for a fearful moment filled with the potential for tragedy.