Yebo - Joey and the Deltones

In a way, this song kind of represents me at my best. It is a snapshot of me at my most idealistic, dreamy, and hopeful.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Living in a Tsotsi Paradise

Tsotsi (noun) TSO-tsee
1- Thug or criminal
2- Oscar winning 2005 film directed by Gavin Hood
3- Asshole South African who violates your space and security with his asshole friends by using threats of violence against you and takes your possessions because they like being assholes to people
4- Really, they're just huge assholes

Maybe this isn't the current accepted definition of what a "Tsotsi" is, but I've put a request into Merriam-Webster to get my definition included in the 2009 updated dictionary. Because I think my definition is way more accurate.

I suppose it was bound to happen sooner or later. And now that it did, I feel officially initiated into life in South Africa.

About 3 weeks ago, while en route to Pretoria for medical appointments and then to meet my parents for vacation, I was mugged by some fellow South Africans who it seems had nothing better to do than to seriously inconvenience me by taking shit that did not belong to them.

The story is as follows...

I hopped on a taxi from Tzaneen to Pretoria early-ish in the day, around 9:30 am or so. The ride was typically uncomfortable for a plethora of reasons: I had no leg room, it was hot and humid like the jungle of a fat guy's armpit, people were sweaty and smelly (myself included), and the chubby guy next to me obviously had something wrong with him because the whole ride, he wouldn't stop jiggling in his seat, bobbing his head around in circles, talking aloud to himself in siPedi, and spreading his fat legs out as wide as possible, thus eliminating the minimal seat space I had for my small ass to begin with.

I managed to sort-of fall asleep after the break in the ride (on a 4-hour ride to Pretoria, taxi's take a short bathroom and food break about 2 hours in), but I was woken up from the feeling of warm, greasy beef broth being dribbled on my leg, courtesy of Fat Bobby next to me. During the break he had decided to get a dish of pap, beef and gravy which he couldn't eat during the break, so he took the plate on the taxi with him to eat on the ride. Because of the bumpy nature of the ride and the obvious dim-wittedness and completely uncoordinated nature of my seat mate, about half the gravy ended up on my leg - an event which caused my friend to simply look at me and smile a dumb smile, just before he decided to throw the entire meal, pap, beef, plate and all, out the taxi's open window, splashing the remains on the glass of the taxi doors so the people in the seats behind us could enjoy the greasy streaks they left upon the clear surface.

Upon arriving in Pretoria, tired, anxious, angry and more than frustrated, I noticed that the taxi was pulling into a part of town that I hadn't been before. I had recognized it as being in the vicinity of the taxi rank I usually go to, but not quite where I'd end up normally. As the door opened, I asked a man outside if there were taxis going to Hatfield, my destination.

"Hatfield, yes. Follow me my friend."

I got out of the taxi clutching my duffel bag and day pack in either hand, the bags hanging low, and my Canon 10D DSLR camera backpack on my back. I expected to follow the guy to one of the taxis just on the side of the road in front of me, but I saw he turned the corner and was leading me down another block.

As I picked up my pace, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a short, stumpy looking black South African in a dirty green jacket abruptly turn around and start following me with an obvious purpose in his step.

Instantly, a warning light went off in my head. Something wasn't right. I could feel it.

The man I was following to the Hatfield taxi was about 5 or 6 paces ahead of me, and the sidewalk was crowded enough with people so that I couldn't catch up to him as quickly as I would have liked. There was a solid wall to my right, garbage, parked cars and people selling things on my left, and two ladies walking very slowly in front of me. Though I felt something wasn't right, I tried to tell myself I was just being paranoid and that things were probably completely normal.

Still, I picked up my pace as best I could, and I kept glancing behind me to see if I was putting any distance between myself and the man in the green jacket.

I wasn't.

I decided that things were actually not at all normal, and that I should quickly make a move to get the hell out of the situation.

I was about to start jogging ahead, but the instant I was about to take my first step, my heart stopped as I felt an arm come from behind me, swing around my neck, and I felt something blunt pushing against my lower back.

"GIVE! GIVE!" was all the man said.

I stood like a scarecrow, my arms out to the side, not moving, saying "Take what you want. Just take it..."

It was then that I felt 3 pairs of hands going thru all my pockets, and I heard the sound of the zippers on my bags being opened and the contents searched. I knew they'd take my phone. I knew they'd take my wallet, and I knew they'd take my small Pentax camera, because I always kept it in my pocket. Having people go thru your pockets makes you feel violated in such an awkward way. It's a hard feeling to describe. It isn't the worst thing in the world, but it just feels so wrong.

As they were searching me, I decided I could be ok with all that being taken, but I was absolutely terrified that they would take my Canon DSLR camera.

I began panicking slightly at the thought of them taking it, and so I started trying to plead with them to not take "it" without mentioning the item directly.

I thought to myself, "Don't take my nice camera" probably isn't the best thing to say to a group of criminals searching you, if you indeed want to keep your camera. I don't remember exactly what was coming out of my mouth, but I quickly realized it was useless and stupid. They weren't going to listen to me. They probably didn't even understand me.

I felt like I was being held for minutes on end while they searched me, in broad daylight, with people all around, watching the event go down.

At some point I looked ahead to the guy taking me to the taxi. He was looking at me with a desperate and apologetic face, his arms held out in an "I don't know what to say or do" manner, and he was shaking his head. I was mouthing the word "Help" to him, and then I actually began saying it aloud quite loudly as I saw more and more people pass by, look at me, then continue walking.

"Help?!?" I was practically shouting to the people who passed by. I said it in a disbelieving manner, like, "Is anyone going to do ANYTHING? Are you really just going to keep walking away? I'm getting mugged here jackass!"

No one did anything. No one acted as if anything was wrong. Everyone just went about as if it was part of the daily routine. And I suppose in that part of town, it really is part of the daily routine.

Eventually, after what felt like 15 minutes but was probably more like 15 seconds, the 5 or 6 men let me go, gave me a small shove, and began slowly walking the other way down the street.

I was overwhelmed, pissed off, and panicked that all my shit was gone.

I was quite surprised when I turned around and noticed that my duffel bag and day pack had not had anything taken out of them, and I was about to check if my Canon camera was gone until I thought to myself, "PSST! GET THE HELL AWAY FROM WHERE YOU ARE. IF YOUR CAMERA WASN'T TAKEN, DON'T TAKE IT OUT TO SHOW THEM THEY MISSED SOMETHING."

I ran up the block to where the taxi was waiting and started yelling at the guy who was leading me there.

"Why wouldn't you do anything?!? Why doesn't ANYONE do anything? That's the problem with this damn country. Everyone is too scared to stand up for anyone else. Everyone looks after themselves and who the hell cares if someone else is a victim? What the hell man?!"

The guy didn't argue. He agreed with everything I said.

"Yes. You're right! I don't do anything because they all had knives. They would kill me if I did anything. That is why I don't do anything."

I was still pissed at him, and also for a brief moment thought he might have been in on the whole thing, but after some thought, that didn't seem justifiable. I put myself in his shoes. If I saw someone getting mugged by 6 men with knives, would I do anything? Could I do anything?

I probably could if I wanted to get stabbed.

It's a fucked up situation, but the rules you follow as a potential victim or onlooker are generally the same: Don't resist, don't intervene. If the situation is non-violent, let them take what they want and they'll be on their way. Stuff can be replaced. That's really the best and only thing you can do.

When I was being held there, I had thoughts of "Ok... If I was Jackie Chan, how would I get out of this?"

My mind was racing, but I came to the conclusion that even Jackie Chan couldn't have done anything. I was in a vulnerable position, off balance, and outnumbered 6 to 1 by guys with sharp objects intended to cause pretty severe bodily harm.

I decided that if I was Jackie Chan, I would have to have waited for the incident to be over with. Then when the assholes turned around to leave, I would have drop kicked their sorry asses all the way to the Indian Ocean, tied them up, pierced their ears and noses with big hoop rings, hang them over the side of a rickety boat, tied to the boat only by thin fishing line I attached to their newly pierced appendages, and make them apologize to me repeatedly while dangling their testicles just above the Great White shark infested waters.

But alas, I am not Jackie Chan, or any variation thereof.

I got on the taxi to Hatfield, accepted the expressions of "Oh, shame." from the people riding with me, and inspected my belongings.

The only things missing were my phone, my Pentax camera, 150 rand, a few random items not important enough to remember, and my polarizing lens for my camera.

I felt a bulge in my pocket and realized that they had even given me back my wallet after they took the cash out. All my bank cards and IDs were still in there.

What the hell?

I was extremely lucky. These guys must have been professionals. Amateurs would have been much more uncoordinated and possibly much more violent. These guys knew what they were after, and knew the most efficient way to get it.

The biggest relief was to find that the assholes didn't even touch my Canon. Upon visual inspection, I realized that to the untrained eye, you can't even tell there is a zipper or a separate compartment to my backpack where my camera sits in rest. The compartment was flanked by two full water bottles as well, and those weren't touched, so I knew they had no clue that there was something of much more value in my possession than a crappy cell phone and 2 year old digital camera.

The fact that I did not lose my Canon took so much weight off of my shoulders that it made the whole incident seem petty. Still, I had a bit of trouble staying asleep the next few nites.

I really don't know how I ended up being so lucky. I realize that the whole situation could have been infinitely worse.

I've replaced my phone already, and 150 rand isn't a huge deal to lose, considering the circumstances. I'm pissed I don't have my small camera anymore though. I always have it on me, for pictures, videos, or even recording sound clips for song ideas. I'll wait a while until I get a new one. I didn't like that one so much anymore anyway.

Other stories from volunteers are more hair-raising than mine, and some have ended up much worse. It's a frustrating thing to deal with in this country. Crimes like this happen in the middle of the day, in broad daylight, with hundreds of people around to witness it. Most of them happen in the cities, though some in the more rural areas. Generally at our sites, volunteers feel safe. Elsewhere, volunteers are obvious targets, and they can't always avoid areas of town where the crime rate is high. Sometimes it's just bad luck that makes us end up there, and shit luck if something happens. We are all very wary of our surroundings, but there will always be times where you just can't do anything.

I found myself in that situation and am so thankful that nothing worse happened.

I just wish there was more of a desire to stop these guys. The police are useless. One of my friends, upon reporting a mugging to the local police station was told by the policemen that they wouldn't pursue the case. Why? Their reason:

"If we go after these guys, then they come after us and our families."

I'm sorry... what? Where I come from, [the majority of] cops sign up to be a cop because they want to make a difference and want to make our streets safer. Where I come from, it's the cops who call the shots and who willingly put themselves in the face of danger to keep others safe. Where I come from it's the cops who are to be feared by the criminals. Not the other way around.

But I guess I'm not living in NY now.

Here in South Africa, criminals truly do live in a "Tsotsi Paradise". It seems that for most of the policemen I've come across since being here, being a cop means nothing more than getting a paycheck and laying low if any real shite goes down.

Thankfully, I didn't need them. I hope I never do.


Brooke said...

Joey, my friend. I have no words for this one. I'm sorry, and I'm also thankful it wasn't worse. I miss you. See you for turkey next weekend.
Brooke and Jed

Patrick Nobles said...

Joey - always truly a pleasure to read your blog. Your words are filled with the finest intention. Keep it up.