Saturday, April 2, 2011

Thief! Tsotsi!

I’ve squeezed into what I thought was the last spot in a taxi van, but as my backpack is handed to me and a bucket full of apples is heaved over the laps of the front row – another seat is uncovered.

The 17 of us, 18 including the driver, hunker down to wait for another passenger to arrive.

I’m hot. I want to go.

“We are full, Ntate. Ha Re Ea! [Let’s go!]” I say to the driver. He turns and smiles his rebuff.

“Ntate, we are full. There are 17 of us waiting to go.”

A curtain of crisp silence falls, and the passengers are a captive audience for this unexpected cross cultural theatre piece unfolding.

“We will pick this one up on the way,” I continue my monologue.

“How much is each ticket? R27,” I decide to take the business route. “So, if we each, each of us, each we pay one more rand, one rand more only, we’ve paid for the extra seat. And I will pay the remaining ten extra.”

The driver glances in the rearview mirror, sensing something I don’t. Sesotho suddenly breaks out among the passengers behind me, and before I know it the conductor has hopped in, closed the door, and we’re off.

“You’ve made it so that we can leave!” says one man.

“We might have waited hours,” another laments.

“Why are you having to pay the R10?” one asks.

“Um… it was my idea?” I grin sheepishly, calculating the extra rand as about $1.25.

But the taxi is already sputtering, threatening us with breaking down. On the inclines it stalls, and the conductor darts out to find a rock for the back wheels while the driver tries to start it again. We are not 15 minutes out on our journey. Somehow we inch along.

Passengers get out, and more get in. Soon we are at 20 plus.

At the next slope, the taxi stalls. After 5-10 attempts to start it again, we are all ushered off. Passengers start walking up the hill while the driver and condductor begin to dismantle the floorboard to fix the engine.

I am so annoyed. I take my heavy bag and hoist it on my back, my shoulders immediately begin to ache.

I catch up with the others, then turn to see a white pick up that is coming our way. I naively feel relief. “Ah, but he can help us! We can ride in the back!” I say to one of my previous business partners.

He looks at me in concern. “But no, I think that then the taxi driver will be quite angry.”

Momentarily I am confused over how that driver could possibly be angry with a load of stranded passengers. Until, I realize, the terms of their agreement with this driver are very different than mine. My roots of commitment lie only in my arrival at the final destination. Their commitment is something I cannot begin to understand as an outsider.

Indeed, the pick up slows down, talks with the driver a bit, then speeds past us with its empty open back. No hitches.

I can’t bear it. My heart beats loudly and I pick up my bag again, my anger, my indignation and independence, and begin to walk. I pass the group sitting now by the side of the road.

“Where are you going?” they ask. I tell them. It might take three hours, but I refuse to sit and wait for that taxi.

I manage to get to my destination, and after retelling my story a few times in frustration, it begins to bury itself in my ‘mountains out of molehills’ file. I forget about it in the success of teacher training workshops and being with children.

Not until a week later, on my return trip, does it dig itself out.

I’m riding the taxi home. We’ve pulled over, paused so the conductor could get change at the shop on the way, and suddenly an Ntate is walking quickly and aggressively towards us. It is the driver of the taxi that broke down.

He leans in the driver’s window and glares at me. He rubs his fingers together. “Chelete. Money.”

This is certainly not an apology for the break down.

I say, “No way, Ntate” I am loud. “Uh-uh.”

The only word I know for broken down is just ‘to break’ so I seeth forcefully, ‘You are broken, You are broken” in Sesotho. I hope he gets the message.

He calls me ‘Tsotsi’. Thief.

I blow up. “Tsotsi?!? You tsotsi! You leave people on the side of a road! You are tsotsi!”

He yells. I yell. I’m pretty sure I’ve convinced him I’m not giving him any money.

After a while, he leaves. I see him go up to the current driver and yell, brandish a stick, yell. The driver comes back in. He looks at me and smiles. After all, moments ago we had been singing UB40 together, ‘Red Red Wine’.

“Do you know what he was talking about?” he asks me, still grinning.

“Oh yes, Ntate. His taxi broke down. He left me on the side of the road. He left everybody there on that road.”

“So you are not going to pay him?”

“No way, Ntate. I will pay you, because your taxi works. I pay when I am taken to my destination, not when I am left somewhere along the way.”

“You don’t even know where it was that he left you?” He is implying that I should have paid for the distance that I did ride.

I’m fuming and nearly pitiful. Why would those passengers pay? And yet, I know there will be no consequence for my decision to leave without fare. The taxi drivers are strangers to me, and I will still be taken to where I need to go.

Had I lived and grown up in this place, for how long would I have known that driver – and his family? Would anyone pick me up the next time, since all the taxis are poorly maintained? Only if the passengers as a group were organized and resolutely united not to pay for such disrespect – only then would, or might, things change.

Ten minutes later, well before the final arrival and after some heated discussion between the driver and the conductor, I am asked for my fare. I hand over exact change. It’s clear this taxi will complete the journey.

I am not a thief. Am I?

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