Percy Zvomuya witnesses a remarkable but everyday incident on the streets of downtown Johannesburg.
Speaking on the phone, while driving, or at a traffic intersection is dumb. Speaking on the phone, window rolled down, at the corner of Ntemi Piliso and Bree streets, on the western edge of the Johannesburg city centre, is madness.
This is where traffic from the west meets the streaming from the south and north. Most of it is taxis. One imagines that when Armageddon erupts in the CBD this would be the third best site to be. Noord and Bree taxi ranks are leading contenders for best site.
Everything you require in the aftermath of a war is here: a family pharmacy; a bottle store; a congregation of the Kingdom of God (to help ease access into the heavenly netherworld); a Chicken Licken (in the event that you don’t cross into other place and remain stuck in this world, their hot wings are superb as the first post-resuscitation meal); a taxi rank; and a hair salon (you want to cross over looking good).
One day, perhaps a Tuesday or a Wednesday afternoon, as I was crossing Ntemi Piliso, I noticed two scrawny, scruffy men, black, wresting a cellphone from a chubby white man in a greyish Citi Golf. The man, with a round, cheerful face wasn’t easy prey. Although petrified, he was resisting. He wasn’t going to give up his phone without a fight.
I stood there watching, immobile, as did everyone else. Should I go and help him fight off the two thugs? Whatever decision I had to make was to be quick. I was not quick. Time (and thugs) wait for no man. The advantage was with the thugs. There were two of them, there were on their feet, they had more menace and they wanted this to be done as soon as possible.
The incident was meticulously choreographed. The cellphone exchanged hands at around the same time the robot turned green. Green robots meant that the man had to go but he wouldn’t start his car. Instead, he pushed open his door and went after the thugs who were weaving through the traffic and the crowd. Soon they stepped onto the lips of a squatting smelly edifice and were swallowed by its toxic vapours.
Next to the now-abandoned Golf was a disheveled taxi driver who had seen the exchange. When he saw the chubby man running after the thugs, he followed suit, almost as if on cue. The man sprinted just behind the two thugs, the taxi driver in tow. I thought it was foolhardy, it’s just a phone, but I also thought nothing could happen to him. He had the taxi driver for company and nobody messes with a taxi driver except other taxi people.
We stood milling around the car, whose window was still rolled down, waiting for the man to return and (uselessly) acting as sentries. Jo'burg’s notoriously impatient drivers, who must have seen the incident, sat patiently behind his car, not hooting. They waited. The robots on Bree had turned red and the cars at Ntemi Piliso were standing still, waiting.
A few minutes later, the chubby white man and the black taxi driver emerged, triumphant, phone in hand. Clocks, which had stood still, began ticking again. And I heard someone mutter: “He is a man.”
Percy Zvomuya is the Mail & Guardian's arts and features reporter, who loves walking the streets of Johannesburg. Follow his column Street View to meet the characters he encounters.