Who have we become? A vignette on everyday humanity, or the lack thereof

'The taller security guard tells her to go and ask at the counter. Through the glass she begs: “Please, I desperately need to use the toilet, which way is it?”' (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

'The taller security guard tells her to go and ask at the counter. Through the glass she begs: “Please, I desperately need to use the toilet, which way is it?”' (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

A woman runs down the long descending escalator at the Rosebank Gautrain station while the stairs are in motion. There is no one to push past because it is almost closing time on Saturday night and the station is empty bar a cleaner with very dark skin and pretty braids, two security guards standing on either side of the turnstiles talking, an elderly man who looks like an aging Andy Warhol and a bespectacled man carrying a briefcase that sits next to him like an obedient dog while he pays for his train ticket. The woman runs to the security guards.
“Ndice’itoilet bhuti please, ikweliphi icala?”

The taller security guard tells her to go and ask at the counter. Through the glass she begs: “Please, I desperately need to use the toilet, which way is it?” Her voice is fast, high and desperate. “You must load R20 into your card,” says the woman behind the counter while counting money. There is a momentary silence. She looks up and looks at the woman and repeats: “Kumel’ufakimali and then you can go in.”

“But I just came to drop someone off, do I really need to pay?” asks the woman, who can’t stand still. “I can leave my wallet and keys here, please ndiyatshiseka.”

The man with the briefcase hangs a hand over the barrier and hands the woman coins clasped by the tips of his fingers. “Here, put this in your card,’’ he says. The woman looks at the money and the man. She says nothing to the man and turns to the counter. “Are you really not going to let me through, sisi?” she asks through the window.

“It’s the procedure. If you want to go through, you need to put R20 in your card” is the response from the employee, who walks away.

The employee sits down and fiddles with her cellphone while the woman tries to search for her eyes through the glass. Another employee with long, bright green twist braids enters the ticket office and is briefed by her colleague while she stares at the woman through the glass. “Sisi, please I need to use the toilet. Ndiyanicela, ndigumntu,” the woman begs, tears threatening to fall before the urine does. 

“No, umoya wakho is too high sisi, even if you did put in the money. Your voice is wrong,” says the green-haired employee with a salty expression. One bystander walks away while the others remain silent. “Are you being serious?” asks the woman with English that was not helping her.

The friend the woman had come to drop off enters the scene. “What’s going on here?” she asks, holding a large handbag. A security guard explains while her friend is stunned and fidgety at the window. “How much do you need?” asks the friend. “That’s not the point,” the woman shoots back. “I have R20 but I’m asking them to be huuuuuman.”

She emphasises the word “human”, looking at the employees, who are now both seated with their legs spread in a position of power, both holding their cellphones and looking with no intention at the window. 

The friend gives the woman her Gautrain card and begs her to go through. The woman’s tears advance as she scans the card over the turnstile. R20 leaves the card. She wipes her eyes as she runs to the toilet. Some moments later, she emerges and swipes the card to get out. R20 goes back into the card.

“They say you don’t lose the R20 if you don’t go down to the trains. It’s reimbursed if you go to the toilet,” says the woman’s friend. “Why didn’t they just say so?” asks the woman, loud enough to be heard through the glass. 

“I need to give you your R20,” the woman says to her friend, confused with grief as she unfolds R20 from her purse. “No babe, you don’t have to give it to me. It didn’t charge my card,” says the friend, as she puts the card back in her purse. “Then I need to give it to those women since they value R20 over basic humanity.”

She walks over to the window and waves the brown note at the window.  “Heeeey! I’m here to pay you,” she shouts. The employees don’t move. The woman walks to another window and tries to push the money through the money portal at the counter. It’s closed. “Why are you giving us this money?” the green-haired woman demands. “We don’t want it.”

The woman walks back to the window, crunches the money up into a ball and forcefully throws it at the window. “Inani, thathani le R20 le niyixabise ngaphez’ukomntu,” the woman says. The money falls and she walks away, slowly enough to be stopped but determined enough not to turn back. A teary “Fuck you,’’ is said from the back of her head. “Who have we become?”

Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela is the Mail & Guardian's arts and culture editor. She is a multi award-winning writer, blogger and collaborator. She has experience in the arts having worked in fashion, music, art and film as well as a decade-long career in consulting, entrepreneurship, blogging and cultural activism. She is also directing a documentary about hair and black identity, a film she calls the report card on the rainbow nation project. Read more from Milisuthando Bongela

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