/ 30 September 2016

A moment of truth as two worlds collide

Friday editor Milisuthando Bongela.
Friday editor Milisuthando Bongela.

A car guard in a tattered luminous-green reflective vest runs to my car as I begin to park it on Owl Street in Milpark. He is a veteran who knows my car as well as I know his face, even though I have not seen him in months. I get out of the car and he offers to wash it. I decline, explaining to him that I will not be staying long, but thank you.

I’ve come to learn that speaking isiXhosa to car guards and police officers usually charms their mouths shut. He accepts and starts running to another car that is turning to park. I take longer than expected doing my business in Milpark but all is well. As I walk back to my car eventually, I see the man washing it with furious speed. My heart sinks and fetches anger in my bowels. My breathing changes style.

As I walk closer, an internal conversation begins among members of the community of minds in my own head.

The loud, predictable mind clutches the anger in a righteous manner. The wise mind of insight, hindsight and foresight stays calm but firm in its decision that there will be no screaming. What would happen if you were to pay the man despite his impudence — do you not have money in your purse? What is so important about your 10 minutes?

The predictable mind, bewildered by the mettle of her opponent, takes a humble step back and asks for a moment to reason. They sit together, logic and emotion, with a strange calm settling between them. So, what are we going to advise her to say when she gets to her car? She’s approaching the old man now. Let’s let her decide for herself whose temperament should handle this situation.

I arrive at the car and the old man starts to apologise while continuing to wash the car. He has no soap in the water. My eyes speak before my mouth opens. “Ngiyaxolisa, my kind, askies, askies. Sorry mama,’’ he says as he wipes persuasively.

I take a deep breath. Do I need to say something if he is already apologising? Does he just see me as his meal ticket or a person? Do I see him as a person or a pest? What is going on here? He moves around the car, wiping in dramatic circles.

Just before I get into the car, the words are ready to be spoken. “Kodwa ayilunganga lento uyenzileyo, tata [But what you have done is not right, tata],” they say as neatly as a curtain closing at dusk. There is no authority in them, but there is resolve. The old man says he knows and, again, he is sorry. I take out a note from my purse and hand it to him while I wait for him to finish.

Even though I wish it was there, there is no more salt after this. Cars whoosh past us, because he and I are bonded by something now, and I wonder where we are all going.

White people are paving bike lanes now while we are still chasing cars. What does this say about our ambitions?

My dreaming is interrupted by a text message from my sister. Her university is closing until further notice. The campus is not safe. My minds collide in reprehension that I’m not thinking about something more important. That I’m sitting inside this car while the old man is washing it. I read the text message, trying not to look up at the waving hands at the window.

As a member of university management, she has been narrating her experiences through messages shared in a “Sisters’’ group on Whats-App. It is humbling to witness the close-up everyday toll of the student protests from different perspectives. Late meetings. Changed plans. Mediation. Denied access. Amid those tensions, the truth remains standing. Our other sister is a first-year student at the same university and she has to go home. I wonder what she makes of all of this. I wonder whether her friends understand the history embedded in this inconvenience.

Everything is complicated in this country. A memory emerges, something I once read. That it is not “this country” — it is our country. The thought brings me back to the moment that is now nearly finished.

I roll down the window and the words “thank you’’ are on strike and won’t come out of my mouth. So I start the car but I have no peace.

“Enkosi, tata,’’ I say. Then I say it again as our eyes meet properly for the first time.