/ 11 August 2017

Uyadelela if you think you know South Africa

Friday editor Milisuthando Bongela.
Milisuthando (Photo: Delwyn Verasamy/ M&G)

I learned this lesson on Tuesday night when, coming home at about 9pm from the gym, I saw our building caretaker and security guard Simon standing outside the front entrance to our building as if on a stakeout. For years, he has guarded this building with his mind and insight more than he has with his brawn.

“Hayi bo Sayi Sayi, what are you doing out here so late at night?” I beg. In Jo’burg Zulu, he tells me that he’s waiting for the police because they have just caught a burglar. I must go look at Sam’s place and I’ll see the little girl.

“Little girl?” I repeat. “Yes, a tiny little thing. We just caught her. Go and see for yourself,” he says.

I walk towards Sam’s place, my head walking a little further than my feet, which were both afraid and intrigued. I get to Sam’s apartment and see the other building caretaker Tat’uLazarus, dressed in a khaki jacket and carrying a notebook and a torch. Simon’s 14-year-old son, in a bright yellow T-shirt, stands guarding the door so that said burglar doesn’t escape.

I ask them what happened and they explain that a “lady” got into Sam’s kitchen through the very small burglar bars. Sam, a burly Nigerian man in white pants and powder-blue shirt, jumps in to tell the story.

“I was sitting in my room eating my suppers but I didn’t hear anything. When I finish I take the plate to the kitchen and then I saw her standing in my kitchen. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing so I call Lazarus.”

At this point, Tat’uLazarus, holding back laughter, says: “Sam told me he thinks he’s seeing a ghost and I must come quick, so I came and told him that it’s a young woman.”

I put my hand over my mouth in shock, about to explode at the sheer absurdity of the fact that we are talking about her as if she’s not sitting right in front of us.

“When I saw her, I asked what she’s doing here and she says she’s coming to find food for her baby,” Sam says, looking at the girl. “Then I go outside to see where she could have got in and I find her shoes on the window sill,” he continues.

At this point I still haven’t looked ather. I’m too scared but there is
a sense from the three men that, as the only other woman there, I should say or do something. What, I don’t know.

Peeking over Simon’s son’s head, which has new dreadlocks growing, I look into the reception room of Sam’s apartment and see the woman sitting on her bum with her knees under her chin, her arms around her knees and her head down.

She has a short haircut similar to mine, with two lines shaved on either side of her head. She’s wearing a grey tracksuit and black size three ballet pumps with bows on the top of the shoes.

“Where do you live?” I ask her in Xhosa.

“Near the police station in Yeoville,” she responds.

“What are you doing here?”

“I came to get some things for my baby.”

“Who is your baby with?”

“Her father. I left them when I heard her crying and I knew there was no food.”

“Where are you from?”

“The Cape Flats.”

“What do you expect us to do? You are putting us in a very awkward position.”

“I know what I’ve done is wrong. I don’t know what you should do.”

“Have you done this before?”

“Yes, this is the second building I’ve gone into.”

The strange thing is that none of us knows how to handle this situation. Her gender has complicated the proceedings. As angry as they are, Sam and Tat’uLazarus are quite gentle with her.

Shortly after my questioning, Sam goes to his bedroom and returns shouting: “She took my money! There was nine hundred in here and it’s gone,” he says pointing to the

“Did you take Sam’s money?” I probe.

“No, I didn’t take it.”

“She’s lying, this girl is lying,” Sam retorts. “Search her,” he says looking at me.

“Yes, search me sisi, you’ll see I don’t have the money.”

I freeze. A few but many seconds pass and I tell Sam that I’m not comfortable searching her.

She stands up and Sam and Tat’uLazarus search her with instructions. “Roll up your pants,” Tat’uLazarus says and she rolls up her pants. She then turns around to face me. “Is it not in your bra?” I ask her. “I’m not wearing one,” she says, lifting up her top to reveal two small breasts. We can’t find the R900.

“How old are you?” Sam asks. She says she is 21. Sam and Tat’uLazarus pace around the house looking for the money. Simon’s son has gone outside and is looking at possible places where she could have hidden the money.

As soon as they disappear into the other room, she looks over at me and says in a deeper voice: “Can you please open the door and let me go?’

I’m tempted to, but tell her that she knows I can’t do that. I want to shake her. The men return and another neighbour, Thina, comes to see the commotion. She’s also scared to look, but eventually pops her head in and starts asking the girl questions.

“Were you alone?” she asks. At this point the girl reveals that she had a friend with her, another girl named Sibongile who got in through the other window. She must have taken the money.

“But I know where she lives and I can take you to her,” she says.

We argue among ourselves at the possibility of Sibongile’s existence. Simon and his son believe the woman was working alone, because “where is Sibongile now and how did she get out”?The rest of us don’t know what to believe.

When the police arrive, one is holding a bottle of Coca Cola and the other an AK-47. They walk towards the girl and ask her to stand up in isiZulu. Mr Coca Cola is as cool as the evening’s breeze and the gun-wielding one is a little agitated. They ask her why she has done this and she looks down and doesn’t answer. All of a sudden she looks smaller than her 1.4m.

The police ask me to search her and I hesitate and decline. Thina says she will and makes me hold her cigarette then takes her into another room. They return with nothing.

As the police handcuff her, Thina whispers to me: “There’s definitely a story with this girl. There’s a big X-marked scar across her whole back.”

The police and caretakers take her away and Sam follows them to the police station. Thina and I remain, totally dazed. In the absence of an appropriate response, we laugh and then sober up from the excitement and I remember how much grime there was under the girl’s strangely long nails.

The next morning, Simon comes to me as I’m about to leave for work.“Sam found the money. When he was at the police station, the girl told him ‘please drop the charges, I have your money’. She took R600 out of her vagina and bent over to take R300 from her backside.’’