Chug-chug, splutter-splutter…lurch: stoP. The familiar sounds of a car running out of petrol. Sheesh!—What would it take for us to learn this particular lesson? If we thought we could go an extra kilometre, we’d try! The thing about being 20 is that life is flexible: there’s no mental strain or logistical stress in walking to the petrol station with a jar full of 1c, 2c and 5c pieces that have been scrounged from every disgusting nook, cranny and corner of the house to buy a milk carton’s worth of petrol to put in the car to make it back home. Unless, you get stuck in Isando at 10pm at night on the way back from university with a friend in the car. Uh—this would definitely be crossing the line into mental strain.
Everyone in South Africa knows that walking around in dodgy areas at night (especially with a wallet and cell phone; even without a wallet and cell phone) is just dumb. But when one runs out of petrol, what’s the option? As the three of us sat in Zan’s car, eyes peeled for would-be hijackers (who would be sadly disappointed to steal a car that they wouldn’t be able to drive anywhere BECAUSE IT HAD NO PETROL), debating what to do, a black guy in a car pulled up next to us. Our immediate reaction was: duck for cover. Racists? Or realists? (Some kind of rainbow this place was turning out to be.) The distinction was irrelevant as our shoulders receded resignedly into our respective seats as we waited for a gun to appear.
This did not happen.
The stranger approached without menace and Zan made a split-second decision to take this at face value; he opened the driver’s door and stepped into the dark. Sheralee and I watched: friendly gesticulations, calm voices. So far, so good. The guy returned to his car and Zanin returned from desperation with a decision to accept the stranger’s offer of help; to drive him to the nearest petrol station. Fine. But I told him that he should take a weapon, just in case. No arguments. So Zan dug out a size 22 spanner from the car boot (feigning “just getting something”) and tried to hide it in his pants (wanting the guy to know it was there – a casual threat of sorts – but also not wanting him to know because, well, it’s rude); he was mostly successful, walking nonchalantly (not…) back out into the dark with the spanner head poking into the side of his leg. At least it wasn’t a screwdriver.
Now Sheralee and I were left alone.
Two women, in a stranded car on the side of the road late at night; a recipe for rape, robbery or murder. So, we lay down on our seats until Zanin’s return. It was the longest half hour ever! But return Zanin did, petrol and life in hand. As the Americans might say, we’d had our asses handed to us. Thank you very much, kind black man who helped a stranger in the dark. Would we have done the same? Maybe. I don’t know. There was certainly a lesson in this experience and yet life in South Africa has never made the trust game an easy one.
Author & Storyteller: Andrea Zanin
Andrea is a writer, wife, mother and dreamer; also the author of this website. She moved to London in 2006 to earn £s, travel, see bands and buy 24-up Dr Martens—which she did, and then ended up staying. Andrea lives in North London with her husband (also a Saffa) and five children. She loves this grand old city but misses her home and wishes her children could say “lekker” (like a South African) and knew what a “khoki” is.