Updated: Apr 21, 2020
Read Part I Here
As my face was pressed against the asphault of this Soweto back road, I could feel the loose grit and gravel poking into my cheek and temple. A car roared by only feet from our tensed bodies flattened under the weight of gloved hands, sharp kneecaps, and black military boots. The ground shook underneath me.
The adrenaline coursing through my nervous system implored me to fight back. To fight like our lives depended on it. I knew if I really tried I could get out from under them. I’m scrappy and way stronger than I look.
One problem. I’m no match for the guns. Can’t outrun those, or strip seven of them out of seven sets of gloved hands. One, yes. Seven, no.
These thoughts of calculation were clear and crisp in the silence inside my brain. All sound disappeared and my brain just weighed and measured every detail of the situation in a matter of seconds.
My body was screaming to fight back. But my brain said, “Override. Seven guns. Override.”
And suddenly blaring sound rushed back in and was deafening. Shouting. Why were there so many of them? And why were they all shouting?
Their black boots were menacing and enormous from way down here. I followed the boots with my eyes up the torso to those two guns still pointed at my face.
We might really die. I thought again about the poor young teenage soul, executed on the pavement right outside his Soweto home in a scene that looked eerily similar to this one.
I had learned by now that when tensions rose with people in the community that did not know me, if I spoke to them in Zulu those tensions sometimes drained right out the bottom of the volatile dynamic.
You see, in South Africa, the white population in general considers the black population so far beneath them that the thought of learning their language is utter absurdity. Most of the time they don’t even bother to learn their names properly. Names either get butchered to the point that it hurts ears or shortened to one letter, if you’re lucky one syllable.
So to see someone who appears to be white speaking in a Mother Tongue indigenous to South Africa communicates something that nothing else can. Something that is so intangible and deeply layered with unspoken meaning that I cannot even put words to it.
But the fruit of it is often evident in the change of countenance that results.
I have seen the rage in someone’s eyes soften in a matter of seconds. I have seen shouting turn to a wide-eyed grin. I’ve seen suspicion melt into curiosity and quarrelling amongst neighbors turn to laughter.
By learning the language of another, we are “coming to them” in their Mother Tongue, rather than demanding they “come to us” in ours. In doing so, we are up-ending the status quo and (un)natural social order of South African society. We are affirming the dignity, value, inherent worth of an entire people, and somehow validating an experience of this country we’ve never personally had.
It’s a shame how RARE it is in this beloved country.
Hence, being smashed into the ground by the gloved hands and sharp kneecaps and having calculated that escape would only end in death, it makes sense that next immediate solution my brain lept to was Zulu. Speak to them in Zulu.
Amidst their shouting and the air being pressed from my lungs, I said very calmly, “Siyaxolisa, oBaba.” Which literally means, “We are sorry,” followed by a distinct term of respect loosely translated, “Fathers/sirs/respected male elders.”
I felt shame for apologizing when we had done nothing wrong, but the weighing and measuring of my brain while staring up at loaded, cocked barrels pointed between my eyeballs, calculated before the conscious thought even entered my mind: stay alive.
Just stay alive.
Appease the booted giants with guns.
About half of them ceased their shouting and uttered various South African exclamations, “Yho!” “Hawu!” “Sho!” Their faces looked like they had seen a ghost for one split second.
But guns remained drawn, and the other half continued shouting.
Next thing I knew I was yanked up from the ground and one of those guns was pressed into the right side of my back, just under my ribcage. I was led toward the trunk of the car, just a few feet away.
Among many extraordinary things about South Africa, it is also the violent crime capital of the world. The whole of society revolves around trying to protect from violent crime.
Car jackings are so frequent at some intersections that signs are put up that read, “Hijacking Hotspot.” You don’t ever park in public places unless there are car guards that you pay to watch over your car. People live behind huge, thick walls, and malls and grocery stores mostly close at 6pm before dark. Women drive with their purses in the trunk because thiefs will shatter a window to steal it from the seat or floor. You generally don’t take out a phone in public places outside unless you want to be targeted. Women are sexually assaulted with such brutality and such regularity that one must dull the senses simply to endure the daily bombarding of such stories on the news and from the people I love.
And finally, one of the most disturbing crimes that happen regularly is the kidnapping of women and the savage brutality that typically follows.
That was my first thought.
The gun is pressed into my back and I am being led back to the car, toward the trunk.
Oh my God.
Where is he taking me.
I remembered in that instant a young woman acquaintance of mine who was taking a walk with her boyfriend when they were approached by a group of men. The boyfriend was tied up and left in bushes and the she was thrown in the trunk and gang raped for three days.
God is that how this story ends?