Everyone said it would happen sooner or later, particularly if you do something as stupid as go for a walk alone. But I was only walking home from the office, a short journey of perhaps twenty minutes at most (though I can’t be accurate on that because I didn’t actually make it home). And I’d had enough of travelling in buses and cars. I wanted to walk. I needed to move. My body was aching and begging for some freedom. Fuckit, I thought, I’ll damn well walk home.
I left the university by the main gates on Enoch Sontonga, a long, broad road (six lanes wide) that leads from the university (which lies on the top left-hand corner of Johannesburg city’s somewhat notorious Central Business District, or CBD) towards the westerly neighbourhood where I live. It was almost raining. I was in a blue mac with my bag strapped across from the top of my right shoulder to the left hip. I passed several friendly lone men and exchanged hiyas and good evenings. It was a good feeling: to walk in Johannesburg without worrying. Well, almost, without worrying. I was aware that the roads were empty – the holiday hangover still in force – and that it was perhaps a little later than I would have liked. The grey sky felt oppressive, in a very English drizzly way, and I was conscious of the lack of movement in the air. I began whistling, to signal a degree of familiarity with my route, and to break through the throbbing cloud. I passed the second set of university gates, crossed a small road, and nodded to a thick-set elderly man walking up the hill that I was by now almost trotting down. I felt him turn and watch me as I whistled my way forward, but my attention on his movement shifted almost immediately to two young men who were walking straight towards me. At me, I see, in hindsight. One was wearing a white ‘ENGLAND’ football T-shirt. He was the taller of the two, with a muzzled expression and a broad brow. His friend was small, skinny and inconsequential, I thought. I kept my eyes on the England fan. Our eyes met. Aware of the abrasiveness in his face, I smiled and started to say That’s where I’m fro… but at the very moment of opening my lips to speak, I found myself with my back against the wall and a long flick-knife pointing to my left thigh. ‘Whoah!’ I shouted. ‘What d’you want? What d’you want?’ I noticed that my hands had flung upwards, to either side of my head, and wondered how they had got there. ‘Take what you want,’ I said, a little calmer.
The smaller man had already slipped my mobile phone out from the side of my bag, and was holding it out in front as if to show it to his accomplice. We both looked to him, and I looked again to his knife, still close to my thigh. Please don’t stab me now, I was thinking, I’ve got no health insurance. Please not today. He said nothing. The guy with the knife looked confused. They both did. ‘Don’t you want my wallet?’ I reasoned. ‘Please! Have the wallet!’ I put my hand deep into my bag, and pulled out my leather wallet. The man in the England shirt snatched it, and suddenly backed away a few feet. Then he started yelling: ‘Back up! Back up!’ What? What’s he saying? He seemed angry, panicky: ‘BACK OFF! Back off!’ But I have backed off: my back’s against the wall! ‘BACK OFF!’ he yelled again. I looked at the long knife in his hand. ‘Oh! Up the street, you mean?’ And I turned, quickly, and started walking back up the hill, towards the university. I wanted to look round, but didn’t dare in case I provoked them to come after me, with the knife. I kept walking, looking straight ahead. The older man I’d passed coming down the hill had stopped. He was watching me, with a slight smile on his face. There must be three of them in on this, I thought. I can’t stand it. What’s he going to do now? But I had no choice but to keep walking. As I neared him, he asked, softly, ‘What did they take?’ I told him, and then wondered if he, too, had been mugged by them. ‘No,’ he said, ‘but they were following me for quite a while. I realised, when I saw you, that they were watching you from way back up there.’ He turned and pointed to the junction in the distance. ‘That’s when they crossed the road.’
We began walking side by side, up the hill, chatting about crime and how lucky I was not to have been stabbed. ‘I carry a knife,’ he said, ‘to stab them back! I don’t take nonsense from these kids. They’re just kids who haven’t got jobs.’ He was quick to explain that he was not ‘from here’, but from the Democratic Republic of Congo. ‘People say Johannesburg is dangerous,’ he said, now talking in French, ‘but for me, if I was in Congo, I’d be dead. Joseph Kabila would kill me.’ And then he muttered something about an army he’d fought for. ‘I can’t go back until Joseph is dead. Yes, I must be patient.’ We arrived at the university gates. I bid my new friend farewell. We exchanged numbers, and then I remembered that I no longer had a mobile phone, which made us laugh. I gave him my number at the university. ‘Yes, you can help me,’ said Joseph (unfortunately sharing his enemy’s name), as I scribbled into his diary. ‘I may need your help one day. You can help me.’ We shook hands, and shared a short hug, and as he strolled away, he glanced back and shouted, ‘Ils ne vont pas te tuer, madame! Jamais! Jamais!’
I’m ashamed to admit that I feel a sense of disappointment. The anti-climax of attack. There’s so much drama here, so many awful stories (Woman leaps from car – says she’d rather be killed than raped *FLASH* Diplomats’ party ends in shoot out – Ambassador unconscious *FLASH* Man held gun to my head as I made love to my wife – I’m moving to Cape Town *FLASH* etc etc etc), that I wonder why I got off so lightly. Not much of a dinner party story is it? Mugged at knife point and, err, they ran away *FLASH*! They were amateurs, more nervous than me, and didn’t appear to know what to do once they’d got the phone. If only I hadn’t reminded them. The wallet, boys, the wallet. And I wasn’t stabbed. Not even a scratch, a punch, or a kick in the knee. Once they’d scarpered, I was free to chat with Joseph about life in the Congo. Rather, death in the Congo. So lucky, you see. We’re so bloody lucky. It’s pathetic, really.
Listening to: Abdullah Ibrahim’s superb album, Yarona, and sticking tight to track 3, ‘cherry/mannenberg’ (which I’m told is South Africa’s unofficial national anthem). For those in the know, Ibrahim also goes under the name, Dollar Brand, and IMHO is a more interesting jazz man than the nevertheless great Hugh Masekela. Sorry to Masekela fans. Sorry.