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Themba

Best of 2012 | Trust Me

by Andy Davis / 26.12.2012

Originally published 19 July 2012

This is Themba, he’s 59 years old and comes from Umkomaas, but he stays over the hill back there towards Umlazi. Every morning he’s up long before the sun, so he can take up his position in the old plastic chair by the new, now defunct showers at the Kite Beach in Durban. Themba’s a freelance carguard, he doesn’t work for anyone, is not employed or sanctioned by the city, the community policing forum or the SAPS. And yet, when the waves are cooking, at any given time, Themba often has more than 2 million Rands worth of car keys in his pocket. On a good day he’ll take home R80 bucks.

And that my friends is a pretty radical situation. If you’re looking for a feel good story, look no further than Themba, or any of the other carguards along the Durban beachfront, who local surfers simply, trustingly, toss their keys to as they jog towards their jump off point at the end of the pier. This is a unique system built almost entirely on honest to goodness faith in humanity and necessitated by the rise of automatic car keys, that are not waterproof.

Down by the North Beach parking lot, Paul does the mid-morning shift. The loose affiliation of carguards this side of town is more organised and the surf spot is more popular, so it’s a profitable patch to be working. On any given day, Paul’s chain of keys can represent upwards of R5 million worth of cars. That’s a lot of money entrusted into the hands of someone who probably can’t even afford his own skadonk. And yet, Paul and all the other beachfront carguards, take their responsibilities very seriously, and only earn a modest income for their troubles. At North, the carguards are registered with the local community policing forum, are known to all the regular surfers and get to keep whatever they earn on their shift. Most surfers who entrust their keys with Paul or Themba will usually pay between R2, R5 and R10 for the service. The peace of mind, a rare commodity in South Africa, is probably worth a bit more.

What makes this informal little beachfront business even more amazing, is that many of the Durban surfers I’ve encountered are prone to dropping some of the most blatantly racist epithets you’re ever likely to hear. It’s a competitive type of conversational intolerance, most often dressed up as humour and underlined by a kind of desperate need for affirmation. What’s more astonishing is the expectation, that because you’re white, you’re down with the Ku Klux Klan worldview. I mean, the ears assembled around some of these ous’ weekend braais are heavily peppered with k-bombs, salted with pessimism for the future and marinated in all manner of outdated, discriminatory and bigoted slop. And it’s not just the casual racism, there’s a fair amount of bergie-bashing and prejudice towards poor whites, vagrants, bums, lay-abouts, stoners and homeless people too; coupled with a rather biblical outlook on the role of women.

And yet the same folk will hit the beach the next day and happily toss someone like Themba, a virtual stranger with a vaguely familiar face, a relatively poor Zulu man, the keys to their 350 thousand Rand double-cab bakkie, for safe-keeping. It’s like we’re telling ourselves all these kak old stories, but our actions depict a far more progressive reality. I dunno, but in the smallest of ways, there’s something remarkable happening down at the Durban beachfront. Maybe, just maybe, we’re a lot further down the road than we like to admit.

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