Backstreet Ubuntuby Guy Lieberman / 29.07.2009
Back in the day when car radios were not one with the dash and could be deftly lifted from your car, along with your speakers, these sorts of things happened. My trusty Telefunken AM/FM Stereo was redistributed from my old golf while parked in a Northern Jo’burg suburb not far from a sprawling township. As the nearest police station was in that very township I had no option but to submit my statement there, in the heart of this afro-urban nest.
The tangled parking lot of the station was a hive of hooting cars and taxis, maneuvering in and out with little space to park. I was distracted, wanting to get this over with, make my insurance claim and upgrade my system to a Sony. I knew which one I wanted; I had seen it at Stax. Joining the flow of locals up and down the entrance stairs, I fell in step behind a policeman. In my slightly agitated and hurried state, my peripheral awareness signaled that something here wasn’t right. His boots were loose and flopped open wide, laces dragging as he shuffled up toward the entrance double doors. His gun, apparently plastic, was wedged into his pants, held in tightly by his belt. No holster. But he had a full uniform sporting three yellow stripes – a sergeant. This was confirmed by the acknowledgements and greetings he received from others coming down the stairs past us. “Eita Sergeant!” “Hola Sergeant…!” He responded to all, a well-known man.
We entered the chaos of the police station and I searched around for any indication of where I might issue my statement on the crime. There were none so I tapped Sergeant’s shoulder. He turned around as I began to phrase my question, but I was quickly silenced by his gaze. Here was a simple man, severely mentally challenged, smiling broadly his vacant expression of warmth to all he saw. Immediately someone stepped in, “Ah, don’t ask Sergeant – he doesn’t know anything. You can go that way….” I was ushered along to the relevant cubicle, leaving Sergeant behind.
Back at Stax, as I perused the Sony replacement radio’s that my insurance company had approved, I slowly began to grasp who Sergeant was. In the bedlam of township life, here was a relatively understated expression of that glorious term Ubuntu. A veritable child of the village who wanted to be a policeman: he’s handed an old uniform, a plastic gun, a scruffy pair of boots, and the dignity of his dreams.
It was my first witnessing of a pure example of this Earthy philosophy, alive and kicking in the vibrant context of an urban African community.