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DRC on Long

by Anton Crone / 30.04.2012

These are the car guards of Long Street. They are the detritus of the DRC; the flotsam of the Congo River. Most have lived along the river that feeds Africa’s mythical “heart of darkness”. Now they trawl Cape Town’s brook of booze. The tributaries that flow into Long – Buiten, Bloem, Pepper and Leeuwen – are their fishing grounds. They are bright men from a dark place. Some are university graduates. Some trained as mechanics. Many are trying to earn money to learn a trade.

I meet Pappi. He spent 1 year at university in Kinshasa before political intimidation forced him out. Far short of the R4000 he needs for a 3 week welding course, he earns R50 on a good night and lives not far from here with three other Congolese in a room in the Bo Kaap.

Then there is Jules who sends money back to his family in Kinshasa. He is a proud man and finds it degrading to guard cars. The first night I meet him, he is full of life and laughs at my pathetic attempts to speak French. The second night, he is sombre because no one has parked on his street. I meet him a third time and I am the only car on his street. He thanks me for the tip then scuttles off to the corner cafe for some food.

In 2009 the estimated death rate in the DRC was 45 000 people a month due to famine, disease and conflict, this despite efforts since 2004 to rebuild the nation. Studies now show that 76% of the population has been affected in some way by conflict. 100% of these car guards have been affected, and they are here trying to piece things together. This country can be a haven of sorts.

There are quite a few drivers who don’t give them money. One argument is that you already pay for car insurance so why pay someone else on top of that. Another argument is they can’t all be trusted, that some work for syndicates that steal cars, instead of protecting them. But where there are stories of robberies taking place under the watch of car guards it is certain there are as many stories untold, of cars parked on dodgy streets that go untouched, of carefree nights on Long, and many other streets in the Cape Town CBD. And there are many flush folks in flash cars who ignore them and drive off without offering so much as a nod.

Pappi says he understands if someone doesn’t have the cash to tip him, he just wants to be acknowledged in that case. Jules agrees and where the average tip is between two and five Rand, but every cent makes a difference, he says.

And what if there were no car guards?

No doubt, more cars would be stolen or broken into. Insurance premiums would go up, perhaps above what one spends tipping car guards each month. No matter how you argue it, the ordered, informal network they have created keeps the streets of Cape Town’s CBD that much safer.

Congolese, Zimbabwean, Malawian or South African, car guards represent the ebb and flow of life in Africa. In a way they’re a manifestation of how well things are going for us, here in South Africa. Acknowledge them. Give them what you can, chances are you’ll brighten the night of someone who’s known little more than darkness.

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