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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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RESPONSES (17)
  1. Popsicle Panic says:

    A “street” piece about informal car guards and their life-stories? Man, I fell asleep last night and woke up in 2005 this morning.

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  2. eh says:

    Nice slice of life focus.
    more please!

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  3. Andy says:

    another day, another disgruntled hipster venting his/her underwhelm in the Mahala comments

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  4. Ruff Tong says:

    “Now they trawl Cape Town’s brook of booze. The tributaries that flow into Long – Buiten, Bloem, Pepper and Leeuwen – are their fishing grounds.”

    that’s great, poetic writing. I’m with Eh. More please.

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  5. Gavin says:

    The human element of the car guard industry is heartbreaking, but I think alot of the frustration people feel towards them is the forced service. Many car guards intimidate and heckle drivers, who have absolutely every right to refuse the carguards’ services. If the prospect was offered more as a genuine service which a customer may voluntarily choose to undertake, there might be more goodwill on the part of patrons.

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  6. Rol says:

    Popsicle Panic, go back to sleep and we’ll wake you when the future is here. Anton, thanks for this, I reckon there’s a lot of journalistic rubber on this story – the fact is, there are literally tens of thousands of people reliant on this industry, and yet we know absolutely fokkol about how much it is worth, how many families are fed and clothed on it, where these people stay, what else they do to survive….

    These people supply a service which isn’t officially recognised, yet I’m sure we’ve got almost as many carguards as we do teachers or policemen. Doubtless SAPS would have a great deal more to contend with if it weren’t for the influence these guys have on car-theft and smash’n’grabs. It certainly pisses me off when some guy thrusts his palm at me simply because he thinks I’m renting ‘his’ little piece of sidewalk for a half hour, but to return to find one’s own car unmolested on an empty CBD street at 3a.m. is a relief I’m willing to pay for every time.

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  7. Popsicle Panic says:

    Excellent. Gavin comes in to remind us that while these guys are impoverished, disempowered refugess, they need to exercise some customer care so that they can pull an extra 50 c from begrudging friday night partygoers who have just spent 30 times that price on their lavish cocktails.

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  8. Rol says:

    Actually, Popsicle Panic, why not just go back to sleep?

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  9. SK says:

    Nice idea. wish it was more developed. wat r their stories.

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  10. doofus vainwhite says:

    Here’s the dilemma – many of the foreigners who work as car guards have a tertiary education that empowers them to do much more useful things and to lead more rewarding lives. In a country with a skills shortage this creates some challenges. We don’t allow them to do higher level work in order to ‘protect’ these jobs for South Africans, but we don’t have skilled locals to fill those posts. So these skilled foreigners end up doing jobs that are better suited to uneduacted South Africans, which is paradoxically an even greater or more imemdiate threat to employment and stability in this country.

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  11. Deliwe says:

    I have to agree with Popsicle. It looks like Anton himself fell asleep in 1998 and woke up yesterday to make boring and obvious observations that lack any new insight. It’s 2012. Where have you been? Come on! And don’t bother telling ME to go back to sleep. This article has already done a pretty good job of that.

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  12. […] DRC on Long | Mahala […]

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  13. Jono says:

    Some of those guys are all right. One night my girlfriend left a window open with my laptop and varsity textbooks inside. When I came back the guy warned me about the open window.

    I feared the worst but everything was still in the car. He could have robbed me blind. He got everything that was left in my wallet that night and restored my faith in them.

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  14. Cocoman says:

    Nice one Jono!

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  15. Rambo says:

    “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.”

    Er, well. It’s a sign of how strongly entrenched elite interests are and the effective suppression of broad-based dissent. (i.e. SA is a place with a decent number of rich people amongst the immobilised masses.) (unless ‘how well things are going’ means that there’s no civil and trans-frontier war – in which, yeah great.)

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  16. Bass_Player says:

    I do feel sorry for the car guards sometimes… but mostly not. A lot of them have this attitude on them and get real cocky sometimes.

    I was at a mall watching a movie and when i came out a car guard approached me and i was like “okay ill give this guy a tip” he opened up his palm, i put a R2 there, he looked at it, looked at me and shouted pretty loudly at me “Is that it!?” i was like fuck you dude grabbed the R2 back out of his palm and walked away. And thats just one example of trouble iv had with car guards..

    So all in all to sum this up, fuck the car guards. Iam still yet to have a situation where my faith in them is restored…

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  17. Anonymous says:

    good to be writing about such topics but you could try sound a little less patronising….

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