Orange-bibbed sentinels

By Kate Douglas and Michelle Solomon

Imagine a typically cold Grahamstown night, and you are trembling in the entrance to Legit on High Street, trying to shelter yourself from the rain.

Your clothes are as thin and worn as the government’s Aids policy, and the rain has seeped through your shoes into your socks. You ask a passerby the time – it is almost midnight.

You realise you have been standing here for about six hours. A young couple comes out of Spur and hurriedly walks to their car. You approach them. The man, glancing at your orange bib with annoyance, mumbles that hedoesn’t have any change. You watch as the couple drives away in the car you have been guarding for the past two hours.

This is an example of a night spent by self-employed car guards *Noma, *Thabo and *Beauty. Noma is 42, and a single mother of two boys, aged 15 and 16 years old. Every night, regardless of the weather, Noma works for at  least eight hours. On an average night she makes R20, maybe R30, which she uses to buy food for her sons. On a cold, rainy night she can make as little as R5. The situation only worsens when observing Beauty’s home situation.

She is 44 years old, and has five children ranging between the ages of five and 21. Also earning between R20 to R30 a night on High Street, Beauty usually starts work at 6pm and goes home at 3am or 4am. “I have to buy food for the children,” she explains.

Fifty-nine year old Thabo can be seen guarding the area in front of Spur, and explains how hard it is to live off the standard R20 or R30 a car guard makes. “It’s difficult. I have to give my children food and clothes, and it is very cold here at night.”

These three car guards are not the day car guards you see holding those quaint contraptions with the red lights (also known as meters) and following you up and down High Street. The meter car guards work for the  municipality and rent out parking spaces to car owners. The orange-bibbed men and women without meters, those who always seem to miraculously appear next to your car, are usually self-employed. They promise to watch your car, but do they really?

René Johnston says that she has felt threatened by car guards on more than one occasion. “In first term, my friend and I parked outside the Rat for a quick drink. When I got out of my car, a car guard came up really close to me and said that I mustn’t worry because nothing will happen to me as long as I pay him.” Johnston says that the way he kept repeating “don’t worry” made her feel very uneasy. “I was so shocked,” she said, shaking her head. “The whole thing ruined my entire night.”

Another student, Samantha Scott, explains how she and a friend had made a quick stop at Steers when a female car guard became violent one night. “She ran up close to my window looking really aggressive and I felt too uncomfortable to open it. I started to drive away and that is when I heard her hit the back of my car.”

Although no physical damage was done, both Johnston and Scott say that the whole ordeal really alarmed them. “We don’t have to pay them if we feel that they didn’t do anything,” says Johnston. “I’ve seen them sleeping and once, before getting into my car, I saw a man across the street suddenly put on a bib and run over to me saying that he watched my car. I never know if I am paying a real car guard or not.”

“They just bug me,” explains Geoffrey Wakefield. “They can’t just rock up and expect me to pay them.” Wakefield has also been the victim of car guard aggression, though admittedly much milder. “They stand and knock at my window until I pay them,” and in other instances, “they stare at you or stand behind your car,” he says.

*Mark says that he often buys dagga from the car guards. “The orange bibs are just a cover to allow them to hang around the streets so that they can sell drugs. I think every car guard on New Street is really selling Swazi.”

 We decided to test this theory one Thursday evening, and so found ourselves an ‘expert’ in this area and enquired as to the appropriate plan of action. After consolidating our strategies, we eventually went in search of the legendary car guard “Swazi”.

The first group we asked was more than eager to oblige, and one would-be dealer asked, “Do you have a car?” After a short hesitation we decided to confirm that fact, only to be offered our own private viewing of some of the best weed “the location has to offer”.

That thread of thought was ended with a definite “no.” After standing there for a few seconds while trying to maintain a strained conversation with the three ‘car guards’, a street child of roughly 12 years appeared from behind the group. “I can get you some for R15,” he offered.

Eventually he returned with a plastic sandwich bag, not even a quarter filled, of Swazi. Our ‘expert’ had warned us to smell the contents of the bag, as there had been rumours that the car guards/dealers had been tricking buyers into spending their money on a bag of tea leaves. The contents smelled nothing like tea, but it didn’t smell like dagga either. The little packet gave off a scent that brought back childhood memories of silkworms, mulberry leaves, and horse dung.

“Who really believes that [the car guards] are there to watch cars?” asks Mark. However, not all car guards are criminals. Victor Mfecana, a well-respected member of the Grahamstown community, runs a programme for car guards. “I started this programme 12 years ago when I saw the poverty and crime in Grahamstown and knew that I had to do something about it.” At the moment, Mfecana’s programme provides employment to 30 people, both men and women, who he says are legitimate car guards. “I make sure that all my car guards do their job. I have a supervisor who keeps watch over them at night.” Mfecana’s car guards work every night from 6pm until the following day and have received basic training to develop their people skills.

An elderly resident of Grahamstown says that, at night, she always parks by a car guard. “They are always friendly and I feel safe when they are near.”

Many students have questioned the degree of protection the car guards can offer. “I mean, what exactly is a car guard going to do if someone tries to steal your car?” asks Mark. “Suffocate them with a bib?”

Nevertheless, Mfecana argues that there is less likely to be crime when his car guards are on duty. “You have to remember that there are car guards out there who are trying hard to make a legitimate living. They have families and car-watching is the only employment they can get.”

*Names have been changed.

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