Parked up at services in the Free State, a taxi van pulls up beside us, and the driver gets out, letting his passengers stretch their legs. A gun sticks out from the waistband of his trousers, the concealed carry holster clipped into his belt, although it was there for all to see as he stood talking on his phone. The wall-nut grip looked well used - battered even - the frame’s gunmetal rubbed silver in places, like a beloved heirloom, like something handed down - or often handled - but more likely second or third hand. It was a largish automatic, a statement of intent, probably 9mm, its magazine extending an inch beyond the base of the grip, higher capacity than the one it had probably come with, its base metal still black, probably holding an extra four or five bullets. I guessed they’d all be hollow points, this being Africa. He walked backwards and forwards beside his taxi, waiting for his passengers to return, children walking past licking ice-screams. I turned to Vanessa to ask why would a taxi driver need a high capacity magazine, but stopped myself, and instead did what everyone else does here and just look the other way.
The week before we arrive, a South African woman jokes that when she goes for a run in woods beyond Cape Town she carries a gun and a taser, that things are bad, then later apologises that it’s not that bad. But I’d been to South Africa before, seen the blood on the floor.
“The British three-o-three round was a wounder at close range,” said the hunter, eating a plate of rice with the blade of a folding knife. “When it leaves the barrel the shell is oscillating for perhaps a hundred yards, meaning if it hits the target it does not penetrate but tumbles and creates a lot of damage. What you want is a bullet that flies straight and true and leaves a tiny hole in the animal.”
“What about if you’re shooting people?” I ask the killer.
“People are different and modern rounds are designed to tumble and rip up the body, but not always to kill. We use small rounds, like toy rounds, because a dad man is a dad man, you just need a man to dig a hole, but a wounded man, he requires the support of hundreds of people to look after him.”
“What kind of bullet would you use in South Africa, for self-defence?”
“A hollow points. If I shoot some guy trying to kill me, I want to make sure he’ll know he’s been shot”.
We pull into a busy service station on the motorway and find two armed guards with AK47s and body armour walking around the pumps. I’ve seen heavily armed men in South Africa before, tooled up as they drive with cash lorries, but here I can’t see any cash lorry or VIP, just the pumps.
“They nailed her hands to the table and raped her,” said the farmer, his small son sat opposite him, watching the rugby. “They tied her husband to a chair and said they would keep raping her until he handed over all his money and keys to his vehicles”.
“How far away from here?” I asked.
“30 minutes, but they survived, but they raped another woman who lived by herself to death because she had nothing to give them, and in the end, they took only cans of food”.
“Don’t take any business cards from anyone at a petrol station?” said the black driver who brought us in from the airport, “they can have chemicals on them which will make you fall asleep and then they will carjack you”. We laughed at this for days, put it in the same category of modern myth as the ‘mouse monster’ that lurked in the deserted waterfall we visited, the locals too scared to visit. Someone told us it wasn’t a joke, that we had to always be on our guard at petrol stations, that there were forty highjacks a day in South Africa.
“Is it worth going into the centre of town?” asks Venessa to the young black women at the hostel.
“No, you do not want to go into the town,” she says, by which she means we are best staying behind the walls and barbed wire of this compound.
“Oh I’m sure it’s fine,” says Vanessa.
A young black guy sitting behind us with a North Africa accent leans forwards and interrupts: “I went to the city last night. Three men had pulled my bags out of my truck when I was a store. I asked them who’d taken them out, but they laughed and just took my phone, money and my shoes”.
“Don’t go into the city” the lady repeated shaking her head.
I sit and talk to a young black South African. The chat is just that at first, chat, about things that aren’t that important, tourist words, about apartheid, Mandela, the fall of Zuma. I do that interview thing and keeping talking, asking questions - making us stay on the train - the chat running out, leaving only space for real words. “I’m a slave here,” he says, looking around “I am paid so little, I can not do anything but work”. I ask him about other jobs. “This is a good job, but to be paid more I must leave and try and find work in the mines”. I ask him what the future holds. “The problem is the whole of Africa is here, the Zimbabweans, Nigerians, Congolese, millions of them all looking for work. It cannot continue”.
“Don’t stop at the traffic lights at night.”
“We must nationalise industries to give work to the young,” says a politician on the radio. “We must buy back the white farms and give people land, land and ten cows,” says another. “We must take back the land that is ours by force,” says another.
“When Malema sings ‘kill the farmer, kill the Boer’, and nothing is done why do you think they target farmers?”
“Never pick anyone up.”
“You never call the police,” says a middle-class guy we stay with, “we all pay for private security instead because they turn up when someone is on your property. In the apartheid days the police were brutal, no one crossed them, but now there is no police at all”.
I read a report chastising an outrageous article that gave the impression that twenty-five per cent of school kids in South Africa have aids, when the figure is only fourteen per cent, over a hundred and thirty thousand abortions by school-age girls.
A black woman decries the utter collapse of the health care system in South Africa, stating the problem is that all the nurses are being stolen by Australia and Britain and that the hospitals are full of “other people”.
A politician says that all coloureds and Asians are racist, a statement that is defended in that it’s not possible for someone who is black to be racist, but merely to express “lived experience”.
“Things were bad for many under apartheid, but things could get worse for everyone.
“Is it safe to walk around here at night?” I ask the waiter in the fancy bistro in a posh. “Oh yes,” he replies as if my question was silly. “You can walk up and down this street no problem”, he said nodding towards the street lined with hipster bars, “but don’t go anywhere else, get a taxi”.
The radio reports one hundred and forty armed attacks on cash lorries so far this year, today, heavily armed robbers blocking a street and opening fire with AK47s.
We drive through a town that must have once been really something, old, with broad avenues, a grand town hall, a once-proud town square where brass bands once played, and people gathered. Now it is a rubbish-strewn wasteland, a mini Detroit, its municipal workers on strike for a year, the locals dumping their garbage outside the city hall in protest, where dogs and the homeless dig in.
A dad drops his child off for sports practice and falls asleep as he waits. The child comes back to the car and for a joke bangs on the window for a joke. The dad pulls out his gun and shoots his son dead.
A white middle class South African tells me it’s “not that bad”, and I ask him to explain his idea of good when fifty people are murdered every day, knowing what we mean is that life is safe behind when you live in the Green Zones.
We came here looking to move to Africa, but all I can see is this beautiful country unravelling, incompetence, corruption, the normalisation of violence and the collapse of the pillars that hold society up, worst of all, behind the shroud of apartheid, those that suffered still stuffer on, told by those getting fat that the day after tomorrow will be their turn.
I switch on the radio for a second and get the end of the news, a taxi driver and passenger shot dead, then switch it off.
“Let’s not talk about all the bad things,” Vanessa tells me as we drive, “South Africa is a lovely place”. “Let’s be careful but also let’s not listen to the radio and just ignore the negative stuff”. I agree, and so we drive from one high walled, electric fence and barb wire ringed, barred windowed accommodation to another, the ones without walls, where we camp, always with people watching over us as we sleep. When we stop we pay someone to look after our car, don’t dress like tourists, and avoid trouble, making sure to be locked away by nightfall, sticking to the number one rule people always tell us: “don’t drive at night”.