ONE: BLABERUS CRANIIFER
You’re driving down a red dirt road in the middle of Africa, having turned off at the intersection of nowhere and nowhere. You’re lost. You’re late for a meeting. The aircon in the rental car doesn’t work, and you’re wearing a European suit. You should stop and ask for directions, but you’re a male, genetically programmed never to ask for directions.
Three men stand in the road. One brandishes a panga knife. One points the barrel of an AK at your face. The middle one holds up the open palm of his hand and bangs on the bonnet. You stop the car.
‘Where you going, Umlungu?’
‘Open up here, sharp sharp, man.’
Your blood runs cold.
No, no, no. Your blood does not bloody run cold. Only ectothermic creatures, like frogs, fish, geckos, crocodiles, chameleons, snakes, spiders, centipedes and cockroaches’ blood runs cold. Your blood pumps hot and fast through your body, and your brain sends frantic messages to your fight or flight centres: your heart, your limbs, your brain. Epinephrine increases your heart rate, constricts your blood vessels, dilates air passages, and you’re ready for a fight… or more likely in this case, flight.
Think. Think! You should drive right straight at them, through them; knock them over like bowling pins. But your leg locks into a cramp on the pedal. Two faces press against the passenger window. The leader—the one with the AK 47 stands his ground in front of the car. No false moves, the yellow eyes say. Try not to stare at the barrel of the ubiquitous AK 47.
Mikhail Kalashnikov, your invention is alive and well.
The one with the panga raps on the glass. Tak. Tak. Tak. ‘Where you going, umlungu?’
Your voice, no matter how hard you try to sound calm, is hoarse and shaky. Don’t show any fear. Pretend all is cool. ‘To…to… To the university.’
‘Heh, heh, heh.’ The young man performs a mini-dance of triumph in front of the car.
Is it too late to pray to the god whose existence you have denied all your life?
This country is the crime capital of the world; South Africa is in the Guinness Book of Records for the highest carjacking figures in the world. A motor vehicle is hijacked approximately every 40 to 54 minutes. More than 25 motor vehicle drivers become victims of hijackings daily. South Africa also gets the gold medal for murder and rape: a murder every 30 seconds, a rape every fifteen; one in four women have been raped; one in ten tourists has had something bad happen to them. And here you are. Fifteen seconds tick away and the country is waiting for its next victim.
And they’re waiting.
It’s a rental, you want to say. It’s not mine. Take it. I have no cash. No cash. No gold. But your tongue is thick and dry. Your skin—your white umlungu skin—is clammy.
‘Can we have a lift?’
You must look even whiter now. ‘What?’
‘A ride. We need a ride to the university. Can you give us a ride?’
They’re playing with you. Even now you can drive off, before they get in. A choice: drive and get shot in the back, or give them a lift, so they can slit you from mouth to genitals, discard your lifeless body in the green and red Zululand backdrop. You know. You’ve read the stories.
South Africa has a very high level of crime, including rape and murder. Thieves operate at international airports and bus and railway stations. Keep your baggage with you at all times. Due to theft of luggage at International Airports, you should vacuum-wrap luggage where local regulations permit. You should keep all valuables in carry-on luggage. There have been incidents involving foreigners being followed from King Shaka International Airport to their destinations by car and then robbed, often at gunpoint. You should exercise particular caution in and around the airport and extra vigilance when driving away. Some taxis and car rental companies are fraudsters…
Crowded-Planet (2013): pp.120
Go on: rev the car, knock them down like skittles, swerve. The reckless hero escapes, tyres squealing as gunshots crack the back windscreen.
They pile in. Two in the back, one in the front. AK clatters against the door as he wrestles with it. Panga man slides comfortably into the back. The third man has a scar that slices his face in two lopsided halves.
‘Drive, drive.’ AK man indicates the side road to the left where the green sign points into the furrowing valley. University of eSikamanga, 3 kilometres.
A nightmare. A bloody nightmare. What kind of a welcome is this to South Africa? You’re sick to the gut. You want to throw up. But then, what did you expect? That you could drive through South Africa and not be hijacked?
The leader places his feet on the dashboard and props his AK 47 against the door.
You’re careful not to turn your head, but out of the corner of your eye, you take note of the curved banana magazine, the wooden butt drenched in sweat; the notches—notches!-on the matt black stock. My God. The weapon looks plasticky, homemade, as if he’s assembled it from parts of other weapons.
‘Where do I go?’
‘Bundu bashing,’ adds the man from the back seat.
So they do mean to arrow you into the cane fields, back you up against a low ant hill and murder you. All for this tinny Golf GTI rental. You can hear the shots already, muffled by the six foot sugar cane.
‘Drive—left… left… now straight, straight.’
You drive as straight as you can on the snaking roads.
‘You a professor or something?’
‘Don’t distract the driver, Caliban.’
Caliban? You steal a glance at the man in the rear-view mirror. Remember to identify the carjackers for the police. Caliban. Scarface. Panga-Man. AK man. Three, four notches.
‘That’s Kaliban with a K. KU- KU-KU-Kaliban, Professor.’
You count two kilometres of bumpy roads which have been gouged out of the red mountains, and you have to zigzag around goats and stones and ochre earth spills. A mini-bus plastered with ‘I love eSikamanga’ stickers shoots past, missing the car by inches. You should flash your lights to signal for help. Pull up on the brights. Three times. Morse code. Do they even know Morse code here? A weak stream of water wees onto the windscreen and the wiper blade judders across, smearing red dust–now red mud–across your line of vision. Now you can’t see at all. Slowly the wiper does its job.
Yeah, right. An AK bullet straight in your back.
‘By the way we’re the New Strugglers. This is Joel, Caesar…’
‘Sorry… Kaliban. And I’m Eric Phala.’
Their gang, their group, their little carjacking syndicate: The New Strugglers. What a name for a gang! And what caricatures. They are cartoon characters, confirmation of the worst stereotypes from South Africa: the black thug with panga knife, the AK wielding carjacker, the silent brooding youth with a scar splitting his face in two.
‘The New Strugglers for a new South Africa.’ The man gives a guttural laugh. ‘Viva the new struggle!’
They smell of heavy deodorant and hair oil as if they are going to a party.
A cow saunters across the road. You brake, looking for an opportunity to do something rash. But you can think of nothing. Red rivulets of paths crisscross the countryside. Another cow prodded from behind by a boy with a stick crosses the road ahead.
‘Just drive—he’ll get out of the way.’
There must be people who live near here, people who can help you. But all you can see is six-foot high sugarcane.
‘OK. OK. Stop here.’
This is it.
 Umlungu. Zulu (n). Derogatory. White man. Origin: white foam on the beach, i.e. white scum.