Maverick Citizen

HAZARDOUS DRIVE OP-ED

My robbery nightmare in Nyanga, Cape Town, directed by Google Maps

My robbery nightmare in Nyanga, Cape Town, directed by Google Maps
Maurice Smithers, the victim of an attempted robbery in Nyanga, Cape Town. (Photo: Supplied)

‘I am now grappling with an overwhelming and complex set of emotions – anger, frustration, despondency and profound sadness.’

On Monday, 13 November, Daily Maverick published an article entitled ‘Google Maps will no longer direct visitors through Cape Town township after attacks on motorists’. On the same day, I messaged Google urging them not to send motorists to Muizenberg through Nyanga because, unbeknown to Daily Maverick, the “most recent” attack wasn’t in October, but on 10 November. I know this because it happened to me.

I hired a car on arrival at Cape Town International Airport on Friday, 10 November, and Google Maps suggested a route that would take me to Baden Powell Drive which hugs the False Bay coast to Muizenberg. As someone from Jozi, I was looking forward to a drive along the sea.

What I didn’t know was that the “fastest route” would take me through Nyanga, rated in September 2023 as the 21st most dangerous place in the country and the 7th most dangerous in the Western Cape.

However, once I found myself in the area, I wasn’t particularly worried. I’m in and out of Alex, I lived in Yeoville, and I’ve run workshops in Diepsloot and Gugulethu. I’m pretty street-wise so I knew to be alert to my surroundings, but never expected any problems. I was mistaken.

While waiting at a traffic light, a 20kg chunk of concrete came smashing through the driver’s window. My ignition key was snatched and thrown into the street to stop me from driving off. I didn’t see the rock flying past my face or the key being removed. I didn’t even feel the rough concrete tearing across my scrawny arms. Recovering from my initial shock, I saw someone trying to get in through the gaping hole where the window had been.

google maps nyanga

The 20kg chunk of concrete that burst through the driver’s window. (Photo: Supplied)

Strangely, I wasn’t scared. I attacked him, shoving him out of the car. As I did so, I saw a gash in my right arm and thought the guy had a knife and had stabbed me. But I saw no sign of a weapon in his hands. We tussled, him shouting, “Give me your cellphone” and me yelling, “Fuck you!”

Unexpectedly, he turned and ran off.

I then saw that both of my arms had suffered serious damage from the concrete block, which had come to land on the handbrake, mercifully missing my head. 

Passersby urged me to get out of the area, but I couldn’t – not until someone found the car key and brought it to me. I am deeply indebted to that anonymous, caring member of the Nyanga community. Thank you. Ndiyabulela. You are a good person.

Read more in Daily Maverick: US couple attacked and robbed on the way to Cape Town airport after Google Maps directs them via high-risk route

I continued on my designated route, having decided it made more sense than turning around. Then I noticed people looking at me weirdly as they drove past. It was only when I looked in the rear view mirror that I realised that my face and neck were covered in blood from multiple cuts caused by the flying glass from the shattered window.

I stopped at a petrol station, cleaned up a bit with the help of several sympathetic people and continued to Muizenberg to the home of Karl von Holdt and Adele Kirsten where I dropped my bags and headed to a hospital to get treatment.

Adele drove me to the nearest Netcare facility – which wasn’t at all near, but I had to go there to satisfy my minimalist medical aid package – and I was given eight stitches in the right arm and a dressing on the left (I subsequently learnt that I may need a skin graft on that arm – I’ll know next week).

That done, I continued life pretty much as normal. On Saturday, I attended a farmworkers’ workshop and went ahead with a presentation on the history and socioeconomic impact of alcohol use – the purpose of my visit to Cape Town – and flew home on Sunday.

While in Cape Town, I discovered that I was not the first person to be directed along that route – and also that I had escaped relatively lightly. Other victims had lost all their possessions, some had suffered serious injuries, and others had been killed.

I was fortunate in so many ways – the concrete block missed my head, the would-be robber wasn’t armed, he acted alone, he left empty-handed, no one else took advantage of my exposed and vulnerable predicament once he had run off, the key to the car was found and returned to me, there were people who “saw me” – in isiZulu, the literal translation of the greeting “sawubona” (hello) is “I see you”, used to acknowledge the worth and dignity of each person one meets – and generously assisted me, and I reached Muizenberg safely without further problems.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Visitors warned to be alert on Cape Town’s N2 ‘Hell Run’

On Monday, after I had written to Google telling them my story and asking them to stop their maps app from recommending that particular route, Sheila Drew sent me the Daily Maverick article.

Later in the day, Khethiwe Marais sent me another piece in the Cape Argus on the same issue. Both were reporting on efforts by the Department of Tourism, the City of Cape Town and other stakeholders to persuade Google to stop sending people through Nyanga.

I hope, for the sake of future visitors to Cape Town, that Google takes these interventions seriously.

So I survived the ordeal, for which I am deeply grateful, acutely aware of how easily it could have ended so much more terribly.

But I am now grappling with an overwhelming and complex set of emotions – anger, frustration, despondency and profound sadness – at the fact that thanks to the current political and socioeconomic reality of our country, we are producing young people (he was in his late teens, early twenties) who think nothing of maiming or killing someone in pursuit of so trivial an item as a cellphone.

The huge inequities in our country, the depressed economy, the lack of jobs, the failure since 1994 to adopt an aggressive programme aimed at improving the lived experience of people still trapped in apartheid’s townships, collapsing service delivery, the corruption that has betrayed our democratic struggle – these are all conspiring to create a layer of people in areas like Nyanga who have every right to conclude that their lives don’t matter, that they are not valued, that nobody cares about them.

Should we be surprised if they, in turn, are of the view that the health, wellbeing and lives of others don’t matter either, and are no more important than a cellphone or a laptop or a handful of banknotes? 

My final thoughts: do what you want to do, see who you want to see, be who you want to be. Don’t procrastinate. You never know when your time is going to run out.

I don’t think I’ve ever, in my nearly 72 years, come as close to that irreversible moment. Well, perhaps once before, a long time ago – but that’s another story. DM

Maurice Smithers is an advocate for alcohol harm reduction as a public health, social justice and human rights issue.

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  • Jagdish Makan says:

    I believe GOOGLE should be sued for deliberately directing unsuspecting motorists through a crime zone. They should have acted sooner as there have been numerous such cases before. All CAR HIRE companies must give out pamphlets with immediate effect, warning drivers about this danger, no exception and if they don’t, they too should be taken to task

    • Pieter van de Venter says:

      No, Cele should be sued for refusing to his job and taking his millions home every year.

    • Rod H MacLeod says:

      Jagdish, we have freedom of movement in this country [allegedly, because you are advocating ‘no-go’ zones] and I cannot see that you expect Google to monitor the crime situation in this country. It is not up to Google and car hire companies to monitor safe routes 0- it’s up to this useless inept SAPS to do that. Such stupidity to expect Google needs to pay compensation for the idiocy of our own government. Pathetic!

  • George (Mike) Berger says:

    We can all sympathise with Mr Smithers and hopefully draw useful lessons. Firstly massive inequities do cause crime and other social ills which flow from criminality. Once a culture of crime and low social trust is established it is difficult to break. Certainly it can’t be solved by a ruthessly opportunistic government seeking only it’s own survival. Thankfully we have the DA in this part of SA to mitigate the effects of our history and national government. Remember elections are coming up which offers citizens to strengthen democracy in the Western Cape. Mr Smithers is a brave and decent man. It was fortunate he survived and we wish him rapid recovery.

  • Vincent Britz says:

    It’s true that our youth and even some of our older generation are turning to crime due to the state of this country!

    Take me for example, am a 44yr male and am on the verge of turning to a life of crime to be able to support my family.
    During Covid I was laid off(no pay) the company I worked for was never BEE registered so no Ter-payments from government.
    Have been job hunting for the last 21 months but am too white for some companies & too old for others.
    My workman’s compensation pension which I have been trying to claim as a lump sum has also fallen on deaf ears from the government.

    So now my only option is to turn to life of crime to be able to support my family..

    This is all thanks to our sick & corrupt ANC gangster government.

  • Peter Doble says:

    While I sympathise, it is hardly satnavs or apps which are responsible. Long before directional technology, I experienced numerous ‘dangerous’ instances while driving in foreign cities. There is no substitute for a human brain and senses in assessing a potential hotspot. Rule of defensive driving – plan, prepare and adapt.

  • Frans Flippo says:

    Google is not to blame here, the ANC are, for allowing these dangerous areas to exist without addressing the issue.

    With all the money the ministers and cadres are stuffing their pockets with, the people of Nyanga could have been provided with social support, education, sports facilities, jobs, all things to steer kids away from crime.

    In addition, better policing and punishment could have provided a strong warning to those insisting on being criminals anyway.

    Instead, the finger is pointer at Google, who, last time I checked, was not part of this country’s government.

    • Jason Anthony says:

      Well Said… Agreed

    • Jagdish Makan says:

      Sure, the ANC must be held accountable for failing it’s citizens, so let’s ensure that we vote them out next year.
      The fact remains that Google directs unsuspecting drivers especially naive foreigners through crime ridden areas, WHY? Now they are taking proactive steps, a little too late. Furthermore, there must be no alternative option on google, rather a longer route, but only one safe option and avoid this route totally.

  • Bewe 1414 says:

    Maybe Google can indicate ” high crime areas/smash & grab areas/accident prone areas” as well… so that the person following the map can make an informed decision. It would be nice of Google to develop such a tool, to make people feel safer. They can maybe have added features that ask you what the purpose of your trip is, if you select emergency, it can give you list of the nearest police stations and hospitals which you can select… This is now the time to make technology work for us.

    • Oom Paul says:

      The whole of the country should be red flagged

    • jason du toit says:

      it’s not quite as simple as just indicating high crime areas on the map.

      watch “Why Google Maps Doesn’t Show You Unsafe Areas” by Enrico Tartarotti on youtube. he gives an excellent overview of some of the issues involved with doing this.

  • Being directed by Google to turn left on to Borcherds Quarry (Nyanga) in Feb. 2020, and having to stop at the first robot, our left back passenger window was likewise smashed and a huge travel bag filled with clothing grabbed in the wink of an eye. Obviously in the light of subsequent events, my husband and I got off lightly if shaken to the bone. So happy that Google has been taken to task!

  • arisitas says:

    Thank you Maurice for this- I share the feelings, as I/we experienced the knife/knives story where the tarmac meets the sand slightly away from Muizenberg. I often drove that way, thanks too for the google maps warning.

  • Antoinette Grundling says:

    It is quite difficult to force a route with google maps. One needs time to plan a route with My Maps. Most of the time it is dangerous to use google maps if one does not have background information of the terrain.

  • Tjaard du Plessis says:

    NEVER ever just follow your GPS blindly. ALWAYS check your route before leaving and decide which route is safest. NEVER ever go through townships, unless your business is in the township. NEVER ever drive at night if at all possible. Be safe, be wise

  • Annemarie Hendrikz says:

    Sorry this happened to you, as it sadly does to so many. Your attitude was/is exemplary but then I would expect no less from someone with friends like that.

  • Marie Venn Venn says:

    Mr Smithers,
    I salute you for your balanced, insightful and courageous assessment of your experience, as well as for the work that you do.
    Grateful you are ok.
    Marié

  • Les Thorpe says:

    And we have our head honcho dabling in the “Gaza war”, totally unconcerned with all the murders, violent robberies, frauds, etc., in his own back yard.

  • P C Hem says:

    It is ridiculous to suggest that Google flag certain areas as high crime no go areas, let us say the police put a permanent presence in this area, the crime would move somewhere else. In any event the whole of South Africa has a crime epidemic of murder, rape and robbery. So perhaps there should be a crime map app created that people can consult to chose their route and destination.

  • POVERTY DOES NOT CAUSE CRIME
    The socio-economic conditions that produce the misguided violent thug are the same that produced the good Samaritans and those who go on to become super-achievers. We must stop making excuses for criminal behavior, justifying it by saying people are victims and have no other choice.

    if poverty caused crime, we would more than 50% of the population doing crime. It is a choice to be a criminal.

    We need strong and permanent police presence to deal with these marauding thugs.

    • Paul Hough says:

      hear hear

    • Deborah Blaine says:

      While poverty is less closely correlated to crime, inequality is very strongly correlated to crime.
      I think you’ve missed the point of Maurice’s article that so clearly communicates the deeply troubling emotions that most South Africans grapple with daily…. He’s not blaming the guy who attacked him because the issue is so much deeper and more complex than that.
      You’re not alone, Maurice. Thank you for sharing your story. It echoes the trauma of the reality South Africans face every day.

      • Rod H MacLeod says:

        Some of the richest people in the world are thugs, and some of the poorest people are the noblest. I feel the attempts to categorise criminals as poverty stricken no-hopers who would otherwise be good folk is codswallop. Thugs are thugs, irrespective of inequality or wealth, and should be dealt with accordingly. Trouble is, most of our law enforcement agencies are either incompetent or engaged in crime. We need an operating system reboot.

  • td _a says:

    i am torn about this issue – for tourists who don’t know the city/country, they should never ever have to go through Nyanga & in ignorance put their lives at risk.
    However, what does that say about us and how we treat the residents of Nyanga? It has such an ‘apartheid feel’ to it, treating it as if a whole community must be avoided..

  • Friends of mine from Cape Town were travelling through Crossroads some years ago and got attacked at one of the robots. Their baby daughter was sleeping in her carry cot in the back seat and while the thieves were attacking the parents one of the robbers dragged the carry cot out of the car onto the tar road. The Dad went to protect his child and got into a fight with that robber with the carry cot in-between them. They stole cellphones and handbag but in the process of the robber ripping out the carrycot and dragging it in the street the baby got so injured she actually died at the scene of the robbery. Very very sad and although its now some years later the emotional scars have ruined that couples relationship and wellbeing.

  • Thabo Tvolly says:

    Last year I was gun pointed at nyanga they tried to hijack my car I will never forget that day in my life Cape Town is the most dangerous place

  • Sue Grant-Marshall says:

    So well written Maurice, and so well-balanced in spite of your horrific experience. You have been an activist for a better SA over scores of years, reaching back into apartheid times. I can guess at what your previous ‘ irreversible moment’ was – and I urge you to write about it here.

  • Christina Van Wyk says:

    A terrible, but profoundly South African story. Throwing a rock at single old white man with enough force to shatter the windscreen may have a myriad explanations , not one of them excuseable. Grateful that you are around to tell the story , sir; a statistic could well have been the outcome.

  • Pieter van de Venter says:

    The starting point to erase inequities, is getting better clothes. Clothes that stay on and therefore provide less chances for pregnancies. Higher taxes, or stealing everything will not solve the poverty problem – decreasing the birthrate will for sure. Go and read up on history and look where the Afrikaner was 100 years ago.

  • Lisbeth Scalabrini says:

    I have been hijacked on the A2 between Pretoria and Joburg and left, with only my clothes on and a broken finger, somewhere in Alexandra. Nothing to do with Google Maps. In any case, I have never used it. I don’t like to be told where to go🤣

  • wendywiemers3 says:

    Thank you for sharing your awful experience with such insight and honesty- it is inspirational.

  • Patterson Alan John says:

    I feel your pain, in every respect of the reality of a failed State. I fear that, irrespective of those who suggest South Africa can recover from this journey to the lowest common denominator, are living in eternal hope, but hope does not create jobs or put food on the table.
    Your very lucky escape has had a profound effect on your appreciation for life and how quickly and unexpectedly, a horrible situation can confront you. I agree that desperation and no prospect of any future, has erased these people’s humanity and all they see is a ‘thing’ which offers an opportunity to acquire something of value, however small, to help their survival. Dog eats dog arrived in the country years ago/ Just look at the paid assassins going about their business! What was once in books of fiction, is now a reality in South Africa.
    Enjoy your extended life and stay safe.

  • Hendrik van Zyl says:

    Many motorists have been attacked in this area, as well as the N2 near the airport. Some have life changing injuries. Do your duty Google!

  • Theo Scholtz says:

    Offering excuses for criminal terrorism and barbarism are pointless. No doubt the author devoted his career to serving the previously disadvantaged. As the saying goes: No good deed goes unpunished.

  • Johann Olivier says:

    Pretty bad, Mr. Smithers. But imagine the terror The Right Honourable Sindisiwe Chikunga & her estimable security must’ve gone through. Her attackers were ARMED. And, as far as is known, she was not relying on fickle Google to find her way. So … yes … nasty for you, but for the minister … her attack came out of the blue, er, dark. Shame! She gets you. Not.

  • praveshbabulal says:

    Google maps should revisit and provide alternates to all routes via dangerous suburbs within South Africa

  • Martin Cahnbley says:

    I have had a similar (less harrowing) experience in the Cape twice. Once when the N2 was closed and I was redirected by Google Maps through a township near The Strand. Turned around the corner in my small white rental (I live in NZ but am from SA) to be confronted by 1000s of protesters, chanting waving any means of weapon and, luckily between me and them, a cordon of SA Army personnel in Ratels, with rifles at the ready. I quickly made that desperately-needed U-Turn and headed back out and took the longer route towards Stellenbosch via The Strand. This was prior to elections in 2018? Then, last year, I was again directed through a dodgy-looking, yet less-threatening township in the Cape. At that stage I was wondering why Google would not offer the service of fine-tuning their service. Of course it would be racist, elitist, sexist even. BUT, it would be safer. You KNOW what the crime rates are in different suburbs and who tends to be a victim – race, age, number of legs …. I am pleased that Maurice made it through alive! I would love to hear from Google re this. This is NOT a South African condition – go to Brazil, New York – everywhere in the world. Safe passage is worthy!

  • Ralph Chiwashira says:

    But it looks like OP didn’t report to the police, and hence can’t blame the police or Press for not adding the tragic incidence to police. Get well soon. You were “lucky” you got out alive with minimal “damage”.

  • j4journals says:

    Nyanga is a no go area, criminals have captured the space. Sadly there are thousands who cope with those crooks on daily basis

  • Quentin du Plooy says:

    I’m so sorry Maurice

  • Frank Fettig says:

    The one and only reason I fled beautiful SA is the ANC. And the EFF lurking in the dark. Should these two come together, may the lord have mercy!
    After 8 years in the WC I closed down my company – more unemployed – packed my stuff and took my family to greener pastures…I was lucky to do so.
    The most beautiful country in the world ruled by the most despicable criminals calling themselves a government. I am so very sorry.
    I hope SA will make it though! Good luck!

  • Georg Scharf Scharf says:

    Nauseating, and getting worse. PTSD kicks in and will worry you for at least a year. In my case the PTSD only lifted when the police killed the criminals two years later.

  • Awareness Publishing Mike says:

    Don’t you agree with me? Aren’t you tired of having to listen over and over again to the “Audio sponsored by Stand Up Business podcast”, before having any of these articles read aloud to you? What’s more, listening on iPhone, in most cases I find I am forced to listen to the 10 seconds ad TWICE before being able to play the article. So, it’s “press play, listen to the 10 seconds repeating humour of the one and laughter of the other, then press play again, and listed to it all over again”. And one is forced to listen hundreds of times to this 10 seconds annoying advertisement, because Daily Maverick has not provided any “skip” or “move on” facility. After having been forced to listen to the two’s laughter too many times, I have completely lost the appetite of ever listening to Mark Barnes or Business Maverick editor Tim Cohen ever again. And sorry for bringing it up here, but I have written to Daily Maverick many times about it, but they have done nothing about it. Don’t you agree?

  • Andre Swart says:

    Maurice was attacked because of his old age and white skin … seen as weak … and therefore regarded as an easy target.

    He was probably spotted by an accomplice some distance from where the attack occured.

    The ‘spotter’ alerted the attacker … and there were probably more of them, watching … waiting to loot Maurice’s valuables if the opportunity arises.

    Old white people must realize that they are regarded as prime targets. They must arm themselves to defend them against these savages. Nobody else (police) will protect them.

    These attacks happen daily, everywhere in South Africa.

  • Bobby 10 says:

    Wishing you a speedy recovery Maurice and thank you for sharing this warning with others.

    Although I certainly have no love for the ANC I am amused to see all their usual critics blaming them for what goes on in Cape Town and the Western Cape. The last time I checked the City & Province were under the control of the DA?

    Possibly more honesty is required about the failings of the DA to uplift poor communities and increase policing in dangerous areas?

    Cape Town must set aside its superiority complex and do the work!

  • C S says:

    While educating them if alcohol harm reduction (which granted is a nefarious hangover from the old regime) we should also educate on safe s*x practices and how to only have as many children as you can afford. Just as we made that decision as a family to have only one child. Poverty is much more than an institution of oppression, people always have choice. Just as the people commenting here that this is not Google’s fault, it is also not the criminal government fault that people have more children’s than they can care for. Simple maths. Don’t come at me with cultural rights BS. Nevermind you not being able to afford multiple children, the planet has told us we need to change our breeding patterns, we are in a severe climate crises. Stop having babies. Kla.

  • Connellbrian says:

    Not sure if anyone will see this, but google maps has updated this. However, Apple Maps hasn’t.

    Perhaps they should be notified of this issue to ensure people don’t make the same mistake.

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