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How to fly under the radar in comfort and safety in a collapsing city

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Alexander Parker is a journalist and consultant. His work has appeared regularly in a number of South African newspapers and magazines. He is the author of ‘25 Cars to Drive Before You Die’ and his latest book, 50 People Who F**ked Up South Africa: The Lost Decade, is in bookshops now.

There’s a good deal of relief in just giving up. Certainly, it’s easier to understand and accept what cannot be changed, and to operate within this constraint.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

I remember giving up on hope for Zimbabwe during the Mbeki era. I gave up on peace in Israel and Palestine years ago. I gave up on Northern Ireland too, and then came the Good Friday Agreement and those who had held on to their hope prevailed. They were better people than me, and I felt a strange sense of guilt about giving up on peace there.

Here at home, there are precious few reasons for hope. In light of everything that we can see, it seems that the future is pretty much knowable. The collapse of Johannesburg’s water, electricity, fire, health and transport infrastructure was predicted. Nobody has done anything about it.

The economic capital of the country is following the course set by municipalities run by the ANC where the big media houses don’t have reporters. So, it may be a shock for urban and suburban Joburgers to have to contend – as a forever scenario – with life without running water, electricity, fire trucks, oncology, sanitation in hospitals and security, but it’s been a fact of life elsewhere for years.

Joburg will now need to contemplate its long-term future as a city of ever more gaping inequality. Some wealthy residents will take themselves off-grid with solar as a rather expensive screw-you to Eskom and the city. Others will simply install battery storage to cover their homes when the power goes out.

It will remain a city of dark, unsanitary and dangerous settlements, as well as of Tesla Powerwalls, private security, electric fences and glorious homes with pumping fibre.

So, what to drive in the ANC’s Johannesburg? When I last spent some time in the city I was working for a German car company. Regularly landing on the last flight in on a Sunday, I would scuttle nervously across the airport to find my car, a BMW M140i, which I had chosen specifically for this 10.30pm hell run from OR Tambo to the suburbs. I wanted something small, reasonably unostentatious and very fast indeed. The M140i was perfect. Anyone keeping up with me had malevolent intent and was a reasonably talented driver. It was that simple.

Of late, though, I’ve been wondering how much I really want to stand out. Recently, here in Cape Town, I’ve had some pretty nice stuff in the driveway, all fake SUVs of course. The Jaguar ePace was really rather special, but it did attract a lot of attention. I’ve driven the new Peugeot 2008, yet another brilliant car from the under-appreciated Frenchies, but – again – quite snazzy. I’ve had a go in a very pleasant Volkswagen T-Roc – a smooth piece of kit if ever there was one.

And, then, I drove a CVT gearbox-equipped Toyota Corolla Quest. Nobody noticed me as I took the kids to their private school, or when I turned off into our street of character cottages. One night, we drove to Observatory for a regular pilgrimage to Pancho’’s, the Mexican restaurant that’s been there forever.

As we drove down Lower Main Road, the power went out and crowds of drunk and mightily pissed-off people left the bars and fell into the dark street.

There I was, in my “Uber”, completely and utterly anonymous. We quietly turned around and went home, grateful that we’d brought the Quest, and not the Jaguar, that evening.

So, it makes me think. How, in 2021, do you fly under the radar in comfort and safety?  Perhaps a Corolla Quest is a tad too utilitarian for you, but obviously a German car is out of the question. So what about a Corolla? That’s a fine car nobody will ever notice.

Same goes for a Honda Civic sedan or a Mazda 3 sedan, or a Subaru Impreza. Fine cars, every one of them, and better to drive than any hopped-up non-SUV.

These cars are the solution to dark streets, non-functional traffic lights and the need to remain invisible. They are the wallpaper paste between the bedecked and bejazzled SUVs. In this day and age that’s quite a nice place to be.

Just one note of caution, though. When Digital Vibes bought Zweli Mkhize’s son a car, they opted for a 70-series Toyota Land Cruiser bakkie, probably the toughest car you can buy. It worries me that the Minister Without A Job But Still With Perks has seen what’s happened to the roads budget. It certainly didn’t look like a product choice upon which we could pin any hope. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

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All Comments 4

  • trouble is – too many people drive the same under-the-radar vehicle, so the demand for don’t-ask-where-it-came-from spares is high!

  • The answer is in the old classic cars that have not taken off in value – like say a 1988 Daimler Double Six, or an early 21st century Jeep V8. No-one will steal it, no one will hijack it and no-one wants the spares – not quite invisible and thirsty, but reliable and capable of handling broken roads.

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