Driving in South Africa, noted my perpetually anxious Chicago visitor, reminded him of a unique pastime back home — the demolition derby — only here, with nicer cars and wider eyes behind the wheel.
For those not familiar with the ways of this US motorsport, which usually takes place in the deep South, five drivers compete in a race and the last one whose car is still operational is declared the winner.
At this point, a Confederate flag is draped over the smoking vehicle and shots of Wild Turkey bourbon are offered while a Lynyrd Skynyrd medley is played over the tannoy.
I’m riffing a little here for dramatic import. Journalism, I strongly believe, needs more accompanying soundtracks. During the useless State of the Nation promise-fest I played the Smashing Pumpkins’ The End Is the Beginning Is the End on repeat and I found the righteous anger I was looking for.
I fetched my guest from a shopping trip at a plush up-market mall, as YOU magazine might write about a family murder in Stellenbosch, where for the equivalent of $20 he bought the entire contents of a Woolworths food hall with change to spare I imagine.
The route home to Chez Maggs takes one down Jan Smuts Avenue in Johannesburg, where towards its bottom is a monument to poor city planning where a series of unsynchronised traffic lights (he snorts every time I use the word “robots”) have been placed too closely together, which even during light traffic flow causes bottlenecks.
On an earlier longer-distance country trip — and don’t get me started on the N2 and cowboy coal trucks — I’d given him the job of pointing out potholes, a task he took on with vigour and enthusiasm.
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At one point, he maniacally resembled a deaf conductor trying to manage Beethoven’s tricky Symphony No 5 in C minor, while the orchestra had other ideas and wanted an early lunch.
After 30 minutes he gave up pointing and lurching around, tears streaming from his face and giving me the hand sign for respect before self-medicating.
On our 5pm trip down Jan Smuts we were deep into Stage 5 load shedding, rain was falling, Johannesburg’s intolerance measure was off the charts and minibus taxis were practising their specially mandated protocol of driving lane-free, wherever they want, at high speed.
Adding to our roller coaster of adrenaline-fuelled misery was the emergence of a new deep-level mining feasibility study which had a single piece of orange tape festooned around the hole, deep enough to hear smug cousins in Perth crowing about their new life Down Under.
I tried to explain the unwritten rules of the chaos. Big vehicles always have right of way and don’t f*ck with them. All taxis are given the status of emergency vehicles; arrogant drivers behind the wheel of German saloons are not targets, however tempting; and give the Uber Eats guy a break. Stressed Joburgers need their cold, limp Regina pizza as a reward for getting home alive. In any case, you’ll be calling for one yourself as your ESP app has just told you Stage 6 begins in an hour — until further notice as a pencil sharpener at Kusile has broken down.
And who is he? asked my white-knuckled passenger. You mean the homeless undernourished man with a green reflective jacket who in an act of selflessness and with little chance of reward has taken it upon himself to bring some order to the chaos by directing traffic?
I explain we have no agreed-on protocol for this. But the bigger and more expensive the vehicle, the less likely they are to obey his rudimentary hand signals. My guest immediately conferred unsung hero status on this man and Spotify moved on to Despair and Traffic by the punk duo Slaves.
Quite by accident, of course, which the granny next to me in a Hillman Imp was about to have, unless I let her in. Which I did. DM