Given the time and footwear, you can pretty much walk anywhere you want to go in the world. But if you’re in a hurry – say you need to be at church on time, or at the store when it opens on sale day, or at your brother’s bedside in hospital before he dies in another country and hemisphere – then few things limit your freedom of movement as quickly and severely as the mode of transport you can afford.
PHOTOGRAPHY: TOAST COETZER (courtesy of Weg/go)
STORY : TOAST COETZER
There is a gulf between people who own cars and those who do not, while the gulf between people who can afford aeroplane tickets to other hemispheres and those forever destined to be the people leaning on the handles of their spades while looking up at the impossibility of jet travel passing over them – this gulf is so wide as to be almost abstract. To most people, the idea of flying at supersonic speed 10 km above the earth’s surface to another continent is as alien as space travel to Mars is to you and I. Or hang on, we’re about to embark on that, aren’t we?
Despite what you might be thinking when you read of a MyCiti bus being set alight, or hear from your Free State aunt about how badly potholed the streets of Ladybrand are, or sit through another “It was chaos at OR Tambo, my Kulula was delayed for three hours!”, South Africa actually has a solid infrastructure of road, rail and air links. If you have the money, you can be anywhere in South Africa within a day or three, by plane, car or bus.
But what if you don’t? What if you are one of the people who have to stand outside Worcester on the N1 – right under the ‘No Hiking’ sign – with your thumb out, or your index finger pointing skyward, or a R50 note fluttering in the wind, hoping to catch a ride to Beaufort West, or Bloem, or preferably all the way to Joburg?
This is the land of the hitchhiker. South Africa has many, many hitchhikers. And surprisingly few of them are out to kill you. Most of them are simply people who need to get from one place to another. They are just in transit.
Sometimes they’re not going far. When you pick up a hitchhiker on a district road near a platteland town you’ll often find that he or she is simply going to town to go to the shop or the clinic, or maybe to attend a funeral. Sometimes they’re just going to work, or going back home, or going to school.
You could be picking up a teacher near Umlazi, a magistrate outside Mbabane or a policeman south of Masvingo. But it could also be Jacobus Bhaha and Angeline Cloete, freshly relieved of (the Afrikaans phrase is stronger here: in die pad gesteek, literally ‘put in the road’) their jobs on a Karoo farm. When you drop them off, Angeline could be crying, and Jacobus could leave you with this: “Sir, it’s hard to be me.”
I said “when you pick up” there, and you’re thinking “no, I don’t pick up hitchhikers!” I know. And I’m not going to tell you to pick up hitchhikers either. Because some of them might be very bad people (like bad bankers, only more obviously bad as they don’t use expensive cologne). Some hitchhikers are con artists and liars out to tell you the sorriest tale you’ve ever heard (it’s his wife’s third child and because he’s a truck-driver he’s never at home when she gives birth, but this time he just needs R100 and then he can be there on time etc – yes, “Fanie” in Laingsburg, that’s you…).
But in my experience, most of them are perfectly normal and friendly people who will be very grateful for a lift. And that’s all. I work for a travel magazine and spend a lot of my time driving around South Africa. I often pick up hitchhikers, and unless there’s a language barrier (which there often is), I talk to them as we drive. I ask their names, enquire about their destination and what they do. If I sense they don’t want to talk, I don’t pry any further. For the most part I end up learning new things about the people I share South Africa with.
We are used to blinkering in South Africa, and sheltering ourselves (from largely unknown, fearful things). We build walls around our homes, top them off with Shockoloza-wires or Eina Ivy. Our car windows are tinted, and armoured with anti-smash-and-grab film. Many of these safety measures are for good reason, but the blinkering is bad when it becomes complete, and when it’s not about crime prevention but about ignoring the existence and suffering of others. When we simply stop seeing other people. The figure wrapped in a dirty blanket at the Engen robot, ten o’clock at night, while you’re listening to North American indie rock music in your car. Those huddled around a fire under the flyover on a cold, wet winter’s day. The hitchhiker outside Worcester with a baby on her back.
By seeing people – making eye contact – you acknowledge their existence, and when you do so, you acknowledge your own existence. If they are invisible, you are invisible. But to see – and say it out loud, say “I see you, human” – is to begin the process of shared suffering.
We are not all inclined to change the world in the same obvious ways. We can’t all be doctors or social workers (someone’s gotta design that website, right?). But we can all care. And caring begins right there, in the car, with you looking up at the human by the roadside with nothing but the hope of a ride to the next town in their eyes.
SONGS FOR THE ROAD
MATTHEW VAN DER WANT & CHRIS LETCHER
Dark Days Exit