originally published in Le Monde Diplomatique, October 2013

lillian ngoyi pic

I stood on the side of a street with a new name.  Van der Walt has become Lillian Ngoyi; a veldkornet erased for a comrade.  Sleek busses drone by.  A taxi double-parks without couth. Dark-green shade-cloth ripples up and down in puffs of air over scaffolding twenty stories high.  Below, pedestrians politely side-step each other. The Soil’s song Inkomo, clogs

the intersection.  Winter hurries everyone up just a little bit.

Inner city Pretoria has a pleasant human press about it at home time. Office-workers, soldiers and shoppers scurry past fruit and vegetable stalls, past take-aways, weave and dread salons, curtain and linen shops, mini-meds and stores selling ‘fashion’ in the form of Italian shoes or light-wood furniture.

The surest sign of the capital’s vascular health are the little kids waiting at robots to cross the streets. Some are alone, others gaggle around a fat one in the middle.  There’s not an adult companion in sight.  Obviously it is quite safe to bounce along blocks and blocks to school, on your own: at eight, already old enough to be wys to this city’s ways.

A tall, dark-skinned man approached and addressed me in flawless Afrikaans.  He showed me two red boxes of perfume in his hand.  He quickly added that his wares were not the ones that the ‘houtkops’ sell but the real deal.  I looked more closely at him and could just discern, perhaps, a little pointedness to his features that might explain his passing, in this pitch, as a coloured.  The Afrikaans, the half-solidarity, the brazen slur completed the picture. All was functional to the deal he offered, there on a street where painfully few van der Walts still waited on curbs.

I smiled and assured him I had no need for perfume.  He offered a smell.  I declined, saying really, broer, thanks but not today. He’d let me have one for fifty bucks.  Again, I said no, but was impressed with his persistence.  He changed tack.  Did I not then have something for him, just for a little bread and transport money back home? Times were tough.  I turned to face him and switched to English, “Dude, you’re no longer selling stuff are you?  Now, you’re begging.  I’m not interested”.

He had not been smiling before but now his face hardened and it was like he’d been replaced by a crueler twin.  ‘Ja’, he said, ‘dis hoekom dit beter is om a gun te vat en te gaan roof’.  He pointed a knuckle at me.  It did not seem he was making a general criminological point.  And I said, ‘Doen ‘it dan.  Ons sien wie skiet eers.’

He walked away into the crowd.  I watched him warily for a bit but soon he was just another outie, bumping along in the throng, hardening. But so have I hardened.  I should have given him ten bucks, not for the begging but the attempt at a united feeling, the beautiful language he spoke to me and the honesty of the threat immemorial: give me a little something, van der Walt, or I’ll raid you later for more.