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A Downtown Jozi Incident and the Unexpected Side Effects of Meditation

I’d been away for a few days in Durban, and wanted to get home in time for a dog walk in the park. So I took the Gautrain from Oliver Tambo, and planned to hop in an Uber for the last few kilometres home. I’d never taken Uber from Park Station, but what could go wrong? The area has been renovated and there are always security guards to watch out for travellers. Nevertheless, being a Jozi resident now, I Whatsapp’d my husband so that he knew my route, just in case.

As I came up the escalator, it was clean and light, with a curved seating area for people waiting. I called Uber, and a vehicle was just 3 minutes away. I was almost home and off to the park. Emmarentia is my happy place where any residue from the day dissolves into gratitude for towering trees and delighted dogs. My phone rang, bringing me back to the bustle of Wolmarans, “Can you walk up to Smit Street to meet me, the metered taxis don’t like Uber?” said my driver. I did so, and chatted to a man on the corner, also waiting for his work transport to take him home. When I saw the number plate of Phuti’s vehicle, I walked across the road, wheeling my little suitcase. A guy stopped the car and started speaking to the driver. I went to the passenger side and jumped in, holding phone, backpack and suitcase. The voice was quiet but threatening. I looked up and an expressionless face attached to a skinny body was standing in front of the car, then a third guy was at my side, opening the door. Twice I grabbed it, pulled it closed and tried to lock it, to no avail. On the third attempt, he reached across me and grabbed the Uber driver’s phone. I held onto mine and gave him a ferocious look. The driver said, “Get out, get out quickly.” What should I do? Stay in the car, surrounded by aggressive men, or get out, and stand amongst them? It wasn’t much of a choice. Strangely, though, I didn’t feel afraid. I felt angry for the driver losing his phone as he’s just someone trying to get by. As I got out, I looked at the guys, and what came out of my mouth? Nothing particularly wise, but maybe not antagonising either. “You are not being kind,” I said, “Not kind at all”. And I stomped back down the street, eyeballing one of the guys who walked beside me.

The reason I’d been in Durban, was to officiate a memorial service for a devoted mother and fierce activist, who had recently died. The tributes at the service were all about her determination to fight for the underdog, to redress the balance of life in South Africa. She had once said, “Do you see any fear in my eyes? No you don’t?” This quote came to mind as I walked next to my potential attacker. I felt a connection with her and a wish to help the Uber driver. I felt little fear for myself.

Once I found the Gautrain security guard and told her what had happened, she took me to the armed security, who are supposed to protect travellers and taxi drivers alike. They were round a quiet corner, rather hidden from the action I had experienced. Five armed men, gazing into their phones when I found them, suddenly got active. One walked off, while another told me that my Uber had been stupid, “They know where to collect people,” he said, “at the safe zone up the street”. He offered to escort me there. Just as we were leaving, the other security guard returned and asked if I’d identify the suspects. I walked back to the action, with my armed escort, chuckling that it was first time I was considered important enough to have bodyguards. The metered taxis owner, a large man with stature and a defensive look, introduced himself and asked if any of his men had been part of the incident. It wasn’t them. But of course it wasn’t. Why would they do their own dirty work?

My next Uber driver was waiting. After weaving through the crowds, we got further away from the Gautrain entrance, an area that I would normally have felt much more nervous in. But I had my armed escort. I just couldn’t believe that this was the best way of protecting travellers? If there are armed security guards at the Gautrain, why couldn’t Uber pull into the Pick Up/Drop Off zone and feel protected? My new driver said that ‘they’ would block the entrance, endangering the drivers further. This felt wrong, but by now the urge to get home was stronger than my urge to think through the best way to manage traffic flow on Eloff and Wolmarans Streets. I sat back and watched the downtown life streaming by, pleased to have my possessions and myself in tact.

I’d once heard that if you need to be given bad news, it’s best to receive it from someone with an Irish accent. After reporting the incident online to Uber, and getting into the park with my dogs, my phone rang, and a Irish man asked me how I was doing. I felt distinctly soothed by his lilting, musical accent. He reassured me that they were taking the matter very seriously and that my driver was currently at the police station reporting the incident and his stolen phone. I filled him in on the details, and laughed about my school m’aam response to the tsotsis, “You are not being kind.” The Irishman, Tony, remarked on my calmness and sense of humour, “I must say, you are taking this very well. It was a very serious incident”.

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“I think it’s because I practice meditation”, I said, “The incident is over, no-one was hurt, and I’m now in the park surrounded by dog joy.” What need was there to let the incident hang over me? I just wanted to ensure that my driver got help in getting a new phone, and that the security at Park Station is better in future. Mind you, my calmness will not get in the way of discernment… I’ll take Uber from Rosebank next time.

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