Comedy of errors: xenophobia and public safety in Cape Town

What began as a quiet morning on the public holiday Monday unfolded into a day that involved a police station, an insolent police woman and a crazy cab driver. My day began at lunchtime where I visited the Long Street baths for a quiet swim.

Instead of rushing home with the 14:45 train, I decided to stay in town and meet up with friends. We met in Roeland Street proceeded to a corner shop in Harrington Street to purchase some drinks so that the rest of the day would be spent pontificating the joys of our youth over a glass of wine.
While waiting outside the liquor store in Harrington Street, we witnessed a street brawl. It didn’t look too serious and the trusted “Public Safety” Officers who roam about Cape Town’s CBD wearing neon coloured vests were present giving the impression that everything was under control. But what began as three men jostling each other and using a beer bottle as a weapon, spiralled out of control. We were innocent bystanders but ended up witnessing a violent and bizarre crime of attempted murder or maybe intention to do harm by a crazy driver.

The fight amongst the three men was surreal as we watched one of the men jump into his car (belonging to a cab service) and attempt to drive into the men who were beating him up. While zooting about the street with mad Schumacher-like skills we sat in my friend’s car spellbound and hoping that the fight was over. Our car was parked not very far from the fight so in his attempt at driving into his attackers, the cab came towards our stationary car. My friend, sitting in the driver’s seat couldn’t move. Our car was sandwiched between another parked car and the bend of the road. At this point, the “Public Safety” Officers were useless. They didn’t seem to have any gadgets calling for back up and they were trying to calm down the temper of two men who appeared drunk and a crazy cab driver seeking vengeance. It didn’t occur to them that they should run to the Police Station which was less than a hundred meters away from the action.

While zooting about trying to run people over, the cab driver reversed towards our car and ended up scratching the bonnet. At this point we were jolted into action. Eventually, we managed to drive away and parked further down the road, but the fight was not over. We called 10111 but there was no answer. While the cab driver was reversing one of the men who had attacked him smashed the windscreen of his car with a beer bottle. This meant the scratch on our car became insignificant in the bigger scheme of things.
By now the “Public Safety” officers had given up trying to salvage any order as they had failed to get rid of the bottle that had turned into a weapon. The cab driver eventually rushed to the police station and we followed so we could get his contact details in order to follow up on the damage to the friend’s car. The cab driver disappeared into the police station and we made enquiries with the police woman sitting at the front counter. We greeted her and tried to explain our garbled story explaining that we were looking for the man who had just walked in to report the crime. She was not impressed, told us she was busy (she was filling in a form)and that we should have a seat and wait for another officer to attend to our story. She dismissed us easily and when we persisted that ours as a matter of urgency she retorted in a tone that put us in our place as we simply had to wait for someone else to turn up and help us. Luckily, a policeman emerged and we accosted him with our story and he helped us find the cab driver we were looking for.

It seems the fight was a case of a xenophobic attack. When we found the cab drive we informed him of the damage on the friend’s car (a tiny matter in relation to a smashed windscreen and the possibility of losing his job) we discovered that his name is Ernest and his accent immediately gave him away as a foreign national. In my anger I decided to undertake an interrogation of my own asking Ernest what the fight was about. He told us the two men had called him for a cab service. While picking them up they addressed him in isiXhosa and he responded that he couldn’t understand them. And that’s when the fight began. Ernest couldn’t speak isiXhosa and he was punched for it. In his defence, he got into his car and tried to get revenge.

I’m telling this story not because I think people should know about how I spent my public holiday but rather to illustrate the chaos that can unfold in a simple incident: according to Ernest, he was just picking up customers but instead he was attacked. If Ernest is telling the truth then we witnessed the dangers of xenophobia and the incompetency of “Public Safety” Officers as well as the lack of basic service at the Police Station, even when you try call 10111, they can hang up on you or refuse to take the call.


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