The two men come from behind. I turn round, on instinct, but the squat one is already nearly on top of me, rushing in full sprint through the tall grass. He whisper-shouts at us: "Hey! Hey! HEY!" The second, lankier man is 30 meters behind but also approaching fast. Within seconds, Squat reaches me, begins waving his arms. Long arms, milling around. That's when fiery streaks of pain start; he is slapping me in my face with his palms. "Down, go down," Squat hisses at me. His face is absurdly round, with a big, flat nose in the middle, nostrils wide, flaring. He wears a green-white striped shirt. I crouch, stupefied, bend my head; his arms wheel, too fast, too long. "Down now."
Suddenly it stops. Look up, I find the lanky man in front of me. "Down, down, down," he also intones in similar poor English. In his right hand there is a barrel aimed at my abdomen. No time to look at the gaunt face. The flash: "That's not real, that is not a real shotgun." It's too rusty, hold together amateurishly by rusty wire. But the blood curdles, the heart freezes, the mind reels: what if it is real? The odds of surviving kick in, the calculation ready and printed in micro-seconds. Krrzzzz-chk, dropped into the paper-tray of the brain. No escape. You go down, on your knees, your elbows pressing into the dirt, the earth coming up to your face, the face glowing with pain. Through my tearing eyes I see Squat kicking, violently dragging down Richard, who fends his attacker off haphazardly. Richard goes down, Squat viciously kicks his gut. Poor Richard.
I had begun my fieldwork two weeks ago. It was the second crucial aspect of my research project, mapping the rocks, collecting necessary data for my model. Already at the end of the first week, I had to admit: just with one week I had become increasingly tense, borderline paranoid. There had been too many people warning me to be careful, to not go to the places that my project demanded I'd have to visit. And I could feel it again, the tension that can sometimes hang oppressively across Johannesburg like smog, even on a bright day. Already at the end of the first week, I no longer was feeling comfortable with my work, dragging myself out of bed and into my car. Only in the quiet of the areas I worked I could sometimes muster back the spirit, losing myself within the stories rocks can tell. But at the back of my mind I also knew that that quietness could be deceptive.
I had met Richard only a week ago. After Ricardo disappeared from the streets, we hadn't seen many homeless staking out their territory in the neighbourhood. Richard drew my attention because his character stood out compared to other vagrants I'd come across. He was more goal oriented, not yet driven towards incessant alcohol and cigarettes to forget hunger and poverty, he did not try to worm money out of me using pity trips, he used his brain inventively. Already on our first day, he confessed he frequently slept, illegally, underneath thatch roofs of a lappa inside people's gardens, slinking across walls and back to the streets before sunrise. The Sunday afternoon after my first week of fieldwork, I invited him inside our garden, made some sandwiches and tea (his first meal of the day). And I discussed with him what my professor and I had already fleetingly agreed upon - if a field area becomes too unknown, take someone with you. But already I was eager to find someone as soon as I could, even while the field areas were still relatively known to me. Richard spoke a set of African languages, and with his broad shoulders wasn't scrawny in build like so many of the homeless. (I did built in my own safety measures without telling him: I would pick him up, and Richard did not know where we'd go.) For his trial to accompany me, I would award him R100, and I'd have to see how I could organise funds afterwards, depending on how things went.
They didn't went well.
Even on the ground, Richard is still protesting. Squat kicks him again, and then again even when Richard finally keeps still. Then he comes for me. The silent Lank is always a few meters away, like a vulture, holding the shotgun. As Squat circles to my back, I attempt to look around, and now he kicks me. There is no pain, pain has stopped then and there. All I feel is just pressure, the indent of his shoe cracking into the side of my knee, giving me a limp for the next 4 months. Squat rifles through the back pockets of my gritty jeans. "Wallet, where's your wallet eh?" He wallops the back of my head. Voice, tongue, speaking, eyes tearing. "I didn't bring it!" He wallops me again, then finds my driving licenses in my back pocket. He tosses the international driving license aside, absurdly keeps my Dutch license. "Please, it's just my license!" My right eye keeps tearing, something is wrong. Squat keeps my license.
Squat drags me onto my right side, exposing my left pocket. And exposes my hammer, my red geology hammer that has been pressing into my thigh. And then, only then, there is a jolt of fear, as if it's suddenly catching up with me: wild, cascading fear like electricity at the sight of my own blunt tool on my belt. In that flash of fear I see Squat lifting the hammer above his head, my skull crunching, the blood pooling, the police making pictures of a still body.
But Squat is never interested in my hammer, digs through my pocket instead, finds my keys, my cell phone. He flings the keys away, then starts dragging my backpack from my shoulders. I let him. It's not worth it. Not worth it, I want it over, want them gone. The backpack I got in Sweden, my notes from last year, my guidebook for in the field, my GPS, I lose them right there.
He leaves me, puts my backpack on his own back. My heart pangs at the sight. There is so much else in that backpack that is worthless to them. A week of work. My compass. My loupe. But I want them gone, too. I see their silhouettes against the morning sky, one tall, the other squat, like characters out of cartoons. "Hey wena, you stay down, understand. Thirty seconds after we're gone."
They both walk off, disappear into the east. There's nothing but sky, the grass rustling, my nose dripping, my eye tearing.
"Are you okay?" I cry out to Richard. I had brought him with me, it was my decision, my responsibility. He says he is, but when we make our way back to the exit, only 200 meters away, he also limps; his face is puffy. He doesn't talk.
Birds in the trees, the clucking of grey louries. Outside the second house, a short man stands on a ladder, inspecting gutters. I call him from outside the fence around his house, tell what happened. "Oh no, not again," he sighs with heavy Afrikaans lilt through his moustache. He lets us inside the garden, his home, lets us wash in his spotlessly white bathroom. My right eye looks at me from the mirror, vein-shot, battered, tearing. There is water, a call to the police. Richard lies in the shade, his eyes closed. We wait.
Italy, 2009. The mountain brook winding through the valley is already covered by the mountain's shade, the copper sun riding low above the crests of the Italian Alps. The water, an amazing shade of turquoise, burbles across limestone rocks that has seen dinosaurs die. I throw the round rock with an arch, and the stream accepts my gift with a subdued splash, then resettles back into its course. There is calm here, I say to myself.
Calm. European skies, the touch of winter in the blue above, the susurrus of a car fading into the distance. The smell of resin, pine, soft smoke from chimneys. You take it all in, and give it back with the next breath. In. The evening Claudia broke us up, I standing in the garden: all broken up inside, yet the banana tree rustles its fronts with comfort. Out.
Back in Europe for a few weeks now. Almost therapeutically, I have occupied myself refitting the work of the past 1.5 years, readying it for publication. Ever since that unfortunate October morning, fieldwork was postponed. Counselling followed, with my professor, and professionally. Only two weeks later I was able to tell some people something terrifying had happened, yet as I stand watching the water my housemates Tom, Dagmar, Nina, still live in the dark. In the meantime, alternative solutions to perform fieldwork have been considered, planned to start at my return to South Africa. My return to South Africa, for my third year, is only a few weeks away.
My laptop died the previous week; just in time I managed to back-up the entire hard drive. It is not the only reason I'm behind schedule. I know all too well I've started to drag my feet, and this time it wasn't just the externalities.
That there were externalities, there is no doubt. Always these fucking externalities, particularly with life in South Africa, with doing a PhD in South Africa. The first weeks in 2008, it was that bleeding, moronic alarm. Our house sits at the foot of a hill, close to sports fields of the University of Johannesburg. And thus there is also the inevitable car park, and hence there are the inevitable car park guards, who are required to sit through the night inside a box not much bigger than the standard European phone booth. The guards do have a transistor radio but no discernible lights during their 12 hours nightshift. Under these conditions it strikes me that even in the best of times people would occasionally doze off during their shifts, but this stands in contrast to the South African managers who prefer shock methods above implementing humanitarian working conditions. Hence, at the start of last year the booth was equipped with an alarm on its roof, an alarm that needs to be reset every 30 minutes.
This implicates the following: every 30 minutes, the alarm triggers a monumental racket and, as a customary extra, a rotating flashlight. Next, the guard inside the booth presses a button, the alarm stops with a click and the clock for the next countdown is reset. The design successfully prevents the guard from falling asleep, and also anyone else within a radius of 50 meters. Which includes half our street. It becomes particularly bothersome when the guard goes out to check the perimeter and needs to hurry back from the other side of the parking area at half past three in the night. It only took a few weeks to get the damn noise stopped permanently. Only in South Africa, where people find it necessary to invent the wheel. Twice.
The personal and the national interwove for most of the year. Next came the period of increasingly episodic power cuts (power sharing) that would disrupt Johannesburg until the end of the rainy season. Layered in between there was the breaking of Claudia and me, my first car crash, my first mugging. Later in the year came the xenophobic riots, Zimbabwe's spiral into violence, another winter without insulation. By the time there returned a semblance of typical South African normality (which for Dutch standards is borderline mad), half of the year had slipped past. Miraculously, by then I had soldiered on far enough to immerse within a crisis of my own making: science writing. On its own, a PhD is demanding enough, but in South Africa, it gets constantly battered by the ever present dynamics, large and small. And there was no other conclusion: productivity and progress had suffered as result.
The icy breath of the water is slipping through my clothes, chilling my skin. I turn round, away from the brook, and trace my way back up, back into frail sunlight glancing off gentle green shrubs. There is sun on the abandoned sheep cot, its walls cushioned with moss, and I climb onto a corner, balancing across the roof. The brook, away from sight, continues to murmur below. There is silence in me, but it doesn't sit well, juxtaposed to resentment.
Already I know these words, spread out on the horizon of my mind as clear as the sun saddling the crest. But I also know what they will imply, the chain of catenations they will start. I just don't want to start saying them, don't want the knife twisting. But silence is finished, it can't co-exist.
The hand on my shoulder, the soft voice. I am not alone. For the past six months, I haven't been alone. Look up, I find Sarina's azure eyes fixed on me with deep concern. She is crying. She is crying, because I am crying.
The words hurt, but are true. I don't think I can do this any longer. I can't be much longer in Johannesburg like this. I am no longer happy with what I am doing - because the PhD I signed up for does no longer exist.
I've dealt with SA's facet of crime several times, have faced my own share in my personal life, made my own attempts to rationalize it. I can even uphold, albeit for a limited time, my own personal desires for the sake of my own safety. Yet when my profession turns into a risk to my own wellbeing and mental health, that's where I need to draw the line.
It has finished.
(1) Pierre, Tom & Sharon
(2) Nina & Henri
(3) Cape Town with Dagmar & Leon - Part 1
(6) The Car
(7) Cape Town with Dagmar & Leon - Part 2
(8) Sabine & Tokolosh
(9) Sarah & Claudia