I got robbed.
Saturday. The midday sun at its highest and brightest. Plenty of weekend hipsters, part-time cool kids and once-off tourists milling about. Thieves broke into my car, stealing from the boot a bag which held a lap-top with my would be Caine Prize-winning work, a camera with the sweetest of memories, a cell phone, bank card, ID, passport and the last tube of my favourite MAC lipstick which has now been discontinued.
Realising that some faceless entity has ventured into your personal space uninvited and helped themselves to your things – the things which in all likelihood you sweated for, saved for, scrimped for and maybe even scavenged for – man, that feeling is the choking kind.
I had to stop myself from shedding grown woman tears in an adolescent fashion and put my big girl bloomers on. Making a plan meant turning down the volume of the panic singing in my ears. The insurance claim would need a case number, so the first stop had to be the nearest cop shop. How very unfortunate that the nearest one to me was the Hillbrow Police Station.
What can I say about Hillbrow that hasn’t been said before? It’s the melting pot of Johannesburg which is teeming to the brim with all manner of foreign African nationals. Zimbabweans here, Somalis there, Nigerians everywhere. What hasn’t been written about the absolute neglect, corruption and violence exhibited by the powers-that-be and inhabitants in equal measure? Hillbrow is a law unto itself, resulting in it bursting at the seams with all manner of wrong. Drugs over here, murder over there, theft everywhere.
It’s not that I expected too much, government departments and the lethargic civil servants who inhabit them in the filthiest of moods are a phenomenon the world over. What I did not expect was to be so dehumanised by the experience.
The robbery was the frying pan. Hillbrow Police Station the fire.
Despite the fairly warm autumn we have been having, walking through the iron cast doors I was greeted by a reception so icy I am now convinced that winter has been hidden in the pockets of the station commander.
The heavy-set police officer behind the front desk barely raised his head from an enthralling game of Candy Crush while lifting an obese index finger which pointed me in a general direction that directed me to nowhere in particular. After waiting for a while, I was finally assisted by a policewoman who, like her burly counterpart, had no sense of urgency whatsoever. I mean it took her a considerable amount of time to get comfortable enough in her seat to even start taking my statement.
They ask for the impossible there, for you to call your service provider to block your phone when it is your phone that got stolen in the first place. They ask for serial numbers as though it is information that would be wedged in your memory somewhere between your lover’s phone number and the lyrics to your favourite song. A man walked in the station gushing blood from a stab wound and only after he started bleeding too close to a constable’s lunch did they direct him to the clinic miles away for an examination before opening a case. No assistance was offered to the haemorrhaging man whatsoever. They really ask for the impossible there, I was just waiting for them to ask me to prove the existence of Big Foot.
The worst part of the experience was the victim-blaming and blatant xenophobia. The police woman taking my statement had basic levels of understanding to realise that my first name, the one she couldn’t twist her tongue around without biting it, meant I wasn’t South African and therefore couldn’t speak vernac. She, unlike the rest of her colleagues, communicated with me in English. She, however, used her English to clearly articulate that I was in the wrong for parking my car where I did, for not double-checking the doors, for not having had the foresight to recognise dangerous elements lurking about. In no uncertain terms she let me know that it was completely my fault that my shit got stolen. My desperation for the case number led to my nodding along to the staccato rhythm of her castigation even though I was boiling on the inside.
There was a girl waiting behind me, she had marks that were turning indigo around the corners of her brown eyes. The policewoman would surely blame her for not having had the foresight to bob and weave, for being in the type of place that requires bobbing and weaving, heck, for being so fair in complexion that blue-black bruises were more pronounced.
After my statement was processed I was commanded to go to Room 61 – the Detective’s Room. Walking in, I was greeted by four sets of eyes.
The first set, hard. The second set, hostile. The third set, bored. The final set, unreadable.
I greeted the room and stated my dilemma. A pregnant minute passed, with each set of eyes simply gawking at me before I received a response.
Unreadable Eyes: Why are you speaking English?
Me: Oh, I am Shona.
Unreadable Eyes: I don’t understand Shona.
Me: That is why I am speaking English.
Hostile Eyes: This is South Africa.
Me: Yes it is.
Hard Eyes: Then you should be speaking Zulu.
Me: But I can’t speak Zulu.
Bored Eyes: Are you guys ready for lunch?
I have never felt more alien, odd, and out-of-place as I did in Room 61. Room 61, which is located in a place where you are guaranteed to smell pounded yam being dished up with okra soup. A place where the whistle of Asante Twi competes with the romance of Swahili. A place where you are guaranteed to see hairdressers dressed in Chitenge braiding their customers’ hair into a Senegalese twist or Masai Mara locks. A place where one set of speakers blasts Thomas Mapfumo next to another set blasting Kanda Bongo Man. This room in this place that is a microcosm of the African continent – that’s where I felt most extra-terrestrial.
I scrambled out of Room 61 as fast as my size 7s could muster. I walked out of that room carrying with me the knowledge that not only had I become a statistic, years after my arrival in South Africa I became a kwerekwere