Why you should care
Because while guns alone don’t kill people, people with guns do kill people.
I didn’t think much of it when a guy in a gray sweater stepped in front of our car. The normal rules of the road don’t really apply in South Africa’s townships, where potholes and pedestrians mean you can’t ever do more than 20 miles per hour. In fact, I registered his presence only when he pulled a gun out of his jeans and pointed it straight at us.
I was in Port Elizabeth researching a “good news” story on a few different township initiatives: a guy who farms a mind-boggling array of vegetables on a patch of land next to his shack; a single mother who’s started a recycling depot; some youngsters who taught themselves to make leather shoes. In the car with me were my buddy Des — the photographer assigned to the story — and two community architects who were showing us around.
But now events had taken a turn for the worse. Des, who was driving the snazzy media car we’d scored for the trip, slammed on the brakes and — persuaded by a gun barrel knocking against his window — unlocked the doors. Instantly, there was at least one robber at every door. “We will fuck you,” they said as they rifled through our pockets and demanded our wallets and cellphones. “We will fuck you.”
Des was having a harder time of things. “I don’t have my wallet … I forgot it at the hotel.” For a moment I thought they would believe him.
I don’t remember being scared; I just wanted it all to end quickly. I was pissed off about losing the interview recordings on my phone, but super relieved when my wallet was thrown back at me after the cash was removed. I’d just renewed my driver’s license and didn’t want to go through the nightmare of getting it again. I thought about handing the robbers the small camera that was hidden beneath my seat but decided against it. I wanted to hang on to some sort of power.
To my right, Des was having a harder time of things. “I don’t have my wallet,” he half-lied as a hand thrust into his pocket and a gun wobbled around his chest. “I forgot it at the hotel.” For a moment I thought they would believe him. In fact, they even seemed to beckon for us to drive on. But then the guy with the gun had a change of heart and started banging on the trunk for Des to open it.
I swiveled my neck around and watched in disbelief as six guys walked — watched by at least a dozen innocent bystanders — down a side street with our suitcases and camera bags on their shoulders. “They’ve taken everything,” I thought, cataloging the monetary and emotional value of all the equipment, clothes, photographs and data we’d lost. But, really, they hadn’t.
In a particularly surreal moment, Des got out of the car to close the trunk because the thieves didn’t know how the motorized locking mechanism worked. Then we drove to the nearest police station to report the crime. “You should have told us you were going there,” said a burly guy in a bulletproof vest. “We would have given you a police escort.”
Once the initial shock wore off, we tried to be proactive. When we suggested using the Find My iPhone app, the cops didn’t know what we were talking about. “Internet,” we said. “If you can let us use the internet we can find out where our phones are.”
“That’s amazing,” said an old Afrikaans sergeant, before informing us that they didn’t have internet at the station. Port Elizabeth is South Africa’s fifth-largest city, not some rural outpost. Luckily, one of the younger detectives had a connected smartphone, and we all bundled into a police bakkie, or pickup truck, and screeched toward the scene of the crime.
The wonders of modern technology helped us to find the first iPhone on a heap of trash, but the second one proved trickier. The app led us to a rundown factory where glum workers packed bags of sugar. The owner was helpful — he showed us his closed-circuit TV footage and gave us the run of the factory — but when we pinpointed the phone’s exact location, we were faced with a wall of sugar waiting to be shipped. Had the thieves tossed it into a pallet during their run to freedom? Could it be on the roof of the building? Or was the app simply malfunctioning?
After spending what seemed like hours peering into the cracks between the sugar bags and searching a patch of veld next to an abandoned railway line while a police helicopter circled overhead, we were taken on a tour of the local pawnshops. I don’t know if it’s normal for victims of crime to be so involved in attempting to solve them, but I do know that if you rock up in a police uniform and ask a pawnshop owner whether he has any stolen cameras or laptops in stock, the answer will generally be “no.”
We were finally allowed to leave the station six hours after we first reported the crime — tired, sweaty and utterly starving. After dropping the architects off in town, we went straight to our accommodation for the night, a gorgeously renovated Victorian manor house in Port Elizabeth’s fanciest suburb.
“Welcome, gentlemen,” said the beaming night concierge. “Can I get your bags from the car?”
Now, five months have passed since the robbery, and life goes on. Des and I have been back to PE — we had to finish the story we were doing — and I’ve been to counseling a few times. I went through a phase of being really forgetful and losing my temper about small things, but I seem back to my normal always-grumpy self now.
Whenever I tell the story, I’m told how lucky we were to escape unscathed. I’d love to disagree, but — in a broken country like ours — this is the unfortunate truth.