Car guards are a strange addition to our lives in South Africa. Usually self-appointed, sometimes irritating, always helpful, and when they’re not around in a public parking area, something doesn’t feel right.
We find them standing there in all kinds of weather from hot sunny days, to windy or even on the cold wet winter ones. They always greet and promise to look after your car like it was their own. All they ask in return is that we pay them for their time and effort. No formal contract to worry about and no set fee structure in place. It is all comes down to integrity and honour on the part of both parties involved.
Many of us return to the car happy after a good meal or with bags heavy from shopping; we do our best to ignore the guard hurrying toward us to say all is well. We get in our car and drive off. No moment of regret for not tipping them. They are, of course, self-appointed and this is a “free” parking area.
Others at least look for change in their pockets, purses or the little spaces found in the car. Usually it will be the minimum amount of money they could give and still feel good that they gave something.
There are those among us who will actually pay a proper fee, the same amount they would have paid for undercover parking with a boom and a ticket issuing machine, but this is rare.
The car guards accept what they get with a nod. They have no way of forcing us to pay for their “service” so they just look at us enquiringly hoping that we will honour the “agreement”. It is a tough way to make a living, but it is at least an honest way.
And while there are those that expect a tip for having a nap against a tree, and there are those that will use your money for ill-advised activities, each has a story – one that might be worth learning more about.
When I was working security about ten years ago I came in close contact with many car guards. My job was to watch the people entering and leaving the shopping mall I was deployed at and their job was to watch that the shoppers didn’t come back to an empty parking space.
At first I didn’t want to mix with them. I thought their job was beneath me and they were mostly foreign nationals, who many of my friends blamed wrongly for the scarcity of jobs in South Africa. I was also ignorant of their humanity, but being the curious type I soon started to chat to some of them. I wanted to know how they ended up here; not only in South Africa but in Cape Town looking after cars.
This was when I met Philippe.
We would spend twelve hour shifts together. You can’t work that long with someone and not chat. We talked about sport, politics, crime, religion and many other subjects. He was well-read and intelligent. I didn’t expect that.
Phillippe finally told me about where he was from and what his previous life was like. He was from the Congo he said. He made it clear that he was from Congo Brazzaville and not the Democratic Republic of Congo. I didn’t even know there was a difference and the truth was that I didn’t really care. To me Congo was all the same. I just wanted a good story to waste away the time of a long shift.
As soon as he started talking it was like the dam with his memories broke and it all flowed out freely. He talked about his little town. The place he grew up in and the place where he met his wife and he got married. He talked of his family; his wife and his kids, his parents and his brothers. He talked about studying to become a teacher and teaching at the school he used to attend as a boy – how proud his family was on his first day there.
He talked about normal everyday things and the memories were happy ones. It sounded like a nice life and I wanted to know why he would leave such a life and come here. His eyes turned from happy to sad as he remembered what brought him this far south.
He told me about a violent and brutal civil war that turned friend into enemy and good people into terrifying killers. He remembered soldiers coming for him and his father because of their political views. He remembered escaping in the dead of night with his wife and kids. Leaving all they owned behind. He looked sad as he told me that his parents were detained and never heard from again. He didn’t even know what happened to his brothers. He hopes they made it out and found a life somewhere better like he did.
I ask him of his wife and his kids. I dread the answer as I see his face. The sun lost its warmth as Philippe took a long drag from his cigarette and told me that they did not make it out of Congo alive. They were separated when he went looking for transport to get them out of the country. They were caught in a raid and executed with other families. He doesn’t even know by which side.
He said it without emotion. It was just a fact and he could not change it. He seemed to have cried all the hurt, pain and anger about what happened out years ago. What remained was a vacant stare as he remembers them happy and alive.
He went on to tell me about his journey to South Africa. How he had to dress as a woman to escape detection. How he had to sleep in grave yards to stay under the radar. How he arrived in the south with nothing to his name and nobody that knew him. How he considered suicide on more than one occasion, but fought against it because he wanted to live for all those that have died.
He told me about working three jobs as a car guard, a gardener and a kitchen hand just to make ends meet. He told me about finding love with a coloured girl and starting a new family. He told me about life in a squatter camp and his hopes to get out of there soon.
Philippe was so much more than just a car guard.
And he’s not alone. Philippe’s story changed my view on car guards and how I interact with them. It would change the way I view people and how I viewed the world. I didn’t know it then, but my conversation with a “lowly” car guard would plant the seeds for my life to change. SA.
Image credit: Ground Up.