The first thing I did when I moved to Johannesburg, South Africa last October was buy a car, and the first thing that car did was break down. Just after 8 p.m. one evening, I was driving down an unlit highway off-ramp when my newly purchased 1987 Toyota Corolla shuddered, heaved and then lurched to a dead stop. At the time, I had been the owner of this fine vehicle for approximately 35 minutes.
As darkness pooled in the space where the glow from my headlights used to be, I fumbled for my hazards and ticked off a quick mental list of people who couldn’t help me at this moment:
1 Pretty much anyone I’d ever met.
That was because two weeks earlier I’d boarded a plane and flown 8,000 miles away from home and all its comforts to spend a year doing research in a place most people I knew regarded as either an indistinguishable corner of a gangly, undernourished continent or else—if they were a bit more Africa savvy—the most insanely dangerous place they could imagine.
Suddenly, this seemed like a less-than-spectacular life choice.
As I was reflecting on all this, I looked out over my dashboard and saw for the first time the thin cloud of smoke rising from my hood. Behind it, a cluster of street children had gathered, chattering loudly to each other in Zulu, giddy with the excitement of the unfolding drama. As they all stared blankly at my car, awaiting my next move, a white Mazda hatchback pulled up in front of the Corolla. The driver cut the engine, opened the door, and began to walk forward.
“Hey,” he said, “do you need some help?”
Have you ever wondered if you’re about to make the decision that will get your life turned into a public service announcement? And that’s why, the narrator would say gravely, you never accept help from a stranger on a dark street in one of the most crime-ridden cities in the world. No? Me neither.
“Yes,” I said to the stranger advancing toward me in the dark in one of the most crime-ridden cities in the world, “I do.”
South Africa is a nation of staggering contrast. Nowhere else in the world—with the exception of Brazil—do so many of the world’s poorest people live in such close proximity to so many of its richest. The wages of masses of store clerks, domestic workers and security guards amount to less than $300 a month, but the roads are clogged with BMWs and Audis speeding toward private schools and security-patrolled suburbs. Five bedroom houses flanked by electric fences sit 10 minutes from corrugated metal shantytowns.
This vast gulf in wealth has given rise to a fearsome and violent crime epidemic. Some 24 percent of the adult population is not employed in the formal sector, and most who don’t work never have. So the world of crime is organized, methodical, overflowing with a country’s unused talent. Nearly everyone I know in South Africa has had their house robbed at least once. Many have had cars hijacked or stolen, often in broad daylight. And all this despite an arms race of security measures—electric fences, personal guards, anti-hijack immobilizers—that throw up literal walls between the country’s rich and its poor.
But there is a strange thing that happens when you turn your country into a security bunker. People become worried not just for their own security but for their neighbor’s. A black man in a little Mazda hatchback will stop for a hapless white American woman in a broken-down Toyota Corolla, eventually spending two hours trying to fix it, simply because he is so worried about what will happen if he does not.
Johannesburg is a city parceled, divided by the clean lines of apartheid’s geographers and the scars they have left behind. But across its history and its present, it is also a city of individuals reaching beyond those borders, straddling the fault lines and stepping across them. Crime statistics and common sense say that the man in the Mazda should not have stopped for me, and that I should have refused his help, called the police, locked myself in my car. I knew all that, but for some reason over the din in my head of reason telling me to stay away, I heard something louder. It was the man’s voice calling out across the dark highway off-ramp. Hey, he said, do you need some help?
Yes, I do.
Ryan Brown graduated from Duke in 2011 and was a former Chronicle columnist, staff writer and Towerview associate editor. She is currently living in South Africa on a Fulbright research grant and is happy to report that her car still functions. Most of the time.