I remember my mother telling me about the first time she was carjacked.
And the second. The first time, she was helping my grandmother carry
groceries from her car parked on a quiet street into my grandmother’s
modest suburban home. Three men were passing by. They pointed guns and
demanded that my mother hand over her car keys. (My grandmother was
already inside the house.) My mother refused. One gunman grabbed her
handbag. She held on. They struggled. He fired a shot into the air.
His friends ran. My mother kicked him in the groin. (She’d done
six weeks of self-defense training at her ladies bend-and-stretch club
so she knew a few moves.) The handle of the bag snapped. The attacker
ran. My mother was unharmed.
My father and I were distressed. She could have been shot.
But my mother doesn’t believe anyone is really a “bad person.”
Still, she agreed that if it ever happened again she’d relinquish
It happened again. Outside my parent’s home.
My father is in the driver’s seat. My mother is seated beside
him. It is night. They have been to dinner with friends. They pull up
in front of their motorized security gate. Before the gate is fully
open—it moves slowly on poorly lubricated motors—a car with
four gunmen inside pulls up behind them.
My father raises his hands. Through his side window a gun is aimed at
his head. He gets out of the car as requested. His attacker snatches
his cell phone. Presses the gun to my father’s throat. Pats for
his wallet. The man’s eyes, my father will later say, are so angry.
So dark. So full of hate. My father is silent and does not resist.
But my mother is talking, as a young thug snatches her necklace, drawing
“You don’t really mean to be doing this,” she says.
“What would your mother think?”
“Just give him what he wants.”
My father is trying to stay calm. My mother is trying to communicate.
My father’s attacker wants the car keys. My father is offering
them when the alarm in the house starts to scream. It has been set off
by a man who has tended my parent’s garden for about 20 years.
He has seen what is happening at the gate from inside the house.
The gunmen panic and run for their car. They drive away at speed. No
one is shot. This means there is nothing to gripe about. My parents
are alive. It could have been worse. In Johannesburg, you move on.
But I couldn’t move on.
Of course it didn’t happen to me—though I’ve had my
moment at the end of a knife with ten heavies around me. I walked away
without my wallet. Big deal. I just felt like a fool for listening to
the crying ten-year-old kid who needed my help and got me close enough
to an alley to be hustled off the main street. Nothing serious.
But over my mother, I was angry. With her attackers, with my country,
with its history, with every dumb political decision that has lead to
this state of affairs. And with myself for feeling helpless to protect
my elderly parents from random acts of violence.
I fixated on how my mother could have been so stupid as to seek to engage
in a maternal conversation with an out-of-control gangster waving a
gun in her face. It’s not like she doesn’t know people get
killed. A neighbor was shot in his driveway. Another was stabbed to
death in her home. So why would my mother risk getting shot by engaging
in a pointless conversation? I mean she really did ask: “What
would your mother say?”
As I said, my mother doesn’t believe anybody is really “all
bad.” Not deep down.
Is she naïve? Of course. But I knew when I read Athol Fugard’s
extraordinary novel that I needed to tell a story about a young kid
who waves a gun in people’s faces but really needs to engage in
a conversation about his mother.