In 2010, I witnessed firsthand what most likely ended up being an unsolved homicide in the streets of South Africa. I was in the country for the FIFA World Cup, attending a number of games and staying mostly in Johannesburg, a bustling city filled with beautiful people and culture, but also one of the largest and most dangerous metropolitan areas in the world.
After a long trip in which I followed general safety rules like taking taxis and not walking the streets at night, I was convinced on my last night there that public transportation would be a good alternative, and ended up lost in the urban-wild-west streets of a particularly dangerous neighborhood where I witnessed a tragic display of violence.
Witnessing the unpredictable nature of human violence is never expected. There’s a vicious side to many of us, and all one has to do is turn on the news each day to experience the deadpan recap of the day’s catastrophes. While this ugly side of life is unfortunately unavoidable, it does have the power to act as a powerful agent for good in many of us, and is a stark reminder that the term “live life to the fullest” is far from a cliché.
It’s not an exaggeration that our generation has developed a feeling of invincibility. We live in a fast-paced world that requires us to adapt and survive, even in the face of unprecedented hardship. And while the constant battle to achieve personal success and to acquire the things we want most in life are great motivators, it is crucial that, along our respective journeys, we are aware that all we have can be lost in an instant.
It took me three years to get my experiences of witnessing a murder in South Africa down on paper, but that was time needed to develop an understanding for the moments that test our wits and force us to grow as humans. This doesn’t make tragedy any less painful, but it does allow it to serve a constructive purpose.
My story, “On Witnessing a Murder in South Africa,” which is now available as an eBook, has developed significantly into a story of rejuvenated celebration of life that stems from a harrowing act of violence. Though the tragic event occurred at the end of my trip, it brings on a newfound sense of gratefulness and appreciation for the memorable and undoubtedly unforgettable events that made up the entire trip: from new friends, to a number of life-threatening car rides, to the mysterious man that ultimately led us away from the brutal instance of violence.
Below is an excerpt from “On Witnessing a Murder in South Africa,” which highlights my arrival in the country and a thrilling journey with a spirited group of new friends, as we took to the road in search of tickets for that evening’s match.
When we first arrived in South Africa it was on a cloudless afternoon. If someone told me then that all the world rested under the same sky, I wouldn’t have believed them. This sky was without a blemish, as if freshly painted on and dripping down at an even pace until meeting the flat, tan earth. The main route outside the airport was lined with the flags of all thirty-two countries involved in the tournament, with large welcome signs advertising the host nation’s excitement. I wondered how sincere they were now that the tournament was halfway over and South Africa had been eliminated. Though America remained in the running, and with that came a certain sense of pride as we surveyed the foreign landscape.
We made our way to the hotel in a small white van with five Colombians that harmonized a disjointed rendition of “New York, New York” for nearly the entire ride.
“Is the street really gold?” one of them asked in his best English.
“Only where I walk,” I replied.
After a short pause, the van erupted in laughter. It doesn’t take much to make friends when all parties present are far outside their comfort zones, not to mention twenty-four hours worth of plane travel away from home. And right then, under an impossibly real sky, we made our first friends in a strange new place.
The first game we had tickets for was scheduled two days after our arrival, though during the trip to the hotel on the first day, the Colombians insisted that we travel with them to Soccer City for that night’s match between Argentina and Mexico, confident that we’d find somebody selling tickets for the right price. The thing about new friends in strange places is that they can so suddenly feel like old friends, trustworthy and honest.
After briefly weighing the pros and cons of traveling over an hour through a country we had just arrived in to show up at a match for the largest single-sport tournament in the world with no tickets, we found ourselves in the hotel lobby, waiting where the Colombians told us to meet them if we were interested. They greeted us with cheers and high-fives.
We followed them outside where a hotel employee instructed us to pile into another white van. This particular van was equipped with a cracked windshield and illegible graffiti sprayed across the sides. We waited patiently until a man in a beige uniform with a silver badge on his hat climbed in the driver’s seat.
“Welcome, welcome,” he bellowed, followed by “sharp-sharp,” a phrase used to express a greeting, farewell, affirmation, or general enthusiasm – pronounced “shop-shop” with a South African accent. “Sharp-sharp,” we replied in strange unison, the accented collection of sound lingering like a smoke cloud as we exchanged excited glances. The van roared to life, and through a spider-webbed window and surrounded by spirited new friends, the road was ours for the taking.
As soon as we made our way onto the main highway, the uniformed man turned around to get a good look at us. I noticed that what I had assumed was a security or police badge on his hat was actually a silver star with the word “zoo” engraved across the center.
“Do you work at a zoo?” I asked.
We left it at that. Not because I wouldn’t have asked him to explain why a zoo employee was responsible for a cargo of two apprehensive Americans and five overzealous Colombians, but because within a matter of seconds a CD was inserted and Chris DeBurgh’s “Lady In Red” crashed through the speakers and shook the already trembling van.
Along the main stretch of highway fires burned bright and lustrous, with thick smoke rising in heavy, immovable clouds, painting patches of the clear sky black. Larger fires in the distance lit the dry terrain with radiant purpose while smaller blazes glowed innocently, no more than ten feet from the road.
The sequence of brush fires endured for most of the trip, with new assemblages of flames and smoke appearing every so often. None of us asked the zookeeper about the untamed fires. (Not that it would have been possible over “Lady in Red, which played loudly on repeat.) Instead we just looked on, assuming it was normal.
After about forty-five minutes of traveling, the sun began to set. Our entire group, unaware of each other’s existence only hours prior, stared out of the same wide window, collectively paralyzed by the sight of the largest, pinkest sun we’d ever seen. Powered by the humming electric of a million glowing neon signs, the pink mass sank slowly into the horizon. It was a fire to eclipse all the fires we’d seen along the way. Within moments, the great ball’s resplendent haze was gone and only headlights lit the road. Just like that it was nighttime in Africa and the zookeeper let out a wild howl in tune with the song that, surprisingly, had yet to become one bit excessive.
Eventually, Chris DeBurgh was allowed a short rest, and our 80’s-pop-loving, tiger-feeding escort overheard us discussing our fear of not being able to obtain tickets at the stadium.
“I know where you get tickets,” he offered. “The mall. They sell tickets at the mall.”
I hadn’t planned a trip to the mall in years. In fact, I hated malls. The traffic, the food courts, the promiscuous teenagers reminding everyone just how hurriedly life passes by.
“I go now,” he added.
Without a chance to debate the matter, we got off at the next exit and were rerouted onto a narrow residential side road. Barbed-wire fences and uneven concrete walls surrounded the small, one-story homes that lined the street. It was a better time than any to channel my fourteen-year-old self and let him know that we were taking a trip to the mall. If they had tickets I’d be happy. Besides, most people come back from South Africa with stories of safari, but not many can say they’ve explored a mall in Johannesburg.
Malls in South Africa, from an architectural standpoint, are not much different than malls in America. This particular mall was large, had substantial parking, and was lined with attractive looking restaurants and retail stores. Though, it wasn’t until the zookeeper swung the van around to the mall’s main entrance that we noticed the hundreds of people gathered outside. On a mid-June night it seemed doubtful that anybody would be getting a head start on holiday shopping. What shook the van now was not the voice of a British-Irish singer-songwriter. Instead, bass-heavy rap music blared from unseen speakers somewhere outside. We watched frozen as the mob swayed and grinded and waved unfettered arms.
The music was so loud it made my body pulse, matching the hammering thud of my heart, which beat at an alarming rate due to the realization that the entrance to the supposed mall was somewhere beyond the dance party.
“I guess mall is synonymous with night club here,” Kyle whispered. I could sense the uneasiness in his voice.
There was no hiding the fact that we were the only white faces in the crowd, which brings an uneasy feeling doubled by the uneasiness brought on by the fact you are even feeling uneasy about it in the first place. Though, in our defense, being an outsider and entering a setting as intimate as a rabid dance party outside of a local mall has uneasiness written all over it, regardless of skin color.
“Tickets inside,” the zookeeper said.