The ongoing spate of killings in Cape Town took me down memory lane. It pulled me right back to an unforgettable night in December 1994:
One Sunday night, I got stuck at the Netreg train station on the Cape Flats. I was visiting someone in that area during the day and after my visit, rushed to the station to catch a train back to Khayelitsha at around 17h30. The plan was to catch the second last train to Khayelitsha where I stayed with my elder brother and his loving wife. For some inexplicable reason, no train was stopping at the station, they all sped right through.
Mind you, I was alone on the platform that normally accommodated the Cape Town – Khayelitsha train. A few others were marooned on the Cape Town – Mitchell’s Plein platform on the other side. At around seven, out of nowhere, gunshots started to ring around the train station. The heaviest shooting come from the Mannenberg/Bonteheuwel side. People scattered all over the place as they tried to run for cover in an attempt to evade being hit by stray or targeted bullets – no one initially knew what was going on. It was panick all over.
Before long – before I could find the much needed shelter – I felt the cold steel of what turned out to be the barrel of a pistol firmly pressed against my forehead. I went cold, paralyzed with fear…almost wetting myself in the process.
Then, a stern voice from behind the gun asked in broken isiXhosa: “Uyaphi mhlekazi?” (where are you off to, Sir)
The attempt at my native tongue was so poor, I immediately knew that the man asking the question couldn’t be Xhosa. Also, understanding the race relations of Cape Town, I instinctively knew that I shouldn’t answer in my home language. The man was coloured (in the South African context) and I had to play/act coloured as well.
I was very nervous. Notwithstanding, I managed, to dig up my best Afrikaans accent: “Ek is op pad na die Plein toe, brother” (I’m on my way to Mitchell’s Plein, my brother). The guy then removed the gun from my face and commanded me – in a much friendlier tone – to go to the other side where the coloured people were gathered. “Hoekom staa dzy daan hie, gaan daa na dzou mense toe, brother.” (Then why are you standing here, go over there to your own people brother). He pointed with his gun towards the Cape Town – Mitchell’s Plein platform.
I don’t think I’ve ever crossed a set of railway lines faster than I did on that day – jumping from one platform to another.
I arrived on the other side to rushed and interrogative introductions. I really don’t know what I would’ve done had I not been of Graaff-Reinet origin. Because of my birthplace, my command of the Afrikaans language is more than passable. My attempt at mimicking the “Cape Coloured” Afrikaans accent wasn’t too bad either.
I gave them my second, almost never used name – Aubrey – and used the surname ‘Skade’ in its Afrikaans format instead of the isiXhosa version – there is a slight but significant difference in sound between the two, you know. The thought of divulging my tongue-twister native name of Nkosekhaya never even crossed my mind. I then lied and told the interrogators that I recently arrived in Mitchell’s Plein from Graaff-Reinet and was on my way back from visiting some folks in Vhalhalla Park. Some of those around me could be heard exclaiming that – was it not for my command of Afrikaans – they would’ve sworn that I was a Kaffer. I was further advised that it wasn’t wise of me to stand so far from “your own people” (meaning, them). Who knew what these Kaffers could do to me, they opined – (Jirre brother, ek het gedink dzys ‘n Kaffer toe dzy so aleen daa oorkant staan, dzy moenie so ver van dzou eie mense staan nie, dzy wiet nooit wat die kaffers aan dzou sal doen nie).
After an agonising while, the one who initially pointed a gun at my forehead arrived – still armed and vigilant – constantly scanning the area for rival gunmen. He informed me that they were fighting with some blacks from the nearby townships of Nyanga East or Gugulethu – he wasn’t too sure where the enemy was from. However, he was adamant that those “darkies” were not to be tolerated – never. They must be killed on sight.
This was a racially based gang war. Organised groupings, black on one side and “coloured” on the other – divided by railway lines – were ganging up on each other and shooting the living daylights out of each other from across the dividing tracks.
This was just one example of the many complex and differing gang wars that were taking place in the Cape Town area at the time. Some were racially based, most weren’t. The one I was inadvertently caught up in, was downright racial.
I silently prayed for a miracle – asked God to please make these bigots fail to realise that they were actually saying all this to what they disgustingly referred to as a darkie or kaffer.
When the gunslinger heard that I originate from Graaff-Reinet, he got excited and started to ask me about some people he knew from the coloured community over there. I happened to know the Joey he enquired about, he was a great oak whom we played with for the Central Karroo Volleyball Union (Cekavu) team at some stage. The gun toting one was apparently a great friend of Joey’s, they both used to attend Asherville High School. Guntoter briefly attended high school in my hometown. By default, my bona fides as a “homie” were established. I was one of them – thanks to Graaff-Reinet, Afrikaans and volleyball.
A few more gunslingers joined the conversation and it was agreed that I must be accompanied back to the house where I had visited during the day. Getting back on my own was way too risky. What if I ran into those despicable darkies, they reasoned. As it turned out, I had an escort of about a dozen or so armed men flanking me to my earlier host.
I slept at my host’s house that night. The truth is, I don’t remember actually falling asleep. At the crack of dawn, I caught the first train back to Khayelitsha.
Needless to say, my overly protective relatives – my brother and his loving wife – weren’t impressed with me sleeping out without bothering to notify them. As far as they were concerned, I was out all night partying. To them, I had behaved irresponsibly.
I didn’t have the strength to put the record straight with them…I simply wanted to sleep it all off. I was mentally exhausted… physically drained… traumatized.
The feeling of that hard and cold steel firmly pressed against my forehead, knowing that my life could come to an abrupt end:- that moment haunted my thoughts…in fact, it still sends shivers down my spine.
Till this day, none of my relatives know what really happened to me on that Sunday, that unforgettable night during December 1994. The night I almost died.
I haven’t been to Cape Town in over a decade. However, it remains my favourite city. I wish to go back and settle there soon.
Here we are, in 2019, constantly hearing about the escalating body count due to shootings in the Cape Flats. It is scary.
Will it ever end?