A hot topic of conversation, in South Africa and amongst South Africans, is our car guards. We suburban mothers sit in our local cafes, sipping our coffees, both raging and laughing because we’ve just given R 5 to a man to guard our car even though we know it doesn’t really need guarding.
It’s a very South African thing; one that only South Africans can understand. As Johannesburg Guesthouse owners, we always find ourselves explaining to our visitors what the car guards do and how much, more or less, to pay them. People shake their heads incredulously.
‘Do you really need your cars guarded?’, they ask.
No, we reply, of course not. And we don’t really need anyone to guide us in and out of our parking bays either, but we pay for this too.
Car guarding is a huge part of South Africa’s informal economy, which provides work for about 2.5 million people. Other informal work includes selling fruit on the street corners, washing windows at busy intersections and ringing doorbells and selling brooms or dishcloths to unsuspecting housekeepers. At our street lights one can buy pretty much anything – a coke, batteries, children’s toys, sunglasses, a watch, hats in summer and socks and beanies in winter – and it’s all part of the informal economy. Some people resent the street sellers and wind their windows up in a huff, others do their daily shopping, and some hand over sandwiches or fruit that they’ve specially prepared in the day.
It’s all about helping the unemployed. And it can definitely be a two way relationship, if you choose it to be. I parked my car at the Spar Supermarket in Melville the other day and did my shop. The car guard guided me in to the parking, helped me pack my groceries into the car when I came out, accepted the R 5 graciously, and bid me farewell. When I got home, I realised that I had left my laptop in the shop. My MacBook Air. I drove back like a cowboy, thinking my life was over, raced into the parking lot and – there were Freddy and Mau – gesturing to me that they had my computer.
I have never been more grateful in my life. And I’ve had my life saved in many ways by the guards. They tell me when I’ve left my cup of coffee on top of the roof, remind me to lock my doors and have even helped me to improve my French. Many guards are from different countries so English is not their first language but they are skilled and intelligent, just unable to find other work.
So, next time you see a car guard, let him help you. It may not be a big deal for you, but it is a big deal for him.