I’ve seen them a few times over the past couple of months. White men of about 35 standing in busy intersections and running from car to car, looking desperate and asking a couple of questions, sometimes jotting something down on a piece of paper, before the traffic light turns green and they go back to the head of the queue.
“Self,” I’d say to myself. “I wonder what those guys are after.”
Today, I found out.
I was driving back to the office from a lunchtime run to the post office. I was stopped at an intersection and a guy came up to me, holding a cellphone nervously in his hand. He looked like he was in his mid-thirties, dressed reasonably neatly.
“Excuse me ma ám,” he said. “Can you help me please?”
I turned off my radio and wound down my window.
“Sure, what’s the problem?” I asked.
His answer came in a rushed torrent of words, he seemed very sincere.
“I’m on my way to write Accounting and my accelerator cable snapped,” he said. “I’m trying to raise R29…” big eyes gazed imploringly at me.
“Well, I don’t have any cash on me,” I replied. “But if you need me to, I can give you a lift to your exam centre.”
This is a very dangerous offer to make to a random guy on the highway in South Africa. But something about this guy just triggered my skepticism alarm. I’ve seen guys in intersections behaving much like this chap on quite a few occasions. He just didn’t look like a student to me, he seemed too old somehow. And, I couldn’t see a broken-down car anywhere near the intersection.
“Um… I… Er…” the man stammered. “That’s ok… I…”
And the light went green and people behind me started hooting. Well, I’d called him on his lie and he was clearly embarrassed. As I drove off I checked my rear-view mirror. He’d gone back to the head of the queue and was looking for someone else to rip-off.
I think he’d chosen that particular lie (student, going to exam, terrible trouble with car) because almost everyone can identify with the anxiety that this kind of situation might cause. The price point he chose (R29) is cheap, in a wealthy suburb like Marlboro (a stones throw from the financial capital of Johannesburg – Sandton) I think that just about every passing motorist would have a couple of twenty rand notes in their wallet.
If he’d genuinely been desperate to get to an exam he would have taken me up on my offer and I would have delivered on it.