Monday, 21 September 2009

Maddened by Jozi's aggressive vendors and window-washers

I've tried to be gracious, generous and friendly as I've driven around Johannesburg over the past 17 years. Really, I have. I've always tipped unpushy parking guards, always greeted road-side vendors (while politely declining their wares), and always dished out random rolling car-coins (what my cousins charmingly call 'shrapnel') to blind beggars, street children and the heart-breaking human flotsam and jetsam on the streets of Johannesburg. Like most drivers in Johannesburg, I have a chatty (albeit paternalistic, I admit) relationship with the 'regulars' on the street corners on my various routes.

I don't want to sound prissy, but I have always believed that how you behave towards destitute people defines you as a person: if you can't give something to them, the very least you can do is offer a cheery greeting and a little facile banter, followed up, if necessary, by a firm refusal.

This is all very well when you're dealing with, say, five or seven or even ten road-side beggars a day. But how about thirty people at a time?

In the past two years or so, the number of roadside peddlers, beggars, panhandlers, vagabonds and window-smashers has increased tenfold, due, no doubt, to crushing economic times, and - gee, thanks, Mad Bob Mugabe - to a flood of ragged refugees from Zimbabwe. And so, too, has the level of aggression at intersections. Particularly towards women drivers.

I hesitate to pull out the gender card here, but I have noticed that, as a woman driver, you definitely get the short end of the stick.

I drive though the Grayston Drive intersection in Sandton on average 18 times a week. Every time I do, I count the number of panhandlers at the intersection, and it is never less than 38 individuals operating on two sets of traffic lights. Yes, you read that right: thirty eight!

If these vendors peacefully peddled their goods, I would have no objection - after all, I'd far prefer that they were making a living selling stuff than resorting to crime. But the sheer doggedness and belligerence of these vendors is just wearing me down.

Swarms of 'window washers' - young, swaggering men armed with plastic bottles - besiege my car and any car in the vicinity that seems like a soft target: that is, in the main, cars with women drivers. They squirt soapy water on the windscreen and proceed to 'wash' it. I shake my head and flap my hands to indicate a 'no thanks', but to no avail.

When they're finished smudging my window, they demand payment by thrusting a hand towards my open window. I respond by driving off, at speed. If the traffic light is red, and I am stuck there, I roll up my window and look away, infuriated. Most vendors walk away, resigned, but some of them get nasty: I've had my car bonnet thumped, my side mirrors bashed and, last week, a threat as a young thug drew his finger across his neck in a throat-cutting gesture.

Infuriated, I rolled down the window and, in my bossiest mommy voice, gave it straight back to him by wagging my finger and promising to have him arrested. He jeered, made a lascivious thrusting gesture with his groin and gave me the middle finger. Then I drove off, heart pounding, and dissolved in infuriated, helpless sobs.

I am terrified by this, and I'm enraged too. All I want is to go peacefully about my business, without harassment or abuse. And, damn it, am I, as Jane Citizen, not entitled to feel safe and secure?

And I'm sick of hearing the Metro police force making excuses about why these intersections aren't properly policed. The most common excuse is, 'We move them along or arrest them, but they return the next day. And, besides, we can't be everywhere all the time'.

Well, duh, isn't the answer to have a permanent police presence - just one car would do - at the worst-affected major intersections in Johannesburg? (The Greyston intersection, the Nichol Highway offramp and the main Bruma intersection are just a few that spring to mind). And, please, Mr Metro Plod, don't insult my intelligence by telling me you don't have the manpower: how about pulling several hundred of your officers out from behind the bushes where they're hiding with their speed cameras, and putting them to work making intersections safe? Look, you're going to lose a lot of traffic-fine revenue, but the idea behind a metropolitan police force is to enforce the law and keep citizens safe, not swell State coffers.

God, I'm maddened by this. What's more (and I love to pull the World-Cup card here): if I, as a tough old Jo-burger with eyes all over the back of my head, am afraid to drive through a busy intersection that is as familiar to me as the back of my hand, how do you think a carload of hapless tourists are going to feel?

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Wenchy said...

I seriously dislike the window washing people!!!

faatima said...

as a single woman also using that intersection (grayston) very often, i totally agree with you... hub taught me an effective deterrent though, put the wipers on... it works!

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