The Cape Argus, July 26, 2009-09-09

By Sean Christie

Interview on Cape Talk (audio link)

Papi Kupe was asleep when I first stumbled upon him on an elbow of dark road behind a Cape Town Backpacker’s lodge. The plastic chair upon which he sat was largely obscured by ivy growing down from a roll of barbed wire atop a vibracrete garden wall, but he was given away by two large red Reeboks poking from the leaf litter like bright fish.

The street was deserted so I stopped awhile and played voyeur to gentle snores and cavorting rats, and was just thinking how rare it was to find one of these humble human nests occupied (vagrant dens of this sort are often to be found in Cape Town’s nooks and crannies) when suddenly the object of my observations was before me, pointing a pistol at my chest.

In the next instant the replica 9mm had been holstered in a pocket, and the six and half foot tall man was crying, ‘Oh oh oh,’ and clutching at his own heart. ‘Merde,’ he shouted, breaking out a grin and offering his big, papery hand. ‘Tu m’as fait peur.’

‘Je m’apelle Papi,’ said Papi. ‘I am cawash.’


‘Cawash,’ repeated Papi, pulling at the luminous yellow vest he had on over his hoodie.

‘Oh,’ I said, quite relieved. ‘Car watch. You’re a car guard.’


It was late 2002, and the dominion of Cape Town’s informal car guarding industry by francophone immigrants was not yet general knowledge. Until then I had shared in the popular assumption that guarding cars was the strict preserve of the local homeless, Cape Town’s famous bergies, and rather than admit a large social blind eye I preferred to think of Papi as an anomaly, like the Maasai warrior who used to stride the streets of Tamboerskloof in a red shuka and tire-tread sandals.

A walk around the block the next day complicated the matter—all the car guards I introduced myself to in the upper suburbs of the City Bowl were Congolese. Not only were they Congolese but they were all male, and of the same generation—twenty and thirty somethings. And a further commonality—they were all, almost all of them, Kinshasa born.

Further insight was hard to come by—there had been no serious-minded research into the industry of informal car guarding (despite the fact that it had been in existence for a decade), and on the internet and in the papers the debate was strictly at the (decidedly middle class) level of whether to tip or not. Years passed and I have watched the image of the car guard change from that of no good bergie into something far more sophisticated—a figure in parallel to the Zimbabwean waiter in the Johannesburg restaurant, or the Indian taxi driver in Sydney or Vancouver, who, it is said by the respective middle classes, is likely to be better educated than his patrons. By this time I had become well enough acquainted with the car guards of the upper suburbs to know that this appraisal of their skills was a little suspect. Papi, for example, had been abducted by his own national army before he was able to finish an economics degree. Forman on Lower Kloof Nek quit his teaching diploma for financial reasons, as did Ogi and Jeremiah on Eaton Street, studying Pharmacology and informatics respectively. Forman’s date of birth can pegged to 1974, the year his pregnant mother’s hero, George Foreman, lost ‘the rumble in the jungle’ to Muhammad Ali in Kinshasa, Zaire. At 35 he is the eldest of the four, but not by much. Subtract five or six years (the average time they’ve been away from home) and it becomes clear that their studies were interrupted in their mid to late twenties—conspicuously old for undergraduate students.

A Congolese friend who shared my scepticism about the ‘doctor on the street corner’ dictum suggested I talk to Cécile Vigouroux, a linguistics expert who has lived and researched in both Brazzaville and Cape Town. Before she would take a seat opposite me in a coffee shop in the Gardens Shopping Centre, Cécile demanded that I justify my interest in the Congolese community. ‘I tell you why—before the 2008 xenophobic attacks nobody ever asked me about my work. Now journalists call me up all the time to ask about the Congolese, as if they were one big happy family.’
I tell her that I would at least know to carry my passport when crossing between Brazzaville and Kinshasa, and that I do have some specific questions about education. Cecile orders coffee and starts talking.

‘You must understand that the Congolese are a very complex community, who have arrived in South Africa in three separate waves rather than one big rush. When they get here they regroup in complex ways—not only along linguistic lines, but also on class lines underlying these linguistic distinctions.’

‘I presume the DRC car guards one meets in Cape Town arrived in the final wave.’

‘Well, they definitely did not come with the first wave, which happened in the eighties. Back then Mobutu sese Seko had an arrangement with the Apartheid regime, whereby highly educated Zairians could come to the country to work in the Bantustans as doctors, pharmacists and engineers, because these were places of great political unrest, where skilled South Africans, who at the time were mainly white, were reluctant to go. I doubt very much, too, whether many of the current car guards came with the second wave in the early nineties, after Mandela was released. This wave washed mainly into Johannesburg, and was also comprised of well-educated men and women. From 1994 onwards came a third, but very different wave, which is ongoing.’

When I go back to challenge my car guard friends with this information all four confess that they feel a strong need to study further. Jeremiah is philosophic, telling me that, ‘All car watch are studying anyway. We do this thing because it is a good way to learn to speak English. Everyday we must speak to white people, so our English comes fast, and it is for free. Me, I have studied English as a car guard for two years. In another year maybe I qualify.’ He smiles broadly, his fiercely bearded mien transformed above his lumo orange jacket. I choose not to question the assumption that he will learn proper English from city residents just because they happen to be white, and instead ask him what he hopes to do with his English when he is satisfied with his proficiency.

‘English is only good for study in South Africa, not for job—there are no jobs here, not for refugees. I will learn English nicely, then I will try to leave to Canada.’

The view of Cape Town as a sort of transit camp on a much longer migration is one which is shared by the majority of francophone car guards, who will not learn a strictly local language for this reason. They imagine that their futures lie over the seas in some first world cloud cuckoo land, the co-ordinates of which change according to the failure of their most recent visa application. To hear this fantasy outlined again and again is depressing, especially given that their destinations of choice—Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Holland, Germany, Australia—have tailored their immigration controls to keep out all but the (truly) highly skilled.
Dearly held notions of further study are also at odds with reality. Studies of car guarding in 2003 and 2008 found that the enterprise was ‘strictly survivalist’, and that it did not ‘provide for any expenditure beyond subsistence’. This is undeniable, but I am driving along one day when it strikes me that, in spite of their avowed esteem of knowledge, and the crippling banality of their hours, I have never once seen a car guard reading a book or a newspaper.

‘The streets are controlled by some sort of immigrant mafia. Car guarding is organized, I’m telling you…’

Within hours of arriving in Johannesburg Park Station a great percentage of Congolese migrants are relieved of their travel money, by Congolese fraudsters. A kinsman approaches them in the station and says he can organize visas to Canada, or the United Kingdom—better places than the squalid city centre in which the bus has deposited them. To give his promises heft the charlatan puts the newcomer up in a respectable hotel, buys supper and drinks. Fortunately for Papi, the Afrikaans manager of the Germiston Road Lodge allowed him to work a few days in the hotel when it became clear that his new ‘friend’ was not returning with his money or his passport. In this time he met other Congolese migrants who, like Steinbeck’s California-gazing Okies, told him about this beautiful place to south which abounded with jobs.

When the next Shosholoza Meyl pulled into Cape Town Station Papi was on it. ‘A new life — I know no one. Then I hear Lingala, this guy talking on his phone. Oh, I am happy. He say his name is Josèphe, he works as car watch outside Marvel Bar on Long Street. He said if you want you can spend the whole night with me, where I am working, and at four o’ clock you come back to my home. So first night I was on long street: busy busy busy. The next day he tell me he has a job for me—another street, I can start working as car watch tomorrow. Now I call Josèphe my Cape Town mama. He saved me that day.’

Ask any francophone car guard how they came to occupy a particular street or parking lot and they will invariably tell you ‘my friend gave me this job’. Hoping to learn the finer distinctions of this crony system I go in search of Papi’s ‘Cape Town Mama’ and find him exactly where Papi’s narrative left him—outside Marvel on Upper Long Street, chatting in French to a mountainous bouncer.

‘Ahoi,’ he shouts, ‘you need something?’ Not removing his silver aviators and looking nothing, in short dreads, like the benevolent figure from the story. I name-check Papi and tell him I am interested to know why he helped him to find his feet in 2003.

‘My bru, that guy was so screwed when I met him. I felt sorry, he’s from my home.’

‘You helped him because he was Congolese?’

‘No, because he’s from Kinshasa. Kinshasa is different to the rest of DRC. There we are speaking Lingala, not Swahili. Even Brazzaville people, Angola people…we can talk, but with other Congolese we do not talk nicely. Me, I have no problem to give Swahili Congolese a job, but he will not give me a job. They say Kinshasa people are Koluka. How you say…too good with money.’

The bouncer smirks and I think back to what Cécile said about people from Kinshasa having in common a certain way of living based on resourcefulness, la debrouille—what Joséphe calls Koluka, and what other Congolese apparently consider guile. Of the Lingala-speaking car guards I know, none share accommodation with Swahili-speaking Congolese. The same preferences are shown in churches, marketplaces and taxi rings, as they evidently apply to the inheritance of car guarding territory. In light of this the fact that most car guards currently working the streets are Kinshasa-born Congolese suggests to me that their predecessors, and their predecessors predecessors, and ultimately the first immigrants to begin guarding the streets of Cape Town, must have come from either Kinshasa in the DRC, Congo Brazzaville, or Luanda, Angola—city’s in which Lingala is spoken. I put this to Joséphe.

‘Those of us who came from Angola were the first,’ he explains. ‘You see, because of Mobutu many Kinshasa people moved to Angola in the eighties. Myself, I lived in Luanda for ten years. Then in the nineties I came here through Namibia by road, not by plane, like people are coming now.’

One can well imagine the ease with which this group of hardy land-travelling Congolese, already well-schooled in the eat or be eaten laws of anarchic states, pushed Cape Town’s local homeless off their informal car guarding posts. ‘There are in fact two kinds of Lingala-speaking Congolese in Cape Town,’ Joséphe continues. ‘There are those who are afraid of the police, and those who came down through Angola. Have you heard of Kamikaze, crazy crazy Kamikaze?’

‘Kami Kaaaa, Kami Kaze. Kami kaaa, kami kaze,’ the bouncer unexpectedly sings—the chorus of a song, I later learn, by legendary Congolese rumba musician Franco Luambo.


‘You are lucky then, they are very dangerous. Me, I used to be Kamikaze, back when they started in the nineties. We were good people then, just for defence of the Congolese living in Salt River—the mayojaune and the veste were killing us that time, so organized ourselves and fought back.’

Mayojaune and veste, it turns out, are Congolese racial codes for the coloured and the black. Mayojaune—is French/Lingala for ‘the yellow shirts’. Veste, meaning jacket, is a more sophisticated riddle, based on the phonetic similarity of the French synonym costume to the word Xhosa.

‘If you think we had xenophobia last year, it was like nothing compared to the nineties. Now it is safe, nobody can touch me. In fact the city is ours.’

It is hard to refute this claim. Cape Town, the most anglophile city in Africa, has
in the last two decades been africanized. It is not, however, the Africa of South Africa but ‘a more northerly Africa’, to use Cecile’s phrasing. The Africa of Cape Town speaks French, Swahili, Lingala, Somali. It sells tribal masks, carved malachite, and flayed Nzombo, netted in the Congo River. It dances from the hips to Kwassa Kwassa.

‘What if you were in trouble here on your road? What if some South African guys come up to you and say “we want to take this road away from you”—will you call your old friends?’

‘Kamikaze is finished now. Alain is in Pollsmoor, I think Bolt also. If guys come and give me trouble I speak to them nicely. I am friends with everyone—police, CID, City Bowl Security…if I have a problem, I call them, they will help me.’

‘Why would they do that?’

‘I buy them fantas and I chase away the maibrus.’

‘Who are the maibrus?’

‘The people who are always saying, my bru, give me a cigarette, my bru, give me a two rand. In my country we call them shengue, the people who have no home.’

In a city which goes to great lengths to court tourism, Cape Town’s Congolese car guards have learned that keeping parking lots and storefronts clear of drunks and vagrants helps endear them to security services and business owners alike. It is but one of a number of symbiotic services the francophone car guard provides in order to consolidate his territory. Richard who works under the balcony of Rafikis helps the Portugese owners of the Kloof Nek Café to bring tables, chairs and umbrellas indoors at 11pm, while Forman on Lower Kloof Nek stands guard by the door of a hair salon while the Afrikaans owner cashes up. Given the deplorable racial history of the area, which has seen whites repeatedly kick non-whites beyond the city limits, these relationships are potentially awkward ones, and all the more so because this awkwardness goes unacknowledged. Even the academic papers on car guards politely refer to the client side of the car guarding contract as ‘motorists’ or ‘car drivers’, when everyone knows that the majority of car drivers in Cape Town (and according to car guards all of those who tip) are white.

Ultimately, the Africanization of the City Centre has not brought Capetonian whites any closer to understanding the lives of Capetonian blacks and coloureds, and the same goes for the francophones and all three of these groups. In the absence of real integration we make up stories about the people we don’t know. Belief in these stories is what lies at the very root of the xenophobia which rocked the cape in 2008, and from which we far from free.
‘Foreigners have all the money.’
‘These guys steal our women.’
‘The Congolese eat people.’

After four years of friendship, I ask Papi to cook me a meal. In the Congo, he tells me, he never cooked once. ‘It is a man society, so bad for women.’ Since arriving, however, he has cooked a great deal, and this is hardly surprising because the great majority of the Congolese who have arrived since 1994 have been single men, who have tended to remain single. ‘It is difficult,’ Papi explains, ‘A white South African girl is not interested in a Congolese man. A Xhosa woman is so much trouble—she is only interested in money.’

‘What about Congolese women?’ I ask, and am tickled to learn that in Cape Town, the jackboot of dominion seems to be on the other foot.

‘Congolese women are not so good in South Africa. They can call the police anytime, any little thing. Then what? We have no rights, nobody believe us. Maybe we go to jail.’

Papi and I have been walking along Adderley Street from the direction of the Kompanjes Gardens and are about to enter the Golden Acre, the subterranean mall under the busy Strand Street intersection which cleaves the city from the bus, taxi and train stations. It is past four, and thousands of South African Africans are pouring down the escalators en route to their homes on the cape flats. We pass Jabulas, a hair salon owned by a near hairless Jewish man from Tamboerskloof, which has become locally famous for its African wigs and weaves. I’d met Jonathan Walt on a previous visit, and learned about his policy of maintaining as diverse a staff complement as possible. ‘I’ve got people from Mozambique, Cameroon, Congo, Congo-Brazzaville, Madagascar, guinea, Ivory Coast, Angola, Malawi, you name it. They have these styling traditions in their countries which are way ahead of us here in South Africa. People see them, and they want what they have. It’s a very important point about the exploding African hair market that not many people get—the change is being driven by foreigners.’

Papi steers me passed Jabulas today and on to Central Africa Favourite Food, subtitle the most biological food, inside which, after a short reconnaissance, I find I recognise only the peanut and the chilli, probably because they are the only foods used in Congolese cuisine which are not endemic to the great lakes area, having been introduced in the fifteenth century by slave traders. Papi has the time of his life pretending to put the more terrifying options in our shopping basket—packets of yellow banded caterpillars, jars of beetles with wing-back exoskeletons, bags of what looks to me like strong Swazi outdoor. With vocal support from the lady on the till Papi explains that the region is abundant in aphrodisiacs. ‘This make men very strong,’ he says, making a fist with one hand while pointing at a kola nut with the other.

I presume that he draws a rather long bow in this regard. This is not the first CAFF tour that he has given. ‘I bring the touriste her all the time, then I cook a meal for them at my home. They like it so much.’ The cultural programme is a sideline business for Papi, whose great fortune as a car guard has been the proximity of his road to a popular backpacker’s lodge. At 6’5”, and looking like the Hollywood stereotype of an African general, Papi began to make a lot of ‘friends’, both male and female. ‘Many of the touriste they want an African man,’ he confides, though he says he has begun to tire of their broken promises—sweethearts who say they’ll return but never do. So instead he has located the financial promise in his exotic allure—he invites groups of tourists he has befriended to experience a Congolese meal, which he pays for himself. On his days off he will take his new friends sight seeing, or running on the promenade. His objective is to make his ‘friends’ want to stay longer in the city than their budgets allow, because he can then propose that, for the competitive rate of R100 a night, they stay with him. Papi stays in a nice block in the city’s fastest developing quadrant, populated with young professionals and Americans working for FIFA. On his takings as a car guard he could never afford the R4’500 a month rental, even with a second tenant paying R1’500 a month to sleep in the lounge. But with ‘friends’ cherry-picked from the backpacker’s lodge staying almost every night, he covers most of the shortfall.

‘la debrouille,’ I say and Papi laughs

‘oui, debrouille’.

‘Car guards make more than you think’

Papi is the exception to the rule, however. He’s big, attractive, and irresistibly genial. People are always giving him gifts, like the Toyota Cressida he repainted and sold for R9000. In a good month, including the takings of his private lodge, he earns the not inconsiderable amount of R5000.

Forman’s lifestyle is more typical—he earns roughly R1500 (R1000 in winter) from guarding Lower Kloof Nek six days a week, which is barely more than his R900 rent. I ask him if there’s anything a car guard can do to up his monthly earnings and he says, ‘dress nice,’ and after a shrug of his shoulders, ‘smile’. Which must be difficult, because he hates the banality of his job almost as much as he hates Cape Town’s winter weather (these two passions of course being intimately related).
I ask him what he does in his free time and he invites me to his apartment in Senator Park, Long Street’s most infamous address. Compared with some of the wrecks of other South African city centres the destitution of Senator Park is hardly noteworthy—suffice it to say that the elevators never work, and that the security guard hides behind bullet proof glass in the reception area. Neither is Forman’s living arrangement the archetype of slum living—it’s him in the only bedroom and two Congolese twins in the partitioned living room. They have their tvs and he has his. ‘This is my life,’ he says. ‘Work, and this television. On Sunday I go to church in Brooklyn, sometimes I go to La Reference on Long Street for a drink.’ Wanting to wash away the dry taste of life at the car guarding end of the informal sector I suggest we go there immediately. We climb the stairs towards pumping hip hop but find the doors closed and a bouncer who tells us we have coincided with, of all things, a night of sapologie. ‘You have to see this’, says Forman. He’s right, I would never have believed a mere description. In front of us in the dimly lit club roughly ten men wander back and forth, flapping the vents of suit jackets like over-heated bureaucrats. A few reel in their trouser legs with jerky finger movements, while others puff out their ties or waggle their bottoms, all the time tearing into each other verbally. What do they call it in hip hop…battling, only without the ridiculous obligation to rhyme. I shoot Forman my most inquiring look. ‘It’s like a fashion show gone wrong,’ I say.

He explains that these are la sape (Society for the Advancement of People of Elegance). ‘They like very expensive clothes, only the best. They can pay maybe R6000 for a pair of shoes, R10000 for a suit—they spend all of their money on clothes.’ Forman suggests I speak to club owner John Phillida for a more authoritative description of this outrageous consumer cult. John is from Brazzaville, and at three hundred pounds plus not exactly a perfect morphology for the three button Armani he is wearing. He tells us we have stumbled upon the first sapologie event ever to be held in Cape Town, possibly in South Africa. He tells us that people from Kinshasa believe they are the authentic sape, but that they too are wrong—Brazzaville, where he is from, is the heartland. I ask him how much his outfit cost him and am staggered at the figure he returns—his watch alone, a Rolex Oyster, costs more than the car I parked on Pepper Street.

Forman, surviving on the equivalent of one and half Ralph Lauren ties a month, meditatively sips a cocktail tin of coke, and it is the contrast between the R2 coins he counts out on the bar counter and the nearby showing off of designer brands that finally stops me thinking of the Congolese as a meaningful collective term. And for my own part I realise I’ve reached inevitable philosophical questions about the limits to which one can imagine the life of another. Continuing to do so will only put off what has been suggesting itself for so long now: real friendship, unencumbered by sociological pursuit.