Today was my second day back in South Africa. I woke at 5:30 am and by 6:30 was on my way to the Office of Home Affairs. Two and a half hours later, the line only one hour long, I learned my visa remains unprocessed after some three months. I now have the email address of a clerk who promises to do her best to resolve this less than ideal situation.
I came back to Muizenberg, caught up on email, two hours sleep, and then a run on the beach before returning to Cape Town for dinner with classmate and master cook Nav, Bruce and his wife Linda, and the TEDx AIMS cast and crew.
It felt good to again be barefoot on the beach, splashing in the now frigid water. My usual round-trip of seven and half kilometers was the ideal distance to wake me up and wear me down.
On the run from the beach front to the second fresh water inlet, four guys, higher up on the sand called to me, “Sir. Sir.” I assumed they wanted to sell something and ignored them the first half dozen times. “Sir!” one yelled louder. I turned and he asked for the time. I pulled up my sleeves to reveal that I was not wearing a watch, shrugged, and said I didn’t know. Annoyed, I continued my run.
At the second river mouth, where fresh water meets the salty sea, I stopped to stretch and admire the many ways in which the water and wind had redesigned the sand since my last run more than one month prior.
An abrupt, one and a half meter cliff now stood where before there was only a gently rolling dune with sparse vegetation. The face had crumbled and remained unstable. I admired the work of water, gravity, and time.
Across the deep, heavy flow of the river were over one hundred sea gulls. One dropped something from its beak. Upon hitting the sand, two other gulls pecked at whatever it was that was dropped, but also found it of no interest.
I was pleased to be running again with legs that were without complaint and lungs that felt no pain after a month of limited physical exercise. I turned into the wind and started back, my feet dipping in and out of the water as the waves spilled across the sand in varied depths.
Just ten minutes into my return run, I noted on the horizon a runner coming toward me. I had just caught the reflection of a broken bottle, which is rare on this beach, and discarded it higher on the dune. When I came back down to the shore, I recognised the familiar outline of Adriaan, a tutor at AIMS, climber, and soft-spoken friend.
We had exchanged a text message earlier in the day, my announcing my return. I was pleased to find him on the beach, also barefoot and running.
We talked for a brief moment, turned to run together back to the second river, and then again ‘about for the home stretch. A few minutes in, the same four guys came toward us, again calling out, “Hey! Wait a minute!” I thought, What do they want this time?
It happened quickly, without time to consider what was unfolding. At first, all four were to our right, just a few meters up the beach. Then they broke into sets of two, and quickly approached me and Adriaan, arms out-stretched, grabbing.
We were being jumped.
They reached for Adriaan first, trying to hold him. One approached me and my heart raced. Everything I had visualized I would do in a situation like this, given that most everyone I know in this country has been mugged once or twice, fell away as adrenaline took flight.
None of my training in martial arts some twenty five years earlier mattered, no quick index finger to the throat, no sand in the eyes, no destabilising nor using their weight to my advantage. Nothing but an open brawl unfolded, one on me and two on Adriaan. The taller of the four remained at a distance, holding something in his hands.
I recalled an image of my life long friend and mentor Ron Spomer when he and I were cycling around the foothills of Moscow, Idaho. To the front of a small farm house a large dog barrelled from the porch, across the yard, through the gate and to our bikes. Ron immediately braked, jumped off his bike, his shorts, grey hiking socks, running shoes and pocket knife as his side fixed in my memory. He yelled and waved his arms charging directly at the snarling, barking animal. It turned, made itself small, and ran back into the yard. I was in disbelief at what I had just seen, my own heart yet pounding. Ron laughed as he climbed back onto his bike, saying “Kaister, you just gotta show ’em you’re not afraid.”
I screaming what came to my mouth, making a stand and at the same time boosting my own confidence as Ron had done.
“What the fuck?! You want to fight?!” Of course, I had no idea what I was doing, no plan at all. It was the adrenaline yelling, my body along for the ride. The one closest, directly in front of me stopped circling for just a moment. He hesitated and turned and that was all I needed to see that I could invoke fear in him too.
“Come on! LET’S DO THIS! C-O-M-E O-N!” I screamed louder.
I hit him square in the face and he was caught off-guard, taking a few steps back. I turned, looking for Adriaan who was holding off his attacker knee deep in the cold water. I took a half dozen steps through the water toward him and turned my attention to his attacker. He faced me and I swung a few times, connecting with his arms. I swung again and again, over and over in order to not give him ample time to get into my space.
It’s funny what happens at times like this. The brain freezes frames in this live-action animation, analyzes them, and spits out strange ideas. I remember thinking his arms were really skinny, and his eyes really wide. I recall my fear of being hit, knowing full well that contrary to the movies one hit to the nose and I would not be able to see; to the temple and I could black out in the water. I knew to avoid grappling at all costs, for that is where knives took form and only experienced wrestlers would win.
Out of the corner of my eye the taller of the four held something in his hands, over his head, ready to throw. I never saw what he held nor did he throw it. A stone? A log? Later, Adriaan said one had a knife, but I am not certain who.
Adriaan moved out of the water, and out of my sight. I continued to engaged in a dance with same attacker to my front. He attempted to hit me, but never connected. I hit his face once or twice and he complained, surprised. The distance was too great to cause any harm. My intent was just to get the hell out of this mess.
Then I turned and saw Adriaan up on the beach, on his knees with hands in the air. The taller of three stood watch while the remaining two moved into check for valuables on his person. That’s all they wanted, money or a watch or cell phone.
I yelled to them, keeping an eye on the attacker who was to my rear as he worked his way up on the beach to join the others, “You fucking idiots! We don’t have anything! All of this for what?! –NOTHING!”
I felt horrible for I had failed to remain close to Adriaan. When I ran toward them, yelling again, they stood to face me. Adriaan wrestled free and got away, looking over his shoulder to see if they would pursue.
He arrived to my location and the four of them moved up and over the dunes as we turned to run back toward Muizenberg. I asked Adriaan if he was ok. He confirmed, as did I. We were lucky these guys were total amateurs, and we knew it.
This story is not about fighting. I am not bragging by any means, for anything I learned about self defense was forgotten a long time ago. Even then, in the late ’80s, I was not able to do anything more than duck, dodge, and throw a few punches if I had to.
I abhor violence. The older I grow, the less I am able to tolerate violence in the media, film, even conversation. I walk away from discussion about wielding guns to resolve a confrontation (a common topic in the U.S.). I don’t want violence in my body nor in my mind for it lingers like a nightmare that was all too real.
I know that what unfolded today was but a simple, unsuccessful mugging. The violence I have experienced in my life is nothing compared to that of children who grow up with abusive parents, of that which my adopted children Lindah and Bernard witnessed in and around their orphanage in the slums of Nakuru, Kenya; or those who live in Guatemala, Syria, or the Congo.
I call one of the safest countries in the world home. I spent my formative years in the Mid West without concern for sleeping at night, without concern for walking to school alone, nor even the need to lock doors. But given how I feel inside, how much it has affected me this day and for many to come, I cannot help but wonder if the American culture does not celebrate violence for the very lack of it in our personal lives, a kind of tease to a dance that no one really wants to learn.
How many of us have faced someone at arms length, their face contorted, their fists intent to harm? It is not the same as a video game, I assure you. It is not like watching a movie. The last time I experienced this was in Chicago. I was 18 years old and a “24/7” with the Guardian Angels citizen crime fighting organisation. We were posted in a transitional neighbourhood, working to drive the drug dealers and gangs out. A dozen men poured out of a local bar with weight lifter’s belts and wooden broom sticks, intent upon severely injuring each and every one of us.
To this day I yet remember the smell of my own fear, the sound of their voices as they threatened our lives, the crunching of gravel beneath my feet as I ran down the alley leaving my patrol members behind. We scattered. Sergei, the smallest of our patrol, fought until they beat him down and sent him to the hospital. To this day I regret leaving him behind.
Adriaan and I found three police officers where they always park, beneath the end of the boardwalk. Two were relatively uninterested, the third asked that we file a report. Apparently, there had been similar muggings for the past week on that stretch of beach. If they catch the muggers, they need a history to prosecute against. I will file mine in the morning.
Adriaan crossed under the boardwalk to return to his home. I sprinted the final few hundred meters, ankle deep in the water, fresh spray soaking what remained dry of my shirt and jacket. It was all I could do to not break down during the run back. My body was filled with adrenaline and pain. Not the pain of a bruised temple or cheek, but the pain of recognising that inside of me is a fury which can be activated too easily.
This will likely happen to me again, maybe a few times over the next two years as muggings are common in Cape Town as they once were in New York City, anywhere the disparity between the haves and the have-nots is glaring, a kind of demand for improved resource allocation.
Yet, this does not define Muizenberg nor does it change my enthusiasm for living here. Most everyone here has a similar story, under various circumstances.
Even now, I desire to find these guys, to capture their story on film. I want to know their names, how much money they make a week selling stolen items, and how they justify their actions. If I or Adriaan had been injured I may feel different, but at this moment their story needs to be heard for the situation to change, for everyone.