By SAM BABAYA
I recently sat with a local car guard on the cracked concrete of New Street’s pavement. I was entirely in awe of his hope and determination to work for minimal tips instead of succumbing to the temptation of illegal sources of income.
Masixole, 23, prefers keeping his hands busy doing odd jobs like washing cars. His dream is to start his own car wash one day. Other car guards share his entrepreneurial aspirations.
He is a young man with almost no material assets. His biggest daily struggle is feeding himself, his girlfriend, and their baby. He walks 9.5 km to and from work every day to earn, on average by his estimation, about R40.
He has the world on his shoulders, but he tells me he’s happy.
There is an undeniable class divide between the average middle-class individual and those struggling with poverty. Masixole says this limits mutual understanding between car guards and motorists.
The few relationships he has formed with regular customers have been created by mutual respect and compassion. This allows the car guard to feel dignified and the motorist to feel safe and secure.
It can be a mutually beneficial relationship if we choose to engage with people through the lens of radical compassion.
Having formed some of these relationships myself, I feel safe walking down dark streets to my car at night because I am often escorted by a car guard I have befriended by the name of Sinethemba.
We exchange kind words; he makes me feel safe, and I offer financial contributions for his service. It is a relationship that I value very highly.
The job is undeniably challenging – long hours on the streets with not much to keep oneself occupied. Guards keep a constant watching eye, trying to keep the peace and navigating interactions with customers – a challenge when one’s job is often brushed off or rejected as illegitimate.
Also, the cash they hold from tips puts a target on their back. Turf fights and interpersonal conflict between different guards is another source of stress.
Despite this, the car guards I have spoken to take pride in their work and never stop trying.
Car guards are hustlers trying to earn a living. And they deserve our respect and support.
A new empowerment initiative working with local car guards, Abakhuseli, convenes every second Saturday morning. It provides life skills training and a networked support system for car guards.
“Together for peace and protection” is the mantra that drives their group.
The project educates in skills chosen by the car guards themselves, helping them reclaim their personal dignity and self-worth.
They are currently averaging 25 car guards taking time off work to participate in these workshops.
Let’s engage with radical compassion, strip down the layers of fear and labels, and see people for who they are – human beings just trying their best. Smile, start a conversation break the barrier of othering by creating a relationship.
I was surprised by what I learned, the ways I found I could help, and how at home I started to feel walking down the streets of my town.