Every step of the route to the ATM had been carefully plotted. Getting cash from a machine in a busy thoroughfare should be easy, but not always in Cape Town. Too many beggars and potential thieves, too many worries about what comes next. But the ABSA in St George’s Mall was in view of lots of street tables and bars. Should be safe, should be easy.
So, the language had been selected, the transaction, complete and all that was left was for the paper rands to emerge from their safe little hole. A few flashing lights and it was all done, card in breast pocket, cash following, then an urgent voice over the shoulder.
“Hey Man, you haven’t signed out”. I turned to see who was being so helpful. Well dressed young man, suit and open necked shirt. Clean, tidy and non- aggressive.
“I don’t need to do any of that, I got my card back and the right amount of cash”.
He smiled, friendly but supercilious.
“You’re not a local are you? If you don’t check out, sign out, the next person can insert a card and read your stuff.”
The liberal white man in me checked out my reactions. This was a well mannered (well meaning?) black man, on a busy street with lots of people around. He stepped back, he didn’t crowd me, he had offered me advice. I took it, even though I knew he was wrong. I didn’t want to show him a lack of respect.
I put my card back in the slot, I did the business and made sure I checked out carefully. I turned, said thanks to him and he took my place at the ATM. I moved on. I patted my breast, felt the reassuring edge of my credit card, the warmth of the small wad of notes and headed on my way to a bar, to a drink and some more talk. The sun was warm, not hot. I passed a few “hats”, English or German, who were looking over the South African tourist goodies on a stall, all of which had been imported from Nigeria or DRC. I felt that little edge of knowing, I was almost a native. I knew my way round these streets. Knew the best place for a good coffee, knew which eating houses slapped on the rand for the visitor and thought I knew what to be frightened of on the streets in the bright afternoon light.
Six weeks later, I opened up the envelope with the bill from MasterCard and saw somewhere on the streets of the Mother City, someone had been free and easy with the card I still had close to my heart. Free with buying petrol, easy in Pricerite, free and easy as they bought some fancy threads in Woolworths. My doubtful moment when I thought I could not show any distrust when the nice young Xhosa man offered advice had cost me ten thousand quid and a whole lot more. Bhuti!
The name on the card no longer belonged to me.