When it was born fifteen years ago, Mordecai Moditswe prided over Mompati’s dark brown coat and pure white snout. From the moment it stood up to suckle from the grey coated jenny, Mordecai was already counting the cash he could make from this new member of his herd. He had heard of smugglers making big money from using donkeys to pull stolen BMWs across the Limpopo River. Mordecai planned to make the necessary connections to get into this lucrative trade. However, things took an unexpected turn when his parents were forced off their land in Bela Bela. Now, living in the rural fringes of the Kalahari, his humble business of hiring his six donkeys and carts out to sand-shifters for construction work was far from his dream of using his animals to shift luxury goods. So it was no wonder that he often took his frustrations out on the animals.
Age and neglect eventually took its toll and Mompati was set free to wander away. The donkey’s once dark and luxurious coat was now grey and matted with dust and sand. Bare patches revealed festering untreated sores constantly invaded by flies that its tail could no longer reach. Tired and hungry, Mompati eventually reached a road where passing trucks, overloaded with maize would sometimes offer a fallen corn stalk. On one such occasion Mompati, head bowed as though sniffing the road, hobbled onto the tarmac and stopped in the lengthening shadows thrown by a huge old Acacia tree. There was no fallen maize today and therefore no reason to move forward and no reason to go back. Immobile, quiescent, frozen in time and space, the donkey waited, oblivious to its cataclysmic fate.
The skies are wide and tall in Africa. That is why the sun never fails to splash her vibrant paints of gold and red across that huge canvas. Only in Africa are stunning sunsets sometimes further enhanced by statuesque giraffes or the spiral-horned kudu as their silhouettes contrast against a drowning palette of purple clouds and burning flames of amber.
In the mellowing dusk, village women gossiped around their potjies as blue-grey smoke drifted slowly upwards from the fire in front of their rondavels, where scabious dogs lurked, hoping for scraps. A group of men huddled at the entrance of a shebeen from where Kagiso Mopeloa emerged, stumbling and weaving his way unsteadily to his battered blue Datsun Skyline. He was exhausted, having woken up early to send his grandchildren back to their boarding school. His son would normally take the five children from their little village along the Mafikeng road to the Christian Brothers School in Pretoria but this morning Kagiso, wanting to be a good Toppie, volunteered to do the run. Kagiso knew the road to Pretoria like the back of his hand, having plied the road from Mabulo Lodge for as long as he could remember. On his 55th birthday the lodge management had retired him from his job as a Safari bus driver and using money from his golden handshake, he’d bought the Datsun Skyline. A desirable model at the time, the car now bore the ravages of time and use but his grandchildren didn’t mind the tattered seats and broken springs because Toppie didn’t force them to sit quietly with seat belts on. They were broken anyway.
‘Dumela Kagiso, come taste my potjiekos before you go,’ Palisa Mangope shouted, indicating the steaming pot outside her doorway.
‘Agh, I know it is lekker but my headlights are not working well and it’s getting dark.’ Kagiso knew that Palisa’s invitation to eat was charged at café prices and he wasn’t going to be fleeced when his wife’s potjiekos came free and tasted better.
As the Skyline’s door creaked open, Kagiso glanced with bleary eyes at the fast-fading light, regretting that he’d succumbed to the temptation of Mma Rammonye’s shebeen. Now, with pockets considerably lighter, he started the engine to continue his final leg home. It spluttered to life and Kagiso winced as the gearbox ground into first.
Best get home before dark, Kagiso thought as he put his foot to the floorboards, surging the Datsun Skyline onto the road as it screeched with protest and backfired a plume of oily blue smoke.
Barrie Floyd loved his driving. It also explained why he loved his adopted country of South Africa. The open spaces and the endless skies were as different as chalk and cheese from the narrow country lanes and never-ending traffic on the motorways of Great Britain.
With a cassette tape of Bob Dylan’s Biograph album in the specially upgraded speakers, Barrie sang along, the lyrics making him think of his own situation. Three years married with the love long gone. Offered a better job, Connie had abandoned their home in Mafikeng and moved to Pretoria, sinking funds which they couldn’t afford into a house with a pool and landscaped gardens. The initial plan was for her to buy a small flat. He’d known she was ambitious and was only now beginning to realise her determination to climb the corporate ladder, leaving him behind if necessary. For his part, Barrie didn’t want to give up his engineering job in Mafikeng which meant a weekend return journey of six hundred kilometres if the marriage was to stay afloat at all. Dismissing such thoughts along with the sound of Dylan, the steady hum of the Nissan Sentra Coupé became music to his ears. The purring engine was a joy, unlike his dying marriage.
Heading due west towards Mafikeng, he fumbled for his sunglasses as the rapidly sinking sun burned into his eyes. Shades in place, he saw the static donkey on the opposite side of the road and what looked like an old Datsun heading around the bend towards it. Barrie gripped the steering wheel with both hands and slowed to allow the Datsun time and space to manoeuvre around the donkey. He couldn’t believe his eyes when the Datsun collided head-on with the animal then deflected across the road and came hurtling like a missile directly towards him.
The sermon had been inspiring, the singing joyful and uplifting. Deacon Rofilwe Mbanga and his entourage from Mabopane Methodist Church had been very warmly received on their visit to their counterparts in Mafikeng. Lunch in the Protea Hotel and then back to the church hall for a film on the Holy Land completed the full day’s fellowship.
Hugging Reverend Radibe, Mbanga thanked him for his hospitality and offered the obligatory reciprocal invitation.
‘We would be delighted of course,’ said the Reverend. ‘I see your party is all ready for departure but I fail to observe the mode of transport.’
‘That’s a worry, brother. The minibus should have been here by now.’
‘Is it the same vehicle in which you came?’ enquired the Reverend, who some people accused of swallowing a book on English grammar.
‘Yes. The driver had a run to do in Zeerust and he promised to be back here by four.’
‘Well, it is now sixteen forty-five precisely. Perhaps you would like to make a call to the proprietor from the phone in my office?’
‘You’re most kind, brother. I will call the owner of Lelaka Tours immediately.’
The look on Mbanga’s face when he emerged from the office told its own story. ‘The minibus has broken down and won’t be coming,’ he frowned.
‘Goodness me! Well, I am sure my parishioners will be more than happy to extend our hospitality to you and your party. We can accommodate all of you this evening in our homes,’ the Reverend said.
Mbanga protested, ‘We can’t put you and your people through that, brother. We have imposed on you more than enough already. Some of my group are anxious to get back home as they have to work tomorrow and their children have to go to school. Do you know any minibus hire company here?’
Just then a local parishioner, Robert Copsey came up with a suggestion. ‘Save your money brother Mbanga. You can use my bakkie. It’s quite old and has no canopy but it should get you home. I’m going to visit my sister in Jo’burg by train tomorrow and won’t need it until Wednesday.’
‘That’s very kind of you, brother.’
‘Robert, sir.’ The young man beamed from ear to ear, happy to be able to help.
‘Well, Brother Robert. You’re a life-saver! I will, of course, pay you something for the use of your vehicle. Rest assured I shall get one of the young men in my church to return it to you by Tuesday,’ said Mbanga.
‘Indeed, Robert is a saint, Hallelujah!’ Reverend Radibe was secretly pleased that he didn’t have ten extra mouths to feed in his parish that night, not having the powers required to multiply loaves and fishes.
The grateful party started to board the old bakkie while Mabango had a crash course from Robert on how to work the manual gears selector on the steering column. Ever the gentleman, Mbanga asked Lindiwe Moditswe if she would like to sit sheltered in front with her suckling baby but her husband Mordecai, a gnarled old patriarchial misogynist, quickly shepherded her into the back and climbed into the front himself.
They were making good time as the sun began to sink behind them. The passengers in the open back were singing hymns and clapping along, their spirits uplifted as the wind blew through their hair while Lindiwe’s baby gurgled contentedly.
I’d better switch the lights on, thought Mabango and began to look for the switch in the unfamiliar vehicle. He tried both stalks on the steering column but only succeeded in switching the wipers on, smearing dust across the windscreen to obscure his view.
‘What’s wrong?’ asked Mordecai.
‘Can’t find the light switch,’ said Mbanga.
‘Sometimes it’s a knob on the dashboard just under the steering wheel.’
‘Ah I see,’ said Mabango, bending his head to look for the elusive switch.
‘Look out!’ Mordecai screamed. It was too late.
Raymond Nthusi, Ray to his friends, packed his overnight bag into the boot of his newly acquired Mercedes E220, parked outside his bungalow in McKenzie Road, a predominately upper-class suburb of Mafikeng. Out of the corner of his eye, he observed one of his neighbours approaching. Turning to the garden boy, he instructed, ‘Make sure that fence is repaired before I get home tomorrow, Samuel.’ After all, one could not afford to have a sagging fence if one was to hold one’s head up with one’s neighbours, especially when one was the only black person in the street.
It was Lance Clements from two houses down, another out-of-place character in the street. He hailed from a part of the UK where people were known for their directness, to put it mildly. Not many people, including Ray, were comfortable around Lance, not knowing what he would say next.
‘Afternoon Ray, is that a bloody six-pack you’re sneaking into the boot? Haven’t seen you in the Bridge Hotel lately. Suppose we’re not good enough for you now that you drive an effing Merc. Probably drinking in the Mmabatho Sun now, eh?’
Ray winced inwardly. He actually had started going to the Mmabatho Sun after his promotion to sales manager at Lewis Stores.
‘Next thing you’ll be having a spare wheel for those out of town sales meetings.’ Lance winked.
Ray winced again. Lance had unknowingly hit the nail on the head again.
‘Yes, I’m on the way to pick her up now,’ laughed Ray, joking with the stone-cold truth.
‘Come over next Saturday. We’re having a braai. Bring the wife, not the floozy. Don’t forget a six-pack of Hansa. Not that shit you’ve just put in the boot.’
‘OK Lance, I will. Thanks a lot and give my regards to Kristina.’
Ray was indeed on his way to pick up his new girlfriend from the Mmabatho Sun where she worked as a trainee croupier. They had arranged that after her weekend stint they would take the Merc for a spin to Kitty’s place where they would have the place to themselves for the night.
Kissing his wife goodbye, Ray was soon kissing Kitty as she climbed into the car.
At nineteen, Kitty knew that Ray, although twenty years her senior, was a good catch for a sugar daddy. Some of her friends had men in their sixties.
Ray was happy in his new Merc with his new girl—a tall nubile beauty. No sign of an African backside yet, he mused as they drove along the country road where there was less chance of being seen by his wife’s friends. The car was running like a dream and he could tell that Kitty was impressed, especially when he played her favourite Lucky Dube songs over the surround sound speakers.
They were past Koster and onto the open road when Kitty announced, ‘I think I’ll have a snooze, darling.’
‘OK, go ahead. I’ll put some softer music on.’
Unclipping her seat belt, Kitty tucked her feet under her body and curled up into a ball.
‘Hey, you should fasten your seat belt, bokkie,’ Ray coaxed, but his words were lost as Kitty, tired after her shift in the hotel, was already asleep.
Smiling across at the elfin face of his new sweetheart, Ray didn’t register that his speed had crept over 120 as he approached a long bend. The bend where his daydream of what lay ahead would turn abruptly into a nightmare.
Cebo Ngidi was the antithesis of his late father, an honest and principled man and founder of the Blue Star Comfort Taxi Company. In short, Cebo was a tsotsi who, in less than one year destroyed the business that had taken his deceased father a lifetime to establish. A fleet of eight well-maintained minibus taxis had been whittled down to a couple of wrecks, one of which was banned from use by the transport authority as being no longer road-worthy. Others had long been sold to defray fines imposed for criminal offences including violence and burglary. Most of the time, Cebo was under the influence of marijuana to which he frequently added alcohol, creating a dangerous mind-altering cocktail.
Blue Star Comfort Taxis had only one remaining contract, a country route from Pretoria to Mafikeng via Boons and Koster. It was Sunday afternoon and Cebo was in a foul mood. His driver hadn’t turned up and his one good taxi was misfiring. Cebo was forced to take the run himself. Having just finished a 6-pack of lager on top of his usual infusion of marijuana, he was in no fit state to drive a tricycle let alone a minibus loaded with passengers. The only thing in a worse state than Cebo was the taxi itself; an ageing Toyota Hi-Ace with worn out shocks, loose steering, threadbare tyres and brakes that worked occasionally.
Lucky for me it’s Sunday and the traffic cops will be scarce, thought Cebo as he furtively changed the number plates on the minibus with those of the roadworthy vehicle. Pulling into the stand, the minibus was soon sardine-packed. Most of the passengers were village ladies returning from the weekend market with fully laden bags. Those bags not perched precariously on the roof rack were stuffed under seats and in the slender aisle. “Comfort” was an unknown word.
The first part of the journey was reasonably uneventful, although a portly matron in the front seat kept up a steady stream of prayer as the taxi weaved and vibrated its way along the road. Cebo laughed loudly at the discomfort of his passengers as the effects of each bump and pothole reverberated throughout the dilapidated vehicle.
‘Dumela Mma, plenty of room inside, he hollered as he slowed down beside a young lady standing by the side of the road. She had a couple of huge sacks beside her but Cebo was eager to squeeze her in. He made the matron vacate the front seat and placed the new passenger beside himself. Then he chose a slimmer lady to sit in front as well. He shoved one sack in the passenger door well, sliding the door closed before the sack could fall out. The other sack was unceremoniously forced on top of the feet of the ladies in the front seat. With a quick release of the clutch and a severe swerve back onto the main road, everyone was shaken by the jerk, not least the young lady who had to lean heavily into Cebo’s side, much to his delight.
‘Welcome to the Hot Rod,’ Cebo shouted deliriously and slammed his foot down onto the accelerator, trying to impress the girl whose breast he could feel resting on his arm.
‘Shouldn’t you slow down a little Rra?’ called someone from the back as the minibus screamed down the road as fast as it was capable. Infuriated, Cebo looked round to see who’d had the temerity to question his driving skills. It was at this point that the two ladies at the front let out simultaneous blood-curdling screams.
Abe Molefe was due to start his shift as a male nurse at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Mafikeng at 19:00. It was two and a half hours away from Magaliesburg and it was already 17:00. He could just imagine Matron Motsaka standing there, nostrils flaring, dragon-like with arms akimbo and foot tapping, ready to impart some ‘pearls of wisdom’ concerning timeliness, responsibilities, etc. etc.
He had tarried far too long at Kgabo’s place but Betty’s pap and vleis with home-made blatjang had been worth waiting for. More importantly, Betty’s sister, Luna had turned up and Abe had big hopes of starting something with her.
‘I really should be on my way,’ he’d said during the after-dinner drinks.
‘So soon?’ Luna gave him a look loaded with meaning.
What could he do but stay a while longer after that?
Things are looking good, Luna-wise, Abe thought, whistling happily as he walked towards his car.
The upshot of it all was that he would now have to fly and he was driving a standard Toyota Carina without wings … Worse still, he would be driving directly into the setting sun once he hit the Mafeking road. Still thinking of Luna with the needle on ninety-five, his headlights picked out reflections and shadowy movements on the sweeping bend ahead.
What can that be? he wondered. Can’t afford any delays.
‘Modimo!’ he shouted in terror as his eyes widened in shock at the scene from hell just ahead. Although his feet instinctively stamped on the brakes, it was a fraction too late to avoid the blood-stained figure staggering out from behind the bushes. Abe’s head whipped back with a sickening crack when his Carina struck the stranded Datsun Skyline.
In total, seven people lost their lives:
Kagiso Mopeloa, the driver of the Datsun Skyline who first hit the donkey.
Lindiwe Moditswe and her baby from the Toyota Hilux bakkie and her husband Mordecai Moditswe who survived being thrown out of the bakkie but wandered up the road in a daze to stare at his donkey and ultimately met his fate.
Cebo Ngidi, the driver of the Toyota Minibus Taxi and his front seat passenger Patience Madibe.
Kitty Dikgale, the passenger in the Mercedes E220.
Abe Molefe in the Toyota Carina suffered serious whiplash but Luna helped him to make a full recovery.
The image of that moment of collision gave Raymond Masipa nightmares for years. Like a movie in slow motion, he saw his Mercedes slamming into the donkey’s body and Kitty flying through the windscreen like a rag doll. He would wake up screaming her name. Needless to say, his wife soon filed for divorce.
Barrie Floyd came out of hospital a changed man. He’d had to be cut out of his beloved Nissan Sentra, which was a write-off. He made one more journey to Pretoria to collect his few belongings and leave a note wishing Connie all the best on her journey—a journey that would not include himself.
Three weeks later after the event, any stranger driving on that particular stretch of the R509 would have no idea of the tragedy that occurred. They may have noticed, especially if their windows were rolled down, a decaying upside down donkey under a giant acacia tree. No one can know how much of the debacle Mompati saw before its demise but the donkey’s death mask seemed to display a sardonic smile. Of course, that could have been a trick of the light shining through the tree.
© 2020 Mei Joan Chung
Born in Singapore, finished in UK, now straddling between the two, her life is never boring.