THERE is a certain amount of seediness that one is willing to accept from Long Street in Cape Town.
This after all is a street lined with grungy bars and nightclubs, and some that do not even make that much of an effort.
Walking down the street at night is to walk a gauntlet of grimy puddles, drunk and drugged revellers, tinny music, aggressive beggars and offending smells. But that is the charm of it. The fun is unvarnished. The promise of danger looms heavier than the famous mountain just over yonder.
But one does not expect to walk into a riot on the street. One certainly does not expect it to escalate and then ebb all on its own, in full view of a handful of police officer. But that was my Sunday morning. And I am profoundly disturbed by the indifference of it. The whole thing was too big and too violent to have died away without any attention from the greater public, whether it be in the press, or the City of Cape Town’s response.
It is difficult — pointless, even — to recreate the events in the dry tones of journalism. It is not like I arrived after the fact, ready with my notepad and pen to extract facts from authorities and bystanders. I saw it happen. I spent perhaps an hour with my girlfriend comforting and marshalling shocked and injured bystanders. I was as much a part of the scene as I was an observer.
I could not tell you how it started. We arrived on the scene walking in a north-easterly direction towards our hotel in the early hours of Sunday after a night spent revelling in an avant-garde theatre performance. The first sign of trouble was a section of the sidewalk that was blocked off with police tape.
There were perhaps three ambulances and two police cars, and I remember seeing three men lying on the ground. One was about to be lifted into an ambulance, and was shirtless. He had three big wounds in his back. The other two were being attended to by the paramedics on the ground. Something big had clearly just happened.
These were young boys, no older than 20. On the side of the street that we were on, there was a big group of boys of a similar age, milling about anxiously and occasionally shouting at the handful of police who were there. I can only understand so much Xhosa, but they were angry.
Suddenly, that same group — moving as if they were one — took off at a terrific pace around the block. That speed is employed in two occasions: when people are running away, or running toward something terrible. I had to follow. I sincerely wish I had not.
As I rounded the corner, having run fast enough to catch up with the tailend of the group, I saw two (maybe three) men surrounded by this group that I had followed. A torrent of punches was raining down on them. They were both crouched in the foetal position, but under such a hail of blows, it was not helping. Then someone took out a knife, and the last I saw of that scene was the convulsions of one back as it went into it. I could not see anymore because I had hands on me. My assailants were barking furiously in my face. Who was I? Was I of this group, or that?
This was a gang thing. I summoned every last scrap of breath to shout back that I was media. It took two or three roars for the message to sink in. They eventually thrust me aside. I ran back to Long Street. The scene had somehow worsened. For a moment it was absolute pandemonium. People were running in every direction, and in practically everywhere direction I looked, someone was being assaulted.
The only oasis of calm was a small collection of police in the middle of the street.
I rushed over to ask what happened. "Don’t ask me, ask them!" the cop snapped back. I do not believe I was truly frightened until that moment. They seemed to believe that their only task in such a situation was to direct traffic around the cordoned off area. This was going to get very bad.
I found another group of angry rioters, and asked them what happened. One of the more naive ones replied and said that they were a school group from Nyanga who had come to Long Street to celebrate, something, and had all been partying well enough when they noticed one of "their" group members being assaulted by someone belonging to another, and decided to get involved. Then it just went all over the place.
I went to another group and asked the same thing. They would not say a thing to me. Then I recognised their faces. This was the same group that was about to commit grievous violence on me just moments before.
We decided to walk away. We went for the delicious Asian food that Long St specialises in and walked into find another group of people in distress. This was different. For one thing, there was a white girl with them and she was in shock. Her friends were crying. They turned out to be tourists from Pretoria who had come to Cape Town to visit, and the white girl had been mugged. The police, seeing her black friends trying to comfort her, immediately assumed she was being mugged and tried to intervene. No amount of explaining helped, and who knows what would have happened if we had not arrived and intervened? What incompetence. What infuriating stupidity. Why are they so good at making a bad situation worse?
After collecting our food, with the riot continuing unabated outside, we walked further up the road to our hotel. We found yet another group of tourists who were caught up, either by getting assaulted or robbed. They were from some European country — I forget which — and were so immobilised with fear and trauma that we had to repeatedly ask them to get off the street and to safety before they would move.
Our hotel room overlooked Long Street, and from the safety of height, watched the event unfold. I do not think I saw more than 10 police on the scene. I think there were about 150 people on the street at any point, and most were angry young men. This was a riot.
Dawn was approaching at this point. Taxis were pulling up, and some of these people were getting in. Some were injured. Some tried to clamber onto the outsides of the departing taxis, and were getting hauled off by assailants or police. It was all a bit too traumatic for me. I watched football on the iPad to calm myself, and went to sleep.
Do we care that this happened? Aside from the drama, I mean. Does it mean anything that I observed violence everywhere when I was just on a night out in Cape Town? I did not see any news coverage at all. I certainly did not see enough law enforcement to calm the situation quickly enough to save people.
I can deal with the indifference of the police and I saw enough of it in Marikana to last me several lifetimes, but it blows my mind that — apparently — Long Street gets ragged to this degree and it can pass for just another incident that we will quickly forget about. It is not that tourists and pretty white girls (hello media, this is where you step in, right?) got hurt. It is the fact that we can accept this as normal lived experience and be okay with that.
For a moment, Long Street was the setting for the kind of violence that goes on in Cape Town’s townships and slums daily. This after all is the most dangerous city in the country with one of the worst murder and assault rates in the world, but it all happens out there, doesn’t it?
It is not good enough to shrug and say, "Long Street, hey" and move on. I am furious with the police who did not care and the journalists who did not turn up to cover this, and the bystanders who shrugged and walked by. But to properly interrogate what happened on Sunday would require us to give a damn about what happens "out there in the Cape Flats", wouldn’t it?
And we wonder why our social problems are seemingly intractable.