Taxi driver Thilivhali Singo’s single deed of kindness became a landmark moment, writes Malaika wa Azania.
There a Chinese proverb that says: “When a tree falls, it crashes with a noise, but when a forest grows, no one hears anything.” It was not until a few days ago that I finally understood what it meant.
I have lived my entire life in the township. I grew up playing in the dusty streets of Meadowlands, Soweto with people who, today, have been swallowed by the defeatism of a brutal cycle of poverty and violence.
The township depresses me because walking through its streets feels like taking a stroll through a boulevard of brokenness, a boulevard where young girls limp on bruised feet, their jaws broken by the angry fists of drunk young boys whose dreams are puffed away daily with a dose of nyaope.
One of the features of township life is taxis. Since I was a young girl, taxis have been the mode of transport that connects us to the outside world. If you were to drive through townships early in the morning, you would find men and women standing in long queues waiting for taxis to take them to their plantations, otherwise known as the workplace.
Throughout the day, loud honking can be heard from inside our homes, as taxis scour the streets for passengers to ferry to town and all about. And in the evenings, exhaust fumes permeate the air like coiling miasma as bumper-to-bumper traffic pollutes the borrowed tranquillity.
On the afternoon of Wednesday, July 9, I boarded a taxi from Mphephetho, a street that separates Dobsonville extension 2 and Block 7. Extension 2 is the more affluent part of the township, an area established by the apartheid regime in the 1980s for nurses and teachers, black professionals of that time.
The taxi ride from Mphephetho to the old Dobsonville was uneventful until we got to Elias Motsoaledi road, where a young man who would win the hearts of the nation boarded. Before even entering the taxi, the young man told the driver that he did not have enough money and, as such, his fare was R2 short. The driver permitted him to board and he sat directly behind the driver’s seat.
He thanked the driver profusely, who then asked him where he was going. The young man informed him that he was going for his first job interview in town. He told the driver he was a graduate from the Vaal University of Technology and had been applying for jobs without success. The previous day, he was called for an interview. He had no money and didn’t have enough time to mobilise it.
The driver told the young man not to pay the taxi fare. But he did not stop there. He went further to give him R10 for his return fare, saying: “Ungaphel’umoya, mfanakithi. Ungafani nalabafana basekasi ababem’inyaope” (Don’t give up, brother. And don’t become one of those young boys in the township who smoke nyaope).
I immediately updated a status on Facebook about this powerful incident. Within an hour, 2 000 people had liked the status and more than 300 shared it. I got off at Sauer Street in the Joburg CBD, making sure to take a picture of the taxi’s licence plate with my cellphone. I wanted the world to know this taxi driver who, unknown to him, had done something that had touched the hearts of thousands.
I attended my meeting and an hour later, my Facebook account was flooded with inbox messages from people across all walks of life who were moved by the story. Various publications had run with the story. It had gone viral in less than five hours. I received requests for interviews from radio and television stations. It was then decided that we would locate the taxi driver through his taxi association Dorljota. The task was simple and by 8pm, Thilivhali Singo had become a national hero.
We travelled together to Jozi FM studios to give interviews. The following morning, Ukhozi FM, Metro FM, Phalaphala FM and many other stations were either broadcasting the story or interviewing us. I was woken up by Thilivhali informing me he had just left some Soweto TV journalists who were at that point on their way to my home.
I have been asking myself what it is about this story that has captured the hearts of our people. I have come to realise that this is not just a story about a kind taxi driver who helped a young man with taxi fare. It is a story that has offered our country an oasis in a desert of hopelessness.
Every day when we open newspapers or watch news on television, we are bombarded with stories about things falling apart in South Africa. We are reminded that the centre no longer holds.
But more than that, and this is an uncomfortable truth rarely spoken, it is black people who are on the receiving end of these horror stories that have come to be accepted as a legitimate definition of who we are.
If a black-majority government is not embroiled in some scandal, a black child has been dumped in a ditch in Diepsloot. Because of this narrative, we have become cynical. We have not only become desensitised by our violent nervous conditions, but we have also ceased to believe in the inherent goodness of our people. We have forgotten there are values that have always defined us.
One of the cruelest crimes that colonialism committed against African people was to dispossess us of our very humanness. Our value system under the system of capitalism has been greatly eroded and vulgarised by our pursuit for survival under the most inhuman conditions.
President Thabo Mbeki puts it most aptly in his famous masterpiece I am an African, when he says: “I have seen concrete expression of the denial of the dignity of a human being emanating from the conscious, systemic and systematic oppressive and repressive activities of other human beings.
“There, the victims parade with no mask to hide the brutish reality – the beggars, the prostitutes, the street children, those who seek solace in substance abuse, those who have to steal to assuage hunger, those who have to lose their sanity because to be sane is to invite pain.
“Perhaps the worst among these, who are my people, are those who have learnt to kill for a wage. To these, the extent of death is directly proportional to their personal welfare.”
This reality, the condition of blackness, has become so entrenched that we no longer challenge the narrative. We accept it as it is. In many ways, we even nurture it. But Thilivhali’s story (I insist that it is not mine) has forced us to pause, if only for a moment. It has demanded of us that we recognise we have victories to claim in our very small spaces.
Resisting the system of capitalism is not only about workers striking for improved working conditions and better salaries. It is not only about student organisations holding the government hostage in demand for free quality education. It is not only about rendering the country ungovernable through the downing of tools. Resisting the system of capitalism is also about reclaiming our values in times of crisis.
What Thilivhali did was a revolutionary act of resistance against a value system that has been imposed by imperial devastation and colonial brutality. He was refusing to allow the dominant narrative of selfishness and apathy to find expression. But above all, he was redefining patriotism in the true sense of the word.
Now pause and absorb this: there are many Thilivhalis in this country, ordinary men and women who go an extra mile to show true humanity to strangers and friends alike.
There’s a Sister Phindi who works as a nurse at Baragwanath Hospital and comes back home to treat the ailments of people in her neighbourhood.
There is a Vina Mahlatsi in Braamfischerville, an RDP settlement on the outskirts of Soweto, who has formed a soccer team to get young boys off the streets.
There is a Thobile Disemelo who runs a book club for township kids from her own garage in Thokoza. There are many people doing a lot of good, in their small ways. Corporate media does not celebrate them, because it too serves as a vehicle that drives the dominant narrative of defeatism and hopelessness.
I hope this does not become a story that trends for a week and then gets archived in history books to collect dust. May it inspire us to wage a relentless struggle against a value system that is destroying our communities. May it inspire us to forge ahead in the struggle of memory against forgetting who we truly are as amaAfrica. Mayibuye!
* MalaikaWa Azania is the author of Memoirs of a Born Free: Reflections on the Rainbow Nation, available at Exclusive Books.