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Last weekend was spent in Swaziland. If you have no idea where that is, then you would be forgiven. As long as you are not South African, in which case knowing the names of the landlocked nuggets of independence that constitute Swaziland and Lesotho really is expected. But I digress. Aside from such bizarre experiences crammed into 48 hours as a massage in a nightclub and watching a man dressed in an admiral’s outfit jam to the tunes in a club called House on Fire (Swaziland is landlocked. No I am not making this up), we also had a near brush with death on the first night traveling to the border.

No wanting to lose time on Saturday, my traveling companion Mabasa and I set off for Secunda – a town about halfway to the Swaziland border – on Friday night. The road in that part of the world is terrible – lonely, potholed and dark. To make matters worse, the night saw a combination of mist and light rain driving against the car, making traveling a particularly hazardous affair at the best of times.  For the most part, the trip was uneventful though, with Mabasa’s encyclopedic collection of fine Jazz and other vocal artists, and good conversation, we were able to keep ourselves awake and focused on the task of driving.

Mabasa, opening his window to ask the driver what the &^%  his problem was, was greeted with a cocked pistol

Somewhere about 15min outside of Secunda however, we had a car pull up next to us (this being a two lane road, that would have been in the oncoming lane – except that given the lack of traffic, that was largely a meaningless fact at the time). Thinking that the driver likely wished to pass, we slowed for him to overtake, at which point, he slowed next to us – matching our speed.  Then tried to drive us off the road by pulling hard into our lane. Thanks only to Mabasa’s skill in the car, we narrowly managed to avoind being run off into a collision with a fence pole or a ditch, but pulling back onto the road, the strange car continued to slow, try to ram us off the road again. Mabasa, opening his window to ask the driver what the &^%  his problem was, was greeted with a cocked pistol from the car alongside.

Things got really mixed up from this point, and Mabasa and my accounts of what happened don’t really reconcile, but after what seemed like an eternity of speeding, U-turns and alternately shouting and praying to anyone who would listen, we hit a small town where a police car was hanging around at a petrol station and the strange car went on into the night. After an hour or so hiding out at the police station and being able to explain little more than that someone had apparently tried to kill use for no discernible reason, we proceeded on to Secunda and beyond to a weekend whose fun almost served to erase the memory of that Friday night. Almost.

South Africa is a violent country. I know this. But have been largely fortunate enough never to have to actually face down the prospect of a violent death (despite losing two uncles to shootings). Mabasa has not had this relative luck, having been hijacked not long ago. On the remainder of the trip, conversations about that night reoccurred frequently and Mabasa is now making plans to try and emigrate. He is a lawyer, and a good one, and will have little trouble finding a decent job anywhere in the world that takes smart, skilled and hard working people.

living in South Africa is, in some respects, like having to roll a dice

For all its violence (for a time, South Africa had the highest rate of murder for a country not at war), South Africa remains sharply polarised around the issue of people leaving and emigrating elsewhere. Anywhere. As long as it offers the prospect of a life free from violent crime. Some see leavers as quitters, turning their back on the country. Others see those who willfully stay as mad. And to be honest I think they are both right. The title of this post refers to an analogy I shared with Mabasa the next morning. Rationally, living in South Africa is, in some respects, like having to roll a dice or play russian roulette. It is infrequent, and some people may go years without rolling the proverbial dice while others (like Mabasa) are forced to roll it twice in a year.  The thing is, you cannot decide when you will have to make that roll, or how often – and the consequences of being unlucky in that moment really can be your life. This was my first real experience of throwing those dice. It is Mabasa’s second or third. And luck cannot last forever.

So rationally, I can understand where he is coming from in wanting to leave. To go somewhere where you can live a life free of infrequently having to have your destiny determined by the whim of an angry man with a gun. Any sane person would want that. What keeps those of us who stay in South Africa is the irrational. The things that we believe this country could be. The things we have that we still value and can’t take with us. For me, those things remain stronger than the fear of that night. But make no mistake. The things I value would not be enough in the face of many such nights. How many? Who knows? How many I would be willing to face down, I have never really considered. But it isn’t infinite.

It’s just more than that one night on the road to Secunda.