There are so many factors that shape who I am. And who I am constantly becoming. Life, my family, relationships, circumstances, choices, my faith, my personality, decisions, events. Today marks the anniversary of a pivotal event in my life.
November 12 also fell on a Friday in 1999. It was a normal working day in Cape Town for me. I was the PR manager for an NGO that trained unemployed people to start their own small businesses. My work took me all over the Peninsula to visit training centres and fledgling enterprises. Trainees learnt business skills to run spaza shops (small retail businesses from their homes), or skills such as sewing, leatherwork, knitting or butchery, to run a business from home. It was rewarding work, and I loved my job.
On this Friday 11 years ago, I had an appointment to go and meet up with a new entrepreneur in his home in Guguletu, to hear about his new business. I had been given directions to get there, although road names didn’t feature too strongly: “Turn left at the other school and go down and when you get to that station turn right.” I had a good idea where I needed to go, as I was familiar with the area, and I double-checked with the new entrepreneur’s trainer where I needed to go, and off I went.
I took the main route off the highway, Duinefontein Road, that heads through Manenburg and on towards Guguletu. Manenburg is notorious in the Western Cape for gang activity, and I always drove through the area with due vigilance and caution. As I headed towards Guguletu I couldn’t find any of the landmarks, and it was no longer clear to me where I needed to go. After going backwards and forwards a few times, and nearly running out of road, I chose not to venture into the unknown. I decided to go back to the office to get better directions and reschedule my meeting.
I drove back along Duinefontein Road. Cape Town had recently been hit by a freak tornado, Manenburg being the area most acutely affected by its brief appearance. Many houses had been destroyed, three people had been killed and a number had been left homeless. There were a few makeshift, tented camps where people lived until their homes were rebuilt. One such camp was on the grounds of a school that I drove past.
I looked at the brown tents and felt sad that people had lost their homes. I was also aware that there were hundreds of school children pouring out of the school and across the road. I wondered why they were finishing so early (it was mid-morning), I was concerned that many were crossing the road without checking what traffic was coming and going. It was in the middle of those thoughts that I heard a gunshot. And then a sound I can’t describe – perhaps a thwang – as a bullet hit my windscreen and I was showered with shavings of glass.
The bullet ricocheted off my windscreen without penetrating it. The trademark spiderweb left by the bullet on my windscreen was in line with my head. I thought, “I’ve been shot at. And God’s protected me. Perhaps I should go to the police station.”
I didn’t look to see where the shot had come from, I didn’t stop or slow down or speed up, I just carried on driving and thinking logically what I needed to do next. I knew the police station was just down the road and to the right. As I approached the intersection, I felt it would be unsafe to turn down that road. So I continued on to Guguletu to go to the police station there.
All the while, I felt calm and just kept thinking, “God’s protected me. And I need to report this.”
I turned down the road to go to Guguletu police station, and when I was about to park my car, it suddenly hit me, “I’VE BEEN SHOT AT AND I’M TERRIFIED AND I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO OR WHO TO SPEAK TO. AND I’M SO SCARED.” I began to shake and sob and my face and cheeks wobbled beyond control.
I turned my car around, and decided to drive back to my office. By now, my legs were shaking too and I don’t know how I managed to drive, or see through the tears.
I still felt the need to report this to the police, so I went to Mowbray police station, near my office. I cried all over the front desk, I could hardly get the words out, and the kind and patient officer took my statement and gave me a case number. I asked her if she wanted to see my car, and she said no. I felt sad for the state of Cape Town, and that more attention would have been paid to this in a more peaceful world.
I drove quietly back to my office, my colleagues and friends were astounded and open-mouthed and didn’t really know what to say. Then hugs and words of comfort abounded.
As an amusing aside, one of my colleagues told me to drink sugar water. “It’s good for the shock. My mother’s sister-in-law’s aunty’s nephew took sugar water after a cupboard fell on him, and he’s never had nightmares.”
I was able to chuckle at that, as I called my husband to tell him what had happened. I had stopped crying, but started again when I spoke to him. He came to me right away. And then I went and fetched my boys and went home. My boys were so shocked, but were just glad I was fine. Thank the Lord children don’t agonise over what if – I was there and I was fine. And that’s all that mattered.
It was a strange and scary and surreal experience telling people about what had happened, dealing with my own reaction but wanting to protect everyone else from feeling sad. Or anxious.
My husband, as a trained trauma counsellor, insisted on debriefing me that evening. We sat, cross-legged and facing each other on our bed, as he talked me through what had happened and asked me strategic questions about how I’d felt and what I’d thought. I know, without doubt, that that session was just exactly right. I’ve never had flashbacks, or nightmares, and I honestly haven’t relived that moment with anything but gratitude. My body had its own reaction six months later, when I experienced a series of panic attacks, but they were short-lived and I guess my body needed to vent.
Oh, and I didn’t ever do that interview. I just couldn’t.
In the weekend papers the next day, we read of an off-duty policewoman who was shot at – and injured – in her car in the vicinity of my event. It was attributed to a gang initiation ritual. Perhaps that was the purpose of the bullet that hit my car. I don’t know where it came from, I don’t know if I was caught in cross-fire or if the bullet was meant for me. All I do know, and am forever grateful for, is that the bullet didn’t have my name on it.
Sunshine signing off, with gratitude for today.