I was picked up by a driver at the Cape Town International Airport to go about 200 km northeast to spend the night at an animal conservation/game reserve, after I’d spent over 22 hours in a plane and 12 hours in airports traveling from San Francisco. Walking out of customs, I immediately spotted a short guy in a collared shirt holding a sign with my name in big capital letters. I felt a blip of giddiness at the sight of it—there’s something exciting about meeting a complete stranger at an airport who’s waiting for you, even if it was pre-arranged.
I wave at him and he grins widely, revealing a row of shiny, gold teeth. It’s surprising and admittedly off-putting. He tells me his name is Tony. “Hi Tony, thanks for waiting. Let’s go get Rebecca then?”
We walk to the airport parking lot and to his white Toyota sedan. I make small talk about how long my trek was and that I’m here for an intellectual property conference, and he told me he was born and raised in Cape Town. All I wanted to know was how he felt about the news of Nelson Mandela’s death. He looked mixed, or “colored” as they’d say here to differentiate from “black” and “white” people. I figure he must have some opinions but I felt awkward asking outright.
My sister texted me the news as I was waiting at my gate to board a flight to South Africa. First, I was pretty weirded out by the personal coincidence of it. Then I quickly felt ashamed of my ignorance of the extent of his struggle. I knew what apartheid was…generally. And I knew he was crucial in the fight to rid of its policies and was held in prison for 27 years. That was the pathetic extent of my knowledge. I’m of the generation that knew him as a peace icon, not the organizer, the activist, the revolutionary. I still want to understand more about how he did what he did, but I did know enough to know he is a crucial icon in South African history.
We get Rebecca, who’s staying at the airport hotel about 400 meters away. We start driving into the hills and make some more small talk before the car gets quiet again. I go for it.
“So you heard the big news?”
“Yeah,” said Rebecca. “It’s so sad to hear about Mandela’s passing. It’s strange to be visiting South Africa for the first time when the country is in mourning…”
We look at Tony, expecting him to say something.
“Sure…” He says distractedly. Then he says in a burst of excitement. “OH! You know who ELSE died?! Paul Walker! In a car crash!”
I was too shocked to say anything. This must be a joke. Please indicate that you’re joking.
“Who?” asked Rebecca.
“Y’know, Fast and the Furious. So sad…so very sad.” He said as he shaked his head.
I was horrified and so confused. I was particularly shocked because I was expecting him to say anything, anything remotely more reflective. Of course there’s no reason why he’d be representative of any common sentiment… it’s my own fault for thinking that any old stranger that I’d meet here would be engaged in their nation’s story, and be proud of the legacy of a man who sacrificed everything to end legally codified racial segregation. Mostly I was horrified to confirm that people like this exist. They exist everywhere. People who don’t care at all to participate in their community or to celebrate progress in their society.
I have more stories about Tony, who ended up being our “guide” for the weekend and was so dim and yet so bafflingly confident… But I need to go to sleep now. It was a bit amusing at first, then it got somewhat disturbing. Rebecca and I wondered how such a self-delusional person like this came to be, as he continued to make us momentarily speechless all weekend. I’ve never been around someone so unbearable in my entire life. I guess there’s a first for everything.