In Defense of Car Guards
Some people have asked me about “car guards” in South Africa, since I’ve mentioned them a time or two. This is a group of individuals I care about, and among whom I have very good friends, so here is my answer, along with my disappointment in those who look down on them…
*A “car guard” is a person whose “job” is to guard a parking lot from theft. Unlike security, who are certified and receive a salary, car guards (both black and white) have any manner of background, generally do not receive a salary, and in fact usually pay a fee per shift for the “blessing” of getting to stand all day in a parking lot, trying to keep thieves from breaking into cars, or stealing cars.
A car guard pays between R25-35 ($2.50-$3.50) per shift to have a row or two of cars to cover. Having car guards provides more eyes on more areas of a parking lot. The fee that car guards pay for the “privilege” of having a “job” is called a “standing fee.”
The fees collected from car guards go to the security company and is sometimes split with the shopping center administration. In other words, not only does the shopping center and security company get FREE extra security, they actually make money doing it.
The money, they say, goes toward the cost of a uniform, but it far exceeds covering that one uniform per year given to a car guard (replaced out of his pocket if he loses it), and does not cover the required *nice* black shoes, socks, and white shirt underneath.
To put it exactly, the security company and shopping center rely on customers to pay the car guards, through tips. Customers generally don’t know this, or believe it (ignorance is such bliss), and instead of lobbying the security companies and shopping centers to treat fellow humans better, they generally just come up with excuse after excuse for why they don’t tip:
car guards are thieves, car guards are going to take advantage of my kindness, car guards are annoying, car guards serve no purpose, car guards are secretly rich from tips and so deserve the abuse and pain of standing all day, I can’t afford to give 2Rands to a car guard and don’t you dare judge me that I just got a day full of tips from my own customers at the salon, or had enough to buy this cappuccino, or spent the afternoon in the salon, it’s MY money and I will deign to reward whomever I choose.
Whether or not they make enough in tips to cover their standing fee, a car guard is still required to pay that standing fee anyway, or risk losing their “job.”
They are frequently treated like crap – by customers, by security (who earn a salary), by trolley guards employed by stores, and by employees of stores in the shopping centers. The only money they make depends on customers who are willing to tip them for watching their cars. Customers often mistakenly believe they are tipping for how friendly the person is, or how well they find them a parking spot. Those things are actually above and beyond their duty, which is simply to keep the cars from being robbed or stolen. Even when they do their jobs effectively, stopping thieves, customers here are so cynical that they believe they must have been in cahoots with the would-be thieves, and are just trying to con more money by stopping thieves. Seriously? Are you that pathetically jaded? That foolish to believe the world is all out to con you out of a 5Rand tip?
Tipping is every person’s choice, of course, and I’ve seen some lovely people and shop owners who always provide the car guards with free water throughout the day, or food.
I have a fondness for car guards, mainly because it’s hard not to feel compassion for a kicked underdog, when you watch the majority of South Africans crap all over them. Yeah, two years of sitting, writing and taking photographs in shopping centers, watching these interactions, it is not a small amount of South Africans who treat car guards like rubbish. It is the rule to behave badly toward them, not the exception.
I’ve witnessed car guards being physically slapped, verbally abused, and even backed into by a driver who was annoyed because he didn’t need any help to back out his car, and couldn’t simply, pleasantly, ask the car guard before getting in his car, to please step out of the way.
The latest ugliness I’ve witnessed against car guards is by a group of cackling hens who work in a spa at a local shopping center. Four employees have recently taken up four prime parking spots next to the doors of the shops, where customers of several nearby stores could otherwise park.
The change came suddenly. No theft had occurred. One spa worker simply decided she didn’t want to park and walk, and three other chickens followed suit. The ripple effect now causes each car guard who has those rows to lose four spots worth of tips all day long. These “ladies” don’t appear to give a crap how their self-centered parking impacts those around them – not the customers, not the other stores, and especially not the car guards. They’re not particularly bad. They’re not a special breed of selfish. South Africans crapping on car guards is the rule, not the exception.
WHY would anyone choose to be a car guard, if it’s “that bad?” Usually because they either don’t have the education or certification to get something else, or they are asylum seekers from other countries who cannot legally work here. Nobody wants to rock the boat on this lovely little human rights POS that the security companies are imposing, because the car guards generally have no bargaining chip.
The choice is either this life of having a uniform, and standing all day, however unappreciated, unpaid, and abused, or turning to crime or begging to meet basic monthly needs. Some are foreigners. Shouldn’t they just go back home? Well, frankly, many who are foreigners can’t WAIT to go back home. Some of my friends have a wife and kids they are trying to feed back home, giving up any kind of dignity here in exchange for the meager Rands that are worth more than their Naira or their Francs. Some of them are clinging to hope that a degree from Unisa will give them better employment when returning to their home countries. Some, brought here by tricks or mislead by others into thinking this would be a better life, are simply stuck, unable to save enough for a ticket away from the demeaning treatment at the hands of fellow Africans.
I’m baffled how anyone who is lucky enough to have has his basic needs met, who has a car to park, a warm home, food on the table, etc., can be so nasty or dismissive to any other person who clearly has less in this world. With money and security SHOULD come a sense of mercy, even if you don’t want to make *friends* with car guards. Not only is there a lack of mercy, or compassion as a rule of thumb here to those in a lower financial or social position, but there is outright dismissal, ridicule and abuse.
And for anyone left after reading this, who doesn’t see the injustice, and even inhumanity in it, your behavior is either blindness or foolishness. No matter how smart you may be in business, how savvy you are in your social life or political anything, you are behaving like a stumbling, blind fool when life really matters. You are.
But you don’t have to be. You could change. You can change. Blindness is a filter. Ignorance is lack of education. Change your filter. Educate yourself in life. See the world differently. It’s right in front of you.
Get to know a few car guards, or a few dozen, like I do. Go to their homes. Eat their dinners. Actually get to know, REALLY know, those whose lives are different from yours.
Can you imagine being treated like you belong in a rubbish bin? Really? Can you imagine that?
This is how I see my Tuesday in Tshwane, readers. Thanks for reading it through.