White Magic?

A Short Story

By Geoffrey Diver


My phone pings to tell me that my Uber driver has arrived, and I raise my head to locate the correct number plate and the correct shade of silver. Bags in the back, I open the passenger door and lower my head to get in.

“Hi, Qhawe.”

“Hello Michael, how are you, sir?” The elderly man greets me with a tired smile, turning down the radio. Umhlobo Wenene FM

“I’m very well thanks, how are you today?”
“Ah, can’t complain, can’t complain.” he says habitually. “You’re going to Parktown?”
“Parktown North, ja.”
“Parktown North, ok. Any particular route you want to take?”

“No, just whatever the map says is the quickest way.”

“Ok.” He starts the clock and the digital American voice of the Maps app sets us off in the right direction. I see his hands are badly scarred from ancient burns, but I pretend not to notice as we move forward with polite conversation.

“Did you have a good flight?” he asks with practised curiosity.

“Ja, it was good thanks. It was a good time to work on some things for the university, got a lot of work done so I’m feeling good.”

“Oh, so you’re a student. What do you study?”

Knowing what a mystifying mouthful ‘ethnomusicology’ is I offer ‘African music’ in its place.

“Oh you’re playing African instruments?” he asks with a mix of enthusiasm and scepticism.

“Ja, we learn to play, but I’m doing more research than playing. Studying the culture around the music.”

“Oh, ok.” He’s doesn’t sound convinced, but he forges ahead. “Which university?”

“I’m at Rhodes” I say with some trepidation, shifting slightly under the weight of the name.

“Oh, Grahamstown” he says knowledgeably.

“Ja, there in eRhini” I suggest hopefully.

“Uyatheth’isiXhos’?” he asks with surprise.

“Hayi, kancinci” I say with some embarrassment, gesturing the size of my knowledge with my thumb and index finger.

“Oh, ncinci, ok”. There is disappointment in his voice, but I am hopeful that he appreciates my gesture anyway. “Me I’m from the Eastern Cape”.

“Oh, ja? Where in the Eastern Cape?” 

“I lived for many years in Uitenhage. But I was born in Qunu, there by Mthatha.”

“Oh, there where Nelson Mandela was born.”

“Ja, there where Nelson Mandela was born” he echoes, the tone of his voice slightly dampened.

“My great grandmother was from Uitenhage.”

I sense that something didn’t quite land with this comment either and the conversation lulls into small talk again. “How long have you been an Uber driver?”

“Four years now.”

“And what did you do before this?”

“Before this, I was a taxi driver, in Port Elizabeth. I used to drive all the way up and down that roads from Mthatha, all the way down to P.E. and back”.

“Oh, so you’ve not been in Joburg long. What made you come up here?”

“Aagh the Eastern Cape is a mess. There’s nothing there for me anymore. Long time I was thinking to come up to Joburg, and so finally I called my brother who’s been living in Soweto, and I moved here.”

There is a density to everything he’s just said that I am inclined to unpack, but I’m unsure of how to enquire further. The casual disillusionment in his voice reminds me of my father, though he’d be saying the same thing about Joburg, wanting to go to the Eastern Cape. Get to the beaches down there. Escape the madness of the city. He’d be going down there precisely because there’s “nothing there”. Frontier country, as it were.

We pass a man on a trash trolley ‘surfing’ the freeway. Some hoot at him as they go by, cursing him for the space he’s taking up on the road. Others move around him begrudgingly but without real protest, and still, others pass by indifferently, accepting that this is just the way things are now. Mr Qhawe turns on his hazards to alert other drivers to the surfer’s presence, a sentiment of respect in the gesture. He looks back at the fast-fading figure in the rear-view mirror before turning off his hazards and indicating left.

“Ja, the Eastern Cape is quite a mess” I agree after some time. “You can see it in Grahamstown, especially. Water leaking everywhere in the streets, the potholes in the roads, all the beggars. And the corruption in the municipality. The legacy of colonialism is so clear there. It’s like a mirror for the whole country. The collapsing infrastructure; the clear divide between the small white town and the location.”

He says nothing, though he seems to be mulling something over.

“But it’s got a strong spiritual energy, the Eastern Cape” I suggest.

He eyes me with a mixture of amusement and suspicion: “Spiritual energy?”

“Ja, like, the land there. And the people” I say, trying to avoid flattery. “There’s something about it that just feels raw and powerful, you know.”

“Ja, the land is powerful” he agrees quickly, and the ball starts to roll again. “But it’s covered in blood, all over. And there in Grahamstown, there is evil magic in that place. My cousin, he was living there, working for the university, and he went crazy, haunted by the ghosts of that place. They put him in Fort England mental hospital, told him he was schizophrenic. Hayi, he was not schizophrenic. It’s amafufunyana. You know what’s amafufunyana?”

I shake my head in ignorance and he explains.

“It’s the voices of evil spirits, angry spirits born from the destruction of the land. Strange voices who speak in other languages inside your head. People, they talk about black magic. But it was the white man who brought the amafufunyana with him. It is white magic, baba.”

It’s an uncomfortable comment given my disposition, but I can say nothing to refute it so I just nod my head quietly.

We sit in silence for some time before a wave of sirens pierces the air from behind us and a parade of metro cops on motorbikes escorts a caravan of black Mercedes swiftly through the traffic, their flashing blue lights assaulting our eyes as they fly by. Mr Qhawe shakes his head slowly in distaste at the spectacle, eyes thin and face furrowed as though smelling something rank, somewhat distant, lost in a reverie. 

Breaking his trance, I ask, “So what do you think of white people becoming amaqhirha?”