The Parking Gods

You can’t live in South Africa without daily encounters with the Gods.

They are everywhere.

They might tell you where to go.

They are often invisible.

You have no choice but to trust them.

They can be a big comfort.

They hold your fate (or at least that of your car) in their hands.

You don’t want to displease them.

You should always give them their due.

I’m speaking, of course, of The Parking Gods. Or more commonly called Parking Guards here in South Africa.

The term Parking Gods is courtesy of Dave, one of my readers, who confided to me some time back that it took him an entire day when first moving here and tagging along with his relocation agent to figure out that the parking gods were not gods at all, but guards that protected your car when you went into the store.

Make that one more expat falling victim to the South African accent. It took me ages to figure out that when friends sent me to the spa, they weren’t taking about facials and massages but simply meant for me to go grocery shopping at Spar.

South Africans are early risers, and they are early Christmas shoppers, too. By mid-October, you will find your local supermarket decked in Christmas decorations and delicatessen, and plenty of reindeer and snowmen will be grinning at you as you are buying your groceries.
No wonder that the well-organized in these parts start making provisions for the Festive Seasons early.

The parking guards were brought into South Africa’s carparks, so I was told, when crime was still rampant in those early days at the end of apartheid, and having your car burgled while shopping was basically a given. After installing those guards – probably half of them from the ranks of those previously burgling your car – those break-ins decreased dramatically, and the guards became an institution. Though I’m not entirely sure if they’re officially hired by the shopping centers or store owners or if they just show up and then somehow defend their turf against other would-be guards, much like it is among the street vendors.

I’ve grown quite fond of The Parking Gods over time. At the beginning, they totally annoyed me. Every time I wanted to reverse and craned my neck, arm arched over the seatback, they were standing right in my way, an unwanted obstruction to the next twenty-one errands on my settling-in checklist. If they’d only go away, I would think, I could reverse so much more freely.

The problem, of course, was that I was trained to look behind me. Which, trust me, is one of the harder things to do when all of a sudden you find yourself and your steering wheel on the wrong side of the car. Like, which way do you turn? What I’ve learned since then is that you don’t turn around at all. You just find your Parking God, who’ll invariably pop up beside your car when you’re done shopping, in your rearview mirror, and follow all his hand signals.

It’s a matter of trust.

I  had such a hard time those first few months backing up into the great unknown with some guy I don’t even know waving me on, but now I never have any second thoughts. I happily reverse wherever he waves me and then wait for him to come collect his coin.

About that coin: R2 is customary. I tip R5 if they also load my groceries. On some days this can add up when you’re running from store to store and only park in one place for five minutes at a time. After all, the tip is supposed to be for guarding your car, not just waving you in, and it’s safe to say that not much guarding was going on in those five minutes. And sometimes you can get a bit protective of those silver coins in your cupholder, because you actually have to make an effort to collect them.

But when a friend told me about her conversation the other day with one of the parking guys at Norwood, I vowed to make a push right here on Joburg Expat to lobby for nice big parking guard tips.

He told her the following: He takes a taxi to work in the morning for R8, then pays R50 to “work” and be assigned a row of cars to watch (so there is indeed more of a system to it than I thought – probably a mafia-like system, if you ask me). They are rotated every day because some spots are busier than others. Then he has to take a taxi home for another R8. He has to get at least R66 in tips to just break even before taking any money home.

You don’t really think about that when seeing them every day, everywhere. Of course they live nowhere near our posh suburbs and shopping malls, but rather come in from the next township to perform their jobs. And minibus taxis are not cheap. Neither are they safe.

So please remember, next time you are tempted to forgo the tip for someone you didn’t ask to help you in the first place, that you could be the difference pushing them over their break-even point and allowing them to go home with more than empty hands.

I shall miss The Parking Gods.

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