The day I gave my car to a thief
When my car was stolen 24 years ago there were a few people who either laughed at me or inferred I had been a bit stupid. And I suppose I probably was, but not as idiotic as the thief had been!
It’s so easy with hindsight to look back at things in the past and say ‘what if?’ or ‘if only’.
In this particular incident it would have been ‘what if’ I had insisted I go and help the alleged person in trouble and ‘if only’ I hadn’t been so naïve!
I was naïve, definitely, even though we lived in South Africa and I was working in an area known for gang crime and social problems, I still put my trust in a stranger. I was, and still am, a trusting type, who tries to give people the benefit of the doubt. But it’s obvious that not everyone can be trusted and that, sadly, was my downfall that particular day in 1994.
That was the year that we were gearing up for the first ever democratic elections in the country, Nelson Mandela was our new and universally respected President and there was an atmosphere of optimism over the whole country.
I had even more reason to feel optimistic – I was newly engaged and looking forward to being married at the end of the year! I was not long working as a volunteer in a student Christian mission on the campus of the University of the Western Cape. We had only been on campus less than a month and were still getting to know the young folk.
There was a group of students we would meet with once a week at lunch time for Bible study and prayer or for talks based on various topics related to youth issues and faith. This particular day we were in the process of setting up a film in the auditorium when one of the young men I had met in the group of students approached me to ask for help.
He mentioned that he noticed I drove a VW Golf and that one of his friends, who also had a VW had locked his keys inside his car. He then asked whether I would lend him my keys so that they can try and open the locked car to retrieve his keys.
I hesitated and said I would go with him. He told me his friend was parked on the far side of the campus. Knowing that as a single white woman it isn’t the best idea to walk on your own anywhere in South Africa, and particularly on a campus in a marginalised area, I would have been better off either staying where I was or asking one of my male teammates to accompany me. I was torn between wanting to stay at the meeting and going to help the young man.
With regret it didn’t occur to me at the time there were the ALSO the options of either asking someone I knew well and trusted to come with us, or of asking him to wait until after the meeting, or of simply saying no.
At this point, I know now that the obviously dumb thing to do is to give your car keys to a person you don’t know very well.
However, the very weird thing is, quite coincidently another good friend of mine had only just told me the week or so before how he had climbed into the wrong car by mistake at a shopping mall and couldn’t understand why it wouldn’t start. He said it was the same colour as his, the keys had opened the door but wouldn’t work in the ignition. When he realised it wasn’t his car he quickly got out before the real owner returned and we all laughed at his funny story – at the time.
Guess what, he also drove a VW Golf!
So if it hadn’t been for that little anecdote rolling around in my head, I probably would have been a bit more sceptical.
But I wasn’t, I was doubtful but optimistic that perhaps his friend could be helped out of a pickle, I gave him my keys and off he went.
Needless to say, once our meeting was over and he hadn’t returned, my team mates and I became a little perturbed. When it was discovered that my car was no longer in the parking bay I had parked it in, I was confused but hopeful it was possibly somewhere else. When it was ascertained that my car was no longer anywhere on campus I was distraught and humiliated.
I had taken him at face value and look what that had brought me!
I reported the loss to the police. The following day we heard that another female student had hitched a lift with the young man and was in hospital with a broken arm. She was reportedly in a car crash near Paarl and had queried the man about whether the car belonged to him when she asked to put on some music but he said he had no radio. She had spotted my CD’s that I had kept in the car but for security reasons I had removed the face of radio/CD player and hidden it in a special holder under the seat. As you do in South Africa.
I called the police station in Paarl but they had no news of a car crash. We asked the students at the University about the young man and they said they didn’t know him very well, he was a bit of a drifter on the outskirts of their group. I never got to meet the young female student either – it seemed that nobody wanted to say much and ranks were closed.
The police never did find the young man and he never came back to campus, but they eventually found my car. They finally called me four or five days later. It had apparently rolled off the edge of the steep mountain pass between Paarl and Worcester about 70 kms away and was completely destroyed. I went to see the remains of the car in the Paarl police station and it was almost flattened – I was stunned by the devastation to the once beautiful vehicle. The radio, CD’s, and new books I had bought and placed in the boot were all missing too.
Sadly I don’t know what happened to that young man. He was possibly just wanting to take the car for a joy ride and lost control. Maybe he had never owned a car and wanted to feel how it felt driving a GTi engine at 160km/hr around hairpin bends. It’s possible that with a young woman at his side he was just showing off.
Looking back I realise I did something daft, even though I meant really well, I could have done with a lot more discernment and wisdom in my actions. But I don’t think I was quite as idiotic as the young man who either kissed death or embraced it fully. Although I hope he didn’t, I do hope I wasn’t the only one who lived to learn a lesson that day!
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