I nearly got involved in a fender-bender the other day. I was driving down a busy, three-lane road in town, and glanced down for a second. Mistake. I looked up to see that, to my horror, I was about to drive over a cow. I had to swerve sharply to miss her, and nearly hit another car.
I should have known she would be there. I was coming up to a robot (that’s what we call traffic lights ‘round here). She was a rather fetching cow. She had enormous googly eyes and was wearing a natty pair of brogues on her hind feet. And she was dancing; shaking what her mamma gave her, waving her hoofs in the air like she just didn’t care. Either that or she was having an epileptic fit.
She was a toy. She’d been put down on the ground to tempt children into bullying their parents into buying her. This sort of thing is pretty common. Our traffic lights are becoming huge open air markets for cheap junk. It started out small, with car-chargers and hands-free kits for cellphones. This makes sense. You need these things in your car. Then came the sunglasses. Also sensible. Then came the huge inflatable beach-balls covered in multi-coloured spandex. Less sensible.
Now nothing makes sense. You never know what’s coming. A fake Rolex? A space hopper? Perfume? A Polo handbag? I’ve seen them all. The sellers know their market, too. When the wind blows, they sell kites. When it rains; umbrellas. But I have absolutely no idea what prompted the sudden, albeit brief, influx of huge rolled-up wall-maps. Who buys one of those on impulse?
More worrying is the latest trend; sjamboks. A sjambok is a very nasty thing indeed. It’s a whip. Not a fancy bullwhip, or a kinky little riding-crop to cash in on the whole 50 Shades phenomenon. It’s a weapon of torture. Its only purpose is to cause pain. It is used to beat animals. And people. It was a favourite of the apartheid police. And now you can pick one up on the freeway off-ramp.
Someone must be buying them. On a whim. Who? Are they being watched by the police? What goes through their minds? “Look at all this cool stuff! I should get something for the family. We don’t have a huge ball covered in multi-coloured spandex. Wait! Look at that! A sjambok! A good solid beating should really bring the family together!”
These things are cheap junk, bought up in bulk from Chinese factory shops. But you can buy other things, too. Beautiful things. These are made of wire and beads. By a guy sitting on the side of the road.
Some of these wire-and-bead sculptures are spectacular. They’re art. They could hold their own in any gallery in the world.
But they won’t. Nobody knows these artists names. They’re just random guys sitting in the shade next to busy intersections, armed with pliers and some cheap glass beads.
They don’t see themselves as artists. They are businessmen. And so, come Valentine’s Day, you can buy a wire-and-bead rose. At Christmas; Christmas tree decorations, or, if you get caught up in the excitement, the whole tree. And last year in June, for reasons that completely elude me, you could buy Bull-terriers.
With all this commerce going on, there was an urgent need for some entertainment. This started slowly.
It started with those guys who paint themselves like statues and stand still for money. They upped the ante by doing this in busy Jo’burg traffic. They didn’t even have to be very good. People gave them money for managing to avoid the motorbikes weaving through the traffic without seeming to move their feet.
Then came the jugglers. As the robots turn red, they step out into the middle of the intersection; get four balls up into the air for half a second, and then dash off between the cars to collect donations.
They must have done well, because they were soon followed by those guys who keep one stick up in the air by using two others sticks. But last week things reached a climax. As I pulled up to the robots, a young man on the pavement lifted his arms in the air, took a graceful step into the road, and proceeded to do a series of flick-flacks across three lanes of traffic.
I can’t wait to see what’s next. Human cannonballs? Fire-eaters? Will there be dizzying trapeze acts on the overhanging traffic lights? One thing I do know. It’s only a matter of time before those salesmen start selling programmes. And popcorn.