My heart sank when I spotted Black Mamba, a man in his forties, waiting at the bus stop as my bus was approaching it. With his nasty, thin moustache and round face, and wearing his black bus inspector’s uniform complete with cap, he could easily have passed for Heinrich Himmler’s twin brother. His nickname amongst my fellow Cape Town City Tramways bus conductors was “Black Mamba”, which befitted his reputation.
The inspectors would board our buses without prior warning to check that all the fares that we had issued had been charged correctly and that everyone on board had a valid ticket.
The bus conducting job was the only one that I had been able to secure for the three months’ university holidays. As an immature nineteen year old I was not coping well with the stresses of the job. I lacked the skills to deal effectively with the challenging behaviours of some of the passengers, who would from time to time spit on me, swear at me, refuse to pay their fares and physically threaten me. I also had to enforce the white government’s Apartheid laws, which I loathed, on the buses. I cringed every time I had to ask a black or coloured passenger to move because they were sitting in the area of the bus that was reserved for white persons only.
The so-called pickpockets who robbed passengers with impunity and would draw a knife if anyone, including the conductor, tried to take them to task, terrified me. One of my fellow conductors had already had a knife stuck through his hand, through the meaty bit between his fingers. Nevertheless one couldn’t help but be impressed with the way that the pickpockets could jump off a double-decker bus as it was still slowing down, pirouetting gracefully like ballet dancers in the process to show off.
I had come to the job with a lot of mental baggage from my year in the army; I had been conscripted on finishing my final year at school. For the duration of that whole year I had been subjected to a daily barrage of abuse and punishment from the psychopaths whose role it was to mould us into mindlessly obedient soldiers. Instead of succumbing to the brutally enforced discipline, I had developed a rock hard core of rebelliousness. Long after I had returned to civilian life I would still react with an immediate flash of anger if anyone so much as raised their voice at me.
I was close to a breakdown on the day that Black Mamba boarded my bus. I had seen him around the bus depot and had been told how mercilessly he persecuted any conductor who had made a mistake. I knew that if he found an incorrectly issued fare or someone without a valid ticket on my bus he would report me and I would have to appear in front of the bus company’s disciplinary panel, where I would be given a fine or be temporarily suspended from work. Mamba was known to consistently urge the panel to hand down the severest of penalties.
On that day I had issued a ticket to a boy who had told me that he was 13 years old. A higher fare applied to boys of 14 years and older. When the inspector checked his ticket the boy panicked and confessed that he was 14. Mamba took out his notebook. He was going to report me.
I was outraged at this injustice. “You can’t report me for that,” I told him. “When I asked him how old he was he told me that he was 13.”
“You’ve under-charged him. You gave him the wrong ticket,” he snapped, dismissing my objection out of hand.
Something instantly snapped in me. “That’s bullshit!” I snarled, advancing towards him. “You get off this f**king bus before I throw you off!”
He backed off, stomped towards the exit door and got off at the next stop.
I was beside myself, knowing full well that I would be dismissed for my outburst. I would not find another job before university resumed. How was I going to pay for my cigarette addiction and other vices for the duration of the academic year?
After a sleepless night and feeling sick with stress I fronted up at the bus depot as usual the next morning, expecting to be pulled off the job for which I had been rostered. Nothing happened, so I did my rostered shift. Perhaps Mamba was away sick, I thought.
Nothing happened the next day either, or the day after that.
Nothing ever happened.
Gradually it dawned on me that Mamba had not reported me.
At the time I was so relieved to discover that I had gotten away with such an unforgivable misdemeanour that I never wondered about Mamba’s behaviour. Now, many decades later, it is clear to me that he must have realised that I was just a kid who had lost the plot due to stress.
And that he had felt sorry for me.
At the time none of us conductors would ever have suspected that Black Mamba was not all snake.