The passing of Nelson Mandela last week brought back memories of a trip I took to South Africa.
It was 1999. Mandela had just completed his five-year term as South Africa's first black president and had been succeeded by Thabo Mbeki.
It was the first time I had traveled to the African continent. I was vacationing with a South African-born boyfriend who still had family in Johannesburg.
We started our adventure by spending a few days visiting his extended family in the leafy suburb of Randburg.
The family owned a large home, with a lush garden and a pool. The two grown children had both graduated from college. The father had a middle management position at a large multinational mining company. The mother volunteered at church. A housekeeper cleaned their home and a gardener tended their yard.
Over a matter of days, family members took turns sharing stories about life in the ‘new’ Johannesburg. They explained how they never left their home without their car doors and windows locked. And how they needed the two large German shepherds in the yard to keep their home secure. They scoffed at us when we suggested walking to the corner store. Walking anywhere was out of the question, they told us.
There seemed to be so many rules we needed to abide by to stay safe. And they told us many cautionary tales of what happened to those who were not careful enough —like the tourists who took the wrong exit off the highway and ended up in Soweto and were shot in their car.
The father talked endlessly about the sad state of the government. He would shake his head and say how the blacks in the government had no education and were running his South Africa into the ground. And he complained about the black South Africans who were rising to middle management positions in his company.
This family had enjoyed decades of being part of South Africa's white, privileged class. Like many white South Africans, they respected Nelson Mandela, but blamed the rising levels of crime and corruption on the democratically-elected ANC government.
They never dared to say it out loud, but the message was clear: They missed apartheid.
After getting a daily dose of racist remarks, and violent horror stories, my boyfriend and I headed out of Johannesburg for a few days. We rented a car to do some exploring beyond the fenced, gated, security of the family compound.
We were driving through a small mining town when it happened — that unmistakable sensation of a tire bursting.
We were on a dark two-lane road just beyond the city lights of Johannesburg. The only buildings we could see were the small corrugated metal shacks of a township.
My boyfriend drove on the blown tire for what seemed like an eternity before he pulled over to the side of the road. He told me that he was going to change the tire as fast as he could. And he told me to lock the car doors. If anything happened, I was not to unlock the doors. My boyfriend climbed out of the driver's seat and started working on the tire.
It was then that I first saw him.
He was about 200 yards away — just a shadow slowly loping down the hill. I couldn't be sure that it wasn't my overactive imagination, but he seemed to be walking towards us.
My brain started replaying all those horror stories I'd been told — stories of carjackings, rapes, and murders. All the times the family had told us about vulnerable whites being victimized and brutalized by blacks.
The man kept his slow pace down the asphalt — now he was just 100 yards away.
I could make out his features. He was tall. He looked like he was in his 30's.
And he was black.
With every step he took, my level of fear leapt up another notch. I remember looking down at my little Nokia cell phone and wondering if I should call my boyfriend's relatives and tell them what was happening. But then what? What would I say? What could they do? We were stuck. We had a rental car filled with our suitcases. We were miles away from the city.
And there he was — walking right up to our car.
My boyfriend was kneeling down next to the spare tire.
The two men were talking, but I couldn't hear them through the rolled up windows.
Within seconds, the conversation was over. The man walked off into the darkness.
My boyfriend stood up and signalled for me to unlock the car door. He climbed in and started the car. As we pulled back onto the road, I asked him what the man had said.
"He just asked if we needed help."