On the Beach

Friday, 23 November 2012

In defence of the parking guard

The words "parking guard" in Cape Town will inevitably elicit some sort of reaction from Capetonians. Not always- but most of the time- there are few kind words said.

For those reading from abroad, a "parking  guard" or a "parking marshal  is, in most cases a gentleman (well, of the male species anyway) who guards your car while you leave your car in a public place like parked in the street, a shopping centre, in a winery, a restaurant.

Some parking guards are appointed by a shopping centre/restaurant/whatever and others, are well, self appointed, shall we say. The self-appointed ones are generally to be found around Long Street day and night or around random pockets of commercial development. Normally, they are wearing a hi-vis vest that has seen better days. If you're unlucky, they stagger up to you with a whiff of a drink promising to look after your car. My husband and I often comment in these situations that the person offering to look after our car is precisely the person we want it protected from. In my experience, these self appointed gentlemen are irritating, they can be persistent but not dangerous. Most of these individuals apparently think I was born yesterday as they will often ask me for the tip  now and not when I return to the car because they need to eat, promising they'll be back with a snack. Yes, of course, you will.

Having said that, some of the parking-trepreneurs can sometimes be useful  pointing out places to park on an impossibly full Long Street and will occasionally walk you to your restaurant if you're alone or with a feeble looking friend.

So, asks the foreigner, what are they supposed to do? Well, depending on where they are:

  • Point out free parking spaces/spaces about to be free.
  • Guide you in and out of said parking space safely (avoiding crashing into other cars/ sauntering pedestrians). They tend to be very vigorous and active in this role, waving and flailing their arms to guide you out.
  • Help you push your trolley (if relevant) and unpack your bags into the car.
  • Take your trolley to the trolley park (if relevant).
  • Guard your car. In one market in the forest, they use a big stick to guard it mostly against baboons- really! They failed me once, I returned to a car with a wing mirror hanging off, the windscreen covered in tell-tale paw prints. In the vast majority of cases, it's simply to guard your car against property crime, it's not always as exciting as baboons.
Why do they do it? To earn a living. Some are paid by the place they guard, others work just for tips.

What do I think of them? When I started coming here on holiday, I couldn't bear them. Their flailing and waving arms as I manoeuvred in or out of a space seemed to me not to be helpful, but instead an indictment of my driving (which doesn't go down well, no matter who it comes from). Their offers of help with my trolley were unfamiliar and felt like an intrusion on my personal space. Coming from London, a tightly packed city, I should have been used to it but instead in this place of space made me feel claustrophobic  I was suspicious, ever wary of crime in South Africa, as repeated on the news- even though once a parking guard ran after me with the credit card I had dropped in the parking lot.

How do I feel now? I could do without the smart-arse self appointed ones that hound me from the car to the cafe about money for a snack.

But for the rest, I think it's a nice luxury that someone will help guide me out of a tricky space, helping to avoid accidents and bumps. I appreciate the help with the trolley, with the unpacking, especially when I'm trying to keep a feisty toddler under control. I like the snippets of information I gain from some of them about Africa (most are not from Cape Town- most are from Rwanda, DRC, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and other African nations). It provides employment in a country where employment is much needed.

Mostly, though, I have respect for them. Standing in a car park all day, waving arms, making chit-chat and packing cars you can never hope to own is not a great way to spend a day. I don't think there's much job satisfaction in standing around in the searing sun or, in winter on a bad day, standing around in the pouring, pouring rain in the the hope of getting R2 here and there. It's a rubbish job but it is a job and  these guys turn up to work, make some money and send most of it home to their families in poorer parts of Africa.

And, you know, most men in this country are secret parking guards, I'm not sure if it just now inherent in the culture or if it is a man thing. The other day, I was trying to park in a tricky space in an underground car park (in these there are not many parking guards). I'll be frank- it wasn't going well. There had been multiple unsuccessful and entry attempts (in my defence  I was tired and stressed, normally I'd nail it one, honest). Out of nowhere, a well dressed young man appeared out of his car, Blackberry to his ear and guided me in. Maybe it's male civic duty here?

Next time: The small town in the Western cape where parking guards are exclusively white, very elderly Afrikaans-speaking people in wide-brimmed hats. Never a dull moment living in South Africa.


  1. I just discovered your blog. I am from Canada but have often visited South Africa so your observations are interesting to me.
    The first time I ran into a version a of car guard, I was pushing our grocery cart out of the market and going to my South African friend's car. A large South African woman took the cart away; I wrestled it back not knowing she made her living by taking carts to cars. She won the battle and I was very embarrassed. Diane

  2. Thats hilarious, Diane. Made me laugh out loud! I'm sure you're not the only one to have done that!

    1. It was funny and in retrospect she could have flattened me easily. YOu can be sure I relinquished further grocery carts in a hurry.
      I absolutely love your adopted country. Diane

  3. I keep coming here each day in hopes that you have written another chapter to this blog :((
    I hope things are good in your world, Diane

  4. Hi Diane- another chapter in the parking guard? I don't think I could ever beat your story!

  5. Any story about your life in Cape Town would be interesting. Especially to us in the Western Hemisphere. I say that because it is so different there to anything we know. Food prices, food, Pick N Pay ( think that name is hysterical), kids' schools ..in other words everything you and and your family does. Diane