“You obviously don’t understand. You don’t negotiate with an armed robber when he holds a gun in your face and asks for your money and your cellphone! It just isn’t done,” said someone who seemed to be an expert in this field.
I could only plead inexperience. I didn’t know there was a protocol for being robbed at gunpoint. I was a complete beginner. In fact, I had been totally unprepared for our day to turn out like this.
Wednesday, November 24, 2004 started conventionally. As usual, we prayed before we left ThembaCare to do home-based care visits to children living with HIV. We take turns to pray before we go out. Today, it was my turn. I prayed for protection for each one of us: for Nomajama, Andiswa, Robyn, and me, and for our vehicle. We do not place great value in material things, but we don’t see why some social misfit should steal the vehicle that God organized for us so we could do His work. We drove off, expecting another challenging but fulfilling day. Challenging it certainly was!
After two visits in Nyanga, we drove to a street in Guguletu. We failed to find the person we wanted to see, so we returned to the car, got in, and closed the doors. I was in the driving seat. Suddenly someone pulled my door open. Without thinking, I pulled it closed. Before I could activate the central locking, the door was violently wrenched open again and I found myself looking down the barrel of a pistol aimed at my face.
I did not really notice what the gunman looked like, but I remember thinking that the weapon looked like a .22 or a .25 automatic with a two-inch barrel. I can still see it. We all heard the metallic click as it was cocked. The prospect of having a bullet fired into my face from a distance of less than one foot gave me a newfound respect for small pistols. I decided that co-operation would be the best approach.
“Just keep calm, do nothing to intimidate the robbers,” I said to myself. Maybe I said it out loud. I don’t know.
Although this sounds like a long decision-making process, it took only a moment. I didn’t have to wait long.
A harsh voice shouted: “Give us all your money!”
I realized that two other men had opened Robyn’s door (on my left) and Nomajama’s door (behind Robyn). Behind me, Andiswa’s door was closed and locked. I was convinced that I should do nothing to startle these men, so I replied, very calmly: “We never carry money.”
My contact shouted back: “Why not?”
At this point I became somewhat judgmental and sarcastic, and replied: “Because people like you steal it.”
This appeal to our assailant’s sense of humor in an attempt to relieve the tension didn’t work very well, so I tried a more whining approach.
“We aren’t here to get rich. We are here to help people. Won’t you just leave us alone. We have nothing of value for you. If you just go away now, we won’t say anything more about it.”
This was actually a lie. If they had left then, we would have been at Guguletu Police Station faster than Philip got from the Gaza Road to Azotus!
The highwayman was unmoved.
“Give us your cellphones!” he roared, snatching my Motorola from my breast pocket. “I also want that!” he said, pointing to my wedding ring.
“Can’t we keep our SIM cards?” I pleaded, pretending to struggle to take off my ring. When he glanced away for a moment, I slid the ring off and slipped it down the back of the seat. It fell through to the floor behind my seat and Andiswa, the street wise lady, put her foot on it. My assailant didn’t like the idea about the SIM cards, saying he and his colleagues were in a hurry. Although I was keen for him to go, I tried once more.
“Come on, man. We’ve got important phone numbers on those cards. They’re useless to you. We need them. You can have the cellphones.”
“All right. Just hurry up!” came the astonishing reply.
I snatched my phone back and got the SIM card out, hoping that the gentleman of the road had forgotten about my wedding ring. Out of the corner of my eye I could see that Robyn and Nomajama were also working on their phones. I did not know it at the time, but Andiswa, always the street wise lady, was sitting on her cellphone! I handed the bits of my dismantled phone to the gunman and saw his associates snatch Robyn’s and Nomajama’s phones back. The three men debated taking the car, but decided that it was too conspicuous with ‘ThembaCare’ stickers all over it. Just before they ran off down the road, my contact reached in and took the ignition key.
I waited a moment to make sure the others were all right, then ran after the men, hoping that they would drop the key. I also hoped that I might see where they were going. After about 100 meters, I felt that this was not a good idea (sudden onset of low blood-sugar?). Nomajama called me to come to the phone. This seemed a good reason to call off the chase. One of the neighbors had called the police, and the sergeant wanted details.
Now the clearing-up began. First, our vehicle was stranded at a crime-scene and someone was walking round with the keys. The police arrived within ten minutes and dealt with us is an exemplary fashion. Once they had the story I persuaded them to take the rest of the team back to the office while I stayed with the vehicle. Three (out of nine) policemen stayed with me and didn’t let me out of their sight for the next hour and a half. During this time, all three got to hear the Gospel and I got sunburned like a ‘rooinek’.
The problem was that our spare key was locked in the safe at ThembaCare, and our treasurer had the safe key with him, and he was at a meeting with the World Health Organization in Cape Town. Like any well-mannered seminar attendee, he had his cellphone switched off during the meeting.
Our director left a meeting in Wellington (about 50 kilometers away), gate-crashed the meeting of the WHO, got the safe key, and drove back to ThembaCare. All this took a long time.
Meanwhile, my colleagues, having had some prayer support and defusing at the office, insisted on coming back with their police bodyguard to be with me, and we all went to the charge office together to make statements. Then I went back to the crime scene with seven policemen and the spare key, to fetch the vehicle.
I finally arrived home at half-past four. What a wonderful moment it was when I saw Linda (my wife), and our youngest daughter! At one stage I had doubted that I would ever see them again.
What did we learn from this incident? Lots. We still live in a fallen world (surprise!). Bad things do happen to Christians. God can give one supernatural calm when necessary, and can make things work out for the best. Also, there are some dumb crooks around.
We were a mixed team: Xhosa, white, female, and male, so it seems that our thieves were equal-opportunity oppressors. This removed any racial ‘aftertaste’ from the incident. They offended as much against the black members of the team as against the white. We met some fantastic cops. They couldn’t have been more courteous, patient, or helpful. I might mention that I believe that my life was in the greatest danger when the cops taking me back to get the car traveled through the traffic at 90 kph!
There are some great people working at ThembaCare. First of all, the team that I was leading really handled things well. Although we all felt a bit shell-shocked, we certainly did nothing to be ashamed of. Secondly, our secretary, Carol, handled the incident wonderfully. Other than the sister on duty in the in-patient unit, she had no one to support her. Nonetheless, she functioned as our central contact, she offered to come down in her own car to fetch us from the crime scene, and she contacted the off-duty members of ThembaCare’s staff, various friends, and some church members, to provide a prayer chain for us. She also shielded Linda from the bad news until I was able to talk to her myself.
It’s good to be part of a believing church . Within an hour of getting home I was having a counseling session with our pastor. This helped enormously. I even got as far as forgiving the perpetrators. I felt that they could sort it out with God without any interference from me. Subsequently, it was wonderful to talk to so many people who seemed more outraged about what had happened than I was.
God definitely answered our prayers. We didn’t pray for the cellphones, so we can’t complain about losing them. We didn’t pray for the SIM cards either, so keeping them was a bonus. A member of our church gave us three brand new cellphones, which put us back on the air.
Although we did not go out the next day, we soon got back into the rhythm of home-based care. Sad to say, such an incident does bring and end to innocence. If someone approaches us now, we immediately become very vigilant. Perhaps this is good. Although the Bible tells us to be as innocent as doves, it also tells us to be as shrewd as snakes.
In the power of the Holy Spirit, we will overcome all feelings of fear and focus on doing God’s work.
Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name;
you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
For I am the LORD, your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.”
To Him be all the glory!
 ThembaCare is a Christian non-governmental organization that proclaims the Gospel by caring for children living with HIV and AIDS. At the time of this incident, we were caring for about 100 children and their families. Currently, we are looking after about 250 patients and their families in the community. We also operated an 18-bed in-patient unit, also for children. (www.thembacare.org)
 Nyanga – A residential area outside Cape Town. The name (in isiXhosa) means ‘The Moon’.
 Guguletu – A residential area next to Nyanga. The name (in isiXhosa) means ‘Our Pride’.
 Rooinek – Literally, red neck, but not in the sense that the term is used in the USA. This Afrikaans word is a derogatory term for an English-speaking person. It is derived from the perception that people from England get sunburned more easily than locals.
 50 kilometers – about 30 miles
 Xhosa – One of the indigenous people groups of Southern Africa.
 90 kph – about 55 mph
 Matthew 10:16
 Isaiah 43:1–3 NIV
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