Memory is elusive, sometimes clear. However, memory can also be deceptive and haunting. I mull at this while I'm driving to Rustenburg in the Northwest Province. One-hundred-and-seventy kilometres are quite a distance and allow ample time for thinking. Destination: Rustenburg South African Police Service.
It is one month save for one day since a four-car accident happened on 16 December 2010, late in the afternoon just west of the Hex River Bridge, in flood season. I have been driving the N4 via Rustenburg for more than a decade, Arrive Alive season just ironically delivered a surreal, first person experience of the thousands of "statistics" road carnage in South Africa. It strikes me as confounding that this day happened to be the Day of Reconciliation. It happened to be the day I reconciled myself with transience, and all things unfortunate, annoying, and traumatic.
I guess the accident scene was as typically South African as you get. In less than five minutes after the crash, the “road-vultures” arrived and set their eyes on their prey. Tow-truck drivers must have some sort of sixth sense, ubiquity of presence and zeal. In 10 minutes the paramedics arrived and not much later a lone traffic officer. It, however, took the police about three hours to arrive, and they are stationed a mere five kilometres from the accident site.
My car was only dented at the passenger side from the wheel to the back door as car 3 ploughed into me as we swerved out to avoid a certain death. Car 1 and 2 were not so lucky, and neither their passengers nor drivers. Yes, at such accidents vehicles are numbered according to their position in the queue before the accident happened.
Despite the relatively minimal damage to my car, a too-school-for-cool, young, Afrikaans man kept on harassing me insisting that my airbags would explode and my face cut open should I dare drive the car and not allow them to tow it. He was incessant and when I finally had had enough of him and closed my window he kept banging on it like a lunatic. As if four bodies strewn across the road aren’t horrible enough, I had to walk over to the then lone traffic officer and report the insolent, little man...
These are though all memories of events after the accident, which are of little concern to the investigator and the prosecutor. As I drive, I remind myself that I need to conjure up a statement of the events that predates the accident. To be honest I remember very little, if anything at all. How could I? I was the last car in a queue and had all but a front row seat, which I guess is a blessing in disguise.
At the first toll plaza just north of Pretoria, I start ruminating over those specifics of that specific day. The incident plays itself out over and over in my mind. I snigger at the idea that it might be obsessional, and heaven forbids, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In a little more than an hour, I have to report to the inspector assigned to this case.
I have to enunciate a new statement even though I already had, almost a month ago. The accident report had disappeared in a record time of less than 24 hours. My insurance company was unperturbed by this, nonchalant even. Does this happen often? I only wanted the administrative red tape to be over and done with. Luckily, I was the last car in the pile up and I was not hurt. The only damage is to my car and psyche. Insurance pays for car damage, psyche is not that easy.
After the tollgate, I watch the kilometres tick by. The ruminations begin to intensify. I was aware that I was completely depersonalised. I wandered around in a desensitised state until a very kind paramedic grabbed hold of my upper arm for a check-up. I was literally in the middle of the road with no realisation that oncoming vehicles might hit me. My memories of the incident was probably conflated and contaminated by the annoying woman’s account of the scene. She was in car 3, unhurt and I found her quite a lousy narrator. She spoke of a wheel falling off car 2, which in turn somehow lead to car 1 being on its roof way down the side of the road. I did not see a single soul emerging from that car. The woman and her two platteland-emo boys were annoying but I was unflustered. I wondered: did I see a wheel fall off? I don’t think I could have but the scene played itself out in my minds-eye.
Sixty kilometres to go says my trip-meter as I get to the next tollgate. By now I am thoroughly confused. I swipe my card and drive off due west. I contemplate a thousand things at once. How can the courts rely on witness evidence? How is it admissible, especially when our memories aren’t snapshots but perceptions and interpretations? The concept of retrograde amnesia is well explained in medical literature as the inability to recall events or the lack of memory relating to events that occurred before a traumatic event.
Our memories are like muddy waters, like a cloudy sky with bias abound. We often see what we want to see, moreover only remember what we want to remember, it is a self-preservation tactic, I guess.
As I arrive at the last tollgate before Rustenburg, I am still embattled and confused. There are vast stretches of the very long road that I have no collection of driving on just now, as I was pensive and probably ironically not a good driver. It is still 15 kilometres to go and I have no idea what I am going to dish up. I am trying to put together a narrative of which I am ill informed.
Both my memories and lack of memories muzzle my mind as I pass the Hex River Bridge and the site of the accident. So much water under the bridge... Amnesia is strangely stalking, especially if one is deemed an eyewitness. En route to the Rustenburg Police Station the sight of the scene still haunts but feels faded away and I am still not sure what I am going to say.