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Wed Dec 07 20:17:43 CAT 2016

A life lesson from the school of hard knocks

Jonathan Jansen | 2013-09-13 03:04:31.0

Four white hobos make themselves comfortable every morning in a square cement dugout surrounding the traffic lights at a very busy city intersection.

Over time this odd picture drew the attention of various media, but the men refused interviews.

The question is obvious: how did four white guys who lived on the receiving of apartheid's racial benefits end up as dirty beggars on this street corner?

So I drove to the dugout and wormed my way in-between the four smelly men I pass every morning on my way to work.

"This is not water in the bottle," they inform me, "it's Zorba, the most addictive kind of alcohol."

As we sit there, pitying whites drop food onto the floor and the men devour it, the one without teeth taking a much longer time to swallow the welcome nutrition.

I am curious how much money these fellows make.

"Sometimes f*kol, but sometimes up to R300."

Not a bad return for doing nothing but swallow carbon monoxide from passing cars.

By now my white shirt is laced with patches of mucous and reeks of a mix of alcohol and cigarette smoke. But I am enjoying this excursion into the intriguing lives of my forlorn brothers.

"So, how did each of you end up here?" I venture.

Jan blames alcohol addiction for the loss of work and family, and other failed attempts at relationships with women. Basie (not his real name) blames his father for abusing him.

"What did he do to you?" I ask.

He drops his head. "It's too painful to talk about," he whispers.

He was a senior manager for a time, running a well-known furniture store but the pain, he says, got the better of him. Now he just drinks all the time.

Dawie is the only one who still has his family intact. One day he suddenly found himself seriously ill with liver disease.

He lifts the shirt covering his thin frame to reveal a seriously extended stomach.

Shortly thereafter he lost his job and was forced onto the streets, unable to work. His daughters, remarkably, found themselves in one of the best public girls' schools in the area, one having matriculated and the other now writing the upcoming senior certificate examinations.

Chris is a serial drifter from Durban who never quite found a foothold in life; after a short career trying to make toys he just kept drinking and drifting from one place to the next. Of the four men he is the most difficult to interview since his attention span seems short and his teeth non-existent.

The men had one thing in common. Unlike other white hobos I had interviewed over the years, these men do not blame black people or the black government or affirmative action.

"We alone are to blame," they nod in agreement, "for our predicament."

There are two reactions from white drivers stopping at the robot: they either look straight ahead as if the men do not exist, or roll down the window and drop food or coins. There is friendly banter between the hobos and familiar faces behind the windscreens.

A few things become clear as you listen to the stories of the four men - for many South Africans the line between comfortable living and instant poverty is very thin indeed. A devastating illness or an abusive family or a serious addiction can break anyone.

But there are other lessons here, like the fact that race by itself can't explain poverty or economic wellbeing; that otherwise good men and women could land in trouble; and that a degree is not enough to secure a graduate against the hardships of life.

As I stand up to leave there are hearty handshakes all round. Only Jan gets up with me. He struggles to balance, holds my hand, and says: "I have a BPrim Ed."

It takes a while to register.

"You have a Bachelor's degree in Primary Education?" I spell out my astonishment. "Yes, and I am a specialist in Life Orientation."

"You're hired," I tell him.

This man would be an excellent guest lecturer teaching student teachers about the hard realities of life, not from a textbook, but from experience. His life is a cautionary tale. He would be able to talk about choices and consequences. Prospective teachers would find him credible.

Can you think of a better person to teach Life Orientation?

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