Christmas on Jozi’s streets: Homeless‚ PTSD - yet full of hope

25 December 2017 - 09:21 By Kyle Cowan
Joel's Hope - Despite an injury that makes it difficult for him to walk, Joel Nthabu has not lost hope while living on the streets of Johannesburg. He believes that soon, he will be able to leave a life of hardship behind him.
Joel's Hope - Despite an injury that makes it difficult for him to walk, Joel Nthabu has not lost hope while living on the streets of Johannesburg. He believes that soon, he will be able to leave a life of hardship behind him.
Image: Kyle Cowan

He pulls threadbare blanket wrapped in an old curtain up to his chin. In his left hand he holds a small‚ dirty pipe he uses to smoke dagga.

His table is a magazine with a picture of young white teens partying and taking a selfie. Two long‚ dirty fingernails pick out seeds and more clean leaf finds its way into the pipe.

His mattress‚ a piece of wafer-thin foam is laid up against a big red suitcase he uses as a headboard.

“What is your name?” I ask.

He answers‚ but a large bakkie roars past just metres from his bed and drowns him out.

“Sorry?” I say‚ moving closer.

“My name is Jack. No photos please‚” he says in clear‚ crisp English with a slight lilt.

“How old are you‚ Jack?”

“I am 22.”

Under the bridge

22-year-old Jack, who did not want to be photographed, lives under a bridge on Empire Road in Parktown. Here was his view during the interview.
22-year-old Jack, who did not want to be photographed, lives under a bridge on Empire Road in Parktown. Here was his view during the interview.
Image: Kyle Cowan

Jack‚ like thousands of other South Africans‚ is homeless. He makes a living as a car guard in Melville‚ Johannesburg. Today‚ I find him curled up in bed.

It’s just a few days before Christmas‚ early in the morning‚ and he is high. But he still manages to answer my questions with an intensity I find slightly disconcerting.

More than 200‚000 people are homeless in South Africa‚ according to a 2015 Statistics SA report‚ and 12 million children live in poverty. Unemployment is at an all-time high‚ now at more than 27%.

Jack‚ which is not his real name‚ is one of the many faces I see on my daily commute from my home in Randburg to the office in Parktown. For the past three years this dark corner of cement and brick under a bridge along Empire Road has been his home. About 15 others also stay here.

Jack doesn’t remember me. A few weeks ago I had shouted at him when he tried to wash my car window. I gave him R5 but did not want my windscreen scratched. I remembered seeing a flash of anger in his eyes before he accepted the coin and wandered off without thanks. I recognised him when I wandered into his home under the bridge.

The area is kept remarkably clean‚ and some form of family group has formed. They make decisions together‚ drive away the bad guys and keep it tidy.

“If it gets too dirty the cops will come. But if we stay clean here‚ we are okay.”

After dropping out of high school in Soweto in Grade 11‚ Jack made his way to the streets of Jozi in search of opportunity. Instead he found drugs‚ violence and a hope-crushing lack of work.

Earlier this year‚ he made a potentially life changing decision.

“You see‚ I want to go back to school. But I must do a three-month course first‚ and they want me to pay fees first. So I got some help and got a card with FNB. On good days I can make maybe R400‚ then I will put R200 in the bank.”

He hopes to soon be able to afford school fees‚ and return to finish his matric and study tourism.

He lives far from the headlines of ANC conferences and the squabbles of our leaders. But when the Democratic Alliance won the Johannesburg metro in last year’s local government election‚ Jack said he had hope.

“They said they would come and take all the homeless people and put them at shelters‚ and help them right. But they have failed.”

Never-ending hope

Joel Nthabu can be seen most days at the intersection of Empire and Jan Smuts roads, always with a big grin.
Joel Nthabu can be seen most days at the intersection of Empire and Jan Smuts roads, always with a big grin.
Image: Kyle Cowan

Just up the road from Jack‚ at intersection of Jan Smuts and Empire roads‚ my curiosity drives me to speak to another familiar face.

Joel Nthabu‚ a 38-year-old man who I see almost every day on my way home. He carries a large plastic bag and offers to take the rubbish from your car for a few coins or a loose cigarette.

In the six months my path has taken me past him on my way home‚ I have never seen anything but a smile on his face. It’s one of the first things I ask. How can you always be happy‚ when things are like this?

“You know‚ it’s bad yes. But my stress is my problem. I can’t come here with my problems and try to make other people suffer. For me‚ there is always hope.”

Joel was badly injured three years ago when a wall at a construction site where he worked collapsed on top of him. A host of internal injuries meant he required surgery. His right hip was also badly injured‚ and resulted in him walking with a severe limp.

He says he is crippled but he prays to God every day that he will summon the courage to return home to his mother and father in Pretoria‚ and regain some semblance of normal life.

“Soon‚” he says. “I need to go and find myself some skills. I have accreditation for security‚ but this is where I am‚” he says‚ waving a hand at his injured hip.

Joel spends his days begging for just enough money to buy something to eat at the Woolworths or Wimpy at the Engen Garage just down the road.

“But it’s very expensive. So I must be here all day to make enough to buy food.”

Some of the other shops don’t allow Joel and others like him to even enter the premises.

“But not all of us are thieves. They allow us in because they know we come to buy food and then we leave. We don’t make trouble.”

Joel believes his government has failed to provide skills to the poor of South Africa. He wants more opportunities to better himself‚ and wished they had existed when he matriculated.

His parents‚ both pensioners‚ know he lives on the street. He says they are heart-broken and angry‚ and always ask him to come home.

“But times are tough‚” he says‚ with a big grin. “Otherwise I would go home for Christmas.”

Bosbevok

A veteran of the Angola border war , Rademeyer begs at an intersection just a few hundred meters away from where his wife is buried in Westpark Cemetery.
A veteran of the Angola border war , Rademeyer begs at an intersection just a few hundred meters away from where his wife is buried in Westpark Cemetery.
Image: Kyle Cowan

Within stone’s throw from where his wife is buried in West Park Cemetery‚ Andrè Rademeyer stands at an intersection on Beyers Naude Drive most days. His newest sign wishes motorists a happy festive season and asks for any donation.

The 56-year-old Border War veteran has lived a hard life of bouncing between sobriety‚ the streets and a steady life.

He is proudly born and bred in KwaZulu-Natal‚ which he still calls ‘Natal’‚ a throwback to his upbringing in a white minority controlled South Africa.

Some days Andrè lives in a shelter in Kempton Park but is back at his corner for a few days.

“I don’t know if the army made be a bit mad‚” he says. “After my wife died in 2011 I really just fell apart. Alcohol was a big problem in my life.”

“Bosbevok‚” he mumbles‚ which is an Afrikaans term used to describe the post-traumatic stress many former soldiers suffer from.

At this point he proudly pulls out a pristine Bible with a leather cover and wrapped in a plastic Spar bag.

He shows me a photo of his wife with their youngest grandchild. The next photo is of Andrè’s son and his wife and children.

“Here she was on her last‚” he said. He grows quiet staring at the photo of his wife‚ before slipping it back in the Bible. “I just gave up after she died. Really.

“But I went to rehab while back and now I am clean.”

The smell of stale alcohol on his breath gave away the lie.

Andrè is waiting for a claim from the Road Accident Fund to be finalised. He was struck by a car at the very same intersection I find him begging at. A badly broken ankle resulted in at least two surgeries and metal plates in his leg.

“They say I should get a few hundred thousand. When that money comes‚ first thing I am going to do is put a tombstone up on my wife’s grave.

“I want to buy myself a small bakkie and get back to doing handyman jobs. Maybe. I will see. But we never know. I pray every day to God.

“Tomorrow the world may end‚ maybe in 10 years’ time. One day I will be with my wife upstairs.”

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