by Samantha Camara
Fietas, a working-class community, lies almost forgotten on the outskirts of Fordsburg. At the bottom of the neglected neighbourhood is 14th Street, a once bustling market street now home to the Fietas homeless community. These homeless people have learnt to make their own way, in the area where faith-based relief organisations reach out to make a difference.
“When times are hard, friends are few,” read the spray-painted words on the blue polyethylene bag balancing precariously on a platform trolley against the pavement of 14th Street in Fietas. Times are hard for the owner of the trolley, 46-year-old Joseph “Old Joe” Ngidie, and the few friends who have made the grassy pavement their home.
Sixty years ago, this was a bustling market street. Shop owners would lay their wares on the pavement, as people came from near and far to find a bargain. Then came the trucks and the bulldozers.
The Group Areas Act of 1950, a cornerstone of apartheid legislation, forced the segregation of races into designated areas. The black, coloured and Indian residents of Fietas were relocated, to the townships of Soweto and Lenasia. The shops of 14th Street were shut down and reopened in the Oriental Plaza, a vast yellow-brick mall in nearby Fordsburg. Overnight, Fietas became a white suburb and was renamed Pageview by the apartheid authorities though its residents still used its old name.
Today, it is a ghost town, a place of half-demolished homes and vacant lots, haunted by the past and the homeless.
One morning, on the corner of 14th and Krause streets, a man displays his wares on a brown, double bed-sized blanket. “My name is Godfrey,” he says. “I come from Mthatha in Eastern Cape. Come, look at what I am selling.” The deep scars on his face tighten as he points to the old books, the radio, and the yellow vuvuzela. Business is quiet on the empty street.
A day later, Godfrey’s blanket bears a collection of belts, an antique lamp stand and a Motorola phone with charger stand. What he salvages, he tries to sell. He is sitting on a weathered, brown couch which is missing both cushions. He is in a circle with some of the other men who live on the street, listening to news on the old radio, which he delicately retunes every few minutes. One of the men sits on an upturned box, washing his shoes in a bucket of soapy, discoloured water. Joseph sits on the pavement next to the group.
Just a kilometre away from 14th Street is Mint Street in Fordsburg. It is lined with restaurants, clothing stalls, and the offices of faith-based relief organisations that care for the homeless and other disadvantaged members of the community. Caring for the destitute is a pillar of the Islamic faith, guided by the principle of zakah, a tithe of 2.5% given by Muslims for the welfare of the community.
The South African National Zakah Fund (SANZAF) is in Zakah House, a double-storey, colonial-style, grass-green building on the corner of Mint and Commercial streets. SANZAF is responsible for the distribution of zakah.
In a blue-walled and windowless office, head of welfare Phomolo “Usama” Beng explains that receiving zakah is an Islamic right. Anyone who is in need can apply. SANZAF helps people pay rent, school fees, and basic living expenses. The elderly, who do not have anybody to look after them, are placed on “permanent assistance”. For the younger and more able-bodied, the organisation encourages skills development through education and entrepreneurship.
“We advise them on the programmes that we have,” says Beng. “We have a skills training programme, we have a university programme and a business entrepreneur programme. If they are not interested in anything, we will not help them. If you are not interested in developing yourself, why must we help you?”
There are about 4 500 people living on the streets of Johannesburg, according to Joburg.org, the official website of the Johannesburg City Council. There are at least 50 people staying on the block at the top of 14th Street, where Godfrey and Joseph live.
“Many people are staying here,” says Joseph. “Many people who are older than me, far older, about 80 years old, who don’t have a pension. They are sleeping on the streets, they don’t have a place to stay. They’ve got a problem with their IDs. That’s a big problem in this place, IDs.”
Joseph wears a beige Imana Foods cap, a faded, black collared shirt, jeans and dusty takkies. When he is pulling his trolley in the street, he wears a yellow reflector vest to make himself visible in the traffic. I ask Joseph about his daily routine. It’s only 10am and he has already been to Sandton and back, a total distance of 40 kilometres.
“With a full load,” he says. “Heavy. Traffic on the street. The taxi drivers, they are fighting with us, giving us big problems. They don’t understand. You try to explain to them, I am also trying to get something to eat. They say ‘fuck off, go back home!’ But I have got a problem at home. That’s why I am here.”
Joseph came to Johannesburg from Msinga, KwaZulu-Natal, in 1993, when he was 26 years old. He left his family behind. He came in search of a better life and he found it, qualifying as a butcher and working for a meat company in Simmonds Street. In 2007, he lost his job when the company closed down.
He went back home to Msinga with his severance package of R37 000. A year later, he was penniless and back in Johannesburg, looking for work.
Now he lies on a stained, used-to-be-white sofa cushion, in the shade of his empty trolley. The green palisade fence behind him is covered in black sheeting. Behind is a double-storey mosque, undergoing renovations. When it rains, Joseph drags his few possessions, a blanket, sofa cushion and recycling trolley, and seeks shelter under the balcony of the mosque.
Occasionally he asks the builders to fill an empty, two-litre ginger beer bottle with water. He says this is the only help he and his neighbours get from the mosque.
Six streets away from Joseph is Jan Hofmeyer Community Services (JHCS), operating out of a converted church. JHCS runs a feeding scheme and nursery school. Manager Linda Pretorius grew up in the area. “There’s a lot of kids who should go to school but don’t because they are on drugs. They are making this place a vrot apple, if I can put it that way,” says Pretorius.
“I won’t show the door to anyone. I will tell people to come in if they are hungry. Food is food and it’s important.”
Joseph says he has gone to feeding schemes in the area, “but they didn’t help with nothing. They tell different stories, you must come back tomorrow, come tomorrow. Come again on Friday. You end up getting sick and tired and say no, I’m not going there.”
Unable to find work in Johannesburg, Joseph decided to get a trolley and start collecting cardboard and plastic bottles. Every day, he wakes at 4am and trudges to Greenside, Parkview and Sandton, hauling his trolley and filling it with packaging material that he will sell to recycling companies for his daily bread.
The weathered, brown chair has collapsed. It has been pushed against the palisade fence. The legs are gone and it is turned on its side, making more room to sit on. The chair seems to be a communal possession, a relief from the upturned crates and boxes that are mostly used when the men sit together for a break from their collecting routines.
Joseph chooses to make his own way in life. He does not seek help from welfare organisations. “You can’t depend on those people because maybe they are coming today or they’re not going to come,” he says. “So it’s better to wake up in the morning and think for yourself.”
People come to Johannesburg from all over the country, he says, “because Johannesburg’s got money”.
But he avoids the centre of the city because he is afraid that his children, who too came in search of a better life, may see him, homeless and dishevelled. He last saw them three years ago.
They are old enough now,” he says. “They are passed matric. They are in Johannesburg, they are also suffering like me. They never got the money to go to university so they can get a job. They also look for a small job, like to drive taxis.”
The only contact he has with his two children is via telephone calls. He hasn’t gone into the CBD since he was working there almost 10 years ago.
“Now it is difficult for me to go see them. You see how dirty I am now,” he says. “I haven’t seen them, but I keep on calling them. I ask how’s their life, okay sharp, I’ll see you next time. The last time they see me I wasn’t like this. I was a good man. Like other people, I was working nicely. If they see me, I was going to make them happy, I could give them something, money.”
Joseph has learnt the hard way that life is hard, and you have to care for yourself. “Sometimes you can have a friend,” he says. “You can help your friend. But each and everybody must look after themselves.”
I walk back to the Oriental Plaza along Albertina Sisulu Street. I see a man of about Joseph’s age, sitting on a street corner. As I walk past, he gets up and begins to follow me. I cross the street. He follows, walking less than a metre behind me. I stop on a side street. He stops too. “Can I help you?” I ask. “I am thirsty,” he replies. I see a sharpened branch in his hand. “I cannot help you,” I say. “Sorry.” And I walk quickly on.
One block up from SANZAF is Islamic Relief South Africa. Sitting in the boardroom, funds coordination manager Abdullah Vawda says their focus is on providing food, water and medical assistance to the community. Food parcels are distributed monthly to recorded beneficiaries. Many homeless people in the area are undocumented and therefore do not qualify for assistance, as Islamic Relief is bound by its international organisation’s protocol.
“Most of our donors are for the international market or big projects,” says Abdullah. “Locally, most donors will put money in the Mandela hospital. They will rarely donate for food items. Families themselves are buying bread and giving it to the poor, therefore cutting out the need for those people to approach us.”
While the organisation cannot formally assist the homeless community of Fietas, they do help if they have surplus donations of food. But, as Vawda says, charity is not the ideal solution.
“It creates a culture of laziness. People don’t want to work. My own experience in the area for the past five years is there’s more and more beggars every time, and the issue of hand-outs is not solving anything. What’s sad is that you find younger and younger kids are full-time beggars. They should be in school.”
Five days later, I return to 14th Street. The left-hand side of the street is covered in litter, plastic bottles, flattened appliance boxes, and old computer monitors. At the top of the street, on the open foundations of a demolished building, an old television set is burning. The thick grey smoke drifts across the street. For Joseph and his friends, this is a marketplace in the making.
On Wednesdays, Joseph gets together with the group to sort what they have collected. The plastic, paper, and cardboard are arranged in orderly piles. When the sorting is done, each person loads their trolley and they walk to the recycling depot.
“A hundred kilograms gets about R30 to R40, sometimes R50,” says Joseph. The discarded objects of urban and suburban life are the sole commodity of this community’s livelihood.
I ask if I can pull the trolley before Joseph sorts the last haul. It is almost full. It is lighter than I expect, and I easily pull it a few metres up the road as Godfrey and the rest of the group look on, laughing.
Once, 14th Street was alive with colour and the noise of trade. It was the street where a community made its livelihood. Joseph and Godfrey are the new traders of Fietas, trying to make a living by selling abandoned goods and recycling waste material. The empty street and demolished buildings are a reminder of the hard times that have come to rest on this forgotten area of the city.
Joseph hefts his trolley down the street, his hands behind him, his head forward. He sticks closely to the pavement as he starts the journey to the recycling depot, where he hopes to trade enough cardboard to buy a loaf of bread, something to drink, and maybe a packet of cigarettes.