Adults on the streets often say they can’t go home because police or enemies are waiting for them. Sizwe won’t return to KwaZulu-Natal because of what happened after his mother died. He was taken to live with her uncle, a “small witch”. “He uses chemicals to make people not right,” says the 14-year-old, clicking his tongue and shaking his head. “That one is not a nurse. That one is going to kill you.”
Sitting outside a row of European cafes where a meal at a table among shelves of gourmet cooking supplies usually costs more than Sizwe makes in a day, the boy describes what he saw. “If a child is not smart, he’ll be given a drink and made worse… I saw him kill so many children, even his own baby.” The “baby” was a man at the time and the elderly father and son were in dispute over cows when the son died. Sizwe says his mother’s uncle killed him.
“The thing he is doing is not right. There’s no one who can…” He pauses and says he needs to work. If he doesn’t make enough money he won’t be able to eat the pap and stew he usually buys for dinner. When he returns he explains why he can’t go home. “I can’t go home to die because of the small witch. We can’t survive. Even us, we can’t survive.”
Sizwe is part of a group of “brothers” who beg for money in the suburbs of Johannesburg. They come here because of the peak hour traffic. Alongside a row of trees, the cars are interspersed with Mercedes, BMWs and the odd Aston Martin. He and his two friends, aged 13 and 19, slump when they meet. An older male is begging at the traffic lights while the boys sit on the footpath like council workers. They were woken last night and the rain soaked their blanket. They want to collect their belongings from the various spots they’ve been sleeping to take to the basement of a demolished house where they’ve stayed occasionally with the eight men who squat there. It’s too crowded and sometimes the men try to rob them, but they’ll fight, they yell, if they’re challenged. Each have scars across their body, but they laugh with the exuberance of boys being men when they talk of standing up for themselves.
Sizwe was born in rural KwaZulu-Natal and lived with his mother in a house that he describes as nice. His older brother was working in Joburg and he has no recollection of meeting his father. When his mother passed away in 2003, he was too young to remember what happened to her or how he felt. But he talks at a whisper when she comes up in discussion.
“You wanna hear?” he asks, turning the topic to music. I ask him what is his favourite song and he smiles, revealing a missing front tooth that was lost in a football match. It’s disguised by the gaps in between his other teeth that are still growing into his mouth. The song is by Zuluboy and is about a man walking in the street who discovers a dead body. The police are called and the man is arrested and blamed for the murder because he was first on the scene. He is jailed and cannot provide for his family. “Even if you’re not a tsotsi people will think you are if you live on the streets,” says Sizwe.
The soles of his feet look like they’ve been beaten, dipped in ink and smothered in dirt. He never wears shoes and his feet are swollen. Whether begging between cars or returning from town, he walks with tender steps as though on a path of stones. His parka hangs off one shoulder and sinks below his knees. Its shades of brown match the pattern in his short dreadlocks. They stand above his head, almost black at the tangled roots, then chocolate brown and sun-tipped yellow where they form messy spikes. Where his parka is open, green plastic rosary beads cover a bony chest. The coat’s so long that it looks like it’s all he’s wearing. Some of the boys change into torn clothes to “hustle”, but Sizwe wore the same thing each time we met.
When Sizwe was nine-years-old, his brother came to take him from the “small witch”. Their RDP house in Joburg had water and electricity and his brother kept him fed. There was no TV but he liked to listen to the radio, the isiZulu stations and Yfm. “I thought it was a good place. I saw so many things that were good. It was too nice living with my brother.” He was enrolled in school and made it to standard six. “I liked school because it was my future,” he says.
He dropped out when his brother was arrested for stealing building supplies. He had stolen a portion of what was found on the bakkie but took the rap for his friends. He was sentenced to “seven or eight” years in prison. Sizwe visited once, the day after he was locked up. He was told to get his brother’s ID from the house and use it to help support himself. But when he got back, it had already been taken. “I think he knows I’m on the streets,” he says. He doesn’t want to go to “that place” to visit and tell him.
The brother was renting their RDP house and Sizwe didn’t last long alone. “The owner of the house needed money. I told him (I have nowhere to go). He said, ‘Make a plan’.” The 11-year-old went to the streets. In the last three years, he’s travelled across the city. “At first I was scared. I went by Rivonia. So many places I went. I went to Sandton, Northgate, Fourways, Hyde Park.”
On the streets, there’s too much fighting, he says. He has the chubby face of a boy, but it’s marred by lines and blemishes. There’s a two-inch scar on his wrist from an attempted robbery. “People want to take my money. I don’t want them to take my money. When you’re old, you think, ‘Oh, me, I won’t get money at the robots. This one is small so he’s going to get money’.” He got the scar defending himself from an older man who tried to attack him with a broken bottle. In Fourways, he saw a car of men pull up to another car and riddle the driver with bullets.
Sizwe and the 19-year-old that he calls his brother have spent much of the last two years together. He’s generally upbeat, says the older boy. “He likes to laugh. When we have money and finish begging, he jokes.” But certain things get to him. “When he gets angry, he doesn’t like to talk. He likes to go with his legs, no shoes,” says the friend. “When you say, ‘Why don’t you go with shoes?’ he gets angry.” This is probably because Sizwe can’t afford them, he says.
As the cars come and go from the traffic lights, Sizwe’s able to tell me about the drivers. “This one in the BMW is always angry, for what? Here’s that car. This lady always helps me.” It’s like gossip and he enjoys sharing it. But there’s a certain sadness in each boy on the street. Many of the adults say they hate the life they’ve come to live and are desperate for an opportunity. They ask for food, blankets, jobs, help with getting an ID and transport to the hospital. The boys just ask for food and blankets.
Sizwe has hopes for his future but they lie behind the doubt that he’ll ever get off the streets. He would like a family one-day. He doesn’t have a girlfriend, the focus of other boys his age, because he can’t support her, he says softly, staring with milky eyes. Asked about his dream car, he can’t respond, despite knowing the model of most that pass his corner. “I can’t wish for that thing. I can never buy it because I can’t get money for a car.” Asked about his dream job, he says “any job, any job.” Later he says, “I want to sing, to sing a song.”
“Without education you can’t show people your future. I’m going to try to go back (to school) but it’s too heavy now. Eh, when you stay in the streets there’re too many things you see. It’s hard to go back.” His money comes from begging, not crime, but to many people, there’s little difference. “People can’t trust us because we are begging. People’s cars are broken into and think street kids did these things.” He often has to live with drug addicts and can point out where guys will wait to do smash and grabs. He says that it’s wrong for them to always target women.
Despite coming on to the streets as an 11-year-old boy, Sizwe has never been assisted by the government to find accommodation or be resettled. Representatives used to come and offer blankets, but they don’t anymore. He has been to a children’s shelter but resists most other shelters. “I don’t like the government places because there by the shelter it’s for people that have been to jail.”
Walking between cars in the midday sun, Sizwe says he’s hot and wants to go to a salon to cut his dreadlocks off. When I return later to help find a barber, he whispers into his parka and doesn’t want to go anymore. He was given a sandwich and pie in the morning that made his stomach twist. Maybe he should go home, back to the basement of the demolished house where he can rest for the afternoon, I suggest. “Us, we don’t have homes,” interjects the 19-year-old, “we’re homeless.” DM
All names have been changed for this story.
Photo: Greg Nicolson / iMaverick
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