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Street life: making his own luck

By Greg Nicolson 20 February 2012

In this instalment of Street Life, GREG NICOLSON spends a day on the street with Lucky who refuses to beg. He gets by searching Johannesburg’s streets for anything that could be recycled.

Lucky Ntotho and his best friend, Mandla, have been to Auckland Park to search the bins by the time I arrive. Their days are the same. With empty trolleys, they leave between 4:30 and five in the morning to avoid the sun and get to the bins before they’re collected. But the direction changes every day. It might be the northern suburbs, out west, through the industrial south below town, or east.

They pull their trolleys along the street side with the rhythm of a metronome. Five kilometres, 10km, 20km, 30km they walk. With each stop their bags grow until the cargo matches their heights. Then they march back to De la Rey Street for sorting, still in tune but with sweat beading down their skin under the sun.

Photo: Lucky Ntotho and his friend Mandla pulling their trolleys on their daily pilgrimage for recyclable waste. DAILY MAVERICK/Greg Nicolson.

Driving up De la Rey Street into Pageview, Lucky’s house is on the corner of 13th Street. There’s no roof or walls, but traces of the brick frame remain as though the demolishers quit two days too early. Graffiti enwraps the pillars that are left. Large calico bags cover the concrete slab. The men sort the contents into piles. Plastic bottles. Aluminium cans. White paper. Cardboard. Bees get lost in the rubbish and their buzz reverberates through the pile of empty soft drink bottles.

Lucky’s natty hair is covered by a cap that’s perched askew on his head. A 1996 St Andrews graduation T-shirt says he’s doing it ‘the St. Andrews way’. He wears loose denim jeans rolled at the cuffs revealing a pair of retro runners.

By midday, he’s sorted the trash into separate bags and marches to the Remade recycling centre in Newtown, Johannesburg. Rolling hills of rubbish fill the factory and a bulldozer separates one dump from another – white paper from coloured, cardboard nudged from plastic, and one type of plastic shepherded from another. A handful of trucks wait to dump their loads, while street collectors bunch at the factory’s entrance with a motley fleet of carts. Lucky darts around the vehicles as his bags are weighed. He and Mandla squeeze past the trucks and frenetic bulldozer to load the different types of trash on the scales. They take the garbage they’ve collected and empty it on the correct pile. Lucky makes R61.50 from 36kg of waste.

Lucky is homeless, but lives with a group of men who have taken it upon themselves to find work – collecting scrap for recycling – despite their situation. “I’ll never beg,” says Lucky. “One day when I was very young on the streets a friend told me never to go begging. He said I have my mind, my arms and my legs and I could always use them to get by.”

He has tried and failed to take shortcuts to get ahead and sees others doing the same thing every day. “People ask me, ‘Why don’t you go and live with your brother in Pretoria?’ He’s an auditor. But he has done well. That’s where I’m trying to be too,” he laughs. The slightest smile will make him laugh and reveal the yellow blotches on his front teeth.

The 35-year-old was born in Eastern Cape and raised by his grandmother in Motherwell until he was 11. Normally open and engaging, Lucky looks at his recycling when asked about living in the Eastern Cape. “I cannot explain what that was like,” he says. He did well in school until a problem developed with his reading. He can’t explain how it happened and it’s never been treated. He could write, but words were a blurry jumble when it came to reading. He was sent to live with his mother in Daveyton, east of Johannesburg. The problem continued and he dropped out of school shortly after arriving at age 11.

At home with nothing to do and a mother he wasn’t close to, Lucky beat boredom by riding trains. At first, he made the return trip from Daveyton to Brakpan. “Eventually what happened one day is I decided to go to Joburg.” 

Still 11 years old, Lucky found himself on the streets. “The first night was the hardest one because you know no one. You have to look after yourself. But I was lucky. I met another guy. He took me to Twilight.” Twilight is a children’s shelter in Hillbrow. He stayed for two years. They tried to put him back in school, but Lucky was more fond of boxing. He and his friends would train at the YMCA. When a new manager came to the shelter and the curfew was tightened, the boys couldn’t train anymore. Lucky got frustrated with being told when to wake up and when to go to sleep and ran away.

“I met crazy guys, stupid guys, good guys, bad guys,” he laughs. “It was dangerous then because you couldn’t say I’ll call the cops if someone attacked you.” Lucky was sleeping outside a school in Braamfontein and regularly took Mandrax with his friends to forget about the abusive lives they’d left and the streets on which they were living. “But that time was nice – sitting, smoking, singing. You eventually start consoling each other: ‘Everything will be fine’.” The sun’s setting as Lucky’s speaking and a fire’s being lit in a small drum. He asks what else I want to know. He was once the focus of a documentary – Lucky or not Lucky.

He talks of the street like a traveller, constantly astonished. “There’s one thing I won’t forget. The day I was sentenced was bad.” Lucky, 18 at the time, was working as a parking attendant around town. One night, outside Sweeny Todd’s in Braamfontein, four men approached him and his friend. They said they wanted to steal one of the cars and threatened the friend. The friend said okay, but told Lucky to find the owner and tell him what was happening. “The oke was so drunk. He never understood what I was saying,” says Lucky. When the car’s owner eventually returned and it was gone, he blamed the boys. They were taken to the police station, questioned and told they would be used as witnesses.

After leaving the station, “two hours after we got back”, Lucky’s friend pointed to a clothing store and asked him if he wanted some new clothes. They broke in and filled two garbage bins. Police arrived and caught them red-handed. The boys were returned to the same police station they had come from and the cops were laughing that their witnesses were back as criminals. Lucky was sentenced to eight years and served six split between Sun City and Leeuwkop Prison.

“In prison nobody will change you unless you decide to change,” says Lucky who just came from condemning the thieves who steal copper cabling to sell as scrap metal. “I changed a lot. I knew if I was going to go on with crime I would die young. To tell you my slogan in prison: prison is a paradise of fools. If you are a fool you’ll be in prison all of the time. But you don’t have to be a jailbird.”

Lucky has thrown his blanket over the old store or house window frame, next to the blankets of the other men who sleep here in the open. After the sun has set, the men sit around a barrel fire, cooking dinner and sipping tea. Lucky jokes. Behind the house rubbish is scattered through a churned field of mud. Dozens of rats dart in every direction in search of food. They sneak onto the concrete slab where the guys are about to sleep and squeeze through the recycling carts. “It’s not a family of rats; it’s a nation, the United Nations,” Lucky jokes while positioning two pallets to sleep on.

Photo:Settling down for the night. DAILY MAVERICK/Greg Nicolson.

Before bed, he rolls a joint to share with Mandla and begins a debate after exhausting the jokes everyone’s heard before. Where is heaven, he asks. Most people think it’s up there, says Lucky, pointing to the sky. But he isn’t convinced. We now know about the sky, space and the moon, so what level would heaven be on, he questions, and explains his ideas. “Heaven’s here on earth. Heaven and hell. There are so many types of living – happiness and sorrow.” This is where we’ll find heaven, finishes Lucky before going to bed, squealing rats scurrying by, before another day of the same tomorrow. DM




Photo: Lucky Ntotho refuses to beg and would rather use “my mind, my arms and my legs”. DAILY MAVERICK/Greg Nicolson.

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