In this instalment of Street Life, GREG NICOLSON talks to a Zimbabwean who came to South Africa when his country’s economy declined. These days, he sells curios on the streets of Johannesburg and dreams about returning home.
Shepherd Changi arrives on 7th Street, Melville, at nine o’clock and lays a blue sheet on the footpath. The 36-year-old arranges the wireframe roses, dolphins and rhinos in rows. It looks like a scene from the Lion King. Melville was once just as bright, but the cloth sits outside an empty building on a street dotted with closed businesses.
He prefers to sell his wares to foreigners, says Changi. US dollars are easier to send back to Zimbabwe.
He and his eight siblings were raised in Chitungwiza, Harare. As the second oldest he would lead expeditions to Lake Chivuro to fish or to the nearby bushes to pick mangoes and guavas. They would leave the township with their dogs and hunt for kudus to sell in town. In the dusty streets, Changi was a defender when they played soccer.
“It was very nice, beautiful. You could find everything there,” he says of Harare. He grew up in the 1980s, when Robert Mugabe was a hero and praised for Zimbabwe’s steps to transformation. “Everyone loved him. Most of us who are here had hopes of being doctors, engineers, pilots.”
Changi’s sentences are like paragraphs. After each, he pauses, sips his coffee and considers his words before speaking again. Sitting in a trendy cafe that still draws visitors to Melville, he’s wearing a sweatshirt and jeans.
After finishing high school in 1992, Changi worked as an apprentice motor mechanic and had a series of related jobs while studying mechanics at college. There was partying, drinking and girls, he laughs.
“But Harare, it changed, it changed too much,” he shakes his head. “It didn’t matter how educated you were, you couldn’t find work. People were underpaid. That’s when people started leaving the country.”
As the 1990s ticked by things got worse. Public support shifted from Mugabe to his challengers and the independence leader came down heavily on his opposition, implementing policies challenging everyday life in the country.
“Jobs were affected, people couldn’t afford to work, crop output was low,” says Changi. “Crime increased. There was a rise in prostitution… Everything was affected. Everything. The money I was getting was too little.”
He left for Cape Town in 2000 after the death of his mother. She made regular trips to South Africa to sell goods to supplement Changi’s father’s income. Once she died, the responsibility to support the family fell on Changi and his older siblings.
But he was home for Operation Murambatsvina – drive out rubbish. The United Nations estimates 700,000 people were affected as the government demolished illegal dwellings, seen as punishment for the urban poor who voted against Mugabe in 2005.
Changi watched the bulldozers destroy the outside rooms on his family’s property. If you tried to intervene you were beaten. “They destroyed many, many houses.” Thereafter, his family were forced to cram into the main house.
The story is laced with disappointment rather than malice and Changi pauses to greet the Zimbabwean waitress. “You can meet people from different countries and cultures here in Johannesburg,” he says.
The company he was working for in Cape Town closed after a year and he moved to Johannesburg. He was afraid of the city but moved in with friends in Hillbrow. He could hear gunshots at night.
“I was coming from a bar at around midnight and I was drunk,” he smiles. He passed a group of four men. They grabbed him from behind and hit him. He fell and was stabbed below the neck with a screwdriver.
They took his phone and wallet.
His flat was next to an abandoned building where thugs would wait. Eventually, the police raided the hideout and arrested them. Changi was called to the police station, along with half of Hillbrow, to identify his attackers. “Ah, I couldn’t remember. I was too drunk,” he says, laughing while looking into his coffee.
Without work in Joburg, his friends encouraged him to try making figures out of wire and beads to sell to tourists. “The thing about Zimbabweans is most people have learnt a lot from hardship. They’ve learnt to work for themselves. Everyone is trying to make a living… It’s not easy to just stay and do nothing. You can’t survive in Zim.”
After fumbling through his first wire figures, he’s been selling his own work on the street for 10 years. “Sometimes it’s good. Sometimes it’s bad.” He sells between two and five pieces a day. It’s enough to survive, as long as the metro cops don’t confiscate his wares.
“They come when you don’t expect it. When they come you have to run with everything you can carry… That’s why we put the sheet down, to pick it up and run,” he explains, scooping his hands. In 2011, metro cops came more than 30 times.
It’s a story, like countless more, from Changi’s 12 years in SA. He says he’s happy, but he says it as though he’d be happier if he’d never had to leave Harare.
“We’ve been here for a long time and only go back once or twice a year. We become homesick. We just wish things can go back to normal,” he says. “I wish things in Zimbabwe would go back to the way it was because home is best.”
He misses the township life, playing soccer with friends in the streets. If there were jobs, he’d go back. Until then, he’ll keep working in Melville and sending US dollars back to Zimbabwe to help his family.
The problem, he explains, is that so many adults of working age have left, which leaves them in a catch-22 situation. “There’s only the elderly and the young ones in Zimbabwe now. If we were there, there could have been a revolution.”
Instead, Changi’s sitting in the streets of Melville. In Cape Town he has a son. In Harare he has a retired father and a 16-year-old sister who is still in high school. They need financial support.
So he’s stuck here until things improve at “home”, which seems like one of his wireframe figures – beautiful, but only an imitation of the real thing. DM
Photos by Greg Nicolson/DAILY MAVERICK.
"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine