When it rains, work stops for these guys. They run from each corner of the intersection carrying their plastic bags of rubbish and cardboard requests to the roadside shelter where they sleep. “If you don’t work, you don’t smoke,” says Tshepo, 23, as he slips into a crumpled jacket. His day’s are the same: when the traffic lights turn red he walks through the line of cars, pausing at each with a bow and prayer, then walks back. “You’re just going to go and smoke glue,” says a lady in a black Corolla when the rain eases. “Ah! I’ve never smoked glue,” he responds and moves on. Most drivers ignore him, purse their lips or shrug.
At night the headlights of passing traffic illuminate the storefront where the men sit on blankets surrounded by their few belongings. Some have crumpled newspaper scraps of zol (marijuana) to roll in a Rizla with tobacco and heroin. Others put pieces of “rock” in a metal pipe, slightly larger than a cigarette butt, melt the small white pebble and then smoke it. The two men cocooned in their blankets occasionally grunt in their sleep. Two others speak gibberish in-between sniffs of glue from a milk carton.
“We’re slaves. We’re slaves to this. We’re slaves to the Nigerians,” says one man, referring to their dealers in Hillbrow. They have to smoke something. Always. Withdrawal feels as though your intestines are being squeezed. You can’t eat and you can’t sleep, they say. They all want a different life, but some are more serious than others. “This isn’t a life,” says Tshepo, whose voice is high-pitched as he tries to hold the smoke after inhaling. “I’m a man and I want to have a family and take care of my mother.”
Tshepo was raised in Soweto with his father, a “mafia”. His dad specialised in cash-in-transit heists and used the money to buy taxis, cars and fund his taste for women. When he was six years old he saw his father’s “friends” walk in the front door and shoot him. His dad lived, but now neither father or son wants anything to do with the other. When Tshepo was a teenager, he went to live with his mother in Alexandra and that’s when he tried drugs.
The life of an addict is woven into a life of crime. Tshepo started on zol at 14 and soon tried new drugs around friends. The sensation was intoxicating. “It made me feel good, strong,” he says. He thought he could get the most beautiful girls, the best things. He kept using and dropped out of school. He started carrying a gun and learnt to drive so he could help friends on hijackings. Some of them were killed in shootouts with the flying squad and Tshepo landed in “Sun City” prison for nine months with five years suspended for drug-related charges.
Scars mar his face, neck, chest and back from a stabbing in Hillbrow. In daylight he was jumped after buying drugs. The attacker tried to kill him. Tshepo was trying to get the knife when a car pulled over and the driver yelled for them to stop. The driver got out of his car and picked up a brick, enough of a distraction for Tshepo to run. His clothes were covered in blood and he sat down on the footpath and fell asleep. A security guard spotted him and called an ambulance. But he couldn’t stay in hospital – after the first day he was having withdrawals. He pretended to sleep and then escaped. He went and begged so he could get high.
He started acting like a “mafia” again when his dealers pressured him into selling cocaine. His clients were usually wealthy and from the suburbs and Tshepo would bring in big money. But when he asked to be paid, the dealers gave him a gun and told him to rob someone and bring the gun back. “That’s your pay.” To an addict, drugs are worth killing for and that’s what happened. He killed a man who refused to hand over his wallet. Recalling all he’s done, he wants to numb the pain with more drugs.
He realised he’d die if he kept working in crime. He made R6,700 from selling his stock of cocaine, but instead of returning the cash to his bosses he fled. He’s never returned to Hillbrow. They’ll shoot him if they find him, he says. One day, he thought, he’ll be caught with a gun and killed. “For what?” Having to rob people or for R6700. “That’s why I’m on the streets.”
Tshepo is wearing the same clothes the next day – ripped Converse All Stars with the toe painted yellow, denim jeans with the cuffs rolled up and the green jacket he put on when it rained. A dollar-symbol has been pinned in his brown beanie. Lucky, who visits the group and donates what he can, has told him he can get into rehab if he goes to Braamfontein. “I wish (Lucky) can come and I can go to rehab. Because if I tell myself I don’t want to smoke, it’s hard. You see if you are here it’s difficult to leave. I’ll follow these guys,” says Tshepo, looking at his comrades on the street, his brothers in alms.
“Me, I don’t want to live this life. That’s why I tell you this story. That’s why I don’t lie. Because it’s not right to ask for money, go to Hillbrow, come back, smoke and sleep. Then the same tomorrow. These white people see something’s not right. They give me money every day, but the next day I’m still here in the same clothes, still begging.”
Before enquiring about rehab, Tshepo wants to see his mother in Alexandra. He heard his mum had tuberculosis, but has been too ashamed to visit. The last time he stayed over he didn’t have any drugs. He stayed awake the whole night, but was too scared to tell her. He chewed his nails and cried. His stomach twisted in knots. His mum couldn’t watch and couldn’t trust him when she left the house. He feels useless and a burden, so he rarely visits now. She would be upset that he hadn’t bathed, he said on the way into Alex.
He sat nervously in the car. He hadn’t seen his mum for months and not often since he tried rehab years ago. He had gone to rehab in Magaliesburg, but found that the other check-ins had been given money from their parents to get through the stint. They had stocked up on drugs and smuggled them into the centre. They smoked in the showers and Tshepo joined in. When they were finally caught, the staff punished them by forcing them to stay in the swimming pool.
As we thread the car through the township’s schizophrenic taxis, children stare and yell at the sight of a homeless man and a white guy. “When some people look at an mlungu they see money. They think they’re all rich,” says Tshepo. But the streets taught him that everybody’s suffering, no matter the colour. Like most of the guys at the intersection, he wants to share his story and doesn’t ask for anything from me.
Our first stop is to buy zol and heroin. The transaction is as easy as buying a cigarette at a spaza shop. The wrap of heroin was R20 and would usually make two smokes. Tshepo’s a heavy user so he sprinkles it over one. It’s his first of the day. Until then he was shaking and said he wasn’t feeling well, but once he smokes he’s alright, he says. No one seems to care. Some are more interested in me. Others greet him, saying it had been a long time. Some are drug users and want anything left over.
We find Tshepo’s mother doing housework. He looks at the ground while he speaks to her outside the small house, his hands behind his back and his feet toeing the dirt. She doesn’t want us inside because the house is a mess while they fix a leak in the roof. Mother and son stand 2m apart. She tells him he must leave drugs because it will kill him. He’ll be an old man on the street still begging, she says. She asks me where Tshepo sleeps and who he’s with because she has no idea.
Tshepo had told her he was going to rehab this week and she was encouraged by his plan, but knew he wouldn’t be accepted straight away. She is adamant the only person who can help him is himself. She says he has to have the determination to quit because no one will do it for him and his friends on the street will continue to be a bad influence. Inside the house, we look for Tshepo’s baby pictures, but with the roof being repaired the photos can’t be found. Tshepo is his mother’s only child and she wants him to have a family, she says. He should be caring for her. He asks for a new pair of shoes to replace his torn All Stars, but she says she’s done buying him clothes – he never brings them back.
“I’ll always try to help him. He’s my son and I can’t say no,” she says as she gives him R26. But he can’t stay there anymore, “I don’t trust him.” He has never stolen from her, but it’s common for addicts to tell their friends what they have and send someone to steal. She says she won’t let him in the house again and will call the police if he doesn’t get better. Tshepo is honest and they speak of the addiction like an extra limb. “It’s inside of him,” she says. “It’s now in my blood,” he says. She asks him to come back on Monday to have a meal and shower before going to put his name down for rehab. “Then they can see that you’re serious.” He mustn’t use drugs on Monday, she says. “Just one night, just one night.” Before leaving, Tshepo gives her some clothes to wash. She finds cocaine in the pocket of his jeans.
He buys more heroin before going back to his friends at the intersection. Sitting by a quiet street next to a children’s slide he prepares another smoke. “That’s where I went to primary school,” he points out. “This is where I lived with my mother and auntie,” he says of the house behind him. “There are only two of them in this world – mother and son,” says his auntie over the fence. “Please, you must get help, Tshepo.” Without Rizla, he rips a square from the Daily Sun and mixes the smoke. This stuff is strong, better than the morning’s. He inhales like pulling from a straw and holds his breath. “Now I’m fuckin’ high,” he says, tilting his head to the sky.
That night, I find him on the street at his usual routine. “Maybe there’s someone who can help,” he says. “When the cops find you they’ll take your drugs and force you to point out the dealer, then go and take a bribe from the dealer. There are no good guys – dealers, police, magistrates. None.” He knows the perpetual cycle of unfettered distribution and addiction that controls his life and those of so many others. He is determined to change, but it will be hard to overcome the cravings when he can’t think clearly without drugs. He’s trying to draw strength from those who treat him like a human being and hopes rehab will work this time.
The last time we meet the men are sitting under their blankets having a last smoke before bed. The routine is always the same, plus or minus some of the guys. During the day they beg and at night they smoke and sleep. The tough guy of the bunch is yelling at Tshepo. Sometimes the men are brothers on the street; other times they might steal or fight with each other. In the afternoon, the tough guy noticed a car at the traffic lights with a wallet and phone on its roof. He suggested they run and give it to the driver to get a reward. They got there in time and got R20 from the thankful driver. But the tough guy is calling Tshepo stupid for not stealing and selling them for much more. But Tshepo didn’t want to steal after seeing his mother and planning for a better future. He can’t steal now, he says. The question he’s asking though is, can he get through rehab and give up smoking? DM
Photo: Greg Nicolson/iMaverick