South Africa, Life, etc

Men in the street: Of car guards and daily (poverty) grind

By Greg Nicolson 17 March 2015

Young men become car guards because of a lack of work opportunities. They mediate the space between those with assets and those without, acting as a buffer against crime while also accused of criminality and being a nuisance. In parts of Johannesburg, their work has come under threat from paid parking officials. GREG NICOLSON speaks to five car guards about their work.

Jacob, 33, Rissik Street

Before I started parking the cars I was working here in Main Street Mall. I was maintaining the garden. Their was a friend of mine parking cars here, but now he’s there by Cape Town. The contract was being terminated so I started to come here to park the cars because I didn’t want to sit in the location because I’ve got a child and I’m renting. I’m from Vosloorus.

By the end of the month it’s busy here because everyone has got money, you see. But during the month it’s quiet man, you know, because everyone doesn’t have money. It’s hard to get a job so it’s better to come here washing cars. It’s bad because there are some other criminals who come to break the cars. As long as there’s a car guard on that spot it’s not easy to break into a car. I work from eight until six.

I do want another job. I’m still busy putting out some CVs. I don’t know if they will still call me or what. But it’s not bad because I can pay for rent and also for my children at school.

Lucky Khumalo, 24, Corner Marshall and Rissik Streets

I’ve been a car guard for maybe seven years now. I started parking cars because I didn’t have money. I saw the streets, they were empty, people needed to wash their cars, I went to the streets and washed the cars. I’m from Orange Farm.

It’s better because here now when we park cars we are getting something but when now you are sitting at home we don’t get nothing and we dropped out of school. I thought we must earn a living now you see. The good part is I don’t get hungry and don’t have to steal for food. You get something.

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Photo: Car guard Lucky Khumalo fetches water to wash a car on Marshall Street. (Greg Nicolson)

Sometimes motorists just park the car. Yesterday you were not here, but someone might have parked the car and something might have been stolen from the motorist and you, you were not here, but they will come and say “it’s that guy”. It was not you, you were not here. But now you might be beaten or kicked for nothing.

Some people are promising us work, telling us they’ll look for a job while we are here. It’s fun being a car guard. Maybe someone wants to help you, but they don’t have that job, but when they have that job they will come. Many people have promised me a job, many people. I can do a lot of things, my friend, with my hands I can do a lot of things.

I only come when I want to eat. When I don’t want anything I don’t come. Because other times it’s not nice being a car guard. Other times, it’s boring. People are going to insult you: “Go and work. Go and look for a job.”

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Photo: Lucky Khumalo works as a car guard on Marshall Street in Johannesburg but hopes someone will deliver on their promise to get him another job. (Greg Nicolson)

There is a building here in Johannesburg. It’s a shelter. I stay there because it’s cheaper, we don’t have to pay for transport.

If you want to be a car guard, go and find a street for yourself. You can’t come here, that way you’re taking what I’m eating. Even the guys here, they are going to fight you.

Sipho ‘Smalls’ Madaza, 24, Marshall Street

Now it’s been three years. I just found a street because I was walking around looking for a job and I couldn’t find a job so I decided to do something, just to clean and park cars. As long as I get something to eat in the night that’s fine with me.

Every day I go back to Orange Farm to take care of my mother and come back in the morning. I work from eight o’clock up until five o’clock. I take a train up there from Park Station.

At the end of the day you won’t get something. Because the money that you make is the money that you use per day. Because sometimes I make 50 bucks per day. If I make R80 per day I still have to take out the money for transport and all that. Now I end up having R40. You see it’s money that you are going to use at the same time. My mother she is not working also. She is just staying at home. Now it’s been three months she’s been sick.

I can plumb, I can paint, stuff like that. I’m not so 100% able to fix cars, but I can.

Bongani Mahlalela, Park Station

My name is Bongani. I’ve been doing this work since December because I come from Mpumalanga. I’m just here for a job but I don’t find any job but I met some other guys and they show me how to make money to buy some food and all that. My first time to come here I wasn’t able to buy food, you see, I used to eat in the dust bin, you see.

Even now, I just try to make R8 for the shelter and to buy food because if you don’t have money you will get nothing. Some people they are nice. If you ask them, “Hi, I’m going to check. Can I wash your car while you are inside?” some they accept, some they don’t accept because they think you are going to rob them or whatsoever, are a skelm.

Some people get cross and say anything to you. They can say, “Eh, go to work. Don’t wait here. You are disturbing us.” I make less than R100 a day.

Bradley Swart, Park Station

I started in the middle of last year. It’s the only source or way of getting an income because we don’t want to be getting locked up, stealing or breaking into cars, robbing people. It’s going to end up getting you into jail. So it’s best trying to make an honest living, an easier way.

It’s not easy sometimes. Most of the time people have the impression all car guards drink or smoke drugs with the money, whatever. So most of them prefer not to give you money.

We get here always about seven, after eight. It’s more or less the same thing every day. We sit around here, most of us. We all stay at the same place, we come down together. We share lunch together. We put money by, we buy cool drinks, we buy food. More or less that’s it.

Not all the drivers are the same. Some of them can be for themselves. Some of them can see that we’re trying at the end of the day, that, right, we’re trying to make money and not worrying about stealing from the foreigners that jump on the bus, you see. I save half my money to send back to Durban for my daughter. DM

Main photo: Smalls Madaza says it’s difficult to work as a car guard and have to travel to and from the city. He goes home every day to Orange Farm to care for his ill mother. (Greg Nicolson)

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