Homeless 101: Moving from despair to dignity

By Raymond Perrier and Sithembiso Shoba 30 July 2019

Top row (left to right): James Tshabalala, Vusi Dube, Bongani Magagasi Madida, Nomcebo Khumalo. Bottom row (left to right): Nosipho Princess Magwaza, Richard Nzima, Stephen Malatji, Tracy Bolt (Photos: Obakeng Molepe)

Recent media coverage of homeless people has again focused on them as victims: in Pretoria at the hands of an unknown murderer; in Cape Town in the face of a harsh law enforcement regime; in Durban neglected by an uncaring municipality. But victimhood is only part of the story.

Those of us who work with the homeless know a different narrative. We encounter women and men who – despite all they have suffered – are not victims but agents. They are people who are able to transform their lives and transform the lives of others. To begin with, they might need some help and in many cities there are faith-based organisations, NGOs, academics, corporations and occasionally government officials who do help. But we only provide the catalyst – these men and women do the hard work for themselves.

We want to introduce you to some of these characters to help you look into the face of the homeless of South Africa. There are maybe 10,000+ in each of our major cities, not forgetting those in smaller towns. But each of them has a face, and a name, and a story.

Bongani Magagasi: The voice for the homeless

Bongani Magagasi (Photo: Obakeng Molepe)

Durban: the most caring and liveable city in Africa.” It’s true that Durban has beautiful sunny weather all year around, and its streets are filled with amazing colours that stimulate your eye and your imagination on every turn. But is Durban really the most caring and liveable city?

Let me tell you about the first time I got to Durban. Within days, I was attacked by the City police.

They took us from where we were sleeping and put us on the back of a van. It reminded me of the apartheid days. They dropped us off after Pietermaritzburg, just because they wanted to clean the streets and they chose the easy way. We were a huge group. We walked back to Durban over a couple of days.

In early 2017, I decided to write a letter to the mayor of Durban, Zandile Gumede, and to Sipho Nzuza, who is the city manager, to inform them about the injustice that was taking place on the streets of our city. There was no reply. This showed me how Durban is indeed a caring city. It cares about money, infrastructure, and investment – and for its politicians. Not about us. That is when I decided to start a homeless forum.

I’m now on the Task Team on Homelessness that was formed by the deputy mayor. So now I’m representing the homeless inside City Hall, as a citizen of South Africa and as a citizen of Durban.

I am hoping that one day we will have a political party as homeless people so we can join forces with the people from emjondol (the shacks) and represent ourselves in Parliament.

This is only the beginning of my story.

Richard Nzima: The mustard seed is finally growing

Richard Nzima (Photo: Obakeng Molepe)

The only thing that made sense that night were the stars in the sky above while I slept on the tarmac under a big plastic bag.

I had it all in Mpumalanga. And then a part of me passed away – my beautiful wife.

Things were never the same after that.

I started applying for jobs on the internet in different provinces. In 2018 I got to Durban, excited to start a new job.

But it was all a scam. So here I was, in a foreign province, with my heavy luggage and I knew no one. That was asking for trouble. I lost my luggage and I did not have enough money to get a place to stay.

After three days of not sleeping a friend showed me a place by the harbour where I could sleep. When I asked him how, he just gave me a big plastic bag and he pointed to the ground.

About 200 people sleep there, most who also came with a dream of getting a job. I was shocked! “God I don’t want to be stuck here.”

One day I went to the Denis Hurley Centre looking for food. I found a gentlemen called Stuart and I told him that I can sell anything.

I started by selling newspapers at the robots but too many people already get the news through their phones. Stuart then gave me a chance to sell books. After my first sale, I had enough money to move to a shelter.

I have never looked back. I put everything into this. All by myself, I came up with a pitch to sell in shopping centres.

I’m now a bookseller at four different malls. I believe my wife would be proud of me.

Nosipho Magwaza: Homeless but not hopeless

Nosipho Princess Magwaza (Photo: Obakeng Molepe)

You are probably looking at this image right now and thinking: “But she looks happy, I thought this was supposed to be about helpless homeless people”. Well, I am homeless but not hopeless.

We were ambushed at night while we slept by the harbour by the amaphoyisa (police). I just heard people screaming, sneezing, crying and coughing. I thought I was dreaming.

Next minute, I heard footsteps coming towards my friend and I. Before I could make sense of what was happening, I just saw a big figure on top of us. Then we got pepper-sprayed. I did not even get a chance to take anything.

When we were far enough from the danger we sat down and hopelessly watched as the SAPS gathered all of our belongings and stacked them on top of each other, poured petrol on them and set them on fire.

All I could think about at that moment in time was: “I won’t be able to vote this week. Why would the people who swore to serve and protect us do the exact opposite, especially the day before national elections?”

This was not the first time that this happened and it won’t be the last. If it was not the SAPS, it would be the Metro Police; if not the Metro Police, it would be the municipality; if not the municipality, it would be the private security hired by the municipality to beat the sh*t out of us.

But my story won’t end here. Every day when I wake up I find purpose through sharing my story with anyone who is willing to lend an ear.

Stephen Malatji: It will all make sense on day

Stephen Malatji (Photo: Obakeng Molepe)

I hope you will see in me a brother, a father of two, a businessman, a survivor and a hard-working man. I am starting to see that in myself as well, but a couple of months back it was a different story.

I found it difficult back home in Joburg. All the pressure from seeing friends you went to school with having money. It was a constant reminder that I was still nothing, working in a car wash.

I decided to move to Durban where I could hustle and grow without feeling pressure from anyone who knew me. I started collecting cans along the street, even in rubbish bins, and taking them to be recycled.

Staying in the streets of Durban is not pap en vleis. You start losing your mind: it’s totally different from someone who has a roof over their head. It’s easy to fall into the trap of drugs because in people’s eyes you don’t exist, you’re already crazy.

I went for meals at the Denis Hurley Centre. I started volunteering to clean the yard at the centre. Then I joined a programme of people they would send for piece jobs. Then one day I came for an interview at the Lion Match building. They needed someone to do the recycling.

They gave me full control of everything. I have no boss; I have no one to answer to. But that doesn’t mean I should relax. I have learnt to discipline myself. I have two boys I need to feed back home. They can now rely on me.

Tracy Bolt: My mother’s story is not mine

Tracy Bolt (Photo: Obakeng Molepe)

I hate sharing my story because it brings back old wounds. But I also love it because I get to heal other people with my story.

It starts in Durban when I was young child staying under a bridge with my mother and my three brothers. The social workers sent us children to a lady in Wentworth but she treated us badly. That made me very violent and tough. I decided to run away. They sent me to the School of Industry for Girls: I was 13. I used to like it there: it felt like a safe home.

At 17 I found my mother. I wanted us to have a home but my mother ran away.

I refused to give up. I found my mother again, this time in a run-down building with other homeless people. All this time she was sick; we didn’t know. One day we went to see her at King Edward Hospital. She was waiting for us. We were talking, talking, talking and then I ask her why she left us. She started fretting: all I could see was white in her eyes. And she died just like that. Without giving me an answer.

At 21 I met the most handsome man. We had a baby boy. But the father of my son was murdered. I came to town to get a job and feed my son. I heard about the Denis Hurley Centre and I knew this was home. I started volunteering: there was nothing out there for me in the street. I put all my energy in this because this is the family I have now.

I’m the boss lady at the DHC kitchen and I make a mean chicken curry. I won’t let my mother’s sins fall upon me.

James Tshabalala: Don’t feel sorry for me

James Tshabalala (Photo: Obakeng Molepe)

What does it take for someone to be homeless? You will be surprised how easy it is to become homeless. I made one brave decision and it turned into a nightmare.

I was building a double-storey house for some guy at Estcourt. He was impressed, so he said to come and help him with a few properties and I will make a lot of money! I saw an opportunity but he saw a “popeye”.

When we got to Durban he took me to a shelter but he only came once to check on me. I had to move out of the shelter. There were two tsotsis just outside who jumped on me. They pulled out an okapi knife and asked for everything I’ve got. They took my luggage, my ID and my wallet. Now they wanted to take my laptop so I took it out from the bag and smashed it on the ground. But they took it anyway and ran away.

The police told me to open a case. From that point I knew I was not going to get justice.

For one week I slept on the street. I went to the Denis Hurley Centre with the hope that they will help me. I started working as a car guard, then sold books and now I am a security guard at St Joseph’s Church in Florida Road.

From that day I decided to not feel sorry for myself, I never slept outside again. I send money home every month to my two beautiful girls and also pay for my shelter.

My family doesn’t even know what I’ve been through. I don’t want them to see me angry or sad.

Vusi Dube: All I wanted to know was my true story

Vusi Dube (Photo: Obakeng Molepe)

I started staying on the streets when I was 13. My mother came to Durban to make a better life for us but we ended up staying in the streets. She fell in with a good man who treated me like his son. At that time, we stayed in a flat. But my mom passed and my stepfather fell in love with another woman.

I remembered that I don’t really know who I am. Who is this man my mother had called my father? I decide to go on a journey of discovery, which led me to streets of Durban. I heard the story about my father and how I was like him in every way and how he was killed. How he was burnt alive.

I found that with that information I felt more lost. But my father’s story made me realise that if I carried on staying in the streets, I will die a meaningless death like him.

Especially with the way things were happening: being chased by the security guards at the beachfront while trying to take a shower. They are public showers but the homeless are not allowed to use them.

One day at the Denis Hurley Centre I asked for work because I was there most of the time for breakfast and lunch. I work as a volunteer in the kitchen. I work in the showers to get them ready for my friends to take a shower in a respectable manner and never worry about being chased around for practising a basic human right.

I’m glad to say I now have my own place at Mayville and I can take a bath as much as I want.

Nomcebo Khumalo: Life is worth living again

Nomcebo Khumalo (Photo: Obakeng Molepe)

Crime, violence, prostitution, death, lies, drugs and depression. To most people those words are terrifying, but for me it was normal.

I used to stay with my boyfriend and we both smoked whoonga. In the township when you are smoking whoonga you become blamed for every criminal activity. One day we were attacked, mob justice style. We were being accused of breaking into someone’s house. They beat my boyfriend to death and I was no longer safe at home. I knew if I went to Umlazi I will start stealing because of my addiction.

That’s when I decided to go to town and stay there. And I have to say the “paras” embraced me with open arms. That’s what makes the streets of Durban toxic.

Within these 10 years of being in the streets, I’ve been in and out of drugs. I couldn’t even bury my own mother when she passed away.

But now I’ve been clean for three months. One day I woke up and decided to go to Denis Hurley Centre and ask for help. I got sick with TB for the second time. This time I knew I had to finish the treatment. By December I was done with my treatment and clear of TB. And they helped me get through rehab for the first time.

Now I’m back home with my family, happy and now my sister’s kids call me aunt and respect me. I will be going back to school soon, with the hope of eventually being a nurse. I love helping people.

If I ever go back to the streets, the devil or God might as well take my life. I don’t want to waste my life any more. DM

Homeless 101 is a project in which the Denis Hurley Centre invites people to stop and learn about homelessness as social issue. ‘101’ describes the starting point for learning. It also connects with Mandela 101 and reminds us of the larger social challenge we face in South Africa. Are we willing to follow Madiba’s example and step beyond ourselves and our social bubbles to encounter each person as a brother or sister, no matter how different they initially seem?


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