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‘I am not a loser. I just don’t have a job’

Maverick Citizen

MAVERICK CITIZEN: WRITING HOME(LESS) #3

‘I am not a loser. I just don’t have a job’

Outside Anthony Mafela’s RDP flat. New shacks go up all the time and the tension between RDP flat residents and the hostel dwellers (the building on the right) remains. (Photo: Mark Lewis)

Anthony Mafela dreams of escaping poverty one day and having his own music album. It would be a mixture of deep industrial sounds, marrabenta and samba. This past year he has written a catalogue of new songs. Creating new sounds and songs keep him sane, he says, while he survives without work. The mothers of his children won’t let him see his kids as he is unable to support them. Mafela told his story to Harriet Perlman.

My name is Anthony Mafela. I’m 40 years old and I live on the West Rand in a place called Fleurhof. In Fleurhof there are both houses and flats, some for rental and some for ownership.

Before I came to Fleurhof I lived in Chiawelo, Soweto. In 2014 my mom got a call from the department of housing to tell her that the house she registered for in 1996 was finally hers. After 18 years of waiting she now had an RDP house. She was so excited and I was happy to be moving to a new place. But my mom got a big shock when we arrived. It wasn’t a house but a ‘vertical RDP’ — a small three-room flat right next to the old hostel. 

She went back to Soweto and I stayed here at the flat.

When I got here, people from the hostel were not happy because I and some of the residents came from Soweto. They felt the government wasn’t fair. They had been in the area for so long and they didn’t want people from Soweto to take their place. They are not prepared to leave until the government gives them houses. At one point they threatened to break in and take all our belongings. The tension between RDP flat people and hostel dwellers remains. 

The area is also still a mine dump and in the neighbourhood’s informal settlement Zama Zamas (illegal miners) still dig for gold. 

It is a big challenge with these RDP flats. So many people don’t have work and no-one takes responsibility for repairs and cleaning in the shared spaces, like stairways, corridors or the surroundings. People can’t pay for electricity, water and other services. We often don’t have electricity, sometimes from load shedding and other times because of cable theft in the area.

Since I got here I tried to make residents take care of the place. But it looks like I’m failing because everywhere people treat it like a dumping ground. There are so many unemployed people in my neighbourhood. Once I started a clean-up campaign. I love the vegetable garden I have created. I grow chillies, morogo, peas and carrots. 

For the past 15 years, I have tried to earn a living working as a club DJ in a venue in Braamfontein. I love playing vinyls. A good DJ knows how to read the crowd. You must have a wide selection of music to fit any mood or situation. And you never stop the music unexpectedly while people are dancing. You may have a bottle thrown at you! 

Pops Mohamed, Stimela, Fela Kuti and Missy Elliott are just some of my favourites. The list goes on. Music uplifts me and gives me courage when I am down. It’s my medicine when I am sick. Since the Covid-19 pandemic started, all my work stopped. There were no gigs or events anymore. But even before then, load shedding was affecting my work. I would arrive at the venue or get a call: “Cancelled. There’s no electricity.” 

I made my money from a percentage of the bar takings. So if there were few people, I made nothing. 

With the Covid pandemic, it hasn’t been easy doing the same thing over and over again. 

I wake up and I start by cleaning and afterwards I take a bath and cook some soft porridge. Most days I don’t have lunch or supper because I have little money. If there is something in the fridge, I rather keep it for the next day. I sometimes take morogo from my garden and cook it. That’s if I have electricity. 

Once I’m done I try to work on my songs. I’m trying to produce my own music by experimenting with new sounds. I have downloaded a programme called Fruity Loops which I taught myself. I love to play with different rhythms and chords. 

No relief

The toughest part of not having a job is that I can’t support my family anymore. I tried to get a relief fund from the government. I sent in my application and I got no feedback. I don’t know why I didn’t hear anything or if I didn’t qualify. 

I am pretty scared of Covid-19 so I prefer to stay inside rather than hang out with neighbours. Most people around here don’t wear a mask. 

Fleurhof on the West Rand. (Photo: Mark Lewis)

Last year I ended up going to uMashonisa (loan sharks) again to borrow money. A few years back I made a vow to myself that I won’t go back to uMashonisa ever again. But I can’t get a loan from the bank. You have to be employed and have a salary slip to get one. But uMashonisa only want your ID book and home address. Once before I borrowed money from this guy called Mohammed in our neighbourhood. Lots of people go to him. But I couldn’t pay back on time and he sent Roba Litheka, ‘breaking bones’ — his Inkabi, a big guy, to threaten me. 

But here I am back to square one

I went to someone else from around the hostel — I had no choice because I needed money urgently. When I borrow money there’s a 50% interest charged on the loan. And now I am back in that cycle. Borrowing more money to pay back the money I borrowed. 

It is like an addiction. When I have no money I go back every time.

The neighbourhood 

In our block, there are 40 RDP units. But in some flats, there are more than 20 people sharing the space. I know a few people but mainly I keep to myself, especially with the worry of Covid. I am scared because no one around here wears a mask. 

There’s John Mabaso. He’s a carpenter and he stays with his wife and kids. A very tall guy and he’s quiet most of the time. He is the only provider for his family here and back home where he has a first wife and other kids. He’s from KwaZulu-Natal and he came to Joburg to look for a job in 2005. He survives doing piece work as a carpenter, but during Covid it has been very tough for him. 

Then there is Siyabonga Dladla. He’s unemployed. He has his own shack next to our flat and I know him from seeing him at the carwash when he chills out there with his friends. He told me he has done some illegal jobs like housebreaking in the suburbs. 

I was involved in drugs and crime when I was younger. I thought getting high was the coolest thing. I got involved in a local gang in Lenasia where I got introduced to rock lefatsi. 

But around 2002, things changed for me. 

It was Christmas Eve when my friend Lebo was shot and killed in an incident between gangs. He died in hospital. At Lebo’s funeral, Dam-dish — a drug dealer — interrupted the priest and said he wanted to say good-bye to his friend. He poured Mandrax powder on to the coffin and took out his gun and shot into the coffin. “Farewell my friend”, he said. It was like out a mafia movie! I decided I didn’t want to die. So I moved away and stopped doing that stuff. 

One of the most painful things for me with no job is that I don’t see my kids. I so desperately want work because I have three kids that I need to support. The mothers of my children won’t let me see them anymore because I don’t send money. I understand their frustrations but for them to disappear and not want anything to do with me is so painful. They won’t let me even talk to the kids on the phone. 

I am not the person they think I am. Useless. Irresponsible. A loser. A father who can’t take care of his family.

I am none of those things. 

I just don’t have a job. DM/MC

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