The unhoused live in fear on the doorstep of power: ‘As we get to know each other, we start feeling we are family’

The unhoused live in fear on the doorstep of power: ‘As we get to know each other, we start feeling we are family’
Faith Flotman (38) in their makeshift home on the street outside Parliament. Their fellow street dwellers are their chosen family. (Photo: Brenton Geach)

Some members of the unhoused community say there has been an uptick in public ill will and police brutality since the fire at Parliament in Cape Town’s CBD. Giuseppe Rajkumar Guerandi spoke to four people who live on a corner near the damaged building about the case against alleged arsonist Zandile Christmas Mafe – and about their lives, their pasts and how they see their futures. Brenton Geach took the portraits.

I take this as my chosen family

Faith Flotman

Faith Flotman (38) lives on a street corner outside Parliament. Although they did not want to go into detail about how they ended up living on the streets, Flotman said: “What brought me to the street was circumstances at home”, even though it had been ‘a good house’.”

“Things get tough,” they said succinctly. (Flotman’s pronouns are they and them.)

Flotman is notably positive about life on this street.

“On the streets, you’re more free. You live the way you want to live.”

Flotman dons long hair and expertly applied makeup, and added that coming from the streets did not mean one had to “look like the streets”.

“We survive,” they said.

Although Flotman does have family, and confessed to still having love for them, they have found community with the unhoused people they share this humble street with: “I take this as my chosen family.”

The feeling of freedom that they described was attributed to the sense of solidarity they felt with this chosen family.

“We understand each other,” said Flotman. “We’ve got the free will to talk to each other if we’ve got a problem.”

Despite understanding that trust in the government was important, Flotman was not sure how to feel towards the state and, in particular, the police, who they described as being harsher since the Parliament fire.

“There’s no more ‘serve and protect’,” they said, explaining that unhoused people could not walk past the building without fear.

Flotman found it hard to believe that Mafe even set foot in Parliament, and asked: “Where was the security that time? What happened?” They went on to say the street dwellers in this area were shaken and scared that something of this nature could happen to them.

“He’s homeless! The [man is] homeless [and] alone, he’s got nothing,” said Flotman. “That is what homeless means. He’s got nothing; he’s got no one.”

Speaking about the government, they elaborated that their trust was waning.

“They make us feel like we can’t trust the system anymore. We cannot trust the cops anymore.”

On the subject of the experiences of unhoused people who fall within different identities, Flotman admitted it had been difficult in the beginning. “They had to get used to us,” they said. “Every day we wake up, you see each other, so they had to accept it.”

For Flotman, the treatment that unhoused people receive at the hands of those who are not living on the streets is disheartening.

“We are treated much differently; we don’t get the same respect as others,” Flotman said. “I wish you could sit here and just watch one time.”

Although Flotman understands that the high crime rate in the country could make citizens feel wary of their community, they are nevertheless hurt when people look at them as if they are criminals.

When they crossed the street at a traffic light, with no intention of begging, drivers would roll up their windows.

“What does that make you feel?” they ask.

Flotman optimistically described the sense of community among the unhoused people on their street as “the fulfilment of your life”.

“I would like readers to know that people here on the streets, [as] soon as we get to know each other, we start feeling we are family,” they said. “Despite our faults, ups and downs, even here on the streets… But we understand each other.”

Sandile Andrew Mgengwana (37) said he was chased from his home in Nyanga after contracting tuberculosis, and has lived on the streets outside Parliament since 2006. (Photo: Brenton Geach)

We are people; we are human beings

Sandile Andrew Mgengwana

Sandile Andrew Mgengwana (37) said he used to live in the Western Cape township of Nyanga until he contracted tuberculosis and was chased from his home to the streets in 2006.

Mgengwana added that he is HIV positive, which raised his susceptibility to illness.

“I was lonely and lost, and I came to live here,” he said. It was in these moments of aloneness that Mgengwana resorted to smoking tik (crystal methamphetamine).

But becoming a father forced him to re-evaluate his drug abuse.

“I tell myself, ‘No, you must stop, because I’m big now’,” he said. He added that he tries to send money to his child – who will be 13 this year and lives in Nyanga – when he has it.

He said the way the police treat the unhoused in the area has worsened since the Parliament fire.

“Police chased us away from that side [of the street] to sleep this side,” he explained, claiming they had experienced instances of police brutality.

“What did we do? Why they chase us away? They don’t have the papers, they don’t have nothing, they just take us.”

Mgengwana said he did not believe Mafe was guilty of the crimes he was accused of. “That man didn’t burn Parliament, because that man, he was like us.”

He felt that the unhoused were deprived of rights and left to fend for themselves.

“We don’t have rights! “We stay in the street, but no one is standing up for us.”

He admitted to having broken into cars to steal from them in the past, even serving jail time, but said he did not want to go back to prison.

“I cannot say my mother or my father sent me there,” he said. “You must blame yourself; like me, I’m blaming myself.”

Mgengwana said he wished people would treat him and his community with kindness. “When you are rich, you look at us like we’re nothings. We are people; we are human beings.”

In terms of the future of his community, Mgengwana was not hopeful that the state would help them, citing corruption as a problem.

He noted that politicians only seemed interested in the plight of the unhoused during elections, when they “make promises” to help.

As an example he cited the unsustainable solution of poor-quality RDP houses in Philippi on the Cape Flats.

“That is just a place like a dog house. You make it now, tomorrow it’s broken,” he claimed. “When it’s finished to vote, they don’t give a damn about people.”

Mgengwana solemnly concluded: “Please don’t do the same mistake what I did… Please, when you have school, hold on. When you have mother, hold on to that mother and father, because when they leave you, you’re not going to be right.”

Aubrey Engelbrecht (50) lives on the corner of Roeland and Hope streets in Cape Town. (Photo: Brenton Geach)

Prison was like a home

Aubrey Engelbrecht

Aubrey Engelbrecht was raised by adoptive parents until he was nine years old and left school. By 10, he had joined a gang. By 11, he was in prison.

The 50-year-old explained that he and his brother were handed to social workers after their mother was told to choose between her children and her job as a domestic worker for a white family.

His adoptive parents and their biological children would call him names such as boesman and pitte kop, and bullied him about the absence of his biological mother. If he retaliated he was punished.

Engelbrecht described being locked in the toilet for extended periods and he was often not fed. He often wet the bed, so his adoptive mother made him sleep in a bathtub or on the floor.

“That’s why I don’t know mother love,” he said. “I don’t know what is mother love, and how you get mother love.”

After he left school, Engelbrecht said he began smoking cigarettes, weed and, when he was 10, Mandrax.

“In my heart, it’s heartbroken,” he said of his childhood.

During this time Engelbrecht became violent and joined a gang. He admitted to having stabbed people in moments of aggression. He longed to be locked up, as he was in that toilet as a child.

“That thing was inside me. If I am outside for a week, I’m too long outside, then I must stab someone so that I go inside. So I must go in. [That] is the way that I lived. The prison was like a home.”

During his first stint behind bars, at the age of 11, he was imprisoned with adult men. To establish himself in the prison at such a young age, he joined the CTS Scorpion gang, and said he had to see blood to release anger.

“But the anger don’t come out because it stay inside.”

At 16 he was sentenced again to three years in jail. “I forget peoples outside. I forget all the things outside. So I put my mind inside.”

Engelbrecht continued reoffending in prison until he was sentenced to 31 years and transferred to Goedemoed Prison in the Free State, where he described witnessing rape and police brutality.

When in prison, Engelbrecht said he met anti-apartheid activists who served as catalysts for a mental shift in him. He took part in anger management programmes, which taught him the principle of “anger in and anger out”.

“What I was learning, put the blame on yourself,” he said, describing the realisation of taking accountability for his actions. “This is how I came down.”

He was released early in 1998, but landed in prison one last time from 2010 to 2013. As he spoke he revealed a bullet wound on his arm, the result of gang violence.

“I go out by the gates and I say to me, ‘If a warden calls me, I will never look back. I will go forward’.”

After joining the street community he now calls home he knew he never wanted to go back to prison. “Yes, I have tattoos on my face, I have tattoos all over. Yes, people will judge me – always.”

Regarding Zandile Mafe, he said he had heard from other street dwellers that Mafe was picked up at the bench where he sleeps by two policemen.

“I’m 100%, this is a lie,” said Engelbrecht. “Corruption is all over, in the police, in work, in everywhere is corruption.”

Faghma Petersen volunteers at The Hope Exchange, which provides basic support services to the unhoused. (Photo: Brenton Geach)

I only want a second chance now

Faghma Petersen

Asked to describe herself, Faghma Petersen, one of the people living on a street corner outside Parliament, said with a chuckle: “I’m now, I think, almost 50.”

Petersen, who lives on the street with her two small dogs, volunteers at The Hope Exchange, a non-profit organisation that helps the unhoused. Its offices are just up the road from the corner she calls home.

She brings hot water to the corner for people who can’t travel to the station. She also obtained proof of address through a social worker, to help her find employment and security, and helps her community by making copies of their IDs with the copy machine at the station.

“I don’t know what I’m really doing on the street, because I don’t do drugs, I don’t smoke and things,” claimed Petersen, who lost two of her children when they were three months and seven months old after social workers removed them from her care on suspicion of drug abuse.

Petersen said she has six children, one of whom will soon be 28 years old. She said she missed out on raising him after she was sentenced to five years in prison for murder.

“And then your children start to be a gangster and stuff, and now, my friend, I can’t win that back for the five years I was in jail,” she said, explaining that this is why she helps other people in her community.

“I know I was unfair… I was selfish,” she said, thinking back. “Sometimes, when I sleep, I just cry.”

After landing up on the streets, Petersen began sex work to support herself, but said she realised that, in the long term, this was not sustainable or fitting for her.

Petersen’s mother put her into foster care at a young age, where she came to feel that she had no real family. “Foster care people also have children, and when the children is big, the children say, ‘You not our sister’.

“So now, my friend, I find my real family is people on the street,” she said, adding that she spends the holidays with the community on the corner.

Petersen said she hoped her children would have better opportunities than she had. “I don’t want them to be the same like me. I never goes to school. I can’t write and read.”

She added that she could not be a good parent to her children: “I was a confusing mother, man. You can’t make your children on the road.”

Looking to her future, Petersen said: “I only want a second chance now.” 

She said her community needed more secure shelters. She pleaded for unoccupied spaces and buildings to be used as recreational centres for the unhoused during the day, where they could wash, watch television and create handmade products to sell.

Petersen, who said she has been on the waiting list for a RDP house for 19 years, did not believe the shelter system was sufficient, and cited high prices, scarce occupancy and time limits on one’s stay as a hindrance.

“It’s not about me, it’s about the community. Here, on this road, we share. If we have something, we share.” DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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