WHAT is the personal story of the black beggar in dirty rags who approaches your car window at a traffic light, pointing to his mouth, asking for food? You often hear complaints from residents of Johannesburg’s middle class neighbourhoods about being bothered by homeless beggars, making them scared to open their windows.
Three weeks ago at the Kingsmead Book Fair, hosted at Kingsmead College – an elite girls-only school in upmarket Rosebank, Johannesburg – one of the most moving panel discussions focused on a critically acclaimed film called Vaya, whose team included Anthony Mafela, a once-homeless man. Vaya enjoyed a limited screening at local cinemas last year and gave rise to a book, Vaya: Untold Stories of Johannesburg. The film tells true stories of rural people from Kwazulu-Natal coming to the city, who land up in desperate situations. After the speakers’ presentations a sincere question came from an obviously privileged white woman in the audience: “What is it like to be homeless?” None of the panelists answered satisfactorily; they skirted the question. How to describe having nothing, to someone with everything?
Vaya, directed by Akin Amotoso, portrays real-life stories of three homeless people – the kind drivers might glimpse from car windows. A taste of the underbelly of Johannesburg – one of the world’s most unequal cities – existing alongside mainly white middle class suburbs like Glenhazel, Sandton or elsewhere. The script is crafted from the Homeless Writers’ Project, which started in 2009.
It opens with three hopeful people on a train from rural KZN en route to Johannesburg – each expecting help from family, but finding themselves alone and in danger. The first, Nhlanhla, has no money for lobola to marry Sihle in KZN, so he is going to Joburg to make money after a cousin offers him a job, but is quickly trapped into the world of gangsters, becoming a killer dependent on gang bosses. The second, the beautiful young woman Zanele, comes to the city with her friend’s child, wanting to be a dancer and finds herself – and the child – on the point of being sold into the illegal trade in women. The third, Nkulu, has come to fetch his migrant-worker father’s dead body from the mines, to take home to his KZN family for the ancestors’ sake, only to discover that his father had built a second family in the city and only visited his original wife and family in KZN every six months, leaving Nkulu in limbo in Johannesburg.
In streets leading up to Kingsmead College on the day of the fair were parked rows of gleaming 4x4s and other expensive fair-goers’ cars; across the road at Rosebank Mall were shops selling international brands of clothes and food. And as if to push the searing disparities in your face, barefooted beggars in dirty rags hung around the avenue of jacaranda trees at the school entrance.
The exploration into ‘underground’ Johannesburg includes an intriguing book series by Tanya Zack and photographer Mark Lewis called ‘Wake up, this is Joburg’, published by Fourthwall Books. It tells stories of ten inhabitants in the city’s ‘alternative economy’. One depicts ‘survivors’ carving out a precarious living chopping up S’kop – cows’ heads rejected by traditional butcheries whose meat is eaten amongst poorer sections of the society – under the highways and in abandoned buildings, invisible to ordinary Johannesburg residents. They fly by the seat of their pants, amongst xenophobia and a changing city.
What do the visitors to the Kingsmead Fair – and the readers of this column – with roofs over their heads and cars in their garages, make of this other, invisible world? At least the sense that the ragged people at their car windows have stories as interesting and relevant to the city as theirs.