Homeless Diaries – The Nobody Man

The Winter Of 2006: Seeking Justice

The first time I came across Constitution Hill was during the Winter of ‘06, when I was still a Cadet Reporter at Caxton Community Newspapers. 

I was part of an entourage representing some of the most prominent and successful community titles in the Caxton group. Mine was Port Shepstone’s South Coast Herald – a source of tremendous pride at the time. 

We were all in Johannesburg for six months. 

Winter turned to Spring and Spring then turned to Summer. By the end of that Summer it had become increasingly apparent to me that there was not a considerable amount of justice in the world – despite all that had been promised to us during a one-day excursion to the highest court in the land, the Constitutional Court. 

During the six months that I spent in Johannesburg that year, my father died in a motor vehicle accident – just seven years after I had lost my beloved mother to tuberculosis. 

His was not actually a tremendous loss as we had not actually been on speaking terms at the time. However, it did feel like I had been robbed of an opportunity to renew my relationship with what was then my only surviving parent. 

In addition to that my father was still the one raising my sister, who was just fifteen years old at the time of his death. Whatever sins I might have committed in my life – boy have there been many – my sister had done absolutely nothing wrong. 

The duty of “raising” her now fell on me – at a time in my life when I was still trying to carve out a niche for myself in the media industry. 

It is also perhaps worth pointing out that a year prior to that I had been forced to drop out of university, to find a job and look after my sister in my father’s absence. He had been arrested for driving under the influence and I did not have the resources to bail him out. He did his six months and for that, the rest of us all had to pay a tremendous price. 

I got a second shot at life in 2006, when I enrolled for the Cadet programme at Caxton Community Newspapers and it had appeared my star was beginning to rise. 

However, by the end of 2006, it felt like external forces were conspiring to derail any prospects I had of succeeding. 

Among the carrots that had been dangled in front of me when I joined the Cadet programme was an opportunity to study journalism at the prestigious Rhodes University. By the end of those six months in Johannesburg I had fulfilled all of the requirements – including finishing at the top of the class – but not a word was said about the three-year trip to Rhodes.

Instead, the reward for all of my efforts that year – in trying personal circumstances – was a starting salary of somewhere in the region of R3500. It might have been a little more than that but it remained paltry. There was certainly no trip to Grahamstown in 2007 either. 

Because I was (and remain) a great, supine, protoplasmic, invertebrate jelly I never interrogated the matter and accepted my lot in life.

As it so happens, the next decade of my life turned out to be rather spectacular and my career actually flourished anyway. There have been far more peaks than valleys since 2006 and for a long time that seemed to be the lesson. That adversity can be a blessing in disguise. That adversity actually makes you stronger. 

Don’t complain, just make the most of the cards that you have been dealt.

The Summer of 2020: Covid-19

It was during the summer of 2020 that I found myself at an important crossroads yet again. This time all of the misery was self-inflicted. I had decided I wanted to chart my own path in life and the fall was tremendous. 

At Constitution Hill, where we lay our scene, there is a mural facing the court’s outside parking lot. Featured on it are seven women who had suffered a grave injustice under the oppressive Apartheid regime.

Among those women is the legendary Zubeida Mayet. Her image does stand out for several reasons – chief among them perhaps is the fact she was an outstanding and brave journalist. 

Any journalist worth his/her salt has heard of the late “Juby” Mayet at least once. However, in the context of this blog entry my interest extends well beyond that. 

On Day One of the Ramaphosa Administration’s National Lockdown it became apparent – almost immediately – that the one group which had become an afterthought during the Covid-19 Outbreak was the homeless. They were The Nobody Men. 

I was now one of them, an extraordinary reality to be faced with given the tremendous strides I had made working the industry during the previous decade. There will be more about that in coming blog entries.

Isolation is a term which has been bandied about with reckless abandon for the duration of the National Lockdown. However, I can confidently say there is no group on the planet which has understood isolation better than the homeless during this period.

The entire experience has been a trauma that cannot simply be undone and Day One of the National Lockdown was merely a harbinger of things to come. I might never know how many South Africans were aware of just how ghastly the treatment of the homeless was during the first few days of the National Lockdown. 

However, I am sure of one thing…Zubeida Mayet saw everything. God saw everything. 

For the duration of National Lockdown Day One, I stood with my face pressed against the fence surrounding the now infamous Governor’s House – stationed just across the road from Zubeida Mayet’s mural. 

Mayet’s eyes, staring directly back at me were pale and enormous. She wasn’t just looking at me though. Mayet had seen everything. She has seen everything for years, in the cesspool that Hillbrow has become. 

The officials who work for the City of Johannesburg and the Department of Social Development might be able to fool you. They might be able to fool me but they will never be able to fool God. 

God knows what government officials have been doing during the National Lockdown, everything they have been doing.  

The parking lot of Governor’s House is where about 1000 of Johannesburg’s homeless were rounded up like cattle by law enforcement that day. 

They were hastily shoved into the back of police fans, JMPD trucks – any vehicle the South African government could find to help mask the fact that they had not applied their minds on what was to be done with the homeless – not for one moment. 

In the end, the homeless were presented with a Hobson’s Choice. 

Increase your risk of contracting a deadly virus by being squashed into a parking lot with 999 other people or stay on the streets and face the wrath of Bheki Cele’s rabid South African Police, who had now been emboldened by the South African National Defence Force (SANDF). 

The real tragedy here is that many of the homeless in that parking lot had already been residents at overnight shelters in Johannesburg – shelters that had been compelled to close because of the Ramaphosa Administration’s irrational implementation of the National Lockdown rules. 

What far too many people take for granted about the homeless in our society is that many of them have legitimate plans in life, many of them have and continue to make a meaningful contribution to society. 

Many of them do not actually steal, they do not consume drugs or any related minerals. They are the working poor.

Many of the homeless are just fighting the battle of their lives – a lonely battle that the “better off” in society do not want to be a part of, not even those who get paid to be a part of the solution. The Homeless are in fact the Nobody Men, a nuisance to everybody who doesn’t care to notice them. 

There were far too many of the government officials operating within the confines of Governor’s House on Day One of the National Lockdown….doing absolutely nothing. 

I was in that “Sardine Can” – or Cattle Shed – from about 8am on that dreadful Friday morning – most of us had been. Not so much as a word on what was to be done with us. Was this how we were going to die, among strangers, in a Hillbrown parking lot?

Again, we did have the option of leaving Governor’s House during the course of that day but one sighting of an army truck patrolling the streets of Hillbrow was enough to put anybody off the idea. 

Anybody who dared to open a corner shop would have been deemed foolish too. The dystopian scenes from The Dark Knight Rises – or any other Batman fliek for that matter – took nothing on what we were experiencing that day. It was just the beginning too. 

Something else taken for granted about the homeless in Johannesburg is that they are able to generate some revenue during the day, WITHOUT BEGGING OR STEALING. 

Most of us are able to feed ourselves too, better than the government has fed any of us throughout the course of this National Lockdown. Yet, our ability to earn and temporarily house ourselves (in overnight shelters) was unceremoniously stripped away from us and we weren’t given anything better in return. 

The South African government had never taken an interest in our lives before, yet here they were going out of their way to make our lives worse because of a virus they heard about. 

It should not surprise anybody that the 1000 people at Governor’s House did not eat a meal until shortly before dark on Day One of the National Lockdown. The meal was three slices of bread and a sugary concoction social development officials were daring enough to label as juice. 

By 5pm on Day One, the South African government had managed to do two things which would likely achieve the exact opposite to what the National Lockdown had promised. 

Our immune systems were compromised with a wholly unsatisfactory meal – for which we were expected to be grateful – and we were forced to be in a crowded gathering of more than 100 people…10 times more than the recommended 100 people. 

What a SHAM.

The more observant among you are probably now wondering what the sleeping arrangements would be in this new nanny state. The answer to that question is that there weren’t any plans made – not for the greater part of two days – contrary to what officials at the Department of Social Development might have one believe. 

On the first night of the National Lockdown, ten Metro Busses from the City of Johannesburg were hastily whisked in – no doubt because the crisis unfolding in Hillbrow was also turning into a Public Relations nightmare. I don’t know that for sure, of course but I am confident that was the case. 

It is worth noting that those buses can only ferry 44 people. That means more than half of those “trapped” at Governor’s had a realistic prospect of sleeping under a roof during Day One of the National Lockdown. 

I was among the contingent that found its way onto a bus that night and I honestly do not know what happened to those who were left behind. I do shudder to think about what could possibly have happened to them though. 

The contingent, I was part of, was ferried to the YMCA Campus in Orlando East on Friday night, escorted by Johannesburg’s infamous blue light brigade. 

The convoy was a rather spectacular affair, honestly. However, it might have also given an impression to the poor folk living in Orlando East, that a group of people with a lethal disease were being shipped into Soweto to die. Hell, we thought we were being taken there to die. 

The absence of any meaningful communication throughout that charade was glaring and dare I say, dangerous. It does not take that much to start a deadly riot. 

Upon arrival, it became apparent that officials at the YMCA Campus had also been duped by the Department of Social Development and the City Of Johannesburg. Politicians always lie. 

The YMCA had expected 300 people – suffice it to say significantly more than that had been dumped on them. 

The homeless were forced to sleep four in a room, sharing beds and still there was an overflow as others were forced to sleep on the tiled floor in the main foyer of the campus. Others were forced to sleep on benches, some were even forced to sleep in the campus kitchen. 

I have generally lived a lonely life because I have always believed that I actually am an island. 

As Hugh Grant would so eloquently put it, I am bloody Ibiza. 

I was always happy being alone…until now. 

There is still a considerable amount to be said and written about this National Lockdown, which was only supposed to last 21 days, so the government could get its house in order and prepare the nation for the worst event, seemingly since the plague. 

Things that need to be heard from somebody who has experienced first hand just how ruthless and heartless this South African government is. 

The sequel to this will include food being tossed at the homeless like they are animals in the zoo, forcing the homeless to sleep shoulder to shoulder in halls of more than 200 people (so much for social distancing), forcing the homeless to eat rice that has not been drained, locking the homeless in a hall overnight and every night (God forbid there is a fire) and even death that could probably have been avoided – such has been the obsession with Covid-19 that social workers have failed to perform some of their more basic functions. 

Through it all I – and others  – have felt like the scum of the earth, a nuisance for government…The Nobody Men. 

BY The Drover


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