A lunchtime drizzle nearly deterred the plan to find Godfrey last week but as the sky cleared Reuven and I walked the one kilometer down Enoch Sontonga street to 14 Street in Fietas.
We passed a group of men sitting against the fence of an abandoned lot and as we turned into 14 Street it appeared to be completely deserted. Godfrey’s belongings lay in a pile on his brown blanket, unlike how they had been neatly displayed the week before.
In the shade of an empty bright blue cardboard collector’s trolley I saw a man lying on his stomach looking at a page of newspaper advertisements. We approached and ask if he knew where Godrey was. He moved into a kneeling position, crossed himself twice and then said he didn’t know. I was disappointed to have missed Godfrey again but I introduced myself anyway. “My name is Joseph” he said. I asked if he would mind talking to me and if I could sit down on the grassy pavement with him.
As I sat down so did he. Joseph was wearing a beige Imana Foods cap, a faded black collared shirt, jeans and dusty takkies with small holes on the sides. His face was friendly and he began to tell me about how he came to Johannesburg without me asking.
Joseph came to Johannesburg from Kwa-Zulu Natal in about 1993 when he was 26 years old. Leaving his family behind, Joseph came to Johannesburg in search of a better life. He qualified as a butcher and worked for a meat company in Simmonds street for about 15 years. In 2007 he said he lost his job when the building was bought by the government.
Homeless and unable to find work Joseph decided to get a trolley and start collecting cardboard and plastic bottles. Now everyday he wakes up at 4:00am and walks to Greenside, Parkview and Sandton to collect enough cardboard to fill his trolley so he can get enough money to buy bread when he sells it to the recycling companies.
He said people come to Johannesburg from all over the country because “Johannesburg’s got money”.
There are at least 50 people staying on the block at the top of 14 Street where Joseph stays. “Many people are staying here. We’ve got many people who are older than me, far older than me, about 80 years old who don’t have a pension. They are sleeping on the streets, they don’t have a place to stay. They’ve got a problem with their IDs. That’s a big problem here in this place, IDs.” He said.
Joseph chooses to make his own way and does not seek help from welfare organisations who sometimes bring food. He said, “you can’t depend on those people because maybe they are coming to today or they’re not going to come. So it’s better to wake up in the morning and think for yourself. You must go look for something for yourself because maybe you can think they are coming and then they don’t come.”
I asked Joseph about his daily routine, he said that he had been to Sandton and back already that day, which is about 20 kilometers from Fietas.”I was in Sandton today. With a full load, heavy. Traffic on the street. The taxi drivers, they are fighting with us, giving us big problems. They don’t understand. You try to explain to them, I am also trying to get something to eat. They say fuck off, go back home!
“But I have got a problem at home, that’s why I am here. I can not stay at home. What am I going to eat at home? I can get a place to stay but what am I going to eat? I’ve got kids, ok they are old enough now. They are passed matric, they are in Johannesburg, they are also suffering like me. They never got the money to go to university so they can get a job. They also look for a small job like to drive taxis”, he said.
Joseph said the only contact he has with his children is via telephone calls because he doesn’t want them to see how he is living. He hasn’t gone into Johannesburg CBD since he was working there almost ten years ago.
“Now it is difficult for me to go see them. You see how dirty I am now. It’s for almost three years I haven’t seen them but I keep on calling them. I ask how’s there life, ok shap, I’ll see you next time. All the time just like that. The last time they see me I wasn’t like this. I was a good man, like other people I was working nicely. If they see me I was going to make them happy, I could give them something, money. I will phone the parents at home, the family to speak to them. They are all together all the time”, Joseph said.
“Mostly everybody must look after himself. Sometimes you can have a friend, you can help your friend. Each and everybody must look after themselves” he said when I asked if the community living on 14 Street look after each other.
When I got up to leave, saying I would be back in a few days Joseph quietly asked if I could bring some bread with me. “Thursdays are best to come back we don’t do work, the rest of the week is busy” he said as I left.