Niren Tolsi meets a community of Zimbabweans who eke out a living on Johannesburg's mean streets.
The used water that seeps on to the streets of downtown Johannesburg from the wretched bowels of the Doornfontein Chambers building is a milky blue.
Similar in colour to the cataract clouds in the eyes of the blind Zimbabwean beggars who, guided by their assistants, also emerge from the hijacked building every morning to walk, or catch taxis and trains, to intersections in Johannesburg and much further afield.
At the traffic lights, elbows hooked into those of his 20-year-old son, Ishe, his assistant for the day, Gonese walks the white line.
The sun is scorching and the exhaust fumes irritate.
Trucks and cars come past, including a pink “Oh-so-Springs!” sports car with colour co-ordinated tailfin, mag wheels and a pair of furry pink dice hanging from the rear-view mirror. Another vehicle bears department of home affairs branding on the side.
The occupants of both cars, like many others, ignore the pair.
Ineligible for one of the work, study or business visas the department of home affairs made available to Zimbabweans during last year’s documentation drive to “regularise” their stay in South Africa, Gonese is relieved the department’s officials were oblivious to his presence.
“Luckily they didn’t notice us, or notice that we were Zimbabweans,” he says, “I don’t want to be harassed.”
Alms are few and far between and in the first hour Gonese picks up R3.70. Later, he says that after spending seven hours at the intersection before calling it a day, the duo have begged a measly R10. The round-trip to Springs for Gonese and his son cost R30.
Beggars who spoke to the Mail & Guardian say they can make anywhere between a few coins to R100 a day depending on the weather and how close it is to payday.
Says Kennedy Nyoni, a 29-year-old beggar who came to South Africa seven years ago: “Our main reason for being here in South Africa is not to make something. It is just to make a living here. It is a hard living, but it is still a living—something we can’t do in Zimbabwe because, even if the economy is slowly recovering, people don’t have a lot of money to give us. In South Africa or in Zimbabwe, our jobs are the same—we are beggars.”
All the beggars who spoke to the M&G say they grind out a living in Johannesburg to send money home to support family, especially children, usually left behind with members of their extended family.
Ellen Ziya has lived in South Africa since 2004. She has two adult children living with her in South Africa and seven younger ones with her family in Bulawayo: “Every two weeks I try and send about R300 home to my children. We usually send the money, or groceries, with the bus drivers who are going to Bulawayo and they charge an extra R20 for every R100 we send, or depending on the size of the carrier bags,” says Ziya (46).
She averages around R60 a day in alms and needs R200 a school term for fees alone for each of her children back home.
According to non-governmental social workers, there are an estimated 600 blind and disabled Zimbabweans begging on Johannesburg’s streets. Migration to South Africa appeared to increase steadily after the implosion of the Zimbabwean economy quickly affected the most vulnerable.
For the likes of Nyoni, 32-year-old Maphios Chimbwereshe and Nicholas Maponde (33), this meant that state-funded self-help projects for disabled people collapsed.
The trio have known each other since childhood, having grown up together at the Copota School for the Blind, in Chivhu, a town in the southeastern province of Masvingo.
There, they learnt self-sufficiency, to read Braille and farming skills such as raising pigs and trades like leatherwork.
“In 2004 the economic crisis got so bad that funding stopped, projects collapsed and there was nothing for us to do but to be hungry. So we came here,” says Nyoni.
Even the blind who were integrated into mainstream Zimbabwean society started losing jobs as inflation soared and the Zim dollar deteriorated, becoming more worthless than a single square of toilet paper.
Gonese was working “at a normal school as a schoolteacher. I had an assistant to help with the marking and the chalkboard work but it reached a point when the government said they couldn’t afford to keep paying the assistant. I shared my Z$1 000 salary with him for a while, but it got to the point when a loaf of bread cost more than that. Then, there was no point in carrying on, so I came here in 2007,” he says.
Threat of deportation
Many beggars are “border-jumpers” who arrive in South Africa illegally and without passports or identity documents. The trip to Johannesburg can take as little as 48 hours, but the journey is treacherous.
“The hardest part is hiding from the Guma Gumas [the touts/bandits who prey on the desperate Zimbabweans]. I was afraid of them because they crack you, knife you and take everything from you,” says one border-jumper who asked not to be named for fear of police victimisation.
“I remember running away from them down these steep slopes with three other blind people—I was very afraid,” he says.
Gonese and many others like him believe the Zimbabwean government has other rebuilding priorities before it can start resurrecting projects for the disabled and that the Zimbabwean economy has not recovered sufficiently for them to return home—either to work, or to beg.
Which is why the spectre of deportation is palpable. Especially since the South African department of home affairs began its Zimbabwe Documentation Project (ZDP) to issue work, study or business visas to Zimbabweans in late 2009.
“We don’t really fit into any of these categories,” says Gonese, “so what do we do? Even as a teacher I can’t work in South Africa as the education department does not know what to do with a blind teacher.”
Just over 275 000 Zimbabweans have applied for “regularisation” by South African authorities.
Many, including able-bodied Zimbabweans who spoke to the M&G, said they had not bothered applying for reasons including the Zimbabwean authorities’ inefficiency in processing identity documents, the high cost of the applications and their not being suitable for the specific visas available.
The community of blind beggars in Johannesburg had written to Mkuseli Apleni, the home affairs director general, before the cut-off date for the ZDP applications last year.
Outlining their plight and listing themselves, the beggars had asked for a special dispensation. Apleni acknowledged their letter in a press conference in January this year but, according to the beggars, the department has not contacted them since.
Home affairs spokesperson Ronnie Mamoepa failed to respond to queries about the department’s lack of engagement with the blind Zimbabwean beggars. In response to another M&G query, he said “all undocumented Zimbabweans would be treated like every other undocumented foreigner in South Africa”.
This is longhand for “deportation” the beggars fear.
Living in darkness
Johannesburg’s blind beggar community lives, predominately, in five derelict buildings in the city’s downtown area.
“People who have been here first make contact with those suffering at home. There is a network and guidebook of sorts to getting to Jo’burg. Things are used to flowing, just like water,” says Nyoni of how the community has developed over the past decade.
“Life here is better than in Zimbabwe” is a common refrain from beggars, despite the subhuman conditions they live in and the exploitation they have to endure.
In Doornfontein Chambers there is no electricity—the darkness inside the hijacked building leaves anybody blind. Water is stolen from fire extinguishers. Some walls are daubed with human faeces and the stench of urine permeates.
The warehouse-like building has been almost entirely plundered of any metal that can be sold off and the elevator shaft is now completely exposed. In the pitch-blackness of the building it is a danger to both the blind and the sighted. The labyrinthine floors have been individually partitioned, using cardboard, bits of wood and election posters, into small rectangular homes.
“As blind people in Johannesburg it is really hard to find accommodation. Landlords see us and think we are not independent and will kill ourselves and they will be held responsible,” says Enoch Mukanhairi (49), who has lived in Johannesburg since 2007.
“[Doornfontein Chambers] was hijacked and those people understood money, that we could pay [the one-off R500 fee], so we have all come here,” he says.
But now, their erstwhile “landlords” have disappeared and the building’s inhabitants have until October 10 to find alternative accommodation before eviction by its new owners.
Doornfontein’s blind community has located another building where rent ranges from R600 to R1 000 a month, plus an extra R20 a person for electricity and water.
The building, known colloquially as “SupaQuick”, has two floors with 400 cubicles each. It is much cleaner, formally organised and has basic services. The most expensive, and largest, cubicles are about 3m by 3m.
Day-to-day living on a brutal edge for those in the community is punctuated by the exceptionally heartbreaking. Mukanhairi’s wife, Albertina, who is also blind, gave birth to a stillborn child at Johannesburg General Hospital in February and, she says, was told by the nurses “the baby died because I was not supposed to give birth because it was very bad, unnatural, for blind people to have babies. They wouldn’t feed me properly in hospital and then they said I could not see the baby or bury it until I paid them R2 000. The baby was only buried after a doctor stopped them.”
Albertina, and several others, says the double whammy of being blind and Zimbabwean in Johannesburg meant receiving atrocious service from nurses at public hospitals and clinics. “They tell us that we should go back and get help from our own government and hospitals,” says Albertina.
Government social workers have bad reputations too. Several beggars alleges they “acted worse than the police”, removing beggars from street corners and detaining them for the entire day without food or water. Some say they have been beaten with rubber pipes.
Yet the blind Zimbabwean beggars of Johannesburg all agree: “Life here is better.” They remain determined to regain their humanity in the eyes of an often uncaring city.
Mukanhairi and Gonese have founded the Integrated Community Centre for the Blind and Disabled in South Africa and have started self-help programmes, including knitting clothes and cane furniture weaving for sale. “We don’t want charity, we just want an equal opportunity,” says Gonese.