Beautyful and broke on the streets of Jo'burg

In his inaugural Street Views column Percy Zvomuya offers a short and poignant portrait of a high-brow beggar.

One quiet Sunday afternoon while walking on Ntemi Piliso Street, which lies on the hem end of Johannesburg's city centre, a man who was standing beside the old Johannesburg Stock Exchange building sidled up next to me and said in Tswana, "Bru, I need R4.50 to top up my bus fare."

My Jo'burg danger antennae stiffened. I looked warily upon him. At the back of my mind I was asking myself, is this a replay of that old mugging trick? Distract someone while your fellow gang members gang up, cow-horn style, and descend on the potential victim.

I reached for my wallet and took out some coins, while out of the corner of my eye - roving this way and that way - I was watching to see whether it was a hoax.

Then the man inched closer and I saw he was holding a book. I immediately recognised from its lurid colours that the book was The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, the classic text by the Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah.

I immediately relaxed. I figured no one who walks around with Armah would mug me.

"That's Armah's book?" He nodded. "Oh, you know him?"

"I have read most of his works," I told the man.

For the next few minutes we talked about the post-colony and its ills. He was articulate. I can't remember much of what he said but the gist of his argument was the continent is fucked. I didn't agree with him. My line of thought can be encapsulated in the sentence "I'm sure the beautiful ones are out there and we just don't know about them". And so the conversation went on for a few moments before I took my leave.

When I got home, I regretted not getting his details.

Percy Zvomuya is the Mail & Guardian's arts and features reporter, who loves walking the streets of Johannesburg. Follow his column Street View to meet the characters he encounters.

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