Dispatches: Snapshots of a life that was
'It is many, many years ago that I began to be sick like this," says the old man, after a satisfying swig from the ice-cold bottle of beer I just bought him. "It is the things of the people – heartless people."
He stares into space for a while, as if pondering some quantum question.
I do not disturb him; I dare not, for Phuzi, as he is known here in the Xhosa section of Tsakane on the East Rand, is as gentle as he is temperamental.
At any time he might regard you with murder in his eyes, before brusquely setting off to wherever it is that he goes.
As children, we used to fear this dirty, creepy old tramp.
If your parents sent you to the shops and you saw him approaching, you either turned back or you crossed the street to the other side – which was risky, for if he felt like it he would also cross the street to terrorise you, brandishing his two "walking sticks".
Oh, how we used to fear this strange man, who still sleeps in his rotting Ford Cortina in the yard of his home. How peculiar. But why do they call him Phuzi (a rather vulgar name for a drunk – which he is not)? And what name did his parents give him?
As if reading my thoughts, Phuzi produces an old photograph of a handsome young man, saying with pride and a rare smile: "This is me before I got sick. I used to be a photographer. The whole of the East Rand and even Johannesburg; I was known for taking pictures. Pictures of weddings, funerals, parties – especially parties – and all sorts of events. I had a car; I was popular with the ladies.
"Then I got married, and that's when I started to be sick. All of a sudden, I could not drive anymore. I couldn't use my camera anymore. My wife left me. Our two children died, and my sickness got worse," he says, bitterly.
I ask him his name, then.
Mogaisi Hlatswayo, he says. Mogaisi. He who excels.
He asks for a cigarette. "I don't smoke," I say. "But I will buy you some when I go get more beer."
"I would appreciate that very much," he replies.
Despite being "sick", Hlatswayo carries in his pockets a toothbrush and toothpaste to brush, every morning, the few brown teeth he has left.
Does he see himself ever taking pictures again?
Not until his car is fixed and his sickness goes, he says.