Rest in peace my cousin, heaven is full of children

Hebert's compassion for children is well known in the squatter settlement. (Gallo)

Hebert's compassion for children is well known in the squatter settlement. (Gallo)

My first encounter with Josi, the little boy with a mild mental disability, was when my cousin Hebert showed me a picture of the child, wide-eyed on Nelson Mandela’s lap.

If memory serves me well, it was published in either City Press or Sunday Times, on the occasion of the Special Olympics in Polokwane.

The other day I navigated the dusty streets around Hebert’s home in a squatter settlement in Pretoria’s Soshanguve. He was slumped in the passenger seat.

Hebert was a hawker by trade, but also a pretender to aristocracy, in terms of the books he read and the music he collected. George Friedrich Händel’s oratorio, Messiah, was his and is my favourite.

We drove from Hebert’s house, a four-bedroom mansion standing majestically amid rusty tin shacks.
The alleged aristocrat called his place Villa d’Heb. He spoke of a dream to create a children’s play park in the back yard.

The car engine roared, and suddenly Hebert shouted at me to stop. I reluctantly obliged. We stopped next to a wide-eyed little boy licking ice cream. Josi!

Hebert addressed Josi through the open window. He pleaded with the boy to part with a share of the ice cream. Josi stood firm and refused to share his delicacy.

The heat got to me, as Hebert spent agonising minutes pleading with Josi.

When I alerted Hebert that we were losing valuable time, he stared back with sleepy eyes and said: “Be patient, man, Josi is only a child.”

Ultimately we moved on to a local shebeen. In the forecourt a toddler struggled to walk and from time to time fell to the ground. I stole a glance at Hebert, who approached the little one.

To my utter disbelief, Hebert handed over his expensive cell phone to the giggling toddler. The child threw the cellphone on to the ground and the damn thing broke into pieces. Hebert turned to stare at me with a naughty glint in his eye. “Come on, man, it is only a child.”

Hebert’s compassion for children is well known in the squatter settlement, with locals recalling how, on New Year’s Eve, he parted with R1 000 to buy firecrackers for the kids.

Hebert’s wife, Anna, brought her daughter, Bontle, into the marriage. Hebert offered Bontle fatherly affection as though she was his own.

When Anna died, her kinsmen took Bontle, leaving Hebert weeping for the girl who called him baba (dad).

Hebert was buried next to Anna’s final resting place, with Josi and the other children clinging to their mother’s skirts, tears trickling down soft cheeks, against the backdrop of the singing of Ndikhokhele Nkosi yam’ (Lord, forgive me of my sins).

Johnny Masilela is a journalist and author

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