/ 25 October 2016

The blood-stained chronicles: Undercover as a homeless Hillbrow windscreen washer

The hostile environment that is a typical inner-city Jo'burg intersection.
The hostile environment that is a typical inner-city Jo'burg intersection.

I’m back here again. I’m right in the middle of a busy intersection in Hillbrow. “What are you doing, Aldrin?” I keep thinking to myself. It’s a question that kept bugging me. It almost felt like I was at war with myself. I have already put my life in danger on this mission. And, once again, I have just upped the ante. “What if I get beaten up?”

It’s business as usual here in the CBD. Cars are zooming past me while I battle with my anxiety. A BRT bus frantically honks to get me out of the bus lane. Sandwiched between the bus and the passing cars, a puff of hot wind coming from below the bus tangles between my legs. “I can’t do this”.

“Yes, you can, boss”, says one of the guys who hears me. “It’ll take you some time, but you’ll have to keep on trying”.

The robots turn red and he quickly jumps in between the queue of cars. He sprays soapy water on a car’s windscreen with a broad smile on his face but the gesture isn’t reciprocated. The angry driver waves his hand to try to stop him. When that fails, the car’s wipers start sweeping across the windscreen. And that was my newly found mentor’s cue to walk away.

Yes, today I am a street beggar and a windscreen cleaner armed with the tools of the trade. In my left hand, a 500-millilitre plastic bottle filled with water that has turned slightly green from the diluted Sunlight liquid soap and in the other hand a black window brush. I had just bought it from a complex around the corner for R30. Right behind the University of Johannesburg’s Doornfotein campus. China Mall they call the place. I saw more Indians than Chinese.

Razor was quite pedantic about the sort of brush he would pick for me. The rubber on the other side of the brush, he insisted, had to be soft otherwise it wouldn’t do the trick. He bent and stroked countless brushes on the racks and every second one was not the perfect texture. They all felt the same to me. There is clearly an acquired art to choosing the perfect brush.

I met Razor exactly a month ago when I was working on a school project. Lawrence Ngobeni is his real name. But here on the streets, he is known as Razor, a nickname he got when he was a soccer player in his hometown, Madidi, near Pretoria. I remember him bragging about what a star he was. However, in this concrete jungle, there is no time to kick around a soccer ball for the 32-year-old. Money has to be made. Four hundred rand — that’s how much Razor told me he can make on a good day. Four hundred rand, all from just washing passing cars’ windscreens. I was shocked.

And that’s what brought me here. Is it really possible to make R400 a day on the streets? Just from splashing soapy water on a windscreen and wiping it off before the robot turns green? That’s more than what cashiers at Shoprite, Clicks or even Pick n Pay make in a day. That’s more than what the average house help or garden boy makes after an eight hour-long shift. Well, at least based on statistics from labour federations. What stuck out for me during that interview with Razor, was when he said: “At times I look at these drivers, whose car windscreens I wash, and I think to myself ‘I actually make more than you a day’“. That really boggled me.

Mission Make-R400 is now is in pursuit.

I’ve been trying to prepare myself mentally for the past few days. Physically too. Trust me, if you could smell my armpits now you’d probably end up being rushed to the emergency room. Imagine the smell of a rotten onion stuffed in a damp room. They kept on sweating from the hot sun, under the navy blue jacket I have slept in for two nights. Every time I stretched out my arms, the whiff would creep through. For the first time, this is a good problem to have.

Because I worried that people might recognise me from the news on TV, I made a fake beard from an afro wig. I was unrecognisable. It was a tedious process gluing just the right amount of hair on my face and getting just the right texture to make sure it looked like the real deal. It had to be done the right way.

The disdain with which pedestrians looked at me, caught me off guard. From posing for selfies with viewers, to this. But that is nothing compared to what I am facing now. The motorists I approach are visibly disgusted. They quickly roll up their windows after refusing my proposition to clean their windscreens.

For the guys who do this daily, that refusal means absolutely nothing. It doesn’t register at all. There is a forceful nature to the way they do it. Asking to clean the windscreen is almost a rhetorical question. They go ahead irrespective of the motorists’ response. At times, a flurry of insults come their way from angry drivers. That anger could lead to a physical fight, Razor tells me.

He was once beaten up by a taxi driver. The beating was so bad that other taxi drivers had to intervene to get their colleague to back off. It is no surprise that taxis pass through this intersection with no harassment.

Razor’s friend, Vincent, actually got into a fight with one motorist who had said he didn’t want his windscreen washed. But like I explained, that doesn’t mean jack to these washers. The guy then jumped out of his car and slapped Vincent.

Vincent fought back and within seconds there was a whole lot of noise. Some windscreen washers kicked the driver to the ground. Two other motorists came to his rescue with a steel rod. Strangely, it was a taxi driver who came to their aid, saying the “Dushu” was wrong.

Within moments the robot went green and the road cleared. As Vincent picked up his hat, I noticed he was bleeding. He was visibly angry but immediately looked forward for the next 30 seconds when the robots closed and he could go back to his “msebenzi”.

And that’s my fear right now. Should I employ the same tactics, won’t I end up being boxed to the ground? Then again, I know exactly how those motorists feel. Irritated and upset. On a regular day I am part of the driving population that feel their privacy is being invaded.

It’s odd, though, that what these windscreen washers do when the robots are closed is exactly what petrol attendants do. Just think about how often you have pulled up at a filling station and suddenly found your windscreen being washed? Yet you don’t get irritated and upset.

However, today I am not a petrol attendant; I am a homeless windscreen washer on a quest to try to make R400 in this hostile environment.

“Don’t be scared,” Thabang shouted. I call him T-man.

“Hao Ndoda,” I replied. “Even you failed at this thing.”

Thabang is a beggar. He does nothing else but beg. I met him yesterday when I was looking for Razor to finalise everything for today. He decided to be a beggar rather because it is less confrontational. He describes himself as a more “peaceful person”. The 35-year-old was at pains, telling the story of his journey to the streets of Jo’burg nine years ago. Sitting on the passenger seat of my Run X as we navigate through the CBD trying to find Razor, he started his story.

“I ran away from home,” he says. There was a long pause before he said: “I am wanted for murder.”

My heart pumped frantically. A million thoughts went through my mind all at once. “There is a murderer in my car”.

“What are you doing, Aldrin?”, I thought to myself.

For the first time, quitting on writing about the window cleaners, became an option. I realised, planning a night on the streets, sleeping among the vagrants wasn’t such a great idea. I wanted out.

I looked closely at Thabang’s hands. He had something in his hands but I couldn’t make out what it was. I tried to catch sight of the door handle in my peripheral vision, just in case the man I’d just met a few minutes prior tried to do something. Something dangerous.

Trying not to look or sound startled, I asked what happened.

“We killed a doctor,” he responded faintly. “He was a well-known doctor in my hometown in the North West.”

My journalistic instinct quickly kicked in. Now I was more intrigued. I have never spoken to a self-confessed murderer, let alone a fugitive.

I then started to probe further.

Him and his friend Tshepo were working for a doctor, as gardeners. One day, Tshepo convinced him that the doctor had money stacked away in the house and that they should steal it.

I immediately thought: “They weren’t being paid well.”

But Thabang said the money was “okay” and they were just greedy and wanted more. So one day, they tied the doctor up in his bathroom to get him to give them the money. This went on for some time until they got a hot iron. They tortured him. They burnt the doctor. They were on a mission to get their hands on this elusive stack of cash. But nothing came from the trauma and pain inflicted. Tshepo then suggested they steal all the jewellery, other valuables and kill the doctor.

Thabang insists he told Tshepo they should not kill him but his friend believed if the doctor was left to live he would inform the police. The doctor was stabbed five times, Thabang recounts. Three strikes to the neck and two on the abdomen. He was left to die.

A few days later, when the friends were informed the police had launched a manhunt, they fled the province and came to Jo’burg. Tshepo ended up going to Alexandra township and Thabang is now a homeless man living near the iconic Ponte Tower that has become a landmark and engraved into the Jo’burg skyline. He left his ailing mother and pregnant girlfriend.

He invited me over to check out his make-shift shack. It is just over a meter high and stands in the middle of the green grass as a pile of rubble. It is made of recycled material, including sail covers and repurposed planks. It is an impressive structure. It even boasts windows, on either side of the entrance. Although I could smell the dampness of the recent rain coming from inside the shack, he maintained that no rain slips through.

On one side of the inner walls is a picture of Jesus Christ and a calendar. Hanging on the other side is the South African national flag and next to it a poster of the last supper. On the floor, a small table with cosmetic containers and what I thought was an old queen-sized bed was actually worn out tyres stacked next to each other, covered with planks and old blankets.

It turned out that he shared the place with Razor and another guy named Vincent.

Thabang invited me in but I refused. The only thing that kept running through my mind was the alleged murder of the doctor. At some point I even thought he might think I’m an undercover cop and had got his buddies to be on standby to beat me to a pulp. So I sat outside. Weary as a meerkat, looking around at every movement.

He told me how much he regretted what happened and wished to go back home but knew what would lie ahead. Thabang came close to being caught when he was arrested for possession of drugs. He thought it was the beginning of the end of his freedom and his life on the streets. But he was lucky. He was released on a warning even before the police could trace his fingerprints to the alleged murder of the doctor.

This pending murder case, he said, was the only thing standing in between him going back home to go see his mom and meet his son for the first time.

But there is another problem, I thought to myself — his drug addiction.

All the money he makes from begging funds his addiction. There is no budgeting for food. Partly because there is no need as motorists sometimes give them leftovers and every now and then a good Samaritan delivers food such as rice, grilled chicken and cabbage.

It is just past noon and today already he has smoked three times. He has two favourites, Thai and Rock — both R20. Rock is a little square white tablet. It looks like a Panado or Disprin but much smaller then a normal sized pill. It is probably a third of a tablet. It is placed on one opening of a tiny, dirty glass pipe, as small as my middle finger and then lit directly. From the other end of the bottle, the smoker inhales the smoke coming from the burning Rock and then holds in the smoke for a few seconds before puffing it out.

Then there is Thai. Also known as Nyaope. It is the most popular among the different forms of drugs available to these addicts. It is a powder, not even enough to fill half of those little spoons used to scoop salt and spices with. Thabang would take a small dash of it and tap it onto a piece of foil which he would then light from the bottom and inhale the smoke of the burning powder.

Thabang actually took me to his suppliers earlier on. They’re called Snyman. It’s a term that I last heard in high school, used to refer to people selling cigarettes. But these guys are not in the business of nicotine. They sell hard-core stuff. Illegal substances.

I have never been near a drug den before or in the presence of people using drugs. So this was going to be a first for me.

The joint is not too far from Thabang’s house. A ten minute walk and there we were. Right in the middle of Hillbrow. The high rate of drug trade in these streets is well documented. But it seems even authorities have been defeated. Could it be because the police take bribes from these drug dealers?

When we approached the place I spotted two police vehicles, just metres apart from each other, with men leaning into the driver’s side of the cars. It looked suspicious. It was the sort of stuff that you see in the movies.

“Ba’dla nabo”, said Thabang, explaining that the police are in on this trade and get cuts from the dealers.

The street was packed with young men who look like Thabang and Razor. I also counted three girls. Clearly, all of them were homeless too and probably beggars and windscreen washers. Sitting on the curbs, clouds of smoke hung over them. Some were smoking marijuana.

“Drug Zone” was sprayed on the side of one dirty wall, clearly not by a graffiti artist.

“Look, they all junkies,” said Thabang. “This is where we all buy our stuff.”

We got to Thabang’s Snyman. He deals right in front of a small grocery store. Well-groomed Nigerian man. In his hand, a transparent plastic bag with lots of tiny green packets. That was the Thai.

It was a rude awakening. The dealer was yelling at one of the guys who were buying but I couldn’t make out what he was saying. It was strange — this guy, who was a client, behaved like a servant who was being submissive to his master.

Not only did he pay for his fix, but it was accompanied by impudence.

I couldn’t look the dealer in the face. I was too scared. I might believe that I am well disguised but I kept on thinking what if this man could see right through me. They too must be really wary of strangers. I wanted to ask for an interview, but I didn’t have the balls because I anticipated a backlash that would not end well. On the other hand, I had come under false pretences as a beggar when I am actually a senior journalist at the SABC.

At some point I panicked and got nervous that Thabang was going to blow my cover. He wanted to buy Rock from one of the dealers on the street but he only had R15. The damn thing costs R20. So he pulled me to this guy and introduced me as a friend who wanted to stock some of the stuff but “first wants to try it out.”

Now this guy has a reason to look me in the eye, waiting for me to explain this proposition. I just froze and Thabang kept trying to convince him that the deal was legit. The big built Nigerian guy raised his voice and was clearly getting irritated by Thabang’s persistence and kept on shouting “Where is the money, show me the money!” with a distinct Nigerian accent. It just caused unnecessary attention, which was the last thing I wanted under the circumstances.

I told Thabang we should rather leave. “Voetsek, voetsek.” For fuck’s sake, Thabang still had the nerve to swear at the guy as we walked off. Honestly, had he got a beating, I would have just stepped away.

That’s where all the money from the passing motorists ends up. Literally, all the money they get. It is just after midday and Thabang has already had three smokes, at a cost of R20 each, which means he has managed to make R60 in a matter of hours. Well, I can’t boast the same fortunes. I have been here for just over 30 minutes and I have only made R1.

Clearly this is not working for me. Let me sit here on the pavement and take more lessons.

There is a strong smell of urine at this corner. Every second guy who is pressed just takes a leak on the side of the wall next to the petrol station. On the pavement are hundreds of burnt out matchsticks. It’s evidence of the frequent smoking here. At once, there could be up to 10 guys sitting smoking drugs with such brazenness, with no shame or regard for passing pedestrians and schoolkids or even the police.

“This place too, should have a wall sprayed ‘drug zone’“ I think to myself.

I watched in awe when Razor and Vincent pulled out syringes. Unlike Thabang they don’t smoke Thai, but rather inject it into their arms. It’s their conviction that it makes them high more quickly than when the drug is burned and the smoke inhaled.

Razor tightly strapped a shoelace to his upper left arm. Veins popped up. The traces of where a needle has been pushed in are distinct. He unwrapped a tiny black plastic sheet with powder right in the centre, smaller than my palm. In front of him was a cold drink bottle cap with clean water. He then dipped his finger into the water so that droplets fell on to the sheet and then mixed it to dissolve the powder.

The mixture is drawn up through the needle of the syringe. It looks like murky water.

When I asked whether he was not concerned that his concoction was unhygienic, his response was no. He believes all the dirt is filtered out when the mixture is drawn through the little piece of cigarette butt which is put in the mixture. But he admits cotton is more ideal.

When the veins popped, he tried to inject himself, but seemed to be struggling and called on Vincent to help out. Everything about what was happening just felt wrong and dangerous.

Vincent grabbed Razor’s left arm and the syringe. I couldn’t help noticing his long dirty nails and the sores on his hand. Razor started bleeding from one of the holes he punched earlier on when he struggled to inject himself but Vincent really didn’t seem bothered. It was startling.

Like a nurse, Vincent pushed the needle into one of the veins and pulled the top part of the syringe as if he was drawing blood. As the blood streamed into the syringe and mixed up with the liquid drug mixture, he injected it back in. He repeated this process at least three times. It is backwashed until the taker is satisfied. Razor says it is to make sure the blood and the drug mix well.

It sounded like a rather flimsy explanation to me but then again who am I and what do I know about the right way to take drugs.

When Vincent pulled the needle out, blood quickly streamed out and Razor eagerly licked it off. One of the guys who were watching called him Dracula. He jokingly replied, “These are drugs, it is not just blood. It even tastes different than normal blood.”

It turns out the syringe wasn’t his and actually belonged to Vincent who had just used it moments ago. When I asked them both about the risk of contracting HIV/Aids, they said that wouldn’t happen because no one is sick. An answer they couldn’t back up with proof but only could say, “When you are sick it will show.”

Sharing syringes is totally normal, it would seem. Later on, when Vincent wasn’t around, Razor borrowed a syringe from Lesiba.

His needle was blocked, he explained, and a new one is too expensive. It costs R10 at the local chemist. I found it strange that he would rather engage in this risky behaviour than buy the equipment.

Interestingly, at about 6pm when I asked him how much he had made, he listed how many drugs he bought and how many times.

“I’ve made R200,” on what he calls a slow day.

For me, it was an extra slow day. I walk away with R1 in my pocket and invaluable experience.