Recently my research company began working on a very interesting project regarding buildings in the city of Durban. Part of our research was to visit various buildings in the city – in various degrees of disrepair. One of the buildings was particularly bad and it was a complete eye opener for us to see that people are living in what I would describe as the worst type of poverty – not even my experience of rural living in South Africa comes close to this. Ten or more story buildings with non-functioning lifts, no running water, no electricity. In some cases rubbish and human waste isn’t collected and the stench is unbearable. Those living in the buildings include foreigners who have come to South Africa to find a better life but have instead found xenophobia, exploitation and obstacle after obstacle as they search for work, pensioners who lived in a once beautiful building and are now trapped on the top floors because the lifts don’t work and they can’t walk down the stairs, and others who simply had no idea that owning a flat included additional monthly payments of levies and rates. The following are some fictitious accounts of the lives of some of the inhabitants:
His ears are tuned to the sounds of the city orchestra; the blaring hoot of taxis looking for passengers, the whoop of a police siren – like a demented city hyena on the run, the high pitched screech of a woman in the middle of a domestic dispute, the dull thump of feet running up the crumbling cement stairwell outside his flat. He longs for silence but this orchestra never stops, never ceases to play a new tune.
He arrived in the city as the rising sun washed a warm glow over the tallest buildings he’d ever seen, turning the grey cement into burnished bronze, leaving him mesmerised by the freedom and independence he thought he saw reflected in the faces of those around him. He’d begun his journey in his homeland of the Democratic Republic of Congo, after fleeing his ruined village when militia wiped it and his family out. He joined the long snaking line of refugees united in their desire to find somewhere safe to rest their butchered souls. He walked for weeks, his bloodied feet wrapped in banana fronds, and followed some ancient path, which the others seemed to be drawn to. He gave no thought to the outcome, he just put one foot in front of the other, and walked. Along the way he acquired new friends and lost others to different routes and destinations. Until finally, his small band arrived in Mozambique and then crossed the border into South Africa during the darkest hour of the night. They had chosen this country because of all they had heard over the years from relatives and friends who had moved here to study, to seek their fortunes, to find peace.
And now, some years later, he finds himself uneducated, poor and at war with the city he calls home. He longs for the jungles of the Congo, for the misty rain that sweeps down from the mountains covering the village in lacey swaths, softening the voices of family and friends, obliterating the reality of the civil war raging around them, creating a cocoon in which they hide. But he is not there, he is here; sweating as he trudges a 20 litre bucket of water up the stairs, because the lifts have not worked in years. He shares a room meant for two with eight other refugees and hustles in the streets every day as he fights for his patch of road, watching cars for their owners, so that he can earn enough rands to pay the rent each month. His life is on repeat, and the track doesn’t seem likely to change.
She tsks her tongue against her teeth, her lips purse automatically; they no longer have a will of their own. Every day she stands at the window and surveys the streets below; her routine is the same, nothing changes here on the inside, but on the outside the change is so rapid, she can’t keep up. She is alone. Her children left the country years ago when she was still young enough to get by without them.
But now her husband is long gone and she lives alone in this flat meant for two. The views are spectacular; the ocean stretches from north to south and she can see the stadium when it lights up like a halo at night. Oh, the fun they had back in the good old days. You could walk the promenade at two in the morning, or run down to the shore to let the ocean wash over feet aching from dancing in high heels all night. The cool air caressed your skin as the salt settled in your hair – but who cared when you were young and in love! The mellow notes from the local jazz band at the Edward accompanied them as they made their way back to the home they’d always dreamt of.
You can’t do that these days though she thinks – you’ll get mugged before you can scream, and even if you could, no one would come to help you. Oh yes, she sees it all from up here. She watches the thugs and the gangsters, the prostitutes and the vagrants – up to no good. All of them. She longs for the days of her youth, when the city was off limits to those who now seem to inhabit it in their millions.
The block she lives in is no longer the beacon of prosperity that it once stood for – now it is filled with foreingers from every corner of Africa, the smell of curry permeates the air and neglect is draped across the once gleaming facade. And she is afraid. Afraid of the strangers that surround her, with their foreign clothing, strange tongues, and loud vibrant music. She hasn’t been onto the street below in years. The new tenants don’t understand the concept of levies and rates, so they don’t pay them. So the lifts have stopped working and the electricity’s been cut. Her knees, along with her confidence, have grown frail and she now depends on her neighour to do her shopping and keep her company. How she longs for her children to come and fetch her, to take her back to the land they now call home. But the letters are few, and their concern is lacking.
Here comes the man. He strolls the streets with an exaggerated swagger, eyeing up the girls and spending his fortune as fast as he can make it. And boy can he make it – there’s a sucker born every minute, and he knows how to find them. Life’s been good since he moved to the city – no more rural back-of-beyond living for him. The day he stepped off the bus and onto the Golden Mile, he knew he’d left that life behind. No ways was he ever going back, but if he did – he’ll go back loaded and build himself a mansion overlooking the valley. And everyone who walks past would say, “That’s Lucky’s place – he’s the man!”
If he’s honest, it didn’t start out so well out here on streets. He had to graft hard, running errands for gangsters, but he had little choice – if he wanted to live, he needed to hustle. Many nights he slept in doorways, down manholes, up trees and on the beach. And each morning he’d get a boot in the back or a club on the head, and told to move on. Little by little, job by job, he made his way, he earned his keep. And now he’s in charge of one of the biggest buildings in Durban – who would have thought! That small boy from the location is now a giant of the city, he rules the roost and no one dares cross his path.
He’s blacked out the walls of the building entrance, taken out the lights and barricaded the exits. He makes the lives of the inhabitants’ hell, and if they can’t pay the outrageous rent he demands, he breaks knees and noses. He’s not interested in sad tales of job loss or old age – he wants his money, and he gets it, one way or another. He’s stitched up the police because he’s got something on enough of them – prostitution, gambling, drugs – he knows their vices and he uses it to his full advantage. No one comes near him – he’s Lucky, the man.