Archive for the ‘Sanibonani – I see you (all)’ Category

I Learn to Live - June 2016 Newsletter (3)


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I Learn to Live - 2015 Newsletter (D2)

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It was a pretty chilly evening by Durban standards, the locals wandered the Golden Mile in jerseys and flip-flops, beanies pulled low against the wind. Danny was propped against a palm, dragging the inside of one itchy sole across its rough bark. He’d stationed himself on the opposite side of the road, about 20 metres down the road from the hotel. He was waiting for Khaya and Mandla to pick him up in a car they’d loaned for the night. He’d torn the cuticles off every nail, and his heart hammered an irregular tattoo in his chest. The last time he’d been this overwrought, he’d been covered in sand under New Pier, eluding Big Vic and the meaty fists of his henchmen. The witchdoctor had revealed that Danny’s mark was a thin Asian man attending an international conference, and staying at the Elangeni. The man would be waiting outside the hotel lobby, wearing a safari style suit, complete with an expensive looking camera bag. Danny, masquerading as a tour guide, was to pick him up in a private vehicle, along with two other men, and commence the night tour of this most underrated of cities. Totally fool proof, thought Danny, although he did wonder if the safari suit was overkill.

At five to seven, a ridiculously souped-up old school Nissan Sentra pulled up alongside Danny. A black stripe ran around its bronze body and its domed back windscreen, along with all its windows, were tinted a metallic blue. The passenger window slowly wound down until just Mandla’s sunglass shielded eyes and nose were visible.

Heita,” greeted Mandla with a gangsters nod, “get in.”

“What the hell…” Danny murmured in disbelief. This was hardly an inconspicuous ride. And it certainly didn’t look like anything a reputable tour guide operator would pick up a guest in. Danny hesitated, and with a sense of foreboding, opened the back door and got in.

“And now,” he asked, “get this off a laaijtie in Phoenix?”

“Hey,” said Khaya, “there wasn’t a lot to choose from. Met a guy in the Vic Bar two nights back, and he said he’d borrow us his wheels, no questions asked, for a small fee. Since we’re both still broke, we had to leave our IDs with him.”

“His brothers a cop,” continued Mandla, “said he’d report it stolen and turn over our IDs if we didn’t bring his wheels back later tonight.”

Danny huffed out a long sobering breath in the back seat. Reality suddenly weighing heavy on his scrawny shoulders. He wouldn’t do well long-term in jail. Not well at all.

“Okay chinas. Drive up to the traffic circle, do a u-ey, and drive by the hotel. See if our guy is standing out front.”

Khaya hit the gas and the boys did a quick scan of the lobby as they drove by. The safari-clad Asian was standing near the taxi bay, so they shot down the road and did a repeat performance at the traffic circles at both ends. Khaya coasted into the taxi bay and Danny leapt out with as much confidence as he could muster.

“Good evening, sir,” he beamed is his best white accent, “you look all set for our night tour. The name’s Dan, and I’ll be your guide for the evening. Won’t you come this way.” The gentleman bent slightly at the waist in Danny’s direction, before following Danny to the car. Danny opened the back door and waited while the man folded his reed like body into the backseat. He couldn’t help but be impressed at what a cool laanie the guy was. Didn’t even raise an eyebrow at the unconventional ride. Danny slid in after him and the foursome shared an uncomfortable beat of silence before Khaya eased the car into slow moving traffic. As the car continued along the beachfront, heading towards the famous late-night hangout of large Indian families sharing outsized vats of biryani, curry and rice at Blue Lagoon, the man eventually spoke.

“So,” he said. “This horn. It is big? You got dimensions? I don’t want be wasting my time.”

“Yes boss,” said Khaya, “the horn is big! A little over a meter. Wait until you see it baba, you won’t be disappointed.”

Mandla and Khaya had wrapped the horn in a new blanket and stashed it in the boot of the car. They’d also placed a cooler with ice and soft drinks next to the horn, as well as the old duffel bag. Their plan was to pull the car over into one of the less family laden parking lots overlooking the sea, pull out the cooler and act like a group of friends sharing a drink after a late night out. Once they’d felt they’d suitably fooled anyone showing signs of suspicion, they’d casually gather around the open boot, and talk loudly about sub-woofers and the eternal search for superior quality sound. Then Khaya would lean in and flip the blanket open, revealing the horn. In Khaya’s mind, the Asian would be so impressed at the sheer size of the beautiful specimen that he’d nod his assent immediately and agree to the price given to the sangoma. Khaya would close the blanket and roll the horn into the duffel bag that had housed it all this time in Durban. Then all four would climb back into the car and return to the hotel. Once there, the money, hidden in the camera bag, would be handed over to Mandla. Then Danny would jump out ahead of the Asian, grab the duffel from the boot, loudly thank him for his patronage, and hand over the duffel while reminding him not to forget his purchase of two beautifully hand-crafted wooden giraffes from a local curio-seller on the beachfront.

Khaya pulled into an appropriate parking lot – not too many cars, but not too few. He parked someway down from a family packing up after a long day in the sun, stomachs fit to burst from delicious platefuls of mutton curry and rice, and fragrant sujie for dessert; the scent of it still hanging in the dense sea air. Part A of the plan was underway. The men casually exited the car and while Danny made a show of stretching his arms above his head, leaning to either side, Mandla opened the boot. The cooler was pulled out and the lid popped off. Mandla handed out drinks randomly and Danny, elected by the others to talk sound like only a Naidoo can, began his nattering away. As the men leaned in to view the imaginary speakers, a car, with sound so superior it bounced slowly along the tarmac, pulled up three bays over. By this point, Khaya got spooked and felt a now or never attitude was called for, and pulled back the blanket to reveal the ash grey length of horn, nestled against the blood red of the wool. An unexpected whistle of appreciation left the lips of the Asian, which unleashed a torrent of commando style yelling and pounding of feet. The tableau was lit up by large beams of light, and the all four men were pushed to the ground, faces squashed against the fine grit of sea sand coating the tar.

With his hands tied roughly behind his back, Danny watched, as if in a dream, the tango of police boots and canine paws move between sheets of overlapping light. To his right, he saw his fear and astonishment reflected in the eyes of Khaya, and behind Khaya, he watched as the Asian was helped to his feet by a police officer, high-fived and handed his police issue weapon.

The making of Danny Naidoo, perceived loafer and waster of space, was cut short by a well-executed sting operation. In an unlucky pre-determined sequence of events, a police officer called Khwezi, was stationed as a mole in the muti markets the day before. She only bumped into Danny by chance; she’d been pulling boxes out from under her table, trying to copy the design of nearby stalls, when she’d stood up and they’d collided. His shifty disposition, and his unlikely presence at the market, had her shady character antenna warming up. The week before, her unit had received a tip off from a member of public about a completely unrelated rhino horn deal going down. While all the male officers had got the cushy job of staking out the harbour, from the comfort of the bar at the Bat Centre, Khwezi was assigned the role of bad sangoma, complete with hair beads and wildebeest tail fly switch. Oh how they’d laughed! But it was Khwezi standing over Danny right now, one foot on his back, a large toothy smile splitting her moon face in two.

As he lay on the floor, a sharp piece of rock cutting into his temple, it dawned on him that this was as comfortable as it was going to get, for a very long time.

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By the time Khaya and Mandla had finished their story, Danny had the look of someone who had just received true enlightenment. Finally, he thought, finally my ship has come in. No more nights spent on cold, hard steps; no more wheeling and dealing. He wanted in and he’d happily sell his soul for the opportunity.

“So…,” he ventured, “where do I fit in?”

“Simple,” said Khaya, “we need a buyer.”

“We have the horn, but we’re new here. It could take months before we find someone to take this horn off our hands,” Mandla looked at Danny, one eyebrow almost kissing his hairline, “you interested in helping us find that guy?”

“I’d say that’s right up my street,” blustered Danny, “but, what’s in it for me?”

“R150 000.”

Khaya sat back and watched as Danny’s face contorted into a myriad expressions; disbelief, elation, redemption even. Finally, Danny Naidoo had lifted himself out of the gutter, his mind already transporting him into the life he knew he was meant for. Lovely long-limbed ladies, giant steaks and plenty of ice cold beer, perhaps even a set of wheels. For in truth, the luxuries Danny hankered after, were well within his reach, if only he’d bother to make the effort. He had no use for penthouse suites, caviar and champagne. He simply longed for the life that paraded past him each day on the beach front. And now, here it was – right before his eyes – all he had to do was find the man. How easy was that!


The next morning, as the sun tentatively peeped its shiny bald crown over the salt water haze of the horizon, Danny sat on the steps leading down to the ocean and mulled over the information gleaned from Mandla and Khaya. It all seemed quite simple, ludicrously so in fact. All he had to do was find someone to buy the horn. But who? His opportunistic nature meant that he’d crossed paths with most of Durban’s most notorious dealers – mandrax, trafficked girls, coke and Durban poison, but he’d yet to hear of any one of them buying and selling rhino horn. That was another level of crime altogether, and he simply didn’t operate in those circles. He scanned the beach, watching holiday-makers take selfies again the backdrop of the sunrise, and surfers entering the warm waters for the first surf of the day. Further down the beach he watched as a group of Zionist worshipers brought plastic bottles to the shore to fill with the salty water he knew they used to cleanse impurities from their systems. Their long blue and white robes soaked up the water, making it difficult to walk back to the shore with the heavy containers of water. Danny thought it was nice that people managed to hold on to their faith in a city like Durban, where every culture and religion seemed to live under the same wide sky. The fug of uncertainty that draped him like a shroud suddenly lifted; he knew exactly who to approach about the horn.

As he made his way through some of the seedier streets of downtown Durban, he stopped to bum a cigarette from a prostitute making her way home after a long night on the pull, her aching feet free from the scuffed leopard print stilettoes that hung loosely from her fingers. He shared a few words with a street sweeper clearing the remnants of a big night out, and crossed the street when he saw Big Vic the Nigerian lumbering in his direction. He passed the Durban Playhouse and the museum, and walked along the littered streets, crossing through early morning traffic until he reached the large outdoor muti market situated on an abandoned overpass in Warwick Junction. If ever there was a place to find a buyer for the horn – this was it. He’d been on the streets long enough to know that there was good muti, and bad. And while most herbalists at the market sold the good stuff for healing colds and any number of aches and pains, there were witchdoctors who dabbled in the dark side; those who procured and sold human and animal body parts, offering customers what herbs and plants could not. It was them that Danny was interested in; someone who would have no problem committing a small crime for a kickback. Danny decided to cast his net far and wide; strategy not being a strong point – his only desire to be out of this place as quickly as possible, so that he could resume his sightless gaze over the sea, his mind conjuring up delicious ways to spend his windfall. He walked up and down the aisles as women pulled back the tarpaulin sheets that covered their wares – bunches of herb, called imphepho, which sangoma’s would burn during ceremonies, balls of clay to protect skin against the sun, and all other manner of dried herbs and bark. The sheer volume of animal parts – snake skins, monkey hands, vulture heads and pelts, was astounding, and Danny felt a small flicker of disquiet as he viewed the carnage. When he attempted to engage an old woman, who was sweeping the dust and seed husks out from under her table, in friendly conversation, she took one look at him and swept her broom right over his feet. As if he wasn’t even there. Danny kept on walking, surveying stalls on the left and the right. In truth, each stall looked completely alike to him. He wondered how anyone managed to make a living at all. He wasn’t sure what he was looking for, but he felt he would know as soon as he saw it. At the tenth stall, his gaze landed upon a skull with an incredibly long snout and a row of dangerous looking teeth. He picked it up, and tentatively tested the tip of his finger against a sharp incisor, wobbling the tooth in the jaw.

“Hello brother,” a soft voice in a Nigerian drawl interrupted Danny’s fiddling, “You looking to poison someone?”

“What? No!” said Danny, dropping the skull on the table.

“Pity,” said the voice, “crocodile bile is good for that.”

Danny hurried on, looking over his shoulder, checking to see if he was being followed. As he turned into the next aisle, he bounced off the body of a very compact Zulu woman. She righted herself and stood with arms akimbo, her feet planted wide. She wore a no-nonsense expression and her beady eyes drilled into his, as a throaty rumble challenged him, “Indiya, what are you up to?”

Haibo, mama, it’s a free country now – I’m surveying the wares.”

“Rubbish,” she countered, “a skinny, up-to-no-good Indian boy like you isn’t here to browse.” She clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth, in that peculiar way of South Africans in general, and Zulus in particular.

“Okay ma, you got me,” admitted Danny. He looked her over, deliberating whether he should start with such a cantankerous old lady. Maybe he should test out his pitch on someone a bit more hospitable. He turned and looked down the row of stalls. It was a scene of great activity, woman either sweeping, packing or fixing her display. They probably wouldn’t welcome him with open arms either, he thought. He turned to and with the most rakish grin he could muster, asked, “So Ma, how’d you like to make a little extra cash for almost nothing?”

The woman looked at Danny with a practiced eye. She knew there were all sorts who sought out the market, with dreams in their head and not a cent in their pocket. This one was as skinny as a township chicken and looked about as smart. But there was a gleam in his eyes that she couldn’t ignore.

“You’ve got one minute – and this better be good,” she said as she pulled open a flap of material that led into a broom cupboard sized space behind her store.

Thirty minutes later, Danny emerged, his dream almost within his reach. As it turned out, the woman told him she’d once been a highly respected sangoma, but when she realised she could make more money in the flesh trade – human and animal alike, she’d become a witchdoctor. She figured she knew exactly the person Danny was looking for and struck a hard bargain, 15 percent of whatever Danny was earning, and she’d find him his man. Danny was torn – she was asking for a large cut, but after hearing her story – he felt too terrified to double-cross her. So instead he agreed and they shook hands in agreement.

Just before he emerged from the fetid confines of the room filled with animal hides, she grabbed him by the throat. You never met me, she had warned him. So, take that silly grin off your face and play it cool. If things go south, she’d do worse than sell him straight down the river without even so much as a flick of her wildebeest tail. To prove her point, she brought the tail down on an unwelcome fly, disgorging its insides against the table. She let him know that the flesh trade encompassed all manner of unlikely customers, and fine Indian skin like his would sell quickly enough.

On that sobering note, Danny swiped a swathe of rancid hair over his brows, hunched his shoulders and made as quick a getaway as possible, while attempting to dodge pyramids of simian skulls and stacks of dried out honey comb.


They were the longest three days of Danny’s life. He hung around Lucky Pete’s Cafe, waiting for the call to come. Having no cell phone, he was tied to the café by an invisible rope, too afraid to leave in case the phone rang and he miss his one chance at changing his miserable life. When the call finally came, he struggled to hold the phone to his ear, fearing making his hands and face slicker than the grease pit the cook next to him was frying eggs on.

After a few minutes, he put down the phone. She’d found his man. Danny could barely breathe. He was rooted to the spot, a whooshing sound in his ears blocking out the noises of the kitchen. He picked up the phone again, and with shaking hands pulled out a crumpled square of paper, and dialled the number scrawled across it. After the third ring, the deep baritone of Khaya came onto the line. Danny, aware that the cook was looking at him with interest, blurted, “Meet me at the skate park in an hour. I’ve got him.” He put down the phone and, in an extreme effort of will, nodded at the cook, walked casually out the café door, continued sedately for a few metres, and then in a burst of triumph, turned the corner and ran all the way to the beach.


To be continued

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This story is loosely based on an incident reported in a newspaper article in April 2012. A green grocer, Rajen Moodley, living in Durban, South Africa, was approached by two men from northern Zululand. The men had an old rhino horn in their possession, and were looking for a buyer. Being unfamiliar with Durban, the men approached Rajen Moodely to help them locate such a buyer. Rajen was promised 10% of the R1.5million price tag attached to the horn. Rajen, enticed by the potential R150 000 he stood to make, went about the task of finding a buyer in the market for a horn. His first port of call were the local muti* markets, where he left his name and cell phone number with muti sellers, with the instruction to call him if they happened to hear of someone in the market for a rhino horn. One day, Rajen received a phone call to say that a potential buyer had been found; he then set up a meeting with the two men who had initiated the contact, in order to meet the buyer. They met on Durban’s Golden Mile outside one of the better hotels, and then made their way to another location to show the horn, hidden on the backseat of their vehicle, to the buyer. Once the horn was uncovered in front of the buyer, the police surrounded the vehicle and arrested Rajen and the two men for illegal possession and attempted sale of a rhino horn. For his role in the crime, Rajen received a 3 year jail sentence.

*muti: the South African term for tradition medicine; usually herbal.

I must stress that this story is completely fictional – apart from reading the one newspaper article on the case, I have no knowledge of Rajen Moodley, the others involved in this case, nor any other fact pertaining to the case. I was simply letting my imagination run wild.


Danny Naidoo was always looking for a way to make a quick buck. He was from a long line of down-and-out Naidoo men who somehow managed to evade gainful employment and yet remain marginally solvent through the hard work of a long line of Naidoo women. But even Danny knew he couldn’t rely on the females in his family for every meal, and had therefore perfected a system that ensured he was reasonably well fed without severing those already tenuous relationships. For Danny’s siblings were not impressed by his chosen lifestyle, which often saw one of them bailing him out of jail in the early hours of a Monday morning – having spent the weekend languishing in the cells, a warm place to lay his exhausted body, which was continually on the move as he outwitted the police bent on chasing vagrants from every tourist spot in the city.

Despite the fact that Danny was as long and thin as one of the many palm trees that dotted the promenade along Durban’s Golden Mile, he walked the streets with swag and a smile, waiting for the next best opportunity to present itself. For Danny believed that if one had the right attitude, and his uncanny ability to recognise the suckers from the street savvy, then a person could do rather well for himself on the streets. Nothing was considered an insignificant win for Danny; a cigarette bummed from a surfer, R2 flicked from the hand of a faceless driver – the car idling at a red light, R10 from a tourist still unfamiliar with the notes of a new destination, enough for an infrequent night in the local shelter. All small fry in the grand scheme of things, but they kept Danny alive to see another day. His optimistic outlook on life meant that he truly believed that one day his ship would come, steaming into Durban’s harbour, banners flying, steam billowing, to pick him up and transport him away from this life of frugality. He’d show them all that Danny Naidoo, perceived loafer and waster of space, was actually capable of great things – he just needed someone to offer him a hand. A hand that when stretched out towards him, he’d grab with every ounce of strength in his wiry body – he just hoped the hand was strong enough to lift him out, rather than be pulled down into Danny’s disreputable existence.

One hot and humid Durban day, the tar shimmering with peculiar visions that hovered in the muggy air, Danny saw his marks before they saw him. He was standing with his back resting against the wall of the local Chinese Mall, a cigarette drooping from his lip as he stared at the duo through a curtain of greasy hair. They looked completely uncomfortable as the roar of Durban’s city centre engulfed them. Two country-bumpkins ripe for easy pickings; a large duffel bag suspended between them, their hands gripping a handle each. Danny figured they were either from some rural area on the north coast of KwaZulu-Natal, or some one-horse inland town. He peeled himself off the cool concrete and sauntered in their direction; acknowledging a slow approach was called for, and with that he gently eased himself into their worried huddle with a friendly Zulu greeting, “Sanibonani”. Without looking up from the piece of paper they were examining, they responded automatically with the customary response, “Yebo, sanbona.” It was only when they lifted their heads that they saw the man they’d expected to be a Zulu, was actually a skinny Indian with a perfect Zulu accent. Danny grinned at their surprise and smacked one of them on the back as he made his introductions, welcoming them both to the beautiful city of Durban, asking them if he could be of any assistance.

Eish, brother,” said one, wiping beads of sweat from his brow with a well-used facecloth, “we are completely lost.”

The other proffered Danny a scrap of paper, the pencil markings smeared with the oil of the many fingers that had brushed its surface. Danny took it, studying the address with an air of concentration. He knew this place, it wasn’t a stone’s throw away. As he folded the piece of paper, he raised his head, his face a picture of concern,

Ey cuzzies! It’s lucky I found you. You’d have wandered in circles for days trying to find this place. Come on,” he said, grabbing a handle from the smaller of the two, pulling them both into a wildly convoluted tour of the city.

Danny made an hour pass quickly enough as he showed them the ocean, letting them taste the salty water for the first time, the cool ocean water washing over their tired feed. He let them gaze in wonder at tall buildings made of glass and steel, tentatively step on an escalator, and ride in a lift for the first time. By the time Danny’s tour was finished, not 500m from where he’d met the men, all three were the best of friends and made plans to meet up for a beer later that evening at one of the local taverns on Point Road.


That night, the three men sat closely together on sticky faux leather stools around a table that listed to one side. Much of the evening was spent ensuring that large quarts of Black Label didn’t slide right off the table to join the river of beer and broken glass that already soaked the men’s shoes. After a few beers and the usual banter, the conversation turned to the reason the two men had travelled all the way from the small town of Manguzi in northern Zululand, to the bright lights of Durban. Danny told them that he’d met many a man from rural backwaters who’d come to Durban to make his riches, only to find that he quickly became even poorer than when he arrived. Most had no connections and mistakenly thought that on arrival jobs were easy to come by, and cheap clean accommodation was available on tap. Only to realise that a life of even worse poverty awaited them, forced to live in hijacked buildings with no electricity or water, rubbish filling up disused lift shafts; the police knocking on doors at all hours. No, this was not the place for those with big aspirations and empty pockets. The city would swallow you up and spit you out in no time.

Jah baba, this country is littered with ruined men! Just angry wives and hungry children to go home to,” nodded one of the men.

A silence descended on the table, as each man considered what an angry wife might do to such a man. Equally, a humiliated man could react in unkind ways, so perhaps it was best that these unfortunate men remained in the city of broken dreams.

Danny, never one to dwell on unhappy thoughts, looked up at the men and said, “So laanies, what’s your story?”

They leaned in towards the table, drawing Danny in with them.

“Rhino horn,” whispered the older of the two.

“Rhino horn?” Danny cried.

The younger man clamped his fingers around the tender spot above Danny’s knee, silencing him immediately.

“There’s big money to be made in rhino horn.”

“I’m sure there is,” said Danny, “but I sure as hell didn’t see any roaming around the city today.”

The two men shared a glance. They needed someone with imagination and street smarts, and currently, Danny appeared to be lacking in both.

The older man traced a pattern through the droplets of water beading his bottle of beer, “Where are you sleeping tonight, Danny?”

“I haven’t decided yet,” he mocked, “maybe my mansion in Morningside or my penthouse on the beachfront.”

“Stick with us Danny, and that mansion in Morningside won’t be a dream for much longer,” said the other.

Danny took a long slug of his luke-warm beer, studying the two men around the bottle. There was about a ten year difference between the two. They appeared to be related; maybe brothers, but possibly cousins. The younger man, Mandla, spoke excellent English. But Khaya possessed a calm confidence, while nervous energy flowed from the fidgeting hands and dancing feet of Mandla. It was obvious that neither man was in rolling in it, but then looks could be deceiving.

“Okay cuzzies, you got my attention,” said Danny, “how you gonna make me rich?”

The three men leant in, their heads almost touching, and the older man began to share their story.

One afternoon, as they walked home, they passed an isivivane, a pyramid of stones created in memory of the deceased, which had grown in size as the years went by. As was customary, each picked up a stone ready to throw it onto the pile, when the younger noticed a piece of fabric and what appeared to be greying bone, poking out the bottom. They’d both reared back in fright, imagining the bleached bones of a long deceased freedom fighter, rising up to attack and dispatch them with practiced ease. Then they’d remembered that it was a symbolic resting place of the dead, and a heated debate ensued listing the pros and cons of vandalising such a site, with the older mentioning the likelihood of retribution from the ancestors, highlighted by a lifetime of bad luck. The younger felt less strongly about traditions and secretly did not believe that ancestors had any say in current matters. What if, he said, they uncovered the body of a missing person, and the police offered them a reward for their troubles? Surely the ancestors would not object to the reunification of a missing person to the family burial site. They should, in fact, be quite pleased. So as the original pile diminished, and a new pile grew to its left, the anticipation was palpable as the last layer of stones was removed. And there, at the bottom, wrapped in a dirty, threadbare blanket was not the bones of a man or woman, but rather was the unmistakable sight of a large rhino horn. The two men sat back on their heels; a horn was not exactly a lucky find.

They knew there would be no reward for finding the horn. If anything, they’d be locked up in jail, the police more likely to believe that the men had poached it, and having failed to sell it, were looking to make a quick buck for their troubles. So they took it with them, wrapped in the dirty blanket, hurrying as fast as they could, as though the band of poachers themselves were in hot pursuit. The horn was hidden under the bed of Khaya, and stayed there for two years. It only ever came up in conversations late at night, the smell of Black Label on both their breaths, their hopes pinned to the possibility that one day they would sell it and make their fortune.

A month ago, the men had been drinking in a local tavern. The small room was filled to capacity, and people were jostled up against each other in their determination to get to the bar. It was impossible not to hear the conversation between three men next to them. The men were boasting of their great financial windfall and were buying drinks all round. One of the men, particularly loose-lipped after his fourth quart of beer, was draped over one of the lovely ladies purposefully positioned at the bar. He was leaning over her, retelling a well-worn tale of great danger; the poaching of a white rhino in one of the nearby private game farms. Although he hadn’t pulled the trigger, he had the risky job of sawing off the horn as the beast breathed its last, paralysed from a shot to the spine.

“And, was it worth it?” she said, wondering whether she’d be rewarded for enduring his yeasty breath and wandering hands.

“Yebo sissie, come outside and check my ride.”

“Hm mm,” she said, as she stood up and readjusted the length of her skirt, “then you can show me the back seat.”

As the two left the bar, one of the other men took up the story, explaining how they’d smuggled the horn out of the reserve and into a waiting car. From there they’d driven to Richards Bay and met a middleman who would transport the horn to Vietnam via a shipping container leaving the harbour. The three men were paid very well for their part in the plan, but not nearly as much as the middleman, who would put all three of his children through university with that one transaction.


To be continued

If you can’t wait to read the next two instalments, click here for the full story: A Rhino’s Revenge (Full Story) http://wp.me/pYnie-fY

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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.

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Maboneng Precinct

Maboneng Precinct

Over the past while I’ve been reading Resident Alien, a collection of articles written by Rian Malan (author of My Traitor’s Heart, a book I bravely tried to read in my angst addled teens, but gave up after chapter 1) spanning twenty-something years. It’s been an education. I think as South African’s, we forget, or at the very least, are blasé about what we’ve been through, and what we managed to achieve. Has it all been good? No. But has it been exciting? Without a doubt. What I really love about Malan’s writings is that he isn’t afraid to put it all out there; sometimes messy, often negative, but always honest. But then he’s as brave to admit when he was wrong, and when his white, male South African-ness was just a tad too quick to judge, too quick to expect the worst.

I remember sitting in a bus, on the way to the beach, in 1994. It was one of those perfect Durban summer days, and the beach was calling. The bus was full; whites standing alongside blacks, jostling against Indians, swaying against all of humanity. Next to me sat an old white man, in fraying shorts and leather sandals. As he watched another black passenger embark, he turned to me and said, “I don’t think you’ll ever quite understand how hard this is for some of us.” And to be honest, at the age of 14, I didn’t. I’d grown up in a fairly liberal household, with a black sister, attending an all-girls, ethnically mixed Catholic School since Std 1. And before that, a multi-racial primary school. This was a pretty normal experience for me. But for this man, who’d been raised to believe in an ideology of superiority and separation, it must have been hell. Every fibre of his being must have been screaming out in bloody protest. Nearly 20 years later, and I still have moments of utter revelation at how far we’ve come. I see it when I sit in one of those wonderful Woolies café’s, sipping on a gingernut and honey cappuccino, and at the table next to me is a young black family; little girls in frilly dresses, mom looking like she just stepped off of a catwalk in Milan, dad looking every inch the successful businessman. Or when I head into the more unsavoury parts of Jozi and find, in an old parking lot, a roaring food market and a completely racially mixed crowd, chomping on oysters and chucking back glasses of champagne, tucking into steaming plates of paella and waiting for handfuls of exotic mushrooms to roast and layer onto their freshly baked sourdough loaf. It’s amazing. Here we all are, together, merging and actually enjoying it. Who would have thought.

In Malan’s article, Kind Words for a Mean Town, he talks of his fondness for his hometown, Johannesburg. And how, though strangers and foreigners will probably never understand it, he loves it. It’s a city of contradictions and surprise; of old Africa and the new world, “witchdoctors entering one building, accountants exiting the other” (p.268). And I feel the same way, not necessarily about Jozi, because it’s not my hometown, nor do I feel particularly drawn to it, with its beige and tan coloured gated estates, and its obsession with money and status. But it is how I feel about South Africa. As broken and dangerous as the rest of the world may perceive it, I love it…it makes me feel alive. I’m rarely bored, hardly a passive spectator, always a participant in some aspect of life (often someone else’s). Malan says to foreigners, and I’ve thought it enough times myself: we may not live as long as you, and we may never be as materially wealthy , but man will we live on the edge (p.269), on the cusp of something wonderful and dangerous and exciting. And I don’t know if this in an unhealthy way to live, but I couldn’t think of anything worse than being perpetually safe, nanny’d and unchallenged by the sheer ferocity and unfairness of life, which is dished out in a seemingly random lottery in our neck of the woods. Because as Malan says, “it’s a jungle out there, the most dangerous city in the world. But also the most interesting, if you have the courage to go.” (p.267). And courage we have aplenty, and go we did, into the heart of darkness.

Myself, and two friends, recently returned from our bi-annual cultural pilgrimage to Jozi; South Africa’s crime-ridden den of iniquity – and it was awesome! Durbanites are considered lazy, backwards and far too cool to actually buy a ticket to an international concert or play 8 months before the artists arrive. Instead, we find ourselves excluded from virtually every tour, spending three times the amount on accommodation, and flying or driving up to Jozi. So, to make it worth our while, we really go out of our way to explore the city. This time, we stayed clear of trendy and “safe” Parkhurst and Greenside, and headed straight into inner Johannesburg.

Maboneng Precinct main change

View from the Main Change building

Our first find was the Maboneng (place of light) Precinct, which can be found under a freeway, just off of Fox Street. It’s part of a regeneration plan for the less than desirable parts of the city, and has been upgraded to encourage urban artists to flood the inner city with their creative spirit. We headed into a courtyard of pebbles dotted with lemon and olive trees, and walked through to an old building filled with art galleries, edgy clothing stores and photographic exhibitions. It was a Friday, so it wasn’t exactly humming, but apparently the weekends are great, with a little market pulling in the crowds. We walked up the street, past gritty walls covered in graffiti, and were greeted by private security guards standing on each corner; letting you know that you are safe here in this once unloved section of the city.

At the Main Change building, we took a lift to the fifth floor, to check out a rooftop venue called Living Room, an eco urban café,  and walked into a fresh, green oasis of calm, succulents hanging off of and out of every available space. Nedbank was hosting a “green” event, but no-one seemed to mind our intrusion, so we sat and drank revoltingly healthy fruit and vege smoothies, and watched as small succulents were tenderly separated and replanted, as take home gifts for guests.

Maboneng Precinct

A walk through the Maboneng Precinct

The next day we made our way to Braamfontein, to find the Neighbourhood Goods Market. The market, can be found inside a building on 73 Juta Street, and is based on the successful Cape Town version. It’s apparently a landmark building, and again, the concept is based on regeneration of urban areas; getting people back into the city, claiming space that had fallen prey to misuse and crime. As we walked up the street, we passed a little corner deli and coffee bar; the scent of roasted coffee beans spilling out the door. Next to it is a retro camera shop, selling lomograph cameras and showcasing an exhibit of images taken on an iphone across South Africa. If you look closely enough at the detail, you’ll find small cement turtles making their way up the sidewalk, ready to cross the road, and explore the great beyond. You’ll also find a bustling, noisy, wonderful crowd of hipsters, students, foreigners, locals, buyers and sellers, all under one roof. The market has the feel of an underground car park; cement floors, harsh overhead lighting, and pools of water bought in by sodden feet and dripping umbrellas. But inside it’s also alive, with the scent of community spirit and optimism.

Juta street

Unconventional art on Juta Street

I left Jozi feeling a little less uneasy about the city, and more inclined to continue our exploration on our next trip. Walking those streets, I got the strong impression that the people that now inhabit these formerly avoided areas, did so with confidence and with sense of belonging. They were staking their claim and creating a new space, filled with movement and purpose, and a love for their city.

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