‘Homeless not all the same’

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Marco Houston says he and his partner, Samantha Jantjies, have been living on the street for eight years. Photo: Jason Boud

Cape Town - Shane sleeps under a highway bridge in the heart of the city. He is 28. He does not want to reveal his last name.

CNN Travel listed Cape Town among the world’s top 10 Most Loved Cities last year. Shane does not feel the love.

He wakes each morning to the smell of exhaust fumes and the drone of traffic reverberating through the concrete of the Nelson Mandela Boulevard Bridge on Hospital Bend.

Shane’s existence is far removed from the glossy travel brochures. His story and the stories of others like him form part of a darker narrative. It is one that lends a cruel irony to the “Mother City” moniker.

Here on the streets, held in the concrete and carbon-monoxide embrace of the urban sprawl beneath Table Mountain, are those who no longer fit the soft nine-to-five flesh of society. Drugs, poverty, illness, abuse, apartheid - there are many reasons why people no longer fit.


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Themba Mqomboti, a former gangster, lives under the Nelson Mandela Boulevard bridge in Woodstock. Photo: Jason Boud


Shane has lived under the bridge for a month. Just him, some blankets, a few Tupperware bowls and a plastic water bottle full of a liquid that looks like urine. He says he is drug-free now, but his addiction has cost him his family.

“I don’t live here, I just sleep here. I chose to settle here because people rarely come here,” he says. “It just lessens the risk of me being harmed or my things being stolen. Another reason would be that I have some shelter for when it rains.”

About four months ago he found work at an IT company. It was hard disguising the telltale signs of his homelessness.

“I had to fake having come from a home and operate within a working environment without giving myself away. I had to fuss about small tells like clean, ironed clothes, arriving early and having money for drinks after work, so that no one would suspect that something was wrong.”

With nowhere to keep his clothes dry and safe from thieves, it was hard keeping up appearances. It was not long before his secret was discovered and he had to leave the company.

Shane now earns a living doing odd jobs for people who know him. He cuts grass and fixes computers.

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Fazel Sayed, a former bank teller, has lived between the barriers on Lower Church Street turn-off on the N1, for about three months. Photo: Jason Boud


“Not all homeless people are the same. There are those who choose to live like this and will probably always live like this. And then there are those who really want to overcome their circumstances. Ironically enough, you don’t see them.”

Shane believes society ignores the plight of the homeless and says there is less support now than before for those at risk of ending up on the street.

“If you go down to Observatory, you will be able to see new faces of kids living on the streets.”

He says more needs to be done to stop children slipping through the cracks of society’s fault lines: “Even if you’re living under a bridge, if you have some sort of education, then you stand a major chance of getting out of this life.”

Fazel Sayed, 28, lives on a traffic island in Lower Church Street, Woodstock, off the N1. He has been there for three months.


“I used to sleep near the long-distance bus terminals before the CCID (Central City Improvement District) chased us away, threatening to lock us up if we didn’t relocate.”

Three years ago, Sayed was a bank teller in Joburg.

“The branch that I worked in had been held up three times. This is why I requested to be moved to another branch. I heard about the post in Cape Town through my manager and scheduled an interview in February 2011.”

Coming to Cape Town was probably the biggest mistake of his life, he says. He went for the job interview. He was told someone would call him if he was successful. The call never came. His savings ran out. He could not find work.

“Although I kept looking and sending out my CV, I was never able to find a job.”

One day rolled into the next. A stranger in a strange city, he lost touch with his family in Durban. He was trapped in a downward spiral.

Today, the former bank teller collects scrap and does odd jobs, hauling rubbish to the Woodstock drop-off site to earn a living.

“People like us no longer live for tomorrow. Our circumstances have made our lives so difficult that we can only afford to live for today.”


Themba Mqomboti, 49, served 15 years for rape and murder. He was a gangster. When he came out, he had nothing. His wife divorced him. He has lived on the streets since August last year.

“I want to change my life,” he says.

He lives under the Nelson Mandela Boulevard bridge in Woodstock. He is one of small band of squatters. They shelter in three lean-tos on a traffic island.

“I don’t want to go home to my family in Joburg for fear of reverting to my old ways,” says Mqomboti.

He has a Grade 10 education. He picked up handyman skills in prison, but it is hard trying to go straight when people are not ready to trust you, he says.

“I try to sell chips and cigarettes, and I have to beg sometimes to have food in my stomach,” he says.

Law enforcement officers harass the homeless, says Mqomboti. They regularly pick him up. When he returns, his belongings are gone.

“I have to sleep with one eye open to make sure that my things don’t get stolen. I can only sleep for short periods at a time, and then I have to check that everything is all right.

“I talk to Jesus every second of every day. I believe Jesus is my life no matter what’s going on around me.”

Cleo van der Merwe, 19, grew up in Elsies River. While still at school, she became a “stroller”.

“I was a day stroller. I used to take the train after school to town and beg for money and head back home in the evenings. Although my family was aware of what I was doing, they did not approve of it.”

Van der Merwe dropped out of school at 14 and became a drifter, living exclusively on the streets.

“I was earning my own money, and I had the freedom to do as I pleased. It was better living on the streets back then compared with how it is now.”

Van der Merwe and about 10 other homeless people have settled in a narrow alley off Newmarket Street, next to the Nelson Mandela Boulevard turn-off. Their cluster of makeshift shelters lines the concrete ramp looking out over the Cape Town station yard. Van der Merwe begs for money, for food, and for drugs. Tik and dagga.

“Now that I know what it’s really like to live on the streets, leaving my home will be a regret that will haunt me for ever.

“I am okay where I am. I don’t want to return home to my community where I will be ridiculed for leaving.

“I don’t want to cause unnecessary stress for my frail grandmother who raised me.”


Cape Argus

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