Sleeping outside is a risky business. The constant threat of arrest, theft and violence means Nicolas Mbayi, 27, sleeps lightly. This week, Mbayi, along with hundreds of people who have little option but to call the streets of the CBD their home, added one of the coldest and rainiest periods of the year to their list of concerns.
The Central City Improvement District (CCID) has urged the public to contribute money and warm clothing to its Give Responsibly campaign before the wet and windy weather forecast for this weekend.
I asked Mbayi for advice: how does one get through a night sleeping rough? As it turned out, he had no great secrets. He opened a plastic bag he keeps under a tree by the Grand Parade, where he works as a car guard.
One by one the blankets came out - he had four. Two he spread out on the concrete, and with the other two he covered himself up to his nose.
“When it gets very cold, just move under your blankets to keep warm.”
On a balcony in Tamboerskloof on Wednesday night, I recreated the four blanket scenario. It wasn’t the coldest night, not by a long shot. Nonetheless four blankets aren’t enough.
At first it is okay, you snuggle in and it feels quite manageable. But then the inevitable moment arrives when you awaken stiff and shivering in a dark hour before dawn. You wonder why it took so long to snap out of sleep.
The warmth beneath a blanket has been overwhelmed by the cold outside. Unfortunately, the coldest moment, 4am, is the most forlorn of the night. Everyone else is sleeping, there’s no one around to complain to.
There’s nothing for it but to pull the blankets around more tightly and wait. That’s how people like Mbayi stick it out.
Most people don’t experience that pre-dawn wait, where sleep is impossible. I’d endured it only once or twice before - I recall a mid-winter night, camped on the banks of the Orange River.
When that moment comes, you can’t lie still. You move and shiver. You rub your arms, legs and feet. But four blankets are not enough.
“Winter has been too cold this year. We have suffered almost every night,” says Mbayi.
People sometimes die of cold.
Mabyi counts those he knew who died this year, one by one on his fingers: five.
When the rain came down on Monday night, Mbayi was sleeping in Vredehoek. His tarpaulin, which used to keep him dry, was stolen a week or two ago, he says.
So he packed up his blankets and walked to town. When it rains, up to 100 people migrate from where they sleep in the CBD to the bus terminus, one of the largest roofed public areas in Cape Town. They don’t sleep as there’s a danger of being robbed. So they stand around, waiting for dawn.
The CCID’s Give Responsibly campaign is intended to help people in Mbayi’s position.