"Danny is a tough nut. There are layers to Danny I don't think many people knew". Picture: David Ritchie/African News Agency(ANA)
It was a hot, dry day in 2016 and I had spent the preceding week and a half speaking to and meeting homeless people at the Service Dining Rooms in order to tell their stories for a special Cape Argus editorial series we were calling "The Dignity Project". 

Initially, we had tossed about names for the series like "Skarrel" - to refer to the daily hustle homeless people engage in just to get by - but none of the names aptly conveyed what we were trying to achieve. 

The Cape Argus editorial team at the time, editor Gasant Abarder, news editor Jade Otto, and myself, settled on The Dignity Project, because that's what we were trying to do - restore at least some semblance of dignity for this group of maligned people who, in November 2015, had drawn up a Homeless Persons Charter, the chief need of which was the "desire to be treated as human".

Gasant's instruction to me, his deputy news editor and head of special editorial projects at the time, was to find and tell the stories of the homeless people of Cape Town's inner city, without pointing fingers, vilifying anyone, appointing blame or passing judgement.

Let's just talk to them, and then write about it. Oh, and also, to find him someone to write a first-person account of life on the streets of Cape Town to accompany my pieces, which were to be published daily for a period of a few weeks.

You can imagine how difficult the second request seemed.

Of course, I believed I could find someone eloquent enough to write, convince them to do it for the newspaper, and ensure their content was in line with our editorial strategy, but a piece every day for four weeks??

Enter Danny Oosthuizen, someone my liaisons - Jesse Laitenen and Magadien Wentzel - said I had to speak to. It took about a week to just get through to him and have him agree to sit down with me and tell me his story. And boy, what a story. His experience and eloquence quickly set my mind that he would be the one to write for us. He would be the voice of the homeless of Cape Town. But, how do I convince him?

Danny is a tough nut. Guarded, careful, measured, hurt by years of disappointment, hardened by years on the street, plagued by his own personal demons - orphaned as a teen, betrayed by a lover, contracting HIV, being gay in apartheid South Africa, spiralling into addiction, losing everything, ending up on the street, constantly feeling abandoned.

There are layers to Danny I don't think many people knew.
Danny was a tough nut. There are layers to Danny I don't think many people knew. Picture: David Ritchie/African News Agency(ANA)
Jesse Laitinen, Manager of Strategic Partnerships at Khulisa Social Solutions, speaks to Danny Oosthuizen. Picture: David Ritchie/African News Agency(ANA)
Danny Oosthuizen and Thabang Motshwene. Picture: Tracey Adams/African News Agency(ANA)
But slowly, I peeled them away until I worked up the courage to pop the question: "Would you do us the honour of writing a daily column to accompany these pieces I'm writing, to add authenticity and give a voice to the voiceless?"

"Fuck, are you then jas?" came the irreverent reply.

But, he agreed, eventually. "How do I write? What do I write about? What must I say?" This man who had, upon first meeting, seemed so self-assured, so care-free, now showed his anxiety, his fear, his feelings of inadequacy I had begun to now recognise so easily in his compatriots.

"Just write about you. What do you do? What are your challenges? How do you survive? How would you like to be treated?"

Danny began by running from Cape Town Central Library, to Green Point public library, to Sea Point public library, and then back again, spending the 20mins free use on each public library computer trying to write up 20 columns to meet my deadline. This wasn't going to work out.

So, Gasant and I invited him to come in and work from our offices.

How could we challenge our readers' perceptions of homelessness if we weren't prepared to expose and interrogate our own - and the staff's - prejudices? Sheepishly he entered the office behind me, and Gasant met him at the door. They exchanged pleasantries, and Danny was assigned a computer. HR machinations and IT regulations be damned, we were going to ensure we met our deadline.

A few days later, I found Danny sobbing outside Newspaper House in St George's Mall.

"Lance, I can't do it. I don't know where to begin."

We talked, we consulted, we joked, we passed off the pending deadline as if it were nothing, "we could always push back the publishing date, but that may make us lazy".

Day one and Danny appears on the front page of the Cape Argus, shot by the incomparable Henk Kruger, with his front page lead: " ‘I’m just like you… but I’m homeless’ ". It's accompanied by Danny's Diary . This is April 2016.

Fast-forward to a year later, and Danny is still writing a weekly column for the Cape Argus, published under Danny's Diary. Things are going well - he's got fairly stable accommodation, and seems to be getting back on his feet - but Danny is restless.

He feels rejected by his homeless peers, feels alienated from his homed colleagues with whom he shares an office - he's a nowhere man.

Early one Monday morning, he grabs me from the office and pulls me outside for a smoke.

"Lance, I fucked up."

He'd had a relapse, gone on a bit of a binge, been arrested and spent the weekend in jail. Without a fixed address, and other circumstances, he's let go with a warning on Monday morning. His column is due today.

"Gasant is going to fire me. I'm going to end up back on the streets!"

I suggest we speak to the editor about it and be completely honest, and after we're done, Gasant says: "Danny, it's fine. But this can't happen again."

"What if people find out? What will they say?"

"Why don't you tell them? Be honest and open."

Danny is. And the outpouring of love and support from his readers overwhelms him. He gets support from people around the world who have followed his journey.

During the years Danny has worked for the Cape Argus, he has achieved some incredible things. He's spoken truth to power in a way many journalists fear to do. He's challenged the City of Cape Town's safety and security directorate, and its social services directorate, the CCID even adapted its approach to homeless people based on Danny's interventions and columns.

He's touched the lives of so many people. He's crept into the hearts of people who would never before have spared a homeless person a second glance, let alone a greeting or an offer to listen to them.

His work with Souper Troopers and his relationship with its founder Kerry Dale Hoffman has impacted so many lives positively. He's appeared on TV, on radio, and had an audience with some pretty powerful and inspirational people who have, in turn, expressed how inspired they were by him. He's been awarded honours, including the highest honour a Lions Club can confer on a citizen.

HONOURED: Cape Argus columnist Danny Oosthuizen receives the Louis Volks Humanitarian award from former Lions Club district governor Clive Fox, left, and new Merrimans Lions president Theunis Hattingh. Picture: Denzil Maregele/Supplied 

Danny Oosthuizen speaks at Voice of The Cape Radio station about homelessness and other related topics. Picture: Courtney Africa/African News Agency(ANA)
When he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last year, he was rallied around by his colleagues, his friends, and current Cape Argus editor Aziz Hartley convinced him that now was not the time to quit his column, but to keep telling his story. He owed it to his readers.

When I visited him a few days after he called me about his diagnosis, he asked me if I would continue writing if I were in his shoes. A friend, Sam Grass was dropping off a laptop the following day, but he wasn't sure if he could keep going. He had been scribbling his column on paper and handing it to Aziz to put in print. I told him it was his choice. And I'm glad he chose to continue to the end.

Sam and I took him out with our families a short while later and we asked him what we could do for him in his final months.

"There's so much I want to do, and I'm grateful to you guys for wanting to help, but you doing all these things for me forces me to face what lies ahead, and I'm scared. I don't want to be reminded. Guys... I'm going to die..."

I saw Danny last on the day he died.

He wasn't responsive, he had faded to skin and bone, the only movement in his body was the unassisted beating of his heart, and in the pauses between the beats and simultaneous breath, I wondered if it would be his last. The pauses are unbearable.

I can still hear his heartbeat.

I kissed him gently on his forehead after I had said my goodbyes, and promised to remember him as he was - a quirky, funny, dark, happy, disturbed, vulnerable, voracious, vivacious, loving, soft-hearted, quick-witted, feisty, humane, caring, giant of a man, in a tiny little frame.

The greatest honour I have yet achieved was handed to me by Danny on the day I left the Cape Argus editorial team, and has pride of place on my desk today: a Dignity Project Certificate of Appreciation, decorated with glitter. No printed piece of paper will mean more to me.

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My most prized accolade 🙏🏽❤ #DignityProject

A post shared by Lance Witten (@lancethewitten) on

Danny reminded me of my humanity, caused me to question my beliefs and prejudices, taught and retaught me forgiveness and compassion, and in the face of insurmountable odds taught me to be able to laugh through it all.

Upon his diagnosis he told me: "Well, at least I'll get to sing with Whitney, dance with Michael, and party with Amy before the rest of you do."

I have no doubt he's enjoying that right now. 

Go well, Danny. Peace be the journey.
"Danny was a tough nut... There are layers to Danny I don't think many people knew". Photographer: Armand Hough/African News Agency(ANA)

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