When I drive anywhere, I very soon find I’m dishing out change; which gets a few smiles. But by the 10th intersection, and millionth street person looking at me imploringly, I’ve exhausted my cash.
Then when I don’t give them anything, they glare at me and shake their heads and I get quite agitated. I feel like saying, “I helped all the ones before you, so don’t be unhappy, I just haven’t got anything for you today.” But why should they understand? Compared to their situations, I have a perfect life and all they see is me not supporting them.
However, there are some who when you say, “Sorry not today”, smile, wave politely and move on. They understand. Maybe when they scowl at me; I should smile, wave at them and move on rather than get irritated?
“Sometimes on a Monday I don’t work,” he says apologetically.
“How old are you?” I ask.
A small, white-haired, wizened chap with two front teeth missing, he shakes his head and says he isn’t sure, but thinks he may be 58 or 59.
By way of estimating he tells me, “When I was small I used to buy a half brown (bread) with the yellow half-cent, that big one - we were using that and getting change.”
He was born in Weenen in KZN.
“My father worked on a farm. He was planting everything,” he says. His family then moved to Ladysmith and at some time in the late 1970s Johannes ended up in Soweto. “I started selling stems on this road,” he points in the direction of Beyers Naudé Drive, “in 1982.”
“Tell me about your family,” I ask him.
“I have four children and they all live with me. The first-born is paralysed and is in a wheelchair.
"He talks too much that one,” he says smiling. “He can’t eat - his mother must feed him. But he is clever. We get him like this. We took him for treatment. But when we go home, he can’t walk. But he can read. Also he looks at TV a lot; we have a generator. One day a lady from a radio station spoke to me and then they give him a wheelchair.”
“Which station was that?” I ask Johannes.
Johannes seems to be a great fan of radio. “I love music; like Barry White. When I wake up I turn on the radio before I wash my teeth and I just hit the button for music. Kaya FM is nice and Radio Metro; that station we play too much at home.”
I must confess, during our brief acquaintance, I hadn’t really marked him down as a music lover.
I asked him how old his son in the wheelchair was.
“He is 27. He does nothing. His mother stays at home, because he can’t feed himself. She is not working. I have another son. He used to work at this BP garage.”
We were sitting at BP Express, adjacent to the petrol court. Johannes had ordered a Coke. “All I drink is this one,” he says, holding the bottle up to me. He goes back to talking about his son. “This boy was working here. I don’t know what happened, but he is not working here now. He left the job.
"He has a lady; they are not married, but they have a small girl.”
Johannes has two daughters. One is 17 and she is in Grade 9 at a school in Soweto; the other is 21 and has matric, but can’t find a job. They all stay with him.
“At home we are nine (people living) in the house. All these people I support. I pay for the school, the food, the transport, and the granddaughter is small and wants milk.”
“How many rooms do you have in your house?” I ask.
“I don’t have a house. I am in the squatter camp in Eldorado Park. It is zinc. But my son and his girl and his daughter, they got a room outside.
“I sleep in a room with my two daughters and my son and my wife.
“But I’m down for a RDP house. It has been too long now. Since 1990.”
But he believes he will get a house some day.
“Yes, later. It is many years (that) I get on this list waiting for houses, till now. My son in the wheelchair says, ‘I was small; now see how I am coming madala’,” Johannes says nodding, “and me too, I’m coming madala, waiting.”
I ask him if he has running water.
“Yes, there is a tap. We have no electricity - we use paraffin.”
He then gets quite agitated and tells me how, “They steal this electric. These people pull it and it is going down. When it rains and the small child is not wearing shoes and they touch it” He lifts his hands in the air as though praying, and says sombrely, “dead. Plenty of them are dead. We call it inyokanyoka; the snake for the electricity.”
“Tell me about the flowers - where do you buy them?” I ask him.
“I buy them at Multiflora in City Deep at the market. It opens at seven in the morning. I started buying there in 1982.”
He buys as much as he can afford. “It depends how much money I've got - maybe R250? Then I can get one bucket. It makes about 12 bunches. I sell for R40 a bunch; in a good day I can sell eight or seven or all of them. Sometimes I don’t sell and I must go back home. Like today, I sell nothing. Some days bad, some good.”
His best days are Christmas and New Year “I am here because it gets busy.”
“How do people treat you?” I ask.
It appears a lot of people are good to him. “I have got some who talk to me. Others they give me R20, but they don’t take flowers. A few give me food and also clothes. If I have money, I am happy - we don’t need a lot of money. If we have food, my family are happy.”
Johannes says they aren’t party people. His family appear to prefer to sit at home and talk, and he says they laugh a lot. By all accounts they are very close - he says he doesn’t really have friends and would rather be with his family. “We joke about everything. My kids, always they want to give me something to bite, because I don’t have teeth,” he says laughing.
“What do you do if you cannot sell all your flowers?” I enquire.
“I keep flowers in the bushes. They,” he waves at a patch of veld where there are a few scraggly bushes, “mustn’t touch it.
"But sometimes when I come here; no flowers - nothing.”
“I go home,” he adds. “Sometimes I put them in a box at the garage and a car sees them and they take it.” He shakes his head.
“What do you do about food?” I ask Johannes.
“If I've got money, I buy bread or pap and gravy. I don’t have lunch; if I bring food, only when I’m hungry I eat it finish. Then I eat at home at night. The family they cook. Good food. Pap, rice, they cook everything; they make dumplings with flour.”
He says a taxi in the daytime costs him R25.
“But at night it is a ‘delivery’, because I must be safe and that costs R55.
“Delivery takes me right to my house. I knock off at half past 9 or 10.”
Then he suddenly adds, “I don’t want this job now, baba, I’m tired.”
“What would you do if you didn’t do this?” I ask him.
“If I can make a small spaza shop in my house I can stay home and I can feed my child- ren. I can sell paraffin, soap, sweets”
Feedback on The Hunchback:
Last week, a motorist told the hunchback he had read the interview with him in the Saturday Star - and then gave him R500. “Life is much better, baba,” Zoroao said, smiling at me.
A Mrs Ruth Kramer has arranged for Michelle to have her eyes tested - pro deo - by ophthalmologist Dr Peter Rush at the Wits University Donald Gordon Medical Centre.
Kramer will also very generously pay for Michelle’s glasses.
The Saturday Star