Bembe has just marched through the doors of the MES shelter in Joburg, treading behind a long line of destitute people, in a daily routine that he has become accustomed to.
He will be given his first meal of the day, which comprises bread and tea. While it’s election season, no one in the group of men and some women gathered at the shelter’s main hall are prepared to air their views on voting.
“Why vote? The government has forgotten us,” shouts Bembe, while another man grumbles that he is hungry and has no time for this election “nonsense”.
Another man jumps in and asks: “My sister, are you here to help us get IDs?”
As the city awakens, similarly in the Pretoria CBD and many parts of the country extending to Cape Town, KwaZulu-Natal, North West, Free State and other provinces, a string of the homeless line bridges and pavements with cardboard boxes and old blankets that serve as their makeshift beds. Just like many in the city, they too wake up to the roaring sound of taxis, buses and trains streaming past.
The only difference with this group is that they don’t have a roof over their heads. Often, the only permanent fixture above them is the blue hue that wraps the sky at daytime and the infinite black blanket that covers the same sky in the evenings.
Back at the Joburg shelter, Josephine Mamorabe, 58, is also there to get breakfast. She tells of how she landed up sleeping on the streets.
“I lost my job a year ago and have not found anything since. I’ve been looking, but who will hire a 50-year-old someone like me? These days, employers are looking for much younger workers,” she adds.
Mamorabe maintains she is new on the streets and has been homeless for the past nine months. She adds, however, that she has become au fait with the city’s streets and knows every corner.
She and several other women have employed survival strategies which include ensuring they never walk alone and are around familiar male faces all the time. This, she says, is the best way to be out of harm’s way.
“To be honest with you, the metro police are the only ones who give us trouble around here. They chase us off the pavement and tell us to go back to where we come from, but I can’t. My children know that I’m in Joburg but they have no idea that I live on the streets.”
Mamorabe explains that accessing the clinic or the hospital is quite easy, just as long as she takes care of her hygiene.
“I’ve seen how those nurses look at us when we come into clinics.
“If you look anything like you come from the streets, you get scolded, so I make sure that I know my story before going there,” she says.
To keep herself clean, she uses ablution facilities at a building known as Governor’s House, a stone’s throw from the Constitutional Court.
This is where all the homeless are given access to showers.
Mamorabe is grateful that she has reached the age of menopause.
“We’ve heard about many people campaigning for free sanitary towels.
“It is hard out here in the streets, especially for these young women.
“Yes, the shelters help with toiletries now and then, but if anything, being homeless has taught me that one has to hustle for themselves.”
Ben Moseou is another of the homeless who has embraced the spirit of hustling.
Just like Bembe and Mamorabe, the 38-year-old arrived in the city several years ago in search of work.
He was unlucky and now survives by recycling plastic and tins.
“I believe one of the ways the government is able to help us is by equipping those who are on the streets who have skills, which will help us improve our lives,” he says.
On the other hand, * Themba, 26, from Sebokeng, left his home and has never looked back.
He is cagey about revealing why he landed up on the streets but insists he will return home when everything is okay with him.
Bembe, who is visibly opinionated, again takes control of the conversation inside the hall.
“We have been on the streets for years. We have tried to obtain jobs, but most of them are given to people who were not born in this country.
“If you drive around in the city, many people from outside this country occupy these flats,” he adds.
Bembe maintains that he has been privy to the elections campaign.
“I have received a countless number of T-shirts from political parties.
“We have also been given food, but this often happens once in a while. What about us during the year? What about our needs?” he asks.
Phillip Molebatse, 69, from Orlando West in Soweto says: “I don’t want this life. I’ve been pushed to it by hard times and family circumstances.
“I need a chance in life and pray for one every day. I can’t live in a shelter for the rest of my life,” he laments.
Molebatse, a former driver, lost his home due to family squabbles.
Picture: Nokuthula Mbatha/ANA
He says matters worsened after his wife died. Being on the street, he has also lost all his valuable possessions.
“At one stage, I asked another man to hold my backpack for me while I went to shower at Governor’s House. When I got back he was gone,” he says.
Up to 90% of those spoken to maintained that they had lost their jobs.
Pat Eddy previously the manager of Cape Town’s Central City Improvement District, said: “It is extremely difficult for people living on the streets to obtain a disability grant because they seldom have an ID and cannot provide proof of residence.”
Last year, the Constitutional Court granted the Electoral Commission of South Africa an extension to update the voters roll with addresses for all voters.
However, many people who would qualify to vote if they had IDs have been left off the voters roll.
Home Affairs spokesperson Siya Qoza explains there are regulations that have to be adhered to when one applies for an identity document.
“The first issue of an ID is free when you’re over 60. If you can prove that you have lost your ID in a natural disaster, then a second one can be issued to you.
“There is no generic answer for homeless people. Every case is treated on its merits,” he says.
If he were able to vote, Bembe says he would vote for a government that would consider everyone, rich or poor, and not just pay lip service to this.
For now, as many people in the country prepare to vote next month, the preparations by Bembe, Mamorabe, Moseou and many others who are on the streets will be of a different kind.
They will spend the coming weeks figuring out how they will survive the harsh mornings and the unforgiving chill that they will be facing at night.
* Not his real name