On route to the cafe bakery for my end of the month – I’ve just been paid – warm buttered cheese croissant and creamy cappuccino splurge, in Observatory, Cape Town, I come across this couple sleeping on the pavement. They’ve just woken and are wrapped in a dirty leopard spotted blanket, seated behind a withering autumn bush, and are only slightly out of sight of the rushing to work cars swooshing past on the other side of us.
I can’t just walk by and decide to make their morning a good one. I approach, slow, making myself known and offer an apology for disturbing them. The man, groggy, looks at me with concern but then curiosity as I hold up the fifty rand note that I’m about to hand over – the cappuccino and croissant money.
He has longish greasy black hair and two-month stubble, takes the fifty and lets me see that he needs a dentist. I introduce myself. He introduces them both. I take out my cigarettes and ask to have a seat for a quick smoke. Mark gives his consent and I offer him one.
He’s chuffed, becomes more relaxed as the goodwill flows their way. “A Stuyvesant,” he chuckles, “Well-well, what a way to start the day.”
Lizzie says, “Yay,” softly, peeking at me from behind Mark. She’s shy and has thin and greasy light brown hair down to her shoulders and immediately strikes me as having a nervous disorder of some kind: her head swivels back and forth, back and forth, continuously, unless it rests against Mark's shoulder.
Their faces are beginning to take the shape of gaunt. Cheap street drugs tik or nyaope come to mind. The Sisyphean wear and spirit-tear of a difficult life going on for too long and becoming evident in them both. But if it makes the particular sphere of hell they’re caught in, more bearable, then this is for them to decide – not me – I’m not living their reality nor their story and I refuse the categorical imperatives of the outside looking in, but knowing all, lack of perspective: the problem of the prejudice of judgement, with neither hearing nor experience. And nihilism for the powerless, I know, is more often than not, swallowed.
I light Mark’s cigarette. Lizzie doesn’t smoke and I wish I had a bottle of water for her. “Why aren’t you guys in a shelter?” I ask.
“We tried again . . . a few days ago,” Mark tells me. “Lizzie could’ve gotten into the one in Woodstock. But they said I would have to go to Paarl. See, in the shelters you get out each day and can only come back later. But with Lizzie’s condition,” he turns to her, but she ducks away behind his shoulder, “Bro, I can’t leave her alone all day by herself.” He looks me in the eye.
I nod. But I’m not altogether convinced and my initial suspicion is confirming itself. But what a thing it is, I know, to love the damaged one and to be loved in return; caught in that inexplicable gravity – this unique symmetry of push and pull – of the path of a life less ordinary, together, and against the damnable cruel world. This too I know: you might as well ask Mercury and Venus to be more sensible and move further away from the energy of our star. And so, they’re doing things their own way – in the name of Love.
And what would being alone mean for either Mark or Lizzie? The quick drift into the empty, quiet and laughterless space . . . The end of their particular star dance and the need to face, in full, reality once more; the boring necessities that go with a life in the well-behaved and more tempered class of society.
Love – the type that the doctors of the mind and of behaviour term a ‘co-dependency’ but which I prefer to think of as the ‘star dance’ – more often than not, takes us far out of the status quo in all kinds of directions. Us, that is to say, couples with little-to-no personal support system and individually damaged, who then come together; forming a unique part of a city’s lumpenproletariat; being disciplined and punished for not being able to hold to the parameters of societal normalcy for very long, at any time, and who then end up homeless here, or there, there or here. Mark and Lizzie are here now.
My hope for them is that they both survive this chapter of their life and aren’t more damaged by the experience of being here, just now, because if they can make it through, they have the chance to go on to find a niche – and knowing what they do – of doing good for others and not being able to carry on by, too.
But yes, we can, when in this abject subject position, become quite ridiculous in antagonism with the social construction of reality and what ‘living well’ has come to mean for us all. Nowhere near the ‘eudaimonia’ that Aristotle speaks of in his Nicomachean Ethics, which is a concept entirely lost in our current neoliberal ideology of self-interest and money as the only way of being in the world, and where the structural habits of mercenary money-grubbing and the never-ceasing accumulation of stuff, leaves us with no time for anything, except mostly working and shopping, and this is definitely not actually, ‘doing well.’
And look, right here, sleeping on the side of the road with their dirty animal skin design blanket are Mark and Lizzie who in their extreme way are showing us that not only are other forms of life possible, but that for some of us today, something else is non-negotiable – no matter what.
Despite the bruhaha of the championing few: that we should not be prejudiced, discriminatory and stigmatizing towards the mentally ill, the disordered, traumatized, abused and different, the very architecture of the current system is built to normalize competition and so non-competitors stand little chance and all-too-soon, stop trying, sometimes altogether. Capitalist Darwinism: socialization of the fittest, best, and most obedient, which starts in our outdated Roman and Industrial schooling systems where the teachers teach, pupils obey, and parents go to work to afford their children in the school. Twelve years to learn how to read! Or is it twelve years to habituate rules? Okay, for the normal then. But what about the Mark’s and Lizzie’s and Me’s of the world?
Being poor, I’ve met various iterations of Mark and Lizzie now. I’ve been Mark. I’ve loved Lizzie. And what people who’ve never been part of their country’s CBD lumpen may not realise is just how creative, strong-willed, and resourceful we can be; the ways in which we invariably use our abilities in stubborn pursuits of other forms of being in the world of today. And many of us – exactly because of our refusal of the inherited vampirism of social relations – are good and caring people. But, being caught in the structures of uncare, everything does, ala Marx, end up being turned into a mere money relation and so if you don’t have any of the damning stuff – well, you end up here, because no one can get anything out of you. But take note, take careful note, of the star dance and all it represents.
I’m glad to have given up my end of the month warm buttered cheese croissant and creamy cappuccino this morning to have met these other nomadic members of our ever-growing, though fragmented, community. Mark and Lizzie used to be a rare example of the destitute. These days I’m encountering them more and more in my artistic and cultural interest in trying to understand this phenomenon. I decide to press a little further.
“What are the shelters like?” I ask, knowing well enough the answer. They don’t need to know this though. I’d like to hear what they think.
“Shit.” Mark says, as flat as a plastic coke bottle under a truck tyre.
I chuckle, offer him another cigarette and light one for myself – we both cue this to continue:
“Shelters are just another business man, more than anything else, and if you don’t behave yourself, and act all yes boss, no boss, three bags full of your bullshit boss – cheers! Good luck!”
“Uh-huh,” Lizzie concurs, smiling proudly at her man’s righteous indignation. I see for the first time that she’s missing both her front teeth – my heart goes out to her.
“Oh and,” – Mark has found an interlocutor for his pent-up contempt – “there’s one or two Christian ones too. But you have to accept their brand of Jesus into your heart. They’re like zombies, man! They want to turn you into one of them,” he pauses. Looks around. Then adds, “No. We’d rather sleep here on the pavement. It’s more interesting.”
Lizzie doesn’t light up, as before, when he says this and she rests her head behind his shoulder where I can’t see her face.
I know that this radical lifestyle they’re living is easier for him than for her. That she’d be more willing to accept the compromise in order to have a bed and a bathroom, clean clothes and regular meals, an easy glass of water when she wakes.
I nod for Mark, to give him camaraderie, and take a few draws on my cigarette in the momentary silence that follows but then to my surprise, and without lifting her head, Lizzie says: “They’re also shit!”
As a socialist, this is a theme I keep encountering: the weightlessness of the loss of hope, which is not ever, not sad. I believe in Jesus – the perfection of what a socialist is supposed to be – but I do not include organized religion in my belief cosmology because people like Mark, make statements like this, and people like Lizzie, concur them. And it’s a terrible loss in the western world that the market has entered the church; that Love your neighbour as you Love yourself, becomes, Love your neighbour as you Love your customer. There are none, more our neighbours, than the homeless. And I’m pretty sure that Jesus didn’t only love his own socio-economic-political racial-ethnic and religious tribe – he in fact had a lot to say to them. As ‘God’ of @TheTweetOfGod (with six million followers on Twitter) so eloquently put it on June 26, 2022: “One day someone should start a religion based on the teachings of Jesus Christ”.
To Mark and Lizzie, I say: “Guess you need a great credit score to be a good Christian these days”. They laugh. Mark pats me on the shoulder.
I can’t help but be reminded in this moment of Dorothy Day’s Loaves and Fishes or Nick Cruz’s The Cross and the Switchblade and actually being in the same place with people, to properly understand their fall. Isn’t it kindness, first!? Then the chance for change. It’s just not logical to expect people who have lived the type of lives Lizzie and Mark and Me have, to ever be ‘normal’. Chopping the tree down is a lot easier than letting it grow – five minutes versus a lifetime. But I’m convinced that it’s not individual people that are the problem – I believe the every-day person to be capable of extraordinary good – the actual problem, is that all of our lives are being scripted by the petrified structures we exist in, and we’re being packaged like products on an assembly line, which, organized religion sustains with its refusal to help heal the cause, instead of the symptoms. I mean, just as an example, when you and your church community are all on your way to heaven there’s no need to stop buying palm oil and petrol, on this earth.
I sigh inwardly at the weight of this change that’s needed and my thoughts flit to the well-intentioned religious people I’ve met, when I was Mark and had Lizzie by my side, and we were living our own type of star dance and ended up there, and here: the Hare Krishna couple with their engineering parts company and the Pentecostal couple with their reverse osmosis water company; who tried to help us by giving me work in their businesses. But we came to perceive this as others helping us, to help themselves, and what they were offering was the very lifestyle that we had denounced – the just scraping through each month: being allergic to a nut but being offered the comfort of its shell. We tried. They tried. Popcorn and peanuts just don’t sit well together in the same space. And in the end, we couldn’t form part of their more normal entrepreneurial world; continued on our own journey – a couple without, in exploration of, Cape Town’s outside-inside.
Cape Town has had a proliferation of homeless people over the last decade, anyone living in, or visiting this city – and each city in South Africa has a definitively growing populace of the CBD destitute – will very quickly notice just how many there are, here in particular.
Cape Town wants to be first class on par with Paris, London and New York, but finds itself in the so-called third world context; in a country that’s the most unequal on the planet. There is no denying that as an international summer destination and having one of the seven wonders of the world, front and centre, right on the tip of Africa, that this isn’t one of the most naturally beautiful cities on earth. And with a favourable exchange rate for so-called first-worlders to boot. And so, the best properties have – since the end of the Apartheid regime in 1994, and the ‘for sale’ freedoms of neo-colonial Democracy – therefore been sold to foreigners, for their summer holidays and South Africa’s wealthiest, who can afford their second or third, or in some politician’s cases, eleventh house, along its quite simply stunning and empty (but for the security company vehicles driving up and down) coastline.
There’s also no denying that the ordinary, non-well-to-do, non-wealthy natives of this city, are more and more falling off the table and onto the floor, into something akin to the first stages of a poverty apocalypse. And so, where the best parts of Cape Town are only for the 1% – the toilets still need to be cleaned and the toilet products still need to be sold. The city’s caretakers still have the apartheid-era informal settlements for this, but have also now developed satellite suburbs, with City transport shuttling everyone slowly in, when the sun comes up, and slowly far away, when the sun goes down – except that is, for the homeless, who don’t need to do anything.
The further problematic here though, is that the entrepreneurial middle-class, like remora’s attached to sharks, are buying apartments in these elite areas (to rent to holiday makers) and homes in the suburbs (to divide into multiple rooms and to charge extravagant rentals to any number of tenants in a single house, and thereby to be able to make, super quick bond payments) . . . But I’m on a tangent and Mark is busy telling me their story:
“We were actually working in London, believe it or not. But we were struggling” – Lizzie sighs with the memory – “and so we decided to come back home. Before we left, we were renting a flat in Sea Point, for R2,500 a month. That was like six years ago. But when we got back, a flat in the same block was going for R16,000 man! Like what! How the hell can anyone afford rent like that?!”
“Yes, I know” I say. And then tell them I’ve had a similar experience. That we were paying R4,300 for a room in a house, with four other working-class strangers, but that I was only earning R6,000 each month as a counter salesperson in a water shop, which left us with like R50 a day, to live on, never mind the cost of transport to even get to work. I tell them that we’d eventually been evicted and made homeless, too. But I stop there.
And when I do, Mark says, “Oh, I see”. My speaking to them making more sense.
But my speaking to them has also re-ignited the glow of the ever-burning embers of mourning in me . . . a large stone in my spirit shifts away from the tomb’s entrance . . . the memory of my Love comes back, and being there, with nothing but a blanket, and the cold, hard concrete, of Cape Town’s ground.
As I leave, Lizzie says, “I like your shirt”.
Which says: ‘Climate Change