80 Days Around the World in Durban

Ari Sitas

Solly Meer Tells:


He lived under the bridge of the highway, just as you entered Durban from Pietermaritzburg. There, where it said “Welcome to Durban”. The columns were wide with a large inset that allowed for comfortable lodgings.

That much, I know.

He was a regular at London Plumbers. You couldn’t miss him, his plaited hair or his matted hair stood out.

He was always there for the bullshit sessions over lunch-time when all the guys would be out in the yard. But heck no, we didn’t know much about him. You could just feel, that he had done things, been to places, you know?

His age was difficult to fathom, most Zulu people look younger than they are. Don’t they? He looked a bit like Thabo Mooki from Kaizer Chiefs, but taller.

No, no, he was not a rural boy - that you could tell. But, I’d be damned if I knew whether he was a Durbanite all his life. Now my guys, know a lot and know who’s who in the townships. Some worked in Sydney Road, others in New Germany, others in Mobeni, but they had not met him before. I even have one who worked as a stevedore and he never saw him anywhere there either. Two of my guys spent time in prison at Westville and they drew a blank.

Now Azad, my foreman- he is a bit of a rogue you know- he is a money-lender on the side- swears to God that he never borrowed a cent. And my guy Phineas who is all Zulu and superstitious, and my guy Muzi who is all praise the Lord and hallelujah, they both claim he is not of their type.

He is not a union member, he is not a member of the hawkers and recyclers association, he doesn’t behave like a trouble-maker although the plaits usually are a dead give-away. He has never worn an ANC or a Bob Marley T-shirt. Nothing!

He just appeared one day.

When I challenged him- what are you doing in my yard, man?- most of the Africans said, hey leave him alone. Even my Indian chaps said, cool it Solly, the guy’s OK. He did good business with us and after a while, I was comfortable. He paid for our metal off-cuts, waste and crap and came back for more.

You must understand how things are in our part of the world. There is a prejudice against people who walk the streets with a shopping-trolley and gather scrap to sell. And even a bigger prejudice exists against those who pick paper or open your black plastic bags full of rubbish. He was a cut above the rest. That I could tell. He didn’t beg for the first load of off-cuts, he bought it! How does a guy from the streets have R 150 to put down on the table? I’ll be damned, to this day I can’t tell. He won’t talk.

You know that I have a nose for money. He had money. I don’t know from where. It wasn’t in his clothes. They were slightly better than other street people. But when there was a collection in the yard because someone’s relative died, a car crash, AIDS, you name it, he would give. And when Muzi got married, he carted a twin-tub in his shopping trolley as a present! It wasn’t that he was quiet. He told stories, he rapped – you know rapped- like in verbal diarrhea- like poem-like. He even played the guitar. Zulus are like that. But he never talked about himself.

I don’t know about Johannesburg or Cape Town, but he knew Durban inside out - inch by inch. You mentioned Chatsworth- he was there. You mentioned Bhambayi or Gandhi’s Settlement –he was there. No, no, he would say Raboobee’s was on the second robot from Overport, not the first. Eish, C-section in Claremont, don’t approach it from BB, go left at Donald Gumede’s house and go around the corner and you are there. He could even advise all of us who had cars where to park, how to park and how long to park against any pavement in town. He knew best of all where parking could be found. Which car-guards to trust, he knew them all by name and by country of origin.

What surprised everyone was that he knew the white areas as well as he knew the black ones. He could read too. The first twenty minutes of lunchtime in the yard would be taken up with his reading of my morning paper and with his sighs. He sighed and paged. Then he would join the bullshit, the banter, a labalaba game here, a card-game there. He was at home at London Plumbers. Then, I would ring the bell and he would be off to sell and trade the off-cuts.

Was he married? Did he have children? Blank. Like any Zulu-boy he must have had family. He lived alone though under the bridge. He had his lunch with us. Once, I went to the bridge after work and he was not back home. I once offered him the little pondokkie that our night-guard used before we got a private security firm working for us. He declined. Where did he shit or wash? I do not know.

He just walked the streets and collected scrap. By lunchtime he came to London Plumbers. I could hear his shopping-trolley rattling down the street from my office. He would go straight to the yard, say hello to the guard, open the gate ten minutes before my bell rang. I would ring the bell and go out and give him my newspaper. The guys would join us with their packed lunches. I would go to the meeting room and there auntie would have laid out slices of bread and marge and the day’s curry. The guys would make a noise outside, looking into each other’s Tupperware, sharing each other’s coke, slip some cane in each other’s water bottles, pass around a smoke, steal each other’s polony. They would not just wash but put their heads under the tap. He was there, alone and with all of them.

What’s wrong with that?