While stopped at the traffic lights at the intersection of Republic and Nicol, a glowering youth, who just moments before had performed a spectacular juggling routine, stood in front of my car. If he didn’t move when the lights changed, I would have to make a detour around him. I waited. Motionless, he glared malevolently at me. The lights changed. He never moved. I drove straight at him.
Ironically, despite my attempt at grievous-bodily-harming the juggler, I’m a great fan of some street people.
I often tip them. Chat to them. Buy from them. Fist-pump them. Applaud the astonishing precision of their dance moves and marvel at the dexterity of their juggling. Sometimes I ignore them. Once in a blue moon, I try and run them over.
And there are millions of them. If you put them into categories, the list just goes on and on. The cold-drink sellers; the electronic whizzes who in a nano-second can determine exactly which phone charger you need; the kneelers, limpers and other disabled wretches; the sad, blind souls with their bored looking guides; the generally cheerful newspaper sellers; the intense avocado and fruit men; the absurdly talented dance troupes; the world-class jugglers; the animated rubbish bag men; the sycophantic car guards; the ghastly, aggressive windscreen washers; the beggars and the pushy Homeless Talk salespeople. Oh, and of course, what about the rubbish re-cyclers that infest our roads?
“Traffic light people are a way of life in South Africa”
So why did I try and wipe the juggler out? Why didn’t I just drive around him?
Undeniably the street people are a manifestation of how the government and society (us), have failed them. That they have to spend long days in such generally unedifying pursuits, in Spartan surroundings, simply to scratch a living to survive, is wrong.
However, after some reflection, I decided, rather than annihilate some poor street person to alleviate my subliminal guilt; maybe I should learn something about them. Perhaps, in some tiny way, through learning about their lives and disseminating their stories, people might be more tolerant of street people and I could subtly improve their lot in life? And maybe; just maybe, I’d find them less annoying?
The next time I was at the finger-giving-hostile juggler’s intersection, I pulled over and hailed him. After a moment, he reluctantly acknowledged me and slunk over to where I was standing. He stared at me enquiringly. Fortunately, he didn’t recognise me as his failed assassin.
His name is Kutlang (“come back”), but he calls himself Snake. I immediately thought of all the worst reasons why he might have earned that alias. “Why Snake?”
He explained it was a nickname he got at school, because of his penchant for collecting reptiles. Interestingly, just as kids at prohibitively expensive, posh private schools get nick-named after their interests; so was he at his township school.
At first he was reluctant to chat and displayed a general air of apprehensive disinterest.
“Sorry,” he said, “I don’t trust anybody.”
“Why is that?”
“I got put into prison for three months. A woman lied to the police; she said I tried to pull her window down.”
“No, I’m not a thief – I’m a juggler.” He then told me a complicated story which seemed to involve mistaken identity, lying, unsympathetic policemen, lost paperwork and three months in Randburg prison. Just as I thought I’d like to hear the woman’s story he said, “Worst of all, she told the police I tried to take her car keys. Why? How could I take them when I don’t know how to drive?”
By then, in the interests of being able to hear him above the traffic, I persuaded him to get into my car. Initially he sat uncomfortably on the side of the passenger seat with the door open; seemingly prepared for a quick getaway.
I ignored this and carried on chatting to him as if we were old mates. To my pleasant surprise, it didn’t take long and he pulled the door shut and got comfortable.
“When did you start juggling?”
“In 2007, after I had been a bad person…”
“Yes. When I was 18, we used to rob people in the street at night when they came home from work.
“How did you get into that?”
“Friends. Wrong Friends. I got caught and was sentenced to 15 years. Seven years in jail and 8 years suspended. In the end I did 3 years and 6 months in jail.” (It might be apposite to note here – Oscar Pistorius got 5 years for murder…)
“Then when you left jail?”
“When I left jail I knew it was going to be difficult. But I found my little brother could do this juggling. He learnt it from a guy who had been in the circus. On the basic juggling I took a month. In the beginning it was difficult because I am left-handed and the other guys were right handed so it was difficult to catch their skills. My brother gave me breakthrough when he told me I have to watch the middle ball. I can also do stilt walking and uni-cycling, and I can juggle clubs. But I can’t afford those things.”
“What do you do if you need the toilet?”
“We go to Pick & Pay – they know we are also their customers. Sometimes, if we have money, all us guys (at the lights) join hands and buy some food…”
“What do you do about other meals?”
“My mum cooks me my own stew. I don’t eat meat. I am a Rasta.”
“Tell me more about the snakes.”
“I have love for animals because the animals show me this thing is not only in me; they also have love for me. I groom other animals like tortoises, hamsters and birds… It’s what I like from when I grew up. I like snakes.”
“Can you tell which ones are poisonous?’
He nodded and explained how he extracts venom from them by putting straws on their fangs.
“What do you do on weekends?”
“On a Sunday I hunt. Jackals, Bosvark, Porcupines… a few of us train Greyhounds, and then compete to see whose dog is the best hunter. I love my dog.”
(Who would have thought?)
“You sometimes come across as a bit unfriendly, are you?” (I was tempted to tell him I’d tried to run him over, but thought it wasn’t the right moment.)
“I am a very short-tempered person. I grew up with a lot of anger. My stepmother used to beat me all the time. She would hit me with a rope – for small things. My father didn’t stop her. He was a good guy, but he listened to her; not us, his children. He didn’t have a problem with her punishing me. My father didn’t want us to know where our real mother was. But I left. In 2002, I found her myself.”
He continued, “I also get angry because I can juggle for around an hour and twenty lines will pass, and I get nothing. Makes me cross.”
“Do you think it is a racial thing – (the usual SA demon)?”
For the first time, he laughed. “No of course not. It’s a money thing.”