“SOMETIMES ON a Monday I don’t work,” he says apologetically.
“How old are you?” 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 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 70s Johannes ended up in Soweto. “I started selling stems on this road,” he points in the direction of Beyers Naude Drive, “in 1982.”
“Tell me about your family.” “I have 4 children and they all live with me. The firstborn 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?” “91.9.” 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. Kaia 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.
“How old is your son in the wheelchair?” “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 9 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 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.”
“Do you believe you will get one? “Yes later. It is many years 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.”
“Do you have 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 buy them at Multiflora in City Deep at the market; it opens at seven in the morning. I started buying there in 1982.”
“How many do you buy?” “It depends how much money I 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 8 or 7 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.”
“When are your best days?” “At Christmas and New Year I am here because it gets busy.”
“How do people treat you?” 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 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.”
“Then what do you do?” “I go home. 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?” “If I 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.”
“What does transport cost you?’ “A taxi here in the day is 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?” “If I can make a small Spaza shop in my house I can stay home and I can feed my children. It is my place, so if I open a Spaza, no-one will complain. I can sell paraffin, soap, sweets…”