All manner of social, economic and political phenomena have come and gone since days before Christ, but none has ever changed that clichéd aphorism: the rich get richer; the poor get poorer. Durban is no different.  Growing numbers of folk of all ages, sexes, colour and creed – some disabled, others not – beg on the streets for a living. In People at Work, the first in this series, Fred Kockott reports from a front-row seat in The Durban Pantomime of Begging.

Traffic lights serve as the stage director. Every time robots turn red for oncoming traffic, players take up positions. On Sandile Thusi road there is the Bearded Vagrant, the One-Legged Boy, the Woman with Child. But these are not the people I want. The man I am after is elsewhere, on the corner of KE Masinga Road and Florence Mzama Street, performing his street ritual like a cuckoo clock. I call him Aka J.

Aka J’s histrionics make him impossible to ignore, but until this day I had never seen him collect money. I did, though, once see a big, burly man leap from his car with a baseball bat. Aka J momentarily lost his straight-legged limp.Aka J walks with a peculiar stomp as if he suffers an inner muscle or nerve deficit – a post-polio limp perhaps? But it is not this swinging, staccato stomp that defines Aka J. It’s his worship-begging: the flurry of hand signals, the rolling of flickering eyes, the incoherent muttering to the heavens. His is a cyclical repertoire with a distinct beginning and cynical end – the entire sequence completed within 2.5 seconds.

Aka J does not check the traffic lights for his cue. The intervals seem hardwired into his system. Before the three-second switch from orange to red are over, he is already amid the phalanx of approaching cars. Aka J completes at least two cycles of his repertoire before the front row cars has stopped. Up goes his right hand – the whole so-help-me-God trip. Then follow five sequences in rapid succession: 1) the gesture of praying; 2) pointing to the sky; 3) rolling back the head and showing the whites of the eyes; 4) the inaudible jibber-jabber; 5) a begging bowl gesture ending with an infernal, darting stare. By the time green light comes on and the phalanx starts moving, Aka J has touched almost a dozen cars, but not one soul.

Until I took time to observe, I was convinced Aka J was a tad mental. I also had an ingrained picture of him from unstudied glimpses (like other passing motorists I’ve mostly stared ahead as his nose comes within a breath’s distance of the driver’s window). In that ingrained image, Aka J had a contorted, cretinous face, unkempt, matted hair, breath like stale sardines and the eyes of a meerkat. Not so. Close inspection, camera on full zoom, reveals an almost James Dean movie star look, albeit broken-toothed and a touch feral.

Standing by the road, the robot green for approaching traffic, Aka J is calm, not fidgety, his inner clock marking time before the next foraging foray. He wears polished black shoes. His clothes are dirty, but his jet black hair has a shampoo sheen. He smokes but his teeth are white, his eyes ethereal. Somehow all this changes when the traffic light turns red and he is back on the street stage, a jittery, jabbering talking-in-tongues loony. Within seconds, a growing number of us look-straight-ahead drivers are doomed to damnation, cursed by the lead act in the Durban Pantomime of Begging.

 

Pic Credit: AKA J by Fred Kockott

This story forms part of a Roving Reporters series, Slices of Life. The series arises from Roving Reporters’ participation in the UCT GetSmarter Feature Writing course convened by André Wiesner.

Fred Kockott has been described by a colleague “as a breed of journalist now so rare in South Africa, they should be listed by CITES”. With more than 25 years’ experience in journalism, Fred has received several notable commendations and awards for his work, including runner-up for the first Taco Kuiper Trust Award for Investigative Journalism in 2006. Since 2011 Fred has been directing Roving Reporters, a Durban-based investigative journalism training agency. Prior to becoming a journalist, Fred studied to become an art teacher, and in 2010 spent three months painting a 25 metre-long mural  outside Durban’s Cool Runnings telling the story of the FIFA 2010 World Cup.  He is currently collaborating with internationally renowned sculptor, Andries Botha, in developing the Makotikoti Art Project – an unbelievable outcome for what began as a Taco Kuiper grant for a group of students in Durban.

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