The Homeless of Cape Town: Angels and gardens to "grow people".

Marzahn Botha

2018 - Ongoing

A New York Times journalist, Nicolas Kristof, once wrote an article about drinking dangerous water in third world countries. Thanks to the brief report, his wealthiest reader, Bill Gates, would devote his philanthropic attention to producing clean water in third-world countries. Kristof’s response to this was: “In journalism, we cover stories that happen today. We miss the stories that happen every day. We miss the stories of the daily struggles of life, and we miss the stories of daily success.”

The city of Cape Town in South Africa has almost 8000 homeless people, and there are only beds in shelters for about 2500 individuals.

You see them everywhere, sleeping on their carton boxes in corners next to the road. They stand at traffic lights begging for food or money or stroll aimlessly like ghosts around without a purpose or direction. The streets are dangerous and unforgiving, and the life of many individuals are at risk.

The homeless couple called Margriet Pienaar and Riaan Engelbrecht has been living opposite my house, on the streets, for more than twenty years. They inspired me to go on a photographic journey with them and other vagrants that scurry to get food in their bellies. Addiction, drugs and crime is part of their daily lives, but these things are only the symptoms of something more deeply rooted. Yet, it’s not all doom and gloom.

There are NGO programmes like Streetscapes that create a vegetable garden for the homeless to work in to get their lives on track. Other individuals like Beatrice Elizabeth Barret (73) provides shelter and food for 26 children in her house that come out of abusive homes and have nowhere to go. She put them in schools give them all the love and attention they don’t get at home.

This series is about life on the streets but also provides answers to “grow people” instead of looking away.

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  • "Matriarch" Griet and Riaan.
    The matriarch of Gardens, Magriet (better known as Griet) Pienaar, 55, and Riaan Engelbrect, 45, are Gardens, especially Buitekant Street, the two most famous faces. The other two are Pretty Boy and his girlfriend Abigail. They have lived here for almost 20 years and sleep opposite Villa Portugese Restaurant. Griet is from the small Northern Cape town, Van Wyksvlei, Riaan van Stellenbosch. “The shops here weren't here yet, when I came here,” says Griet.
    "I got a R500 fine from law enforcement for being here, because they want to clean the streets. Where should we go?”
    Griet and Riaan are intertwined. If they look too deep into the bottle, there is a fight. She usually gets hurt. "If we have to talk then we are silent, if we do not have to talk, then it is a friction," says Riaan.
    “Then we are agitated. The past intervenes. We think things of the past. One laughs, argues, one goes his way, another goes his way, Riaan says.

  • Riaan Engelbrecht, Magriet Pienaar, Pretty Boy and Abby, are some of the homeless of Cape Town. Riaan and Magriet have been living on this corner for more than 20 years.

  • “All eyes on me”, Gardens in Cape Town, 2019.
    Jerome Botha, better known as “Pretty Boy" has a face filled with tattoo ink. He used to be part of the 28 gang of the Cape Flats, spent long periods behind bars, but doesn’t drink a drop today. He smokes dope.
    “Which gang is the most dangerous, the 26’s, 27’s or 28’s,” I ask. “The 28’s madam, they are looking for blood,” he replies, explaining in the same breath that he finished the underworld in 2006. His eyes are dark, but a glimpse of softness shines through as he talks to Abby, his dog. Jerome sleeps with his girlfriend Abigail in De Waal Park in their tent called “heksie” in Afrikaans. It means “little witch” in English. A slog from American rapper Tupac slaps his throat as he speaks: “All eyes on me”.

  • Abby comes from Abigail.
    The dog, Abby, is named after Abigail, who is “Pretty Boy”'s" girlfriend. The three of them stay together in a tent called “heksie” in De Waal Park.
    According to them, the three of them drink a lot of milk but nothing stronger. Jerome tells how a woman from Blouberg helps him to get Abby’s veterinary injections. The dog’s pink collar says “Abby”.

  • Riaan is Oliver Twist’s Fagin.
    When I look at Riaan and talk to him, he reminds me of Fagin from Oliver Twist. He even dresses like that, with two hats on his head in his red Converse and green jacket. Riaan has not fallen to his feet and has something to say about everyone. If a couple in front of Villa restaurant picks up a fight, even though he doesn’t know them, he will gladly shout from the sidelines: “Leave her, she’s a bad woman, get another woman. There is much fish in the sea.” Riaan looks friendly, but he is violent towards Griet and batters her over the weekend, especially when he is drunk and on buttons (speed). Riaan works in a Streetscape garden in Rugley Park.

  • “The man on the canvas is me.”
    On my daily walk from De Waal Park, I see a large painted portrait study on one wall of a gallery in Gardens.
    A well-known painter of the area made it, and it consists of tails of turquoise, blue, yellow, black - almost like that of a Van Gogh. All the difference, it’s not the famous Postman, but rather a streetwalker named Romeo Clark.
    Romeo stutters as slightly as he talks about his wandering. He says the artist took the photo about three years ago and then painted it. “I think it looks like me. This is just a younger version. Life on the street makes you older by the day,” says Romeo, looking at himself. I wonder what he thinks.

  • Romeo Clark poses in front of a picture on a canvas of his in Gardens, Cape Town.

  • The pretty woman under the bridge.
    Tracey Lee, 32, sleeps with her boyfriend, down at the bridge in Buitenkant Street. She is a beautiful woman in the neighbourhood. Her olive-coloured skin and brown-green eyes peek right in front of her. I always wonder what she thinks when she turns around, while the traffic and other nine homeless people make her noise. She hails from Worchester and has lived in Cape Town for several years. She begged at the Garden Center first but moved in the meantime. “I come from an orphanage and have no child or crow,” she says.
    The others in the area talk more about Tracey than herself. Maybe it’s because she’s missing a few teeth.

  • “It’s a beautiful woman,” says Magriet. “All the men fall in love with her. She now has an older man named David, who looks after her. He came into the picture the other day. They are probably in love. That’s a good thing,” says Magriet. Tracey tries to have it put she is addicted to crystal meth that rotted her teeth and give her a ghostly appearance these days.

  • Joseph and his Brother sewing machine.
    I found Joseph Pietersen (54) begging in Orange Street. And this Joseph? I ask. Why don’t you work anymore, and where are you sleeping now?
    He gives an evasive answer and says, “Madam, I sleep in the Mountain.” When I got to know Joseph, his life looked somewhat different. He had a job, food and sleeping space.
    He worked at a laundry shop in Gardens, and everyone called him “Josefaat”. While taking the photos, Joseph sits behind his sewing machine, a Brother Exedra. His lean legs tread the pedestal. He told me at the time he and his twin sister were born in Roeland Street Prison.
    “I didn’t know my father. My mother was in prison. “We were taken away from my mother at a young age. We just wandered from house to house. Then we joined a Muslim man who was a tailor. I started helping him and had a lot of fun. “
    He gets quiet. Tears start to wind up in his open, rolling down like silver threads from his cheeks. “I made overalls in jail.”
    “I changed the overalls colours from green to orange. The green ones were written off.
    “Later it was approved in Parliament. Today they wear my orange suits.

  • Joseph Pieterson sits in front of his Brother sewing machine. It’s just me and my Brother (the sewing machine) still working today. It is all I have.

  • I need a place to stay
    “My name is Ivon Saraffien I am currently 83 years old.
    I was a boilermaker for most of my life. Begging helps me collect R1200 ($100) a month to have a roof over my head in Woodstock. Without it, I will sleep on the streets and then my life is over.

  • Magriet got abused by Riaan.
    South Africa has one of the highest rates of violence against women in the world and on average, 3 women are killed daily by an intimate partner. The Department of Justice estimates that 1 out of every 4 South African women are survivors of domestic violence. In 2014/2015, it is estimated that 563 841 sexual offences occurred, but only 62 649 sexual assaults were reported. 8 174 of these sexual offences cases went to court, and only 1% of these cases resulted in a conviction.
    I am sad to say that Riaan abuses Griet very violently. He recently beat her so that she had to get 48 stitches on her head and she broke her leg while she was trying to get away from him. He banged her the next weekend again, making another gash on her head.

  • Margiet went to hospital after her partner Riaan abused her yet again. He hits her especially over weekends and when the booze and "buttons" (speed) flow, the men use their fists on their partners.

  • The hero of Harrington Street.
    Beatrice Elizabeth Barret, 73, never had children of her own, but Beatrice created a safe haven in Gardens, Cape Town, for children and the homeless.
    The African saying goes: “It takes a community to raise a child.” She is a slender woman who looks after 26 children who's parents can't look after them due to addiction or child abuse.
    As you walk past her large white heritage house at 119 Harrington Street, you will see her and her dog, Lemo, standing in front of the house.

  • Lemo looks after his hero.
    Lemo usually sits on a pillar and peers over his neighbourhood while his fiery oven is standing next to him. The other dogs, Sasha and Angel, are playing under her feet, but are always close. Beatrice has been living here for 33 years. She received a Bronze Menzi award from ex-president Jacob Zuma after she saved 10 childrens' lives after a fire broke out in her house. They were trapped under their beds in the top balcony where she saved them.
    “We live in dark times, I really don’t know where it’s going.
    “We must help the people to get off drugs because it destroys themselves and their children.”

  • Streetscapes gardens - Places where you grow people
    According to Streetscapes founder Jesse Laitinen, there are about 8,000 homeless people in the city and just 2,500 beds in the halfway shelters. “At Streetscapes, we don’t grow plants, we grow people. We may lose a plant, but we win people.”
    As the name implies, empty spaces in vegetable gardens along roads and highways or in neighbourhoods are transformed into a vegetable landscape that is built and staffed by homeless people. Here they stand under Table Mountain in the Roeland Street Garden, the starting garden of Streetscapes.

  • Growing people rather than plants.
    This is a Streetscapes vegetable garden in Rugley Street, Gardens, Cape Town. We all need to seriously start working together and invest in people to make our country at the tip of Africa work.