Last week I was driving along the M3 towards Hospital Bend (in Cape Town, for those of you unfortunate enough to live further north) and I saw something. Someone, in fact. I saw a man on the pavement on the Rosebank side of the road. He was shabbily dressed in something that might once have been a dinner-jacket and a pair of crusty, stained, faded old pants and a matching pair of what might loosely be classified as shoes. He looked dirty, in a word, and was obviously poor and most likely homeless.
Like most South Africans, I would not even have noticed this man (this blindness to poverty and suffering – the counterpoint to, and mutually constitutive of, the privilege of the few – is a very necessary survival technique and is crucial if we are to maintain our sense of entitlement and our sanity) were it not for the fact that he was busy doing something very strange. He was on his hands and knees, you see, kneeling at the foot of the mountain in a posture reminiscent of the crawling Babas on their slow pilgrimages in northern India.
His posture, however, was the least of it. For while he knelt there he was busily engaged in the queerest activity I have ever seen. Gripped firmly between his lips was a straw, the other end of which was jammed into a crack in the pavement. He was clearly pulling hard, with all the force his tubercular tik-enfeebled lungs could muster. So fierce was his concentration, so adamant his entire demeanour, that for an instant my whole attention was forcibly arrested by this peculiar figure – so much so that I nearly drifted across into the left-hand lane.
I came back to myself in the nick of time, and just barely avoided crashing into the side of an over-loaded rust-encrusted, exhaust-smoke-spewing minibus taxi. After flipping the driver of this decidedly un-roadworthy vehicle the bird – force of habit – I went on with my day, and I confess I actually forgot about the strange filthy man completely until later that evening. It came back to me in a burst of hilarity, and I retold the story to some friends of mine I was getting wasted with. It was not simply funny, though, for I was also deeply puzzled by the encounter.
Suggestions as to what this man might have been doing occupied a significant portion of the rest of the evening. My favourites were the idea that he was using suction in order to retrieve a coin that had fallen into this crevice in the concrete, that he had broken a bottle of crackling there and was desperately trying to slurp up the remnants before they evaporated, that he was eating ants, and that he was completely insane and undertaking nothing in particular – was simply interacting with his environment in a way that could not possibly make sense to anybody else.
Some days later, I saw this man again. Only he wasn’t a man anymore. The same dinner-jacket, filth-encrusted pants and theoretical shoes adorned him, but they were now much too big for his slender and much shorter frame. He looked about 15 years old as far as I could tell through the layers of dirt smeared across his face. This time he was walking down Woolsack Drive, hands in his pockets, with a definite spring in his step. He looked youthful and was clearly full of vigour and energy. I stopped my car and got out to talk to him, but as I approached him he stepped dextrously around me and spat very close to my feet. “Weren’t you an old man last week?” I shouted lamely and desperately after him. He merely turned his head a little to one side and looked up at the sky philosophically before turning towards me once more. Then he asked me if I could spare any change.
Disclaimer: All articles and letters published on MyNews24 have been independently written by members of News24's community. The views of users published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. News24 editors also reserve the right to edit or delete any and all comments received.