The man on the pavement

2008-11-07 00:00

I saw him for the first time early one wintery morning when I arrived at the office. Outside our office, in the centre of Pietermaritzburg, on the pavement was a figure curled up against the cold of the May morning.

Who was he? Why was he here, where there was no shelter from the cold? He looked much older than the normal street child who we see quite often in this part of town.

I saw him every day for about a month thereafter; every morning and sometimes during the day as well. Early in the morning he tried to hide from the cold and during the day he rummaged through the concrete dustbin on the pavement looking for something to eat.

With his tattered clothes, bare feet and skinny frame, he was silently crying out for help. Did this scruffy-looking character have no friends, no relatives and no support system? How did he manage to survive or had he perhaps given up on life? Does everyone just step over the bodies of sufferers of adverse circumstances like this man without lending a hand?

These questions were milling through my mind, but as I parked my car every morning and got involved in the demands of my daily work, he slipped from my mind only to reappear when I was leaving for home in the afternoon. How was he going to survive the night?

One morning I noticed that he had a blanket to cover him. Someone at last was showing some concern for him. He occupied the pavement for about a month and during this period he must have been passed by thousands of people during the day.

Then, one morning, he was gone.

I wondered where he had gone and why. Had he found someone to help him or had he been removed by the South African Police for causing a hindrance to passers by? I almost expected to see him again every morning as I arrived at the office, but it seemed that he was gone forever. My memory of him faded slowly.

He reappeared about a month later in a staff meeting when we were discussing the concept of respect for human dignity, one of the values subscribed to by our organisation. Staff members were expected to share a story illustrating this concept, but this part of the discussion would just not flow.

After much to-ing and fro-ing one staff member pushed his colleague, Sipho, to tell us his story of the man on the pavement.

Very reluctantly and under the pressure of renewed encouragement from his colleagues, Sipho stood no chance. It was obvious that some staff members knew what was to come and the others just could not contain their curiosity.

“I met him on the pavement and asked him where he was from, why he was here and why he did not go home,” Sipho started telling his captive audience. I immediately realised that Sipho was telling us about the man who had been on the pavement outside our offices.

“He told me that he was from Ixopo. He had been caught stealing potatoes and the farmer had brought him to Pietermaritzburg and merely dumped him here. He had been living on the pavement for a while, but was very scared and trusted no one as he had been assaulted while living on the pavement. He had no money to go home and was trying to eke out a living from day to day.”

Sipho realised that he had to do something for this man. He approached some of our staff members and managed to collect the taxi fare to Ixopo. One of our staff members admitted that she had gone off to buy him a blanket. That at least explained the later presence of the blanket, I thought, while Sipho was telling his story.

“I had great difficulty convincing him to accompany me to the taxi rank so that I could make arrangements for him to be taken back to Ixopo. He was distrustful and said that I was going to assault him once we were away from the general public. It took a great deal of persuasion, but eventually we met with the taxi drivers travelling to Ixopo.

“None of them wanted to take him aboard their taxis and I could not blame them. They told me that the man’s odour, appearance and filthy clothes were enough to scare off other prospective customers. I realised that another plan had to be made. I wanted to take him to one of the pavement barber shops at least to have his hair cut, but he would have none of that.

“Somehow he had a little bit of trust in a hawker plying her trade across the street from his usual spot and she had a pair of scissors. She and I sat him down in the street and gave him a haircut as best as our hairdressing skills allowed. He looked like a different man after that, but it still did not solve all his other problems.

“I realised I had to get him into a bath and some decent clothes before he would be accepted in a taxi,” continued Sipho. “While we were arguing, I tried to convince him to accompany me to my house for a bath. He was not keen to go at all. An old man approached us and inquired whether there was a problem. I explained the whole history of the man on the pavement. The old man listened attentively. I was trying to explain to the old man that I had the best of intentions to assist the man, but that I was not getting his co-operation.

“Young man,” he said, “I have seen this man on the pavement every day for the past month and I have been praying for someone to assist him. It seems to me that my prayer has been answered and it may just be that the Lord has given me the opportunity to help you in helping this man. I work at a nearby training centre and there is a shower there that he can use. I will also arrange for a towel, shampoo and some soap. Between me and you, let us see if we can make him presentable.”

Sipho continued telling his now very captive audience that he collected some clothes, socks and shoes from his own wardrobe, and that the old man contributed a jacket. It took their combined efforts and a lot of convincing to get him under the shower, but after the scrubbing down and the dressing up of their subject, he looked like a respectable young man again.

“We again went to the taxi drivers and this time it was a completely different story. Everyone was willing to take him back to Ixopo. In one taxi there were people from Ixopo who recognised the man and undertook to ensure his safe delivery home. We bought him some food for the journey, put him aboard the taxi and wished him a safe trip.”

I complimented Sipho on this lovely story and the kindness shown to a fellow human being. I thought how well this story illustrated the concept under discussion and how the man on the pavement’s human dignity was respected and restored by a complete stranger. Sipho accepted the compliment, although he was very embarrassed. He is by nature a shy employee who, despite his seniority, goes about doing his work without much fanfare.

He also confirmed that he never heard from the stranger again. All my questions regarding the man on the pavement were answered, but something was missing. And then it struck me.

“Sipho,” I asked. “Who was this man?”

“We didn’t ask him his name, sir.”

Bertus Appel

Bertus Appel is a 55-year-old attorney who heads the Pietermaritzburg Justice Centre. The Justice Centre, the local office of the Legal Aid Board, renders and administers legal services to indigent members of the community.

He is passionate about human rights and loves golf, reading and spending time with his wife, two sons and daughter.

Countdown to November 22

There are two weeks to go until the winners of our True Stories of KZN competition are announced. Who will they be?

Those in the running for the R10 000 prize in the open category (under 1 500 words) are Jeff Guy, Tim Houghton, Bertus Appel, Thokoza Radebe, Su Hennessy, OkaMfoMkhulu*, Jenny Roberts, Darryl Earl David, Symphrose Temu and Derek Alberts. The runner-up will take home R3 000.

In the snapshot category (under 800 words) Mary F*, Heidi Steyn, Leanne Talbot Nowell and Val Ward are competing for the R2 000 prize.

Watch out for the remaining three finalists’ stories which will be published before the winners are announced on November 22. If you’ve missed any stories you can read them on our website at (click on True Stories icon).

After the winners are announced, we’ll be publishing an impressive selection of semi-finalists’ stories.

* Not their real names.

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