Dawn Kennedy – Dec 6th 2010, 00:00

God’s playground could look like this: boulders tossed like marbles onto vanilla sand greeted by the sparkling Atlantic Ocean. Near Camps Bay, Maiden’s Cove is a priceless treasure tucked beneath three pampered bowling greens, and with views stretching from Lion’s Head across to the Twelve Apostles. It also is the home of 10 men who have been sheltering here for nearly two decades. Dawn Kennedy goes to meet them.

For the men of Maiden’s Cove, the beauty of nature is free of charge, but it doesn’t come with a roof over their head, nor electricity or running water. In winter they build humble constructions to survive the rain and cold, but with the arrival of summer, they have had to remove any temporary shelters: when visitors flock to this piece of paradise, roofs constructed from plastic bags are
not what they want to see. By necessity, these men live below the radar, trying to keep out of sight of the police who regularly pick them up and send them to community court, where they are sentenced to four hours of street sweeping or 30 days in jail for vagrancy. As a result, at first it’s hard to find them. I climb to the top of a boulder to survey the scene and see a man hunched in a crack in a boulder.

The man turns out to be Mario Polanski, who has been living beside this boulder for 19 of his 38 years. He says he never drinks, but he does smoke, rolling cigarettes in newspaper from tobacco
that he collects from stompies. His prized possession is a radio, which he keeps almost permanently pressed to his ear: “If you don’t have a radio, you don’t know nothing. The radio tells you the weather. If it is going to rain, you must prepare yourself. If you don’t do that, no one is going to help you.” Mario found the radio while he was scavenging the bins in the area. This is
how the men here survive. They don’t beg, and there is universal, adamant insistence that they don’t steal. Mario says, “We’re not crooks. Most of the white men look at us like we’re crooks, but our people are honest people.”

It’s a refrain that, throughout the day, I hear often repeated and one that is supported by the council workers who hold the men in esteem. Seeing me talk to Mario, a cleaner eagerly comes to support his cause, telling me, “I hope you will help these men; they are my brothers and they are suffering.” The men are not allowed to wash at the public toilets, but the toilet attendant admits that he turns a blind eye to rules that he thinks are unjust. The bins of the rich provide sustenance to these men. At dawn, they forage in them for food, clothing and broken electric equipment, which they try to repair. What the rich people throw away is a constant source of surprise and delight to them. But nothing in the folklore of the homeless across the Atlantic Seaboard has ever equalled Mario’s unbelievable, momentous find: early one morning, when gnawing hunger in his belly led him to begin scratching in the rubbish, Mario felt with the fingers of his left hand an unusually weighty disk at the bottom of the bin. Pulling it free from the surrounding debris, he couldn’t believe his eyes. Awestruck, he found himself holding a one-ounce Krugerrand coin! It was as if the sun itself had dropped a ray and melted it to gold. When Mario recovered from his astonishment, he borrowed his friend’s ID book and went to a gold coin dealer, who bought it from him for R7000.

Finding such treasure could possibly have been his ticket out of Maiden’s Cove, but between these men there is a fierce solidarity and Mario felt compelled to share his spoils with his friends. The money from that auspicious find saw them all through one winter, and then it was gone. Next, Mario introduces me to his friends. We turn a corner, and two remarkably fresh looking men are clearing their space. Jonathan Smith (37) looks like he could fit into a myriad of other more mainstream scenarios. Jonathan doesn’t have the weathered and worn appearance that marks many homeless men: the facial scarring, limping, stooping and stumbling. There are degrees of grooming among the men, and some, like Jonathan, determinedly keep any dirt at bay, both on themselves and in their surroundings.

For the entire morning, I see him sweeping, as though trying to wipe an invisible slate clean. He
says, “A lot of people turn mad because of the pressure of trying to survive.” Jonathan’s greatest wish is to get a night shift job so that he can avoid the nocturnal harassment from the police and earn money to give to his family. His mother and 12-year-old daughter live in Parow. “I only go home when I have money. I don’t want to go home without money. I don’t want to be a burden. Life
is hard enough for them with the little money that they’ve got.”

Elmo Van Niekerk has been at Maiden’s Cove the longest. Now 41, he came here more than 20 years ago. One of two gay men who shelter here, he manages, with his mohair cardigan, to convey a sense of style. Elmo accepts his circumstances, saying, “I’ve got no problem staying outside here. I’m free; I can do what I feel like.” John Davis (33) has been here for over 10 years. Asked what brought him here, he tells me that when he was growing up in Valhalla Park, because his family were so poor, he had to steal food and clothes. Then, after his father died, the rest of his family disowned him. I’m aware that there are great cracks in the stories that these men tell me, cracks like the ones in the boulders, wide enough to house a man. Who knows the reasons the odd alignment of circumstances that alienate these people from their families, banishing them for decades or even for life from the most basic comforts.

Perhaps it’s more important to ask the men, not how they got here, but how they imagine getting away. Some shrug their shoulders and admit that they have no idea how. John dreams of a cleaning job. The other gay man, Tony de Vries (32), strikes a camp pose and declares, with a big smile, “My Mr Right is going to come along and I’m going to live in Germany.” And then there is Peter Peterson. “Mine is a long story to tell,” he confides. “I’m married with four kids. The time
I was out of a job, my wife doesn’t like me any more. I thought it’s better to leave.” When I ask about his kids he says, “How can I go home if I have nothing in my hands? I messed up. Long time I didn’t buy school uniforms; didn’t buy Christmas presents.” On the theme of Christmas, I ask how the men feel about this day. The phlegmatic Elmo says, “It’s just an ordinary day; I’ll spend it as it comes.” Jonathan says, “It makes me feel sad; that’s the time you miss your family.”
Is there anything that they dream of eating then, I wonder. Peter’s face lights up: “Chicken! Chicken and rice,” he declares. “Custard,” chimes John, “a big pot of custard.” “With jelly,” adds Tony. “I love everything that’s sweet,” sighs Jonathan wistfully.

516 Responses to BETWEEN THE CRACKS