At night, an orange glow is seen beneath an onramp on Grayston Drive in Sandton, Johannesburg. In one of the city’s wealthiest areas, and across the road from the elite Benmore Gardens Shopping Centre, a community of scrap collectors and beggars gather around the orange flames in an attempt to fight off the cold.
In the daytime, a conversation with the characters that work and live under this slab of concrete reveals the living reality of inequality that haunts South Africa’s streets. It also captures an interdependent efficiency in the system of police, private security guards, taxi drivers, scrap collectors, beggars and car washers who work beneath this onramp each day.
A drying puddle of soapy water, a few small piles of clothing, a private taxi and one trolley are the only objects under the onramp on a Tuesday afternoon in August. Three men sit on overturned crates, sipping beer and playing cards. Simphiwe Skosana, a 21-year-old beggar, moves between the onramp (where he lives) and the nearest traffic light about ten metres away to beg each day.
Skosana is wearing heavily stained clothing. His eyes are distant as he sits on the pavement sharing the story of his childhood in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. “I was 13 or 14 when my parents passed away,” he explains. “Then I lived with my granny. I hitchhiked across the border to look for work here.” Knowing not a single person, he has lived on the streets from since he crossed the border two years ago. “I was planning to be a man, to have better clothes,” he says.
With no support network, Skosana reached out to the city’s “street surfers”: the young men who use shopping trolleys to move through the city, weaving between cars and collecting recyclable goods that they later sell. “They are out now, collecting materials,” he explains. “I did this for a while until my trolley was stolen. Now I stay here to guard the others’ stuff, and I beg during the day.”
The street surfers will return later in the evening to get a night’s rest before continuing with their collecting the following day.
Skosana says he makes on average R10 begging per day. This paltry amount stands in stark contrast to the average wage in Sandton. Median household income for people living in this ward is R461,000 a year*. The average individual salary for those living in the ward is R19,200 a month, according to Wazimap, an interactive visualisation of the country’s census data. The juxtaposition of this wealth alongside Simphiwe’s lived reality is shocking although not surprising, considering South Africa’s rating as one of the most unequal societies in the world according to the Gini coefficient, a scale of measure for income distribution by The World Bank.
At night there are maybe 100 of us under here. The police never give us any trouble,” says Skosana before moving back to the traffic light with his plastic bag to continue begging.
Anele Moyo, one of the card players, affirms that the police have no problem with the community’s activities under the onramp. As a car washer, Moyo’s income depends on the stream of cars that move beneath the onramp. Originally from Zimbabwe, he now lives in Tembisa, a township about 29 kilometres away from Sandton. He washes around three cars a day for R40 each, and says he earns about R3, 500 per month. At the high-end fashion shops across the road, a single designer dress can sell for his entire salary.
“You cannot fix inequality when some are not educated,” says Moyo. “And that is why equality will take time.” On his salary he is paying for the education of his three children.
Around the corner from the onramp is the Michelangelo, one of the country’s elite hotels, where a single room can go for R3,320 a night. Kenneth Magoqoza, who sits on the crate next to Moyo, directs taxi traffic around the hotel. He is the onramp’s ‘Queue Marshall’ and his job is vital to ensuring the coexistence of the taxi drivers who park their vehicles here every day.
There is not enough space to park by the hotel so Magoqoza communicates with every driver, keeping a roster about who can park there and when they may do so, explains Alfred Phiri, one of the taxi drivers. He is dressed in a collared shirt, black tie and shining shoes. “We move between the hotel and here to allow everyone to have a chance near the clients.”
Magoqoza speaks in Zulu on his phone, opening his book and crossing off a number. Every Friday, each driver pays him R30 for keeping the peace. With 22 cars using his service, Magoqoza makes R2,640 a month, less than a night at the upmarket hotel.
Phiri leaves his car to be washed by Moyo. Before going to get a drink, he gives his opinion on the vast inequality encapsulated in this microcosm of the city. “I blame corruption,” he says. “But this is still better than Zim. If you have a good head and work ethic here, you can make ends meet. Even with these things in Zim, you still might starve.”
Phiri’s story perfectly embodies the perspective he offered. Coming from Zimbabwe he spent the first three years in Johannesburg living on the street. Moving his way up the employment ladder he went from bricklaying to cleaning in a scullery, to working as a chef and then a private taxi driver.
A private security guard approaches the group, wearing a uniform with ‘Servest’ printed across the front and sides of his jacket. He is not here to tell the group to stop loitering, a common occurrence on South African streets where informal traders play cat-and-mouse with police who want to “clean” the streets of these entrepreneurs. But this is not part of the guard, Xolani’s job description. For R3,500 a month, he reports potholes, broken lights and any other infrastructural issues in the area. He supports four children in the Eastern Cape on his salary.
Many of the people living and working under this offramp are part of this area’s informal work sector. According to Wazimaps, informal trade makes up only 3% of the employment sector in this area. The community beneath this onramp are also a part of the 6% that live in a dwelling classified as “other” — one that does not fit a typical housing category. Their lifestyles are anomalies in an area of wealth and opulence, and yet it can be argued that their role is an integral aspect in the working of the city.
Around the corner, the guests of the Michelangelo would likely be oblivious to how their taxi transport system is made to work through the role of the ‘Queue Master,’ or that the intersection is kept clean through the work of Simphiwe, who stands with a plastic bag to collect rubbish from drivers.
The ‘street surfers’ travel great distances through the city, collecting tins, paper and glass to recycle, contributing both environmentally and economically to the South African landscape, while security guard Xolani’s observations and reports on potholes or malfunctioning traffic lights impact the daily movements of city dwellers. These are services that go unnoticed, and are badly paid.
This snapshot of the lives of those under the onramp on Grayston Drive is a microcosm of both South Africa’s inequality and the daily innovation lived by the city’s street entrepreneurs. An awareness of the role they play in the workings of the city is the first step towards bridging the gap between the lives on opposite sides of Grayston Drive and elsewhere in South Africa.
Kim Harrisberg is a freelance multimedia journalist who moves between Cape Town and Johannesburg. Her writing focuses on African politics and society, refugee rights and developmental issues. She will begin her MPhil in African Studies at the University of Cambridge soon, and aims to use media for social change.
Photo: The’ Queue Master’ Kenneth Magoqoza sits with a friend on overturned crates beneath the onramp on Grayston Drive, in Sandton, Johannesburg, discussing politics as he waits for his next client. Credit: Kim Harrisberg.
*Correction: an earlier version of this article implied that individuals in this ward earn a median income of R461,000 per year, while that number reflects median household income. Updated September 08, 2015.Read older posts from this section