Category Archives: The Big Issue

Gone, but never lost

Back in 1972, in a whole different South Africa, my uncle left the peace and quietness of the Dutch lowlands for an exciting life in the roaring South. He was never to return to Europe. Now, 36 years later, I took the opportunity of my stay in South Africa to look him up; nobody else in my family ever did.

Working for a construction company which needed employees to go overseas, Willem Boshuis (back in Holland known as Wim, but because of pronunciation problems better known here as Willy), always had bigger plans for the future than to stay in the small rural village of Maartensdijk in The Netherlands. Born in 1938, the carpenter therefore left the wind and cold at the age of 34 to change it for the sunshine and warmth of the Gauteng Province. He moved to Mosselbay, where after everybody back home lost track of him. What he actually did in South Africa wasn’t clear, but the fact the he flew back to visit his family every once in a while and brought enormous gifts, gave us the idea that he was doing better than ok.

After 20 years, in 1992, he brought his last visit to his family. From then until now, his life was a complete mystery for his 6 sisters and 2 brothers. His two youngest sisters tried to get in contact with him in 2000, trough a Dutch radio program called ‘Adres Onbekend (Adress Unknown), but had to settle with a conversation of about 2 minutes and a mysterious address in the Pretoria suburb of Irene, in a country no one has ever been before. During the past 16 years nobody saw him or even got a message from him; some sisters didn’t even want to know him anymore, one was sure he was dead, but others kept up hope. And not without result.

Even before I enrolled for an internship at The Big Issue, I already knew that I was once going to find my uncle in South Africa. Either still going strong, living on the edge of survival, or six feet under. Because of all the different stories told by his sisters, of whom the youngest one is my mother, I became curious about the real Wim Boshuis. After my internship I departed for Joburg, determined to find him and hear his real story out of his own mouth. With a rental car I drove off to the place he was last seen and where they probably knew where he left off to: Jan Smuts Caravan Park in Irene, Pretoria.

Driving towards Pretoria on midday, passing multiple suburbs which were way too big to just start ringing bells, I realized that without a specific address the search would already be lost. Arriving at the Jan Smuts Memorial I came to an unpleasant surprise; the park was closed and all its inhabitants moved. But Willy hasn’t been a man whom they soon forgot: generous, helpful and always friendly. And I looked like him, they said. I therefore sat down with the director of the memorial, Miss Baumgarten, who, together with her daughter, had known my uncle for over 25 years. Not only did he live on their property almost as long as he lived in his home country, they also took care of him when he had some hard times over the years.

Until he reached his mid sixties, around six years ago in 2002, my uncle always was a self made man. But after quitting work, making a stupid decision to give away his caravan and turning his back to the plane that was supposed to bring him back to Holland, he fell into a big black hole. And everybody in South Africa knows that help is not to be expected when you’re laying down in the gutter. After a failed suicide attempt and living in a bathtub on the closed premises of the Jan Smuts Memorial, Miss Baumgarten started the Dutch embassy. In her opinion, which she shared with my mother, the Dutch government should take care of their citizens and because my uncle reached the right age (65) to apply for a pension, it was up to them to take care of his finance. Although it took them a few years, Miss Baumgarten was glad to tell me that he now receives money to take care of himself and is right back on track. And that he now rents his own bungalow/shed in Centurion, just a ten fifteen minute drive from the memorial.

Pulling up to the bungalow park and parking my car right in front of a shed with an old man sitting in front of it with an Afrikaans book and a beer, gave me immediately the feeling that I finally found my long lost uncle. My last memory of him giving me the biggest Lego Island I’ve ever seen, 16 years ago, shot through my head. Not even looking up from his book, I opened the car door, stepped out and walked towards the small stone table. “Wim, Wim Boshuis?”, I asked. “Wim Boshuis? Yeah, I’m Wim”, he answered. This 69 year old man, about to turn 70 in two weeks time, was clearly going deaf and spoke Afrikaans with a Dutch accent (or the other way around) and next to English also 3 indigenous languages. Because he didn’t seem to notice who I was, where I came from and especially not what I came to do I explained. “I’m Jorrit, the son of your youngest sister, you’re my uncle. We haven’t seen you in 16 years. I was around, thought I stop by”, I smiled. “Mijn God, Jorrit”, he says surprised, “it has been a long time.”

Before visiting my uncle there was actually one thing I wanted to know: why didn’t he came to Holland or even wrote us a letter or something in the past 16 years? But now that I was sitting opposite of him, I also wanted to know the true and complete story of his stay in South Africa. Unfortunately, my uncle didn’t seem to find it strange in any way to leave his family behind and start a completely new life on the other side of the world. “Some people are family people, some people aren’t”, was his easy explanation. “I never saw a good reason to come back and had everything that mattered in my life here. What did, and does, Holland had, and have, to offer me?”, with which he immediately answered the question if he ever was planning to come back to The Netherlands. Negative.

“The company I was working for had branches all around the world”, he started to explain his life in South Africa, “so I traveled a lot.” “Because I had a Dutch passport and no wife or kids to look after, I was the perfect candidate to travel trough Africa and to Australia. They send me out and I got the chance to see the world, it was a very pleasant combination.” So, instead of being homebound in Irene, my uncle traveled and lived in Namibia, Angola, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Mozambique, plus the Australian continent. “I didn’t even have time to go home to Holland, I was too busy working and travelling around.” Although he did found the love of his live, and had a baby girl with her, he never thought about settling. “I think that was the reason she moved away from me to Australia, with our daughter, when she was only 3 years old. I didn’t see them ever since”, he says while looking away from me.

The true answer if he ever regretted any of his choices or the abandoning of his family will always be a secret, but according to him this “is the way I choice to live life”. “I lived my life my way and am happy with what I’ve done and didn’t do”, he says with a broad smile on his face. When I asked him if he would like to throw a party when he turned 70, he replied that he didn’t celebrate a birthday for years and was planning on starting now. Without a cell phone and only a postbox which is emptied every once in a while, it’s not likely that he will receive any congratulations. I know his family isn’t going to send him any, just like he never sends them a message. Leaving him later that night, I realize this was probably the last time I, or anybody else from the family will see my uncle Wim. The only letter we will ever receive from him will most probably be his death certificate.

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Meet the Garden People

Living in the heart of New York’s Central Park or Paris’ Jardin du Luxembourg seems unimaginable. But there are people who don’t have to pay a single Rand to ‘live’ in the most prestigious park in Cape Town: the Company Gardens next to the Iziko South Africa Museum. But they have to eat, sleep and work on the street. Meet the people of the Company Gardens; the kings and queens of Queen Victoria Street.

With a straight-forward and determined look the 32-year-old Robert Claasen is watching the cars driving through Queen Victoria Street. “I’ve got money is this street”, he tells without hesitation. Every car which parks in his part of the street, parallel to his ‘home’ the Company Gardens, is a potential R5, or even R10. “I’ve got 4 cars parked here right now, I can’t leave, that would mean I lose R20.” Originally from Bonteheuwel, the eldest of 2 brothers and 3 sisters moved to the City Bowl when he was 25 years old. “I needed to stand on my own 2 feet”, the well-thinking Robert says while running between the parked cars, “I needed to show that I can survive without my mother and be an independent man. That’s what I am right now; there is nobody telling me what I can and cannot do or where I can and cannot go!”

Like many other homeless, Robert has been living on the street for over years and actually doesn’t see himself living anywhere else. There wouldn’t be anyone in the townships that can support him anyway. While rubbing his just shaved head he explains: “The Gardens feel like home, it gives me a better feeling to live here than in any township. Here we form a community and take care of each other. It actually doesn’t feel like living on the street.” Together with his ´neighbours´ or ´roommates´ he shares the feeling that the shelters around Cape Town are more like prisons, without any freedom for their inhabitants. “You can only sleep there, have to be in at 4 and out at 10, don’t drink and do what the ‘guards’ say. If I wanted to be treated like a kid, I would have stayed at home”, says Robert slightly irritated.

Next to Robert, who left his parental house 7 years ago and lives and works along Queen Victoria Street permanent for 2,5 years, 41-year-old Jackie Goliath and her 33-year-old boyfriend Jeff Arense have been living in the park for respectively 6 and 3,5 years. “I am the first lady here!” the always smiling Jackie claims. “I am the queen of Queen Victoria Street and the mother of the Gardens.” Meanwhile the modest and observing Jeff tends to hear her, but doesn’t really listen. “We all have our own reasons to be here”, he says calm, “and the only thing we do right now is surviving and hoping that the future while bring us better days.”

Whoever was first, owns the warmest blanket or makes the most money parking cars, isn’t important for the people in the Gardens. Every day brings them a new sunrise and sunset and so each day can bring them either success or misery. But what all the 15 to 20 permanent residents of the Company Gardens have in common is a past which made living on the streets the best option for them. A normal childhood, good education (Robert reaches highest with standard 6) or a positive sight for the future is not something they got at home. “When I dropped out of school and became a bad boy”, Robert admits seriously, “I realized I was making the wrong decisions. Drinking, smoking dagga and stealing controlled my life when I was 16/17 and finally they putted me behind bars. There was no mommie to guide me there…”

Jackie, who was born in Vredenburg near Saldanha Bay, had a hard knock life from the moment she was born. As the eldest of one brother and sister, her mother went looking for work in Cape Town and took her first born with her. But because the family couldn’t cope, Jackie was left with a colored family in District Six when she was just three months old. Her grandmother, who was living in Manenberg in the Cape Flats, got custody over little Jackie when she was 4. “My whole life revolved around Manenberg”, Jackie says while softly telling her life story. “My grandmother tried to give me everything I needed, but when I got pregnant at the age of 14 the situation changed. My grandmother wanted me to get married when I was pregnant for the second time (from another man) when I was 20 and so I did. We lived together in my grandmother’s house, but tensions ran high when I was pregnant for the third time and because my husband was a drug addict. When I was 25 the beating and fighting reached a boiling point and so I moved out. Alone. He took the children.”

After leaving her husband and grandmother behind, Jackie began to live a whole other live. “Sleeping during the day, partying during the night”, she laughs. Until she, at the age of 27, got pregnant for the fourth time. Their relationship ended quickly after the father married Jackie’s best friend. The only man that gave her a child (her fifth) and took care of both of them was Kenneth, who she lived with in Khayelitsha for over 8 years. “Of all my 5 children, I only still see the last one: Lucia. Gerard, Jo-Anne, Anthony and Tracy-Lee (respectively 27 thru 14) live either with their biological dad, grandmother or are in Foster Care. That’s what hurts the most, not being with my children. My biggest wish is to be reunited with my kids; I know where they are, but I don’t think I can stand the rejection. They never visit”, she tells with tears in her eyes. When Kenneth died 6 years ago of TB, there was no life for Jackie in Khayelitsha anymore. Therefore, she crowned herself queen of Queen Victoria Street.

Her king, skinny and small build Jeff, tells a different but nevertheless interesting and heartbreaking story. Born in Knysna, the quiet and humble man had to leave for Worchester with his 29-year-old sister because his mom died. He was only 1 at the time. When at the age of 4 he moved to Villiersdorp to live with his grandma, she wasn’t able to take care of him. He was forced to live in a Home of Safety till the age of 19, when he finally made it to Cape Town. “There I met a pregnant girl named Linda”, Jeff explains while mysteriously smiling. “With her I lived in Uppington, but I left her because she was constantly drunk on ‘pap-sap’ (white wine). After that I’ve lived in Site-B Khayelitsha for a while, but I got tired of it. Everybody over there was begging for cigarettes, alcohol and what not. I’ve only lived there for 6 months, until I moved to the City Bowl to stroll the streets”, he tells while greeting two passerby’s.

Be aware not to compare the homeless in the Company Gardens with the baggers in Long Street: every piece of clothing, food and (cool) drinks is cherished with the most possible gratitude. Robert smiles: “Every time somebody gives me something to wear, I make sure that I wear it immediately or at least the day after. Just to show my gratitude. Therefore I never reject food or drinks; I enjoy everything the people in the street are giving me.” But unfortunately for the Garden people, it is only the people living along the Gardens who support the weakest in this society. From the government, municipality or city these people don’t have to expect anything. “We live from parking cars, collecting scrap and donations”, Jeff reply’s sounds moderate, “actually were the employees of the streets.” With her head down Jackie adds: “I’m tired of it and actually too sick to work. But there is no government to rely on; we are all on our own. They say I’m not sick enough. But I will never steal or skarrel, that’s below my level.”

Luckily there still are places where homeless people can go to when donations run dry: churches. “Every weekday from 9 till 1 the St. George´s Cathedral turns into a community centre where we can get two slices of bread, some rice and a place to sleep”, Jackie sighs. “And on Wednesday night we can collect some carrots at the church in Kloofstreet”, Robert adds. “But it’s a shame they closed so many places where we could get food down. People were rude, started pushing and that leaded to people getting stabbed. Then they decided: once but never again. No more help”, Jackie sighs again. And help is not something they can expect from the South African Police either. They aren’t bothered with the people living in the Company Gardens; they’ve got ‘better things to do’. So the task of assisting the homeless people on the streets is up to the Central City Improvement District (CCID) security personnel patrolling the parks and streets and, according to Robert, Jackie and Jeff, they do a horrible job.

“They’re drunk and on drugs!” Robert shouts. “They chase you away when you are sleeping, telling you to find another spot, or they steal you’re blanket, food or little money you have. The security is just the same or even worse then the skelms (thieves), because you can’t do anything about them.” The punishment for sleeping in the Company Gardens is hard to define. Everything from just one night up to a weekend, a week or even multiple months is possible. “They just lock you up for nothing”, Robert continues his tirade. “And the stuff they steal, they just keep for themselves or give it away to some other people who live on the streets as a bribe. They’re as corrupt as can be, but who are we to complain. We are just homeless people!”

Although they already have their own spot along Queen Victoria Street where the people know, trust and support them, there are still a lot of homeless people out in the streets who don’t have their ‘own’ place to live and work. “During summertime the park is always more packed with people seeking a place to stay then during the cold winter months”, tells Jackie, “sometimes these new people stay, but most of the time they leave to stroll the streets again.” It doesn’t happen often that a ‘new guy’ wants to take over somebody’s spot. “We chase them away”, Jeff says direct, “we form a community, all together. We have to respect each other’s place, just like everybody else. But we also take care of each other: we share our dop (alcohol) to keep us warm, keep each other company and support somebody when he has a hard time.

The people of the Company Gardens might live in one of the most beautiful parks in South Africa, definitely in Cape Town, but that doesn’t make their lives any easier. Living on the streets, wherever, means a hard knock lives with little up’s and a lot of down’s. Every one of the Garden People has hopes of a brighter future, each in its own way. And there are a lot of dreams, but, as Robert painfully pointed out: “When you wake up, nothing’s changed.”

Pictures © Sara Gouveia

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Connecting the country with jazz

Kicking their Cape Winelands School Tour off with a photoshoot and a small performance for Premier Lynne Brown – who even tried playing the bass guitar – in front of Parliament, made the members of the Cape Town Jazz Orchestra look like real rockstars. “But”, as 20-year-old saxophone player Sisonke Xonti points out, “we’re not ready to rock & roll, we’re ready to jazz!”

The Capetonian artists, except for someone from the Eastern Cape and a Chinese girl, are not only good musicians performing at varies venues around South Africa, either solo or with other band projects, everyone of them is a jazz fanatic and proud of forming the world’s first official jazz orchestra. The fact that during this School Tour, which consists of 8 performances in secondary -and high schools throughout the Cape Winelands, only DVD’s with jazz music are allowed in the tour bus is just one thing that underlines that. With 10 young, motivated and musically driven artists between the age of 20 and 30 under musical director and jazz educator Alvin Dyers’ wing, it is his task to make sure nobody plays out of key. “We got the right people on the right places”, he assures, “I have full confidence in them.”

Together with Minister of the Department of Arts and Culture Pallo Jordan, jazz maestro Abdullah Ibrahim (not present during this tour) came up with the idea for the CTJO, which is now an NGO not only performing but also organizing workshops to get kids enthusiastic about music and of course jazz in particular. In its 2 year existence, in which they made 1 tour thru SA, the orchestra only lost 1 guitarist. After replacing him and adding 2 new saxophone players the group stayed as is and, according to world travelling producer Jai Reddy, this “will not change any time soon. They form a tight group and never fight or have serious arguments.”

The moment the tour bus drives onto the parking lot at Worcester Secondary everyone, from the core of the orchestra (drums, piano, bass and guitar) to the brass section (flute, trumpet and 4 saxophones), knows this first concert will set the new standard after their first tour, which covered the southern part of the Western Cape. Full confidence, as jazz is part of their lifestyle, and after a last practice in their hotel rooms, they step into the hall which is already prepared by the sound crew which travels along. Next to the 500 seats 20-year-old dreadlocked crewmember Kent Satram unfolds the flags, banners and lights with as result a plain stage metamorphosed into a jazz podium. When, after sound checking, the orchestra, every single one of them dressed in black, enters the stage, the feeling of being in a smoky, dark jazz café can’t be ignored. While the brass section take their places on the right – forming one single line – pianist Nicholas Williams sits on the left side with the middle controlled by the small 24-year-old drummer Clayton September, 27-year-old guitarist John Russel and ‘master of the bass’ 30-year-old Valentino Europa. The students, when asked by master of ceremonies Quinton Raaf, proudly answer that they didn’t skip class to be here and are honestly interested in jazz music and playing an instrument.

“I don’t want to become famous and then start creating my own sound; I want to create my own sound and then become famous”, admits 22-year-old trumpet player Lwanda Gogwana. The group agrees that touring with each other and teaching kids the positive sides music has, is way more important than a career as a professional jazz musician. If it was up to them the tours would last much longer and reach further into the country. The majority of the fashionable and talented bunch used to (and most still do) perform during Cape Town’s one and only jazz night: the Monday night at Swingers on Wetton Road. It is there that Dyers scouted half of the existing Cape Town Jazz Orchestra. “We call it the Jam Session Connection”, laughs 22-year-old UCT student and pianist Nicholas Williams, “most of the members know each other from there.” Next to the connection, also the UCT – where 23-year-old saxophonist Lenrick Boesack studies Jazz Performance and trumpeter Lwanda studies Music Composition – and the 2005 auditions in music centre M7 (next to the Distrix Roadhouse) play an important role in establishing the CTJO.

The students from Worchester Secondary didn’t lie about their interest in jazz, their enthusiasm during the magnificent performance proves. Jazz might be known as music being played by old men, but the opposite is true. Although the orchestra does consists for 90 percent of men (which of course leads to a loud applause by the female students) they are far from old. The loudest applause however, goes to 30-year-old flutists Alice Zhang; not only because of her outstanding play and lovely dress but also because she is of Chinese origin, what makes the encounter for most students a first timer. The rest of the group forms a perfect resemblance of Cape Town with all his colors and cultures and they couldn’t wish for a more expressive audience. All solo’s get rewarded with a loud applause and even before the show started the kids were peeking through the door with great interest and expectations.

After about 40 minutes and 7 of their repertoire of 20 songs, including the slow ballad ‘The Wedding Song’ which is romantically performed solely by pianist Nicholas and flutists Alice, the applause is as ear twitching as the sound 22-year-old Che Guevara look-a-like Clement Carr produces when he hits a low note on his tenor saxophone. The result of MC Quinton’ question who wants to join in a short, half hour, workshop ‘how do you play a jazz instrument’ is therefore overwhelming. Members of the orchestra use their own, mostly pretty wore off, instruments to show their skills and get the kids motivated, but, as Jai Reddy explains “it’s not the instruments that make the music, it’s the musicians”. While Alice gets overwhelmed with requests for autographs, the girls are mostly interested in 21-year-old cutie Kyle’s telephone number. But none of them let the chance to touch and play a saxophone, guitar or drums (the loudest and therefore most popular) for the first time slip of their nose. “Playing for kids is of course different than playing for a paying, jazz loving audience. You can teach these kids something and hopefully they also get touched by the music and receive the positive message”, tells flutist Alice, who since here vacation in 2005 now took permanent residence in South Africa.

So what kind of jazz does it take to gain the attention of schoolchildren and actually make them enjoy it? “We play straight forward jazz”, explains Jai, who also is an inventor, “with some North American and Cuban influences and of course an African background.” It being a very open and vibrant style of jazz, superb performed by the orchestra, makes listening to it a comfortable and refreshing experience. Most of the kids therefore listen intrigued and it seems that even the biggest bully enjoys and listens quietly. “But playing the music is just the first step”, the music producer with over 20 years experience says, “the connection jazz music has with its African heritage, background and culture is noticeable in every note. Not only the audience, but also the artists themselves learn about their history and see the reflection in the music. For example: when someone play’s a solo, that person puts himself completely out in the open, being the only one who is in control, but vulnerable. That person is proud of himself when he succeeds and at the same time the students can see what someone like them, not some old jazz artist, can achieve and get recognition for that. There is a lot of reality in jazz.”

Although the Cape Town Jazz Orchestra brings many advantages – the whole project employs about 20 people – being a jazz musician in South Africa is not easy. Without benefits the artists are still obliged to pay 25% taxes and as an NGO the orchestra doesn’t expect money from the government. But, like said, jazz is a lifestyle for the members of the orchestra and there is nothing they would rather do then play. The perfect example is perhaps bass player Valentino Europa. “I’m married and my wife knows that I’m an artist. She knew that from the beginning. If she puts me for the decision, I will always choose jazz. It’s a part of me.”

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