Old and on the street

Theresa Fisher and Simon Jacobs both beg for money on the same street corner in Rondebosch, Cape Town. Photos by Masixole Feni.

Tariro Washinyira

11 December 2015

Theresa Fisher was born in what was then Rhodesia, in 1950. Simon Jacobs was born in what was then Transkei, in 1957. Both of them have ended up, in 2015, begging on the same street corner in Rondebosch.

Fisher and Jacobs are a familiar sight to motorists and pedestrians at the corner of Belmont Road and Main Road in Rondebosch, Cape Town. Both are there most days of the week, Fisher walking up and down between the cars and Jacobs sitting quietly next to the traffic light. They share the spot and know about each other, but both say they never speak to each other.

Fisher begs to supplement her old age pension of R1,420 a month, which she says is not enough to pay her rent and feed herself and her two pets.

Her father owned a tobacco farm 100 miles from what was then Salisbury, and Fisher was educated in the city and trained as a nurse but dropped out.

The family moved to Cape Town in 1976 and Fisher’s father got a job in Paarl but later stopped working and struggled financially. Church members contributed money and assisted him to migrate to England with his wife, Fisher’s stepmother.

Fisher spent some time in Durban where she had a baby. But the family did not approve so she gave the child up for adoption. She was not given any information about the family which took him in and though she would like to be in touch with him, she does not want to disrupt his life.

She has worked and lived in several cities.

“I once lived in Joburg and worked as a receptionist for four years. After that I worked as a waitress here in Cape Town. I then never worked. I taught myself to make greeting cards and necklaces, and I used to stand at the back of Woolworths to sell them.”

She lived for nine years in Mowbray, then shared a house in Rosebank, from which she says she was evicted. “I stayed two days outside in the yard. I could not sleep in case people stole my stuff. A friend of mine from Gordon’s Bay brought his bakkie and took my stuff to his garage.”

Now she lives with a friend in Observatory and uses the money she gets on the street corner to pay for food for the two of them, especially eggs, vegetables and bread. She says she is looking for a place to rent for less than R1,000 a month and would like to start making goods for sale again.

Meanwhile she spends part of each day on the corner of Belmont and Main Road, walking up and down between the cars. She had five regular “customers” who would give her at least R50 a day, she says, but has not seen them recently.

She worries about her dog, who is at Rondebosch Veterinary clinic. “They did not charge me but every day I give what I can manage. The dog has kidney failure and it is on a special diet, which has put a bigger strain on my budget.”

She used to have a British passport, but it was stolen and she has not applied for another. Anyway, she says, she loves “Africa” and would never follow her father to migrate to Britain.

“I feel sorry for my dad, dying in England, an ice-cold country.”

Jacobs is not old enough for the old age pension. He begs to supplement the money from the gardening work he does for three regular customers and other small jobs. He says that on a good day he makes R30 on the street and on a bad day R16.

He uses some of his money to buy clothes and groceries for his 14-year-old daughter, who lives with her mother. If there is any left over, he says, he treats himself to fish and chips.

“I was born in Transkei. My family were the first black people to relocate to Cape Town without pass books (dompas) as required by The Pass Laws Act of 1952, because my father was a police officer.”

He went to school in Gugulethu, leaving after Standard 6, and worked for a while for a company in Epping, until the firm moved to Johannesburg.

Jacobs’ mother lives in Langa and he has two brothers and a sister, both married. He visits his mother once every week. On some days he bathes and washes his clothes at Haven Night Shelter in Rondebosch, where he also sleeps. Sometimes he sleeps in a garage.

The haven, he says, has about 25 bunk beds. Old men like me sleep on the first level and the young ones on top. There is a kitchen which serves porridge in the morning, rice and meat in the afternoon and another meal again in the evening. The place is beautiful and hygienic, he says.

“If it is full, the people who run it will look for a place for you as far as Bellville. They do not like adults to sleep outside.”

Jacobs’ mother worries about the way he comes and goes and asks him who “chased him away” from home and why he enjoys living in the streets. He says she is reassured when he tells her that he is not “causing trouble” and has a place to wash. Even his brothers and sisters have now accepted that he does not want to stay at home.

“There are times I do not go back home at all. I sleep with my friends in a garage at one of the white women’s houses. She gives us food and asks us to wash her cars. I drink beer but not too much because I do not want to land in trouble.”