Citizen Voices / Who's who

My name is Bonkele

Every life story is unique. We often go about our daily routines and forget that we exist in a space that occupies such a diverse range of people with equally diverse struggles.  There is need to engage, listen and most importantly learn about each other. Luyanda Mahlinza got to know Bonkele Tata.

Bonkele stationed on the corner of New Street and Allen Street. Photo credit: Luyanda Mahlinza

Bonkele stationed on the corner of New Street and Allen Street. Photo credit: Luyanda Mahlinza

It’s a typically hot Grahamstown day. Town is riddled with students and residents going about their business and the day is so long it feels like you’re not going to reach the end of it. You’re hungry and tired, but instead of looking forward to the journey back to a comfortable and cosy residence room, digs or home; or the hot plate of food you will indulge in upon your arrival, you’re stationed on the corner of New Street and Allen Street. It’s the middle of the day, and you’re begging for spare change and food, feeling hopeless and constantly worrying about how you will feed your girlfriend and your one-month-old daughter, who wait for you in your poorly kept home all the way in Joza, let alone how you feed yourself.

You offer to wash and guard vehicles on New Street but these attempts are met with hostile attitudes, vulgar curse words and accusations of being a criminal. The end of the day arrives and all you’ve managed to gather is R30 and two slices of bread. You are now faced with the decision to either buy dinner for your family or to buy a few units of electricity for the night. You begin your long journey home and provide the very little but gratefully consumed food to your family. You lie awake at night feeling despondent, miserable and hungry. You wake in the morning, journey back to your corner on New and begin the day’s cycle all over again.

This narrative is the very harsh and blatant reality of Bonkele Tata.

Bonkele Tata is a 33 year old man living in Grahamstown. He forms part of the very high population of socially marginalized individuals that have made street begging their primary, if not only, source of income. Tata has no definite, sustainable employment and makes a relatively small income every day guarding and washing cars; and begging from the many students and residents of Grahamstown that walk passed him daily.

In no way does he guard cars in any official capacity, and he does not receive a salary for it from the municipality. He merely got a hold of car guard uniform, through methods he did not wish to disclose, and began guarding cars on New Street. He finds this incredibly challenging because he feels most drivers are well aware of this and often feel pestered by him asking for payment when he holds no official grounds to. He also assists some of the businesses that exist on that section of New Street, such as Debonairs, Prime Night Club, The Rat and Parrot etc.) with various chores like loading of boxes and is compensated with food… sometimes.

Tata lives in a shack in Joza with his girlfriend and his 1 month old daughter. He often has to make very significant choices as he is unable to provide for their many expenses. Tata says sometimes he lies awake at night feeling hopeless and impotent as the weight of his family’s struggle lies heavily on his shoulders. He sees no way of escaping his life of being socially marginalized.

Bonkele attended various Grahamstown farm schools as well as primary schools until standard four (grade six) when he decided to stop attending school and make money by working on farms. Bonkele’s upbringing also portrays elements of hardship. Bonkele’s father was a miner and his mother died when he was 8 years old and he stayed on a little outside of Grahamstown.

“There was a lot of fighting. He will always fight with me and my grandmother. Even though he was rich. He had money. But he would never give me when he come back from work. He always want to hit me”, he says.

It was a result of this that Bonkele chose to leave his home find residence in the township of Joza. Finding employment has been incredibly difficult for him because of his levels of schooling and literacy. He also attained severe injuries in his hands while working on the farm and never sought medical attention. This means that Bonkele is not employable for construction jobs or other work that requires manual labour.

Bonkele’s experiences are, without a doubt, significantly disheartening but it appears Bonkele is somewhat numb to his own experiences. His presence is warm and he often tries to find small pleasures that might help him escape. He is passionate about sports and often plays soccer and rugby, very well as he expresses, on the school fields in the township on the weekend. His number one team is Manchester United.

“United is the best one in the world, me I’ll die for United.”

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