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Cape Town's Street Children: The Other End of the Rainbow Nation

By Brad Zembic

Cape TownZonnebloem Neighbourhood © Brad Zembic

It is my last day in Cape Town, South Africa, and I decide to saunter from my lodgings in Vredehoek, a neat suburb of tranquil streets and art deco apartment blocks, toward the waterfront, the area early European traders dubbed "the tavern of the seas." My route follows twisting avenues of 19th Cape Dutch-style homes, whose yards are festooned with towering hibiscus and colossal jade plants. Behind me the edge of flat-topped Table

Mountain is veiled by draping fronds of cloud, giving the impression of graceful white linen. Government Lane, the oak-fringed walkway that connects neighbourhoods higher up the mountain to the downtown core, is filled with people. Lovers amble hand-in-hand, women push prams with frisky tots, and bergies, their faces crevassed like the mountainside they inhabit, sit on park benches drinking from bottles concealed in brown bags. As I near St. George's Mall, a pedestrian shopping arcade that sells everything from high-end art to Wimpy's burgers, a young boy the bold side of a decade old approaches me, begging for a handout. I become curious that, among all the street children I have seen in South Africa's second largest city, he is the best-dressed, wearing a colourful plaid-patterned shirt, clean but worn corduroy trousers and shoes without holes. He certainly appears more tended than rag-clad Xolani and Patrick who devoured like stray dogs an order of fish and chips I'd bought for them the day before.

Cape TownLong Street Architecture © Brad Zembic

I speculate about this street urchin with the clever eyes and peppercorn hair and decide to pry a little into his life. What better way to understand the country than to view it through the eyes of one of South Africa's "rainbow generation," those born after the fall of apartheid who have become the nation's main hope for a new, non-racial start.

"I sleep at the top of Long Street under newspapers," Jonathon says when I ask about what he does at night. During the day he scours central Cape Town – the tourist kiosks at Greenmarket Square, St. George's Mall, and the railway station – for people to give him spare change. "All day I must ask for money for my school fees." "You don't look like you sleep under newspapers," I comment suspiciously. "Tell me the truth." "Give me some rands," he answers, drawing a bargain. I refuse to give him money but offer to buy him a meal. We walk up Long Street, a strip of Victorian buildings that house everything from trendy nightclubs and restaurants to antique shops and used bookstores, until we come to a suitable café. We sit outside so I can watch Cape Town culture and get more glances from passers-by than I would if I, an obvious foreign tourist, were dining alone. I am struck by the odd picture we must create: middle-aged white man about to lunch with one of Cape Town's many street kids, who wander the inner city begging for money to buy food, drugs, glue – or to pay school fees. South African cities have, since the dismantling of apartheid in the late 1980s and early 1990s, seen an enormous increase in the number of street children. This decade's soaring rates of poverty, alcoholism, child abuse and AIDS-related death of caregivers have given birth to a small army of dispossessed children, many of whom have turned to the street for refuge.

Estimates of how many children live on the streets of South Africa's cities are hard to come by. Joan van Niekerk, National Director of Childline South Africa, a non-profit organization that promotes children's rights and aims to protect them from violence, admits that any figure would be a wild guess. "The police do sweeps every now and again," she explains from her Durban office, "but the identity of the children is not systematically recorded, and these children are highly mobile." Gathering statistics has become more complicated with the influx of children from economically troubled Zimbabwe who, van Niekerk says, are "also highly mobile and difficult to quantify, as they fear authority and being sent back to Zim."

I glimpse around the café patio and am struck by the contrast between my vagrant lunch guest and the affluent people that surround us. Seated close by is a pair of elderly women, bluish haired and elegantly dressed, politely scattering their food to look done; at the next table a pair of hung- over party-mongers in designer jeans lazily sip cappuccinos and nosh on artful-looking salads. Such is life in the new South Africa where, after almost two decades of democracy, a majority of the population still reaps a daily income that is less than what many North Americans spend on a candy bar.

"I don't stay at the top of Long Street," Jonathon confesses. "At night I go to my mother's house in Guguletu. In the day I come to Cape Town to collect school fees. Give me ten rand." I realize from his confession that he helps comprise a group of children known as "day strollers," children who scour the city streets for money during business hours and return to home and family in the townships at night.

Cape TownCape Town Splendour © Brad Zembic

"You can stop asking me for money," I reply, still suspicious, "but order anything off the menu that comes with vegetables." Jonathon orders a toasted cheese and tomato sandwich, and our server suggests I try The Mediterranean, a house specialty consisting of marinated grilled green pepper and eggplant on whole-grain bread. "I need money for school fees," Jonathon tries again, only this time more faintly, as though his mind is elsewhere. He is skittish, then suddenly alert as a group of tattered-looking children across the street wave at him and shout in a what seems like a continuous series of clicks that is characteristic of the Xhosa language. He waves back weakly, then shrinks into his chair before requesting to move inside. The politics of the street, I recognize, are something I will never understand.

The café décor consists of latticed metal-backed chairs, cotton print tablecloths and a small collection of pastel landscapes adorning the otherwise vacant walls. My questions to Jonathon come faster than my coffee refills: What's it like to live on the street? What do you really do with your money? Do you really have parents? Jonathon eats in silence, though – his story is none of my business – then glares sharply out the window as he stashes several packets of white sugar into his shirt pocket. I pluck a few more from the flower-decorated bowl and hand them to him. "We need to leave some for other people," I caution before he politely puts some back and rearranges what is left to make the bowl appear full.

His concern for others causes me to reflect on the delinquency often attributed to children who live on the street. Reliant on substances such as dagga (marijuana), Mandrax, and tik (crystal meth) supplied by gang leaders hoping to exploit them, some children have become aggressive in their pursuit of money, occasionally participating in violent crimes that have become commonplace in the new South Africa. Others resort to prostitution, a problem` that is causing anxiety for child welfare services. Sandra Morreira, Director of The Homestead, a Cape Town-based organization that helps street children rebuild their lives, acknowledges that there are "dangers for vulnerable children … [that] include unscrupulous adults offering them large amounts of money for sex." To help combat such abuse the South African government is still planning to add the long-anticipated Human Trafficking Bill to its legislative arsenal, while The Homestead and other organizations continue to deliver community programs meant to keep children out of harm's way.

My sandwich is delicious, and I ask the server – a young woman from Bo-kaap, Cape Town's historic Muslim district – for the recipe. "I can't; it's my boss's," she says apologetically. But after learning I am a foreigner who is leaving the country the next day, she jots on a napkin the ingredients and measurements used to make enough filling for a lunchtime crowd in a popular café. "You'll have to work with the amounts," she whispers as she scans the room for her employer. In return for her kindness, I decide to give her my recipe for a luscious white wine sauce I serve with baked salmon.

"Let's see," I wonder, trying to remember the ingredients. "That green stuff they use for pickles…" "Dill," Jonathon offers offhandedly, his gaze focusing on the street. "My mother uses it." "How much do you think I would need for, say, a litre of sauce?" I ask cautiously. "It depends on how strong a taste you want. Maybe a fistful." He takes a large bite of his sandwich and casually glances around the room. I am aware of his increasing comfort and inch ahead, hoping for more insight into his life. "Do you eat fish at home?" "My mother cooks lots of fish. I like snoek." "And paprika," I add, still trying to remember the ingredients. "There has to be paprika. Do you know what that is?"

Cape TownCamp's Bay, Cape Town © Brad Zembic

"Of course I know!" Jonathon says scornfully, as if I am being teacherish. "It's made from peppers. My mother cooks with it. You must not use too much, though. It can be very strong." So the conversation goes. Not the prying questions of some common tourist and the elusive truths or fabrications of one of South Africa's child refugees, but a lively discussion about a recipe. I look at what I have written, and in what seems like one quick movement, Jonathon, and what is left of his sandwich, is out the door and down the street. I check the floor for my knapsack, worried that I have been cunningly set up for being robbed, but it is still at my feet.

Later, I stroll the narrow and cobbled streets of the city centre, hoping to catch sight of Jonathon or any of the other street kids I've encountered during my visit. Adderley Street, downtown's main thoroughfare, is buzzing with rush hour life. Hawkers bark out deals for clothing and leather goods, while copper-faced women flog bouquets of colourful flowers at cut-rate prices. "Only twenty rand, baas," they plead. Double-decker buses cough by, belching black exhaust, and fruit vendors, their display tables bending with pyramids of avocados and bananas, trade with workers racing for trains bound for the suburbs.

Outside a Kentucky Fried Chicken, a young boy approaches me, his face grimy and his hands cupped for spare change. There is no end, it seems: Amid the skyscrapers and a picturesque landscape that belies anything but splendour, a battalion of innocents scratches for survival amid hope that this new South Africa will treat their generation more fairly.

Cover images © Brad Zembic