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Jo'Burg Days: Sipho's Story

Sipho was so good at his job as a vet's assistant that Baas Kenny begins to wonder how he ever managed without him. But things do not go well for poor Sipho…

Barbara Durlacher tells a sobering and sad story set in today's South Africa.

'You like animals, Sipho?'

'Yes, Baas.'

'You not frightened of big dogs and angry cats? They can scratch and bite when they're sick and frightened, you know. Sometimes they can hurt you badly.'

No, Baas, I'm not fright. I'm strong and I talk nice to the little ones, then they trust me and soon we are all friends.'

'OK, Sipho, that sounds good. Tell you what, I'll take you on trial for a couple of weeks and we'll see how you settle in and whether you can help me with the animals and if you like the work. What is your nation and where do you come from?'

'Baas, my nation is Zulu and I come from Eshowe, it is far away in KwaZulu-Natal. You know that place?'

'Yes, Sipho, I know that place, it is far from Johannesburg and very different. A small town in the country. Very pretty place, also nice and warm in winter.'

So Sipho settled in, working as a vet's assistant in Yeoville in a small animal practice. A busy practice with many clients from the surrounding flatland, most of them white and all with their 'beloveds,' the animals who served to assuage their owner's loneliness in the big, uncaring city.

He learnt how to clean the hospital cages, how to feed and medicate the patients and how to hold a struggling and frightened animal on the examining table. He was calm and quiet and his gentle handling soothed the sick animals so that the vet could do his work quickly and efficiently.

As his confidence increased, he learnt to operate the X-ray equipment and sterilizer and keep the medical supplies in order. He was invaluable to the practice and the busy vet wondered how he had managed without him. To Sipho's delight, with his increasing expertise and responsibilities, came an increase in salary. Things were going well, especially as he lived on the property. As Baas Kenny said 'You can look after the sick animals when I'm not here, and also keep an eye on the place. If you live here, it will stop the skelms and totsi's breaking in and stealing.' Sipho began to think of bringing his wife up from Eshowe to live with him. He longed to see her and have her company because he could only get down to Kwazulu once or twice a year and the nights were long and cold without her happy presence.

Politically things were changing in the country as well. After many years of struggle, Nelson Mandela had finally been released from prison in Cape Town, and was beginning to take an active part in talks with the Nationalist Government. Not long after his release, there was the very first 'legal' national election in which every South African, black or white, was allowed to vote. It was a watershed moment in the nearly four-hundred year history of the country and the euphoria was high. Mandela was regarded as the saviour of the 'Rainbow Nation' and suddenly, for the first time, the wants and aspirations of the black population were being taken into account.

Hillbrow and Yeoville, the dense flatland housing thousands of office workers for the thriving businesses in central Johannesburg had gradually changed in character. Progress brought different requirements and almost overnight it seemed, with the transfer of major business to Sandton 15 kms from Johannesburg central, the white flat dwellers left their former eyries and migrated to the suburbs. One of the first laws the new ANC government passed allowed blacks to own property, and at the same time a grant of R15 000 was offered to “First Time Buyers.” This was a notional subsidy which acted as a deposit to enable the banks to grant loans to people to buy flats and homes.

Sipho and Baas Kenny discussed the matter, and soon Sipho took the first proud step to becoming a homeowner. He bought a one-bedroom flat in Hillbrow for what to him seemed a fortune, but was in reality a knockdown price from a white owner desperate to get rid of an unsaleable property in a falling market. Nobody wanted to live in these former 'worker colonies' and discerning property owners realised that the area would soon become a slum.

Sipho moved in with a minimum of furniture and happily commuted the short distance to work each day. Soon Lettie would arrive from Eshowe with the children. They would go to school here; much better than the badly equipped country school they had been attending in KwaZulu. His eldest daughter wanted to be a nurse and his son Zeneli even talked about university and becoming a lawyer. But that was years in the future and Sipho did not have to worry about it now, better just make sure that they all arrived at Park Station safely. So, he asked for time off to go to meet them and take them to his smart city flat.

He bought a big parcel of meat at the supermarket in Raleigh Street, a large pocket of sweet oranges, a big bag of mielie meal and three loaves of bread. He had so much shopping he had to take a taxi to Hillbrow as it was too much to carry, even on the bus.

The reunion was a happy one and the family settled into their new life. But, as the months passed things did not go well. The children did not fit into the city life and they did not progress at school. Lettie grew thin and coughed constantly; the noisy, dirty city frightened her and she pined for the soft green countryside of Zululand. 'Sipho, you work so much and come home so late!' she complained, 'I never see you and I don't like these makwerekwere [hated foreigners] from other countries. I don't trust them and I can't talk their language.'

So, after a year she told Sipho she was going back to Eshowe, and taking the children with her. Although he wanted her to stay, Sipho realised that it was probably for the best. 'I'm not so sorry if Lettie goes back,' he thought, 'and in any case I've got a new, younger girlfriend. Now I can spend more time with her.'

Things were changing in Hillbrow as well. Gangs had moved in and 'hi-jacked' the buildings. 'You pay your money to us,' they told the residents. 'Anybody who fails, we will burn your flat and stab you.' Too terrified to put their threats to the test, the residents paid up; protection money was a small price to pay for one's life. They did not realise that the gangs were pocketing their ill-gotten gains from the many buildings they had hi-jacked and ignoring outstanding service accounts. Within a few weeks, electricity was shutoff. Then, the lifts no longer worked and refuse piled high. No hot water or electricity; public transport failed and as water was turned on for only a few hours every day sewage pipes blocked. In a last desperate bid to get payment, the municipality refused to service the buildings with outstanding accounts.

'Sipho! What's the matter?' I asked the forlorn figure sitting on the pavement behind a small tray of shoelaces, plastic combs and sweets. 'What are you doing here? Don't you work for Baas Kenny any more?'

'Merrem, Bass Kenny he sold the business and moved to another town. He says Yeoville is too dirty and too many problems. His customers are too frightened to come to the surgery any more, their cars get stolen and they are robbed even when they are walking across the road. They don't come to shop here any more, the two big supermarkets have closed, the only shops are the African hairdressers, the betting shops and the shebeens. The doctors, dentists and the vet have all moved away. Yeoville is just a place to drink now, it’s full of people from all over Africa but nobody seems to do a proper job and nobody works.'

'And what about your flat in Hillbrow, Sipho?'

'Aieech, merrem. That flat! That was a big mistake to buy that place! No electricity; no lifts! The place is horrible now, everybody lives like animals, it's so dirty!! But I can't sell it, otherwise I'll lose my “First Time Buyers” subsidy. I can't buy anything else. I don't know what to do, now that Baas Kenny has gone, so I sit on the pavement every day trying to sell some few things.'

Poor Sipho! He started with such bright hopes, thinking that the 'New' South Africa was going to be the land of his dreams, and look at him. Everything has come crashing down around his ears, and after all his hard work, he has nothing. But whose fault is it? A country in transition grinds many underfoot and only the strongest and the wickedest survive.

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