Filming the homeless

While filming a short video package for our Television Journalism mid-year course, I met two young men from Zimbabwe, now living under Nelson Mandela Bridge in Johannesburg. My encounter with them inspired the following piece:

“I recreated a primitiveness in order to survive,… Without a mattress, without a bathroom or a shower, I had to find ways to collect rainwater, to find food and so on…. I’m afraid words can’t describe the situation in a dignified way.” – Matina Pashali, A homeless Greek woman

Five or six makeshift mattresses form a horizontal line on the tar road. Four or five faces emerge (some smiling, some annoyed) from underneath moist looking blankets. Their inhabitants are hunched together like a swarm of bees. Its 5 degrees celsius under the Nelson Mandela Bridge – which separates the Coolkids of Braamfontein and the feisty taxi drivers of Bree taxi rank – in downtown Johannesburg.

A group of classmates and I are here visiting Clifford and Brian, two homeless young men from Zimbabwe. We are filming them for our mid-year TV journalism project. We need shots of them as they wake up, so they advise us to come early, cars wake them up at around 5, 6 am – forcing them to start their days early.

Clifford and Brian are literally disconnected from the world. No five minute snooze button on alarm clocks. No breakfast news. No breakfast! As I approach them I think to myself, their presence and existence – living under ‘Nelson Mandela’ bridge – legitimizes itself. They are Black. They are foreigners. Young black males that have become the face of unemployment, destitution and desperation in South Africa. South Africa would not be South Africa without the poor and homeless. The young, black, male, female, mentally-ill, pregnant, homeless!

Clifford is bright. He has a racy, hurried feel to him. He speaks almost-fluent English. Thinks fast. Is honest. The kind of honesty you do not expect from the poor. Like the fact that he refuses to eat soup from the near-by soup kitchen, because it makes him sleepy. He can’t afford to sleep during the day, he says. He has to go ayophanda!

Brian, Clifford’s best friend, is much more reserved. He speaks slowly, but has very curious eyes. He says he is 20 years old, but we all struggle to believe this. He looks 29. 30. 31. While Clifford walks fast, with a Pickn’Pay green bag under his arm, Brian walks with his upper body slanted to one side – his one arm behind him, holding the other.

There are many Clifford’s and Brian’s in Johannesburg. Cape Town. All over. Their existence does not fit within the dominant individualistic narrative of ‘chasing after your dreams’ and ‘hardwork.’ They exist outside narratives of personhood.

Capitalism is sustained by the presence of the poor and homeless. Firstly, we work because we do not want to be like them. Cramped up in the back seat of a taxi, you look outside your window and see people making their beds under Mandela bridge and you think, ‘that should never be me’. We work hard, smiling even when we don’t want to, because we want to maintain the, us and them (down there) relationship. What also sustains it is the lustful desire to finally seat at the master’s table, as Fanon puts it. I’m reminded of a scene from a Michael Moore film, where a dog jumps up and down, hoping to get a piece of a pie on top of a high table. The dog is motivated to keep jumping, because according to the dog’s imagination, with every jump, it seems like it is getting closer and closer to the pie. But in reality, it is still in the same place.

I remember saying to my colleague after the shoot, “the deliberateness of the situation is what makes me more sad.” This is not the natural order of things. Neo-liberal, free market policies only favour a few. And it is definitely not those that crawled under barbed wires, and swam crocodiled waters to get here.

So, a critique of capitalism should not only focus on a nebulous ‘system’ out there in the clouds, it should also focus on the people in power that keep it intact. Because the presence and persistence of homelessness is a deliberate act.

Here is the short video below. I feel I must add that I am ofcourse aware of the problematic nature of my (our – the film crew) presence under that bridge that morning. I, forming part of a process that packages poverty and homelessness into a commodity through (and for) news and the liberal media. And as part of a process that separates journalism and journalists from reality. A process that creates a wall between journalism (media practitioners) and ‘the rest of the world.’:

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