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Begging for Change

The Original Mr Bin

by Samora Chapman / 21.06.2012

Part III of our series Begging for Change

“Even if I make millions. I can’t stay here forever.” Said Silo perplexingly. “Let me tell you my story… if it can help me get out of this,” he adds. “You are looking at the original Mr Bin.” Reassuring me that he is the right man for the interview. “Me, I started it, then all these other guys stole my style!”

We discuss dining options like familiar strangers and as we walk through the crisp-blue morning Silo jabbers: “My nickname is Silo, but my real name is Sipho Fana Dlamini. I’m from Mpumalanga and I have a wife and three kids. We stay in daily accommodation on Point. Cosy Accommodation it’s called. 60 bucks a day. That’s 60 bucks I must make before we even eat. But I appreciate my place. If God gives my R20 or R100 it’s enough. This is my heaven.”
“So how much do you make a day?” I ask.
“I can’t tell you how much. But I don’t make less than R100. If business is good, maybe I make 200 or more.”
“Have you ever had another job?”
“Yes I had lots of jobs. I worked in Secunda… doing shut-downs at Sasol. Security guard, petrol attendant, panel-beating shop…” his résumé continued impressively. “But you know what? You sometimes get R50 a day. Then your transport is R20. Then what you left with? Nothing. Here I can make more and I don’t make another man rich. You know, I always say: better to let yourself suffer than to suffer under another man.”

He points to a little curry den and says we can go there for food.

“The people are shit and the food is Indian,” he moans. Options are limited in the semi-industrial downtown. We enter the sticky establishment and get eyed like zoo animals. Sillo sits down and puzzles over the menu. “No pap,” he complains. “You know these people,” says Silo nodding to the Indian shop owners. “They too much here. Once it was raining so hard and I was with my whole family. And I came in here and these people told me: ‘you buy something or you leave.’ Life is suffering man, I’m telling you.”

Life means suffering – one of the four Noble Truths taught by Buddha.

“But a white man, he helped us.” Silo continues. “He was driving a white BMW. He picked me and my family up and took us home and gave me R100.”
Silo painstakingly scans all the food options, then settles for chicken curry begrudgingly and a Fanta Grape to suip.
“The white man is always helping me.” He continues. “This man from Glenridge Church, he used to come sometimes and give me R300. He used to say to me ‘Silo, go and rest.’ I used to take the money and go home and sleep for three days and three nights. This other man, Lynch Landscaping… you know landscaping? Making the grounds look beautiful? Lynch comes and gives me a job sometimes and he used to give me R100 at the end of every month.” Silo is on a roll and there’s no stopping him. He hasn’t even asked my name. He speaks with the fervour of a preacher man wiping his sweaty face with his sleeves. “You know if you forget about the word ‘apartheid’, and you just look at the way things were then and the way they are now; there was no people in the street then. Everyone was working. If you were in the street and not working, they throw you in jail. Now the city is looking bad with all the people in the streets, it’s dangerous, you can’t walk around at night.” He pauses and then continues. “People like Malema and Zuma have failed us. Why don’t they spend their money wise? They buy Lamborginas and jets but why don’t they take the people off the streets? And give us a place to stay. And give us work. I wanted to study Law. To understand these things better.”

“Do you know that it’s against the Law to be homeless or a vagrant?” I ask.
“Yes, it is illegal under law.”
“Do the cops ever harass you?”
“Yes they chase us away. They call me a criminal but I’m not a criminal. People get to know me because I’m always there at my spot. But to be honest you must make it clear in your story that SAPS don’t worry us.” He says this with such conviction that you’d think he was in cahoots with the five-oh or something.
“They [the SAPS] might even buy me food sometimes or give me some change. They see that we are trying to do something to survive. It’s the metro cops. They are the ones who are always chasing us away. Before COP17 they took lots of beggars out of the city and beat them too. During the World Cup a lot of guys were put in jail for the whole time.”
Our food arrives and we tuck in. Silo pushes the oily rice grains around his plate and slowly eats his chicken, sweating and shaking slightly. He doesn’t seem to be enjoying the food. “Too much oil,” he complains.
I decide to try and change the subject to something a bit more uplifting. “Do you like music,” I ask?
“Yes I love reggae… Lucky Dube is the best! But he’s dead. I also like R&B, Tracy Chapman, gospel. When you listen to their music you learn something. They don’t just make music for today or tomorrow. They make music that will last for 10 or 15 years. Like Phil Collins. His music from the 70s is still too good.”
I finish my coffee and toast but Sillo continues to nibble and sweat for about 40 minutes. I suggest he asks for a doggy-bag, but he declines. I get a newspaper to distract myself from watching him eat. We discuss the cover story… A solar storm of epic proportions has sparked unfounded rumours of the long-awaited apocalypse. Great.
“Ja the end of the world is coming,” says Silo knowingly. “Have you seen the movie 2012 with that white guy from Face-off. Not John Travolta the other one?”
“Nicolas Cage?” I suggest.
“Ya!” Silo goes into a convoluted description of the film… how Nicolas Cage’s son has visions of disasters and Nicolas Cage keeps trying to prevent them from happening. But nobody believes him. Then his whole family dies and the world ends. The film seems to have blurred into reality in Silo’s mind. “Everything from that movie is happening my bru. I keep telling my wife: you see baby… the buildings are burning it’s the end of the world.”
“But it’s just a movie,” I say.
“Ja I love movies. I can watch movies one after the other… all night long. And my family loves movies and TV also. It takes away the stress. But we don’t have our own TV.”
When we finally say goodbye I give Silo R40 bucks to ease my conscience. He doesn’t thank me. As I leave he says. “I want a TV. Can you get me a TV?”
I lie and say yes. I don’t even have a TV.

The strange thing about Silo is that he constantly shifts between believing that he is making a good and honest living and then cursing his lot in life. One moment he is humble and insightful and another he is a racist, self-involved bum who wishes he could get given a million Rand and spend the rest of his life sleeping and watching TV. He has limitless energy to curse his oppressors and no energy to spark an idea to change his circumstance. Silo is the most articulate beggar I have ever met, and I believe he has chosen to beg. But maybe a life of suffering beyond the scope of my understanding has created this defeatist attitude, as he yearns to escape his own reality.

Tune in tomorrow for part 4.

Read part 1 and 2.

*All images © Samora Chapman.

7   4
RESPONSES (29)
  1. Rol says:

    Yes, Mahala! More like this! (or, forgive me, but “please sir, can I have Sa-more-a?”)

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  2. Ross Stalgia says:

    There was a time when mahala used to interview artists, activists and entrepreneurs – people who have achieved something with their lives and who have learned something that they can use to impart wisdom. I miss those days.

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  3. Andy says:

    ja sorry another interview with Arno Carstens coming right up

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  4. Andy says:

    hey that wasn’t me, but ha ha

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  5. brandon edmonds says:

    ‘no energy to spark an idea to change his circumstances’ – what stupid fucking bullshit. There are structural limits to ‘ideas’ and volition. Deep routinized inequality it takes solidarity and protest and strategy to overcome. In unison. The idea that the poors lack ‘ideas’ and therefore have no role in a knowledge economy is egregious neo-liberal twak.

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  6. Samora Chapman says:

    I hate your writing too so i guess we’re evens:)

    Big love, your mom.

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  7. Tompo says:

    Enjoyed that read bro, gifted writer. Who here is most accomplished to explain to me entirely the plight of the street living people of Durbs… It takes good everyday men to survive it takes great men to make the difference.

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  8. Anton says:

    Really insightful, first thing ive bothered to read at Mahala for a long time.

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  9. Kat says:

    Great piece Samora.

    I feel however, that Silo’s unfortunate circumstances stem less from a defeatist attitude than that of mental illness. Good mental health puts one in a position of power, of control. It enables you to make discerning, life-enhancing decisions; to have perpective to put you ‘on top of things’. One can say that the more mentally ill a person is, the less in touch with reality they are and Silo seems just so. It goes to show that the problem is not merely financial – as many impoverished people are able to elevate themselves within society. Someone like Silo on the other hand, probably has a history of abuse, neglect and malnourishment and it would take far more than just money to make things right for him.

    As writing like this raises social conciousness in this regard, it should be commended and encouraged.

    @ Brandon. I can hardly believe you are a fellow writer on Mahala.
    “Deep routinized inequality it takes solidarity and protest and strategy to overcome. ”
    Your incensed ramblings make me feel that you yourself are unwell and having affectionately referred to those less fortunate a

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  10. Kat says:

    – as ‘the poors’ reminds me far too much of Gareth Cliff.

    And anyone who remotely resembles him, doesn’t really belong here.

    Keep it up Samora!
    More love and power to the people.

    Peace x

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  11. Rol says:

    The bit Edmonds likes least is the bit I like most – the question of why Silo does what he does and can’t/won’t change it. “solidarity and protest and strategy (in unison)” is a seductive thought, and I’ll be filing it under “3 Possible Things I might ask of the Genie” along with “mankind, be nicer to animals” and “bring Bill Hicks back” – but this is not the way the world works, and it has no relevance for Silo. He will be dead long before the world changes. And more to the point, if indeed ‘we’ united in solidarity, would ‘we’ prescribe what a better life for our Mr Bin would look like? Does he want the same things from life that we’d ask for him? How much of Mr Bin’s circumstances are truly out of his control?

    Samora, thanks for conducting some actual investigations and gathering your perspectives from relevant characters, instead of regurgitating excerpts from the Zeitgeist flicks, egregious #Occupy Movement/MiddleClassCircleJerk twak and your own bitter, housebound bile duct.

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  12. brandon edmonds says:

    ‘the poors’ is a reference to a book by KZN activist and writer Ashwin Desai called ‘We are the Poors’…douchelord.

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  13. brandon edmonds says:

    @Rol ‘this is not the way the world works’ is a particularly ripe example of what mark fisher has called ‘capitalist realism’ – the pseudo-pragmatic delusion that yes the world Capital has made is unalterably bleak but we better just accept it and keep honing our skills to pay the bills before we die. it’s maybe the worst way to be.

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  14. Onan the ambidexterous says:

    I like. Another snapshot of life in the glorious land of rainbows. Don’t worry about Edmonds – he’s probably high on dwelms and low on self esteem at the moment.Writer’s block, or something? He’s got a point about ‘no energy to spark an idea to change his circumstances’, though. What chance of breaking free from poverty has Silo got, when ‘countries in the Eurozone don’t have the energy to spark an idea to change their circumstances’?

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  15. Kat says:

    @Brandon.

    Ah! I see now what the bone of contention really is.

    It’s a reference of a reference of a reference vs original thought.

    It’s not that what you have to say is wrong, or that you wholly disagree with what’s been written … it’s just that you didn’t come up with any of it.

    Boo hoo 🙁

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  16. Rol says:

    @ Brandon – I get that. No doubt, nothing changes while we sit at our desks and wring our hands and wish earnestly that things were fairer, better, kinder, if only we knew what to do about it. If we hold the perspective that the world’s problems are fundamental and far bigger than ourselves, it quietly absolves us of control and accountability. So, it is the actions of millions of individuals that would cumulatively amount to a collective change. If I understand you correctly, only with a unified, simultaneous change in philosophy, morality and economy can mankind hope to turn that system on its head (let us just assume that we can get everyone to agree on what they want).

    I won’t say that such a change won’t happen in our lifetime, but I don’t have much faith in it. I would argue that, pragmatically, should such a change come to pass, it will probably be an event well out of our control that we will have to respond to, rather than a designed change that we can guide and control.

    But for me, these articles aren’t about the future of the global economy as much as they are about the chain of events that have brought Silo to where he is now. How much control did he have over his life’s trajectory and what else would he have chosen for himself? Would he like a job like mine, so that he could pay for his food and his home and his clothes, albeit as a slave to capital? Would he like a state-sponsored couch and tv so he can chill hard for the rest of his days? If he and I traded places tomorrow (a la Mark Twain’s Prince and the Pauper, if you like), would he still be paying rent and driving a car in a year’s time, and would I still be mooching change at a traffic light?

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  17. brandon edmonds says:

    I don’t know let’s find out.

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  18. Rol says:

    Aw, Brandon, see, I feel like you just declined a chance to help me take the conversation forward. Why not help me with my genuine and considered question, instead of leaving me to conclude that you’re a bitter unproductive prickly asshat who would rather call the writing ‘stupid bullshit’ than offer a balanced perspective? Are you concerned that our tiny brains can’t keep up with your big thoughts, or is just more satisfying to play dog in the manger?

    This is also part of why the world IS THE WAY IT IS (it’s not just my weak pseudo-pragmatic delusions to blame) – while you’re waxing hypotheticals about solidarity and strategy (like, in unison, John Lennon-style), you’re carrying yourself in a way that would make me reluctant to invite you to my birthday party. There are 7 billion kids on this playground, and I’d suggest that learning to play nice is an important first step to figuring out how we can share the jungle gym equitably…

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  19. Onan the ambidexterous says:

    @Rol
    If you subscribe to that Prince and the Pauper bullshit then you really are a mean spirited little prick. You probably also love to quote the biblical mantra about ‘the poor will always be with you.’ Anything to preserve the status quo ‘for fear of finding something worse.’

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  20. brandon edmonds says:

    Oh sorry I didn’t mean to come across like a ‘bitter unproductive prickly asshat’ at all. I actually liked your questions but I thought they were rhetorical or hypothetical or whatever. You mention ‘control’ a lot and that is really what is at stake here. We all obviously want to feel like we’re in control of our relationships, destinies, finances and choices and so on but I’m suggesting that it needn’t be a solitary, atomized, alienated burden. Alarming global mental health figures suggest that we aren’t coping very well dealing with this shit alone. The ‘family’ isn’t much better at it either. So where does that leave us? A good start is confronting how social forces insist on a competitive outlook that reduces almost all human connection to antagonism. We imagine others as being in the way or luckier or beneath us rather than surviving alongside us, stuck in the same boat, with experiences we can connect to and learn from, experiences that constitute an untapped resource of social understanding that just may have within it the combination of insights we desperately need to change what holds us all back. That would be a more open way of thinking about control to my mind. An emergent control based on genuine community participation right where people struggle and live. The justness and rightness of this approach becomes overwhelming in tough times. There’s no reason why we can’t try something like that as so many have throughout history from the communards to the united democratic front in this country. I’d love to come your birthday party.

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  21. ParkaBoy says:

    I’ll take Samora’s pieces over Brandon’s any day, largely because Samora spends time trawling around the streets of his/her (I have no idea) city, day and night to find stories, while Brandon bombards us with self-righteous armchair crusades peppered with first world problem laments about geese and xbox addiction.

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  22. Onan the ambidexterous says:

    What’s all this kak about a birthday party? That’s the trouble with South Africans, from the President down: any excuse for a party, rather than getting on with an honest day’s work. No wonder the country’s a fokken gemors.

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  23. Hippo Critter says:

    Edmonds, you need to do some community work in underprivileged neighbourhoods. This will help you calibrate your theoretical view of human politics and relationships with the reality of human existence. It may also make you a happier person overall, for we are often left with the strong perception that you are consumed by an overwhelming sense of alienation, not just from financial comfort and prosperity but also from human warmth and community. It’s not difficult to get involved, get hold of a local NGO, municipality or police station.

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  24. Rol says:

    @Brandon – a genuine thank you for that response, and sorry if I was unfair in filing you under ‘asshat’. A bit prickly myself maybe. Your considered response gives me more to think about. But maybe the scale of how we’re talking about the topic/article differs. You’re talking about fundamental changes in the way the world turns. And I’d be all for that, I’m not going to argue as if the current model works just fine. Begging and homelessness (obviously not the same thing, don’t want to generalise into simple ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’) hardly new to society, and there are people picking food out of bins in ‘nice’ places like Tokyo and Copenhagen, too. And that’s not even the core problem that you’re referring to, it’s just one of many signs that we’ve haven’t got it right as Homo sapiens. So, little wonder that people (ok, not all of us, but play along here) become jaded and numb to ‘routine’ daily horrors, like homeless kids sniffing glue in a Long St. Alley, elderly urine-scented gents mumbling under their blankets. I hope I’m not oversimplifying, but to me there’s nothing pseudo in that pragmatism. It’s not right, it’s not OK, but in my eyes, it just is so for right now. I lack the imagination for a scenario where the world stops what its doing, uniting as one to Give a Fuck (the UNGaF 2027 conference, they’d call it).

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m open to talking about a fundamental shift, but it wasn’t to this train of thought that these articles originally brought me. It didn’t feel like it was about how the world came to be how it is and how we can undo the rot, go back to the blackboard etc.

    The value I got from it was in helping me see my own street clearer, to really see it for what it is today, and who lives on it. You mentioned earlier a particular state of being as maybe “the worst way to be”. For me, one of the worst ways to be would be to grow up as that old cynical asshole pretending he can’t see the big issue vendor at his window. That’s what I really appreciated about these articles in the first place (and that’s why I was bummed with your first comment). I don’t know much more about that world than what one can learn from inside the car, waiting for the lights to change. “sorry, bud, no change today”. I feel inspired to have the topic pushed on me so that I have to confront it again, have to take it home to my girlfriend and my housemates, have to talk about it over beer later. Why, it even got you and I talking. We both recognise that just talking about changes in an online forum is nowhere near enough, and arguably its even counterproductive – why even bother to write this when, if I truly Gave a Fuck, I’d be doing Something Bigger. Where would I even begin – should I be volunteering at a soup kitchen somewhere local? Should I be lobbying the IMF for structural reforms? Should I be planting pipe bombs at shopping centres? Be an ANCYL firebrand/loudmouth?

    What I’m scrambling to put across is that people are willing to confront the possibility that our world has to change, and that nobody will change it for us, but that most don’t even know what to do with that realisation once it has happened. Most of us are a long way from any mindset shift, especially when the developing world is racing to replicate the very same fuckups that the developed world is now sheepishly recognising. Quick, join the stamped, trample or be trampled! Feeling so far removed from the scale of our problems inclines one to feel altogether hopeless. And yet having it broken down to the smallest scale, and putting a real man’s name and face to it, makes me feel less disinvested and reminds me not to close my eyes. I know it’s not enough, but I reckon its progress. It makes a problem more bite-sized. Like that irritating adage about the little girl throwing beached starfish back out sea (making a difference to one starfish out of billions), stories like this remind me that simply because one can’t expect to change the grand scheme of things, it’s not acceptable to divorce ourselves of responsibility for what happens outside our own window.

    A lot of that starts with having our comfort zone challenged, and some rude reality checks. I remember the first time I saw a white man rummaging through bins, when I was 18 and trying to work in the UK. A white guy? Dirty, homeless, eating from a bin? What madness is this? Completely.blew.my.mind, such a thing had never even occurred to me before, and I was already two decades in. I wish I could have seen that guy when I was 10 years old and given myself a headstart, but maybe I was lucky enough to have had any kind of realisation at all. If disconnection, antagonism and lack of empathy is part of our problem, being able to put a relatable story across through a popular medium (snuck in between Arno Carstens interviews if need be) is good medicine. It’s one of those tools for initiating uncomfortable conversations. It’s not a small step to know what to do next, though, and I can’t pretend that I have a clue.

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  25. Rol says:

    Whoops. Accidental essay.
    @Onan – chill my ambidextrous chum, you can come to the party too. Re: the prince and the pauper, I really don’t mean to be glib, I hope to be clear that I don’t have a fixed view on the topic. A more fun example is ‘Trading Places’, featuring Eddie Murphy and Dan Akroyd back when they still made me laugh…

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  26. Ross Stalgia says:

    Twitter and FB limit the number of characters in peoples’ comments, maybe mahala should do the same. Maybe Rol has an interesting point but, eish. Self editing and self censorship are not the same thing.

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  27. Rol says:

    Sorry Ross, would take some of it back if I could. Give me points for enthusiasm at least…

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  28. Not David says:

    A wise man once said “Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.”

    I think that puts quite a few Mahala commentors in the class of ass.

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  29. black victorian says:

    read native nostalgia by jacob dlamini.

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