Peter, Chris and I had headed out quite early that cold, smoky morning hoping to get a few decent winter sunrise shots of Kwazulu-Natal’s Table Mountain from the Ashburton area. We headed slowly from one stop to another, becoming ever less optimistic as the clouds conspired to blot out the sun and rob the sky of all colour except dark and light grey. In desperation I tried to make something artistic of the combination of scrawny winter grass and Eskom’s presence in the landscape, but in vain.
We descended into the belly of the Lower Mpushini Valley, still finding little of real interest. We spent some time mooching along the banks or the river, appalled at the amount and variety of the litter left there by hard-drinking fishermen over an extended period of time. We climbed the far slopes to reach the more orderly outskirts of Pietermaritzburg, passing the one-time home of the renowned Bishop Colenso after whom the area is still known as Bishopstowe.
Soon we plunged into the heart of Eastwood, that part of the city designated by the erstwhile apartheid authorities as the home of the Coloured community. Looked after with care and pride for many years, Eastwood had suffered greatly from the rampant influx of homeless, indigent people after laws like the Group Areas Act had been expunged from the statutes. Like the city centre it became festooned with shacks and shanties erected wherever space could be found.
Municipal services, stretched to breaking point by the sudden inclusion of huge areas and population that had until recently been someone else’s responsibility, couldn’t cope with the impact of the vastly increased numbers and this part of the city fell into disrepair and soon became unsightly with oceans of litter everywhere, unkempt gardens and verges, potholed roads, overflowing drains and the ubiquitous hovels cobbled together using pilfered road signs, stolen fence posts and oddments of corrugated iron sheeting. There was no sewage system, water or electricity supply for these new citizens. Most of the newcomers were unemployed and were desperately poor, doing whatever they could to turn a buck, feed a mouth and keep warm in this new uncaring, unbalanced environment.
In this dry winter season there had been a recent fire that had burned most of the veld grass along the main road and all the discarded filth that had been tossed into the grass over the months was now charred and visible. With the blackened grass stubble the scene was grim and forbidding, and I drove slowly to negotiate potholes and speed humps. With our photographers’ eyes still looking for pictures, Peter and I spotted him at the same time. “There’s a photo,” we yelled in unison as we drove past a dishevelled old man struggling down the slope of a steep embankment at the roadside.
I found a place to turn around and by the time we saw the quarry again he’d crossed the road and was heading off down an overgrown lane between rows of houses. We came to a sudden halt in a little cloud of dust and ash and Peter quickly persuaded the old fellow to give us a moment. There followed a vaguely amusing conversation of sign language, half-remembered Fanakalo and futile English and isiZulu as we tried to convey our wish to take some pictures. The old gentleman was as confused as we were enthusiastic, but he eventually understood. Then followed a short time of pure magic.
Once our new friend understood what was being asked of him he was smoothly transformed into a perfect model, happy to turn this way and that, look here or there, smile or look serious, take off or put on his old straw hat, and generally pose as directed by hand signals. The whole session must have taken less than fifteen minutes, and as he realised that his job was done he shuffled off in the direction he’d been headed before we’d entered his day.
We called him back again and gave him whatever food, cigarettes and cash we had with us, perhaps making him wealthier for a short while than he’d ever been. In all the time we’d been with him he’d uttered just one word, and now merely nodded his thanks and turned again to the path in the lane. This time we let him go.
I still think about him and the irony of the encounter haunts me. He had almost nothing to call his own yet had been confronted with photographic gear worth more money than he could imagine. He’d been the one to grant a favour to us who were asking. He’d been enriched by the bits and pieces that we could replace in minutes. And yet….
I’d been privileged to meet him and experience his friendliness and I’d seen the dignity of a man who had few possessions, no education, no prospects beyond further poverty and his austere lifestyle. I’d seen no resignation or resentment in him, just a calm acceptance of what was. I wonder if I’ll ever achieve that.
The single word? “Elliott,” he’d said. His name was Elliott.