It’s another hot day. Cape Town sweats.
I’m walking to work. Exit central station, right turn and down the ramp, headed for tile grime and underground coolness in the tunnel network below Adderly and Strand intersection. I swerve in my path to avoid the flies feasting on the remains of a dead rat trodden into the ground, and avert my eyes. They land on the face of a sleeping boy, sharing the pavement with the rat. His head is poking out from under a piece of cardboard. There are droplets on his brow and I can’t imagine how he sleeps for the sweltering heat, but he looks peaceful. I wish I had brought my camera and then, for the twentieth time that week, chastise myself for my ability to reduce other people’s lives to my own photo essay. I don’t have my camera, so I stand and stare for a long while. My brain is playing over the endless recording of other’s suffering and my perception of it.
The thoughts are broken by a man’s voice.
“My son… Isn’t he beautiful?”
I turn to see a youngish looking man, perhaps early thirties, with powerful tattooed shoulders and four missing front teeth. His eyes are large, dark brown and looking at me. “He is beautiful,” I say and squirm in discomfort, thinking of the heartbreak and pity I had felt for the man’s child.
If he asked for money, I would invariably give it – a poor penance for the guilt.
“I know. Crazy, how much I love my boy. I made that bed for him,” he says. He stands and stares with me for a long while. He does not ask me for money.
I learnt later that the man’s name is Craig. The boy, Shakir, is not his biological son, but Craig sees him as such. He looks after him on the street, making sure he is safe and fed and has a place to sleep.
In the world of the homeless, there is a cycle of give and take: you slowly accrue some clothes, a pair of sneakers, a phone and know that everything you have might be gone when you fall asleep. Kids pickpocket from the Longstreet patrons, parents hustle for their kids (or for their next fix), everyone tries to avoid the police, and a good day is finding a forgotten box with one lone cigarette. On the street, there is a single goal: survival.
But with Craig, I get the impression that things might be different. It’s the way he talks about his son. This hardcore gangster tells me about “his boy” – making a bed for him each night and lying next to him as he falls asleep – and I can’t help but believe the love I hear seeping into every word he says.
Moreover, the voice is not one of pleading desperation, but of hope. He wants a good life for Shakir, not as a convicted criminal in prison, not as a tattooed gang member learning the signs, not as a dealer making his name drugs and crime and certainly not as a kid scouring the streets for something to get high. He wants his son to go to school.
But Craig “fucked up” when he went to prison (again) and came out ten months ago to find Shakir had taken on his love of crack. That’s when he decided to come clean, and get his boy clean too. A heroin addict for 17 years of his life, he proudly tells me he’s been clean the last 9 months. He wants to be an example now. But, he feels, Shakir has lost all faith in him.
“He’s distant from me, he don’t believe me anymore. I’m not smoking anymore so I’m not the same, I can’t be the same,” he says. Shakir now disappears for days at a time – “He thinks he’s a big boy now, he wants to go play with the big boys, but it kills me with worry because I want him to be with me, safe. I keep waiting for him to shout ‘Pa’ when I come around the corner. But he’s not there to shout Pa anymore.” It’s such a common human story, played out in the most uncommon setting: a parent’s concern for their child and a child’s desire for independence from the parents. With burning love and burning eyes, Craig strikes me as a strange but true emblem of fatherly devotion.
“Shakir is gone, they took him this morning,” Lore, Craig’s girlfriend says in a whisper. Gone? Gone where? Who? “Social services. To ‘a place of safety’, they call it, a reform house or the like,” she says. Craig is pretty mad, he’s off now scouring the streets for the CCID guys who did it.
This is good though right? To help him get clean and back to school. But, I learn, the system ain’t like that; far from a haven, it’s regimented discipline and child heads being shaven. When kids are treated like criminals, that’s what they’re most likely to become. Shakir has been taken before Craig says, and the system almost broke him. He knows “their” intentions are good, but says they can’t take a child against his will. “He’s got to want to go, else it won’t work. And I want to be there for him, you know, when he goes cold turkey.”
I sit with Lore and we talk about how she met Craig when she was seventeen. He’s the love of her life, and it’s caused some issues between her and Shakir. But Craig only sees his son, she says. He’s the most important thing in his world. “That’s what this whole thing is about,” Lore told me, “Shakir coming clean and you helping us help him.”
And Craig has given up everything, for this.
The life he had before Shakir; his gang life. An invisible system that exists, not only in prison but also on the streets. You have the Ugly Americans and the British, two clans fighting under different foreign flags.
“This mentality we have, we kill each other because we believe in different things, Stars and Stripes (US) or Hard Livings (British), but we’re all South African,” Craig says.
“What about the numbers?” I ask.
“The gangs prepare you for the numbers. Only two things come out of gangsterism: death or prison, so if you’re lucky and you go to prison, then your ‘destiny gets fulfilled.’ The shit we tell ourselves” he says and smiles.
“I left behind my stars and stripes for the new clothing of the 27. 27s pick up like this” he says, making the sign of a gun with his hand, “inside prison and outside, binne en buite die vierhoeke, the sign is the same.” Pollsmoor, die vier hoeke, is run by gang laws and hierarchies. The 26’s are the thieves, stealing money, cigarettes, whatever you want. They rule during the day. The 27’s are the killers, who must spill blood, and lots of it, to gain and maintain their number. The 28’s rule when darkness falls, preying on the weak and “making women out of them”. They have a dominant group (gold line) who sodomize the “wyfies” (the silver line). When you come into prison you must “dala a number” and prove your worth in one of the gangs or seek the protection of the 28’s and take on the ‘female’ duties. You learn to “sabela” – speak the secret language and understand the code. “Salute” is a greeting used by all the gangs, accompanied by a hand gesture. The 26’s raise their thumb, the 27’s their thumb and index finger and the 28’s their thumb and two first fingers.
Craig’s gang name, and the name he still uses on the streets, is “Kraken”.
So what does he want for Shakir then?
“Opposite. The exact opposite… and he’s already head deep. That’s why I’m talking to you mos, it’s not for fame, it’s not for money. I just want my boy back.”
Listen to him speak here.
A whole world and identity – and quite the reputation. A world that I couldn’t be more convinced, has been left behind for something “more important.”
I go with Craig to the Children’s Court on Plein Street. “Joker”, the Grandfather gangster of the streets, leads us there. He’s ex British, a 28, “but no more rivalry now” Craig says, “his kid was also taken by them.” We go through security and I’m naively shocked by the power of my white skin and my camera. Craig is searched (naturally) but I’m greeted with smiles. The elevator takes us up to the fourth floor.
Wandering the maze of cardboard corridors, sad old school chairs and no windows, I’m thinking this was a mistake. Neither of us are sure what we’re even looking for. We are directed to the office of someone who might know something, wait outside a while and eventually get ushered in. The woman recommends we go to Social Services on Victoria Street: “speak to someone called Angela.”
The social worker Angela, or AJ, is corkscrew curls and a wide smile. She welcomes me into her messy office, strewn with strange objects – from her various cases, she explains. “When people lose their homes, they have nowhere to keep their things, so I’ve acquired this collection of stuff…” she waves her hand over the space. A bonsai tree sits portly on top of her file cabinet and a large stuffed bunny lies facedown next to some gumboots. It’s like a museum of memories.
I tell AJ about Craig and Shakir and she looks through the records. Her expression is tentative. “It seems Shakir has been here before, but he came from an address in Mitchell’s Plain” she says. I voice Craig’s concerns about Shakir and the reform house. She says the success rate with children in the system is about 50/50 and if she can meet with Craig, maybe we can try organize a visit? She writes an official letter with the time and address for the appointment. I ensure it is delivered.
He doesn’t show.
I spent weeks wondering why, returning to the station to find him, leaving messages for him with the others. Why would a man with so much love for his son and such a desire to change his future not want to talk to the woman who could help decide his fate? Was it disdain for the system and it’s authorities? Was it fear?
I sent AJ emails and messages and tried to find out what was going on, but it wasn’t until I went back to Queen Victoria Street and talked to her again that my idyllic story of father-son love was cast into sharp relief.
AJ and I cross the road to St George’s Mall.
“The thing with Craig, and many others, is that he’ll do anything, say anything, to get your help and sympathy. Call it manipulation, but it’s what he does for a living.”
She’s explaining to me that Craig, along with two other characters are actually currently under investigation for running a drug cartel and using kids as their hustlers. “That’s not to say he was completely lying about his bond with Shakir, street parents do take these kids in and look after them. But by now he’ll have another one doing Shakir’s job,” she sighs.
“With addicts, it’s hard to know what’s real. They don’t even know, eventually they will start to believe the story they have. They have to, to stop themselves going insane. They can’t face the reality.”
Craig really did care about Shakir. I think I know that. I felt that. But again, as we saw with Nicole, there is no truth, only perceptions. A liar or a storyteller, one of the best actors I have ever met – Craig is all of these.
In reality, he’s a gangster, a criminal, an addict. But also just a man, carved by harsh conditions. Also just a man, susceptible to that bond we call love.