The road from cop to street corner beggar


The road from cop to street corner beggar

An old school friend tells HERMAN LATEGAN a story of loss, desperation and perseverance. And how it felt to endure the abuse of his fellow Afrikaners when he stood at a traffic light asking for money.


WE take an Uber through the Cape Town industrial area of Paarden Island, where trucks roar and people stand on pavements and smoke. I have decided to treat my old friend from Jan van Riebeeck High School to Portuguese food.

When we arrive at the Portuguese Taverna, it is very much closed. George's foot, especially his big toe, is sore due to diabetes. He wears slippers and has difficulty walking.

So we can't walk. I order another Uber and we drive to the bottom of Paarden Island, on the sea side. A light salty breeze blows from the big blue dam.

The Dry Dock Taverna iss open and also has Portuguese dishes. George gets out of the vehicle with difficulty, the foot and toe throbbing with pain.

Inside it is dark, as befits a cheap taverna in an industrial area. The waiters are generous but life's losses and setbacks lie just behind their masks.

George was a wine drinker in his younger days but he can't any more. He treats himself to a cold beer. I order Buitenverwachting Buiten Blanc. He is hungry and we order before we start talking about the old days and the present.

He asks for a large steak with chips. I order chouriço in a strong chilli and tomato sauce with onions and garlic. The waitress puts two large fresh Portuguese bread rolls in front of us, sprinkled thickly with flour.

The food arrives in no time. Before George starts eating, he closes his eyes to give thanks. I long for Grandma, she always did that: “Segen Vader het geen wij eten. Laten wij nimmer U vergeten. Amen.”

I feel guilty because I take food for granted. I forget about my childhood when we sometimes didn't have much and were grateful for all food.

Today I neglect gratitude. The man in front of me doesn't because he hasn't eaten in five days. I feel ashamed of myself.

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I want to know what happened to George, who comes from a middle-class background, after school. The decades in between,  until now. Why did he have to go begging?

We are obviously no longer the two young teenagers who could navigate life as adults with a clean palette. At 62, he is a few years older than me.

He tells me he went to the police instead of the army after school. He was in the canine unit.

They were even on the border twice. He later left the police after a serious knee injury but rejoined before Nelson Mandela's release.

The policemen believed that if he came to power, our pensions would be cancelled; there were rumours of many harmful things that could happen to us," he says.

He resigned and this is where things get interesting. From working with dogs, he became a rat and cockroach expert at a pest control company.

His experience grew, with rats in particular, and he was even on the TV programme Fokus before the 2010 Soccer World Cup to talk about the possibility of a rat plague, which could have been be a problem for Cape Town at that time.

Cape Town and surrounds had approximately two million rats that needed to be brought under control. They were cheeky — he even saw a rat crossing Adderley Street with a whole loaf of bread in its mouth.

“A rat can grow up to 30cm but people think they get bigger than that," George explains. “It's because of the tail, which can also grow 30cm long."

It gives me the creeps, especially when he tells  me a rat can jump up to a metre high and that he had been bitten by one of the rascals. Their teeth are harder than iron and can cut through steel and concrete.

And then Covid happened.


He was diagnosed with severe diabetes just as Covid broke out. Large, swollen blisters formed on his feet and legs, to such an extent that he could no longer wear shoes. It hurt too much.

His mobility was hampered. The business he worked for let a lot of people go and he was one of them. He lost his apartment.

Due to bad advice, he unknowingly made the wrong decisions about investments. From there, things went downhill fast.

He began suffering from severe and crippling depression and often contemplated suicide. The black dog still follows him. Although he never married, at least there was a woman in his life sporadically, but no more.

Two of his former classmates started depositing small amounts into his bank account, just enough to pay for cheap rent. He receives a small police pension, barely enough to eat.

He eats polony and white bread and drinks coffee. Because he eats unhealthy food, he is plump.

By the end of the month, when there is no money left, he survives on coffee for up to five days. The other day he unexpectedly came across an old box of Weet-Bix. It was a source of great joy and he ate it with powdered milk and water.

He says the first two days of hunger are the worst. The third is better and by the fourth he goes into a light trance. On the fifth day, he is dizzy and his eyesight is poor.

These severe hardships started last December. Food has become more expensive and he can't keep up. On Christmas Day, someone bought him a McDonald's burger.

It was heavenly. He smacks his lips at the mere thought of this Christmas present.

I'm ashamed to think I complained about my Christmas dinner. There was tons of food, I ate too much, the expensive ham was too fatty, I found fault with everything.

At the same time, George ate a simple hamburger and found every bite delicious. I think of RK Belcher's poem:

Georgie, Peorgie, pudding and pie – hoe sê jy ek het God verraai? / Ou maat, you sommer make me cry. / Hoes daai?


George was able to find a cheap room in a house in Brooklyn, next to Ysterplaat, one of Cape Town's poor neighbourhoods close to the city centre. Little did he know that the woman who rented the room to him also runs a brothel from the house.

She first had a business in Koeberg Road called Hanky ​​Panky, next to a church, but after Covid it collapsed. She is strict, he is allowed to shower only twice a week.

When there are customers, he is not allowed to leave his room. To get to the toilet he has to walk through the house, but while they are there he has to hold it in.

Once he took a sneak peek and saw a man reading the Bible before entering the room full of pornography. George never thought this would be his life one day.


Recently he announced on one of the school WhatsApp groups that he would have to beg the next day because he had been without food for five days. The only one who responded was me, but to my regret I didn't give anything.

I did wish him luck. The next day I called him to find out how it went.

He sounded upset over the phone. The only cheerful noise came from his lovebird, Luna, which tweeted repeatedly in the background. I decided I needed to see him to talk to him about this trauma.

What he told me in the Dry Dock Taverna compelled me to write about it. He was desperate that day when he woke up because he had already gone five days without food. This would be the sixth.

I simply had to find something to eat," he said. He took a piece of cardboard and wrote on it: “Please help. Unemployed. Hungry. No food.”

Then he limped with his sore toe to a busy corner on Koeberg Road where there are traffic lights. It took him about half an hour in the hot sun to gather the confidence to stand at the lights. He held up the sign but looked down at the road out of shame.

“I prayed that no one who knew me would recognise me. I was so embarrassed," he said. “But you won't believe what happened."

He told me as soon as the lights turned green, people would shout at him: “Go get a job, you bad white man, you lazy white man. F-off. Don't waste my time!” Many also said he should be ashamed of himself as a white person.

He couldn't bear the attacks and every now and then he had to go and stand on the pavement to recover. But it happened again and again.

When he had collected R27 after a few hours, that was enough. He could no longer bear the hostility. With the money he bought a roll of toilet paper and a loaf of white bread. He went home.

I asked him who the people were that shouted at him like that? He looked at me for a long time.

Not the black or coloured people, Herman," he replied. “These are my people.

“White Afrikaners."

Although George gave permission for his photo to be used, I decided it would amount to exploitation, humiliation and poverty porn. I didn't pay him for his story but I did pay for the meal.


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