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South Africa - A day in the life of a vendor

 INSP 22 November 2010

Just when he had finally found a job, he lost it again due to a tragic accident. But Martin Malgas did not give up. We follow him as he goes about his day, selling The Big Issue magazine in Cape Town, South Africa. (2099 Words) - By Jorrit Meulenbeek

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Martin's sales tactics are not aggressive, his blue bib and friendly smile prove to be enough to make people notice him. Photo: Jorrit Meulenbeek

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Martin hails a minibus taxi in the main road to take him to town from Claremont, the suburb where he and his girlfriend stay in a wendy house. Photo: Jorrit Meulenbeek

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Buying magazines at one of The Big Issue's three depots, for seven Rand each, half the selling price. If he runs out during the day, the mobile distribution van delivers more at his pitch. Photo: Jorrit Meulenbeek

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Martin at his pitch, surrounded by morning traffic. The skyline of Central Cape Town is seen in the background. Photo: Jorrit Meulenbeek

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Making a sale. The transaction has to be done quickly, before the traffic lights turn green and the customer pulls up. Photo: Jorrit Meulenbeek

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The church across from his pitch with the big palm tree that provides him shelter when it rains. Photo: Jorrit Meulenbeek

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Having a chat with fellow vendor Jakoef Galant who sells a few blocks away. “I was a skellum”, he points to his gang tattoos. “You see that house? I used to break in there.” Photo: Jorrit Meulenbeek

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Vendor Jakoef Galant taking a break in the park with two homeless men. “They are not really my friends, but I share with them and they share with me.” Photo: Jorrit Meulenbeek

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When the light is green, Martin can do nothing but wait, while he gets his smile ready for the next walk between the cars. Photo: Jorrit Meulenbeek

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Former Big Issue-employee Do Machin buys a magazine. “It is a great read and Martin is a wonderful guy. He understands I also have to support the other vendors, so I can’t buy from him every time.” Photo: Jorrit Meulenbeek

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The over 1,8 million South African households who do not have access to formal housing often resort to building shacks, mostly out of iron-sheet. Photo: Jorrit Meulenbeek

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A group of homeless people on a field next to the Greenpoint stadium, which they had to leave to give way to the 2010 World Cup. Photo: Jorrit Meulenbeek

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Homeless people in Greenpoint, Cape Town. In their shopping trolleys they collect bottles and paper for recycling, earning them a small income. Photo: Jorrit Meulenbeek


Name: Martin Malgas

Street paper: The Big Issue South Africa

City: Cape Town, South Africa

Age: 26

It is quarter to six in the morning when Martin Malgas (46) walks out the gate. It is not his own gate - he still refers to himself as homeless - but the gate of the yard where people allow him and his girlfriend to stay, in a small wendy house.

Most mornings he takes a train straight to Cape Town station, but today he first has to drop by The Big Issue's depot to buy some magazines. He walks down to the main road where he waits for one of the crowded but affordable hop-on hop-off minibus taxi's to pass by.

"Cape Teooown! Kaap!", the gaatjie (conductor) hanging out of the window advertises their destination continuously, as the taxi makes it's way through morning traffic. From the depot Martin's walk through town goes uphill, away from the seashore, up the slopes of Table Mountain. His pitch is by the robots (traffic lights) at the intersection of Orange and Hatfield street in central Cape Town. From here he sells to motorists as they wait for the light to turn green.

It is in the morning rush hour when he makes most of his sales. Hardly having had a chance to change into his Big Issue-bib Martin already sells his first copy. By ten o'clock he has sold eight. "I sell around fifteen a day", he explains. "Sometimes even twenty, but now the magazine is getting old and most people have it already."

Every time the robot goes red, he walks down the lanes of waiting cars routinely, smiling and greeting people politely. "I don't knock on the windows or anything, if they say no I don't keep forcing, I just wish them a good day."

Once the morning clouds have disappeared, the sun burns mercilessly upon his pitch. Summer days like these are the hardest days for Martin, since his accident happened in 2003. He pulls up his sleeve to reveal the severely burnt skin on his upper arm.

It happened when he was staying together with a friend, in a small wendy house in District Six, the area in Cape Town that became a symbol of oppression when it was demolished in the 60's because it's racially mixed population did not fit the apartheid ideology.

"Martin, what did you do with the candle?", his house mate asked when one night they suddenly smelled a strange burning scent. He remembers seeing a trail of petrol under the door. "When I noticed, it was already too late." Seconds later his bed was on fire. "It was not meant for me, it was for my friend. His ex-girlfriend did this", he explains.

The neighbours responded quickly and managed to quench the fire, saving his house. But his leg and arm were badly burned. After years of struggling to get employment, he had finally managed to land a job at a butchery, but after the accident he could no longer use his arm and he was out of work again.

Now he is back at The Big Issue magazine, which he had been selling before. After several operations at Cape Town's Grooteschuur hospital, where they transplanted skin from his chest to his arm, the pain is now bearable, but on days like these the burning African sun still makes it hurt.

After the morning rush hour both the traffic and Martin's sales dry up, though he still has many a quick chat with his regular customers. "I love The Big Issue, I have piles of them", a lady in a fancy red car says, pointing to the copies lying around in the back seat. "Bye Martin", she greets him as she pulls up. Others put their thumb up in support, or just smile and point to their copy, having put it in sight on the dashboard.

He has occupied this same pitch since he first started selling The Big Issue in 1991. When he came back after his accident many of his old customers were still there. "One lady even sponsored me with fifteen magazines, just before she left the country. She had promised me she would do it and she did."

Besides the days when he takes over his friends' jobs, working as a caretaker in an apartment building, Martin is on this pitch seven days a week. Happy as he is with selling The Big Issue, he still has hopes of leaving his pitch behind one day. "Other young people should also get a chance. When I find a job I will let them know. Then someone else can come sell here."

Around three o'clock he takes a quick walk up the  road to have a chat with his fellow vendor Jakoef. Then the afternoon rush hour starts and traffic picks up again. He still manages to sell four copies, making it worth the long wait. At half past five he decides to make his way home again. He has not taken a proper break all day, apart from just a quick snack at his pitch.

His girlfriends cooks most of the time, after she finishes her work as a maid. "But sometimes I also cook for her", he quickly adds."Whenever she is not feeling well." Does he not get hungry during the day? "I must not eat too much you see", he explains with a smile. "Or I will have lost my appetite when I get home. Then my girlfriend will get cross with me."

A house but not a home

"They have a roof above their heads, but I would not call it a home", Martin Leggasick describes the situation of the millions of South Africans living in shacks in the ever-growing informal settlements surrounding the major cities. "They sometimes have to share a single water tap with more than 600 people."

Leggasick, emeritus professor at the University of Western Cape, is an activist for the Western Cape Anti-Eviction campaign. "People move into the cities to find jobs and the government is failing to provide adequate housing for them", he summarizes what he sees as the main cause of homelessness in South Africa. "Most of these people are unable to afford proper housing for themselves, so they end up building shacks."

While influx of job seekers to the urban areas is something that is seen in most developing countries, the legacy of apartheid makes South Africa's case even more urgent. Under apartheid, black Africans were not allowed to live and work in the cities freely. Because of this, Leggasick explains, there has been a large build-up of people in the so-called homelands, impoverished areas designated for 'natives'.

After the apartheid laws were abolished, they were suddenly free to move into the cities and did so in large numbers. According to data of the National Department of Human Settlements, almost 2.4 million social housing units were built between April 1994 and March 2010, but despite these efforts, housing developments could not keep up. A survey of the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) recorded that over 1.8 million households were living in informal dwellings in 2008.

Homelessness in South Africa is closely tied to unemployment. According to the official statistics the unemployment rate is around 25 percent (Quarterly Labour Force Survey, Quarter 3 2010), but many sources put the figure far higher. The Big Issue Magazine, currently operating only in Cape Town, South Africa's second-largest city with an estimated 4-million people, is one of the initiatives to provide jobless people with a basic income.

"We are different from most street newspapers in other countries", says managing director Trudy Vlok.  "They mainly work with homeless people who struggle with addiction or mental issues, while our main focus is providing earn-while-you-learn employment and skills-developing opportunities to people living in poverty."

According to Vlok, between 15 and 20 percent of the vendors eventually move on into the formal employment sector, or manage to start up businesses of their own, reaching sustainable independence.

Tasso Evantelinos, chief operations officer of the Cape Town Partnership, applauds the work of The Big Issue in his city. This central city initiative works closely together with the street newspaper and is involved in several other programs to fight the problems related to homelessness in town. Apart from providing shelter and medical care, they work on rehabilitating street people, providing training and guaranteeing them employment.

Over 300 people currently take part in these programmes. In addition to that his organisation has assisted in repatriating over a hundred people over the last ten years, to go live with their family back in the places where they originally came from.

"This may seem like small numbers for a big city", Evantelinos admits. "It is not an exact science, homelessness is a complex issue and there is no perfect solution to this problem. Though over the past years we have seen a decrease in the number of people living on the streets in town, especially the street kids. The kids you still find in town now are street-hardened types who really choose to be on the streets, most of them are part of criminal syndicates."

According to the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR), the number of households living in formal dwellings is now growing more rapidly than the number in informal dwellings for the first time, suggesting the trend is slowly changing, even though the number of people living in informal housing is still growing.

Martin Legassick of the Western Cape Anti-Eviction campaign says that initiatives like The Big Issue are making a difference for individual people, because it helps them make some money. But to really fight the housing shortage, he suggests government should focus on providing training and job opportunities for jobless people in the building sector, tackling the issue of joblessness and homelessness at the same time. "Currently there is a backlog of more than two million houses. But in this way that could be overcome relatively quickly."