Life is tough for the broken kids of Long Street

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By MATT MEDVEDpage_7967783

Weaving through the gaps in the constant stream of tourists that walk down Long Street, Lwando “Popeye” Nwalpo is on autopilot.

With 10 of his 17 years spent scrounging on the Cape Town streets, Nwalpo has the routine down to an art form. His frame, small for his age, is draped in a ragged beige coat from which his large smile protrudes. He flags down a passing couple with a thumbs-up gesture and a checkerboard grin. A brief chat rewards him with a R2 coin.

“When approaching people, I usually start with geography,” says Nwalpo.

“I ask, ‘where are you from?’ I try to be honest.”

Nwalpo says he learned the approach from other children and adults he met on the streets. He had to learn quickly after travelling cross-country from Soweto in 1997 with his mother, drawn by the promise of a job and a place to stay with a family friend.

But the promise fell through. Nwalpo’s mother began working as a parking guard on Kloof Street, the intersecting avenue with Long that has become both where the family works and sleeps. Nwalpo says they have been saving for bus fare back to Johannesburg since a cardboard box became their bed.

“Too old,” says Nwalpo when asked his mother’s age. “She relies on me now.”

On an average day, Nwalpo wakes up between 10am and noon and roams the street begging until midnight, though he stays out later on weekends.

He says the nights are the most lucrative because of the active nightlife, and on a good night he will take in as much as R80. But nights vary, and on this particular night he claims he has only been able to wangle the R2 from the couple earlier.

He usually confines his activities to Long Street and its immediate area because other areas are governed by unwritten turf rules.

“Long Street is anyone’s game,” he says.

“But in other areas I have been threatened by street kid gangs. I don’t want any trouble, I don’t fight.”

Besides rival factions, Long Street children must also brave freeloading security guards. Nwalpo says many demand “taxes” of R2 or R4 and threaten to kick them off the streets if they do not comply.

“I don’t pay the security guards, though a lot of the other kids do,” says Nwalpo, glaring at the guard by the door of the Long Street Superette.

“I work hard for my money.”

The Long Street security guards have a different take on their interactions with the street children.

“We are supposed to chase them away but it’s hard to do it every day,” says a security guard who has been assigned to Long Street for two months.

“We usually just let them do what they do.”

He says sometimes preventing street children from pestering pedestrians for “small change” is in their best interests.

“Sometimes they hassle the passers-by and people don’t like it,” he says.

“They are going to get hurt if they keep doing it. By chasing them off, we’re protecting them.”

He also denies ever taking money from the children and glares at Nwalpo, who remains silent.

As we leave the superette, a snaggletooth man with a scarred face approaches us and tries to hustle me for money.

When I refuse, he kicks at my feet and curses at Nwalpo, who tries to duck behind me.

Nwalpo is shaking as the man turns back up the street.

“That man tried to fight me once, but I refused and he bit me,” says Nwalpo, showing me a scar on his left index finger.

“He does tik and he is always trying to get money from the kids on the street, though he hasn’t been here long.”

Nwalpo says he has never engaged in drug use, but that “many kids” do. He points towards the crumpled figure of a boy lying on a corner clutching a plastic bag. “He is doing glue,” Nwalpo says.

“It is common on the streets. I see others doing drugs but I’ve never tried.”

Patric Solomons, the director of child rights organisation Molo Songololo, says “a large percentage” of street children are substance abusers.

“On some level they create the illusion they are providing protection for the children, but they are usually manipulating them. Gangs will also often try and recruit them to push or courier drugs or to carry out thefts and break-ins for them.”

Solomons confirmed that street children often organise themselves in their own gangs and compete with other street children for panhandling turf.

“Street children also experience quite severe levels of violence – both by police officers and security companies who are trying to the keep the city clean.”

Solomons says when street children begin to outgrow their cuteness and handouts decline, they often turn to crime. Lacking education and vocational skills, crime becomes their only means of income. Prostitution is a common business for homeless females, while males frequently find themselves in gangs and drug rings.

Dylan Okkers, a 25-year-old parking guard, found this doomsday forecast to be all too true.

Okkers fled his Elsies River home at age 15 after getting sucked into a gang war raging between the Dixie Boys and Americans.

“I had become a small gangster for the Dixie Boys, stabbing and shooting at Americans,” Okkers says.

“It was much better on the streets; I no longer had to carry a gun.”

Fending for himself on the CBD streets, Okkers began sniffing glue and performing services for members of the notorious 28s prison gang.

“They were using us to beg and rob for them, we’d meet them on the street corner and they would tell us what to do,” Okkers says.

“They didn’t give us anything in return. They would beat us up if we refused.”

Okkers was arrested for stealing a woman’s bag and sentenced to three-and-a-half years, which he served in Pollsmoor, Victor Verster and Helderstroom prisons. While inside, Okkers became heavily involved in gang activity and rose through the ranks of the 28s.

Since his release, Okkers has tried to put his gangster past behind him

“I don’t ever want to go back to prison, so I’m using my brain to get by now by parking cars,” Okkers says, fingering the XXVIII tattoo on his wrist.

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~ by Matt Medved on September 16, 2007.

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