Family, for some, is not written into the branches of ancestor charts but lies in the interlocking characters whose lives flow into each other daily. One unlikely family, whose lineage can be traced to the plot of land they share in Savoy Estate at the corner of Louis Botha and Grenville avenues, are a hodgepodge of characters from South Africa, Zimbabwe, West Africa and Bangladesh.

The parking lot on the service road at the intersection of Louis Botha and Grenville avenues in Savoy Estate is crammed with cars stationed in tight spaces between designated white lines. Late Thursday afternoon traffic is moving swiftly across Louis Botha Avenue as minibus taxis careen between motorists to beat the changing of traffic lights. 

Steven Marks (47) lets out a resigned sigh which creases his pink face, still weary from the heat. His stomach is stretched tight against the polyester mesh of his metallic blue t-shirt; the glistening silver chain around his neck leaves sweaty diamond imprints on his fevered skin. 

Marks watches the fast-moving picture show before him from where he stands outside his apartment building. He nervously surveys the scene to his right. 

Thabiso Brian Zungu holds out his winnings and the cards he and his colleagues use to play a game called Sevens. Photo: Imaan Moosa

A group of about 10 African men in their thirties and forties occupy the pavement outside Savoy Supermarket. Five of them are huddled together, their heads bent intently over a card game. Each man takes a turn to swig from bottles of lager beer and trade money between themselves. The toot-tooting of taxis whizzing past becomes background noise against interrupted guffaws from the men.

One of the men breaks away, stumbling his way through broken bottles, sewage and dirt to the edge of the pavement. He unzips his pants and the sound of urine hitting the pavement is muffled slightly against the din of traffic on Louis Botha. 

“Yissis, Louis Botha is something else,” remarks Marks. “I’d rather move to Congo or Nigeria. It’s probably safer there.”

Marks rents an apartment at Pearl Harbour on Louis Botha. Pristine tiled walls on the outside of the building reflect passing men and women. Turnstiles and a security pad hinder access to anyone who is not a resident. 

“They make a mess. It’s all types of things,” Marks says about the men. “Over the years things change. They don’t stay the same. You either join ’em or you go against them. We don’t bother them and they don’t bother us. Living in Jo’burg, you get used to it.”

Away from home

Resident Steven Marks stands outside his apartment unit, Pearl Harbour, in Savoy Estate. Photo: Imaan Moosa

The building at the corner of Louis Botha and Grenville avenues, which is subdivided between Pearl Harbour, Atlas Finance, Savoy Supermarket, Liqui Moly (a company that specialises in car care) and Pirates Motor Spares, is owned by Bekehal Trust, which purchased the premises in 2011 and rents out 28 apartment units at Pearl Harbour. 

Marks, previously a resident in Fairland for 15 years, has been at Pearl Harbour for four years. Struggling to keep his rubble removal business afloat and foot the bill, he moved south-west to Savoy after being forced to downsize from his three-bedroom townhouse. 

He takes care of his aging parents, with whom he shares a two-bedroom apartment – a claustrophobic living space of one bathroom, no living room and a kitchen the size of a shoebox.

Marks notes a big difference in the change in face on Louis Botha. 

“There are a lot more foreigners now, but the Jewish community sticks together,” he says. “They [Bekehal Trust] will not let foreign nationals into the building. The Jewish and other communities that have been around [Orange Grove] are not around anymore, because everyone has emigrated. Lots of black people have taken over those houses and bought up the area. These guys don’t live here.”

“These guys”, Godfrey Dlamini (33) and James Kustavo (32), are part of the group of men who occupy the pavement. 

The next Tuesday, Kustavo and his colleagues share a breakfast of beer bought from Savoy Liquor Store on the opposite corner. Every day the men check in at eight o’clock to offer their auto repair services to potential customers passing by.

“I like it because I am surviving. I don’t steal things from people,” says Dlamini. He toys with a plastic rosary hanging around his neck. “I manage to pay the rent and eat. I send my mum something, but it’s not easy to get a real job.”

Dlamini, who describes his education as “bumper to bumper”, completed his schooling only up to grade 10. The Zimbabwean-born mechanic moved to South Africa in 1992 with his father, who taught him the trade.  

Dlamini says the police often chase him and the other men away because they are not supposed to be occupying the pavement without a permit from the city council. 

The City of Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality street trading by-laws states that street trading is the supplying of goods or services for profit on a public road. As informal traders, the men need to comply with the by-laws to ensure certain conduct is maintained.

The men are in violation of multiple legislations, namely: “Create a nuisance; damage or deface the surface of any public road; or create a health hazard.” Penalties for non-compliance include a R50 fine or, in default of payment, imprisonment of six months.

Five feet away from Dlamini a police car sits idly in the last parking bay on the parking lot. The police officer speaks to one of the men, who is working on a car next to them. 

“Some of them are my friends,” Dlamini says, referring to the men on the pavement. “In the street you have to fight for customers. 

“If he gets the customer, he gets the job,” he says of his colleague, “but if he doesn’t give me the job then I moer the guy.”

Many of the men who work as informal mechanics outside Savoy Supermarket and Pirate Motor Spares on the corner of Louis Botha and Grenville avenues are migrants who have left their homes and families to seek a better life in the City of Gold. They have become a family, their common ancestry traced to the short strip of pavement they share from 8:00 to 6:00 on Monday to Saturday where they wrangle their day’s income by offering auto repair services.

Malawian Kustavo disagrees with Dlamini’s approach. “I don’t like to fight. Just to approach and talk to customers is enough.”

Kustavo moved to South Africa in 2010. He lives in Alexandra but walks 5.3km to repair cars on Louis Botha. 

Sometimes he does not go home but remains on the pavement as night settles and more money from the day’s earnings is passed between the hands of the men who drunkenly keep watch over their strip of pavement.

Gavin Freedman, a resident of Pearl Harbour, says the men create noise only when they drink.

Forty-eight-year-old Freedman lived in Orange Grove before he moved to Savoy in September 2018. Although the move was a short distance, he laments the current state of Louis Botha – buildings hanging tentatively on the skeletal frames of 1950s architecture.  

Mike Mosselson, an estate agent for Pam Golding, has worked in Savoy and surrounds for 19 years. He says many Jews who had been living in Orange Grove upgraded and moved on.

“Historically, Orange Grove is an older area. Many residents have retired and moved to old age homes … It has become more commercial. There are very few, limited residential homes.”

Mosselson notes that the houses in Orange Grove are approximately 495m², compared to Savoy where properties are between 1 500 and 1 800m². In 2012 rent prices were between R6 000 and R7 000, whereas now they range between R8 000 and R10 000.

“Have you seen what Orange Grove looks like? That is why I decided to move,” says Freedman. “But it is no better living here [in Savoy Estate].”

He says that for the past 10 days there has been no water and electricity, which he blames on the City of Johannesburg. Although he also says there is too much noise, he stays at Pearl Harbour because he cannot afford to move elsewhere. 

The migrant and his brothers

A customer sits inside Savoy Supermarket reading the daily newspaper. Photo: Imaan Moosa

Bangladeshi-born *Hossain Abir (28), who leases Savoy Supermarket with two men whom he considers his brothers, *Uazi Heron and *Farkul Islam, is also bound by circumstances to a country he wants to be free from. 

When Abir arrived in South Africa in 2014, one of his first stops was Home Affairs to apply for a permanent residence permit. Waiting in line, he met Heron whom he recognised delightedly as his neighbour from Bangladesh. 

The two men exchanged numbers and promised to keep in touch. The men live alone in South Africa. Their only link to home is each other. 

“We came to do good things, to do better things in our lives. We can support our family, friends and community.”

Abir has been saving money to send home for his 22-year-old sister, who is getting married in the coming months.

LUNCH BREAK: Mechanic James Kustavo and his colleagues seek a reprieve outside Savoy Supermarket from the sun and car soot. Photo: Imaan Moosa

“But since I came here, each and every day is too hard. When the black people here [African migrants] come to us they talk like we are not human beings. They think they are human but we are not. They talk like rubbish, like we are shit,” he says.

His words fall broken and jagged from a tongue that is unfamiliar with the English language. He struggles for a second, then continues to talk. 

He says the men have stolen from the supermarket twice and force him to give them credit.

“They come with fake money and force themselves to the front of the queue.”

When Abir and Heron do not serve them fast enough, he says, the men swear obscenities at them.

“The people call it xenophobia: the looting, the complaining of foreigners doing this and that,” Abir says. “They think we are Pakistani, but I am not. So why are they looting us? They say this is a freedom country, but we are not free.” 

Abir’s pain, located within the circumstances of his life in South Africa, mirrors Dlamini’s and Kustavo’s. The men, who greet motorists who stop in the parking lot with charm and charisma, have targets marked squarely on their backs by disgruntled locals who see foreigners as the enemy. All three men have no real place to call home in South Africa and a yearning that tugs at their heartstrings for their birthplaces, but they stay because they are their families’ sources of income.

A refuge or a prison sentence?

Five young women stroll into the supermarket. They make a beeline for the checkout counter, where Heron trades sleek, elongated bottles of wine and unpackaged cigarettes with the women. 

The women round the corner of Pearl Harbour, their sandals slapping against the pavement. They light up and the smell of nicotine and perfume cocoon them like their figure-hugging dresses, which cling like a second skin. 

“Our lives are hectic. Today we were like, ‘Let’s just take a walk’. Not that we are prostitutes, but cars must stop and give us money just for walking out. We made R300,” boasts 18-year-old Asive Myataza. 

“At certain times – like half past twelve and half past two at lunch break – we walk out. Nothing much. No strings attached,” she explains.

The matric student moved to Manhattan Place on Louis Botha, which is an apartment complex directly opposite Pearl Harbour, in 2018 when her single mother ushered her and her three younger siblings from Lyndhurst to an area she thought safer.

“There were too many robberies at night. We would hear someone got robbed or shot and killed,” says Myataza. “[Savoy] is much safer. I haven’t heard of any robberies.”

Abir disagrees. He says the noise does not add to his safety. 

“All people are not the same. Some people are bad, some people are good. We must trust people and help people who are helpless,” says Abir. “When people come to us crying we must help them, but [black people] kill us mentally.” 

When asked where he lives in South Africa, Abir rolls his eyes and raises his voice to stay on topic. 

“They give me headaches. It is not good for your brain. I can’t sleep at night,” he says. “Whole day they give me headache and I tolerate it, but when I try to sleep in my bed the headache is killing me. I feel hurt.”

The three groups of men who share the pavement might not like each other or even call each other friends, but they have become a dysfunctional family forced together by fate. The lives of Marks and Freedman, Dlamini and Kustavo, Abir and Heron are a spider’s web, the strands so tightly woven across time and place that at some crosspoint they have intersected, yet they are too caught up in their daily hardships to see how similar they are, while driven further apart by their differences.

*Not their real names.

ABOVE RIGHT: Mechanic *Declerk downs an early Tuesday morning breakfast of lager beer before he begins his shift. Photo: Imaan Moosa
ABOVE LEFT: Mechanic James Kustavo keeps an eye out for potential customers to offer his auto repair services to. Photo: Imaan Moosa 

FEATURED IMAGE: A mechanic working on a car. Photo: Supplied