I recently announced a storytelling project I’m working on called My Favorite Joburg People. I chose four people in Joburg, each of whom has an amazing story to tell, and interviewed them and shot their portraits. I’ll be presenting the stories and portraits at an upcoming event called Translating Joburg – Storytellers, and also publishing them on my blog. This is the first of the four stories.
These stories are longer than my normal blog posts.
Michelle de Villiers
I met Michelle through a cat.
When I first moved to Joburg in 2010, a gray cat started hanging around in my back garden. My neighbor’s cat chased the gray cat mercilessly and I chased him too, trying to rid our garden of the incessant feline fights. But the gray cat kept coming back.
My boyfriend Jon and I finally started feeding the gray cat, who we called Squeak. Jon was not a huge cat fan but Squeak won him over. Squeak started sleeping in our house. We took Squeak to the vet and learned that Squeak was a he, not a she, as we originally thought. We began to think of Squeak as ours.
One day our bell rang. It was Michelle.
“I think you have my cat,” Michelle said.
I had never met Michelle before, and felt immediately defensive. She lived three houses away from us, and said that Smokey – Smokey was Squeak’s real name – was a natural wanderer but up until now he had always come home at night. When Smokey stopped coming home, Michelle starting looking. Smokey’s trail led her right to us.
I didn’t want to give up Squeak (Smokey). But within 45 seconds of talking to Michelle, I liked her too much to take her cat away. Jon and I agreed to stop feeding Smokey and shut him out of the house at night. Smokey responded by sneaking into our house during the day and peeing on every curtain and pillow. But we stuck to our promise.
Jon died three months later.
A couple of days after the funeral, I spent my first night home alone. All of my family and friends were gone and my landlord was away on holiday. (Jon died just before Christmas.) Lying in bed, I heard a noise at the window. I jumped up, breathing fast, and flung open the curtain.
Smokey was sitting on the ledge. He calmly climbed past me through the open window, hopped onto the bed, curled into a ball, and went to sleep.
I messaged Michelle the next morning. I can’t remember exactly how she answered but it was something like this: “Don’t worry my darling. Smokey is an angel in a cat suit and he is meant to be with you right now. He’s yours.”
Smokey became the Melville Cat, and Michelle became my friend.
Although we’ve been friendly for years, I knew very little about Michelle before our interview. I’d shared a lot more about my life (and Smokey’s) than she’d shared about hers. But it turns out that Michelle has an extraordinary story to tell.
I suppose this should come as no surprise. Extraordinary stories lurk everywhere in this city.
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Michelle was born in Germiston in 1966. Germiston, about 30 minutes east of downtown Johannesburg, is in an area that locals call the East Rand.
As a child, Michelle saw Joburg as an exotic, faraway place – a cosmopolitan city where she went to dinner with her parents on special occasions. “We used to love Joburg. It was an outing for us to go. We used to go to dinner in Hillbrow – I loved it. It was always safe.”
Michelle did her own share of partying in Joburg as a young adult. She speaks wistfully of the days when it was safe to stay out all night in Hillbrow. “Three or four o’clock in the morning, if my car broke down, as it often did, I would put on lipstick and wait for someone to come and help me. And somebody would always pitch up and help.”
I ask Michelle what it was like to grow up in a middle-class, suburban Afrikaans family during apartheid. Her response is candid.
“As a child, the things that were wrong, like the pass system…All those things were perceived by me as normal. You didn’t realize that there’s something odd about this. Looking back though, the apartheid system was the most ridiculous thing. It’s done, it’s happened. Sadly, we can’t turn back the clock.”
Michelle was an only child until she was 15, when her baby brother Andre was born. Although her parents, Anastasia and Hennie, were together for most of her childhood, Michelle describes her parents’ relationship as “terrible”. They fought constantly and Anastasia would often leave, only to come back again.
When Michelle was in matric (the final year of high school), her mother left her father for good. Michelle was pulled out of school because Anastasia could no longer afford the private school fees. Michelle went straight to work without matriculating.
“It was extremely traumatic for me. I thought I was going to die,” says Michelle, who never went back to school. “But it turned out okay for me. I’m an extremely tenacious person and it’s never held me back.”
Michelle’s life would get much harder before it got easier.
When Michelle was 19, Anastasia remarried. Hennie was devastated that his ex-wife had moved on.
“He couldn’t handle it, even though they had a terrible marriage. He threatened to take his own life.”
Anastasia, remarried for less than a week, went to Hennie’s house to try to calm him down. Michelle, knowing that her parents were together, called the house to find out how things were going. Her call was answered by an unfamiliar voice, and she immediately hung up. She called back again, and again. Eventually she realized that the unknown person on the other end of the line was a police officer. She went straight to the house.
“When I arrived at the house, they were both dead.”
Hennie had killed Anastasia, then killed himself. Andre, Michelle’s four-year-old brother, was playing outside at the time.
“Since then, Andre and I have been together.” Michelle formally adopted Andre, raising him as her son.
“It’s peculiar, but I don’t even dream about my parents. And when I have dreamt about them, it was my mother coming back and wanting to take Andre away from me.”
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I ask Michelle how she coped as a young woman, overcoming a terrible family tragedy with very little education or money and a small child to raise.
“You somehow just become like a robot and you carry on,” Michelle says. “It does catch up with you eventually – it did for me. But when you feel like things are too difficult to carry on, you somehow just do.”
Michelle struggled with relationships. At 24, she married a man who she’d known since she was 15. The marriage lasted nine days. “I think that’s when the trauma of my parents caught up, because the minute I got married, I felt extremely trapped. I had to get out.”
Shortly afterward Michelle met her second husband, Leon, with whom she had her son, Michon. Michelle and Leon divorced after nine years.
Amidst all of this, Michelle faced her problems and sought help, eventually finding a therapist who could help her work through the traumas she’d suffered. “You just carry on. It’s also my advice to people: If you’re going through very difficult times, just keep going. Never stop looking for answers – solve your problems. Don’t settle for having a difficult life because of things in your past.”
Still in her 20s, Michelle got a job with Falkirk, a company that manufactured cast iron products. She slowly, steadily climbed the corporate ladder. “I started in the sales department and I worked my way up. I eventually got promoted – I became financial director of the company. At the time I didn’t have much financial experience. I was just thrown in the deep end, and I did well.”
Michelle worked for Falkirk for 20 years. But eventually the company closed its doors in South Africa, and after a long corporate career Michelle found herself free to pursue other professional endeavors.
When her job ended, Michelle was living in a house in Melville, Joburg’s creative enclave. Upset over her separation from her longtime boyfriend, Des, who had decided to leave South Africa and move to the UK, Michelle made what she calls an impulsive decision: selling her home in an upscale suburb and buying a house in quirky Melville. “I did something outrageous. I bought the house in Melville on emotion – logic told me it wasn’t a good decision. But I think somehow I was meant to land here, and things just unfolded.”
As Michelle is saying this, I swap the words “bought the house in Melville” with “moved from America to South Africa” inside my head. Michelle’s story has become my own.
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“I used to be obsessed with charity stores – to the extent that I thought I had some kind of addiction. I used to question myself because I would go to Bounty Hunters [another Melville charity store] three or four times a day…I love charity shops and second-hand stuff and recycling.”
Charity shops are similar to American thrift stores. People donate old clothes, furniture, books, toys, etc., to the shop, which sells the items and donates the majority of the proceeds to charity. Charity shops are hugely popular in Joburg, especially in Melville.
Michelle started Junkie Charity Store – in a small, semi-dilapidated building near Melville’s Main Road – as a side project, thinking she could run the shop part-time while doing other things. Junkie opened in September 2010.
Michelle at her shop in Junkie’s early years, February 2012.
“I just wanted to focus on animal charities. I got friends to donate stuff, then I would sell it and just blindly give to whoever. We kept 10 percent for the shop…It took me a while to figure out that you actually have to develop relationships with these charities.”
Michelle began working with a variety of charities – children’s homes, HIV/AIDS organizations, nature reserves, animal shelters. These charities often receive in-kind donations that they aren’t able to use. So Michelle went to the charities and collected these donations, sold them, and gave the cash back to the charity.
Michelle was quickly consumed by her work at Junkie and she sacrificed everything for the shop. “It took two years before I could actually take some money for myself as a salary. I was working seven days a week. I sold my cars and I bought this little bakkie (pickup truck). That bakkie has worked so hard for Junkie.”
Michelle reduced her spending to the bare essentials; she didn’t even get her hair cut. She took out a loan for Michon’s studies, but fortunately he did well in university and eventually won scholarships.
There were days when Michelle feared that she didn’t have enough “cool stuff” at Junkie, so she brought in her own possessions to sell. Meanwhile, Junkie was becoming regular stop for fashionistas and bargain-hunters from all over Johannesburg and beyond. The shop had a certain style, combined with a homey, welcoming vibe, which made people want to buy things there.
Michelle believes that a store like Junkie only works in a place like Melville. “Melville lends itself to charity stores because we have such a diverse community. We’ve got very eccentric people here – people from all walks of life – it’s very positive. People from all areas come to Melville to visit the charity stores.”
I started going to Junkie after I met Michelle in late 2011. I’ve seen the business grow over the years, expanding to bigger and bigger premises, patronized by progressively larger, more diverse clientele. I’ve watched Michelle sell everything, from an R15 plastic baby bottle to an R5000 antique sofa. She never turns down a donation, no matter how junk-like it is.
Michelle makes every customer feel special.
“I’ve met such eccentric people – people that walk into my shop and in five minutes flat, not knowing me from a bar of soap, they will tell me their entire life history. I try to treat everybody very well, even though they might only spend R5. Today, they’re my customers. Tomorrow, they might want to donate stuff to one of my charities.”
Junkie is not just a store; it’s a community gathering place. High-powered businesswomen (and men) come to Junkie looking for vintage designer suits. Domestic workers come looking for affordable children’s clothes. Film producers come for props. Retirees downsizing to smaller homes come bearing suitcases full of clothes and housewares, truckloads of furniture.
Homeless people come, because they have nowhere to go and Michelle and her staff are always friendly to them.
Nothing goes to waste. Every object and every person, no matter how big or small, has a place at Junkie.
“Once I started with this charity store, there was no stopping me. I had to give everything. I am totally passionate about it. I’m married to Junkie…I can’t see myself doing anything else.”
What resonates most with me about Michelle’s story is the way that a series of seemingly random decisions – what Michelle would call illogical decisions – relatively late in her adulthood, led her to her true calling in life.
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Michelle is not particularly positive about South Africa’s future. She’s troubled by politics and what she sees as a continued political effort to divide the nation. “There’s still a lot of hurt going around, and stuff that hasn’t been dealt with. It’s not easy to always forgive and forget. If only the future would be better for us, but somehow I’ve got my doubts about that. I don’t think the country is in a great space at the moment.
“But,” Michelle adds, “Obviously we’re all still hopeful.”
Michelle has no intention of leaving, as many white South Africans of her generation have. “Leaving South Africa is not an option. No, I’m not going anywhere. This is my country.” Michelle is firm that she’ll never leave Joburg, and she’ll never leave Melville, which she sees as the only place in the city where people from all walks of life really connect with one another.
Quietly, persistently, Michelle does what she can to help her community.
When Junkie moved to a new location on 7th Street (Melville’s main shopping and dining strip) last year, a man named Gule started hanging around the shop. Gule, a homeless man who probably suffers from schizophrenia, is well known around Melville for wandering the streets, screaming at all hours, and raving at people for no reason.
Michelle herself was afraid of him at first. “I thought he was extremely aggressive,” she says. “But then he started coming in every day, talking to the pictures in the shop, and something happened. I realized this guy is not aggressive – he is refined. But the sad thing is that he’s ill and he’s out on the streets of Melville. He’s got nowhere to go.”
Michelle, along with her coworkers and family, slowly befriended Gule. He began spending more time at the shop, sitting on the wooden bench just outside. “We started dressing him, and I used to take him home every now and then for a shower, because he’s extremely tidy. He’s got good style.”
Michelle is trying to find out more information about Gule. He’s originally from Ethiopia and she suspects he has family somewhere in the city. But for now, Michelle and her family are helping Gule however they can. He even stayed at Michelle’s house for a while.
Gule isn’t staying with Michelle at the moment, but while he was there I asked her how she dealt with the added responsibility – having someone in the house who can’t be left alone, when Michelle herself has only a few precious hours at home each night.
“You know what? It’s okay. Because we know what it’s like, and I really think he’s trying to be good as gold.”
And there’s one more thing. “My cat loves Gule,” Michelle says. And Gule loves the cat.
That pretty much seals the deal.
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Special thanks to Michelle for telling her inspiring story (I know it wasn’t easy) and allowing me to publish it. I really can’t thank her enough. Please pay Michelle a visit at Junkie Charity Store, located at 7a 7th Street in Melville.