I recently announced a storytelling project 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 presented the stories and portraits at an event called Translating Joburg – Storytellers, and also publishing them on my blog. This is the last of the four stories.
These stories are longer than my normal blog posts.
Lucky was second person I met after moving to Johannesburg. We lived on the same property and the door to his one-room apartment was five feet from my kitchen. Lucky worked for Horst, my landlord, which meant that he also indirectly worked for my boyfriend Jon and me.
Lucky tended our garden, cleaned our house, did our dishes, ironed our clothes. He fixed our ancient oven each time it broke – dismantling it, spreading out the metal parts on the kitchen counter, and putting it back together again. The first time I watched Lucky fix that oven, I thought, “He should have been an engineer.”
Lucky has a great sense of humor. He has a huge smile and he’s quick to laugh. English isn’t his first language and he speaks slowly, mulling over each word before he releases it. When I overhear him speaking in Venda, his first language, the words come quickly and his voice has a different tone – deeper and more authoritative.
My first two years in Johannesburg were the hardest of my life. Looking back, I realize that Lucky was my only constant. He was the only person who understood everything that was happening to me. Lucky was the only person who knew what my life with Jon was really like, and what it meant for me to lose him.
I remember sitting in the sun on my back porch one afternoon, crying. Lucky came around the corner and I couldn’t compose myself in time. Lucky’s face fell when he saw me.
“Please don’t cry,” he said. I cried harder. Lucky changed his tack.
I can’t remember his exact words but they were something like this: “If you need to talk to me, Heetha, you can talk. I know I can’t speak English well, but I do understand things, I know things.”
He does understand things. There’s something mystical about Lucky.
I know how this must sound: A naïve American white woman moves to Africa, experiences a romantic tragedy, and is saved by a meaningful friendship with her kindly house servant. The story is so cliché, so colonial. But it’s real. Lucky made me feel safe at a time when life in general felt very perilous. I’m grateful for that.
I don’t live with Lucky anymore, and even though he’s only up the street I have to make a concerted effort to see him. So when I thought up this storytelling project, he was the first person I decided to interview. Not only have I always been curious to hear Lucky’s life story, but also it was a perfect excuse to spend an afternoon with him.
We sit around a table spread with pizza boxes and Coke: Lucky, Lucky’s brother Walter, and me. Although Lucky is slightly older, he and Walter are like twins. Lucky isn’t totally confident in his English and I think he feels more comfortable telling his story with Walter around. I interview the brothers together.
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Lucky was born in 1978 in Venda, a region in South Africa’s Limpopo Province. He grew up in a village called Murunwa, the oldest of seven children, in a small thatched house.
Lucky’s father, Johannes, was about 50 years old when Lucky was born – remarkable considering that six more children followed. Johannes was away most of the time working for Transnet (South Africa’s biggest railway company) in Joburg, and Lucky’s mother, Anah, stayed home to raise the children.
When Lucky was little, his father retired from his job on the railroads. Lucky remembers his father’s retirement well, because Johannes bought him a stuffed giraffe with his Transnet pension money. After Johannes retired, he stayed in Joburg and began working as a gardener. “He was really strong,” Lucky says of Johannes. All of the children worshipped their father.
I ask Lucky what it felt like to grow up in rural South Africa under apartheid. He tells me about the first time he remembers seeing white people, when he was about five years old.
“I would just see this thing when we would go to the bank, and when I was at the shop. When you go there, you can see that the person who is served first is a white person… I looked at them and I looked at myself, at the skin and the color, and I thought, ‘That one is beautiful. We can’t share things with them.’ We grew up with that knowledge, that the white people, they are important. They are the first.”
Around the same time, Lucky remembers going to visit his father in Joburg. Johannes was staying in a room on a white family’s property in Kempton Park. “There was a little [white] boy, we were the same age. We were playing there, and he had a bicycle. I wanted to ride the bike. I took the bike and I started riding and he screamed and cried. The father heard that and got very cross.”
That very night, Johannes was kicked out of his room and had to find another place to live.
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Lucky attended the local primary and secondary schools in his village, where he estimates there were about 60 children per class. Lucky enjoyed school; his favorite subjects were science and agriculture. But he was forced to drop out in grade 11.
I ask Lucky why he had to stop going to school. He and Walter exchange looks, laughing, but in a sad way.
“The situation at home, it was really bad by that time,” says Lucky. “It was really hard. My father was not working properly – he was working maybe two days or three days a week. He was not having enough money and we were really struggling.”
The family ran short of food at the end of the month. The children couldn’t afford their school uniforms and were sometimes sent home from school as a result. They needed money and Lucky was old enough to work. So that was that.
I ask Lucky to imagine how his life might be different today if he hadn’t had to drop out of school at 17. He doesn’t understand me at first; I can tell this is a question that he hasn’t considered in a long time. “I could see myself at Wits [University]…It’s a place I would like to go. At the time, I was thinking that maybe one day I could be a doctor.”
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Lucky first tried to join the army after leaving school. But for reasons beyond his control, that plan didn’t work out. “After that, it’s when I decided to come here to Joburg.” Lucky estimates this was around 1999.
“What prompted that decision?” I ask.
“I was just thinking, maybe it’s different. Because at home, there’s no jobs. Maybe in Joburg I could get piece jobs like my father, the way he does.”
Lucky spent all of his money on a train ticket to Joburg, and boarded the train with a suitcase full of possessions. He arrived at Joburg’s Park Station and walked six kilometers to Zoo Lake, where he thought he would find his father. “When I came here, by that time, my father had no room,” Lucky explains. “He was sleeping on the street.
“I still remember the day that I came here. My father wasn’t around. There was no phone, where you could phone someone and say I arrived. I arrived in Parkview, at Zoo Lake…I didn’t have any money. Nothing, nothing.
“The whole day I was looking for my father, and then I didn’t even see him. So I decided to sleep at the park, by myself. I was just walking around in Parkview so that it can get late so that I can go and sleep. And I’ve got this big bag. I decided to go and hide it next to the dam in Zoo Lake. Somebody was seeing me put the bag there.
“I slept in George Hay Pak, next to the church. In the morning I woke up and I washed my face there, and I started to think about going back for the bag. When I got there, the bag was gone…I just accepted that and tried to find my father.”
After a couple of days, Lucky found Johannes staying with friends in a flat in Hillbrow. Lucky and his father began to work together, taking whatever gardening jobs they could find. “I would just go with my father where he is doing the piece jobs. I was helping him and I was getting R20 (less than $2) for a day.”
Lucky and Johannes were homeless most of the time. Lucky remembers sleeping often on a particular street in Parkview, under a big bougainvillea bush, grilling meat over an open fire. I ask Lucky if he ever felt afraid while they slept outside.
“Because my father was there, I just felt safe,” Lucky says. “I would just accept that anything can happen, as long as my father was there.”
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At some point during Lucky’s first year in Joburg, he and Johannes began working for Horst. Horst was living in a house in Norwood, and Lucky and his father worked in the garden.
“I remember we were cutting the grass with clippers. My father just cut half, but I was used to doing that back home so I cut the whole place in the same day. I think Horst, he was impressed.”
Eventually Johannes got another job on the same street, and Lucky began working for Horst full time. Horst soon moved to Melville, buying the house that I moved into several years later.
One day, Lucky was helping Horst and his partner Stephen move from the house in Norwood to the new place in Melville. Horst and Stephen offered to give Lucky a ride home. They didn’t know that Lucky had no home to go to.
“We were still sleeping on the street at that time, but I didn’t want to tell Horst,” Lucky says. “When we finished, [Horst and Stephen] said ‘Ok, we will take you home.’ We get into the car and we go. We get to Parkview and [Horst] asks, ‘Where can we drop you?’ I said Zoo Lake. He said, ‘Why?’ I told him I don’t have a place to stay – I stay there at Zoo Lake.”
Horst and Stephen took Lucky back to their house immediately, and Lucky never slept on the street again. For the next several months Lucky and Johannes slept on the floor in Horst’s garage. Eventually, when it became available after another person moved out, they moved into the one-room apartment across from my future kitchen door.
Eighteen years later, Lucky still lives there. I can understand why. Horst is an extraordinary person – kind, funny, strong, and impossibly generous – and his house in Melville is an extraordinary place. It’s a difficult place to leave.
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During his first year or two in Joburg, Lucky occasionally stayed with his cousin and his cousin’s girlfriend. His cousin’s girlfriend introduced Lucky to her sister, a woman named Sweetness. Lucky and Sweetness began dating. During the December holidays, Lucky took Sweetness home to meet his family in Venda and soon, the two were married.
Lucky settled into his work with Horst. Sweetness was from Hammanskraal, a rural area north of Pretoria, and divided her time between her family’s house and the one-room apartment in Melville. Johannes eventually retired for real and moved home to Venda. (Incidentally, Johannes is in his late 80s today and still alive and well.)
Lucky says that he and Sweetness weren’t thinking about having children at that time. But Lucky’s family had different expectations for their first-born son. “My mother, she likes kids,” Lucky said. “She insisted that we must have a baby.”
Lucky and Sweetness had their son, Lufuno, in 2003. “I was very happy because we had a boy.” But soon afterward, issues started to arise in Lucky’s marriage. Sweetness’ family received an RDP house (read more about RDP houses here) in Hammanskraal, and Sweetness began to spend more time there. Lucky’s parents were insistent that Sweetness must move to Venda to raise Lufuno, because this is how things work in Venda culture. (Sweetness herself is half Venda and half Shangaan.) Lucky and Sweetness were stuck in the middle.
As Lucky and Walter are explaining this situation, I start to think about the concept of home. South Africa’s colonial history, combined with apartheid and the cultural traditions of the country’s numerous indigenous groups, have created a confusing definition of what “home” is. People migrate to Johannesburg from all over the country – they find jobs, get married, have children – but Joburg never becomes home. There are millions of migrants living like this, trying to balance the realities of their day-to-day lives in the big city with their families’ expectations of them back home.
Lucky and Sweetness couldn’t agree on where home was, and their marriage failed as a result. “It was really bad because I was loving her. It was bad when we started to separate.”
Not long after his split with Sweetness, Lucky remarried. “I thought it’s better to get a wife in Venda so we don’t have a problem.” When he was home for the December holidays that year, Lucky met his second wife, Vhutshilo. They’re still married today and have two sons together, Rudzani and Adivhaho.
It’s strange for me to imagine Lucky as a father. I’ve known him since 2010 and I’ve never met his wife or any of his children.
During the years I lived with Lucky, he traveled home to Venda every Christmas and every Easter, every holiday weekend that he could scrape together enough time and money for the eight-hour train or taxi ride. In my mind, Lucky’s absences were just short interludes when I had to suck it up and clean my own kitchen.
But for Lucky, these holidays are when he gets to live his actual life – being a real husband to his wife and a real father to his children. Being home.
I ask Lucky if he finds it difficult living so far from his family. “Even now, I’m still struggling with that. I miss my children. They know I’m the father but you can see that they’re missing me.” Walter, who also has a wife and kids in Venda, explains that sometimes when he comes home, his little boy will peak around the edge of the door and run away. He doesn’t immediately recognize his father.
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I ask Lucky and Walter more questions about home. Would they ever consider living permanently in Joburg?
“I think maybe to us, it’s like that because we never live at our place here in Joburg,” Lucky says. “We still feel like we’re staying at someone else’s property. Maybe if we did have an RDP house, then maybe…”
But Walter is adamant. “For me, Joburg is a place for work. To stay here…I don’t really think I can enjoy myself the way I would enjoy home in a rural area. When I’m home, I feel free and I feel I can do lots of things.”
Both men agree that they will retire in Venda. Lucky even has a plan for how he could continue to earn a living there. “I think these days, because there’s lots of schools [in Venda] and children need transport…If I’ve got money I can get a car and transport them every day, and take workers to work, and every month they can pay me.”
After many years of saving money for lessons and test fees, Lucky finally got his driver’s license a couple of years ago. It was a big deal, as having a license is a huge advantage in the South African job market. Walter has a license too, and currently works as a driver for a panel beater (body shop).
It’s hard for me to imagine Lucky ever leaving his employment with Horst, though. I mention this to Lucky, and he agrees. “I don’t feel comfortable to leave this job and go to another one. The relationship…now I feel like [Horst is] my brother, like my family.”
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“For my children, I don’t want them to walk this path that I walk,” says Lucky. “All I’m thinking about them is just to go to school – to get a better education.”
“I always want to make sure that my kids are taking education very seriously, even at the early stages, so that they grow with that, with both parents giving them support,” Walter adds. “And everything that they need for education, everything…It’s just unfortunate that I can’t afford to take them to private schools or multiracial schools, so that they can have better educations and good English.”
“One day, if I’ve got a better job, I really want [my children] to come and go to school [in Joburg]. So they can grow up and really talk English, not like me. Because sometimes, I can’t even explain properly…” Lucky trails off.
Lucky and Walter are both very intelligent. They’re painfully aware that if they’d just had the opportunity for a little more education, a little more practice in speaking and writing English, that things could be very different for them and their families.
Sitting around this table with them, I’m painfully aware of it too. Countless times, I’ve thought about the fact that the only differences between Lucky and me are the colors of our skin and the geographical locations of our birth. Those differences allowed me to get a good education, and precluded Lucky from doing so.
Because he is black and born in rural South Africa, Lucky couldn’t get a good education. He came to Johannesburg in desperation. He had no money, no place to live, and only the clothes he was wearing. He managed to scratch out a life for himself here, because he is smart and hardworking and has a lovely personality. In many ways his life has been unfairly difficult, but in many ways he is lucky, too, in more than just his name.
Because I am white and born in middle-class America, I received a great education. I came to Johannesburg because I wanted a change. I was desperate too, but in a different way. I left a perfectly comfortable life back home. I had money, clothes, and a nice house waiting for me when I arrived here. I scratched out a life for myself, but in a different way. In many ways I’m lucky too – the same but different.
Lucky’s Venda name is Azwihangwisi, which means, in Lucky’s words, “Home, something that you never forget even when you leave.”
Lucky’s name – both the English and Venda versions – tells the story. Not just Lucky’s story, but mine too. And all of South Africa’s.