When we first moved to Cape Town in 1974, we rented a semi-detached house at the end of Nicol Street, off Kloof Street, next door to what was then the Swiss Continental Hotel. The hotel had an enclosed area reserved for their dustbins and we were permitted to leave our household garbage there.

One day, a man was sitting on a bin, eating the remains of Lobster Thermidor. He was wearing a ragged suit and cap and had a certain style about him, sitting with one leg crossed over the other. His name was Otto and he was the first Bergie I came to know.

He was an alcoholic and already drinking Methylated spirits, so had the tell-tale puffy eyes and swollen face that marked him as a walking-dead-man. He never told me anything about himself or how he had ended up where he was, but he carried the impeccable manners and bearing of an Edwardian gentleman. On that day of our first meeting, I took him to the next-door, take-away café for something cleaner to eat. Standing tall, with all the dignity of a former life, and holding his cap to his chest, he ordered a hot steak-and-kidney pie.

Once, he arrived with two friends and asked whether they might have a cup of tea. They sat on our front porch where I served them tea and sandwiches. They were dirty and smelt awful – of incontinence and the sweat of Meths which was nauseating. One of them was very ill and had absolutely no appetite. He just sipped at his tea. Through these three men, I was introduced to the  bottom strata of Cape Town society.

Over the years, I came to meet many Bergies – Madeleine and Chris, Christiana and John, Matilda and Henry, Nettie, Eliot, Dumisani and others. Mostly they would appear on garbage collection days and would sort through all the rubbish that households had thrown out. Some had supermarket trolleys to transport their gatherings, others just put their stuff into plastic bags. From them I learnt the garbage-etiquette of packing separately anything that would be useful to them; of wrapping broken bottles into newspaper to avoid causing injury; of always adding something ‘new’ to the packet of surplus food – a few apples, a fresh loaf of bread – something that said ‘this is not just my kitchen waste. It is something extra because I am aware of your dignity.’

The thing the Bergies whom I befriended shared in common was their extreme alcoholism and the shortness of their lives, with an accelerated end as soon as they began to drink Methylated spirits. Their bodies spoke of the ravages of alcohol and harsh living for they looked much older than they were. Their abiding feature was friendliness and a sweet, unthreatening nature. There was always a sense of humour beneath the hardship. Otto once told me that they all kept their belongings in plastic bags which they stored under man-hole covers. He said, with a twinkle, that the whole of the under-city was actually a vast wardrobe – the wardrobe of Cape Town’s homeless people, and that if you pulled the lid up in Adderley Street, you might just find a mink coat and pearls hanging there.


Found poem: A five-day spontaneous art installation
Chelsea Avenue, Vredehoek, Cape Town 2012
Unknown Bergie ‘artist’

On the first morning are seen
some discarded clothes
so tightly bundled as to give the impression
of a body, sleeping.

By the second morning
the bundle has loosened.
The trousers, jacket, shirt and red bandana
are discernable, though still entwined.

On the third morning
the garments have come adrift
and the costume of a man is revealed
strewn across the pavement.

On the fourth day
the wind has lifted the bandana
and pinned it to an electric fence.

Come the fifth day
there is only a shoe.


Found poem: A five-day spontaneous art installation is one of the poems included in Africa! My Africa! an anthology of poems selected by Patricia Schonstein, sold to raise funds for Seed Readers.

Seed Readers is a project that will produce story books based on principles of peace, non-violence, non-racism and care of the earth. They will seed an understanding of our true role as custodians of the earth and oceans. They will inspire children to live ethically and in a sustainable manner.

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