A Day In The Life of a Street Workshop

Welcome to the oil-soiled field where men toil daily for bread. It’s a Tuesday and I am greeted by a half dusty and tarred entrance along with three boards with handwritten signs hanging unevenly; “Live-chickens for sale”, “Musa the panel beater” and “scrap metal buyer”. The space is littered with rocks, noise, stench, scraps and spills — varying trash mark this area; a void expanse in the heart of Kempton park’s aerotropolis.

Three makeshift shelters stand side by side shedding the November scorching solar heat; one for the automobile repairers, the other for a scrap metal collector. A separate rusty, shaky shack made with aluminium sheets stand at 90 degrees of the land; this is the makeshift kitchen for the farm-raised chicken seller. Bricks, car bumpers and car foot mats keep the roofing sheets of the roughly built structure in position.

The diversity of workers at the workshop is a mix of middle-aged West African men hacking out a living in South Africa. The scrap metal collector is a short, bull-necked and beefy man with muscular shoulders and a hardened face. He hails from francophone Cameroon. He is known as The boss. The chicken seller is about 7 feet, slim and graceful. Mostly sighted with sagging pants and flip flops. He is from the Republic of Benin. Two partners, both from the Yoruba tribe from Nigeria take up the middle shelter. A lanky panel beater from Lagos mainland and a slightly built, talkative mechanic trained in Ibadan. I observe a visibly respectful division of workspace.

Rusty brown strands of old iron with equal margins and pointed stakes make up the borderline. It marks a quarter of the perimeter of the yard while the last bit of the brick-walled demarcation is bordered with a house cum mini supermarket also locally referred to as a spaza shop; an easy reach for cold drinks, fruits, cigarettes or snacks. This shop is operated by a Pakistani.

The first things you notice in the yard are vehicles and stacks of scraps. The vehicles are orderly arranged in order of collection possibilities. With the exception of cars currently undergoing repairs, most of the lined vehicles are awaiting spare parts or outstanding balance. Sometimes, some owners are at large and vehicles are abandoned and in some cases, the mechanic is awaiting inspiration for repairs!

Homeless kids play a role in the yard. They are the extra hands by day and watchmen by night. With rolled-up windows and intentionally unlocked doors, each child possesses a vehicle of his choice as a shelter at night. It is a case of using a cat to secure a dry fish.

At around 08hr30, a white open boot bakkie stops by to offload live chickens. The kitchen for the farm-raised chicken houses four sets of thin wired, three-row cages filled with live chickens. White tired-looking chickens with peeling feathers crow gently as they await the slaughter’s knife. A detached old, wooden side bed furniture elevates the two-phased burner cookers’ which sits two large stainless steel pots. Buckets, jerry cans and a side table take a position. The uneven cemented floor is the slaughter ground. The bird screams, jacks and it is gone in a jiffy. The chicken makes barbeque delicacies for beer-loving nightcrawlers at a closeby beer parlour otherwise called tavern.

The grind also starts early at the Cameroonian section. The scrap collector along with his two support staff; Emeka, a lotto loving Igbo man from Nigeria and a hard faced-never smiling Malawian. The boss arrived as early as 6 am in green overall jackets and black pants laced with reflectors. A sky blue head warmer shields his head from the cold. A black, thick sole and hard grip rubber snickers support his bullish figure. Handwoven white plastic sacks are filled with empty 500ml metallic can bottles. Non-metallic cans in separate plastic sacks while old office white papers are piled with care and caution into separate paper cartons. By 12 noon, 11 fully filled high rise plastic sacks stand at 8 feet above the ground. Thereafter, space-conscious loading commences on a standby bakkie (pick-up).

At around 08hr45, two men push in a blue Honda Accord sedan. The owner of the car, a South African along with a Nigerian auto-electrician has pushed the car from 3 kilometres away. The fan belt of the 1.6-litre engine of the 1986 Honda Accord has been broken. In less than 20 minutes, the Panelbeater and the auto mechanic casually walks in. Decked in nubuck Timberland boots, a Tommy Hilfiger sweatshirt and cream chinos, the mechanic gently undress to switch to his oil-stained dark blue overall. Four of the many friends of the auto repairer have also arrived and are busy devouring breakfast from a black plastic bag filled with vetkoek pronounced as fet cook which literally means fat cake. It is also locally called magwinya; it is actually a sweetened brown coated dough which is similar to what we call Puff Puff in Nigeria. Breakfast is shared. Lousy conversation from the crew commence. More storytellers arrive. Noisemakers or newsmakers? Everyone has an opinion. Awaiting car owners also join in the talk or listen to the chat. You can’t ignore their discussion. While the gists go on, several petty traders show up; peanut sellers with flat trays neatly balanced on young Mozambican female heads cries for patronage; rice and stew with assorted meat and optional fried plantain, eggs, spaghetti or beans is pushed in with trolleys; Akara (bean cake) and Agege bread sellers also stop by. Work at all three outfits in one space goes on while music from an accident damaged car blares Nigerian hip hop hits.

As the day gently ages, the sound of life lightens the atmosphere. Nearby trees whisper ocean current-like sounds as the early morning cold breeze beat against my body frame. The cries of engines are heard as they arrive and leave the stop sign. Sun rays gently ease out the cold breeze effect. Gentle but repeated chirps from the numerous small birds serve as natures background music in this busy environment. Skinny cats and fat rats race endlessly in full view. Life is indeed a hustle in the midst of chaos. This is the work chop!