Poor white who turned to begging and Barry Manilow: Johannesburg's affluent diners are shocked to see one of their own race touting for cash, but the sight is increasingly common as the recession deepens, writes John Carlin
Determined to preserve a certain dignity, he does not call what he does begging. He calls it work. Every night of the week he turns up at an open-air car park at 6pm, when the parking meters no longer require feeding. The car park serves a luxurious shopping precinct in one of the more affluent suburbs.
When people drive up to go to the cinema or to a restaurant, he does what poor children the world over do: he offers to keep an eye on their cars. Usually, out of shock as much as anything, they will give him 10p or 20p.
The shock is receding these days. In the past 12 months, as the South African recession has deepened, it has become more and more common to see white beggars on the streets. Figures are hard to come by, but one woman in Pretoria who runs a soup kitchen for whites says she is feeding more than 5,000 families a month. Their numbers - which she believes to be a fair reflection of the situation throughout the country - are growing by 100 a week.
Just how Robin West manages to feed himself is a mystery, which was why I took him out to dinner. He spent half an hour engrossed in the menu before ordering the most expensive fish dish. He then proceeded to talk about his life.
His father died when he was three. His mother could not cope, so he was sent to a convent to board. From there, aged 15, he moved to a reformatory for boys, where the teachers abused him and his only solace was to listen clandestinely to a small radio all night. It was there that he developed the first of his three great loves in life, Barry Manilow. The others are the Jews and Bill Clinton: the Jews because, he believes, they stick by their families; Bill Clinton because he heard that he means to create new jobs.
'I know the words of all Barry Manilow's songs by heart. I sing very nicely. I used to sing in the choir at the reformatory. What I'd like to do is make a demo tape and send it to someone so I can get into the music business.'
Why didn't he? 'I don't get on with people. I try but I can't. So I can't get a job. Anyway, I don't have opportunities. If I'd had parents, maybe I would have had a better future. I'm trying so hard, but I have no future.' His dream is to go to Canada. There, he believes, he would summon the courage to make a go of things. 'No one knows me there. I'd be faceless, and I'd be brave.'
He was brave three years ago. He managed to raise enough cash, working in the port in Cape Town, to fly to London. The idea was to meet up with his uncle and aunt who own a farm, he says, and have lots of money.
'I got to the airport and I phoned my uncle and aunt. But they didn't want to know. So I slept the night there and got the plane back. All the way I just kept thinking I deserve a better life, because mine's been hell since I was born.'
Did he hope things might change for him with a new government in South Africa? 'When the blacks are in government there won't be any difference. You see, rich blacks won't help poor blacks like rich whites don't help poor whites.'
If he were rich, he said, he would help people. 'I've got this Coloured (mixed- race) friend from the Cape who came here recently and asked me if I knew how to make some money. I brought him out here to the car park and told him he could have half of it. I don't take any money from him.'
We walked back to his place of work together after the meal. 'I'm bright, aren't I, John?' he asked. 'Tell me I'm bright.' I said he was and he started to sing a Barry Manilow tune. 'If you're looking for a friend to turn to/someone who cares/and all the world's out there to hurt you/I'll be there.'
I asked him if he listened to these songs over and over to memorise them. No.
He said he had plenty of cassettes in his flat, which he shares with a man who is permanently drunk - but nothing to play them on. The next evening I drove to the car park and gave him a Walkman. More sad than happy, he said: 'This is the first time in my life I've ever got a Christmas present from a friend.'
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