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Farewell to John

John Williams used to stand on exit from Impala as it leads onto Beyers Naudé to collect donations from passing motorists. In the 90s used to take my ex’s car to his father Des for services, which he would do in his backyard, near where I now live in lower Melville. I also knew his brother, though I can’t remember his name; he used to hang out at The Bohemian in Richmond. I once designed a plastic holder for a condom that was to attach to a keyring, called a ‘condom-mouse’ during the era of Aids, before ARVs made the disease less of a killer. The brother was going to help me produce this condom-mouse, but in the end it never happened. Then I heard that the brother had passed on.

I noticed that John was not at his usual spot, so I spoke to the homeless guy who now stands where John used to, who told me that John has died. I used to chat to John after doing the week’s shopping, and he always had something amusing to say, though he was somewhat laconic. Cheers, bra.

Last year I photographed and interviewed John about his take on Covid-19, and this piece was published in the Mail & Guardian under the title ‘Slice of Life’.


I’ve been homeless for 10 years. When my father died in 2010, I was excluded from his will because of my drinking and carrying on. I used to be a swimming pool technician in Bryanston — I’m a sort of jack-of-all trades.

These days, I stay wherever I can hide away; where the cops can’t see me. Since the lockdown, the cops say they are going to take us homeless folk to a shelter, but they don’t really do it — they just chase us along, and tell us that we can’t stay here. But we’ve worked out their times: they come between ten and 11 in the morning, and two to three in the afternoon. The security and metro cops — they leave us alone.

But now we’ve found a secret spot behind a shopping centre, in a room where there used to be an electrical transformer, which they’ve stripped out. Since the lockdown, with all the rain, we’ve been in there.

People are giving much more tips since the lockdown happened: they seem to have more compassion, even though there are fewer cars passing. Among the locals I have so many Good Samaritans. They give me food; if I need clothes, I ask them for clothes — I’ve got my regulars. I work here by Impala [corner of Hockey Avenue and Beyers Naudé Drive] and I used to stand by Westpark Cemetery on Sundays, but since the lockdown, there’s nobody going to the graveyard. I used to make a whack there, hey.

Before lockdown I was drinking, and I was making R200, R250 a day, but as I was making it, I was drinking a lot of it. Since the lockdown I’m making about R300 a day, but I’m not drinking it any more: I’m buying food. Before Checkers closes in the evening, I go buy some lekker food, so I’m keeping myself healthy. You know, this coronavirus thing, I just feel, if South Africans can stick together, we’ll get through this. — John Williams, 56, as told to Derek Davey

1 thought on “Farewell to John”

  1. This is sad. We also used to talk a lot. He used to stand by the Mays robot and when I stopped there, he would come to me and tell me how he like the Kweka (Kawasaki motorbike).
    His brother used to own the Greek restaurant in Yeoville, which later moved to Northcliff.

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