Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard—A Story About Cape Town’s Tanzanian Stowaways—Summer 2012

Towards the end of 2012 Moses was arrested and charged under the Immigration Act for being in the country illegally. He called to say he was being held in Pollsmoor Prison, then weeks went by in which I heard nothing. Moses was the last of my good contacts in the beach boy community. In the course of the year Adam had disappeared in the Blue Sky and Daniel-Peter had been arrested and sent to Lindela repatriation camp in Pretoria. He called one night to say they were finally sending him back to Tanzania, and that he was happy about it, because he had grown tired of the beach boy life.

For every beach boy who disappeared, however, there seemed to be two new arrivals. Occasionally a Christian group would hand out free foodpacks on the Parade, and you really caught a sense of the beach boy numbers then. In excess of a hundred predominantly Muslim Tanzanian youths would sit patiently under Edward VII while the Christians linked hands around them and babbled in tongues. Afterwards the queue they made for food would go halfway across the Parade, never diminishing because after receiving and stashing a Christian food pack each beach boy would once more join the line.

It might have been from a sense of fatigue but it seemed to me that the new arrivals were different: younger, angrier, more drug-addled. I decided to quit the beach boy areas for a time to go in pursuit of answers to a range of back-logged questions, like: why had the presence of the stowaway community gone virtually unremarked by authorities, ethnographers and journalists since the first Tanzanians began arriving in the mid-90s? The city police, dock officials, border guards and the Cape Town City Improvement District’s ironically-named Displaced Persons Unit (ironic in the sense that the unit is responsible for clearing the city of settlements of homeless people), were all well aware of the community’s existence. But quite why these arrayed forces of order and gentrification had not scrubbed the beach boys out of existence remained a mystery, until a shipping agent I was in contact with sent me a circular on the subject of stowaways from the former Western Cape director of Immigration, Tarieq Mellet.

“Stowaways,” wrote Mellet, “board ships in foreign ports and make their way to South Africa…where there is a perception that it is easy to find their way to staying permanently.”

The South African state, wrote Mellet, “does not accept that foreign Stowaways originate in South Africa.”

In two years of interacting with the beach boys I had not met a single one who arrived in South Africa in a ship. Moses’ journey overland was fairly typical: the only details that varied from beach boy to beach boy pertained to the precise route taken, the borders jumped.

Leaving the circular half read I wrote back to the shipping agent in amazement.

“The state is sorely misinformed,” I squawked, to which he responded, “No, it isn’t. Your government knows perfectly well that the stowaways originate from South African port cities, but if they admitted as much they would be responsible for the costs of repatriation, which range between R15’000 – R90’000 per stowaway.”

I continued reading the circular and there was Mellet, just as the agent had explained, insisting that: “the responsibility for their removal from South Africa remains with the Master of a vessel and the Ships Agents. No stowaway will be landed,” wrote Mellet.

Returning excitedly to my correspondence with the agent I wrote, “So it’s therefore quite understandable that some captains are returning stowaways back on to South African soil disguised as dockworkers. An extraordinary set of circumstances!”

“Or just a very ordinary set,” he wrote back.

The weekend the Obama’s visited Cape Town seemed as good as any for a return to the beach boy areas. It was late June and for weeks the city had been Obama befok, to quote a colleague, and what with the shuddering of Chinook rotors on test runs to the city from the US destroyer at anchor in False Bay, and the constant wailing of “blue-light brigades” on the city’s highways, even documented, paid-up citizen were starting to feel a little hunted, a little ring-fenced.

I ventured down to the Grand Parade on the Friday afternoon before the vaunted visit and found it unusually devoid of beach boys, no doubt because the place was crawling with cops and security guards. By the Golden Arrow bus shelters at the northern end of the Parade I spied Suleiman Wadfa, a solidly built and very dark-skinned Tanzanian with a disarming gap between his front teeth, who likes to be called P Diddy. He was hurrying away from the fixed food stalls, looking concerned.

“The police are arresting everybody. E-V-E-R-Y-B-O-D-Y. It’s because Obama is coming. There are already 50 or 60 beach boys in Caledon,” he said, not stopping to talk.

The holding cells at Caledon Police Station are often crammed to capacity when dignitaries visit. Using a city vagrancy by-law the city’s Displaced Persons Unit rounds-up as many undocumented immigrants as they can lay their hands on, only releasing them when the event or visit has passed. Diddy was on his way out of the city at the double step.

“The bridges are no good, the police are coming there too,” he said.

“I’m going to ‘the Kitchen’, nobody comes there.”

I’d often heard Adam talk of ‘The Kitchen’, and knew it was somewhere between the N1 highway and the railways lines heading into the city, at the far end of the Culembourg industrial site. Try as I might, though, I’d never been able to find it.

“I’ll drive you,” I told Diddy, an offer he couldn’t refuse. He directed me down Main Road into Woodstock, and then down Beach Road in Woodstock’s industria to Tide Street, so-named because the sea had lapped against the shore there before the land reclamations of the 40s that created the foreshore. We came to rest beside a dumpster in the yard of an oil-recycling company.

“Through here,” said Diddy, working his broad chest through a slender gap between two bent palisade struts. We crossed the railway lines, which were overgrown with Purple Loosetrife, and came before two railway tunnels under the N1, running to the Duncan Dock. The graffiti on the visible tunnel walls was so dense it looked several inches thick, and beyond a few metres the walls went pitch black. Smoke was billowing out of the nearest mouth.

“Wait here,” Diddy commanded when we were about 20 meters away. He continued in alone.

A Chinook thundered by overhead, followed by another, and when I looked down Diddy was walking towards me, accompanied by a slender, lighter-skinned person, who raised a hand in greeting.

“Haiyo Sean,” he said, grinning his golden grin.

“Haiyo Adam,” I said back.

This is the last part of four. Read Part 1 here. Part 2. Part 3.

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