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· Roddy Bray's Story-Letters from Southern Africa ·

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Golden's Story

There is a man, in a far corner of Khayelitsha, who goes by the singular name of 'Golden'. He stands tall, with the dignity and the lasting, smiling gaze characteristic of the Xhosa. He sports a thick moustache, six children and a flourishing business. Today, in the maze of shacks, he is easier to find than he used to be: the Council have put up brown tourist signs to 'Golden's Flowers'.

In 1991 Golden was one of those who could no longer survive in the former apartheid homelands. The denuded tracks of rural land set aside for 'black' people were exhausted, ruined by goats and impoverished by an Golden Nongawuzaexploitative economy. But freedom was coming, and as the apartheid laws that forbade migration crumbled in the early '90s, so people clambered onto buses, with chickens, children and meagre belongings, to discover the city, with its schools, hospitals, electricity and, above all, the hope of work. And so, a million desperately poor people arrived in Cape Town in the early '90s, setting up shacks across the sand dunes around the city, creating the endless windswept iron shanties we now know as Phillipi, Khayelitsha and Blue Downs.

Golden spoke no English, he had no education and no money. Unemployment in his area was at 66% (as it is still today), and his previous life, shovelling gold deep underground, was of no use in the Cape. His wife earned a tiny income looking after the children of domestic workers alongside her own. Golden, a faithful and conscientious man, was desperate: they were poor to the point of hunger and rags.

One night Golden had a dream. An angel told him 'go to the rubbish dump and find flowers'. He trekked across Khayelitsha to Swartklip - where the refuse of Cape Town is tipped into the dunes. He wandered in the garbage, but found no flowers. Later, the dream came to him a second time. His wife urged him to return to the dump. Again, he found nothing, and returned to his family dispirited.

When the dream came a third time, he feared he was losing his sanity and the desperation of his circumstances was playing tricks with his mind. But his wife insisted he try again. Walking through the dump he felt frustrated and angry; he kicked a can, and as it clattered in the wasteland he suddenly thought… maybe I can make flowers from this rubbish. He gathered cans and set to work with scissors and pliers: cutting, bending, rolling, gluing, experimenting through the night by the flicker of a candle. In the morning he had a daisy.

Golden's FlowersA small curiosity shop in Cape Town called the 'daisy box' took a small bunch of his daisies… and as they began to sell, so Golden offered his work to souvenir shops in the Waterfront. He expanded his range to roses, and later sunflowers, lilies, poppies and tin decorations.

I met Golden in 1997. He was frustrated that the shops were paying him so little for his flowers, compared to what they charged tourists. We discussed the possibility of tourists buying directly from him and I spread the word among colleagues. Naturally shy, he found it awkward at first, as groups of tourists arrived at his shack, which at that time was still smaller than a garden shed. Although he spoke no English, his charm and his talent shone through and inspired visitors, who readily bought his unique work.

Over the years he has become established as a 'township destination' and received coverage on the Travel Channel, TV shows in Europe and in numerous newspaper travel articles. His flowers are now exported, and I know guests who have ordered large numbers as wedding decorations.

The change in Golden has been amazing to see. He is still essentially a shy man, but his English is now good and he also speaks a smattering of numerous other languages. He has extended his house and plot and welcomes guests to his 'khaya' (home), which is brilliantly decorated and always impeccably swept. He hGolden's wife and three of their childrenas constructed a spacious and colourful lean-to studio where visitors can watch him transform a Red Bull or Coca-Cola can into a flower. In a fenced off area he has chickens and grows fruits and vegetables. By the entrance Golden has built a traditional thatched round house, a reminder of the rural mud-huts where he grew up, and to which he wishes to retire.

In the afternoons his children help paint the flowers; and he pays other children to go out and collect tins, which litter Khayelitsha. In Golden, the children have a Dad who provides for them; and an example of the entrepreneurship, creativity and environmental action that is needed to transform the shanties and realise the dreams that brought so many hundreds of thousands to Cape Town over the last fifteen years.


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