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Under the dirty overalls

Are you one of those people who laugh at the men who carry coal in the townships? Or do you just turn your back and call them ‘vuilpop’? Or do you first wait until they bring the coal – and then say ‘sies’ as they walk out the door.

Learn and Teach spoke to one of the workers. His name is Butiso Mayekiso and he is only 15 years old. We listened to his story and we learned something very interesting. Under his dirty overalls, the young man has a heart. He has a story to tell.


Butiso Mayekiso was born in a small town in the Cape called Molteno. His mother left home when he was very young. And she never came back. Butiso and his brothers and sisters, like so many other children in the countryside, were brought up by their grandparents.

Butiso did not go to school. There was no money for that. And so last year, Butiso left for Johannesburg to find work. If he got some money, maybe his brothers and sisters could get a little education.

“I wanted to go to Johannesburg like the other men at my home,” says Butiso. “The day I left my grand­mother killed a chicken. She wanted our ancestors to look after me on my way.

“My whole family came with me to the train station. I felt very funny, leaving my home. All the women were crying. I was excited and scared at the same time. I had never been on a train before.”


When Butiso got on the train, no-one spoke to him. All the people were too busy drinking and dancing to loud music. After some time Butiso took out the ‘umphako’ his grandmother gave him to eat. Everyone started to laugh at him. Butiso felt very much alone.

But one old man did not laugh. He put his hand on Butiso’s shoulder and spoke to him. He helped Butiso when the ticket inspector came. Butiso did not feel so lonely anymore.

“I knew no-one in Johannesburg when I first came,” says Butiso. I had a few rands in my pocket and nothing else. I did not want to wait around in town because I do not have a pass. I decided to go to the township.

“The train came into the station and I waited for all the people to get on the train. But then the doors closed before I could get on. The next train came and the same thing happened. When the third train came, I pushed like everybody else.


Butiso started to look for work. He walked up and down until his feet were very sore. He felt home-sick and very hungry.

Then a stranger came up to him. He said his name was Fana Zwane. “Are you looking for work?”, he asked. “If you need work, try the coalyards. They need people to deliver coal.”

The next day Butiso went to the coal yards very early. He was there at 6 o’clock in the morning. They gave him a cart and a horse called Zindaba. Butiso loaded six bags of coal onto the cart. And then Butiso and Zindaba left together. They had a lot of coal to sell.

“I did not know how to drive the cart and how to carry the coal properly,” says Butiso. “But I still sold all the bags that day. I finished at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. I was very tired.”

“Then I tried to get back to the coal yard. But I did not know my way around the township. I walked up and down but I couldn’t find it. I wanted to cry.

“1 found the yard after a long time. It was six o’clock already. The boss was not happy. He shouted at me and the other workers laughed. I felt angry and ashamed.”

Butiso did not take long to learn his job. He works hard and he still feels tired after every day. He starts work at 6 o’clock in the morning and he knocks off at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. And on Saturdays he works even harder.

“On Saturdays all the workers from the coalyard go to the Nancefield Station to fetch coal. The boss takes them there in his truck. At the station they load coal for the week onto the truck.

When they finish loading coal at the station, they must still go and deliver. They finish work at 6 o’clock on Saturday evenings. And for all this work, Butiso only gets R34.00 a week.


Butiso’s job is not only hard work. It is also quite dangerous — like the time he met some thirsty gangsters.

“One day on my rounds, I was stopped by a gang of youths,” says Butiso. “They made me go with them to a nearby shebeen. When we got there, they told me to buy them beers. I bought them beers. What could I do?

“Then I told them I had to go to the toilet. As soon as I was outside, I started to run. I jumped onto my cart and told Zindaba to move his old bones. I told him that we were in a hurry.

“Two of them chased us. But they could not catch us. They soon stopped.

“I was not far when I heard screams coming from the shebeen. I saw the youths running like mad. The owner was chasing them because they had no money to pay. I have not gone back to that part of the township again.


Butiso lives in a room at the back of the coalyard. He shares the room with four other men. They put their money together to buy food and they take turns to cook and clean. They cook all their food on an ‘imbhawula’ outside.

Butiso does not like to spend time with the other men in his room. “They are much older than I am”, says Butiso. “They like to spend their time talking about their families at home. I don’t like to talk about my family. When I think about them I become very sad and I want to see them.

“My special friend in Johannesburg is Fana Zwane – the one who found me this job. He is my age and we can talk about things that we like, girls and soccer. I see him on Sundays.

“We go to the stadium and watch soccer. Or we just listen to music on my cassette. But mostly we walk around the township looking for girls. That’s what we really like doing.

Girls are a big problem for me. A lot of girls don’t like me. They say that they don’t want a ‘vuilpop’ for a boyfriend. It hurts me now. But I know that one day I will find a girl who loves me.


Not onIy the girls call Butiso ‘vuiIpop’. Butiso hates the school holidays. He says that the children are very rude. All he hears is ‘vuilpop’ wherever he goes.

Sometimes he gets very angry and throws coal at them. Once he used a whole bag of coal in this way. And-he still had to pay for the coal.

Butiso says he knows that he looks dirty. The coal dust bites deep into his skin. And he knows that his clothes are very dirty. But what should he wear to work? His Sunday best!

“But anyway now I am looking for another job,” says Butiso. “The boss at the coalyard has already fired some people. He says he does not sell enough coal anymore because people are using electricity these days. I can be fired anytime.

“I am also tired of carrying coal. I want to do something better. I would like to be a delivery man somewhere else. I could get clean clothes and maybe also get some more money. And if I get another job, maybe people will stop using bad names for me. Maybe they will stop insulting us.

“But I don’t think I will find another job easily. When I ask for jobs, they say I am too young. They say that I must be sixteen. If I say I am sixteen, then they want to see my pass. But I do not have one. I think that I am stuck at the coalyards .


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