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Contemporary Fiction Inspirational

Sifso lived with his mother and young sister in a one room shack in the sprawling township of over 1000 other dwellings built from anything that came to hand. Salvaged wood, iron sheets, plastic and cardboard. The township was one of hundreds that surrounded the major cities in the country. 

Sifso and his mother considered themselves lucky to have secured a handkerchief size piece of ground on which to build their small house by paying a levy to the local Usibonda (Headman). There was no title on the land in the informal sections of the sprawling township.

The modest homes had a semblance of order along the roads winding their way around the sandy settlement and viewed from afar were a patchwork of textures and colours of metal sheets and weather beaten wooden panels The subject of many an artist's palette. 

They had built the shack from materials sourced from wherever they could find it. The structure comprised 8 posts sunk into the sandy ground; the walls and roof were clad with a mix of iron sheets and boards insulated with plastic. Sifso had been lucky to have found an almost new painted door on one of his visits to the refuse tip. Passing a building site one day he found two window frames in a skip bin and had secured these as well. The end result was that their shanty house was considered somewhat smarter than many of the other dwellings. 

The three of them took pride in that. 

His mother, Izibele, had planted some herbs and vegetables in pots that stood around their dwelling. Inside their modest home they had decorated their walls with pictures from magazines and in pride of place a portrait of ‘Madiba’ (Nelson Mandela).The sparse furniture comprised a small Formica table and two chairs, a row of shelves, holding pots and pans and a variety of crockery, a small cupboard, three small beds. A bright multi coloured carpet covered most of the bare earthen floor. In one corner a small kerosene stove and next to it a plastic bucket containing fresh water.

They did not have electricity or sanitation. 

The authorities had built high pylon stadium lights to illuminate the township making moving around at night safer for the residents. At the end of each street there was a row of toilets and an enclosed shower and laundry area with large concrete wash tubs. There was no hot water.  

Sifso’s father had succumbed to HIV Aids years earlier when they lived in a different section. Sifso was 16 years old and his sister Amahle 10.  They needed to find a new place to live to avoid the stigma that HIV Aids brought to families. The only option was to move to the informal areas and start again. 

With the loss of the breadwinner it fell on Sifso to take on the role.

He dropped out of school to find work. He was strong and well built, taller than most of his friends and with his deep strong voice he had a presence that commanded attention and gave the impression of being more mature than his years. 

For the first few years he took any job he could to keep food on the table. He worked as a gardener, washed cars, packed shelves in supermarkets and found labouring jobs on construction sites. The years were hard but he was determined to succeed and make his mother proud and give his sister the education he never had.

One day a friend told him about work at a large construction company. It was a labouring job and the pay was good.

It wasn’t long before he was given the responsibility of supervising a gang of men much older than himself, his crew excelled under his supervision and at the end of each week were often rewarded with a little extra pay for completing their given allocation of work efficiently and on time.

‘One day I will own a construction company’ he said to his Mother and sister as they sat at the small table having their evening meal. A long white candle in a bottle was their only light.

Izibele nodded and smiled. ‘You just work hard’ she said ‘your boss will recognise you and perhaps you will get a management position one day.’ 

She was grateful that Sifso had shown such loyalty to her and had not become immersed in the rampant gang culture that the living conditions they lived in nurtured. She saw many of the youth sniffing paint and glue, dealing in drugs, wasting their lives away in a sinkhole of hopelessness. Her young daughter Amahle had also made her proud working hard at her education and not drifting into the hands of unscrupulous men.

‘I know that I have to work my way up the ladder and be patient but I promise you we will move away from here. Amahle will go to university and I will build you a nice house in the suburbs and we will have electricity and hot and cold water. We will have a car and be able to afford some nice things like a television and you will be able to shop in the shopping malls and even sit at one of the fancy coffee shops and order a cappuccino.’ Izibele laughed, ‘slow down Sifso you must grow first, phikelela, the good things will follow if you work hard.’ 

Travelling to work everyday in a crowded combi taxi he would look out the window as they passed through the suburbs. Large houses neatly placed in manicured gardens. Sprinklers pulsing water onto verdant lawns, one, sometimes two cars, on paved driveways, children in uniform waiting at bus stops for the school bus. Large shopping Malls rows of shining vehicles neatly parked. A far cry from the shanty town that he lived in only a few kilometres away.

Each time he took this journey it strengthened his resolve to succeed. ‘Phikelela’ he whispered to himself.

It was not long after Sifso had been promoted to construction manager that the owner of the company called him to his office. 

Izibele had kept Sifso’s fathers best clothes, ‘church clothes’ they called them, in a small suitcase she kept under her bed. She prepared these for Sifso’s meeting by ensuring that the white shirt was crisp and the trousers had a perfect pencil crease. ‘You fuss too much Mama. I think I am going to be told that I no longer have employment. I have heard rumours that the company is going to be taken over by new owners. Why should I dress up to hear bad news,’ he said.

Sifso had never been in the executive suite before, it was on the top floor of a large glass building overlooking the foreshore. The smart secretary greeted Sifso, ‘molo ekuseni’ (good morning). Sifso was surprised to be greeted in his home tongue of Xhosa and he returned the compliment. ‘This way’ she said ‘Tea or coffee?’ ‘Coffee enkosi (thankyou) he replied as he was led into a large boardroom around which sat three men and two women, their reflections coming off the highly polished surface of the large oval table. ‘Take a seat Sifso’ his boss said, indicating a chair next to him.

He introduced the other men and women.

‘Our company which has a proud reputation as a leading construction and reliable company for many years is being taken over by a larger consortium,’ he said as he nodded to the others around the table.’ I will be retiring in the coming year and a new General Manager will need to take over the running of the company after a period of training under myself and the new owners.’ He paused, taking a sip of water from the glass in front of him.’ Sifso felt a shiver go up his spine and his leg started to twitch under the table. ‘I have suggested that you, Sifso, would be the best person to take up this position.’ 

Getting into the elevator on the 20th floor afterwards he felt a huge smile break out and he had difficulty in controlling it when the elevator stopped on other floors to pick up more passengers. Some of them returned the smile, exchanging a nod in greeting.

As he alighted he saw his Mother and Amahle sitting in the large foyer next to the fountain, they were both wearing their ‘church clothes’ his smile now broader told them the good news. ‘Let me buy you that cappuccino’ he said as they walked arm in arm into the sunshine outside. ‘Phikelela’ they said in unison.

March 30, 2022 03:56

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2 comments

Cindy Strube
07:28 Apr 07, 2022

What a sweet success story! It’s very descriptive. I could visualize Sifso, the shanty town, the little salvage-built house. I’m a fan of Alexander McCall Smith’s “No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency”. Your story atmosphere reminds me of his books. I enjoyed reading it - best of luck to Sifso! Phikelela!

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Chris Holland
23:36 Apr 07, 2022

Thanks Cindy. I spent most of my life in Southern Africa and my work took me into the shanty townships on a regular basis. I have always admired the tenacity of many of these residents. Your comments are much appreciated.

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