It’s a grinding battle to find a way out of poverty

Running a business in order to survive is tough in South Africa, but in small-town Eastern Cape it comes with some extra challenges, especially if one has mobility difficulties.

Packed inside a black beer crate are a set of used cold drink bottles, cotton cloths, liquid soap, dashboard polish, sponges and a plastic bucket that is used to collect water from a nearby tap. The business for which these materials are needed is located under a tree in busy Joe Slovo Street in Nkwenkwezi, Port Alfred, a coastal town in the Eastern Cape. 

Called Ase & Limo Mbee’s Car Wash, it belongs to two men with physical disabilities: Mbulelo Faku, 36, who uses a wheelchair to get around, and Zukile Msipa, 37, who can walk only aided by crutches.

“Before the Covid-19 pandemic started, I tried to wash cars outside my place,” says Faku, who lives in Ndlovini. “Unfortunately, the streets were too quiet. Due to a lack of support, material and funds I stopped. 

“During lockdown, on 9 August 2020, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. All I needed was to be located next to an area where cars passed frequently. I had no choice but to find a way to bring an income home,” he adds. 

18 April 2021: Zukile Msipa is Mbulelo Faku’s partner in the car wash. Msipa lost his leg after a bus accident in 2019.  

Faku says their customers demand a thorough job. “When we wash customers’ cars, we have to make sure they are clean both inside and outside. By the time the person collects the keys, the car should look new and smell fresh. That is our main goal.” 

The duo charges R50 to wash a small car, R60 for an Avanza taxi, R70 for a double-cab bakkie and R90 for a Quantum minibus. Faku, Msipa and their assistants work seven days a week, starting at 8am and stopping at around 5pm, depending on the demand.  

Because there are no shops in Port Alfred that sell the cleaning supplies they need, says Faku, helpful residents buy the items for them in big cities such as Gqeberha, Cape Town and Johannesburg. In return, their cars get washed for free. 

Another issue is water, which the Ndlambe local municipality has been struggling to supply  consistently to Port Alfred and nearby Bathurst in recent years. The taps, especially in the townships, run dry regularly. When that happens, residents scramble to get water from tankers, and Faku and Msipa beg theirs from neighbours and passing trucks that deliver it to the community. 

Facing a new challenge 

Faku used to work for a gardening service and later bought his own lawnmower. He began a business called Leave it To Me Garden Service in 2014, but then he became ill and, by December a year later, life changed for the worse. 

“I woke up one day and noticed that my feet were not functioning properly and they hurt. I did not feel sick or had any injuries prior to that. When I went to the hospital, the doctors examined me and told me that my nerves had collapsed,” he explains.

“As a result, those dead nerves affected my spine. From there, my feet went numb. I lost my balance and I could not walk or run anymore. Since then, I became paralysed.”  

10 August 2021: Terrence Kameni carries buckets of water for use at the car wash in Joe Slovo Street, Nkwenkwezi, where a consistent water supply is a big challenge.

On his discharge from a state hospital in Gqeberha, Faku was given a new wheelchair. But it got damaged over time and lacked mobility, forcing him to buy “a second-hand one for R700”, which he still uses.

“Since I’ve been staying at the back of the house where I’m renting a room, I find it hard to access the toilet because it was not built to accommodate my lifestyle. An automatic wheelchair is very expensive and I cannot afford it,” he says. 

A sports fanatic, Faku used to play football with his friends. “I used to play in the middle field for Port Alfred United Brothers. Most people know me very well here,” he adds.

Lucky to survive

Msipa, who passed matric in 2002, started his first full-time job in 2006 at Inso Aluminium, a supplier and installer of windows and doors in Port Alfred. He worked there for seven years before he was retrenched.  

He then went to Cape Town in search of better prospects and eventually found another full-time job at an engineering company. A few months later, in July 2019, Msipa planned a trip to the Eastern Cape to take part in a cultural ceremony. En route, the bus he was travelling in overturned near Plettenberg Bay. 

“It was a disaster,” says Msipa. “Everything happened so quickly. My plans came to a standstill at that moment. I broke my leg. It was bad and had to be amputated. Other people died on the scene that day. I was lucky to have survived.”

Msipa, who lives with his mother, sister and a nephew in Ndlovini, says he decided to use this “second chance from God” to start afresh, but it hasn’t been easy. “The car-wash business was an escape from depression because staying at home and doing nothing would not be beneficial. Instead, it will lead to depression.” 

18 April 2021: From left, car washers Lindokuhle Gongo, Yonela Dyantjies, Mbulelo Faku, Zukile Msipa and Siyamthanda Sineli.

To make sure that their work gets done, Faku and Msipa employ a group of five casual helpers. Among them is Lindokuhle Gongo, 17, a grade 10 learner at Kuyasa Combined School in Nkwenkwezi who loves his part-time job.

“One day I was approached by bhuti Mbulelo. He told me that when I have nothing to do I should assist him and his friend on the weekend. I promised that when I am done with my assignments, I would visit the car wash, says Lindokuhle. 

“I enjoy washing cars and listening to music, especially amapiano. The money I get helps a lot. When I get paid, I give some of it to my mother to buy food, electricity and little things for my siblings.” 

Teachers from the nearby Nomzamo High School are guaranteed customers. One of them, science teacher Kholeka Jonase, 35, explains why. “We are pleased to have the guys close to our school. It saves us time. For instance, while I’m teaching, I know that I don’t have to worry about driving my car too far to get it washed.” 

In addition, says Jonase, “sometimes, when one doesn’t have money on a particular day, they wash it knowing that we will pay at the end of the month”. 

Fighting for opportunities

Msipa is frustrated by what he calls the “deliberate neglect” of people living with disabilities. “Disabled people continue to face barriers everywhere. Most of us are trying to deal with the uncertainty that comes with the Covid-19 restrictions, and it is difficult to find employment,” he says. 

“Many people are not making enough money these days, and some end up going to bed hungry. When applying for a job, people often judge you and want to know how you are going to do the work while having the disability. 

“We would like the municipality and business to help us as we try to create opportunities for the youth. It is very tough, but recognition would satisfy us. It is a known fact that disabled people are only recognised in November when it is Disability Month – that should change.” 

10 August 2021: Mbulelo Faku in the second-hand wheelchair he bought for R700 from someone who no longer needed it.

Faku, who is the driving force behind the business, is trying to market it on social media platforms. His wish is to find a place where they can create a sheltered space from which to run the car wash. But even then the pair would need financial support or sponsors to professionalise their service. 

“We struggle to buy a tent. When it rains, people stand outside their cars or under a tree. A JoJo tank would save us [from] getting water from other places. Traffic cones to warn speeding taxis and other motorists are a necessity. To make sure that we look professional, I think a uniform for our team would present us well. These are problems we face being in a small town,” says Mbulelo.

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