From Pollsmoor to a parking lot: the story of Attie van der Merwe

“If you forget my name, just think of Tolla van der Merwe, but I’m just Arthur van der Merwe… you can call me Attie.”

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3 August 2016

Janie Du Plessis and Saarah Survé

Another lost soul forgotten by society and left to wander the streets of Stellenbosch. To passers-by he is invisible. Nobody stops to talk to him.

Arthur Nico van der Merwe, 45, sits with his legs spread out in the middle of a parking lot in Andringa Street in Stellenbosch. He is staring at his hands. His left ankle looks twisted as it lies at an odd angle, his foot peeking out of his black, broken boot. The rubber soles have detached themselves from the boot and his black and white laces are untied.

He sighs audibly. “I’m not having a good day. I’m so hungry.”

He has permanent frown lines which have been etched onto his forehead. But his eyes are sparkling and his kind face is covered by a black beard, peppered with grey hairs. His two front teeth are missing.

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Arthur van der Merwe waits for his brother in a parking lot in Andringa Street.      Photo: Saarah Survé

Arthur was released from Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison in Cape Town two days ago, after one year as an inmate.

“God put me in jail. I had to go to prison, because I broke the law. I did the things that I must do.” He pauses, but does not explain further.

“I’m sitting here waiting for Edward, my brother. He is supposed to pick me up today. He didn’t come yesterday, but I know he will come today.”

Arthur stares at his hands again. His fingernails are long and sharp. Black dirt has built up underneath them. They look like they could be used as a weapon. His hands are scarred and caked with brown dirt. He holds tightly onto the chocolate muffin in his hand.

“As long as I am out of prison, I’m happy. Pollsmoor is a horrible place. It is so boring there, there is nothing to do,” he says.

Arthur used to work at a tyre-swop company in Cloetesville before going to Pollsmoor. Now he works at Stellenbosch Provincial Hospital where he washes the hospital’s cars.

Before taking a bite of his muffin, he says: “I have to work at the hospital, because I have to make money. When I have money, I can buy food.”

Little crumbs of muffin get stuck in his beard and more fall to the ground. When he takes the last bite, he wipes his fingers onto his faded blue jeans already dusted with dirt.

“Most of the time I buy food, but sometimes I buy wine. Wine makes me warm when I sleep and it makes my chest feel better,” he says, as he pretends to drink from an imaginary bottle.

His dark green and red jersey appears to be too big. Threads hang off the jersey and there’s a hole in the fabric in the middle of his chest.

“In the winter it’s not nice here. When it rains I sit in this parking lot. I sit in the rain, but I pretend like I don’t get wet and cold, because there is nothing I can do about it.”

He rolls the letter “r” when he speaks and speaks comfortably in both English and Afrikaans. He switches between the two with ease.

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Arthur van der Merwe waits for his brother in a parking lot in Andringa Street.      Photo: Saarah Survé

“You know, the devil got in me… He told me to take my wife away… I buried her myself.”

Arthur suddenly cringes at this thought and twists his foot all the way out of his shoe.

“I did what I had to do; I took her away because she made love to my brother. I told my brother as well, I told Johan that I will kill him too.”

It seems like the betrayal by his wife, Synobia, still bothers him today. “I married her for life. My brother sleeps around with lots of women, he could have left mine alone,” he says, looking away.

“Anyway, I have a new woman now.” The sudden change in subject indicates that he is finished talking about Synobia.

For the past two nights, Arthur has slept in the doorways of local shops.

“The police won’t chase us away when we sleep there, they want to help us,” he says.

Even though the police do not bother Arthur, it’s the way other people treat him that troubles him most.

“Some people look at me in a funny way, but then they just walk past. They don’t ask questions and they don’t give answers. But if they want to be like that, it’s better that they stay away. Then the devil also stays away.”

Arthur thinks to himself and plays with the muffin paper in his hand.

“If you forget my name, just think of Tolla van der Merwe, but I’m just Arthur van der Merwe… you can call me Attie.”

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