This is President Jacob Zuma’s friend – Collen Chauke.
He is probably the only man Zuma openly calls friend in front of the public.
Collen has attended almost every African National Congress (ANC) election manifesto launch in the country. His love for the ANC and Zuma has earned him benefits that very few citizens enjoy. He is always able to push through presidential protection guards and get his hug from the president.
“I have told them before that this is my friend‚ they should allow him through‚” Zuma once remarked.
The president occasionally gives Collen a R100 note to note his appreciation and they have a cordial relationship when they meet‚ greeting each other warmly. The president gives him a beaming smile‚ a handshake and a hug.
Collen‚ 32‚ of Orange Farm‚ lives with his two brothers Gontse‚ 31‚ and Taelo‚ 43‚ on Kopano Street. ANC councillor Simon Motha introduced TMG Digital to his brothers. It was about 10am‚ and Collen was not around‚ but his brothers welcomed us into their home. They advised that he was likely to be at Orange Farm Mall‚ so we set off to look for him. As we walked through the mall‚ it was apparent that every cashier‚ security guard and other centre employees know him well.
“We love him. Everybody loves him. He is a lovely kid‚” said one of the cashiers at KFC.
His favourite place at the mall is the Thetha FM studios.
“We put him on air. Everybody in Orange Farm adores him. He normally greets the listeners and says what is on his mind. He can say anything. It’s Collen. He is allowed to do so‚” said administrators at the radio station.
He is so famous that taxi drivers allow him free rides when he wants to go to Soweto‚ Johannesburg‚ and Lenasia from Orange Farm‚ which is in the south‚ 45km from the Joburg city centre. He also does not buy a ticket to get onto the train. The reason: “Everybody loves him”.
Finally we meet Collen at the mall. He has a wide smile and projects positive energy.
“Are we going to meet President Zuma? Why‚ therefore‚ are you looking for me?” he asked with a firm handshake.
Taelo informed him that journalists are here to talk to him. He then asked if he was going to be on TV. His brothers only reply: “You are going to be famous”.
He then kept quiet but walked faster than all of us as we head back to the car.
Despite being such a well-known persona in his home town‚ Collen lives a life of destitution.
The four-roomed house he shares with his brothers appears to be well-maintained — until you get inside. The kitchen cupboards are worn out‚ allowing you to see the emptiness inside. The best item is the microwave. There is no fridge. The sitting room is in equally poor condition. An old cupboard stands where the television set should be and the sofas show the years.
Motha left us at the house with James Mofokeng to help with Setswana translation. Collen’s two brothers said they love him so much and have a sense of pride in his popularity.
“I don’t know why but people love Collen. Some people here in Orange Farm have a framed picture of him on their walls. We have allowed him to be himself‚” Taelo explained as he sat us down.
Collen does speak English but converses more freely in Setswana.
We gave him a chance to say something to his favourite person‚ Zuma‚ on camera.:
“It’s me‚ Kwenza‚ you know me‚ I am your friend. I am pleading with you‚ President Zuma‚ to please fix my home and build me a double-storey house so that I be can like everyone else. I am with my young brothers‚ I want a TV and to make this house a double-storey so that it can be like other houses. I want you to buy me building bricks and fix here so that when you come here to Orange Farm‚ they will know that you are my friend. Please fix my room and my bathroom; I don’t even have a bathroom. You know me. I am your friend and a number one ANC member. Please come here and build me a double-storey.”
After the video‚ Taelo explained the family’s story.
Their parents moved from Soweto to Orange Farm in the late 1980s. Their mother died in 2004 and their father in 2006. This left the brothers with the responsibility of caring for Collen. Their two sisters are both living with their husbands. The closest one is in Soweto. Collen visits her quite often.
Taelo’s tone of voice changed when he spoke about the struggle for food in the house.
“We do eat‚” he said.
Gontse interjected‚ as if he wanted the truth to come out.
“It is a hustle for us to get food. We are really struggling. Nobody is working and we don’t have anything to eat tonight‚” Gontse said.
All this time‚ Collen was strangely silent. Then I asked the brothers‚ what is the one thing that I could buy for them at the mall.
“Fish oil‚” Taelo said‚ and Collen got really upset.
“No. No fish oil. We need a television set. Just a television set. Let us go now and buy it‚” Collen said in a high tone.
His brother calmed him down and started to explain.
The three brothers have not had a television set for years. One of the neighbours‚ who is a technician‚ has offered to sell them the set for just R150‚ but no one has that kind of money here.
In the house there isn’t even a radio and none of the guys have an ID. They just enjoy basic electricity and water.
Taelo travels to Malvern‚ in eastern Joburg‚ to work as a car guard but makes too little to meet every need in the house.
I offered to buy them a meal at the mall and Collen proposed his favourite restaurant: KFC.
As we left the house‚ the man who is selling the television set showed up. He was going about his own business but Collen ran to him and grabbed him by the arm‚ refusing to let him go
“This is him. He has the TV. Give him the money now. Let’s go get the TV.”
The brothers calmed him down again.
In the midst of the drama‚ Councillor Motha passed by in his ML Mercedes-Benz SUV. He reduced his speed‚ greeted us and drove off.
Back at the mall‚ Collen ordered three pieces of chicken‚ chips and a coke. He then asked us to leave the restaurant to get the fish oil. We headed to the supermarket and when we came back‚ he was gone.
Taelo decided to go look for him while we had lunch with Gontse.
He opened up about the life at home.
“It is not easy taking care of my brother but I love him. He is just an exciting guy. He leaves in the morning at 7am. I make sure that he baths and eats before he leaves. He leaves and goes to the mall‚ talking to people and he has friends everywhere. He also spends a lot of time at Thetha FM. They love him at the studio and even put him live on air to say whatever comes to his mind.”
When their mother was alive‚ she made sure that Collen took his psychiatric medication and he had a close relationship with her.
“My mother loved him more than anything in the world and Collen knew it. When she passed on‚ he struggled to live without her. He then refused to take his medication. But I can’t talk much about that part of our life‚” Gontse said‚ holding back the tears in his eyes.
Collen is also a big friend of Johannesburg mayor Parks Tau and has met former president Thabo Mbeki too.
But there are other problems on Collen’s doorstep. At 1pm‚ wheelie bins were still lined up on the streets and refuse had not been collected. Some portions of the area have not had water for more than a week.
Most of the people living in Orange Farm work elsewhere‚ as there are little to no local job opportunities. Those who cannot find employment like Gontse and Taelo are left on the streets.
“Things are getting bad now. We are seeing more boys in our street smoking nyaope. They don’t have jobs so they steal anything they can get‚” Gontse said.
Nineteen% of households have no income at all in Orange Farm‚ according to Statistics SA. The data shows the area has a total population of 76 767 and a dependency ratio of nearly 50%. Residents do have basic services like electricity‚ which have been rolled out by government‚ but poor education levels affect economic prospects.
Collen and his brothers are amongst many in the City of Johannesburg who are hoping that things will improve for them after the August 3 local government elections.
“We hope that somebody will see our story and help us with something. We are really battling‚” Taelo said as he waved goodbye.