JOHANNESBURG — Cassius Plaatjies used to be an angry young man who lived on Johannesburg's streets and survived by breaking into people's homes. Now he earns his living selling poems and stories.
Mr. Plaatjies says his salvation from crime and despair came with the launch of a thin, unusual newspaper.
Homeless Talk, written and sold by Johannesburg's homeless, gives a new meaning to the phrase "alternative newspaper."
For Plaatjies, one of its founders, the 16-page monthly does not just provide income. It has also restored to him two things far more precious: self-respect and hope. "If it weren't for the newspaper, I would still be a criminal," he says. "You could say it saved my life."
The first issue was launched in April 1994, the month South Africa's first multiracial elections were held, with funding from church and nonprofit groups. Today the paper's 25,000 monthly circulation covers its monthly 20,000 rand ($4,400) operating costs.
The newspaper has six full-time production staff and 300 registered venders who work at busy suburban traffic intersections and earn about 22 cents profit for every paper they sell.
The newspaper's slogan is "helping the homeless help themselves" - and that is exactly what it does. The writers tell how they ended up on the streets and their fears and aspirations. They write poems, draw cartoons, do exposs, and interview public figures.
Recent articles have included an analysis of whether projects for street children were successful, a discussion of how the homeless are housed in other countries, and a first-hand account of what it was like to sleep on the pavement in the winter chill. Much of the writing is fresh, raw, and powerful.
PRODUCTION assistant Linda Bokwana says the number of venders and writers is growing. Mr. Bokwana (who is a man) and other staff members visit shelters and soup kitchens to find new contributors and bring them to writing workshops held every Monday by veteran journalists and writers.
Bokwana tells potential new staff how Homeless Talk has helped him. In April 1994 he was newly divorced, jobless, and homeless, sleeping in abandoned buildings and selling bottles or washing cars to survive. A meeting with someone from Homeless Talk opened a new life as a vender and later as a writer. Now he has mastered Windows computer programs and co-written with five others a television docu-drama. He rents a room of his own on his $220 monthly wage.
"When I started writing, my spelling and writing were very bad. But I am improving a lot now, and my self-esteem and courage have grown very high," Bokwana says. "Now I am sure that I will get back onto my feet."
He says the newspaper taught him not just writing skills but also self-management. "In the old days, I just lived from meal to meal. But now, planning newspaper issues, I've learned to plan for the future in my life."