It’s one of Cape Town, South Africa’s major tourist attractions: the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, a harbor lined with pastel-colored restaurants and shops. The world-famous Table Mountain in the background completes the postcard-perfect scene. This is where Alice Pina Ncata spends seven days a week.
On the basement floor of the enormous shopping mall, at the exit toward the parking garage, she sat on a ledge next to the big glass doors, trying to sell her copies of Big Issue. It’s a strategic location, next to the parking pay points where people queue up and have to get their wallets out anyway.
“Big Issue,” she mouthed whenever people passed by. Her hoarse whisper was drowned out by chatter, the droning ventilation system and music from the shops.
She started at 11 a.m., and plans to leave her spot after 9 p.m. when most customers have gone. She has sold only five magazines in three hours, making it a slow morning, but she is confident things will pick up once people finish work.
Unlike the majority of Cape Town’s vendors, who once came from the impoverished Eastern Cape Province hoping to find work, Alice, 52, was born in Gugulethu, a township outside Cape Town where she still lives.
When did she start selling The Big Issue? And how did she get into it? The smile on her face disappeared as she struggled to remember the dates. “My memory is not very good,” she said after a long silence. “I had an accident. I suffered brain damage.”
It was 1990, in the dying days of Apartheid. Alice had given up her job coordinating an adult learning project and had become a full-time activist with the African National Congress. She was involved with the campaign to put pressure on what was to be South Africa’s last whites-only government to release political prisoners such as Nelson Mandela.
“I was in the back seat, between two other ladies,” she recalled. “We were excited. We just came from parliament and were on our way to tell our comrades the good news. The robots [traffic lights] were not working and at an intersection our driver took a chance.”
What happened next she only knows from pictures taken by a journalist following their car. She saw them after she woke up from her coma in Grooteschuur Hospital two-and-a-half months later.
When she regained consciousness, she heard from comrades who visited her that the prisoners she campaigned for had been freed. She had missed the historical moment. And her own freedom was gone: “I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t talk.”
She was pregnant at the time of the accident, and her daughter was born soon after.
“The child was healthy: It was a miracle.” But she went through years of therapy before she could take care of herself.
Now she can walk and talk, though not as easily as before. “The doctor says I have a big risk of getting a stroke again, so I have to relax a lot. My speech is not very good, and I easily forget things.” This put most jobs out of reach for her. Selling the magazine seven days a week, she can sit down whenever she wants.
After the long day when her voice is hoarse, many of her regular customers make an effort to chat, undeterred by the fumes of the raw garlic she chews to fight a cold. Customers’ children gave Alice a hug.
“Life is so beautiful,” Alice said.