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Despite disability, ‘life is so beautiful’ for poet

Wed, Feb 19, 2014

Jorrit Meulenbeek
The Big Issue – South Africa

CAPETOWN, South Africa – Alice Pina Ncata spends seven days a week at the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, but most of its charm passes her by.

She sits on a ledge next to the big glass doors at the exit towards the parking garage on the basement floor of the enormous shopping mall and tries to sell her magazines.

Unlike the majority of Cape Town’s vendors, who once came from the impoverished Eastern Cape province hoping to find work in Cape Town, Alice was born and bred in Gugulethu, the township outside Cape Town where she still lives.

Alice Pina Ncata

Alice Pina Ncata selling The Big Issue magazine in front of the parking garage at the V&A Waterfront mall, Cape Town, South Africa. Credit: Jorrit Meulenbeek

Alice, 52, started selling The Big Issue after an accident left her brain damaged. 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 (ANC). She was involved with the campaign to pressure what was to be South Africa’s last whites-only government to release political prisoners like Nelson Mandela.

“I was in the back seat, between two other ladies,” she recalls the fateful night. “We were excited, we just came from parliament and were on our way to tell our comrades the good news.” That night it had become clear that things were looking hopeful for the prisoners.

What happened next she only knows from pictures, taken by a journalist who was following their car. She only got to see the photos after she woke up from her coma 2 ½ months later.

When she regained consciousness, she heard from her struggle comrades that the prisoners she campaigned for had been freed. She had missed the historical moment she had dreamed of for so long. And now her own freedom was gone. “I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t talk. I tried, but people said, don’t speak, when they saw how I was struggling.”

She had been pregnant at the time of the accident and her baby daughter was born soon afterward. “The child was healthy, it was a miracle.” But before Alice could even take care of herself again, she first had to go through years of therapy.

Now she can walk and talk again, though not as easily as before. She still needs to take it easy to avoid causing a stroke, which puts most jobs out of reach for her. Selling the magazine seven days a week may not sound like taking it easy, but at least she can sit down whenever she wants.

Alice Pina Ncata

Even though her voice is gone, her regular customers still make an effort to chat to Alice Pina Ncata, selling The Big Issue magazine at the V&A Waterfront mall, Cape Town, South Africa. Credit: Jorrit Meulenbeek

“It’s interesting that I am now working here,” she gestures towards the sea after a moment of quiet reflection. “So close to the island where they were being kept.” She is referring to Robben Island, only a few miles off the coast from Cape Town, where the prisoners she campaigned for spent many years.

Selling The Big Issue allows Alice to support her three children and three grandchildren, including one from her late son Lungile.

“But life is so beautiful,” she says, despite all her hardships. “I have gained a lot of experience.” She picks up the previous issue of the magazine and pages through it to the vendor art section. There is her poem, talking about the experience of losing her only son.

It talks of how proud she was of him going abroad as an engineer, how angry she is with the people who first introduced him to the drugs that eventually killed him. She mentions how she misses his daily phone call. But above all that misery, Alice says in her remarkable poem, “It is well with my soul.”

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