Locals call it the town of oak trees, acorns and squirrels. Visitors will argue it is a real-life painting of coffee shops and antique stores, bustling with neo-hippie students. The experts will tell you it is the wine capital of South Africa, gathering a score of international wine amateurs and connoisseurs. Stellenbosch: a student town that caters for lovers of art, music, wine, theatre and literature.
Or, so they claim… Walking down Bird Street, one of the busiest streets, you realise how intricate this place really is. The local celebrity, Moksie, is singing in front of the petrol station, waving as she sees my camera.
“I’m going to be on the cover of Die Son!” she screams, as she sees two girls in mini skirts approaching. Die Son, according to the Naspers website, is one of the fastest growing newspapers in South Africa. Bewildered, the girls run into on-coming traffic, missing a truck by a few centimetres.
Moksie is Stellenbosch’s most popular bergie (beggar). She even has her own Facebook fan page, with 3 470 fans. But, for many, the online page is a disgrace. Human rights activists at the university claim the page degrades her, as some students use it to mock her or make hurtful comments about the way she looks, speaks and acts. Die Matie, Stellenbosch’s campus newspaper, wrote a piece about the page and about her as a person in their last issue for the year to raise awareness amongst students.
She is aware of the page she tells me. “I’m a celeb,” she laughs. “I wish I could see it for myself, but I can’t read very well.”
Abandoned at a young age, many people took advantage of her. “I learnt to be tough,” she says biting on her lip with the teeth she has left. It is custom here for bergies to remove their front teeth.
“Love bite” the locals call it. I ask Moksie for her interpretation. “It started as a trend. First with the gangs, then with us ladies,” she tells me.
“It’s beautiful, don’t you think?” she asks, softly touching her gums.
I nod and smile. I reveal to her the disappointing news that I’m not from Die Son, but a journalism student intrigued by her story. “What does ‘intrigued’ mean?” she asks, confused. I explain, but it’s hard to keep her attention.
Every time a student approaches, she screams. It’s obviously a game to her. “I love to see their reactions!” she says with a grin, “Try it!” I open my mouth and she laughs. “What a silly girl! You were really going to do it!”
Unlike other bergies, Moksie claims she does not use the money she gets for alcohol. “I have three children. I miss them. I must see them again.” They have been sent to foster parents. She talks about her youngest Elton (11) with tears in her eyes. She confesses she drank last night and felt bad. “I must learn to stop. For me. For him. But, I like my Savannah! And when the students offer me their bottles, I can’t say no.”
She pauses, then looks at the traffic stopping around us. People look at us. Some point.
“At least I’m not alone,” she says, as she wipes away the tears. “The students are now my children. I give them advice. I tell the girls their dresses are too short. I tell the boys to wear aftershave. If they help me, I help them.”
Born in 1968, her family constantly moved about because of Apartheid. “I’m used to this life,” she says of her gypsy lifestyle. I ask about her clothes. “Nice students give me something warm. Terrible ones throw stuff like beer on me to make me go away.”
She lives in a shack at the foot of the mountain and saves her money to buy cheap shoes and McDonald’s burgers, her favourite meal. She refuses to tell me how much she makes. “I don’t want the others to get jealous. They know the students love me best.”
As the sun sets, I tell her I have to run home. I thank her and give her R20. She hugs me tightly. “No, no, thank you for listening. God bless you, my child.”