Gert Laufs, 44, is homeless and lives in abject squalor in the stormwater pipes beneath Monte Vista train station.
By day he makes a living selling sculpted wooden plant holders at the traffic lights on the corner of Solly Smiedt Street and Vasco Boulevard, near N1 City Mall.
Gert says it’s ironic he makes sculptures of wood because he hated woodwork at high school and even changed schools so that he didn’t have to take the subject.
It was, he says, by pure coincidence that he started sculpting.
“While walking under one of the bridges in the area a couple of years ago, I picked up a coconut shell that one of the homeless people had thrown against a wall. I decided to carve the shell into a bowl and spoon. Following that, I received a lot of interest from the public, and I started making goods out of wood in order to make a living.”
Often he has an idea for a piece of wood only to find that it seems to have a mind of its own.
“I have made coffee tables, masks and pot plants as a result,” he says.
Gert grew up in Worcester, where his mother grows succulents.
One day, she brought him a couple and he decided they’d go nicely with some of his wooden projects.
“I see myself, as a succulent of sorts because, just like the plant, I have been broken down and experienced rough terrain and circumstances, but I have always landed on my feet. Just like the plant, I don’t need a lot to survive.”
Dressed in blue shorts, a wrinkled grey top and black flip flops, Gert’s only protection from the rising mercury is his floppy sun hat.
He rummages through trash and scours the area in search of wood for his next project.
“When I get the wood, I clean it, carve holders, varnish the wood and piece it together. One piece can take up to two hours to construct.
“I sell them for between R50 and R60. Sometimes kind motorists will stop and drop off some wood for me to use.
“The most money I have made in a day was R1 000. Some days, I will sit here the entire day and not sell anything.”
His weather-beaten face darkens as he tells of the cat-and-mouse game he plays with law enforcement. “I am constantly harassed by them, as I am infringing on a by-law by selling my goods here without a permit.
“I understand that they have to do their job, but I am just trying to make a living for my girlfriend and myself.
“I am always having to duck and dive here. Their stringent enforcement of the law shows remnants of how the apartheid government used to operate. Give me a fine, but don’t confiscate my stuff because this is all I have.”
There was a time, though, when it was Gert who was the one wielding the big stick as a member of the apartheid police force’s internal stability unit.
“It became too violent and I quit. I experienced issues with my family, and it worsened after I killed a man in a pub brawl. I was sentenced to 15 years behind bars. These days, I am trying to rebuild my life one step at a time.”
Talking about how things have changed in the country since the days when he was a cop, Gert says, “In the old days, the government controlled your every movement and told you what to do. I feel more free to live my life as I please now, but, with all things in life, there are drawbacks.”
* If you want to buy any of Gert’s wooden creations, SMS him at 073 080 6584.