Shaun Knipe is a frightening man. Possessed of darkly fiery eyes set in a robust face framed by an anarchic bush of hair and beard and all of it set atop a significant frame, he makes a foreboding sight as he wheels his heavily laden Dahon bicycle along the Promenade.
But that’s not why he scares people, at least not those who venture past that alarming first impression. Here’s why he scares people: if you ask him a question he will answer it. And answer it honestly. And interrogate it mercilessly. And keep answering it …
Officially Knipe, who was born into the middle classes as the son of Pretoria anesthetist, is homeless for the fourth time in his 50 years. Unofficially he has opted out of the middle classes, disdaining their obsession with defining people by their careers.
“If you’re not doing something to earn money then you’re not something,” he said when we happened on each other at the Green Point underpass on a recent afternoon.
“These guys who are doing things, they are that. That’s them and they’re going to be that for the rest of their lives. My brother, for instance, has worked in a bank for 30 years.”
With that Knipe reels off with a shudder some of the traps that have almost snared him: plumbing, in which he holds a N2 qualification, recycling, working in call centres, delivering parcels, small appliance repairs.
Even inheritance evokes memories bitter-sweet enough to send him rattling down a tangent: “I got R68 000 from my father, and I’m thinking that’s my own rent money that I inherited back. The other three brothers inherited the same amount. I’ve got a half-brother in America. He’s a Hare Krishna. My sister stays here, in the Strand. She was from his third marriage. His wife was 28 years younger than him, so I can think all kinds of things.
“My father wrote down a couple of figures in 1997 or 1998. He wrote down a figure for each of his six children. I had the most – R850 000. I don’t know what happened. I never saw that money. That could have been about R1.2-million today. I would have loved to stay on a golf course. Or just a house. I’ve never owned anything like that.
“My youngest brother is working for a fibre optics company and he says he makes R20 000. But I don’t know. I don’t trust anything. I’m just not interested. My daughter lives in Mowbray but I don’t expect them to do anything and I’m not really interested in them doing something. It’s almost like you’re an old oomie and you just want to sit on the stoep and have a coffee. It’s like early retirement.
“Other people have been in professions and they pack up, have a midlife crisis and they’re gone. What’s happened there? Maybe when they’re busy studying their subject they realise they don’t want to do it. But their parents are already paying for it. So they just carry on studying.
“Even my father said he didn’t want to be a doctor. He was 16 in matric and he ended up with five degrees. He worked with Chris Barnard. But he wanted to get into electronics or drive trucks in America.”
All this, and much more, pours forth from Knipe in a remarkable stream of consciousness. Clearly, he is mentally sharp, furiously articulate and not at all intoxicated.
Those fiery eyes soften into a twinkle as he remembers the time he took himself and his bike up the Table Mountain cableway: “People thought I had cycled up there!”
Then there was the cruise from Durban to Cape Town: “That was nice – I’d never been on the sea. It was just food forever. You just eat. I could do with that again.”
And he is not above having fun with those who take him seriously.
“One day I left my rucksack by the side of the road, parked the bike and started to dry three pieces of clothing. I decided to move the bike, and suddenly I did not know what I had done with the bag. It was gone. But that morning I was chirping them. I was chirping both of them, God and the devil. I was daring them. So one of them showed me …”
He stops, waiting for the nod from his listener. It duly comes.
Again the eyes soften, naughty now: “No man. Somebody took it.”
Knipe has spent nights “under a thorn tree, on a corner of the road, sometimes behind two trees, or behind two big potplants, a space so small you can barely squeeze in there”. He has shared the bush with spitting cobras in Camps Bay – “they bounce this high, I promise you,” he says holding an arm horizontal – and in February last year he found what turned out to be a gold ring.
“I got R9 565 for it eventually. Three months, it was gone. Why? Because you can buy whatever. So you do.”
By the end of July, Knipe’s current spell of cocking a snook at the middle classes will reach three unbroken years.
For some, that would mean three solid years of being poor. Not for Knipe. The next time you see him trundling his bike along the Promenade, ask him why. Go on. Don’t be scared.
A fascinating insight into bicycle culture in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.
The story of Shaun Knipe, a man who has chosen to escape society’s conforms and live his life on Cape Town’s Streets. His bicycle, is both his home and his freedom machine.
South African journalist and passionate commuter cyclist Telford Vice shares his experience of cycling in Cape Town… “Why do I ride a bicycle? Silly question. Here’s a better one: why doesn’t everyone ride a bicycle?”