The Mall Rats

The mall rats relax on the grass opposite the entrance to the drain where they live on a Sunday afternoon. PIcture: Shayne Robinson

Mall Rats Definition: “A surly teenager who spends all of his or her time at the mall with friends. Typically seen standing around glaring at customers — sometimes these fascinating creatures will pick fights with mall security and call them “fascists” for enforcing the mall’s loitering bylaws.”

In 2008 I was driving past Cresta Shopping Mall when I spotted a few children disappear down an embankment near the robots where I had often seen them begging for money from people in cars. I was intrigued as to where they were going so I stopped my car and went over to have a look.

What I discovered shook me to my very foundations as these young children were living in the drainage network underneath one of South Africa’s largest and most influential shopping malls. The boys who were between 9 and 15 years old were all victims of abusive or broken homes. All of them had made the decision to run away and live on the streets of Johannesburg, somehow they managed to find each other and this ragtag bunch of children became a “functioning” family, most probably for the first time in their lives.

They looked out for each other, and while they had almost nothing they shared everything that they did have. I spent a few months documenting their lives, becoming involved in their story. I looked forward to every visit, their bright smiles and blind eagerness for the world that did not want them was so hard to fathom, that I did not have the heart to tell them that their dreams of becoming doctors and lawyers and even policemen were doomed. I just smiled and enjoyed the time we had together.

About 3 months into my visits to them I arrived one afternoon to find a fence around the drain entrance and the boys were gone, apparently, the mall was not happy with their presence and they had been shipped off orphanages. I would love to know where they are today.

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