Ex-izinyoka transforms trash into treasured art

Thomas Bika is a homeless entrepreneur in Johannesburg. PHOTOS/Thulani Mbele
Thomas Bika is a homeless entrepreneur in Johannesburg. PHOTOS/Thulani Mbele

They say one man's trash is another's treasure, but for one Johannesburg roadside artist, trash is an inspiration.

Thomas Bika, 58, who lost his left arm when he was electrocuted stealing copper cables 17 years ago, uses trash to make flower pots, photo frames and sculptures.

He is a reformed copper thief who started stealing cables in 1996 to make a quick buck. But, in 2001 all that changed when he went to Soweto at night with his friends to steal copper.

"While I was on the poles, cutting the cables, I felt a burning sensation on my hands and my sleeves caught fire and my wrist was burning. I jumped from the pole and fell on the ground that's all I remember.

"I woke up in Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital with a policeman at my bedside. It immediately hit me that I could have died" said Bika.

He was discharged two weeks later and went to court where he was given a suspended sentence because he was a first-time offender.

"I made a promise to myself to never steal copper again as I had been given a second chance to live my life" he said.

"I started to recycle bottles and sell them for money, then extended to recycling trash to get started. I sculpt clay, frames, home decorating trees and garden accessories with my one hand," Bika said.

The self-taught homeless man who draws his entrepreneurial inspiration from the dustbins, lives on the pavement in the Johannesburg CBD, creating dozens of works of art from materials that would otherwise go straight to the landfill.

"I woke up in the hospital in 2001 without an arm and I realised my ancestors had punished me for my behaviour and at that moment I realised I had to change my ways," Bika said.

He didn't believe in working for anyone but using his skills and hands to make a living.

He uses his left arm stump to support his right hand to create his artwork.

"Because I spent my early years in life focusing on things that did not matter, I don't even have kids because I was always on the road with bad company but I want to leave
a legacy to my nieces and nephews since I am from a
big family," Bika said.

"I hate littering so collecting the plastics has helped me keep the streets clean."

Bika also has a small business at the Maboneng Precinct, where he rents out wooden tables on weekends and uses the money to buy glue, nails and varnish for his work and to travel home to KZN where his extended family and siblings live.

"I sell my art frames from R150 to R700 and my customers are overwhelmed by my work.

"I love promoting African art and the African culture so I focus on that whenever I create any art piece. I am a Rastafarian man who believes in creating peace around me.

"I feel content with my art and it completes me. It gives me joy every morning and I am glad I took that step to change my life to what I believe was my calling and gift.

"I encourage the youth to make use of their hands and use their God-given talents."

Thomas Bika creates artworks and picture frames to sell so that he can sustain himself.
Thomas Bika creates artworks and picture frames to sell so that he can sustain himself.

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