He who pays the piper calls the tune. But not so it seems if you’re dealing with a certain hard-to-reach KZN ‘artist’. Rookie reporter Laura du Toit learns things aren’t always as they seem.
Provisionally headlined, Pipe dream: Waterloo man defeats the dark, the story had been laid out on page 7 of this week’s Sunday Tribune, almost ready to go to print.
It was a well-crafted, heart-warming story by Rhodes journalism student, Laura du Toit, about spreading Christmas cheer among “South Africans in the dark”, as well as vital recycling enterprise.
“I was hugely excited about the publication,” said Du Toit. Recently enrolled on Roving Reporters environmental journalism training programme, Developing Environmental Watchdogs, it was meant to be an easy introduction to her internship.
Turns out, there was a lot more to it than first meets the eye.
The story had been sparked by a recent Facebook post by legendary Eastern Cape surfer and former Durban journalist, David Macgregor, who runs a tree house styled surf camp in Port Alfred.
“So, here’s the thing,” wrote Macgregor. “A random post about our up-cycled forest tree house struck a chord with a stranger in KwaZulu-Natal who sent me a private message about the up-cycled lights he makes.”
“Wow, what can I say about Ridwaan Chui’s work,” wrote Macgregor. “It’s amazing, and what is even more amazing is how he came about his awesome idea.”
Chui had told Macgregor that he was unemployed and had been on his way to Verulam to look for work when he came across some discarded PVC pipes. A lightbulb moment flashed. He picked up the pipes, made a U-turn home, cut his first lamp by hand and quickly sold it.
“Soon he bought a machine to carve discarded pipes and build more of his unique upcycled lights,” wrote Macgregor. “From humble beginnings, his designs evolved and with it a PVC pipe dream began to become reality. Soon, pictures of his craft started pinging in my WhatsApp. Fascinated, I scrolled through each and imagined the wonderful shadows they cast across darkened rooms.”
“His WhatsApp messages made me realise that no matter how desperate things may appear and how hard it is to find fulltime work in South Africa right now, a simple idea can provide hope for a better life,” added Macgregor.
“There are many people like Ridwaan out there that are getting rid of plastic and other waste by turning them into something uniquely South African,” added Macgregor.
“My hope is that with Christmas around the corner, people dig into their pockets and spread the cheer by supporting artists like Ridwaan instead of some chain store importing crap from a country on the other side of the world. At R350 each excluding postage, it’s a deal. Not made in China, my china. Made in Durban ekse!”
Du Toit’s first Roving Reporters assignment was simply to interview Ridwaan Chui at work and write the story. Amid torrential downpour last week, Chui postponed, advising that his outdoor workspace at a rented home in Waterloo, about 12 km north of Umhlanga, was flooded.
With a deadline to produce the story for the Sunday Tribune looming, it was finally decided that Du Toit would do a telephonic interview. A photoshoot would be arranged for later in the week, by which time the weather might have also cleared.
In subsequent interviews with Roving Reporters, Chui elaborated on his story, the light bulb moment and all it had given rise to.
He said he was the descendant of a Chinese grandfather and a Mozambican woman.
When he had come across a pile of PVC pipes, he had been reminded of an ivory decorative piece his late father had crafted, he said.
“My dad taught me everything I know. He said you have to pay yourself, and only now I understand. To say you’re not employed, that’s an excuse,” he said.
He said the creative designs he stencilled and carved into the PVC pipes had also taken his mind off his troubles following a recent divorce.
“What actually saved me from doing silly things after my breakup was these lamps,” said Chui.
He said loadshedding had also inspired him to start designing candle lit lamps and others that could switch over to battery power. And he hoped, in time, to include solar panels.
As an electrician by trade, he said he was flummoxed that South Africa did not harvest more solar energy.
The forecast of power outages continuing three times a day throughout the festive season, provided a good narrative hook for Du Toit’s first story for the Sunday Tribune.
The intro read: Christmas is a time of giving, but the spirit of the season and its colourful lights might burn a good deal dimmer – no thanks to Eskom. But the entrepreneurial efforts of a part-time electrician turned craftsman have brought some welcome cheer.
The Sunday Tribune’s news editor, Annie Dorasamy loved the story and a photoshoot was arranged for 11 am on Friday, 13 December.
But at the 11th hour, Chui advised it would not be ideal to meet at the rented home he worked in Waterloo. He said his landlord was opposed to the enterprise.
“He complains about the noise of the mini-drill and says I must find a real job,” said Chui.
“I really need to buy a small generator and gazebo. Then I can work anywhere I am allowed to.”
So it was agreed that Chui would meet a Sunday Tribune photographer at the Waterloo Spar.
By noon, Chui had failed to pitch and all calls made to his cellphone went to voicemail.
A back-up plan kicked in. The Sunday Tribune would use pictures of the PVC lamps Chui had posted as part of a social media campaign to illustrate the story alongside a Facebook profile photo of him. It was not ideal, but what else could we do?
Calls to Chui went unanswered through till Saturday morning.
By this time, Roving Reporters director, Fred Kockott, had begun to feel uneasy. After all, Chui should have been bending over backwards to secure the publicity the story would bring his business.
“We haven’t any proof that Chui actually makes these lamps,” Kockott advised Macgregor and Dorasamy. “Unless he can provide a picture of himself with one of the lamps he has made, we are going to have to pull the plug on the story.”
Soon afterwards, Macgregor was contacted by Chui by Facebook messenger.
“Hi David, my place was broken into on Thursday night,” reads the message. “They took my machine, phone and some other valuables. I’m so stressed out. Was supposed to meet your friends, but had no source of communication.”
But Kockott was not convinced.
He sent back the following message to Chui: “Ridwaan, please simply send us pic of you with one of your lamps carved from PVC piping. Laura du Toit’s story is already laid out and ready for publication. But we have no proof that you actually make these lamps.”
When Chui simply sent another stand alone pic of a PVC lamp, Kockott pulled the plug on the story.
“There were just too many red flags,” said Kockott. “From the onset Chui has been hard to pin down. First it was the rain. Then the landlord. Then a burglary. This was no longer sixth sense stuff. We hope our suspicions are proved wrong… but it would have been impossible to save face if it turned out otherwise.”
We cannot even say with any certainty that our pipe dreamer’s real name is Ridwaan Chui and whether the lamps he says he makes are indeed his own. At least one the pictures of the PVC lamps he has used to solicit orders closely resembles an image on the Tique Lights online shop at www.etsy.com
In his last communication with Roving Reporters on Saturday, 14 December, Chui again agreed to meet a photographer, on Monday.
But he has since gone to ground.
Someone had deleted the Ridwaan Chui Facebook page. And the man at the centre of it all could not be reached by cellphone, WhatsApp or Facebook messenger.
One lamp buyer, Nick Howard, from Port Alfred, advised he made an advance payment of R300 into a bank account provided by Chui some time ago. But had yet to receive the product. He has not been able to contact Chui.
“This kind of thing really gets to me,” said Troy Wells, a Durban-based audio visual specialist who was among more than 80 people who had praised Chui’s entrepreneurial spirit following Macgregor’s widely read Facebook post about the eco-friendly lamps.
Wells said he subscribed to former president Thabo Mbeki’s philosophy that economic freedom entails entrepreneurship.
“I wholeheartedly believe that entrepreneurship, especially social entrepreneurship is the best way forward for a country like South Africa,” said Wells.
“So, one guy like this, stuffs it up for a hundred,” said Wells. “People like David – the kind of guy who will help anybody – will now say: ‘Stuff this, I’m not helping anymore because this is what happens.’ Then all the other people who really need help, won’t get it, and they won’t pass it on, and this whole spirit of Ubuntu, stops right there.”
Click here to read Laura du Toit’s original story or here to download a pdf copy: Pipe dream: Waterloo man defeats the dark
FEATURED IMAGE: Empty words? Picture: Pixabay