Text: Leilani Basson
Photography: Jannie Herbst
The most profound stories are often those merely mentioned in passing. These seemingly insignificant stories regularly turn out to be life-enriching experiences.
To me, the enchantment of my job has always been the mystical way in which one story leads to another – an endless treasure trove of fascinating people and their stories just waiting to be told. In this fashion, the 4×4 Mega World soccer stadium story in our August issue led to the Projek Aardwolf and Alti Fouche article in September. That in turn led to the Triomf Automotive Art story, and subsequently my interview with Lionel Colyn.
It was still winter when I waltzed into the workshop at Triomf Automotive Art to meet Nico Landman, owner of the establishment that took such pride in restoring Projek Aardwolf’s truck to its former glory.
When I entered the reception area, I was surprised that it was so stylishly furnished, with a TV, brand new magazines and friendly front of office staff in uniforms. It was very different to what I expected from a panel beater in one of Jozi’s more notorious suburbs, but not exactly what one would imagine to be a life-changing experience.
The actual workshop was extremely neat and orderly… and strangely quiet for a place normally associated with hammering and shouting.
As I took in the activity in the factory-like building, a peculiar movement from the corner of my eye caught my attention. It was a young, brown-haired, well-built guy moving from the vehicle he was working on to his tool station a few steps away.
He paused in front of the tool station and after a few moments, slowly reached out a hand to a spanner in the middle of the perfectly organised top chest. He spread the palm and fingers over the spanner and gently placed his hand over the piece of metal. He closed his fingers around it, picked it up, turned around and slowly – almost staccato-like – made his way back to the vehicle, touching the bonnet, sliding his fingers around to the front and slowly crouching down to continue his work.
“Oh, that’s Lionel,” Nico said without me asking. “He is blind, but he’s super efficient and is the only one in the workshop who knows exactly where which parts or spares are stored. You must see him run up and down the stairs of the store room with a door or windscreen on his shoulder.”
At first I thought that Lionel was probably just colour blind. Or partially sighted. It was only when I went closer and saw the hollowness under his closed left eyelid and an unseeing right eye that I realised the truth.
Lionel was not born blind. He was born prematurely. His eyes were not protected from the light in the incubator, which caused the fluids in his eyes to dry up, resulting in permanent damage to the nerves. So Lionel has been blind all his life.
Growing up in Port Elizabeth as the youngest of six children (by ten years), Lionel had to fend for himself from a young age. His passion for cars was there from the start. The only way he thought he would be able to work with cars was if he could recognise them, take them apart and put them together again.
He gained his first experience at a panel beater’s shop near his home, when he helped the owner take out the engine of an Austin. To the astonishment of the owner, Lionel did an excellent job. He was allowed to fasten and loosen other parts on the vehicle.
After that first day, Lionel just kept going back, and stayed on for four years.
Convinced that he had found his niche in life, Lionel enrolled in a three-year mechanical career orientation course at the School for the Blind in Worcester. He completed the course but could not find a job. He was placed behind a turntable to make tools and furniture. Sometimes he had to weave baskets.
“The salary was just not enough, and it was really not my calling,” Lionel remembers.
To keep himself busy and at least earn an income, Lionel baked bread and cookies, and sold them. Some months the venture went so well that he made over R25 000.
“But there were also many months when I made only R500,” he laughs.
The family moved to Johannesburg, and Lionel’s struggle to live his dream of working with cars remained elusive.
One day his fiancée, Marieta Pretorius – an accountant he met in Johannesburg – happened to be in the same hairdressing salon as Nico Landman’s wife, Marina. In the customary hairy chit-chat, Marina mentioned her husband’s panel-beating business, and Marieta told her about Lionel.
Nico recalls: “When Marina came home that day, she looked me straight in the eye and said: ‘We are going to employ this guy. No questions. Sommer net so. And he is starting on Monday’.”