Mo’ inflation, mo’ problems
“Sena! I am welcoming him!” Eddie says, as he fills my glass full once more from a forty of Hansa.
“He is here to work!” Sena replies, “He must not cloud his brain with beer.”
Eddie spits back in a flurried combination of Zulu, Afrikaans, and Tswana.
Joe, the owner of this house in Diepsloot Extension 4, apologizes for the use of non-English languages, as it is abundantly clear that I don’t understand.
“We don’t mean to exclude you,” he says, “but sometimes we are going to slip.”
Joe and Eddie and Frankie, “homeboys from Kimberly,” as Joe puts it, are all here with their wives and children, enjoying tea (for women, beer for men) as the sun sets on Diepsloot, an informal settlement on the Northwest edge of Johannesburg, now home to over 150,000 people. Sena, a short, wiry woman who is alternatively a mother, an aunt or a grandmother to almost all in attendance, is my host.
I’m here to determine whether or not Diepsloot’s national residents will again violently turn on their neighbors from Zimbabwe, Malawi, Namibia, Mozambique, Somalia and Pakistan — as they did three years ago.
Some background: South Africa has an unemployment rate that constantly flutters around 25 percent. In Diepsloot, that figure is closer to 50 percent. It’s about a 20 minute drive from Fourways and Sandton, which are, for all intensive purposes, not unlike Chicago’s Gold Coast or New York’s Upper East Side — and are therefore popular destinations for domestics and gardeners, many of whom live in Diepsloot. But these workers don’t have their own cars, and travel instead by taxi, which, in South Africa, is a vehicle that can fit 10 or 15 people, all of whom are traveling to disparate destinations. Taking a taxi from Diepsloot to the suburbs normally takes about three hours, Sena says.
High rates of unemployment create high rates of poverty, which, coupled with living in a shack with no water, electricity or toilets, makes life downright shitty. This is the case in many informal settlements throughout South Africa — in Ramaphosa, Zandspruit and isolated areas in Soweto as well as the infamous settlements at Cape Flats and Khayelitsha near Cape Town. Both the dominant African National Congress party and their primary opponents, the Democratic Alliance, have somehow managed to construct outdoor toilets in some of these settlements without bothering to build shelter around them. Remember that scene from A Single Man where Colin Firth finds himself waving to his neighbor while he’s on the shitter? It would be like that everyday, but like, with no walls.
Those patriots among you — true believers in the human capacity to pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps — will indeed wonder why these people don’t just get jobs and build their own damn houses and toilets. But the American fantasy of the 90s, with a 5-6 percent unemployment rate, does not exist here. So government has taken on a mandate to provide for people, because the avenues do not exist for them to provide for themselves. And also, have a heart, for chrissakes.
Diepsloot Extension 1, near the mall and the highway, is especially packed, with most people living in shacks roughly 8 feet by 12 feet, regardless of family size. One reason Extension 1 is so crowded is that the government moved hundreds of families from Alexandra to Diepsloot a few years back — these families were living along a river, which flooded often, washing away shacks and drowning their inhabitants. In Extension 1, shacks are built so close you can literally knock on your tin wall to gain the attention of your neighbor. So if you want to listen to music, relieve yourself, yell at your kids or have sex with your wife, everyone will hear you. When it rains, your roof leaks, and worse yet, so do some of the toilets, and the shit water will fill the rut-like paths between the shacks, and if you’re unlucky, even soak into your floor. Your shack is made of scrap. When it’s hot out, its even hotter in your shack, and when it’s cold, you have no insulation. You can light some paraffin if you like, but the stuff is known for burning down shacks and killing entire families. And if this happens, you are so unduly fucked, because you live on a narrow street with no name, and it’s going to take an ambulance a good two hours to get there.
If you’re lucky, you have a job working for a well-to-do Afrikaner or Brit, who lives in a walled compound protected by electric fencing, a reminder of the privacy you lack. You take care of their kids while you leave yours to fend for themselves. You trim their bushes while the fly-spotted trash heap next to your shack hasn’t been collected in months. You’re a guard employed by a private security company, with the duty of protecting this idyllic neighborhood from people like yourself. These are jobs you are happy to have, because without them, you wouldn’t have any job at all.
But the job doesn’t pay enough to buy a house — it doesn’t pay enough to get the fuck out.
Now enter the Zimbabwean next door, whose life, can you believe it, was even worse in Zimbabwe than yours is here, and he’s willing to do your job for more hours of the day, for less money. Ho’ boy.
Everybody in Extension 1 knows Rasta, a robust Zimbabwean man who runs a vegetable stand near the taxi rank. In May 2008, Rasta was one of the Zimbabweans targeted by the South African residents of Diepsloot as xenophobic riots spread throughout the country, killing 62 people and displacing at least 30,000 more. In Diepsloot, like everywhere else, these riots were fueled by shebeens, informal taverns that sell forties of 6 percent ABV Black Label on the cheap. Drunk teens ran around busting into shacks — looting some, burning others and sometimes beating their inhabitants. The goal was to root out foreigners, so the elbow test was invented.
– “What is this?” a raider asks, pointing to his elbow.
Answer in Zulu, indololwane, or you are very likely fucked. Never mind that many South Africans do not speak Zulu. –
As kwerekwere (foreigner) raids increased in frequency, Rasta and his fellow Zimbabweans organized a meeting. The police had done little to protect them. They were, for the time, on their own.
Rasta organized a march from the eastern-most entry of Diepsloot, north of the mall, along the paved Gateside Avenue that leads past the Extension 1 taxi rank, where his shop is now. He remembers his head buzzing: with fear and with a far-flung hope that all this kak could very well be over soon. Marchers carried rocks, wood planks, bats and tools– and for a time, these foreigners shared a common cause.
Word spread quickly throughout the settlement and a group of Zulu raiders began to form farther down Gateside to meet the foreigners. As the toyi-toying masses collided, the raiders couldn’t help but notice that they lacked the overwhelming support from South Africans that the foreigners had from their own people. They were outnumbered. A few brief skirmishes later, the raiders dispersed.
This conflict caught police attention, and they showed up in massive Casspir anti-riot vehicles, built to withstand mine explosions — hand-me-downs from the Apartheid-era army.
Thabani had been in Diepsloot for about a year when the riots started.
“Nobody knew what was going to happen,” the Zimbabwean says, sitting on a couch in Sena’s new shack in Extension 12. “You cannot just walk away from this. I could not just walk back to Zim. There was so much violence.”
He lived in crowded Extension 1, next to Sena, a South African. Sena understood the popular argument against Zimbabweans. They undercut South Africans in the job market. Many were here illegally and did not officially exist, meaning they could rob and loot with virtual impunity — some did. But other than Thabani’s taste for beer — a drink that Sena abhors — she knew that he and his three brothers were good people. She sheltered the four of them, and occasionally Thabani’s girlfriend, for upward of three weeks. Sena did not allow Thabani and his brothers to leave her tiny shack.
“If they found out, they were going to kill us,” Sena says as she prepares tea on a propane camping stove early on a Sunday morning. “They are not going to play around. They will not wait to hear what is going on.”
During that time, Sena became a mother figure to Thabani and his brothers, as she is for almost all she encounters.
“Even if I return to Zim, she will still be my mother,” Thabani says.
Sena and Thabani moved from Extension 1 to Extension 12 together. 12 is more organized, with vehicle-sized roads, yards, and outhouses for each shack. But it has no electricity, and Sena walks a block to fill up her water bucket. She has been on the government housing list for nine years, but was told last week that her name no longer appears on the list. Her spot was probably bought out — most likely by a friend of someone in Housing, and now she has to start the process all over again — from the back of the line.
A family friend and taxi-driver who heard through the grapevine that I was arriving in Diepsloot explains to me that he thought I was an American tourist. He took off work with the expectation of driving me to Fourways and Sandton for bar-nights when I wasn’t working. I explain to him that I’m in Diepsloot to be in Diepsloot, and have no intention of going elsewhere. He tries to argue that the miscommunication is somehow my fault and while I don’t know how it could be, I give him what cash I have, the equivalent of about 10 dollars. I was warned about crime in Diepsloot, but wasn’t expecting a robbery to go down like that.
Sena lives alone, but tonight, two of her grand daughters, fascinated by the presence of a “whitie” — not to mention an American “whitie” — sleep over. Sena is a domestic worker with an understanding employer, and she does alright for herself. Her shack’s yard is covered in grass, and three rose bushes grow along her fence. This is both absurd and beautiful. Her toilet is immaculate and she may be the only resident in Diepsloot with throw-pillows on her couch. It’s 8:30 when we retire. May is late fall in South Africa, and it has been dark for two hours now — our breath begins to form small clouds in from of our faces in the oil-lamp light — and there isn’t a whole lot you can do in the cold and dark. Sena is an angel, and gives me about eight blankets.
“You mustn’t be cold, It isn’t fair,” says the woman who lives in a shack despite working six days a week.
When I wake up in the middle of the night, I’m warm.
Thabani feels safe knowing that Sena will keep him in the loop, but that doesn’t mean he feels welcome in Diepsloot.
“When you are walking, you feel people view you as ‘something,’ not ‘someone’ — as if you have done something wrong, even when you have not.”
He’s not making it up.
Sena’s relatives, over tea, tell me that Zimbabweans continue to be a problem. They recount a night when they were held at gunpoint by two men who told them to hand over their cellphones.
“They even said to us ‘we are Zimbabwean, we know you like to blame us,'” Joe tells me, but I see no reason why South Africans couldn’t identify as such to deflect blame.
Xenophobia in South Africa is not blind. Just like the American kind, it is riddled with double standards. As Americans make no bones about Canadian immigrants, so too do South Africans seem to shrug off incoming Malawians — “they have money, and they are good people,” Joe says. Of the 62 killed in 2008, none were white — and my presence is too much of a novelty for me to feel threatened in any way. After all, I’m not competing for the same jobs, and the idea of me robbing anyone in Diepsloot is laughable. Amazingly, one man does gesture to me, circling his elbow with his finger. Good eyes, I think, as I feign ignorance with a “Howzit?”
I wake up to cold dew dripping from the roof onto my face from the tin roof. I dip my cup into the water bucket, have a drink, and step out into Sena’s yard.It’s 6:45 on a Sunday and already people are moving around, and I can’t imagine what a view I must be, in that yard, be-frumpled, groggy-eyed and very white.
“Do you live here?” one man asks, stunned that any white person could, or would.
I am reminded of a man named David who I met in Zandspruit.
“Is this a nice place? Would you like to live in this place?” David asked, sitting a few yards from a sewer cap leaking gray water.
I shook my head. “No, of course not. I’d be lying if I said I did.”