by Mike Rossi
What have the shack-dwellers of today inherited?
What inheritance do they leave for their children?
Questions I’ve asked myself over the last few years as I made weekly trips to our local informal settlement next to Grabouw, in the Western Cape of South Africa.
My reason was to collect and drop off casual labour. In 2010 the surrounding community started to inherit a crisscross of ethnic communities which has now mushroomed
to several square kilometres today.
I became interested in photographing their lives from the narratives told by the various farmhands that have helped us with our work. Their stories generally came from a different perspective; depending on hierarchy in their society. However, an underlying thread of wariness and concern washes through them; not just protecting their loved ones and their few possessions but the strain of what the future holds.
I was 70 years old when I started my photographic journey; to seek the truth in relation to my life. I was of course, very nervous. My first surprise was to discover that in some areas 80% of the shacks, Wendy huts and RDP house are covered or surrounded by razor or barb-wire. What does that tell you? Poor people are robbed by individuals who have even less. This insecurity is often reflected when a family group, and friends build shacks together. They create fort-like defences — one way in — one way out.
Each trip gave me a better understanding of their lives. I was always accompanied by a ‘bodyguard of sorts’. I soon found, they’d avoid taking me to the dangerous areas, preferring friendly places — their environment. Often, when they pointed out drug dealers huddled together conniving, I would push to approach them. With popped eyeballs they’d discourage me, “They will smash up your bakkie and steal everything. Maybe even kill you.”
There is no doubt some truth in what they said. They were also expressing their fear. After all, they were responsible for me and of course, themselves. I thought of taking the fearless, like Ben, a Malawian, but, there were ramifications to that especially after the lionhearted stories he had told me.
The rambling settlement is several ghettos within one large ghetto. You have the Xhosas in one suburb, called Siyanyanzela, meaning, The land we took by force, which they did through conflict with the landowners, police and anybody that objected. Adjacent is Naledi, meaning Peace – conceptually, diametrically opposed in philosophy. The ghettos are a mixed community of ancestry. The coloureds, depending on hierarchy live in Pineview, Snake Park, Beverly Hills and Melrose Place. There are other suburbs which I learn of every day. The Zimbabweans, Zulu, Somalians, Nigerians, Malawians and other foreign ethnic groups fit in where they are accepted. In-between, gangsters, drug dealers and robbers live; hence the barbwire. But less so in Siyanyanzela which is 100% Xhosa. In one sense that 100% is like barbed wire. If you are not Xhosa you will be instantly spotted like a snooping drone.
In an environment of economic segregation and concentrated poverty what are the chances of success? How many make their way out to a better life? One in 50? One in 500? One in 5000? Some do. There are entrepreneurial auto-electricians, hairdressing owners, shack builders, barbers, bakers, butchers, pig, cattle, turkey, duck and sheep breeders. Many may never escape, yet are sustained by their religion; some save every cent and borrow too, accepting a life of debt, to give their children a better chance in life through education.
Yet the majority fall into apathy, waiting for their dreams and the promises made to come true. The culture of anger is veined down from father to son, mother to daughter.
The settlement’s high unemployment breeds frustration which leads to violent demonstrations. While I write people are burning tyres and throwing rocks on the N2.
When you enter the environment of shack homes you will see a simplicity of life devoid of the trappings of middle class. No painted walls or art as you see in trendy coffee-table books — just the basic necessities. Maybe a run-down fridge if they are on the upper class echelons of the settlement or probably a cooler box if they are not. For some a tin shack and blanket bed must do.
When I look at these photographs my thoughts turn to the wise words of a friend, “This is our heritage. This is to remind us where we came from. These are the people who we all serve.”