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.
It’s early morning, August 2018. Torrential rain is pouring from a black sky. It’s absurdly cold. Large dollops of water pummel the windshield. The windows are also taking a beating. I can hear the tyres sluice through the flooded road. Looking through the windscreen I see a blurry man, head down, arms crossed, huddled against his body, defying the downpour walking on a muddy path out of the Grabouw informal settlement. He’s almost invisible in the rain. He walks past two, three, four malnourished dogs baptised by mud scavenging for food in the slurry earth. He passes a man, squatting, brushing his teeth over a muddy pool. What forces someone out into this god-forsaken weather? Money? Desperation to support his family?
The wind whips off some shack roofs. Corrugated metal sheets skittle over tin roofs leaving the dwellers exposed. I wonder how people within are coping under these conditions. Imagine them squatting, trying to cook their breakfast over an open fire in this rain.
I’ve always watched from a distance — it’s the distressing stories we’ve all heard that stopped me from entering. I’ve seen muggings right in front of me on the side of the road. Innocent women crying — possessions all gone. I asked myself, imagine if this was your birthright, then asked the question. ‘What have the shack-dwellers of today inherited? What inheritance do they leave their children?’
Through the narratives of workers in our valley, I decided to document their lives — to shed some light on their existence. My first surprise was to discover that in some areas 80% of the shacks are surrounded by razor wire. What does that tell you? Poor people are robbed by individuals who have even less. Family and friends build shacks together. They create fort-like defences — one way in, one way out.
The rambling settlement is made up of several ghettos. 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, opposed in philosophy. But its reality is different. The ghettos are a mixed community of ancestry, each occupied by an ethnic group. In-between, gangsters, drug dealers and robbers live; hence the barbwire.
Every trip gave me a better understanding of their lives. I was always accompanied by a bodyguard. They were generally too afraid to enter a foreign ethnic area. There is no support structure to safeguard them. When they pointed out huddled groups of drug dealers I would suggest approaching them. Shocked at my suggestion they discouraged me, “They will smash up your bakkie and steal everything. Maybe even kill you.”
In an environment of economic segregation and concentrated poverty what are the chances of success? How many make their way to a better life out of the poverty trap? One in 50? One in 5000? Some do. There are entrepreneurial auto-electricians, salon owners, barbers, bakers, and butchers. They breed pigs, cattle, turkey and sheep. Some are sustained by religion; a few save every cent and borrow as well, accepting a life of debt, to give their children a better chance through education. A lot slide through life with alcohol turning their children into beggars.
The majority never escape. 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 a shack home you will see the simplicity of life. No painted walls or art as in coffee-table books — just the basics. Maybe a run-down fridge if they’re 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 whom we all serve.”