Diepsloot: Where SA's problems meet

2014-04-17 13:33
A woman tends to her laundry in the impoverished Diepsloot township outside Johannesburg. (Mujjahid Safodien, AFP)

A woman tends to her laundry in the impoverished Diepsloot township outside Johannesburg. (Mujjahid Safodien, AFP)

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Diepsloot - The shebeen in Diepsloot starts filling up early on a Friday. There are several hours left in the workday but the patrons have no work to go to and little diversion among the dusty streets and iron shacks.

"I came to Joburg thinking I'll get a job. There's no job!" says unemployed 29-year-old Elias, summarising the dashed hopes of many tens of thousands who flock to Johannesburg from surrounding provinces.

"If the government gave all of us houses, it would be a better life. I'm in a squatter camp!" he adds, gesturing at the cluster of informal dwellings beyond the tavern.

The government says it has built 3.7 million houses since the advent of democracy 20 years ago, giving millions of people their first modern homes.

But for millions more little has changed.

Diepsloot has become a face of the social ills that beleaguer the country governed by the late Nelson Mandela's ANC.

Townships, areas that were reserved for blacks, Indians and mixed-race people during apartheid, have buckled under the pressure of people flooding in to urban centres, many building their own crude corrugated iron shacks.

The latest census conducted three years ago found that 13.6% of South African households lived in makeshift dwellings.

But Diepsloot is unique among the many racially separate areas that have remained largely intact since the end of white minority rule.

It sprang up during the twilight of apartheid in the early 1990s as the authorities tried to move squatters to better housing.

Over the next decades people kept on coming, attracted by the city lights.

Without the weight of history or the brand recognition of Johannesburg's Soweto, where so many anti-apartheid protests took place, Diepsloot has failed to attract big business or international aid agencies.

Making headlines

It makes news for all the wrong reasons: rampant poverty, dire living conditions, unemployment, violent anti-government protests, brutal crime and public lynchings.

Some of the main streets are paved; there are police and fire stations, and a municipal building.

But beyond the formal infrastructure, an unruly shantytown has sprung up over the past decade and a half, steadily obscuring the tidy government-built houses on square plots of land.

"We've got small shacks. In 4m by 4m, you find five people," says Kabelo, 32, another tavern patron.

"Seventy people sharing one toilet is not healthy," he adds, blaming the lack of progress on corruption in the local municipality.

"They just put the money in their own pocket."

Some do make a living, like 29-year-old Given Chauke, who swears he sells the best fried chicken on the main road.

"There's many people here. There's business!" says Chauke, a native of neighbouring Mozambique who grew up in South Africa.

The R200 rand profit a day keeps him going, and he has several plans to make more money.

'The police take too long'

But crime worries him, and tsotsis robbed his brother's shebeen a few months ago.

"Just the tsotsis. The crime is too much," he sighs.

"Sometimes you find somebody dead here. Half past 10 you can't go there even with a car," he says, gesturing to a particularly dangerous sea of shacks on the horizon.

Mob justice

Police struggle to keep up with combating crime, and the locals often take the law into their own hands. Lynchings are not uncommon.

"If someone steals we go kill him ourselves," says Chauke matter-of-factly.

"You can't go to the police. They take too long."

African and Asian immigrants often bear the brunt of the community's problems.

In 2008 township residents around the country targeted foreigners in xenophobic attacks that left more than 60 people dead. Diepsloot was one of the hotspots.

Chauke says he feels no antagonism. But he has a South African name and speaks local languages.

Kabelo says the township would be better without the immigrants.

"Most guys around here who are troublemakers, are the foreigners," he says.

With general elections looming on 7 May, the ANC is facing increasing criticism over corruption and the fact that life has improved little for millions of the poor.

People are unhappy and often show their frustration through violent protests during which they sometimes torch government buildings.

Police counted 569 protests in just three months at the start of the year in Gauteng, the province where Diepsloot is situated and South Africa's economic heartland.

But the ANC, riding on its liberation history, is expected to win the election with a large majority - including the votes of many of the poorest South Africans.

"The government is trying. But the government is very slow. It's slow. It's slow," Kabelo says.

Read more on:    anc  |  johannesburg  |  elections 2014  |  crime  |  protests  |  local government

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