Getting to the heart of Diepsloot

2011-08-20 14:42

Deep ditch. That, literally, is what the word ­“Diepsloot” means.

“Why would anybody write a book about Diepsloot?” asks my dentist, sceptically peeking at the cover of the book I brought along to read in the waiting room.

“I can understand that people would want to write books about Soweto. But Diepsloot?” my ­dentist snarls, disparagingly.

“Just read it. It’s important,” is the best I can do. My dentist ­remains incredulous.

To be fair: Diepsloot is not the sexiest of topics to write a book about. I can understand why people would want to write books about ­Julius Malema, Brett Kebble or ­Khanyi Mbau. But Diepsloot?

I could almost hear my dentist think out loud: “Life in Joburg is ­already tough, and misery greets us every morning on the front page of the newspaper. Why on earth would I want to read about more misery and poverty when I go home?”

Let me try to give five reasons why veteran journalist Anton ­Harber’s magnificent work – something between investigative journalism and anthropology – should be compulsory reading for every thinking South African.

1.It explains the birth of a ­township. From zero to 200?000 people in 16 years, Diepsloot has become home to thousands of ­displaced and desolate people. With an unemployment rate of 54%, no ­proper police station and wrecked roads, the book provides insights into how a community, ­bereft of most formal support structures, manages to survive.

“A place of organised chaos,” activist-researcher Kindiza Ngubeni calls the township.

2.The book confirms and ­explains how the ANC-SACP-Cosatu alliance is not only fractured at a national level, but is also deeply troubled at local level.

“The fight for the control of the soul of the ANC that is being played out on the national platform is ­mirrored at a local, branch level. It is a battle for control of the local structures, and it is rough and tough,” Harber writes, explaining that Diepsloot’s power-wielders are often businessmen, politicians and activists all at once.

ANC candidates don’t trust each other; the communists don’t trust the ANC, and even the smallest partner in the alliance, the South African National Civic Organisation, is split in two.

3.Councillors are mighty powerful, but will be voted out if they don’t deliver. Diepsloot explains the importance and influence of councillors in poor communities – they are viewed as the ones with ­access to power and wealth.

“The central battle is over political office, but it often feels like this is less an ideological divide than a scrap over access to power and ­resources. The councillor is seen to have control over development projects, tenders and posts.”

4.?The book brilliantly explains why South Africa’s “one-size-fits-all” housing policy doesn’t work and urgently needs to be changed.

The current system does not take into account people who are not entitled to subsidies or state-granted housing, or people who do not want to own houses (25% of Diepsloot’s population, according to Harber).

And why does the state get so ­upset when people with RDP ­houses rent them out and live ­elsewhere? He refers to an incident in which an MEC kicked a family out of the RDP house they were renting out for R700 per month.

She had “contempt for the ­notion that one should make profit from one’s property or that one might make a rational choice as to how to get the most out of it”.

South Africa’s housing policy is based on the flawed idea of the ­existence of the nuclear family: one house, one plot, one subsidy (and one dog). “It is built around ­matchbox housing, as rigidly as the ­service pipes that run under the ground and ensure that the houses are all in neat rows,” Harber ­comments, quoting town planners who suggest that more “flexible” structures – shops with houses on top, shared public spaces – would be better for Diepsloot.

5.A community without newspapers or other mediums through which frustration can be voiced ­resorts to public protests – often ­violent – to have its say.

“The absence of media is one of the most disempowering elements of life in Diepsloot. People are only victims and subjects of media, and can seldom make or shape news, or pursue their interests via the media, short of taking to the streets”.

There are many Diepsloots in South Africa – deep ditches with ­little or no development and voice.
Harber’s book provides a suitable moment for all of us, the chattering classes included, to take stock of these places and how we develop, interact with and relate to them.

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