Horror of poverty lies in its small, personal details

2014-03-11 00:00

RECENTLY, I RECENTLY, I accompanied a home-based care worker on a visit to patients in Site C Khayelitsha.accompanied a home-based care worker on a visit to patients in Site C Khayelitsha. It was in the heart of the informal settlement. If she had left me there alone, I would never have found my way out of the maze of narrow lanes that separates the blocks of shacks from each other.

Everywhere I looked were unemployed young and older men, many young women were pregnant, and the babies of teenagers were cared for by older women. HIV was rife, poverty and hunger palpable.

In one of the shacks, a young man was watching television, and at some point he got up, took seven slices of bread from a packet, and chomped through them simply to fill the hunger in his belly. No butter, no jam, no peanut butter in sight. The urge to give him money to buy something nice was strong. Yet I knew such a gesture would not make a difference.

Amid all the poverty, dignity radiated from most of the homes. Women beautified their homes against the relentless southeaster that blows tsunamis of sand into the shacks, shimmering pots and glasses adorned the drab cupboards, and sofas had crochet doilies to protect the armrests. The baby clothes hanging on the clothes lines were colourful and neatly strung. And I suddenly envied shack dwellers for not having washing machines, which reduce most clothes to a dull grey.

Surreptitiously, I looked at the structure of the shack, how it had been put together, and how the electricity wires were draped around chaotic and informal structures.

Many holes were clearly visible as a result of wear and tear, as were the attempts of residents to construct airtight spaces, never getting it fully right.

I asked the house-proud owner how she managed to keep her home dry during the winter rains, and her matter-of-fact response crippled me for the rest of the day. “We stay in the community centres and after the rain we come back to fix our floors.”

Beautiful Novilon covered her floors and I realised that this must have been replaced many times over the years in response to the Cape’s drenching winters.

As I trudged through those lanes, I could envisage what it was like for the inhabitants in winter.

Water mixed with sand, and in some instances sewage, creates constant puddles of mud. Here, proximity is the enemy of the poor, as frequent fires raze entire settlements to the ground; one can hear the neighbours breathing.

All my life I have travelled into the coloured and black townships. I have worked in gangster-infested Manenberg, I have taken visitors into Khayelitsha. But this time, trudging through the highways and byways of “shack land” to listen to women being counselled, babies being weighed and HIV patients being tracked, I knew that this is unsustainable, that housing is not so much the problem as it is education, unemployment and job creation.

I know that only huge dollops of political will to transform informal settlements into habitable residential areas will provide hope for the future. The way people succumb to living like this while working in rich South Africa must be the powder keg that will ignite a revolution second to none.

There is nothing more soul destroying than witnessing the fatalism that poverty breeds.

Leaving Site C I was reminded of Frederick Douglass who so presciently said: “Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organised conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”

It is time for the private sector to come to the party — in a big way.

• Rhoda Kadalie is a human rights’ activist based in Cape Town.

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