For the last four years of my life I have made weekly trips to the sprawling local informal settlement next to Grabouw. You can’t miss the place five kilometres on from Sir Lowry Pass along the N2, on the left.
One reason for me to enter the settlement camp was to drop off the casual labour. The other was to photograph life within. I have always been interested in shack life after stories told to me by Malawians, Zimbabweans, Xhosa, Rastafarians that have helped us with our chores. They all come from a different perspective. But mostly their narratives reflected their wariness; not just protecting their loved ones, but their few possessions. I wondered about their living conditions, but they are reticent to discuss this. I put it down to privacy — comparing their living conditions to ours. I find there is a humility within them, that they like to keep how they live to themselves.
I was 70 years old when I started my photographic journey. I was of course, very nervous. The first surprise I got 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.
When I entered their shacks I generally walked into gloom. Some shacks had no windows. I found myself drenched in darkness as if someone had suddenly blind-folded me. It would take several moments before my eyes adjusted; similar to waking up at night and waiting for your eyes to customise. 99% of the photographs you see were taken with available light. This meant dealing with slow shutter speeds. And of course timing. To press the button in a fraction of a moment of stillness to avoid blur. I also choose to keep most of the photographs natural and in toned down colour (primary’s can be distracting). Then you could see the muted colours of their surroundings. Black and white is always more dramatic but you would not have seen the peeling ageing paint on their cardboard walls; or, the drabness of clothes worn a hundred times to often.
I made sure I was always accompanied by a ‘bodyguard of sorts’. Surprisingly, they were generally more afraid than I was. I soon found, they would avoid taking me to the dangerous areas preferring more friendly places — their environment. Often, pointing out, I’d see drug dealers huddled together between shacks. I would push to approach them, but the answer I would get,
“They will smash up your bakkie and steal everything. Maybe even kill you.”
There is no doubt some truth in what they said. But 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 are ramifications to that especially after the lionhearted stories he had told me.
I soon discovered that my bodyguard’s anxiety was related to being seen in a different ethnic suburb to his. Zulus, Malawians, Xhosa, Somalians, Nigerians, Coloureds, Zimbabweans, whites, etc, generally like to be with their own kind; they are distrusting of foreigners and other social class. Some have crossed the great divide; but usually its circumstances to do with social rejection, loneliness, and no choice. It’s natural — it exist in all societies. As for the rest of the populace, dogs see me as a foreigner as much as the scrounging baboons, hungry pigs and cows that are permanently ravenous.
The rambling location which did not exist in 2010 extends from Pineview. The area is now several kilometres in diameter, travelling westwards towards Cape Town. The 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 – a complete dichotomy in philosophy. It is a mixed community. 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 there are accepted and no trouble. In-between, the gangsters, drug dealers and robbers live, hence barb-wire is on practically every shack and house. 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.
This informal settlement, like so many, is the cause of many unhealthy fractions. In an environment of economic segregation and concentrated poverty the chances for success are minimal.
How many make their way out to a better life? One in 50? One in 500? One in 5000? But some do. There are entrepreneurial auto-electricians, hair-dressing salons, barber, bakers, butchers, pig, cattle and sheep breeders. Many are sustained by their religion; many others chose to live in near poverty, to give their children a better chance in life through education.
But a lot do not manage a better life. Instead, turn to apathy, surviving, crime, alcohol and drug dealing, waiting for their dreams and the promises that have been made to come true. The culture of anger is veined down from father to son.
Children throw rocks at passing cars, causing accidents, just for the fun of seeing a car crash. The settlement’s high unemployment breeds frustration which inevitably leads to, at times weekly violent demonstrations. A few years ago the local municipality got burnt down. Great news for traffic offenders.
But it is the innocent surrounding residents and passerby that have to deal with their angst. Some blame the government for their failed policies and encouraging a migrant track between the Eastern Cape and Grabouw through to Cape Town. Others blame the farmers for importing labour from the Eastern Cape on a one-way ticket. Their legacies, whatever the reasons, 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 the majority, those with a tin shack and a blanket floor — have nothing.
This informal settlement is their ‘Inheritance’.
In my conversation with a friend I asked who he thought might be brave enough, or have the balls to purchase a print showing the realities of life in an informal settlement.
Someone who has got out. Patrice Motsepe, Tim Hogins, Mike Teke, he answered or anyone who grew to success from poverty. And if anyone asked why leaders who could afford Picassos in their elegant homes and boardrooms, who would prefer to adorn their walls with photographs of life in an informal settlement, they might well say, “This is our heritage. This is to remind us where we came from. These are the people who we all serve.”
“Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj for the hungry and spiritually starving millions”
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi