UPDATE (March 2017): I wrote this post six years ago, at a time when I was pretty clueless about life in South Africa and how to write about it. I regret the title of the post and the poverty-porn-like tone that much of its prose conveys. But I have a policy of never deleting any of my old posts, so it will stay.
Last Saturday Joe and I went to Diepsloot, a sprawling informal settlement — or squatter camp — on the northern outskirts of Joburg. We went with the Joburg Photowalkers to attend a Mandela Day celebration sponsored by the Diepsloot Arts and Culture Network.
Squatter camps like Diepsloot sprouted up in the mid-1990s, when the apartheid-era townships overflowed with people flocking to South Africa’s cities, and the government began moving those people to empty tracts of land on the cities’ edges. Nearly two decades later, the population is still growing and poverty rages on. Squatter camps, which consist mostly of corrugated iron shacks without running water or electricity, continue to swell. About 200,000 people live in Diepsloot.
One could write a book about life in Diepsloot. (In fact, South African writer Anton Harber has just done that. I intend to read his book as soon as I can get my hands on a copy.) But since I only spent half a day there, I’ll just briefly describe my time in Diepsloot and how I fell in love with it.
I’m having trouble finding the right words to describe Diepsloot. I’ve visited lots of places in Africa: big cities, small towns, suburbs, townships, rural villages. Diepsloot is none of those. It’s not a city, yet it’s densely populated and has everything that big cities have: traffic, restaurants, churches, schools, supermarkets, hair salons, bars, and entertainment. It’s not a rural area, although it sits in the middle of nowhere and has the friendly vibe of a small village. Diepsloot is desperately poor, yet in some ways the residents seem rich.
Diepsloot is a vibrant, self-contained society. It might be dingy in places, and services are clearly lacking. And sure, Diepsloot suffers its share of violence and crime (like everywhere else in Joburg). But I got the impression that the people who live there take pride in their home.
We started our afternoon at the Youth Centre, where we caught a couple of Mandela-inspired theatre performances. We then wound our way through Diepsloot’s half-paved, half-dirt streets toward Squatter Camp Park, where a music and dance program was planned.
As a gang of white people wandering through Diepsloot with cameras on a Saturday afternoon, we created quite a stir among the locals. But I didn’t sense any suspicion or anger. Most people were just curious to know why we were there, and really eager to have their photos taken.
At one point, I was having so much fun that I slipped and nearly fell into a gurgling rivulet of sewage water, dousing myself and one other person. (Sorry, Jane!) I was disgusting and smelly, but I hardly cared. It was around then that I realized I must be in love with Diepsloot.
We reached Squatter Camp Park — a barren dust bowl surrounded by shacks — where we found a lonely DJ spinning tunes and a ragtag band of children playing soccer. It wasn’t the entertainment we expected, but turned out to be more fun than we could have imagined.
Soccer players celebrate a goal as Joe and Darren take pictures. The team in yellow was called the “Mandela Stars.”
Word spread like wildfire that we were there, and soon the park was teeming with children. They crowded around us, dragging dogs and babies and younger children, yelling “Shoot me! Shoot me!” So we shot.
One kid asked me if he could shoot a few pictures himself. I was hesitant, but he was persuasive. I showed him the shutter button and let him snap a few frames, while maintaining a firm grip on the camera myself. Then my new friend turned the camera on me.
The DJ turned the music up a notch and everyone, photowalkers and children alike, began to dance.
We left Squatter Camp Park a bit before sunset and ambled through the shack-lined alleyways toward our cars, stopping to talk to people and take pictures along the way. Three young men from the Diepsloot Arts and Culture Network — Clement, Philip, and Martin — showed us the way.
I walked with Clement and we chatted about life. I admired the “I ♥ Diepsloot” T-shirt he was wearing. Clement said that he and his friends produce the shirts, which are available for the reasonable price of R100 ($14). Sold! I love the shirt and I love Diepsloot. And besides, it was Mandela Day weekend.
This was one of my top ten experiences since moving to South Africa. And I’m definitely going back to Diepsloot; there are plans in the works for a follow-up Photowalkers visit. Wait for it…