Making do in Diepsloot

14 July 2011

A somewhat eroded road leads away from the upmarket Johannesburg suburb of Dainfern, flanked by a thicket of trees and a vast, arid piece of open land.

The road runs directly to the suburb’s polar-opposite, an overcrowded township on the northwestern periphery of South Africa’s commercial capital city.

In stark contrast to its neighbour, electricity wires crisscross the landscape, running through a mixture of compact corrugated iron shacks, small state-subsidised houses and larger bank-bonded houses.

Spatial planning is adverse and living conditions are inauspicious. There is a growing population of more than 200 000 living heedlessly in the cluttered and unkempt environment.

A flurry of construction characterises the township, as does traffic congestion and blaring car radios, hustling traders and bustling passers-by, all working together to disturb the peace.

Welcome to Diepsloot, a sprouting settlement populated by resilient migrants and immigrants, making up a cosmopolitan community. Conditions are appalling and most locals live in abject poverty. The colloquial language is a concoction of Sepedi, Zulu and Sotho.

The main road into this settlement, Ingonyama Street, is undergoing a major revamp. Walkways are being paved and the road tarred; street lights and storm water drains are being installed.

Along the street there are quirky people; foreign nationals like Indians, Zimbabweans and Somalians trade out of small rented backyard abodes; the streets are crowded with loitering young and old blood.

Past times

In Tlou Street, a busy byway off Ingonyama Street, a throng of senior citizens casually drink beer to pass the time. Children play indigenous games nearby; scores of people mill about the streets.

In this part of the neighbourhood, roads are tarred and a few smarter houses can be spotted between the corrugated iron shacks. Taverns and liquor stores are open as early as 9am and the piercing sounds of a jukebox reverberate across the neighbourhood, much to the chagrin of neighbours.

In this area, lively locals – young and old – spearhead a viable economy selling an assortment of merchandise.

Where Tlou Street intersects with King Dinizulu there is a linear market, comprising barber shops and beauty salons, all compacted in one small plot. Beer halls are ubiquitous and car washes, fast food outlets, panel beaters, tailors, hair salons and barbershops do booming business. It is obvious Diepsloot families depend heavily on informal trading.

Leshoto Mothapo of 118 Extension 4 and three of his neighbours run a car wash called Neighbour’s Car Wash. Business is good enough to employ two other youngsters. They open at 9am and close at 6pm. Like any business, they have their challenges, but they have decided to stick it out rather than return to a life of notoriety, drugs and alcohol, social ills that had been consuming their lives, they say.

RDP houses

Diepsloot was established as an informal settlement when South Africa became a democracy; since then, it has undergone a major overhaul. RDP houses (a generic South African term for state-subsidised houses) have been built, which are now sandwiched by rented backyard dwellings.

The area has a few amenities of which it can be proud: there is a fire station; a satellite police station and metro police offices; a few schools, with others being built; a library; a recreational park with a range of play equipment; clinics; a shopping centre; premises of various guilds; an adequate sewerage system; public lighting; and graveyards.

Many religious denominations can be found among residents, all with their places of worship. Zion Christian Church, International Pentecostal Church of Christ, modern day Christians and the like can be counted among them.

Elderly Joseph Kgoete is feeling a bit off-colour, yet he is bubbly and full of humour. He says he was a migrant labourer employed in Olifantsfontein, but was recently laid off because of a sprained ankle.

Originally from Driekop in Mpumalanga, he settled in Diepsloot Extension 2 in 1995.

When he first arrived here, Kgoete says there were a few shacks and pit toilets. “What you see now came long after.”

He could have settled elsewhere in Johannesburg, but chose Diepsloot because it was closer to where he worked. These days, he passes the time by drinking sorghum beer with his mates.

Elderly

He speaks little about his pride for the place, opting instead to talk only about his woes. Like many elderly people in Diepsloot, Kgoete has many pressing needs, from medical care to housing and transport.

On his side of town, life continues unabated. Houses overlap pavements and most locals drink as a pastime. At the end of a street, “amajita” – the local youth – unwind under a tree. They pass the time with trivial chats.

Across the township, untarred roads intersect tarred ones; others are being tarred.

Most locals are reluctant to talk to the media. Freddy Mamabolo, however, is not one of those. He works as a volunteer for an HIV/Aids NGO (non-governmental organisation) in the area. He came from Mamabolo, a settlement with which he shares a name, in Limpopo province to Diepsloot to look for a job in the big city and a better life.

“It’s not like I like this place; it’s home to none, but we live here because it is closer to Joburg where we can find work,” he explains.

Mamabolo arrived in Diepsloot in 2000 and has been a volunteer for the NGO for six years. He is MoPedi but speaks broken Zulu and English, like most migrants. “Diepsloot is quite a good place. It’s a small ghetto, growing every day with 13 extensions. When I arrived here there were only seven extensions,” he explains.

Unemployment

He concedes that unemployment is a pressing issue, but notes that this is not unique to Diepsloot. “The challenges we have as young people include unemployment but everywhere you find that most young people don’t have jobs,” he says.

Although the area is still being developed, the few amenities there are could go a long way if locals preserved and took pride in them, he says. “If all facilities can be used in a good way I think Diepsloot will go somewhere but since our people are apathetic in community activities that poses a problem,” he says.

Diepsloot is composed of mixed housing, including bonded houses in the south, built near to RDP houses, all flanking the shacks of informal settlements. Social ills plaguing the area are teenage pregnancy, unemployment, and alcohol and drug abuse among the youth.

The City has improved sanitation and waste removal, and the quality of water supply and expanded access to it. Public health facilities help to detect illnesses and quarantine the sick. Young people’s guilds help to raise awareness of HIV/Aids and environmental cleanliness.

Diepsloot’s population is ever-rising, the result of migration and the movement of migrant labourers from fringe provinces to the City of Gold (as Johannesburg is still known) in search of a better life. This has strained resources such as land, water, energy and social services, with little help administered only to a few.

Pollution

The western-edge of Diepsloot is dominated by slums, poverty stricken households and little if any economic activity or growth. People here are exposed to indoor air pollution from burning firewood. There is a lack of an adequate public health infrastructure that can identify and respond to disease outbreaks and other threats.

Because litter is dumped in open spaces and on street corners, increasing quantities of waste contaminate the air and cause water pollution.

If Sbu Nene had it his way, he would move to Durban (KwaZulu-Natal’s major coastal city), “where there is vibe”. However, for now he relishes the vibrant social and night life and deejaying at sporadic weekend parties.

Nene moved from Kensington B, in the Johannesburg suburb of Randburg, to Diepsloot in 2000. “We had no choice but to move here,” he says, adding that the cost of living was “too high” and that transport costs aggravated circumstances.

He doesn’t like talking about his living conditions, noting only that he likes walking to Diepsloot Mall, a kilometre and a half from his home. “If you don’t have a R5 fare for a local cab you might as well walk and I enjoy it. It gives me time to unwind,” he says.

The biggest problem in Diepsloot, Mamabolo believes, is apathy and the general perception most locals have, that “we are not here for anything but money and jobs. How Diepsloot develops and what happens to is not our problem.”

Despite this, Diepsloot residents have a cohesive identity which has sustained the settlement and grown it into what it is today. And this is what is distinctive about the place – life is communal and some people are united in the future social wellbeing of their neighbourhood.

Source: City of Johannesburg