• Nancy M

The South African Ghetto

The place with such potential only those without can see it, for to be within is to strive to even catch a breath!


By Nancy Monnya


Ghetto or squatter-camp, as we have come to know the crowded, dirty and undeveloped areas most black people live in South Africa, is as despicable a name as the place itself. In America, the ghetto is a despised area, by those within and without it. It is a place known for crime; drug peddling, guns and a life of dog eat dog. Those within know these ghettos; they see them differently to those from without who look at them with loathing and fear. Yet, just as Black Americans have done with almost all despicable names and things that have been done and given to them since the days of slavery, they have come to own the ghetto. They have come to find pride in this ghetto. It is a home. The only home they know. Just as they have done with the word ‘nigger’, they have normalized ghetto. Ghetto is a word that not only describes an area, but it now seems to describe a way of life. In essence the connotations attached to ghetto, have somehow either shifted, or been buried in favor of ‘living on’ and refusing to be defined by situations your people had no control over in the past.


Now the South African ghetto is a little different. Although it too is an area riddled with crime, filth and definitely not suitable for human habitation, squatter-camps cannot be spoken of with pride. When you talk of the American ghetto, you think of the resilience of a people who survived and still do against all odds. Thinking of squatter-camps brings different feelings as compared to when you hear of the ghetto in America. Maybe because squatter-camps are a little too close? Maybe because, unlike the ghetto we see on TV and hear stories of from our American friends, we live the squatter-camps. We experience the raw, gut-wrenching, head-splitting fermenting phenomenon called squatter-camp. Just like with ghettos everywhere, squatter-camps are not just areas of habitation, but rather a way of life, and the ghetto that I know, is definitely not a way of life I wish for anyone.


Johannesburg squatter-camps

Without delving into history, let us remember what squatter-camps were and still are in South Africa. Dumping sites! These areas were used as dumping sites by the more affluent white areas and right next to these dumping sites were the infamous match-box houses built in most areas in South Africa that served as homes for black people. Areas such as Mamelodi , Soshanguve, and Diepsloot (deep ditch). These "developed" areas came to be known as townships. We still retain these ‘townships’ with pride; areas that were allocated to black people by the apartheid regime.


This is the first disease of squatter-camps. The fact that people still live in these despicable areas today, and not only that, but people have come to call these ‘squatting’ places home. A home is a place of comfort, a place of peace, clean and with necessary amenities. Squatter-camps do not have any of these. I ‘lived’ and ‘experienced’ them and they cannot be seen as homes. These areas lack space. They lack proper sanitation. They lack decent housing! In fact they are not even habitable lands! When you dig a hole in these areas you come up with dirt, broken bottles and stacks of plastics. Digging a hole exposes the rot underneath that is the olden dumping sites. These very dumping sites are where some black people used to come and dig for food during the inhumane times of apartheid. Today they are considered homes for the very same black people. Only unwanted things are thrown into dumping sites, and today the dumping sites are still ‘homes’ to black people.


The second and more deadly disease of squatter-camps is the lack of life within them. Yes people are breathing, children are going to school, and fathers carry plastics with lunch boxes of pap and maotwana (chicken feet) inside, women strap their handbags on their shoulders clutching them tightly in the dark hours of the morning. Stop and ask all of them where they are going, and the answer will be, ‘makgoweng’ (to the white people’s area). This is still being said today! Those who don’t say this say they are going to work; to work in malls and shopping centers in predominantly white areas. At the end of the month everyone gets paid, and off they go to these same areas to spend their meager salaries. All of this movement, going in and out of the squatter-camps, can be mistaken for life, but it isn’t. It is mere reflex. It is tedious and habitual. Those who find themselves alive in this milieu quickly come to the realization that their thriving relies on them getting out. A home nurtures you and gives you space to thrive and be all you can, and not propels you out.


This disease is deadly because it is gradually killing the squatters. It is gradually turning the people into nonliving matter. When you first get into the squatter-camps, there is such a hype you quickly assume the place is abuzz with life. Spend some more time in there and you quickly realize that the buzz is constant, the hype is immobile! Day in day out the buzz starts off at a high pitch as many get ready ‘go ya makgoweng’ (to go to work) and the kids drag themselves to school and get a little respite from the shacks the families squats in. As you remain listening, you notice the buzz coming to a lull for a moment and then everyone else is up and you are shocked to see more faces and bodies coming out of the same one-roomed shack you saw three other people leave for work and school earlier. The heat of the corrugated iron sheets is driving them out to the unsteady little trees offering shade right at the corner of the shack and a stone throw away from the neighbors shack and the little street with mucky waters that runs along nonstop.



Now this is the contagious virus of the squatter-camps! It is a known fact that Africa has the highest youth population, and when you are in the ghetto and the townships, or kasi, this fact hits you in the face. The young people pile out of these shacks and move about. Of these, ten percent are in a hustling mode, ‘pushing’ one money making scheme or another. A very small percentage of them run businesses with the potential to grow. Here is what is contagious – everyone wants to look busy, to be seen by peers as doing something while in fact nothing gets done. Young men spend hours sitting outside spaza-shops and at corners on top of beer crates discussing major moves that none of them make. Young women drag dirty toddlers down the streets in search of the next ‘skoti sa dikarata’ (card playing area). They sit around and count how much child grant money they are still left with for their card games. One gives this illness of idling around to a friend, who quickly passes it on to another.




By midday, a lull creeps in and the only sign of life is the drug addicts of the area referred to as ‘nyaope boys’ going about selling broken pencils and two left shoes. You hear them say ‘mamazala (slang word for mother, mother-in-law) today I brought something special’, and the mother of the household who does not go to makgoweng asks to see the special thing. They don’t care where it comes from or how he managed to get it. They barter with him and give him two Rands for a fix. The next nyaope boy comes along with nothing to sell having failed to snatch something from someone’s yard. This one will say ‘sister, can I have two Rands?’ bending his knees and leaving you wondering where is the ghetto heading to. What is kasi turning into? Is it even turning into anything or just quietly laying its head down for a long nap?


When the rest of the inhabitants of this slowly dying place return, kids have been crying for hours because of hunger and the rats are quietly standing by with their little ones and grey- backs that cannot even shuffle about, waiting for scraps from what the mother of the house brought home to cook.


This is the gut wrenching, heart ripping hour of squatter-camps. At this hour the most broken people return from the fields. People who carry their shoulders straight but are so hunched up inside their hearts have no room to spread and show a tiny ray of love. This isn’t part of the illness of the ghetto; this is a persistent symptom of the death that is now consuming the ghetto. These are some of the people who lived the first experience of being put into the townships, the first group of people to be squashed into squatter-camps. They were alive and young then and they felt the full brunt of it all. Then, they were still capable of seeing these areas as places for ‘squatting’ and not as homes. But maybe, just maybe, had they known that these would be their homes, they would have grown up to build proper structures to house their families. Maybe they would have become close knit and turned these dumping sites into habitable places, with booming beneficial businesses and fewer taverns. Maybe you wouldn’t have to skip over puddles of dirty bath water running down the streets; you wouldn’t lament at all the taps dripping water at all hours of the day or screw your face up at the sight of the rats inhabiting the pit toilets as they scurry down the pit leaving you unsure of whether you are safe sitting on the newspaper covered seat with them down there.


Maybe if these broken souls had known that this would be their home, during and after apartheid, if they had known that politics are never for the people but for the participants, you wouldn’t have to listen to the neighbor’s loud music and favorite radio station at odd hours of the night when all you want is silence. Maybe if the first inhabitants of these dumping sites had foresight, these wouldn’t be squatter-camps, and maybe all these breathing non-living matter would be alive; and maybe the place would not be laying itself down preparing to go to sleep, and the nyaope boy you went to school with wouldn’t smile at you and say, ‘ka bona wena ka bona two ranta bra yami’. (I saw you and immediately saw two Rands by brother. Those working hard to change their lives and the lives of those around them often find themselves struggling to breath in this space.


A street in a squatter-camp in Mamelodi, Pretoria


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