Apartheid-style housing in a post-apartheid township: Anton Harber talks to the M&G about his book, Diepsloot.
Just off the R511 in the north of Johannesburg, a short distance from the plush suburbs of northern Fourways, lies Diepsloot, a sprawling mass of shacks that is home to about 200 000 people.
It is in this post-apartheid township that journalism stalwart Anton Harber spent four months, eating, talking, watching and reporting for his book Diepsloot, launched in early May
He answered our questions about his experience.
Diepsloot presented itself as a cesspool of those issues I wanted to understand and try to explain: violence, protest, mob justice, xenophobia, poverty, overcrowding, a place where there was some development but not enough, a place of vibrant politics, trade, social and cultural life. I was interested that it was not an apartheid inheritance but a product of the transition period, which had grown in 15 years from empty farmland to a settlement of 200 000 people. I was interested in what lay behind its torrid reputation. I wanted to get beyond the parachute reporting that shapes most of what we think we know about the place.
How can—and should—the media treat the poverty story?
Like any other story: find a good narrative, find interesting people, tell us of their lives and hopes and aspirations, dig below the surface, ask the tough questions and don’t accept easy answers; tell people something they don’t know. What you certainly should not do is label it a “poverty story”, the quickest way to discourage all but the most determined readers.
Why do people move to the cities? There’s a debate that says rural development is the wrong focus, and it’s best to deliver in the cities. Comment?
People come to the cities for jobs and opportunities. That is not going to change and we have to work from the basis that people will continue to be drawn to the metropoles and find their place in it. Every city needs “reception areas” and they are usually the toughest, roughest parts of the city. It is the bustling, buzzing, booming cities that will drive and shape this country more than anything else, but that does not mean you can neglect those who stay in rural areas. I can’t see that you have to—or can afford to—choose between urban and rural development.
What does Diepsloot tell us about the real shape of South Africa: economically, demographically, etc?
I view Diepsloot not as a microcosm, but an indicator—a place where, if we understand the political, economic and social dynamics, we can get hints of where things are headed. Diepsloot should force us to be more realistic about this country and its prospects, and make us wary of grand election promises of quick and easy solutions. I hope I have conveyed some of the complexity of the development conundrum.
You write about your experience patrolling with volunteer crime-fighters. What was that like and what did your experience tell you about vigilantism?
It was an extraordinary experience to find 50 unarmed volunteers of all ages working through the night, at great risk, to fight crime in a situation where the police are near-absent. I viewed it as a case of people finding their own practical solutions when the state fails them. Most of all I learnt to throw out crude notions of right and wrong, of justice and injustice, and understand the continuum that exists in reality between the two. You can only condemn and stop vigilantism if you offer decent policing, and Diepsloot does not have that yet.
How did your subjects in Diepsloot respond to the book? There is a touching story on your blog about a few cobbling together money to buy the book, but other than that?
I have been going there with boxes of books to meet the demand for copies. I have only spoken to a few of those who have read it so far, and most expressed appreciation for the interest and attention. I am sure there will be those who disagree with my views and analysis. At least I hope so, as I would like to provoke debate and discussion around these issues. One Diepslooter tweeted about the launch: “Kasie is moving up big time.”
Does the book interrogate the reasons for conditions in Diepsloot? For instance, what analysts say is the ANC’s reproduction of apartheid spatial designs.
The primary purpose of the book is to try to understand the conditions and the reasons they exist and persist. I spent a lot of time trying to understand how the city works, what it has done in Diepsloot and what it hasn’t done. The book speaks strongly against the delivery of the one-size-fits-all RDP-type housing and asks why we are still building old-style townships and making promises we can’t keep. I plead for new notions of housing and service delivery. But I hope it also conveys a sense that whoever runs the city has a serious challenge in places such as this.
You said Diepsloot revealed a lot about the country to you. How will this experience change the way you produce and view news about the country in future?
I think it has given me a better informed, more nuanced, more complex view of the challenges we face, and the options we have for dealing with them. I hope I am more respectful of those who are genuinely trying to bring change and more angry at those who impede it.
What would you say to criticisms that this representation of Diepsloot is paternalistic white writing of the black story? Should white writers be aware of these ethical dilemmas, if you think they exist?
I would ask you to read the book and judge it by its content. Of course, the view of someone from inside Diepsloot would be different. This book does not pretend to be anything but the view of a journalist doing what journalists do to try to understand places like this. Hopefully, an outsider can have insights that an insider might not have. It would be foolish to think there can only be one valid or superior perspective. I offer just one perspective, and I hope it is a sympathetic and insightful one.