Life in Johannesburg's premier luxury golf estate has reached surreal perfection. But whose reality is it anyway?
There are two ways to enter Dainfern. One is through the Broadacres gate. It looks much the same as the William Nicol entrance—both have grand white wooden facades with grey roofing and boomed lanes for “visitors” and “residents”—but the Broadacres gate is a more fitting way to arrive.
If you try to enter on William Nicol, you might miss the turn and travel down the single lane road over two rolling hills and hit Diepsloot and be reminded that Dainfern—a nod to the sewage pipe that runs through it—the Green Zone, the Truman Bubble, home to the Real Housewives of Dainfern (oh go ahead and throw it at ‘em, they’ve heard it all before) is actually part of Johannesburg and not a gated community somewhere in southern California’s sprawling, sunny suburbia.
You could, of course, try to enter through the points where the Jukskei River weaves in and out of the estate on the eastern and northwestern perimeter but you would not, very likely, be successful. There are thick metal beams set in concrete at 45 degrees to block such uninvited entrances and, at night, I am told, a former 32-battalion soldier is on guard at each side.
The point is that you are not getting into Dainfern. Not without an access code from a resident, or without having your car’s registration and your driver’s license scanned in and your phone number recorded by a security guard in khaki pants. Only then will you see the red neon sign, welcoming you inside, perhaps telling you what’s on for dinner at the clubhouse—maybe it’s braai night!—or when the next gardening club is meeting, where you can get tips on how to prune or grow beautiful roses.
Yacht club bliss
I’m split with a binary emotion,” one expatriate spouse, whose husband works for an oil company and who lives in Dainfern, tells me as we sit on the grand clubhouse terrace overlooking the lush green course and the meandering Jukskei. “One day it’s great. One day it’s terrible. It’s similar to how I feel about the country, actually. One day I’m positive about the politics and the next I think, oh God, this thing is just not working out.”
She initially spoke to her husband about moving to Melville. It’s much more central to things. But they had moved to South Africa during the height of the power cuts, and when her husband brought up how the power could go out for two weeks and he’d be out of the country, well, she opted for Dainfern.
“I feel really safe here,” she says, knowing full well about all the nasty things that are said about the place. “I feel like I should defend it.” She gets the ‘Oh you live in Dainfern’ look that comes with a roll of the eyes when she tells new friends where she stays. “I don’t get it. Where am I supposed to live?”
It’s such an easy target, though, isn’t it?
The headlines in the estate’s eponymous glossy magazine say so much about the Dainfern state of mind: Maserati Passion, My Personal Trainer, Convert to a Convertible, Yacht Club Bliss. The pages are drenched in Hublot watches and golf tips and European holidays and whiskey tastings. It’s the estate we love to hate—the one that, in the 20 years since it launched, has come to define the country’s luxury golf estate living and all the ugliness that comes with it: the surreal perfection, the us and them security reminiscent of a past we’ve tried to forget, the incestuous Stepford-wife lifestyle, the overfed golfer, an entirely removed material world running roughshod against the South African project. For outsiders, it seems to be a place removed from reality, imbued with the sense that somehow, this has got to be all wrong.
Even David Goldblatt took his shots at the place. His 2002 series jeered at the estate, putting the sewage pipe central to its existence, emphasising exactly what those who market the place have tried so hard to avoid. But the sewage pipe is Dainfern. No matter how well manicured the golf course is, how quaint the nature trails, how secure the perimeter, the fact remains: shit flows above it all. It permeates the place.
Beneath his prints, Goldblatt published selected blurbs from the marketing material of the time: “If you demand that each breath you take will fill your soul with the fire of life, then demand a piece of heaven. Demand a piece of Dainfern.”
Which leaves the rest of us howling, right? Who, exactly, wants a piece of Dainfern? But consider this: maybe we’re all just jealous.
It’s a Friday afternoon in December and Debbie Macaulay is putting up her Christmas decorations. There are stuffed Christmas teddy bears, giant poinsettias, a plastic tree waiting for decorations and stockings on the fireplace adorned with elephant tusks. The kids, you see, are coming home for the holidays.
“I suppose I’d probably leave the country if I didn’t live here,” Macaulay tells me. “Without the kids, I mean. It was like pulling teeth to get people to come over to my house when we lived in Bryanston. They just didn’t dine in private houses. They were too afraid they something would happen. They come here now because they can take their golf cart.”
Macaulay, whose husband owns a mining company, has a long, thick blonde mane that reaches to the middle of her narrow back and small, soft blue eyes. She tends toward animal prints and high heels or tight-fitting tracksuits and purple and black Nikes. Despite living in Africa for 26 years—she and her husband lived in Lagos for 13 before moving to Johannesburg in 1999—she has kept the wide East coast vowels from her hometown of Boston.
She likes parties and people, and Dainfern has lots of both. Her four-bedroom home has two domestic quarters which house three of her full-time staff, including a driver. Spread between her two garages: a Ferrari, a silver Mercedes ML6, seven sets of golf clubs, 47 pairs of golf shoes and the requisite Yamaha golf cart.
Her dining area stretches from an open kitchen with granite countertops to a formal dining and lounge with a big screen TV. The house opens up to an outdoor terrace with a pool table and a fully stocked bar, complete with a gold Buddha and a humidor, which all looks out to the pool, a putting green and the nature reserve beyond. A spiral staircase leads up to three bedrooms, the master with a jacuzzi bath and an ozone machine.
“It helps to detoxify you,” she says by way of explanation, “which is important part of life here in Dainfern.”
These days, with the kids at Northeastern University in Boston, her daughter the youngest intern ever at Goldman Sachs, a typical day might go something like this: meet a seamstress for a dress for an African-themed party; chose a piece of jewellery for a charity auction; attend a wine event at the Westcliff Hotel, followed by a lecture on champagne; finish off with a cocktail party. Rinse. Repeat.
“Look, I’ve been a professional expat for 26 years,” says Macaulay unapologetically. “I don’t want to take ceramics or read to kids in Diepsloot. I’ve done all that stuff. I want to clean my closets.”
The Truman bubble
To really understand Dainfern, though, to get to the soul of the place, you will need a golf cart. From there, on a sunny afternoon you might find nannies driving primary school children to their classes at Dainfern College, and teenage girls crammed three in a two-seater, their knees up, hair floating in the warm Dainfern breeze. There are young boys in Ed Hardy baseball caps with “whatever” on their T-shirts pushing handmade go-carts and housewives powerwalking along the nature trails. There are armies of gardeners in green taming the lush landscape, and caddies in white attending to golfers on the course.
As you glide along the expertly maintained concrete paths that run by the river and past weeping willows and palm trees and pines and over rolling hills, you might think you’re on a Disney ride. You’ll find villages named Sawgrass or Highgate and roads occasionally covered in cobbled brick with names like Woodchester Place, Milford Avenue or Fernwood Close. You might pass a Mediterranean villa, an English cottage, a home with Greek columns that has a sandblasted flamingo on its front door or some burnt orange box-like monstrosity with a gaudy fountain in the yard.
You’ll pass corner parks and peer into expansive verandas and get right up close to one of those double-skinned fences with Danger Gevaar Ingozi and a bolt of electricity and a hand to remind you that there is an end to all this and another reality on the other side.
“Your image of South Africa is what you see on TV. If you start googling, you get terrified. And then people tell you stories. We were horrified.”
It’s a hot Wednesday evening in November at a wine and cheese night in Dainfern and it is clear that Tania Oddi, two years on, has changed her mind about the country.
“I feel safer living here than living in Melbourne. It’s like the Truman Bubble,” she says. “It’s got the manicured lawns and geese walking on the golf course. We walk with our dog and there is guinea fowl on the lawn. The weather, the wine, the food—it’s fresh and organic—and the house? You are never going to get this anywhere. If there was a beach here? You’d never leave.”
Oddi is one of the estimated 30% of residents who are expatriates that live on the estate. Many of them, like Oddi’s husband, are employed by multinationals who have strict security requirements. Executive families from companies like Coca-Cola, Nokia, Ford and Walmart populate the place. For them, Dainfern is the ready-made security solution that comes complete with, well, everything.
Louis Engelbrecht goes through it all. In his tidy corner office, the estate manager faces a big screen TV that is turned to a patchwork view of 16 cameras, all trained on some point of the estate. He is a big man who speaks with a thick Afrikaans accent, his moustache rigidly trimmed under a ruddy nose.
He talks through the basics: 18 villages, 1 234 homes, 18-hole Gary Player golf course, 320 hectares, a halfway house, a restaurant, a bar, four tennis courts, two squash courts, two community pools, a games room, a volleyball court, a soccer field, a skateboard track and Dainfern College, the private school with its own golf cart lane into the estate.
There are rules. No razor wire, no spikes, no audible alarms. There are vehicle and foot patrols, cameras everywhere and criminal background checks on all residents and staff coming onto the estate. There is armed security with five reaction vehicles and 75 security officers.
Engelbrecht’s team has registered more than 7 900 residents and staff—au pairs, butlers, gardeners, nannies, cleaners, cooks—for the new Biometric Saflec Database, which should be working early next year.
“Even if I cut your finger off, the requirements are a 25-point analysis,” says Engelbrecht, sketching a finger on a piece of scrap paper and dotting various points to illustrate. “You see? The heat sensor won’t allow it.”
From his laptop he can access information on every person who stays in every house on the estate. He can call up, by stand number, their names, photos, postal address, their work phone numbers, cell numbers, golf cart numbers and the registration of their private vehicles. Engelbrecht knows who went out and came in and when, down to the second.
I ask, but he doesn’t want to talk about the incident in September that I read about in a recent newsletter. The information followed the picture of the week, submitted by Dee Dickinson, who won a breakfast voucher for two at the clubhouse for her photo of the Jukskei with a bridge running over it.
It seems, the estate regretted to inform residents, that the night before, four men, dressed in SAPS-like uniforms, somehow got onto the estate and shot a Chinese national outside his home at 1688 Honiton Drive. After the shooting the suspects hijacked a security vehicle and exited the estate through the main gate “obliterating the boom at high speed”. The abandoned security vehicle was subsequently recovered outside Diepsloot. The man, apparently, died later in hospital. It looks, by all accounts, like a hit.
We don’t talk about the other recent security incident either. It seems some “perpetrators” of petty theft may have gained entrance to the estate through manholes. But, the newsletter promises, there will be grids placed on all the storm water drains moving forward.
It all seems to say something about ingenuity and determination in the new South Africa. It also says something about the illusion of what is secure and what is not, and that even when you cap every point of entry to its extreme, there is always another way in.
“Some will say Dainfern is not freedom, that it’s their own prison-like place that they have created so that they can feel free,” says Karina Landman, a senior lecturer at the department of town and regional planning at the University of Pretoria, who has been studying gated communities for the past 10 years. “But for those that live there, freedom is inside. They can leave doors open, they have this wonderful landscape and they can stroll in evening. But the thing that gives them that is this strict security with the patrols and the CCTV cameras, and strangely enough those are things we do not normally associate with freedom. Those are things we associate with prisons where you want to keep people in. I’m not saying that is right or wrong, it’s just an interesting fact.”
There are other interesting facts. There are secrets, too, unspoken things. Things talked about in whispers or howling laughs or sideways smirks—a sort of wink, you get the picture, right?
“What people have to understand is that when someone is not getting enough sex at home, they go and get it somewhere else,” one resident tells me matter-of-factly.
I am told of affairs, of a swingers club, of men going for jog and passing a woman on the track at 10am to “have her back at the house” minutes later. I’m told of a “fucking slut beyond comprehension” who was married to an executive who used to follow married men into bathrooms at parties. I’m told of one particular village on the estate with smaller townhomes where men move after the divorce so they can still be close to the kids.
There is petty theft and tales of insurance fraud. One woman told me of a domestic worker who was physically abused so badly she ended up in hospital. There is teenage drug use, alcohol abuse and stolen golf carts that are run into the river. There are youth who damage signs and light-fittings and spraypaint everything in sight. Not long ago, I am told, a group of especially bad kids lit a house on fire and burned an observation deck to the ground.
“It happens everywhere of course,” one mother tells me. “But here a lot of parents ignore their kids. Kids are left at home for the weekend to have a party and parents think Dainfern security will just take care of it. It’s almost like too much freedom. People drive around drunker than drunk can be. They take this perceived idea of safety and freedom to the extreme.”
It’s the village gossip, though, that gets to most.
“That’s the one thing I hate about this place,” sneered another resident. “Everyone in Dainfern knows everything about your life. There is a lot of bored housewives that have nothing better to do than talk shit.”
Daniel Ngoma has seen much of what has unravelled over the years, but he’s not a man to talk shit, at least not to outsiders like me.
He sits behind the long desk in the hallway in front of the men’s and ladies’ change rooms just behind the golf café and the proshop wearing a lime green golf shirt with the Dainfern emblem. He’s been working the concierge desk since before Dainfern was Dainfern, and it was just the Fourways Golf Club. He probably doesn’t need the reminders that the other staff members have as reference, taped down on the desk: “Treat the guest on the phone in a way which shows Dainfern is a five-star experience. Mention that you look forward to seeing them on the date they booked.”
You see, in 1952, Ngoma, who has close set eyes, high cheekbones and delicate hands, was born on this land. He remembers the Zevenfontein farm when it was occupied with cows and sheep and pigs and horses. His father was a supervisor on the farm, and the family lived on the river in a small brick house. He lived there, in what is now a Dainfern village called Riverwood, with his own family until 1989, when JCI, which later became Johnnic, who bought the land in 1985, started renovations for what is now Dainfern. Now Ngoma lives in a small staff house on the other side of the estate, just under the sewage pipe, next to the dog kennels, with his wife; his three children stay with his mother in Pretoria.
Ngoma knows about things that most people in Dainfern don’t like to talk about much. Like the remaining families that lived on the Zevenfontein farm, some of whom were “relocated” to Cosmo City; others, well, who knows? The point was to wipe the squatter camp from view and it was successful. He also knows about the graves, the ones that were moved when the estate was being built, and were finally reburied at the Fourways Memorial Park in 2006 after years of negotiations. Ngoma, though, still doesn’t know where his own father’s remains might be. But better not to say too much. Word travels fast around here.
How life should be
Some of the photos are kept in a brown, spiral bound album with a gold heart embossed on the cover. In between the photos of leopards and zebras and lion cubs and a few shots of schoolgirls in uniform is a blonde, her shoulders bare, wearing in a black fur coat, looking demurely at the camera. Then another: the bare back of a brunette in jeans, her wispy hair off to one side. There are more on CD: a woman in a black corset and thigh high shiny black boots and red satin gloves stands against a plain background, and a bare-breasted blonde in her late forties lies back on a chair.
Sue Harwood takes photographs. Wildlife, family portraits and semi-nude ones of women who live on the estate, many into their forties and fifties, who, she says, feel they are on the tail end of their beauty and want to capture it before it is taken by age. Some women give their photos to their husbands as gifts.
“This is how life should be—I’m not talking about the botox parties—but you should be able to live like this,” Harwood says, sitting in her lounge with wooden floors and Persian carpets. “You should be able to live with your doors and windows open. A lot of people criticise Dainfern. They say it is full of fake, shallow people. But you can choose who you want to be with.”
It is Friday afternoon and her garage is wide open, the green gate holding in her two dogs—a Jack Russell and a Beagle—is unlatched, as are the doors to her home. Security keeps telling her to be more diligent but she’s never felt it necessary.
Harwood, who has long, chocolate brown hair and wears silver jewellery, says she and her husband and their three children moved to Dainfern in 2000 because she wanted the “safest lifestyle possible” for her kids.
“People say there is a false sense of security, that we live in a jail. But I see it as a safe lagoon. You have to go into shark-infested waters when you leave here. We never feel like prisoners. If I lived outside, I’d feel like more of a prisoner. I’ve have razor wire and a wall. When I lived in Sandton, I was always half awake, one eye open, waiting out for someone to break into the garden.”
A little piece of heaven
This is what you get for R14-million: an ultra-modern glass and metal home on the 10th hole, with vaulted ceilings and glass chandeliers, white marble below your feet and an indoor rock garden with exquisitely-pruned cycads in a sunlit foyer. There are four garages, five bedrooms, all en suite, an infinity pool, remote control blinds and a black marble staircase.
Should you like to purchase this little gem, Brenda Gilbert could show you around. Gilbert moved to Dainfern from Bryanston in 1993 and started selling stands on the mostly vacant estate a couple of years later.
It was tough going in the early days. When the estate first launched, 100 stands quickly sold. Then the lull came. The only thing keeping the estate alive then, most will tell you, was the backing of JCI. Then democracy happened and, in 1995, Gilbert says, things started to fly. Multinationals flooded the market and speculators jumped on board. There were, of course, many bumps along the way. Most say Dainfern didn’t come into its own until the late nineties.
Now, says Gilbert, it’s a fully-fledged community. Sue Ralph, her partner at Pam Golding, who has strawberry blonde hair that she wears in a perfectly-coiffed bob, ticks through all that’s coming up: there’s the squash championships, the running club’s new summer route, the pregnancy yoga classes, the Christmas tree event, the nature association quiz night.
“We’ve got people from every country in the world,” says Ralph. “We have senior executives, entrepreneurs, bootjies from Krugersdorp, ANC officials, and Africans from different parts of the continent. We live in South Africa like it is supposed to be. Our community is integrated, our school is integrated. Dainfern is at the forefront of what South Africa is today.”
What Ralph means to say is that that it’s not just rich white people that live here. I’ll translate: bling entrepreneurs Bruce and Stella Buthelezi and Moeletsi Mbeki live here. They, too, want their little piece of heaven, their slice of Dainfern.
“They are doing what money does,” says Richard Ballard, an associate professor at the school of development studies at the University of KwaZulu- Natal. “You can’t scold them for doing it.”
Ballard, who has studied gated communities in Durban, compares estates like Dainfern to the spatial equivalent of tax havens.
“There is a super concentration of wealth in space in a way that starts to divorce itself from others in society. So in the way that tax havens allow the rich to bypass responsibilities for their compatriots, gated communities result in a collective consumption of water, roads and education, an exchange that only happens between rich people. So instead of making good for everyone, it is for only those who are really well resourced.”
This is what academics like Ballard, Landman and Derek Hook and Michele Vrdoljak, who wrote the 2002 report Gated communities, heterotopia and a ‘rights’ of privilege, have to say: they use the term “semigrating”—that is, emigration without ever leaving the country; they say that those that live in estates fear “outsiders”; that the communities are a “defense against a chaotic and unpredictable postcolonial context”; that those in gated communities are opting out of urban life; that “chance contact is eradicated and public interaction is limited to that between self-defined, homogenous groups”; and that “exclusivity, social status and the assurance of a peaceful, quality lifestyle are all collapsed into a discourse of crime prevention”.
The latter is, of course, exactly the favoured discourse of the chattering South African middle-classes. The rest, perhaps, a commentary on all of the country’s wealthy suburban enclaves. So, you wonder, who can blame them?
At the Valley Shopping Centre there is Le Petit Chateau, The Gentleman’s Hair Salon, a Woolworth’s Food Market, an optometrist, a pharmacy, a real estate agency, a beauty salon and a dry cleaners called The Real Don.
At Café Frappe, middle-aged women gather for their morning coffees. A thin blonde with an American accent and a pink baseball cap talks of the ANC and jewellery and holiday destinations with an Asian woman—another expat - who wears a freshly-cut bob. Posted outside of the Woolies are Sotheby’s ads for rentals—R26 000 a month for a plain single story cream house with white pillars or R25 000 for an unappealing brickface home with a balcony.
Just outside the shopping centre are other gated communities that lie on the edge of Dainfern proper, such as Dainfern Ridge, where Phillip Parker, a property development consultant who worked for JCI before they disinvested from the property market, selling Dainfern to the homeowners association in 1999, lives.
Parker has a lean, fit build with green eyes, bushy eyebrows and a strong, square jaw.
We meet at Café Frappe to talk about the early days. He tells me JCI bought the 600 hectares that made up the Zevenfontein farm for R20-million back in 1985. By then, the Fourways Golf Course was already there, in the middle of the bush, and so were the initial plans for the estate. They were drawn up by a town planner by the name of John Rosmarin, who made two trips out to California in the mid-eighties, spending much of his time in Palm Springs where retirement and golf estates have transformed the parched desert landscape it into a sizzling mirage. JCI poured another R40-million into infrastructure, including the perimeter fence and the clubhouse and upgrades to the course. In August of 1991, they started selling.
“The big difference from the US at that stage was that there, the main appeal was a lifestyle offering,” says Parker. “In South Africa, it was about security. We found immediately that the other concerns fell away.”
As soon as Dainfern and its exclusive, secure lifestyle offering began to create its own mirage in the veld, local media trained its eye on the place. Parker says the press has always been hostile towards it.
“We think the journalists were actually envious,” he says. “In 2000, there was the first break-in in five years and it made the front page. But it doesn’t matter. Whenever there is a story in the paper about how badly workers are treated or how long visitors are kept waiting to get inside, it increases sales. Residents don’t care how long someone had to wait. It’s all about the security.”
Since those early days, security has remained the point. Julian Scher was doing his articles at Webber Wentzel when the firm had the JCI property account. Scher was put onto the legal work for the estate.
He and his wife Lianne had been living in a townhouse in Bryanston, but in 1991 they bought one of the first stands, forking out R90 000 and building their first house. It was country living, with hectares of nothing around them and the river running through it. There were no Tuscan villa townhouse complexes, no Ballyesque estates, no Fourways Mall, no Montecasino, not even Diepsloot had emerged then. They can remember jackals running through the estate, and long walks on Sundays through the veld. Back then it was just them, the clubhouse, the course and the wall.
The Schers have since moved from their first home, rebuilding an older house on the course into a glorious four-bedroom French country house with vaulted ceilings, a gourmet kitchen, a Koi Pond, an infinity pool, a private cinema and a fireplace big enough for a family of four to sit inside.
“It’ll never happen again,” says Scher, from his lounge on a rainy summer night, referring to the dying breed of the luxury golf estate.
We talk about how JCI was able to float Dainfern for years - much like, he says, how Anglo American took on Fourways Gardens and Silver Lakes Golf Estate in Pretoria—bringing it through economic lulls and recessions and allowing the estate to fully mature. The economic constraints, along with changes in national housing policy that will require a more inclusive approach to human settlements, and the dwindling supply of land available in a city that will have to cater to an exploding population, may mean developments like Dainfern are, at the very least, very difficult to execute.
But all of that is secondary. The Schers say they aren’t going anywhere, even if life in Dainfern comes with hideous traffic that can sometimes mean his daily commute to his Parkmore office can take up to an hour and half.
“You could give me a house in Hyde Park or Sandhurst but I wouldn’t take it for love or money. I don’t want to live behind a wall and press the button to enter and constantly be looking behind me. Here, it is clean, there is no litter, there are no electric fences, the dogs are on leashes and the parks are full of kids.”
I mention that some say this sense of security, this life, is artificial, that people who live in Dainfern don’t live in reality.
“What reality? Whose reality? Barbed wire and burglar bars and high jackings?”
You see, he’s got a point.
The reality parked outside the Pavilion one recent Saturday is this: one Harley Davidson, seven BMWs, three Mercedes Benzes, two Audis, a VW Touareg, two Range Rovers and a Discovery 4.
The local league cup tournament is on and Man United, Liverpool, Newcastle, Arsenal and Aston Villa are all there on the soccer field in full kit. Inside, the tuckshop is selling donuts, All Sorts, Simba chips, gumballs, toasted sandwiches and cool drinks and a black-haired DJ is spinning Wild Cherry’s “Play that Funky Music (White Boy)”.
Under a white canopy, a soccer mom takes down the registration of boys and girls as a golden retriever darts across the field.
Tania Oddi, in a jean skirt and a black T-shirt, her hair pulled back in a ponytail, stares down at the game, where her 7-year-old son is one of the star players. “It’s stunning,” she says, grinning. “Yeah, it’s the Truman bubble but I wouldn’t live anywhere else.”
The bubble, the exclusivity, the closing off, the shutting down, the life-long holiday, the desire to capture an innocence of a past that never really existed, is what Dainfern is selling. It’s proud red banner with a lion holding a golf flag as its emblem, flaps at the entrance to the guarded estate just next to South African one, attempting to stake its claim in both worlds.
One afternoon, as I am leaving, I meet a bear-size man in long blue denim shorts and a button-up cotton shirt standing in the parking lot in front the brick-faced building which houses the homeowner’s association.
He’s been living on the estate for years, was on the community policing forum for a while. But lately he’s been thinking it’s time to sell up. “I think I’d like to go back to reality.”
Tanya Pampalone is the features editor of the Mail & Guardian
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