/ 22 June 2011

Whose story is it anyway?

Whose Story Is It Anyway?

Diepsloot by Anton Harber
(Jonathan Ball)

Lewis Nkosi, undoubtedly the most brilliant essayist to come from our land, suggested in 1965 that black South African writers should perhaps stop writing ­fiction until after apartheid.

His advice came against the backdrop of the aesthetically atrocious black ­fiction that never rose above the actual drama of black life under oppression. Perhaps it is time to apply Nkosi’s advice to white non-fiction writers who transgress into the black condition.

Anton Harber’s readable ­Diepsloot can be seen as part of the post-1994 ‘townships-are-not-that-bad” genre, which reflects no more than anthropological forays into black townships to give the reading public a sense of ‘how the other half lives”. This genre seeks to rescue the township from the negative image perpetuated by the media. What is strange is that even as Harber tries to sustain this happy narrative, page after page we are confronted with blood, gore and the hellish existence of people in ­Diepsloot.

Harber spent months in the sprawling, ever-busy township north of Johannesburg. Most of us know
Diepsloot as the place where Minister of Human Settlements Tokyo Sexwale, as part of a cheap publicity stunt, spent a night in a shack in ­”solidarity” with the poor.

The author interviewed scores of people — from street vendors to political players, city planning ­engineers and consultants. He even spent nights with the crime-fighting community policing forum. At times the writing resembles the sort of crime reports one finds in tabloids such as the Daily Sun. Some happenings Harber relates are simply too hilarious, including the supposedly juicy story of the frog.

Fascinating battles

The book is a useful general introduction to South African townships. Harber has done a fairly impressive job in tracing the history of Diepsloot.

We also get a detailed account of the ‘pull factors” that bring so many people there, creating a situation in which ‘the people are too much and the needs are high”, as one of Harber’s informants explains. We also get some sense of the fascinating battles within the ANC alliance over power and fortunes.

Harber’s prose is fairly entertaining but nothing really memorable; he certainly doesn’t offer the cutting-edge narrative power of Rian Malan’s My Traitor’s Heart. While reading the book, I often longed for Malan’s rawness and unusual imagination. Harber’s main limitation is that he writes as a journalist, which can frustrate a keen reader. More often than not he follows an interesting lead and then drops it unceremoniously as he chases another and we end up with a sketchy representation with inadequate depth and little explanation.

It is hard to tell what Harber’s ­project was, save from showing that Diepsloot had been unfairly projected by the media. One is left with the feeling that Harber found himself in the middle of a war and reported on the combat, but he forgot to say what the battle was about. From there one wonders if Harber was motivated by the impulse to ‘civilise” — that colonial desire to study and save the native from himself.

This impulse has a strong tradition in liberal universities — once it expressed itself in the ­History Workshop project at the University of the Witwatersrand, which proclaimed to do ‘history from below”.

At their most arrogant moment, proponents of this social-history narrative even argued that they were ‘giving voice” to blacks through understanding the ­”consciousness” of these pitiful ­subjects of apartheid oppression. The emphasis was always on ‘humanising” blacks.

The antiblack racism of this ‘history from below” enterprise has escaped serious questioning and one suspects the likes of Harber have not had to confront the question of how and why a white researcher would care to intrude into black spaces. The ethical questions related to this problematic view have never been subject to sustained critique because of the power of white knowledge-making industries. Such a critique would force white writers into much needed self-reflection when writing about the black condition. Harber is totally unaware of his whiteness in a black space.

Hellish existence
White perspectives are hegemonic to a point where even black writers reproduce them, as in the celebrated Native Nostalgia by Jacob Dlamini, whose over-the-top approval appears on the jacket of Harber’s book. This Oprahesque attitude of ‘triumph of the human spirit over adversity” ironically conceals the true nature of township reality and, in particular, the relationship it has with the ­privileged side of society.

The hellish existence of people in townships illustrates the unbroken relationship between white privilege and black exclusion. This symbiotic relationship gets overlooked when we focus on the orgy of township life outside a critical theoretical framework. How can people who are forced to live in this way not be violent?

The blind spots of this township genre are founded in the loud silences about how the ANC is reproducing apartheid designs. Tiny, ugly RDP houses have become acceptable housing for blacks; they are designed to perpetuate spatial apartheid.

In perhaps one of the more moving chapters, Harber gives us a taste of Diepsloot’s cultural life and we end up with some revealing words from a township hip-hop artist, who says: ‘I wish I would wake up one morning/and find myself in the suburbs/dressed like a king.” The author expresses an understandable surprise at just how the people of ­Diepsloot have no animosity or envy for the white wealth that surrounds them and how they instead choose to focus on struggles for meagre resources in the township.


Two unexplored possibilities present themselves: that blacks have internalised their black condition as natural and, more interestingly perhaps, that they were not going to tell a white writer just how angry they are about white privilege.

is interesting in the sense that it could open discussion about the old unresolved questions of white writing of the black story and how unquestioned paternalist perspectives of the past are being perpetuated in post-1994 township writing. Of course, if you’re interested only in ­everyday township life outside of what shapes it at a more structural level, Diepsloot is your kind of book. One hopes that at some point those who are fascinated by the townships will admit that these places exist in Hobbes’s state of nature: life there is ‘nasty, brutish and short” and no amount of whitewashing will help. Diepsloot is no different.