When we told the Wits students we were doing a community profile of Diepsloot, some of them laughed, as in “Yeah, good luck,” and some of them were truly worried. The very name evokes squalor and misery, and it’s made up of neighborhoods impersonally called Extension 1-8. Diepsloot township started in 1996 as a sort of overflow area for the notorious township of Alexandra. Both townships were sites of the recent xenophobic violence.
Which is why I was surprised to see how friendly it was. The air was filled with the sounds of music, children laughing and roosters crowing. At any given time there were a dozen people walking down the street, giving the neighborhood an open, communal feel that so many of our closed-off, tract housing-lined American streets lack. Some of the roads were paved, and there were trees and a health clinic and Coca-Cola advertisements and a police station. Most of the houses were cheek-by-jowl, rusty, corrugated metal shacks. The bathrooms were metal porta-potties. Water and possibly sewage trickled down the dirt lanes. We navigated by an unusual set of landmarks: “turn right where we heard the music,” “turn left at the river of garbage,” and “when you see the roosters and the house that looks like a garage, we’re there.”
“There” was the house of a grandmother taking care of her 3 grandchildren after her daughter died of a mysterious condition (not AIDS). There was some rumor that she might be alcoholic and being swindled by an aid worker, but that’s not the impression we got at all. Sadness had sunk in her face and made her eyes sallow beyond her 64 years. She looked 80. She said her heart was sore because of her daughter’s death. But despite that, she was content and happy with her life. I asked her what she wanted for herself, what her hopes were, and she said “Nothing.” She wanted her grandchildren to attend school and get jobs and have their own houses someday. The grandkids sleep in one stuffed animal-filled bed while the grandmother takes the couch. The shack is one room but outfitted granny-style, with lace and flowers and animal figurines and framed kitty prints. The air smelled of kerosene from a boiling kettle. There was a sink but no running water. A small TV and stereo sat on a shelf in the corner.
Our guide, Victor, said he was very surprised about the xenophobic violence, and I can see why. The news articles make these townships out to be Sodom and Gomorrahs–the types of places filled with people who would kill or burn people alive without much provocation. But Diepsloot felt familial and warm, and though I’m sure it can get scary at night, we felt perfectly safe. And I didn’t get a sense of dispair but of hope, especially when the kids posed for photos and said goobye by pressing our thumbs together and saying “shap,” which basically means “so long” and “it’s okay.”