SPRAY PAINTED ABOVE THE WINDOW on a dusty piece of warped scrap metal are the house’s dimensions: 3.2 x 3.7. On each side, old addresses from previous government administrations have been marked and forgotten by the Department of Human Settlement. The current address, RVO 337, is hardly distinguishable from multiple previous endeavors. This is a classic “shack”: metal walls and roof rusting at each edge. A single, wooden door to the right of the windows allows a manageable space for entry before wedging stuck between the laminate floor and plywood ceiling.
The home displays a degree of “shack chic,” the je ne sais quoi that transforms a hulk of metal and wood into a livable space. A full-size bed, complete with decorative duvet and pillow covers, dominates the single room. The wallpaper features newspaper from 2008, horizontally plastered for ease of reading. I recently christened the crossword puzzle by the bed. I’m still contemplating a thirteen-letter word for “reconciliation.” The only additional adornments are three framed photos of 50 Cent.
Underneath one, and on a worn but still very comfortable sofa sits Themba. With his shy but goofy smile, the only obvious resemblance he has to his hero is a gold tooth, and a stab wound over his eye from a fight over a girl. My new roommate gazes at me through a vortex of flies at the center of the room, displaying a missing front right tooth. A tattoo reading “Eminem” adorns his left bicep. There is an artificial diamond earring in each ear. I soon discover that along with American rap music, he loves WWE “Raw” and the soap opera, “Generations,” which has hooked me, as well. A paraffin lamp sits on the bedside table next to a small, battery-powered radio that plays around the clock, even when he’s not there. He believes that it gives him good dreams.
As there is very little furniture in the shack, and no dresser or drawers of any kind, Themba hammered a few nails into the wall for me to hang my belongings. Two pieces of my luggage hang at the end of the bed next to my jacket. Every so often, I return home to find more objects suspended carefully from nails at various spots around the interior. He recently hung his tools—a crowbar, measuring tape, and handsaw—in the corner at the end of the couch, just over the area where we take turns sleeping.
The couch serves multiple purposes, one as Themba’s filing cabinet. Lifting a cushion is like opening a drawer on a piece of his life. Under one is information he picked up from a job fair. Under another is clothing from a recent female visitor.
Themba is meticulous about making the bed in the morning. Stripping the bedding from the couch, rolling up blankets, and placing throw pillows, he takes great pride in the appearance of his home. He manages a much more polished appearance than I can muster in the conditions.
RVO 337 is not your average bachelor pad, being largely a place of transience. Themba has been “commuting” for two years from this shack in Riemvasmaak to his parent’s house in neighboring Izinyoka for food, clothing, and bathing. Amenities are limited to a basin inside for bathing, and a recently acquired “primer” stove, with which I’ve nearly set the house on fire each morning. The toilet, which is outside in the dirt yard, consists of three walls and a shelf above a bucket. There is no roof, which makes it ideal for stargazing, but an unpopular spot during storms. I consistently bash my forehead against the two-by-four bracing the door.
When he speaks, Themba considers each sentence and repeats his phrases slowly. “You are welcome here. (Pause). You are welcome.” He honored me by bestowing upon me a Xhosa name, Elethu. He explained that it forms a piece of his full name, Thembalethu, symbolizing that we were brothers. The literal meaning is “our hope.”
I moved to the township after becoming frustrated with the lack of accessibility to different cultures and contexts in Cape Town. I felt unfulfilled and unchallenged. After almost a year in South Africa, I had a nagging feeling that I had missed something intrinsically important. I felt like an athlete who trains for the big match and shows up at the stadium to find he must sit the bench. I wanted to experience more of South Africa, in a deeper, more meaningful way.
Thus, I left the stunning landscapes of the city of the two oceans for the shacklands of the Eastern Cape. My new home is in a small township on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth. I enter Riemvasmaak with a sense of anticipation, apprehension, and satisfaction.
Riemvasmaak is a four-year-old informal settlement technically known as Extension 29. The name means “to tighten your belt,” signifying a knack for survival that becomes evident in a brief survey of the surroundings. It is affectionately known to residents as “Riempi.”
Dusty, rocky paths are the salient feature of Riemvasmaak. The rocks present formidable obstacles to walking around at night, yet are convenient ammunition against the mangy, malnourished dogs that tend to block passage. During particularly strong rains, the paths turn to whitewater. Metal wires are strewn about at every conceivable location and angle to dry laundry and to provide protection against intruders who likely wouldn’t expect a wire at neck level as they’re running from the house. Visibility at night is limited to the full moon and the glow from steep floodlights up the hill in neighboring “formal” townships.
The legacy of apartheid is still alive in the spatial dynamics of urban and exurban residential areas, which functionally means that Xhosa live in black townships, Coloured live in coloured townships, and whites live somewhere completely different. A “mixed” township, Riempi prides itself on breaking those barriers. Before a recent protest march, the community chairman noticed that all the signs had been written in English or Afrikaans. He instructed Themba to make a few signs in Xhosa to accurately represent the people.
Often, I find it challenging to distinguish Xhosa from Coloured, and thus I struggle to know which language to use for greeting. I tried to explain this to Themba. In what has become a ritual in my debriefing, he shakes his head as if I had told him I had trouble figuring out where to put the hot tub in our shack.
“No, man,” he chuckles. “Here in the Eastern Cape, the Xhosa guys and the Coloured guys are mixing their vocabulary.”
Two laughing children do back flips on an old set of mattress springs as I hike up to Maria’s house where I often find myself for dinner.
Maria’s house is the one with the wheelbarrow on top. For weeks, it was the only way I could find it. I borrowed it a few weeks ago to start a garden, heaving her eight year old son onto the roof to shove it down. When I was ready to return it, I couldn’t find my way back to the house.
Maria lives at the end of a row that includes two of her three sisters. Between the three of them, they have seven children ranging from 4 months to 9 years. It’s a veritable crèche. The adults drag the kids from one house to the next, while the children drag little plastic baggies of chips and toy chain saws. Describing her approach to parenting, Maria says, “Bend a tree while it’s young.”
When her mother died, Maria’s father kicked her and her sisters out of the house.
“We decided to move to an informal settlement so that we’d appreciate a brick house when we got one. When I look at that house, I’ll say, ‘that’s my house’—and I’ll appreciate it.” I ask her why she thinks people move to informal settlements. “Because they don’t have any other choice,” she states rather obviously.
Though in outward appearances, Maria’s shack is of the same mold as Themba’s, inside it is an altogether different manifestation. Thin patches of carpeting are covered by a roomful of furniture, which is needed to accommodate her many and frequent guests. There is a small couch that can fit up to three people, a cushioned chair for a couple more, and two beds, one larger for mother and father, plus a small one for the two kids that during the day is pressed into service as another sitting area. The cardboard and plywood walls house two windows with ornate dressing, and can scarcely be recognized behind a houseful of appliances. They have most things a “wealthy” family would desire—stove, oven, refrigerator, washing machine, even an old PC which her husband uses to play fighting games when he returns from work.
To run the various appliances, Maria contacted a woman up the hill in a “formal” settlement and offered her R80 per week to connect to her electrical supply. This symbiotic relationship provides the unemployed woman with an income and Maria’s family with electricity. Electric wiring runs up and over three rows of shacks, a tarred road, and down again to link into the electricity of a brick house in the nearby township of Kleinskool. On any given road, you are likely to see tangles of wiring at your feet crossing intersections, connecting homes and collecting dust.
There is no running water. Riemvasmaak has seven outdoor taps scattered through the community and available to everyone. The water is clean and potable. For a family of four (and all of her guests), Maria makes an errand for water about every other day. She fills six ten-liter jugs of water that the family uses for cooking, bathing, washing up, and any other imaginable need. Two of the jugs are stored on the counter next to a plastic basin. Except for the initial effort of retrieving water and the end result of dumping the water outside, this functions very nearly like a sink in Glendale, Illinois. The washing machine is filled and emptied manually.
Whereas Themba’s toilet facilities lack a door, Maria’s toilet, perched between her house and her sister’s, has a proper address. Two brass numerals left over from a previous life announce that this is #33. I ask her if I can have my mail sent here.
Back in the house, Themba sits underneath a headline that reads, The World’s Most Famous Escape Artist and tells me about his plans for a family. His “future wife,” Disa, has given him a 10-month-old daughter named Liefie. He refers to Disa as “Future” to distinguish from “Beyoncé,” “Gorgeous,” and his many other girlfriends. Asked about this paradox, he grins mischievously and explains “it’s just how we do things.” Later, he tells me the story of one of his friends who “doesn’t like girls.” I was eager to hear about his peer group’s acceptance of this individual and the level of community tolerance, but before I could ask any questions, Themba elaborated. “He stays with the same girl all the time.”
Nevertheless, he confides to me, “The most important thing for me is to be able to take care of my family. It hurts me that I can’t take care of them.”
There is a photo of his daughter on his cell phone, which features the ring tone “I wanna’ be a billionaire, so frikkin’ bad.” Most people in Riempi can’t afford airtime, but everyone has a cell phone, anyway. The phone companies allow free text messages that read, “Please Call Me.” To send it, you simply enter a short code before the appropriate phone number. If you’re cagey, there is room for a message of 10 characters alongside the “Please Call Me.”
My friend, Andre, has saved every number he has in his phonebook with the code in front, meaning this is the sole function for which he uses the phone. Themba and his girlfriend have a ritual communication each day before she goes to work. She sends a PCM with a message that reads: t.ilu.d. Decoded, it means, Themba, I love you, Disa. If he doesn’t respond (typically at about 4:30 in the morning), she interprets it as a lack of love.
He visits the girl’s mother a couple of days a week when she is not working, but cannot stay too long, otherwise he will incite her parent’s ire. When Liefie was born, Themba’s parents had to visit hers to pay a damage fee for the pregnancy. Now, he has to wait until he can earn enough money to present a “labola,” the traditional Xhosa dowry, in order to marry her.
Themba and I have initiated plans to expand the shack to make room for a spaza shop (the equivalent of a corner store). Buying paraffin and peanuts in bulk, one can sell for a modest profit. In a few years, he reasons, there may be enough for his labola.
The first step in any construction project in the townships, whether it is a playground or a garden, is to build a fence for security. “50 and Eminem are working together,” Themba exclaims with amusement and, I sense, a touch of pride, as we work on mending the fence around the house. We use “umka,” a local bush with thorns as long and thick as a pinky finger to protect the grapefruit sized stones around the bottom. The orange plastic construction fencing previously surrounded an exposed water pipe before Themba “borrowed” it for his house.
Port Elizabeth is known as “The Windy City,” and perhaps nowhere is this felt more strongly than in the township. People strike peculiar figures walking at forty-five degree angles, clinging to fence posts to avoid being swept away by unnaturally strong gusts. Dogs curl into themselves for warmth, while diminutive sparrows stumble around looking drunk, struggling to make progress against the headwind. The wind pelts people with sand and grit, covering everyone with dust as they walk.
Plastic bags, candy wrappers, and children’s homework circle into the air in a funnel before being pinned and held against fences by the wind. Church yards are adorned like Christmas trees.
Hansie, the chairman of the community board, often visits when the weather is bad or when he is trying to avoid his wife. I’m not sure which brings him today, but I am always glad to see him. He is a brilliant storyteller, naturally charismatic and animated. His sense of humor buoys and accentuates every story, while his voice runs the entire scale of inflection, often accompanied by outrageous sound effects. He looks in his mid-forties, which would place him squarely in the middle of the freedom struggle. Though he prefers ghost stories, he will pontificate on anything. Today, the topic is reconciliation.
“You don’t know how hard it is for me to talk to a white person,” he begins. “You can never erase that memory.” Fifty percent of South Africans never socialize with someone of another race. Twenty-five percent don’t even see anyone of a different race.
He studies me from under a headline on our newspapered wall that announces, It’s a New Ballgame. “You are the first white man I’ve ever met that says, ‘Yes, I will live in an informal settlement with you people.” I enjoy his monologues and urge him on by asking obvious questions. His story weaves through his childhood in the Great Karoo Desert (“I once had a baboon as a pet. He bit me and I killed him,” he brags) to his time in prison before he concludes, “There are so many things we’re missing by not living together.”
It is a calm night as Hansie heads toward home, and I hear a commotion three shacks down from ours that I first took to be a violent scuffle. After some time, I feared it had gotten out of hand so I ventured out of my shack to investigate. When I got right up next to the shack, my cheek resting on the cold metal, I realized that I was listening to the ecstatic, fervent prayer of a charismatic house church. There were multiple parties with multiple voice ranges, alto followed soprano that followed baritone; there were crescendos of moaning and shouting. It sounds like gamblers watching the stretch run of a close horse race in waves of horror and delight.
Mornings are filled with the sound of voices calling to one another between shacks. It is a sing-song back and forth, some voices near and amplified, others further afield and muted. Themba’s is a deep baritone, dominant among the others. They are like birds singing, communicating between the trees. Shacks are built so close and life uncertain; it is a natural beginning to each day.
I like to sit outside in the mornings to sip my coffee out of the reach of Themba’s radio. This morning, I face the sun while my neighbor croons over her washing. It is the old standard, “Count your many blessings, see what God has done…” Her voice hangs crisply in the calm morning air. It drifts up and up, above the orange construction fencing, over my house, and eventually, into the “bush” behind, filled with plastic bags, soggy pairs of tennis shoes and an armory of old tires well-situated for the next riot. Fifty meters on is Arcadia North, in line to be the next informal settlement to receive brick homes from the government. “Blessings” fades out as Themba opens the door onto the yard and Tupac’s “Until the End of Time” fades in from the ever present radio.
To his right, the spaza shop remains half-built, a wooden frame erected to the right side of our door and held together by pebbles and mud.
The scorching sun hinders movement while the smell of dagga (marijuana) wafts through the air. My neighbor, Zola stops by to rest, drawn to the last remaining shadow in a steadily decreasing area close to the shack. Behind him, a young boy, shirtless in the sun, pushes around an old tire with two short planks of wood pushed into the hollow core.
Zola wears a striped shirt, alternating stripes of dark and light red. The collar is turned up and it is ripped on one sleeve. He leans backward on the stump he uses for a chair, affecting a kind of self-cooling system by lifting his shirt and holding it between his shoulder blades and the wall to reveal a thin, muscular back. Light blue jeans taper off at incongruous black dress shoes, worse for wear and losing flakes of leather. The end of a “Black Label” lanyard hangs out of his back pocket. Dark eyes with yellowed whites rest on sunken cheeks above a scraggly goatee. A grey beanie with a single white stripe bunches up at the top of his head. I have never seen Zola without the beanie. During a blistering afternoon recently, he called to me from across the road, laughing, “Why is it so cold today?”
He worked as a fork lift operator for eight years before losing his job in 2008. He estimates the unemployment rate in Riempi at 70%, in line with most analysis of South African townships. Despite his long job search and struggles, today at least, he sounds determined and positive. “It is not only me suffering. I ate this morning. I should be grateful.”
Conversations in Riempi often veer into sermonettes. Zola is no different. He reveals a staunch faith that teeters between fatalistic and realistic, punctuating statements with “If I’m not supposed to die today…” and “It is God that gives you life.”
Just over Zola’s beanie, Arcadia North looks stunning, reflecting and deflecting the sun’s scorching rays like a prize fighter parrying blows. From this vantage point, it is a beautiful quilt work of color and light.
Gaba’s Spaza Shop is one of the few places of commercial activity in Riempi. The energy is a welcome distraction and I enjoy visiting Phillip, the elder statesman of the family. Philip is a former Golden Boot rugby star, a devout Baptist, and has an infectious and ubiquitous laugh reminiscent of Dr. Hibbert from The Simpsons.
As I exchange pleasantries with Philip, a young boy of about eight years old steps up onto a blue milk crate, dirt filling its crevices. “One Chicago please,” he says, the black sweater of his school uniform baking in the afternoon sun. Philip passes the discount cigarette through the burglar bars protecting the Spaza window, holding it between his thumb and forefinger until the child will answer his question, “How was school today?” “Fine,” he mumbles reluctantly, prompting Phillip to release the booty. The boy marches off, crunching pebbles beneath his dusty shoes.
I need airtime for my cell phone, which is a bit like putting together a puzzle. It comes in pre-packaged amounts, so it’s a quest to put together the right combination of cash denominations to get nearest to your sum without going over. It turns out that I am R4 short of the voucher I need. Phillip shocks me by telling me to take the voucher and he will cover the rest. Embarrassed at the prospect, I began to search my pockets earnestly for forgotten coins. When I happen upon a R5 coin, I hand it to Philip, visibly relieved. He replies, “You don’t want to be blessed this morning, hey?” followed by his unforgettable chortle.
I walk back home pondering the prospect, battling the wind while stepping over crushed bottles and soiled diapers. A fire has destroyed another shack—the second this week—leaving only a charred, black footprint in its place. Gaunt goats wander through yards in search of grass while ravenous dogs prowl for scraps. A tiny Xhosa girl blows kisses to me as I pass her house.