Home is Where the House Is

Home is where the house is

As I try to come to grips with this new timeline, the one where I might no longer live in my adopted city by this time next year, I have grown more concerned about those I might leave behind. At the beginning of 2004, I wrote this about Kliptown:

“I had a dream the night before my visit to Pam. In the dream, I returned to Kliptown after my months away and found that it had been developed into a quaint small town. There were finely graded dirt roads, roundabouts, a bed-and-breakfast, and tourists from San Francisco relaxing on the terrace of a restaurant as a small electric train took their children for a tour of the "Freedom Charter" park. Walking around, I marveled at the changes, but could not find my friends. The elections here are set for mid-April, and I wonder if any of the politicians vying for votes have dreams like mine.”

Looking at this now, I fear that it might have been a prophecy of sorts. I thought I was having a positive vision. The tourists, the development, and the acknowledgment of the historical importance of what has become one of the most impoverished squatter camps in Soweto: at the time, all seemed benign. I remember that when I wrote it down I was worried that no politician cared enough to invest in Kliptown. Over the past year, however, the area has transformed under the auspices of the Johannesburg Development Agency’s (JDA) renewal project. Those politicians I mentioned started to feel the heat as the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Freedom Charter approached, and realized that celebrations would look drab against a backdrop of empty lots and overcrowded shacks. The Freedom Charter is the founding document of the current Constitution; it laid out what became the ANC’s vision for a multi-racial democracy where everyone had the right to an education, housing, jobs, and where “The People Shall Govern.”

So these politicians had the same vision I did: and in theirs, as in mine, the people who live there now are nowhere to be found. Over a hundred million rand (about 15 million US dollars) has been poured into the new Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication. The open field where the charter was originally signed, where kids used to play soccer and people used to dump their garbage, has been paved over. A new taxi rank building and a museum have been erected, and the street hawkers are being herded into stalls at the new indoor market and mall. Office space has been built and is now ready for occupation by “corporate NGOs” that have no roots in the neighborhood but like the idea of a flashy address in the township.

The first round of low-cost government housing units is going up as well. As I have watched these things unfold on the other side of the railroad tracks from the shacks where my colleagues and friends live, I have nursed my suspicion that bulldozers would eventually roll over to clean up the “mess” from underneath the politicians and the office dwellers. Last week, I paid a visit to the Johannesburg Development Agency and discovered that I was right.

The woman who met me at the JDA seemed surprised to hear that a white woman with an American accent sits on the Board of a preschool and community center in a squatter camp. She clammed up right away about plans for the squatter camp, but looked utterly devastated when I mentioned that we had funds to complete some building projects at the preschool. Finding an excuse to get her out of the room, I dove without shame into the binders piled up on the table, catching just enough to drive her into a half-confession when she came back in. The land belongs to the city, she said. People will be accommodated in the new housing, but obviously there won’t be enough for everyone currently living there, she said. They didn’t know what would happen to those people, but of course they wanted to avoid any “negative scenes,” and really she should have the social development consultants call me to discuss details.

I was unceremoniously ushered out of the office with promises to have the consultants call me. Of course, they haven’t yet, and now this woman is not returning my calls. I walked out of the JDA building, located right in the heart of downtown Joburg, feeling as though I had learned that an asteroid was going to destroy earth in a few years’ time. Nothing definite, but life as we know it will probably be over. What do you do when the danger is that far off? This place is like a part of me. Thinking of it gone is like being told that I might go to sleep one night, sometime in the next two to five years, and wake up without my left foot.

I have been hiding away from this problem for a few days now. I’m afraid to talk about it with Pam, the Principal of the crèche, friend, and mother figure to me. What if she is not on a housing list? What if she finds herself, and her two school-aged children, on a relocation truck to some unknown place? What becomes of a community when the people who comprise it are fragmented?

I don’t want to romanticize life in a shack. But now, revisiting that dream of mine, I understand what I failed to see a year and a half ago: that development can be sterile. Sterility can mean cleanliness and health and profit but also uniformity, homelessness, and death. How can I contemplate leaving this community knowing that when I come back it will be gone? For now, I have determined to help Pam carry on with the work that needs to be done: caring for the most vulnerable children, providing food for AIDS-afflicted parents with CD counts so low they no longer qualify for a government subsidy. But in the back of my mind, the clock is ticking.