Mpho Mpshane can’t wait to escape the whiff of kerosene and the Tupperware-munching rats in her car-sized shack in Diepsloot.
Every Monday, Mpshane, 56, makes the trip in a crowded minibus to the mansion she cleans in nearby Dainfern, a luxury housing estate surrounded by security walls in northern Johannesburg. She stays there until she returns home on Friday afternoons.
“The clean walls, the fresh air, the hot water, I love it there,” Mpshane says with a laugh, shining the torch on her cellphone around her room, which has no windows or electricity. “I wish I could always stay there.”
To make the 3km journey from Diepsloot to Dainfern is to travel across South Africa’s wealth gap, which endures 20 years after the ANC promised to erase inequality.
Diepsloot was born a year after Nelson Mandela came to power in 1994. The nation’s wealth gap has increased since then, with the Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality, rising to 0.63 in 2009 from 0.59 in 1993. That was the worst of 42 countries, including Honduras and Colombia, in 2009.
While Mpshane wouldn’t disclose her salary, the minimum monthly wage for a domestic worker in urban areas for a 45-hour work week is R1 877.70.
Diepsloot and Dainfern “show how apartheid’s racial and class divides live with us very clearly”, Anton Harber, a professor at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand and author of a book about Diepsloot, says. “A few have done very well, some have moved uneasily into a lower middle class and for a large number it’s unchanged.”
Mpshane says she didn’t support the ANC in yesterday’s general elections. She wore the DA’s blue T-shirt and floppy hat along with her gold-coloured hoop earrings and necklace.
Diepsloot was a meadow until 1995, when it was formed by black South Africans taking advantage of the freedom of movement allowed by the end of apartheid. They were joined by migrants from Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Somalia.
Diepsloot has become a symbol of the quintessential impoverished shantytown, where most of its 200 000 residents face a daily struggle to find clean water, electricity, health services and education.
Crime is a constant concern, with both Mpshane and Donald Mashaba, a stocky 18-year-old student, saying they avoid leaving their homes at night.
“I may be free, but I’m not happy here,” Mashaba said, leaning against the front of his uncle’s tin shack.
“Look at this place.”
Across the valley, Dainfern is shielded from those problems by two security walls with an electric fence running along the top and guard posts.
“You’ve had a rise of crime and sense of insecurity among the wealthy; they’ve retreated into their little enclaves,” Vanessa Barolsky, a researcher at the Human Sciences Research Council, says. “Dainfern is an excellent example of that, where they’ve created a little-walled city removed from the South African state itself.”
One of the frequent fires that ravage Diepsloot destroyed Mpshane’s previous home, so her late husband built her shack by hammering metal sheets together and lining them with cardboard for insulation.
The yellow plastic toilet cubicle Mpshane uses was set up by the municipality a foot away from the edge of a busy road. She has to get a key from a nearby store to get in and then holds her breath to avoid the stench inside. As many as 100 other people share it.
Mpshane says she doesn’t drink tea, her favourite beverage, in the afternoon, to make sure that she doesn’t have to make the 50m journey down a sodden track to the cubicle at night. It’s too dangerous, she says.
“I believed in the dream of a better life for all; I was wrong,” she says. “There are all these shacks, all these people are unemployed. South Africa is a rich country, it shouldn’t be like this.” – Bloomberg