Sunday, August 23, 2009

South Africa's District 'mine'

Mantsie Malatsi hunts through the gloom of her tin shack and finds an old Nelson Mandela campaign button. She carefully saved it for 15 years – but now she wants to set fire to it.

She's fed up with waiting for Mr. Mandela's ruling party to give her a proper house to replace her tumble-down shack with its rats, cardboard wallpaper and holes plugged with plastic bags. Instead, she's counting on a Hollywood science-fiction blockbuster to save her.

The movie, District 9, was the most popular box-office smash in North America last week. It was filmed among the decrepit shacks and garbage of her Soweto squatter camp, known as Chiawelo, which it portrays as a grim refugee camp for stranded aliens from outer space.

The movie depicts this neighbourhood, on the outskirts of Johannesburg's skyscrapers, as a desperate place of segregation, where the aliens are housed in tiny shacks behind barbed wire to keep them away from polite society. Almost all of the shacks in the movie are the actual homes where Chiawelo's residents were living.

Others might feel insulted if they discovered that millions of moviegoers were seeing their neighbourhood portrayed as the worst place on the planet, a place so shockingly horrible that only aliens could survive there. But the impoverished South Africans who still live in Chiawelo are unperturbed by how the film exploited their homes. Instead, they are cheering the film's success, hoping it will embarrass and shame the government into long-overdue action.

“People need to see how poorly we are living,” says Ms. Malatsi, 66, who has lived in this squatter camp for almost three decades, since migrating here from Limpopo region in the north of the country.

“I'm happy that our situation will be shown all over the world. It needs to be exposed. Maybe it will help us. Maybe the government will do something.”

In the chilly winter weather, Ms. Malatsi has no electricity or running water, and she cannot even afford coal. “We have to walk around looking for scrap wood to burn,” she says.

“It's very difficult to live here. There are rats, there's a lot of crime by young boys, there's a lot of sickness and people dying. You can't even be buried when you die because it costs too much money.”

A few months ago, thieves smashed a window and broke into her shack, stealing her money and a few meagre possessions, including a radio and flashlight. She has covered the broken window with a metal sheet that once advertised beer, leaving her shack in more darkness than ever.

Many residents in the Chiawelo squatter camp have managed to move to better government housing in the past year – but only because they paid bribes to the housing officials, she said. Her husband is trying to borrow enough money to pay for a bribe so that they, too, can move.

Since 1994, she has faithfully voted four times for Mr. Mandela's party, the African National Congress, now headed by Jacob Zuma. “Whenever it is time to vote, they tell us that we have to vote so that we will get free houses,” she says. “But now we have to pay bribes. We all voted for Jacob Zuma and now we are still waiting.”

Millions of people all over South Africa are living in similar conditions, in tiny overcrowded shacks without electricity or water or sanitation. After years of frustration and delays, many communities have exploded in violent demonstrations. In a surge of fury since early July, at least 24 major protests have erupted in impoverished towns across South Africa, often triggering violent clashes with police or looting of shops.

There haven't been protests at Chiawelo this year, but Ms. Malatsi sympathizes with the violent demonstrations. “That's the only language the government hears,” she says. “People all over the country are struggling. These are people who live in conditions like ours.”

Instead of protesting in the streets, the people of Chiawelo are placing their hopes in the alien movie, which was filmed outside their shacks last year.

District 9 is already a phenomenon, shooting to the high ranks of the North American box office with $73.5-million in sales as of yesterday.

The film is opening in South Africa this week. Its advertising posters, proclaiming “No Humans Allowed,” have a jarring resonance when they are displayed on a boulevard in Soweto, where blacks were segregated in the apartheid era.

The film's director is Neill Blomkamp, a native of South Africa who emigrated to Canada in the 1990s. In published interviews, he has talked about the bleakness of the living conditions in Chiawelo. “The people are warm, but the environment is so caustic and unbelievably disgusting to be in,” he said in one U.S. interview.

“The crew were realizing that people live like this every day, while we were battling just to be there for two months. Every single thing is difficult. There's broken glass everywhere, there's rusted barbed wire everywhere, the level of pollution is insane.”

2 Opinion(s):

FishEagle said...

"...Maybe the government will do something.” Like prohibiting you from having about 8 kids???

bbb said...

But what they fail to mention is that many of these squatters have property paid for by us whities somewhere in a homeland.

Not been north or east from Joburg since we left 10 years ago, but I can clearly remember the endless stream of overloaded bakkies traveling outbound on Fridays.