Leftover Lives

An increase in white squatter camps in Cape Town bears witness to the hardship of a marginalised community, writes Lin Sampson.

PINK toy lorry hurtles through the air. Behind it two small tow-headed girls, hands on hips, shriek with mirth. Children all over the world play in the same way but Jamie-Lee and Karen do not live in the same way as most white kids.

On what used to be the Ruyterwacht tennis court, just behind the Grand West Casino on a piece of hard scrubland, is one of the first white squatter camps to spring up in the Cape.

Sixteen families live illegally on this provincial department of Public Works and Transport land and although there is an effort towards order, it is ramshackle. Children’s toys lie on the ground, bits of tarpaulin are roped around roofs and dogs strain on chains tied to stakes.

“The difficulty,” says shack dweller Hester Derouvaix, “is the lack of electricity. Water is also a problem. Two taps (“And one is broken,” pipes up a child) service the whole camp.”

They cook outside on open fires. “We are,” says one of the inhabitants, “like Gypsies or even Voortrekkers.”

Although many appear capable of work, they are knocked out by apathy. However, when it comes to arguments they can be vigorous. Children tear clothes apart in an effort to wrest them from other children and neighbours squabble over facilities. “Migod, those ‘hokkie’ people can fight,” says Anne Vykns, an ex “hokkie” person who recently moved into a council house. “You can’t sleep. They drink and drug and scream.”

White squatters get little sympathy. Many people believe they are reaping what they sowed and against a backdrop of millions of homeless blacks, their case is flakey.

The problem of poor whites is escalating, says Erika Botha Rossouw from Solidarity Helping Hand. “There are 77 white squatter camps outside Pretoria and now they have started in Cape Town. You will find a lot living in the suburbs in the back yards of houses.”

According to the Institute for Security Studies, white unemployment has nearly doubled since 1995. Since 1998 these figures have increased year-on-year by 15%. However, its growth is off a much lower population base than black unemployment.

The atmosphere “on the ground”, as they refer to the camp, is one of floating angst — particularly among the children, who alternate between being suspicious and loving. A child named Dwain puts his hand in mine. “Is tannie coming to stay?” he asks.

Rossouw says many of the inhabitants come from children’s homes and were abandoned by their own parents. “They are caught in the poverty loop. We did enrol a little boy in Grade R, which is expensive, but his parents kept him out of school for 23 days.

The women could get jobs but they have to make themselves look presentable. We arranged for one of them to go to Tygerberg Hospital to see about her teeth but she didn’t keep the appointment.” The women live with the fear of having their children removed by social services. One woman told us she had no children, but we later learnt she had lost three to the authorities.

Bridget Kühn is good looking and well spoken. Until recently she had a job and lived in a council house in Ruyterwacht with her husband, who works as a tow-truck driver, and her children, Zoë, 12, Bradley, 10, Jamie-Lee, 4, and Karen, 3.

In her shack a small television is attached to a car battery and curtains divide up the room into compartments. Zoë takes a deep interest in her appearance. “I have dyed my hair four times,” she says proudly, “and it’s beginning to fall out.”

“My husband is Afrikaans,” says Kühn, “but I am English speaking. We feel sidelined. We aren’t asking for much. We only have four portable toilets and it’s not enough for 16 families. We are waiting for a house but whites are not on top of the list, and on my husband’s salary we can’t afford to rent. We just get into debt.”

Like most of these families, the Kühns have moved around the country looking for work. Vykns says many do move off “the ground” but frequently return. According to her, the Kühn family has left and returned three times. Shacks change hands for up to R500.

white squattersPhilip Wessels has lived all over South Africa and talks about “going north”. He is a boilermaker, but says: “A white man of my age will never get permanent work and when you are on contract it is difficult to plan ahead.”

He draws heavily on a cigarette and says: “I’ve made a lot of mistakes, mostly with women and money.” He adds: “And brandy.” Wessels is known to be a bit of a Lothario and his nickname around the camp is Prince Charming.

He lives in a shack with his partner of five years, Miranda Odendaal, 36, and two children, Cristel, 8 months, and Hennie, 14. Miranda’s brother, Danie, also lives with them. “It’s a tight squeeze,” says Miranda. “Five of us in this tiny room.”

There is a photograph of Miranda’s father in a frame and ornaments are dotted about on purple knitted doilies. Above a dartboard on the wall is written: “I may be down but I am not out.”

Wessels says he is embarrassed by his situation. “I haven’t seen my family for 15 years. I feel sidelined. Things were very different before 1994. Although I am not a racist, I prefer to live in my own community.”

Rossouw says it would be difficult to move the squatters to a place like Khayelitsha, but if someone had permanent employment Communicare would help with housing. Vykns insists that many of the people could work: “Wessels is capable of earning big money as a boilermaker.”

We visited the day after Eugene Terre Blanche was murdered and people were pondering their future. Most said they had hoped the DA would help them, but their lives had not improved since Helen Zille’s visit last year.

Kühn says she has never been a member of the AWB, “but as a people we do feel forgotten and I might consider it in the future. It depends.”

white squatter campsJacques Derouvaix, 40, is cool and bolshy. He and his wife, Hester, 36, have been here the longest and live in a Wendy house provided by Solidarity. He earns a small salary working as a security guard, but pays no rates or rent. Hester once worked as a staff nurse. They have two children, Dwain, 5, and Dalton, 16. They also had a daughter, Jana, who was killed in a car crash. “That is when everything started to go downhill,” says Hester, showing teeth that look like black peppercorns. Unlike black squatters, most people here have advanced tooth decay.

Inside it is pin neat. A banner on the wall proclaims “Jesus Never Fails”. Jacques is not at work today and seems to have spent some time on his hairdo which is razored round the edges and has what looks like an Astroturf plug-in on top.

“I’m not staying here because I don’t want to pay rent. I just want my piece of ground. I am a fourth-generation South African,” he intones. “My grandfather and my father were here; Franschhoek was ours. We taught people how to grow grapes.”

Jacques is well informed on current events. “Unemployment is the problem. I worked for a company exporting fruit. In the end the union organiser became the CEO and I was let go.”

He rolls himself a cigarette and stares belligerently ahead. “So you tell me, what is coming first, the civil war or the World Cup?” He urges his son Dalton, who refuses to be in the picture. “Come on, boy. Someone might see you and give you a job as a model.”

While we are visiting, a car draws up with a box of fresh vegetables for each household. “We tell people not to take food and clothes. It just keeps them in a state of dependency,” says Rossouw.

Vykns also believes charity helps keep them in the poverty zone. “These people don’t care about houses. They like the way they live and if they do get a house they soon lose it. Many of them can work, they just don’t want to.”

As night falls on the camp, the casino metamorphoses into a bonfire of illumination, highlighting the gap between the haves and have-nots. “You know what?” says Jacques. “One thing is for sure, when the lights go out here it won’t make any difference because we haven’t got electricity.”

He gives a bitter laugh.

First published in the SUNDAY TIMES newspaper on 2 May, 2010.

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