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If you want to understand where this country is headed, you need to listen to the people of Diepsloot, a “seething settlement” where people are finding their solutions to problems.
MOST women in Diepsloot carry whistles, and when they blow them, people come running to help.

Diepsloot by Anton HarberThis perhaps captures a small element of what the township of Diepsloot is all about – caring communities living in conditions that, to outsiders, would seem impossible to survive. And yet, according to Anton Harber, the author of Diepsloot, it is a “bustling place much loved by its inhabitants”.

The book was launched this week at Boza’s Kichin in Diepsloot Road in the township.

For Harber, his study of Diepsloot has broader significance. “Most of all, I learned that if you want to understand where this country is headed, you need to listen to the people of Diepsloot,” he indicates on the jacket of the book.

On the northern outskirts of Johannesburg, the township is a “seething settlement” of about 200 000 people, dating back to 1995 when residents from Alexandra, Zevenfontein and Honeydew were relocated.

Harber, the Caxton professor of journalism at Wits University and founder editor of the Mail & Guardian, spent several months in 2010 in the township, drinking in the taverns with its people, going on late-night patrols with the police and local community policing forum (CPF) members, and speaking to Diepsloot residents, church leaders, politicians and city officials.

He cites as his reason for choosing to research and write about Diepsloot comments made by Chris Vick, the special adviser to the minister of human settlements, Tokyo Sexwale, who visited the township and stayed overnight in 2009. Vick had described the “cauldron of political intrigue and factionalism” he’d had to negotiate in arranging the visit.

“It struck me immediately that this vital political dynamic was not being reported, that journalists had missed this in explaining the visit and we were largely oblivious to the substantive implications. I set out to learn more about it.”

And what started out as a straightforward assignment grew in complexity with each visit. “Each time I visited Diepsloot, I saw some nuance, some new detail which disrupted the pattern I thought I had seen the day before.”

Accessible style
The 231-page book is written in a readable, accessible style, because, as Harber says, he is first a journalist and he sees this as a piece of journalism rather than an academic work.

A street scene in DiepslootA street scene in DiepslootHe researched it over four months, then took a six-month sabbatical at Oxford University in England to write the story.
When asked why he thought Diepslooters love their township, he says: “People love the buzz, the liveliness and street life of Diepsloot.” And even when they move away, they visit often to partake of that street life.

He reckons Diepsloot works because “people are by and large finding their solutions to problems”. He demonstrates this amply in the chapter, “If it is a blood-case, then we call the police”, in which he tags along with a group of CPF members. They have a back-up police vehicle following them between the shacks.

It’s clear that the CPF members are vital in upholding order, not taking the law into their own hands but relying on the police to step in when necessary.

The book has received praise from other journalists. Says John Perlman: “Driven by restless curiosity and laced with dry-as-dust humour, Diepsloot is packed with insight.”

Jacob Dlamini notes: “Diepsloot is the first study of its kind that seeks to understand change as it is lived on the ground, and not as it is talked about in the media and corridors of power. Rich with detail and local colour, it offers a nuanced examination of life as it is lived despite the State with its half-completed police station and the ANC with its internecine warfare.”

Harber says researching and writing the book has changed his outlook. “I have learnt a great deal. My understanding of these issues is much greater than before. I now understand the complexity of the challenges.”

One of those challenges is that the City of Johannesburg’s structures are “very distinct silos”, which need to be more co-ordinated to save money, time and energy. But he is hopeful that Diepslooters, through their determination and passion, will fix the problems of their township.

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