Life on the edge of the South African dream

Homelands traces its origins to South Africa—the country of my birth and the country where I have been undertaking narrative and documentary work since 2012. The object of my affection is Woodlane Village, a squatter camp located in the affluent suburb of Moreleta Park, Pretoria.

Woodlane Village comprises 846 households representing around 3,000 people from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho, and rural areas in South Africa. The neighboring homeowners and businesses oppose the camp and have pushed for its removal.

The Village was created as a temporary settlement in 2008 by court order following years of advocacy and legal battles. Most of the residents of the settlement are economic and political migrants. Prior to gaining legal protection, they were brutalized by police and security forces. Shacks were destroyed, the field was set on fire, and people were shot. The Village is a microcosm for the tensions South Africa is experiencing around land, migration, and the growing gap between the rich and the poor.

As a documentarian and a former community organizer, I was drawn to the social justice story. I have always been captivated by the ways in which humans build community, by our creative resistance to inhumane and oppressive circumstances, by our ability to fashion lives with whatever resources are at our disposal.

But more importantly, I have been inspired by the ways in which individuals challenge the power structures and spatial designs of our cities. What is a home? Who is a neighbor? Who has the rightful access to the resources and bounty of the City?

When I first arrived here in 2012, I was curious about how residents made sense of their lives. I wanted to understand how people experience home and belonging in a place where they are not welcome. I was working from the assumption that the narratives of individual experience would reveal larger historical and cultural dynamics: the personal is political; private struggles are connected to public issues. I also wanted to come to terms with my own story—to re-establish a relationship with the country of my birth

For the first two years, I focused exclusively on building rapport and collecting stories. With informed consent, I recorded and transcribed hundreds of hours of conversations. Through this process, I met and befriended Donald Banda, a community leader and a local tailor.

Our relationship developed as I sat with him, while he fixed clothing. Donald grew up close to where the settlement is located. He remembers when the area was still farmland and bushveld. This was before the suburb was built—and before his family was forcibly relocated during apartheid. He envisions home as a place of ancestral roots, a place where umbilical cords are planted at birth, a place where his predecessors are buried in soil that has since been built over.

Early in our time together, Donald confided that he had long desired to have his story told. But he never had the means to do so. Our collaboration became a vehicle for his voice. In 2015, I started visually documenting Donald’s life. After years of being immersed in his world, I finally felt adequately informed to have my photos speak alongside his story. Image-making became a means of honoring my commitment to carry his narrative forward.

Initially, the epicentre of my photography was Donald’s compound in the settlement. His stand included a courtyard surrounded by a bamboo fence where he met neighbours and entertained guests. Eventually, my field of view expanded as I was introduced to his family and friends in the surrounding townships of Mamelodi, Soshanguve, and Winterveld and the rural communities in Mpumalanga.

Donald’s story provided the reference points and the contours for my photography. Without this narrative context, any photographic portrayal of his life would have been skewed. It would have frozen him in time and place — and in doing so, would have misrepresented his ongoing efforts to negotiate and sustain a sense of home. Although, the photographs and stories are set in Pretoria and elsewhere, they reveal more of a psychological landscape than they do a physical one. They reveal his hopes and his challenges — and his tenacity to make a life on the economic fringes of South Africa.

Donald’s story is the beating heart of the book. His narrative personifies my homeland. A place of promise and heartache, a place of perseverance and faith, a place where personal histories reveal complex social truths.

Twenty-five years after apartheid, South Africa is still one of the most unequal nations in the world. Growing income disparities and violence have frayed the social fabric. For many, the dream of the “rainbow nation” remains elusive. As Donald says, “Life has changed. We were good neighbors once. But bit-by-bit this spirit has eroded.”

Donald has a bittersweet view of the Village, calling it a “community” and a “no man’s land.” As he says, "We ran out here to make a life. I mean there is no place like home. But if home no longer feels like home, we are lost. We are a lost generation.”

Over the past seven years, I’ve had the privilege of witnessing the fullness of Donald’s life and the many ways in which he negotiates home and belonging. His world is much bigger than the day-to-day struggles of the squatter camp. His universe extends far beyond the informal settlement.

Pieter de Vos

Pieter de Vos is a documentary photographer and engaged academic. He is interested in questions of home, belonging, and identity. Over the past several years, Pieter has enriched his practice by using participatory photography, narrative inquiry, and arts-based methods to enhance dialogue and collaboration.