Mpho Mpshane can’t wait to escape the whiff of kerosene and the tupperware-munching rats in her car-sized shack in South Africa’s Diepsloot shantytown.
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 said with a laugh, shining the flashlight on her cell phone around her room which has no windows or electricity. “I wish I could always stay there.”
To make the 3-kilometer (2-mile) journey from Diepsloot to Dainfern is to travel across South Africa’s wealth gap that endures 20 years after the African National Congress promised to erase the inequality entrenched by white minority rule.
Unlike many townships, Diepsloot was born a year after Nelson Mandela came to power in the first all-race elections in 1994. The nation’s wealth gap has increased since the end of apartheid, with the Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality, having risen to 0.63 in 2009 from 0.59 in 1993. That was the worst of 42 countries in an index including Honduras and Colombia that year.
While Mpshane wouldn’t disclose her salary, the Department of Labour’s website says the minimum monthly wage for a domestic worker in urban areas for a 45-hour work week is 1,877.70 ($179).
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, said in a phone interview. “A few have done very well, some have moved uneasily into a lower middle class and for a large number it’s unchanged.”
Mpshane said she can’t support President Jacob Zuma’s ANC in today’s general elections. She wore the opposition Democratic Alliance’s blue T-shirt and floppy hat along with her gold-colored hoop earrings and necklace. Voting stations opened at 7 a.m. local time and closed at 9 p.m., with 25.4 million people having registered to cast ballots. The ANC is competing against 28 rivals.
Diepsloot was a meadow until 1995, when it was formed by blacks taking advantage of the freedom of movement allowed by the end of apartheid to flock to Johannesburg, South Africa’s commercial hub, in search of work. They were joined by migrant workers from Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Somalia, who’ve been targets of frequent attacks of xenophobic violence.
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 amongst the wealthy; they’ve retreated into their little enclaves,” Vanessa Barolsky, a researcher at the Pretoria-based Human Sciences Research Council, said in a phone interview. “Dainfern is an excellent example of that, where they’ve created a little walled city removed from the South African state itself.”
Visitors to Dainfern must pass through a security gate and have an invitation from one of the 1,200 resident families on the 800-acre (324-hectare) estate. The guards record their drivers license and vehicle details before granting access.
A year-long membership at the the 18-hole golf course, which has a wooden club-house deck, costs as much as 18,200 rand.
During a recent visit a housekeeper in a pink uniform with a floral apron walked a Yorkshire terrier past the open doors of salmon pink villas, which show off Roman statuettes and pillars. The only sounds were the sprinklers watering the manicured lawns, birds in the treetops and the golf carts zooming about.
The estate publishes a monthly magazine featuring pictures mostly of white people enjoying life playing golf or sitting in a hot tub. It also runs articles on garden gnomes.
Back in Diepsloot, the air is filled with the stench of overflowing sewage and the sound of car horns. A mass of mostly unemployed people walk along the side of the road, where men work on battered cars or sell fruit and vegetables from cobbled-together wooden stalls.
Mpshane gets her water by filling a recycled 20-liter (5.3-gallon) bucket from a leaky roadside tap that soaks the littered sandy ground.
One of the frequent fires that ravage Diepsloot, where people use kerosene for heating, destroyed Mpshane’s previous home, so her late husband built her shack by hammering metal sheets together and lining them with cardboard for insulation. A rusty garage door serves as the roof. When it rains, water drips in through cracks on the side.
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, she said.
Mpshane says she doesn’t drink tea, her favorite beverage, in the afternoon, to make sure she doesn’t have to make the 50-meter journey down a sodden track to the cubicle at night. It’s too dangerous, she said. Her shack was broken into while she was at work in February. The burglars took her son’s laptop. The next most valuable thing they could find was bed linen.
“I believed in the dream of a better life for all; I was wrong,” she said. “There are all these shacks, all these people are unemployed. South Africa is a rich country, it shouldn’t be like this.”