Diepsloot is a well written and researched account of a specific burgeoning settlement on the outskirts of Johannesburg. It is part of the post apartheid world of migrancy to the city. Harber has been called “the slayer of stereotypes” and indeed he is. The study is about people coming from somewhere else, trying to find a space to call home, to start a life in the city and find a job. The book reveals the problems and challenges of overcrowded formal and informal living with minimal services. Diepsloot is perhaps home to 200 000 people.
Harber writes in a readable, accessible manner about the people he meets and how they see their lives, hopes and futures at a specific moment in time (circa 2010). It is a carefully researched book. Harber has interviewed hundreds of people and he has also talked to the experts who clearly do not have instant solutions and answers to the socioeconomic conditions that have given rise to a settlement of this type. The wealthy who live in surrounding, nearby suburbs (Dainfern and Chartwell – places of gated settlements and horsey country living small holdings) don't want dense masses of people on their doorsteps, but the poor have nowhere else to go and the city encroaches. Everyone who is here hopes for a better life and that hope includes the possibility of being given an RDP for gratis (a small formal home provided by government). But normal life becomes orderly even in a largely informal settlement with churches, schools, shebeens, spaza shops. Diepsloot was meant to be a transit camp but became a permanent home.
Harber writes with some authority based on his gritty investigative approach and on site research. He meets the people, he is non judgmental and sees Diepsloot as a microcosm of urban demographic transition and at the cutting edge of issues around service delivery. Harber keeps on asking questions and one line of enquiry then leads deeper into the murky territory of who is responsible for the provision of services, what to do about xenophobia, how South Africans and people from other parts of Africa coexist. He gives face and form to the scale of the challenge when one notes that Diepsloot (literal meaning of the name is deep ditch) is only one of 182 such settlements around Johannesburg, all competing for public services (water, transport, roads, sewerage, schools, clinics etc.) and resources are beyond limited. No wonder, Johannesburg's slogan, "A World Class African City" now rings so hollow and is so difficult to deliver on and this impacts on both the affluent and the poor.
Any weaknesses in the book? It's not a scientific or planning study so lacks neatly tabulated data showing change through time, there is no bibliography, no footnotes and is not in that sense an academic book. The strength is that it is readable, accessible, gives direct voice to people who live in Diepsloot and care about what is happening. It is an essential book that adds to the literature on Johannesburg. Diepsloot cannot be ignored if you are a student of Johannesburg!
2017 Guide Price: +- R150 on Bid or Buy; +-R320 via Takealot
Kathy Munro is an Honorary Associate Professor in the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of the Witwatersrand. She enjoyed a long career as an academic and in management at Wits University. She trained as an economic historian. She is an enthusiastic book person and has built her own somewhat eclectic book collection over 40 years. Her interests cover Africana, Johannesburg history, history, art history, travel, business and banking histories. She researches and writes on historical architecture and heritage matters. She is a member of the Board of the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation and is a docent at the Wits Arts Museum. She is currently working on a couple of projects on Johannesburg architects and is researching South African architects, war cemeteries and memorials. Kathy is a member of the online book community the Library thing and recommends this cataloging website and worldwide network as a book lover's haven.