Durban – What is it like to live in a shack or an abandoned water pipe? If you’re reading this, you’re likely to be a middle-class South African who will probably have little idea and even less interest in imagining the grim details.
But this desperate condition is the daily experience of hundreds of thousands of South Africans.
With her first two novels, Carol Campbell has poured dramatic light on the darkness that cloaks the “invisible” people of the Karoo. The first, My Children Have Faces, is about the “donkey-cart people” there.
Published last year to great acclaim, the book has already sold an impressive 10 000 copies.
Now, with Esther’s House, Campbell has dramatised the lives of people who try to break free of the cycle of poverty that
afflicts them, specifically those people who live in shacks which they call hokke (literally animal cages).
The main character, Esther, discovers her years of waiting for an RDP house have been for nothing when a corrupt municipal
official takes her off the waiting list in favour of those prepared to grease the palm with money and sexual inducements.
Enraged, Esther and her friend Katjie illegally “occupy” houses being built for others, with dramatic consequences.
Campbell, a mother of two who also works as a senior journalist on The Mercury, ran a petrol station with her husband in Prince Albert.
During her 12 years there, she learned about the conditions in which the staff lived.
“In a rural environment, you interface far more closely with each other than you would in the city, so I quickly got to know the people, their children and their problems.”
The petrol station was on the outskirts of the lokasie (township) at Prince Albert, and all the workers came from there.
“I noticed how people battled with the health of their kids and I used to get involved. They struggled with many issues.
People were coming to work with slashed faces after fighting with bottles, or not coming to work at all because their stuff had been chucked out by the landlord.”
Meanwhile, Campbell’s children went to school at nearby Oudtshoorn and she began to investigate the lives of the dispossessed in
that town. The spark for the book was a mixture of the people she met there and in Prince Albert, as well as a real-life incident that took place in Oudtshoorn in 2009.
“There was a hiccup in the system. In fact Oudtshoorn was put under administration because of incompetent and corrupt officials and politicians.
One official did what a character in my book did, wiping people off the computerised housing lists in favour of those who would pay, with money or bodies.
It was the old people who ‘occupied’, it was the over-40s. “It was the people who had been on the waiting list for years before discovering they had been rubbed out. They were good people, people who never broke the law.”
Campbell said it was easy for city people to roll their eyes and ignore social tensions over housing.
“The point of my story is to say no, these are our people, these are our South African people who are going through so much. They are human beings with real aspirations for their children and they are struggling to navigate this system, to navigate around corruption, to get roofs over their heads so they can live like human beings, and, as Esther says, not like an animal.”
She noted the massive differences between living in a hok and a house.
“How do you put your makeup on when you’re in a hok, how do you wash yourself properly, where’s your privacy?
Your sex life improves if you have privacy, your marriage is more solid, your children aren’t seeing things they shouldn’t see, you can put kids to bed if you’re in a house. It’s so difficult in a shack, kids just fall down and sleep.
“The moment people go out of a hok and into a proper house, their status improves in the community, their whole sense of self changes. They now have an address, they can receive their post, they’re not beholden to a shack landlord.
Everyone’s health improves, you start to aspire to things like fridges and beds and stoves, you can go to the toilet and
turn on your own tap at night for a drink of water.”
Campbell said she completely identified with the people she was writing about.
“I was terribly aware of being a white person writing about a black world and of not being patronising. As it turned out, it was easy for me to feel their suffering.”
She described alcohol as a “scourge” in the community.
“The culture is built around it and I’m not sure how it will be resolved.
“The churches certainly help. If young people find Jesus before the bottle, they’ve got a chance.”
As a journalist and wannabe novelist, Campbell was in a unique position to dramatise the lives of the people who
lived around her. She said there are few books written about the lives of the poor.
“I could see the story, and I knew how to tell it. And I also knew that it had to be a book that had a lasting life. Journalists
write these kinds of stories all the time, but they have a very short life.”
For Campbell, the key was to write a novel that built a bridge between the poor folk of the Karoo and her readers.
“I felt that if I could make the reader empathise with the characters, if they could feel Esther’s suffering, then I would
be doing some good as a writer.
After all, isn’t this what we’re trying to achieve in this country, to make people understand each other?”
*Esther’s House by Carol Campbell (Umuzi) is available at all major bookshops.