Life on South Africa's Margins

Like 7 million other blacks without housing, the Lamolas hope for safety and fight for rights

THE Lamola family believes that the road to the new South Africa is going to be long and painful. ``If you can put yourself in the position of a struggling person, you will see that negotiations don't mean very much,'' says Silas Lamola, a pensive man whose commitment to his community is even more important than goals for himself and his family. ``I haven't seen any major changes in the way we live,'' he says.

Mr. Lamola's quiet skepticism is founded in personal experience. His mood contrasts sharply with the expectation and hope among middle-class blacks.

If the main dynamic in South Africa is a conflict between the old and the new - between the hierarchy and tradition of the tribe and the new values of urbanization and Western-style democracy - the Lamolas are caught somewhere in the middle.

Lamola says that it will take generations to correct the distortions created by apartheid. He is convinced that strife and upheaval are as inevitable as the relentless wind that blows dust through the cracks in his home.

``We cannot lead a normal life under such conditions,'' says Lamola, pointing to the lack of facilities. ``We first have to build the community.''

Silas Lamola plays a special role in his community. He says he believes in God, but then proceeds in a passionate explanation of the importance of tribal ``ancestor worship'' and the central role that communicating with the ancestors plays in his decisionmaking. Perhaps because of his respect for and understanding of his ancestors, Silas is regarded as a natural mediator in the community.

With black-on-black violence raging, the only constant factors in the Lamolas lives are ``the community'' and their smiling daughter Trudy, who reflects the boundless energy of childhood.

Silas, Emily, and 7-year-old Trudy live in a wood-and-iron shack in this sprawling community of 30,000 about 25 miles south of Johannesburg. In the center of their tiny living room is the cabinet of a 1950s hi-fi set that is used as a storage cupboard. The dirt floor is covered by a carpet. There are no windows, so as soon as the front door is closed (which is essential to keep the dust out) the house is in darkness. Inside the shack, the walls are covered with newspapers to keep the dust and wind out and the warmth in.

In 1987, the Lamolas lived in Weiler's Farm, a rapidly growing squatter settlement about three or four miles from here. Emily Lamola, a dignified woman with a deep reserve of inner confidence, taught at the nursery school. Silas was a community activist at the forefront of the campaign to resist forced relocation by the government to Orange Farm. The community was unified in resisting continual demolitions, evictions, and arrests.

Because of his activist role, harassment by the authorities forced Silas to move to Orange Farm in early 1989. ``Fellow activists told me that, if I came here, I would be on my own,'' says Lamola. ``But I felt I had to come here for my safety.''

He has kept his tiny shack in Weiler's Farm and visits it at least once a week when he attends meetings of the old residents' committee. There he feels a sense of purpose as part of an organized political collective. Through attrition, Weiler's Farm has dwindled over three years from 10,000 to 1,000 people.

They are among 7 million blacks without permanent housing, about one-quarter of the black population. Since the system of influx control known as the ``pass laws'' was abolished in 1986, hundreds of thousands of blacks have streamed to the cities in search of employment. The prospect of huge shantytowns sprawled around major cities - once the ruling National Party's nightmare - is now accepted as a reality for the forseeable future.

Lamola has not yet built a shack in Orange Farm and lives in the shanty built by his late father-in-law for Emily's mother. Attempts to mobilize his new community have proven difficult. Residents are acquiring a vested interest in the new-found security of owning land and homes and see the prospect of improving their bleak fortunes. They pay about $200 for their sites. For $3,200 (with 95 percent of that amount borrowed), they can buy a hastily built stucco home.

After the African National Congress (ANC) was legalized last February, Silas became involved in trying to form a branch in Orange Farm. His efforts were thwarted by residents who have aligned with the provincial authorities to try to increase services to their area. Now his energies are devoted to organizing the ANC-aligned local street committees that he sees as vital to the struggle for empowerment.

``Life has changed. If I had a problem in the old days, I would tell my parents and they would summon uncles and elders,'' he says. ``Now if someone has a problem, they come to me - so I have to go to the street committee.''

A year ago there were more shacks than permanent homes here. Today homes outnumber shacks. The pink-painted Lamola shanty is becoming an island among the burgeoning houses of an aspiring middle class.

Emily, a member of the Sotho tribe, sometimes despairs. She would like to build a house and seek more of a balance between efforts for the family and for the community.

``She sometimes gets very upset with me,'' concedes Silas. ``But I just can't leave all these people behind.''

He has tried. After moving to Orange Farm in 1989, he took a job as an electrical assistant. He earned $300 a month, spent much of his time traveling, and felt like a ``fish out of water,'' being separated from his community. He didn't fit into the business mold and came into conflict with what he saw as exploitative working conditions. ``I was soon looked on as a troublemaker, because I was not satisfied with many of the employer's practices,'' he says. Today he devotes his time to helping Emily run the community nursery school. She earns $320 a month, and is the sole breadwinner.

On one of this reporter's visits, Silas was going to the city to buy a new suit. He bought the suit and took it home, but found it was too big. He hung it behind a curtain dividing the living room from the tiny bedroom. By the next week, when he was able to go back to the shop, the suit was impregnated with dust and needed to be dry cleaned to be returned.

``How can we go on living like this?'' he asks, glancing at Emily. ``For the sake of the family I might build a house here.''

That would be a turning point in Silas Lamola's journey from the old order to the new.


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