white poverty

THE BOSS: Kasandra Nel is a big presence in Bethlehem, an informal settlement for poor whites in Pretoria, where they grow vegetables to survive. Pic. Antonio Muchave. 22/04/2008. © Sowetan.
THE BOSS: Kasandra Nel is a big presence in Bethlehem, an informal settlement for poor whites in Pretoria, where they grow vegetables to survive. Pic. Antonio Muchave. 22/04/2008. © Sowetan.

Madala Thepa

Madala Thepa

Deprivation and destitution have bitten too soon for the people in Bethlehem, a white informal settlement in Andeon Extension 1, Pretoria North. The grim reaper hovers in the fog with a scythe in hand on Beverley Street, next to the Zandfontein cemetery.

The place is much more than down to earth. It is wretched.

Tending to their basic needs - food, clothes and shelter - is all that matters and all that preoccupies the substandard existence of the Beverley Street tenants. It's a lonely fate, a freaked-out existence.

Power cuts are a foreign concept since electricity is a distant luxury that eludes the small, plank houses. The brutal cold snap freely carves out a telling mark on the pale skins of the emaciated inhabitants.

On this mild winter day, we arrive to an indifferent welcome from two men basking in the sun with their dog Jasper. They have taken a break after toiling in the garden since half past seven. Other occupants are in the middle of a siesta to be followed by the day's second meal.

Visitors are treated with reverence, for they can be saints bearing gifts.

A washed-up old man comes rushing to us only to have his hopes dashed on learning that we are from a newspaper. He sends for Kasandra Nel, a sturdy 51-year-old woman with a big presence and the most perfect human in the place. Her job includes welcoming guests, taking care of and cooking donated food for the 29 homeless residents.

A subset of the Afrikaner community, most of them are grit-eyed and are on the cusp of going dead. The land they occupy is owned by Arnold Crause, a man who has provided electricity in the kitchen where the food is sometimes prepared.

Nel comes across as strict and tough.

She reads a protocol of rituals before she allows us into the yard.

"We always tell people to make appointments before coming here. Always tell the newspapers that they should let us know before coming to Bethlehem," she says thumping her palm. "But today I'll help you. Next time do make a call, please."

Nel came here four years ago and stays with her husband.

"I had a hard fall down to earth," she says and never broaches the subject again.

Aan God Die Eer, [To God be the Glory] is written on a board.

"It's all about God," she says. "No one else would do what God can do."

She gains comfort from the Word of God and quotes it from the heart.

The community survives by planting a garden patch the size of a decent suburban yard with potatoes, onions and spinach and sell the produce to the public.

Carel du Rand, a tall and lean man with eyes always squinted, is the foreman. He does not say much.

"The profits go to the people working in the garden. We share it," he says. "We also supply an old-age home with spinach, which is planted on river sand. Actually it's hydroponics, a method of growing plants using mineral nutrient solutions instead of soil."

It's fair exchange not charity. They work and get rewarded with food and clothing.

The only car we see is a red Toyota. It's at house number 17, the home of a woman who goes by the name of Anika. She is slippery, antsy and speaks really fast.

The house has a fence and a sign on the gate: Bankfin Find Jou Eie Bank [Bankfin Find your own Bank].She says it's a funny saying she came up with.

"People here are stressed. Everyone is thinking about problems so when they pass here and read the sign they get to laugh," she says and quickly slips into the house.

The Word of God is big in Bethlehem. They have a church called Novis Vita, in a small hall in Crause's yard.

"The church leadership named the place Bethlehem. People come from all over to worship. It's not only us," Nel says.

On the pulpit is the inscription Die meester is hier en hy roep jou (The master is here and he is calling you).

When we leave, Nel is preparing potjiekos. The buzz that greets us when we enter the property is back again.

God is calling.