Part I

Thirty minutes later after leaving Soweto, when I meet David Dlamgamandla, it’s all too easy to understand just why Elizabeth, the woman I met in Soweto, is so happy. “Home” for David, his wife and their three children, is a curtained-off piece of floor in an abandoned, multistory building in downtown Johannesburg.

Nine families are crammed together in what used to be the office of a municipal transport official. Old calendars and a poster warning travelers to “Beware of parcel bombs” still decorate the walls.

Curtains fashioned from bedspreads and blankets provide only a semblance of privacy. Floor space for each family is minimal, a few square yards at most. Family life must be impossible here — imagine trying to keep the children quiet, always aware of others just behind the curtain. No chance to listen to your radio at night, not to mention the strain of knowing that your neighbors can hear your every word.

David Dlamgamandla
David came to Johannesburg after he was laid off five years ago. Like many he thought it would be easier to get work in the city. At first the family stayed in a squatter camp, but one day the municipality told them the land was needed to build houses. The squatters would be moved into temporary accommodation for three weeks, and then they would be given houses. That was four years ago, and David has been in this “temporary” shelter ever since.

Their little area is dark and airless. The building has electricity, but the power is switched off during the day to keep costs down. David says the only toilet and washing facilities are the old restrooms on each floor, and there are hundreds of families living in the building. I’m amazed once again to see how clean everything is, and how hard the residents work to keep the ancient and overworked facilities in good order.

In spite of their efforts, thought, the building is depressing. The foyer is terribly dark and the elevator hasn’t worked in years. Children peep round every corner, every door. Many of them look dirty but they seem happy enough, munching on huge sandwiches of white bread and peanut butter, oblivious of their runny noses and tattered clothes. At least they all have shoes and thick jerseys to keep out the cold.

Somehow, David hasn’t given up hope of getting his own home. But right now he is far more worried about getting a job. Sometimes he is able to get casual work, then he buys goods from local hawkers and sells them to people in the building. But most of the families living there are destitute like him. A job would really change his life.

As I drive away I feel really sorry for David. I wonder how he manages to keep optimistic, not losing hope as he sets out each day in his search for work. I marvel at his resilience.

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive


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