Modderdam Road runs from the N2 highway into the centre of beautiful downtown Bellville, part of greater Cape Town. I’ve been driving the four or so kilometers of the road to the University of the Western Cape every day for 10 years. Modderdam is a microcosm of the world we live in: vistas of development without transformation.

The first thing to say about Modderdam is that it changed a friend’s life. One day in the old days, with a few comrades, he lay down in front of a bulldozer to try to prevent shacks from being destroyed.

Randall begs outside the UWC main gate. He once told me that he lives in the graveyard with his grandmother and that he was 16 years old, but that was at least three years ago. He has a battered, adult look about him these days. For a while he had a sign laminated by someone at UWC, but now he’s back to cardboard pleas for money. He told me he makes about R30 a day. People leaving the university hand him food, and drink on hot days. It’s a good begging spot, I think, although pretty awful in the winter.

When I started working at UWC there were hordes of students at the intersections every morning, begging for lifts to the university. Along with other lecturers, I used to hold up the traffic to let two or three or four of them leap in with their books and papers. The young men would muscle out the young women, so I used to point to a woman or two in the crowd. My little car would lower itself to the ground and chug us into campus. I learned not to fit in five students (four in the back seat) because then we would scrape over the UWC speed bumps, no matter how slowly I negotiated them. Three in the back; one in the front with me. I would stop singing to the radio when they got in. It’s a well-known fact that lecturers don’t sing. And they would usually ask me where I was from and I would tell them. They would nod respectfully when I said I worked in the history department.

But there are no more students at those intersections. They used to loophole their way into university. They were dirt poor, squatting in Guguletu or Nyanga or living in a shack in Philippi, and they didn’t have enough money to take a taxi up and down Modderdam Road daily. So the academics, like me, zooming in from the southern suburbs, were the best bet for a way to skip the long walk and get to class on time. But times have changed. There are no more poor students waiting at the intersections. There was a transitional period when there were still a few, brandishing student cards to prove that they were not tsotsis. But then they disappeared too. UWC and national higher education policy have found ways to close all the loopholes for dirt-poor students. They don’t come to university any more. Now our students have taxi fare or drive their own cars.

Once there was a Lamborghini at the corner of Modderdam and Borcherd’s Quarry, opposite the Bishop Lavis flats. People in the taxis were pointing and taking pictures of it on their cellphones.

There are many cart horses on Modderdam Road. There used to be a horse in splendid brass tack, shiny and trotting proud. Now most of the horses look exhausted and thin, sometimes in rope harnesses. Sometimes there are whole burnt-out cars on their carts. Modderdam is not entirely flat, and towing the shell of a car on a cart must be hard work. Sometimes you see a person between the traces, straining scrap metal with all his might.

In the 1990s there were dead dogs squished in the Road every day. Now there are fewer squishes. The Road has its own shopping centre now, complete with KFC, and lately many warehouses have been put up on both sides of the Road. These buildings have no foundations, set on sandy soil that used to be covered in scrub brush and weeds. Modderdam, it turns out, is conveniently close to the airport and the highway. All the flat open space, now confined in warehouses for Pick n Pay and DHL. My colleague Keith once said that he saw little wild buck across the Road from UWC in the bush. Then they tore up the bush, flattened the sand and built gigantic warehouses for an aluminium company. They put up supports, a roof, precast walls and then smooth concrete over the sand. It’s quick. It takes months to build one measly little semi in the N2 Gateway project, but you can put up a whole warehouse in about six weeks.

Two or three years ago, an Irish NGO put up nice houses on Modderdam next to the highway in an empty field in a neighbourhood called Netreg. There are streets and lights and plumbing and the houses have proper tile roofs. These are what everyone thought was going to be rolled out to the poor in 1994 — good, decent houses. Not fancy, but nice, painted in cheerful colours. But no. After the Irish houses went up, shacks started to fill other Modderdam spaces. Shacks just like the ones my friend had tried unsuccessfully to defend 25 years before.

In particular, one set of shacks is called “the rastas”. First there was lumpy, sandy, weedy ground scattered with rubbish, next to a primary school. The school always had broken windows and no students that I could see as I drove by, so I was never sure if it was open or not. Then came one shack, then two, then 200.

The past two years have been busy for the rastas. Last year they were provided with electricity. As I drove by one day, the power poles were starting to go up. Then the lines started to come down into the shacks. Then porta-potties appeared. Now there’s a dumpster overflowing with all kinds of rubbish.

Along the meridian in the Road, the City of Cape Town has been planting thorn trees this year — the kind that giraffes like to eat. These thorny seedlings are each properly anchored inside a little shelter of gum-tree poles and wire mesh and now they stretch all the way to Bellville. This is good for the ozone layer. I think they planted thorn trees to keep people from hacking them down for firewood. But perhaps that’s too cynical, because thorn trees and sand and desolation may just naturally go together. But I bet they plant trees with proper leaves in Rondebosch and Claremont.

But then this year, someone planted little palm trees, too, in front of the shacks. Like a garden; and there’s an area ringed with little white stones with other garden plants inside.

And now, god help us, the city has seen fit to erect an 10-foot high electric Christmas tree right out in front of the rastas. It has a star on top and coloured lights. Let there be holiday cheer for the shackdwellers. There’s an electric tree in Bellville South, too, farther along the Road. With all due respect to its residents, Bellville South — one long greasy smear — has to be the grottiest place on Earth. I know that coloured people were moved there when they were forcibly removed from Bellville so that Afrikaner nationalism could have a place in Cape Town to call its own. But let not the obvious loveliness of Bellville South stop the City of Cape Town from bringing cheer to it with another 10-foot electric bulb tree with a star on top.

If the shacks have electricity, porta-potties, a dumpster, thorn and palm trees and cheer, does it mean that they are permanent? This is your neighbourhood! Get used to it! Shouldn’t the shack children have Christmas lights too?

Twice in 10 years I’ve seen pelicans flying overhead, coming from the False Bay direction. The first time it was just one bird, ponderous like a cargo plane, keeping time with my car all the way along. This year one morning there was a whole V-wing of pelicans, like a group of little fat people flapping in the air, silent and powerful.

Yesterday, Randall’s cardboard said: “Merre Christmas.”


  • Terri Barnes is an associate professor of history and gender/women's studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and a former faculty member in History, and higher education policy at the University of the Western Cape.


Terri Barnes

Terri Barnes is an associate professor of history and gender/women's studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and a former faculty member in History, and higher education policy at the University...

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