When equality means hate for all: John Carlin finds the motives of a white South African living in a black squatter camp are not all they might be

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The Independent Online
THIS MIGHT have been a heartwarming story, a parable for the new South Africa about a white man, an Afrikaner, who discovered wisdom and contentment living among the poorest of the country's black poor. But it is not quite that.

Hendrick Wegewath, 33, is something of a misanthropist. The motives behind his decision to settle across the bay from Table Mountain in Marconi Beam squatter camp are not of the purest. Four years ago he deserted his wife and two children because he could stand neither them nor the brother with whom he shared a house in a white working-class suburb. He had a job as a security guard, but gave it up six months later.

In 1989 Marconi Beam, situated next to a manufacturing complex, was a large, flat, vacant lot on which a handful of people lived in boxes and tents. Today, Mr Wegewath lives among 8,000 Africans and two newly-arrived whites - whom he has avoided befriending - in what has mushroomed into a typical South African shanty town. Everybody is barefoot; there is a pervasive smell of urine; tinny African pop plays eternally in the background; old cars whose seats and tyres have long disappeared gather rust; broken toys and teddy bears lie in pools of mud.

Mr Wegewath lives in a larger-than-average wood and cardboard shack with his Coloured concubine, Jenny, her four children, a black man called Gibson, his wife and daughter, seven dogs and six racing pigeons.

Unlike Mr Wegewath, known to his neighbours as Whitey, Jenny is not in Marconi Beam out of choice. She was married to a 65-year-old German whom she loved dearly until his death two years ago. She was kicked out of the white district where they lived and slept in public parks for a few months before hitching up with Hendrick. She talked only when he was out of the room, making it plain this was a relationship of convenience, and when he appeared, she fled. He hits her, she said. Maybe he hits her children too, whom he treats roughly. Only for the dogs, especially a big black one, does he show any fondness. 'Me, I don't trust anyone. I came alone and I'll go alone.'

A castaway who jumped overboard because he could not stomach the ship's company, he is the unromanticised image of Robinson Crusoe. Blond, lank hair; wispy beard; hollow cheeks; bony chest; thin legs; barefoot; grimy. Why did he leave white society?

'Man, the story is I wanted to be on my own. I came here to think things up. I was fed up of other people. Other people's everyday problems, small things, family things. I don't want to stay with my family. I want to stay on my own and battle on my own and take care of my own hassles.'

He kept on insisting that he was on his own, which was clearly, at one level, preposterous, given the teeming humanity in his shack. The difference was that when he lived in white society he had predetermined responsibilities. Here he had none. 'Yes, there are people here. But they don't worry me. They're not my problem.'

The one big lesson he said he had learnt from living in Marconi Beam was that all people, black and white, were equal - equally bad. 'Other white people think all the black people are wrong. But Afrikaners, Indians, Portuguese, all are the same as us here. Whites also smoke dagga (marijuana); whites also drink; whites also steal; whites also stab and kill. Parliament people are also the same, only they keep their crimes hidden. A black man might go to your house and steal a video or a TV. Whites do the same thing, but in a hidden way. All are the same, no matter the colour. I prefer nobody.'

Was he happy living with black people? 'If there's problems, I sort them out myself,' he replied. Pushed, he mellowed, indicating he did, in fact, prefer black to white society. 'I feed myself by doing odd jobs. I fix radios, mend broken chairs, put up new houses. Sometimes I battle. But If I battle, people give us food. If you haven't got anything, they give you. If you go to sleep hungry it's your business. All you have to do is ask. But in the white community if you got, you got. If not, you got nothing.'

He has no intention of returning to his family, even if they offer. He has enough food. Water he obtains from a communal tap. Electricty he obtains from a car battery which he recharges every four days at a local factory for less than pounds 1. As for politics, he mildly dislikes Nelson Mandela and has a certain regard for F W de Klerk, but otherwise is not interested. 'I support no party. Here's my party,' he says. His one answer to the problems life brings is to walk away. 'If you've had enough, you've had enough and it's time to go . . . I have no worries. I walk my way.'

(Photograph omitted)