A few hundred dogs barking, the grunt of pigs and the squeaky screech of marmoset monkeys welcome the visitors of an unusual settlement north of Tshwane (formerly Pretoria), the South African capital city. Kosmos, a Boer community was created almost twenty years ago by local handyman Ian Jansen van Vuuren and now houses about seventy dwellers and a wide range of country animals.
“In Kosmos, everyone lends a helping hand to the other”, explained Ian. In the ‘90s, he settled in a patch of veld, a word describing the South African open field in Afrikaans. Ian is one of the descendants of the European colons who first set foot in Southern Africa in the 1600s.
When Ian first established Kosmos, his home was a double-decker bus which embodied the dream of self sustainability and independence. When his children and grandchildren joined him, a few free-spirited people followed their example. The settlement soon turned into a small town in the outskirts of the big city.
With time, Kosmos welcomed homeless and retired people. Ian started managing the residents’ pensions, using their small but fundamental income to buy necessities such as food and medicines. The community grew stronger when the animal shelter was built, giving everyone a purpose and attracting donations from animal lovers.
Today, the residents of Kosmos are organized in a self-sustainable micro-society, where each plays their part for the communal good. They embody the Afrikaans concept of helpmekaar, mutual aid; some looking after the animals or the shared borehole, some cleaning and washing, some preparing food, others building or repairing the facilities of the village.
“All I can do is work with cast iron, but I have someone who cleans and cooks for me”, explained Rudolph, who is in charge of the communal boiler for hot water. His basset hound is an inseparable friend, who keeps company to him and his neighbors. Rudolph is affected by epilepsy, but medical treatments don’t concern him. “When I feel a bit bad, I just go to my house and let it pass. When an attack gets worse, our benefactor, Ian, looks after me,” he concluded.
Thys, another denizen, is preparing mieliepap to feed the animals. “I used to work in Kempton Park, at the airport. When the contract ended, I had to make another plan and I found myself here.” Cooking is his job in this unique time bank. “I couldn’t live more happily,” he reflected.
At the center of the settlement, several enclosures host the canine population of the Paws Love Animal Shelter. The community of Kosmos feeds and looks after the rescued animals, waiting for a family to adopt them.
A brick house at the entrance of the animal shelter has become a makeshift bakery, where some ladies prepare trademark eet-sum-mor, rusks, scones, shortbread and many other boer treats. Boxes of fresh eggs pile up on one of the shelves: “our chickens produce enough to sustain us and to sell,” explained one of the ladies.
The village also has an outdoor area, with a swimming pool and games for the children, which the residents built or brought in across the years.
At lunchtime, everyone gathers inside the canteen to receive their ration of food. Some of them just finished a tiring shift, while others are ill or disabled.
“We try to accommodate all those in need,” said Ian. He found Paul, a disabled senior, begging in the street and took him under his wing. “Ian took me with his bakkie [pickup] and brought me here, where everyone looks after me,” affirmed Paul. Other residents were abandoned at Kosmos by their families. Among them, 59-years-old Denise joined the community after a serious injury in a motorbike accident.
“I used to be a stripper,” said Denise. “I performed with a snake around my neck and scared troublemakers away with my reptile. I was part of a biker gang, the ‘Black Widows’!” Her youth days are long gone. In their place are the scars and permanent chills resulting from a life on edge. The other dwellers are like a new family to her, as a consequence of many years living together. “I see my blood sisters sometime, but because of Covid I haven’t met anyone in the last few months.”
The less fortunate inhabitants of Kosmos move around in a wheelchair, while Piet (40) cannot leave the room where his oxygen mask is plugged. In the place of a nurse, he has a whole adoptive family to give him treatment and keep him company.
“I wish I could assist more people,” said Ian with a sense of regret, “but this is the most that we can do.” The past few months have been especially hard for the increasing homeless population of Tshwane. “During the lockdown we cannot take anyone in, but the requests are ever-growing,” he said. “I get calls from desperate people every day.”
With the rise of poverty, abuse is becoming a constant feature across the capital city's destitute neighborhoods. “Women came to us to escape from their abusive husbands, and all I could do was to give them some money and send them to the police station. But I know the police won’t do enough to help them,” continued Ian.
Many women and children live in Kosmos, where they are protected by a caring community. Elsewhere, the most vulnerable are everyday victims of atrocious abuse and complicity.
In fact, while gender-based violence has become a priority challenge for the South African government many spheres of society underestimate the entity and seriousness of the social ill. Law enforcement agents often turn a blind eye to rape and femicide in their communities, leaving no option for most women but to endure abuse. Gender-based violence escalated during the pandemic, pushing President Cyril Ramaphosa to define it as “another pandemic that is raging in our country – the killing of women and children by the men of our country”.
With thousands of Covid-19 cases daily, South Africa has not yet removed its lockdown regulations, six months into a state of disaster. This paralysis, however, has not had any direct effects on the residents of Kosmos. They don’t need to wear masks or apply social distancing, since the community hardly receives any visitors. However, the sense of solitude is on the rise, as most of them have lost any contacts with the outside world since March.
That’s why a small but dedicated group of philanthropists took up the initiative to support Kosmos, as well as other communities across Pretoria. They bring clothes and food every Saturday and cook for the residents on special occasions. One of them, an amateur hunter, often shares buckets of game meat to prepare the traditional potjiekos stew.
“When the pandemic started, we realized how tough this would have been but we also understood how lucky we are,” explained Giovanni Maiorana, who owns a restaurant nearby. “We took the responsibility to assist those who are less fortunate. By doing so we also understood so much about ourselves.”
Like Kosmos, several communities and caravan camps in Northern Pretoria are home to thousands of unemployed and elderly residents. Their stories, not often told, describe a transition from colonial conquest and oppression to democratization. They were ideologically opposed to the totalitarian apartheid regime, people like Ian, Rudolph, Denise, and many others are once more marginalized by a democratic political order, which inherited much of the corruption and social ills of the same apartheid regime it replaced.
Ian’s wit and capability to create such an elaborate microcosm is best described by the Afrikaans expression 'n boer maak 'n plan (a Boer makes a plan). Descendant of the Huguenot fugitives who left the Netherlands over 400 years ago, the Boers spread across Southern Africa during the gold rush and learned to survive through hardship in a foreign land. The pioneering attitude of the Boer people allowed many of them to resist in these trying times, without losing hope. “You have to laugh it all out,” smirked Denise.
On leaving Kosmos, volunteer Eddie Germena concluded, “Meeting this community in such a remote place has taught us how important it is to help each other and be creative, especially in a moment like this. It is a lesson which will change our lives.”
Alessandro Parodi is a Johannesburg-based reporter with a passion for cultural studies and urban ethnography. He is a regular contributor to the Italian-South African weekly publication La Voce del Sudafrica and the travel magazine Nomad Africa. (Twitter: @apnews360)
Manash Das is a freelance photojournalist based in South Africa and India. His work mainly focuses on humanitarian issues, conflicts, and daily life. (Twitter: @manashdasorg)