After the authorities demolished their shacks in Vusimuzi, Ekurhuleni, over the past three weeks, residents say they now have to come up with rent money that they do not have.
On 22 and 29 November and 8 December, officers from the Ekurhuleni Metro Police Department (EMPD) and the Land Invasion Unit tore down about 40 shacks in different parts of Vusimuzi, Ward 90, on Gauteng’s East Rand. One of the sites also houses electrical transmission towers.
Wearing navy-blue overalls with neon green reflectors, Maite Molomo, 45, says people do not choose to live in squalor. “Some are along the riverbank, you see? When there is too much rain, there is a risk of them being swept [up] by the water. Some are living in a muddy place, some are under the power lines, some cannot afford rent and the person they are renting from doesn’t understand … these are the challenges … people don’t work,” says Molomo.
Until his shack was demolished, Molomo, who works as a portable-toilet cleaner, lived for five months in the part of the settlement close to Mooifontein cemetery.
“There [was the] issue of crime and rape in that area [where their shacks were demolished], it’s a route to the business side. When people are coming from the mall, they pass by and when someone wants to take chances, they will mug you. When cars are hijacked, they are dumped there,” he explains.
After he and a few others moved to the site, crime reduced significantly, he says.
Trying hard to smooth over his evident irritation, Molomo says: “We had converted illegal dumping sites and turned them into our homes and [officers] feel comfortable that rats should live here because we are taking homes from the rats.”
Founded in 1995, Vusimuzi is a place of some 8 000 shacks, and many more households.
Things have been tense in the northern part of Vusimuzi, where residents are uncertain about whether reblocking will be reintroduced in the area.
Forced to live in squalor
Phetheni Mbata and Hlanganani Sithole, both 47, live with their two grandchildren. Their shack on Thukela street was also demolished. “They told us that it’s because of this power line cable that we are under … they said we cannot be under it,” says Sithole sadly, shrugging while sitting in his sparsely-furnished shack.
Mbata and Sithole pay R300 rent. Their shack was demolished towards the end of last month but, barring a few patches of sunlight coming in from exposed parts of the zinc, rebuilding is almost complete. The two have lived in Vusimuzi all their lives and only moved to the side of Vusimuzi closest to Birch Acres Mall three months ago in search of better opportunities.
Sithole sells iJuba (traditionally brewed beer, usually sold in cartons) while Mbata makes money by collecting and recycling old tins.
Just outside Sithole’s shack, muddy green water slowly trickles down the street and flows in various directions up Thukela Street, where nine of the 40 demolished shacks stood. Two men walk between the muddy tracks. One has an ngudu (750ml bottle) of Castle Lager in one hand and a live white chicken in the other. In a nearby muddy ditch filled with litter, a man destroys an old black TV set with a brick, discarding the parts he does not need in the mess.
A handful of occupiers say that after the demolitions they were the laughing stock of the community because they had to guard their goods from “nyaope boys” keen to make a quick buck at the scrapyard. (Nyaope boys are youths addicted to drugs, commonly weed, or nyaope, a powerful cocktail of drugs including heroine.)
Five septic-tank trucks are parked near a tuckshop, the drivers sitting idly on top of Coca-Cola crates, lazing under the shade. A woman angrily asks why the workers took so long to come and clean their toilets.
Molomo says that the portable toilets are often not drained and cleaned on time, causing hygiene and sanitation problems.
Water in the streets is from rain or is grey water thrown out of tin and plastic bathtubs daily by residents. The water usually mixes with algae, litter and chemicals from the toilet drainage system, creating a potent, putrid smell that lingers in the air and attracts large green flies.
Sithole toils relentlessly in the scorching afternoon heat, wiping away beads of sweat with his big hands, which are greying thanks to the tools and material he has been handling. He is doing this for Mbata, who cannot sleep while the shack is exposed. Raising his head frequently to peer out from under his bucket hat, he carefully hammers nails on to a slab of wood.
Limpopo-born Vincent Mmola, 42, says he has lived in Vusimuzi since 2008 but recently moved to near the Mooifontein cemetery occupation. He resents how the evictions were carried out. “If you evict people, you must give them notice or something, not just arrive and throw people’s things out, that is not right. I feel betrayed by what they did … it’s not right and it’s not fair. We are humans, not some rats you just throw in a ditch. What they did is not sitting well with me,” the tall man says through a clenched jaw.
Earning only R2 500 a month, Mmola has to stretch his salary to cater for a family of seven living in Limpopo. His money covers rent, food, school and transport.
Tiny Machaba, 36, sells chicken feet near Sangweni taxi rank. Sometimes business does not go well for her. She says, on average, she makes R1 500 a month but she uses it on rent. Her husband is not working and she has two children back in Limpopo whom she must support.
She says she cried and begged officers to stop demolishing her shack under the power pylon, but they did not heed her pleas. “They demolished mine completely, I was supposed to move in at the end of [November] … but they said they don’t care if I only need one more piece of zinc to move in, they are going to destroy the shack,” says Machaba, whose building material was either bent or destroyed.
Melita Ngcobo, 37, a member of shack-dweller movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, says the community members are aware of the danger of living under the transmission tower, but they are escaping from the trap of uMastandi (‘landlord’ in Zulu).
Less dangerous than renting?
“It’s better than renting because if you are living under uMastandi, if you don’t have money to rent and it’s the end of the month, they want their money, they don’t laugh with you, they will kick you out. They want their money … it’s better to live under a power line knowing that you will stand a chance to get an RDP than to pay rent,” says Ngcobo.
According to Ngcobo, they went to the local government authorities for answers but were told the issue was difficult to resolve because of the danger of the electricity pylon. “There must be 3 000 shacks under the power line if you follow these connecting lines,” she says, pointing to a transmission tower.
Speaking over the rattle of the zinc caused by a gust of wind sweeping through, Sithole says: “What amazes me is why they only demolished for us when there are so many houses under these power lines.”
The leaf-green zinc of the structure belonging to Rock of Salvation Ministries stands out against the monotonous silver-grey zinc shacks. The church doubles up as a voting station for community members to cast their votes for their “uncaring” ANC councillor, Hendrick Selwana. The church is located under a transmission tower but was not demolished.
As part of the ANC’s Title Deed Friday campaign, Gauteng Premier David Makhura was in Tembisa three weeks ago to give away title deeds. None of the land occupiers went because they have lost hope.
Siyanda Zulu, 30, is visibly upset. “If people who applied in 1997 are here with us, hope [for title deeds] is small if not non-existent.” Laughter fills the room, but he does not smile. His bloodshot eyes don’t meet anyone else’s as he absent-mindedly fiddles with his 2010 World Cup Argentina soccer shirt.
Zulu works as a security guard and does not have a fixed salary. He is disappointed because he thought he had found a place to live. “What we need is just a place to lay our heads because we have no places to stay, and we don’t have money to rent … there is nothing we can do. The jobs we are working are not right because they don’t allow us to raise our children to live well, we don’t earn enough, where we are coming from, we are also supporting people,” says Zulu, his voice quivering.
“No matter how long you rent from uMastandi, when they want their money, they want it … If there is no longer money that you are giving him, he will kick you out and it’s not his business where you move to after that.”
His partner, Misangani Ngidi, a 27-year-old mother of three, says R600 of her R1 230 child welfare grant goes to rent. She says she was returning from the the social security grant office when she saw that her shack was being demolished.
“I was already done, all I needed was a roof. As I walked up, I saw it was being demolished. I didn’t know what to do,” says Ngidi, narrowing her eyes behind the thick red clay on her face. Looking down, she continues, “I had already said goodbye to uMastandi, but when I got here, everything was demolished.”
Ngidi and Machaba are worried as they have now incurred an unexpected expense because they have to pay rent, meaning tough sacrifices must be made. “This money we thought we had saved was supposed to be to buy the children some December clothes and food but that won’t happen now,” sighs Machaba.
Ngidi’s son is graduating from preschool and needs a uniform for primary school. “I will only buy these things with the grant money from January, this is definitely heartbreaking,” she says, looking down at the floor.
EMPD spokesperson Wilfred Kgasago says demolition instructions to law enforcers come from politicians. He directed New Frame to City of Ekurhuleni spokesperson Themba Gadebe, who says no court order was required. “The demolished structures were those of new invaders who were still in the process of erecting structures … we have a Land Invasion Unit which is constantly monitoring potential hot spots and the area concerned has been under surveillance to prevent any illegal occupation of land.”
Growing settlement, here to stay
Ngcobo claims that some who were tenants elsewhere fled and occupied the strip because reblocking meant they were now being kicked out in order for shacks to be resized. Reblocking is a process that claims to reorder shacks so that services can be delivered easily, with roads for vehicle accessibility and minimal disruption to residents.
Although it has been indefinitely halted in the north of Vusimuzi, Gadebe reiterated that reblocking is a vital intervention “to ensure informal settlement dwellers receive services and restoration of dignity”.
Ngcobo says she hopes alternative vacant land will be allocated to them so they can build their own homes. “Everyone has big dreams, the problem is that we cannot get jobs,” she says.
According to her, they are sleeping with one eye open, afraid that the officers who came on earlier occasions will return and demolish their shacks again.