It was in Kliptown, Soweto, that the ANC entered into a covenant with its supporters in the form of the Freedom Charter on a winter Sunday in 1955. The document, with a lyrical power that marks it as a grand statement of political intent, offers a vision of a dignified future for all. That vision of dignity to come includes housing for all.
Today Kliptown is a place where people live in the ruins of broken promises.
Community activist and tour guide Robert Shai refurbishes the homes of Kliptown’s unemployed and destitute residents while they wait for houses. The thin man with beady eyes and dreads, has fixed countless homes. He identifies the need and sees how he can help, often fixing ceilings damaged by falling trees, removing rusty zinc damaged by rain or floods, and repainting shacks in the community with money he makes from tours.
Shai says he has no connection to the new construction in the area, including a pavement and a bridge connecting the Kliptown shack settlement to neighbouring Klipspruit. The Walter Sisulu Square development, has, he says, pushed street traders under the bridge where commuters catch the train.
“This makes me very angry, this square. Kliptown doesn’t have a school. Kliptown doesn’t have a clinic. Kliptown has no library. Now imagine how big that square is … You’re telling me they couldn’t compromise and add a library or a school on the one side for the community?” Shai asks angrily, gesturing towards Walter Sisulu Square of Remembrance and Soweto Hotel, which look down imposingly on the shops on bustling Union Street.
Shai claims community members cannot access the hall in the area as they are often told it is “fully booked”. He says that when events are hosted there barriers obscuring Kliptown are often erected. He adds that the new developments are purely commercial, and not there to serve the community.
“Here they are putting in new paving. People will never sleep on paving, they will never sleep on the bridge … We don’t want those things. We want houses, not the bridge, square or paving, because those things will never benefit us,” says Shai.
Shai seems to know everyone in the community, stopping to scold a mother whose daughter sold zinc from her shack to buy nyaope. A group of men and a woman with bloodshot eyes stand huddled in a corner, looking around suspiciously, passing around what looks like a baseball bat of a joint. They are all the colour of soot.
“We can quit this thing. If we can find something to do, we can forget about this and work, and focus on work,” slurs Thabang Ramabela, 30, while inhaling a drag of ‘skunk’, a powerful strain of cannabis.
Ramabela says that the construction of the bridge did not benefit the community. “Most of those who are employed there are there because they know someone. Why didn’t they come to the community and give them jobs? Some of those people live so far, Tembisa and other areas, when we are here,” he says.
Bangani Msiza, 32, believes the jobs should have been given to members of the community. He says that even when there are jobs, as weed smokers, he and his peers are often overlooked and discriminated against. “People don’t take us seriously. They look down on us because we are from an informal settlement. They look down on us because they say we do drugs, but they have never given us an opportunity,” he says.
Neo Dlamini, 28, says he gets through his days by smoking weed. He makes money by washing cars, gardening, and sometimes begging. “Those of us who smoke are talented, but we are just sitting … There are no activities to keep us busy, a sports ground or something … That hotel and square should have been exchanged for some recreational facilities,” he says. He has lived in Kliptown with his grandmother all his life.
Kliptown’s own Robin Hood
Kliptown was established in 1891 and officially recognised as a township in 1903. A few original houses still stand defiantly, fighting off inevitable dilapidation. Across the railway track, beyond piles of smokey, rancid garbage, is the Kliptown shack settlement. There is no electricity here and although some people have running water, most residents use communal taps. The settlement is best known for raging shack fires, floods, and ignored protests for housing, electricity and infrastructure.
Walter Nyoni, 69, has lived in Kliptown since 1961. His sister lives in the house he spent his teens in, while he lives in a 4m2 shack he bought for R200. “Nothing has changed since 1961 when I first moved here from Pretoria to work in the Lenasia barracks. I came here when I was 16,” says the pensioner, peering over his green “Ray Bon” aviator sunglasses and pulling a toothless smile.
In his modest home, he has a cassette player, a Moroka Swallows poster, a cramped bed, a paraffin stove and a collection of garden tools. Electric wires dangle from the roof. Shai says he is going to fix the old man’s home. He also plans to fix the home of Mercia Harris, 53, who stopped receiving her disability grant from the Department of Social Development without, she says, any reason. Part of her shack was destroyed in a fire.
Harris, who has four children, says her right hip was injured in an accident when she was younger. She would love to leave Kliptown, but does not have the means to. “It’s tough being a single parent, and this roof leaks when it rains so I have to put buckets,” she says, expressing gratitude that “Bra Kap”, as Shai is affectionately known in the community, will help her for free. Shai says government’s tune has changed over the years, with residents being promised everything from houses to electricity. But, apart from the tune, there are very few material differences.
Nonceba Kondlo, 53, was asleep one night in September 2016 when a tree fell on her shack. Shai came to her rescue in 2017. “I had to start over again because I had to throw away most of the things that were broken,” she says, speaking loudly over the sound of a screeching train passing just beside her shack.
Speaking in isiXhosa through thick toothpaste, Kondlo pours a small jug of water on her toothbrush, and looks at the soapy water in her red plastic bathtub. Her home is an organised stack of washing baskets, boxes and buckets. She says she has never needed electricity, and leaves goods that need to be refrigerated on the floor to keep them cool.
Like others who have opted not to connect their electricity informally, Kondlo says the increase in the fuel price is a big challenge for her as she spends R200 a month on paraffin. “I don’t even want to know, please leave me alone about that,” she replies, laughing, when asked how she is preparing for the imminent increase in the price of paraffin.
Some needs are more urgent than others
Shai weaves through the community, eventually stopping in front of buzzing electricity box, stuffed with multicoloured wires that scurry along the floor and eventually wrap themselves around a pole like ivy. Shai says he paid a “cold drink” to get his electricity connected. “You just pay R10 or R20 … You are washing his hand since he washed yours,” he says.
Informal connections are often cut, and although they cost Eskom, City Power and the City of Johannesburg large amounts of money, Shai says there is no alternative. He hopes they are given houses with electricity. “Houses are needed … Some of these houses are falling apart. Would you give someone like that electricity?” asks Shai rhetorically, pointing at a derelict brown house. “How can you give me something that I have? Give him a [new] house,” he says.
The narrow, dusty pathways lead through a maze of people living in squalid conditions. Red sand stains the shoes of anyone who walks there. Dirty water ploughs through the settlement, zig-zagging through litter. Sometimes you’ll catch a whiff of washing powder, but mostly it smells like sewage, because there are no drains and the portable toilets are emptied only twice a week.
A drunk man wanders through the pile of grey-white ash and rubbish towards the railway track leading to Kliptown station. Crossing the railway track without checking for an approaching train, Shai says residents can feel and hear when a train is coming.
Across the track, the Klipvalley River flows over rocks in the direction of the Dlamini and Chris Hani settlements. It comes from Pretoria and gradually flows towards the Vaal. In August, a two-year-old boy drowned in the river. He was not the first; many children drowned during flood season while on their way to school. Shai says people had to be moved from the area during flooding.
Grand old lady
An old house stands on 4th Street, a blue plaque stands out against the red brick wall. A board with ANC colours is obscured from view by a peach tree. This is the former home of Charlotte Maxeke, the first black South African woman to get a university degree, and the founder of the precursor to the ANC Women’s League. She died in 1939. The hospital in Parktown, formerly the Johannesburg General Hospital, was named after her.
The house is still remarkably sturdy. In 2015, plans to develop the house into a heritage site and museum surfaced, spelling trouble for the inhabitants of the house and the four shacks around it.
Magdeline Moatshe, 47, moved into the house in 1996 with her 22-year-old daughter, both of whom are unemployed. While making pap and spinach she got from a neighbour, Moatshe says that when she moved in, she did not know the house had once belonged to Maxeke, and now regrets living there.
“It is challenging to live here. There is no sense of privacy. There are always tourists, people wanting to come in, government officials who always want to do things. It makes me look like I am getting some sort of benefit from the government,” she says.
Moatshe says she does not like the ANC board at her gate, which promises that the house will be refurbished, because it attracts the wrong kind of attention. “That peach tree was not there when they put the board up, but now it has grown. I hate that sign because it results in that anger that has the community asking, ‘How can one house be renovated?’ There are many different parties and people already think I am getting something from the ANC when all they do is come here with zero all the time,” she says, wiping the sweat under her visor cap.
Moatshe says she was shocked to see community members on a local TV programme saying they did not want the house to be refurbished because there are shacks in the area that also need to be developed. She has been told that she will be relocated once renovations start, but she has not been told where. In the meantime, she says, “I am just a security.”
Just behind the main house, the smell of sour porridge wafts from the steel pot through Lesotho-born Julia Sefotsane’s house while old-school R&B bellows through a speaker in another room.
Sitting on a wooden bench and watching an episode of Imizwilili, Sefotsane says, while pointing at her ceiling, that she wants a decent house that does not let the rain in. “We don’t know what to do now, we are just quiet and worried,” she says. The 79-year-old says she doesn’t know what she will do if she is relocated when the house is refurbished. She has been renting the room for as long as she can remember and survives on her grant.
Shai says he has been waiting for a house for 16 years, but his heart goes out to the older generation who have been waiting longer and are now being offered flats as housing.
“What about those who arrived here before me? What about the grannies? Her whole life she has been here … Some even die while waiting for that promised land, and when it’s time for elections, we must go and vote. Some people have waited for more than 40 years … they keep saying, ‘houses are coming, houses are coming,’ but there is nothing happening,” he says indignantly.
Shai says the new flats being posed are too small and won’t accommodate the elderly, who are sometimes in wheelchairs or use crutches.
In just a few months, politicians will be meeting just a stone’s throw away at Nasrec in the run-up to elections, far from the reality of the forgotten town. They might pop in to ask for votes.