Since June, families had been living in shacks located directly across from RDP houses in Lehae, close to Lenasia south of Johannesburg.
Eventually, in October, the frustrated shack-dwellers moved into the incomplete RDP houses. Some houses did not have roofs, windows, ceilings and working toilets.
Lehae, which means “a home” in Sesotho, is a community crawling with police. Here, the three single women who were at the forefront of the occupation say that the difficult part was preparing their families for the worst that might happen with the law.
Khombisile Ndlovu, 42, who was born in KwaZulu-Natal, is a former cleaner who lives with her two children. She says she applied for an RDP house in 2010. “It’s difficult to stay here with a child. We told them that where we are going, it’s a whole new war and you have to understand the situation; anything can happen and we can be arrested or even die. My child cried but I had no choice, I had to tell him so when things happen, he is not surprised,” she explains.
Sizakele Jona, 36, who is also originally from KwaZulu-Natal, is unemployed and lives with her three children. Her sister wanted to follow her to the new land occupation. “I told her one of us must stay to take care of the kids. I told her that I am not sure if I will sleep there or if I will not return,” she says.
Ndlovu and Jona admit that these conversations were difficult to have, but they had to take place.
“I need my child to understand that should I die, this wasn’t something I was doing in vain, it was for his benefit,” says Jona.
According to community leader Alice Khoarai, 37, who is employed by the feeding programme of a local primary school, the group moved to Lehae after discovering that people from other parts of Soweto were being moved into the RDP homes.
Jona says: “We cannot fight for people from far who don’t know the situation of this place so they can move here while we are excluded.” Ndlovu adds: “You cannot prepare food and have someone else take your pots.”
Long waiting list
Khoarai says some of the new occupants applied for housing in 2011, while members of the group occupying the land had applications dating back to 2006.
“There are children who are younger than me, but they have houses here,” laments Khoarai, “Every time you go to officials, they tell you they are still busy with the 1996 housing list. How will this end if they keep up this corruption?”
Another community leader, Peter Monethe, says some RDP houses appear to be ready, but community members are told not to move in.
On 4 November, Gauteng Premier David Makhura (ANC) and human settlements MEC Moiloa Uhuru (ANC) spoke to the community about the Rapid Land Release Programme at neighbouring Freedom Park, another area that has been a hotbed of contestation among residents.
According to the Gauteng provincial government, the programme is aimed at “prioritising the release of land and identifying land parcels currently being unused”, with the intention of “addressing housing, economic, and social-cohesion” needs.
But the Lehae community is not confident of the programme’s viability. According to Monethe, they are always “given stories” when they try to move in. He adds that he is proud of the women in Lehae for leading their own movement.
Moving into shells
Only a handful of RDP houses were completed after building began in 2014, with many community members opting to move into the houses and complete them themselves.
In June, there were five shacks across the way from unfinished RDP houses: one each for women, men and children; one for cooking, and one for storing possessions. After each demolition by the Johannesburg Metro Police Department (JMPD), the residents quickly collected money and rebuilt their shacks. On their fourth visit, the police fired rubber bullets, which surprised residents and led to them going back to rented houses.
But on the night of 18 October, the shack residents occupied the RDP houses and immediately changed the locks. This prompted Lenasia police to arrive the next morning, accusing them of breaking into the houses. “We told them that we have no reason to do that because we need them [houses], all we did was open and move in,” says Khoarai.
A few days later, on the morning of 21 October, a loud whistle was blown by a lookout who had spotted about 15 police nyala armoured cars along with other JMPD vehicles.
Residents stood outside their houses.
“They surrounded all the houses and we were inside, whoever was in the nyala with the speaker shouted: ‘Please move away from the houses so we can do our work.’ Without talking to us, without showing us a paper to show us they were supposed to be here … we moved because there were many of them and they had surrounded us,” shrugs Khoarai.
According to her, the doors of the houses were broken down and piled into police trucks, and their possessions were thrown outside before the authorities left. “We realised that going back [to where we were renting] was not an option so we used the bedroom doors which they had not broken down [as front doors] … put up our curtains, and slept,” says Khoarai, adding that police have not come back since.
Houses in phase 2 of the Lehae project have electricity, whereas those in phase 3 have water but no electricity. Although there are toilets in phase 3, cisterns have not yet been fitted. Ndlovu, who lives in phase 3, gets water from a 20-litre bucket to flush. In the dark, she pours, moving her feet away from any water that misses the toilet bowl. She walks around the dark house, with which she is now familiar, occasionally switching on her torch.
Community activist Makhwenkwe Edwin Gwele, 44, lives just down the road, past the Devland fire station. He moved from Pimville, Soweto, to Freedom Park in 1994 “when people still lived in plastics, before there were shacks and houses”. He says eventually they expanded their occupation towards the fire station, to a place named Embizweni.
According to him, even back then, while they waited to hear from government, police came down on them heavily. “They wanted to remove us, and we would retaliate and tell them that we cannot move because we have nowhere to live,” says Gwele.
Despite their tenacity, many things went wrong that caused them pain.
“Many of those who were meant to get houses did not get them. Most of those who were supposed to get houses had their houses sold … by the department … sold to people from outside. This became a problem because you think this is your house but you hear that you don’t appear on the data [but] you have papers. These things hurt people, and it’s mostly old people who they do this to,” says Gwele, shaking his head.
According to him, houses must be properly allocated and built. “The cement on these houses is already crumbling and this house is not even two years old,” he says.
He says in spite of their disappointment, people are pushed to settle for substandard houses out of desperation. “You just take a house even if it’s incomplete because if you don’t get it now, when will you get it and how? People just move in because they need places to stay.”
According to Keith Khoza, the deputy director-general at the human settlements department, people need to provide the police with any information about alleged corruption. “We always call on people to come forward with information or evidence so that it can be investigated, because if we don’t do that, people can make empty allegations just to justify their actions which are not in accordance with the expectation of a responsible citizen,” he says.
But Gwele is disillusioned with politicians. “You vote for them to remain in power for five years, but [they] come here and give them a food parcel that lasts them one month … that is playing with people, they must stop playing with people. If they were really fighting for black people, they would not have started this corruption of theirs. When they tell you they fought for your freedom, all they want to do is benefit,” he shrugs.
In Soweto, the average monthly rental for a garage is R1000, while a house costs R1 500. Because the women have children, renting a garage is not an option. Khoarai says she has been paying rent of R1 500 per month since 2013. According to her, waiting for an RDP house is expensive. “Next year they will be telling us that we must wait for the budget. It’s another five months busy paying R1 500 that you don’t have,” she says.
While many make their return back home for the festive season, Jona has a more pressing concern. “I cannot go home and celebrate Christmas at home because they can steal our possessions or we can return and our houses are gone. Anything can happen at any time. We don’t feel safe just because they [the police] have not been here in weeks,” says Jona.
“But I have hope … in order to even have a home, you need to fight or get it through a happy letter,” she says.