Walking through Cape Town’s dirty backyard

As the city of Cape Town came to a halt on the 30thof June for a memorial service dedicated to a veteran struggle hero and ANC cadre Professor Kader Asmal, a small group of religious leaders went on a walk through a two sections of Khayelitsha, one of the city’s biggest African* townships and settlements for migrants from the Eastern Cape Province. The delegation was lead by members of the Social Justice Coalition (SJC) and included the South African Anglican Archbishop Thabo Makgoba and members of the Western Cape Religious Leaders Forum. The purpose of the “site seeing” was to provide a first-hand account of what life is like for people in this informal settlement and garner the support of religious leaders in the SJC’s battle for basic infrastructure and service delivery in these areas.

17 years after democracy, the words “informal settlement” and “shack” are very much a part of our vocabulary; we hear them in news broadcasts and occasionally catch glimpses of this other world in newspapers and on television. But to walk through a settlement and be face-to-face with this deprived state of existence is something else. We started our tour at the OR Tambo Hall across the road from what is called RR Section in Khayelitsha. The hall, named after a former leader of the ANC and anti-apartheid politician, is one of two buildings (the other being a power station) constructed on an empty stretch of land across a busy freeway from a sea of “shacks” – dwellings made from scrap metal, wood and any other waste material sturdy enough to provide shelter.Shacks

In RR section, like other areas, dwellings are erected in extremely close proximity. There are only single person pathways between them and because the land this settlement occupies is a wetland, all paths entailed walking through mud and puddles. This is not such a bad thing, except that mud and puddles in Khayelitsha contain trash and the occasional effluent of raw sewage. The first home we stopped at belonged to Nokwando, a 77-year-old woman who sat in front of her one room shack taking her hypertension (high blood pressure) tablets. There was no tap or toilet nearby, but she did have a cup of what appeared to be clean water beside her. The yard was strewn with trash, long pieces of wire, plastic bags and a few implements. Homes are generally constructed around standpipes that provide drinking water but portable chemical toilets are located on the outskirts of the settlement. Nokwando, like all the other residents, risks her safety walking to the toilets and standing in a queue to use one. Men and women are often attacked and robbed, or in severe cases murdered and raped, making the journey to relieve themselves and when they return to their homes there is always the possibility that their possessions have been stolen. Given the reality, it’s pointless reporting crime here to the police since the typical response is ineffective and most people are afraid of turning-in their neighbours for obvious reasons.Nokwandp

The next stop in our tour was next to a small spaza shop (a freight container used to sell bread and milk or conduct other local business such as haircuts). Across the path from this shop was another container surrounded by rubbish and above the container was a mass of electrical wires.  Individuals from the community are skilful at linking wires to pylons that stand between the dwellings and providing electricity for homes. Sadly, shack-fires that can destroy up to 100 dwellings are often the tragic consequence of these hazardous connections. Dibela, a 28 year-old man from RR Section, pointed out the remnants of burnt tyres lying on the freeway when angry residents protested the day before about the lack of electricity in this area despite the power station across the road.Wires

We continued walking through another section known as Site B and passed a row of portable chemical toilets next to the freeway off-ramp into Khayelitsha. Between the toilets and the road was a stagnant swamp and in front of the toilets was a stretch of ankle-deep mud strewn with garbage. The toilets are meant to be maintained by the City council but it was apparent that some of them were left in a state of disrepair and completely unusable. The city’s response to queries about the lack of maintenance is often to turn it around and blame residents for vandalism and destruction of property or claim that residents need to take responsibility and keep their own toilets clean. How is one meant to clean a portable chemical toilet that is shared with at least 200 other people? According to residents, the stench from these toilets in summer is so bad that they have to take a cigarette inside to dilute the smell in order to deal with it. Although the health department has done a commendable job in responding to rising child mortality and morbidity due to diarrhoeal diseases, the figures are still alarmingly high and point to the fact that health promotion and curative care are limited in such a hostile environment.Toilets

The walk ended at a local church with a roof made of corrugated iron and filled with wooden benches and a makeshift table at the front where the dignitaries sat. The Archbishop made a speech thanking the organisers, SJC, and one of the pastors ended the meeting with a prayer. We walked out onto the street trying to avoid the barbed wire that hung lose around the wooden fence of the church. On the pavement across the road was another freight container overflowing with plastic bags of rubbish. Ironically, there’s a city council sign on the corner stating “Littering and dumping are illegal” and advising residents to report dumping by dialling the hotline provided. Who was expected to make that call? Who would respond and what would they do? No dumping

The geography of Cape Town is a legacy of apartheid, constructed to maintain racial and class segregation. While the city centre is characterised by clean streets, rapid bus transport and other neoliberal luxuries of the modern CBD, poor areas are located at a distance from the city on the most dangerous, undeveloped ground, prone to flooding and runaway fires. Although there are children playing on the pathways between shacks, life in these locations is generally hopeless and it’s clear that people are left here, where crime and disease are the norm, to fend for themselves with nothing. Most of these children drop out of school and those who make it out of this hell into a better life do so through NGOs based in the area, individual acts of charity or sheer luck. City council officials have argued (in less flattering moments) that these people don’t belong here, implying that as migrants from a neighbouring province, they are not counted as deserving rate-payers. But then there’s the Cape Flats, described as “single-race apartheid hangover”** and plagued by violence, gangsterism and drugs, promising the same hopeless future for its youth. The Coloured community in these parts have been here all along, yet they too are generally neglected and excluded from enjoying the wealth of Cape Town. There is nothing humane about these conditions, except for the will to live in the people that survive it every day. What’s needed to alleviate the unfolding tragedy is an intense extraordinary approach to service delivery and social rehabilitation. We are fools to think that the usual methods will work in situations like thisand cruel to blame the victims.
*Black African

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