Niren Tolsi headed out of Cape Town to find out how the tough economy has really hit home.
Southeasters are in Cape Town’s contradictory DNA. On Long Street and surrounds the wind is usually flirting with the hemlines of short-skirted blonde Euro-travellers or messing up the hair of messed-up hipsters. Another yawned accompaniment to the beautiful setting draped with beautiful ones.
Along Symphony Way, a stretch of road in Delft, to the north of the city, behind the airport and far removed from the shadow of Table Mountain, the wind is more palpable—everything is already exposed here.
On a slow day the wind makes the ubiquitous white dust move in mini-dervish whirls on the tar. On harsher ones, it connives with the sand and the sun to ensure that the experiences of those dumped here—the poor, those to be forgotten—are inextricable from the lines on their faces.
Situated along this unforgiving stretch with a few bushes apparently yielding litter rather than any fruit is the Symphony Way “temporary relocation area”, built by the city’s Democratic Alliance-run municipality in 2007 at a cost of more than R30-million. It is also known as “Blikkiesdorp” (Tin-Can Town), Silver Town or just plain Blikkies.
It is a dumping ground for humans. Somalis and other foreigners who survived the 2008 xenophobic attacks and then outlived the expiration date on their original refugee camps are here, as are some street kids cleansed from Cape Town before the World Cup—ironically, others have since been evicted.
There are Delft backyard dwellers who, at the instigation of then DA councillor Frank Martin (he was expelled from the party over the incident), occupied unfinished N2 Gateway project houses across the road, were evicted and then proceeded to occupy, for almost two years, the pavements in protest. They were, in November last year, ordered by the courts to move, pretty much, across the stretch to Blikkies. They’re all in there. And then some.
There are more than 1 600 18m2 units—much smaller than a shipping container—some with as many as nine or 10 people living in them.
Thirty-two-year-old Shahieda Isaacs’s four children are mopping up the remains of their mutton curry and roti when I join her and two other community members for supper in her rectangular box of a home.
The food, cooked in a tiny kitchen semi-partitioned from a larger sleeping area, is delicious. Isaacs sends her 12-year-old off to buy a litre of cool drink from the local spaza.
Spazas line Blikkiesdorp and it is apparent that here, as in informal settlements around the country, a hyper-localised economy exists.
Money circulates among the poor, rather than being siphoned off by large supermarket chains—largely because expensive and unsafe public transport and a lack of penetrative will by these chains makes them inaccessible to the poor.
It is a perversely positive result of ghettoisation in a time of economic recession.
Isaacs says it’s difficult trying to raise her children—two boys and two girls—in such a claustrophobic space. Her daughters share one bunk bed, her sons the other, while she shares the main bed—piled high with washed and neatly ironed clothes—with her husband, Ridwaan.
There is no privacy here and Isaacs is concerned that by the time the government eventually moves the family into a house (in 2016, they say, but she isn’t holding her breath) her children will be hitting puberty.
“If you think about it, it’s heartbreaking, but you don’t give up hope,” says Isaacs.
Ridwaan is unemployed and Isaacs earns R850 a week cooking lunch for a company in Epping, of which R70 a week goes on her transport costs, which she says she tries to offset by baking koeksisters to sell every Sunday.
Isaacs says her biggest expense is clothes for her children but how has she been coping with the rising costs of pretty much everything?
“We get by like we always do. I’m lucky because my children never go to bed with an empty stomach, like other children. You just get by, but the main thing is that all my children’s school fees are paid. That is the most important thing,” says Isaacs.
There is a matter-of-fact determination in Blikkiesdorp—and some ingenuity too.
At some point I stumbled across an inflatable pool near the hok (shack) of Lamees Solomons (29).
Nothing to do
Solomons and her husband, Shamiel, say the pool is for the “children in the camp. Most of these kids really battle, man, so we try to do what we can.” The children in Blikkiesdorp have perennially runny noses from the dust and there is a sense of perpetual boredom about them: aside from the gravel, litter and mangy dogs, there is nothing here. And nothing to do.
Solomons says she has two informal fruit and vegetable stalls and also sells perfume. Her business is doing well, so the couple buys and prepares food for the children here twice a week.
“We’re community, mos, we’re family, so we must do what we can to help one another. Sometimes there are hundreds of children here for the food,” says Solomons.
Earlier in the week Ashraf Cassiem, erstwhile chairperson of the Anti-Eviction Campaign (AEC), stood over a shallow hole in the pavement along Symphony Way: “Man, this is where we used to make a fire, this was where my tent was! I still lay in bed at night picturing those times,” says Cassiem, beaming.
The memories of the AEC-organised occupation and barricade of Symphony Way from February 2008 until November last year by the 139 families who protested their evictions from the N2 Gateway and the lack of decent housing options sends an obvious rush through Cassiem.
He mainlines anti-establishment activism and is a hyperactive mixture of Che Guevara’s revolutionary tendencies and Bugs Bunny’s mischievousness; an ever-present cigarette replacing the cigar and carrot.
Cassiem’s is a large grin, toothless on one side of his mouth: a restructuring courtesy, he says, of the police sticking in the boot on October 18 2000, when Cassiem, with community members of Tafelsig in Mitchell’s Plain, united to stop a neighbour, Charles Lategaan, from being evicted from the house he rented from the government.
The formation of the AEC
They were met with police brutality. Six people were arrested that day and—at a time when government’s 1996 economic policy shift towards Gear (growth, employment and redistribution) was increasingly causing the poor to fall behind in their electricity, water and rental payments—17 families in the area were evicted.
But it was an act of community resistance that would lead to the formation, a month later, of the AEC, a radical, anarchic, self-confessedly “crazy” umbrella body for 10 community organisations in areas such as Gugulethu, Hanover Park and Mitchell’s Plain.
The AEC fights against evictions, water cut-offs, poor health services and for better housing and free electricity for the poor. As Cassiem describes it, the AEC is about contradictions and “living politics” where the interests of affected communities—rather than those of academics, NGOs and funders, as is sometimes the case with leftie social movements—are paramount.
“The AEC is an idea. Ever changing. It is an organisation that is not an organisation. Something that listens to nobody, but listens to everybody,” says Cassiem.
So, is the AEC the face of a brave new world being determined by the poor? Cassiem laughs. There is nothing new or brave about being poor or struggling for something better, he says: “It is what people do and have been doing for hundreds of years just to stay alive.
“Middle-class people may feel insecure now because of what is happening [economically around the world] but we have always been living with insecurity,” he says.
According to Cassiem, the strategies and tactics the AEC uses are not especially of this time, but honed over a longer trajectory that goes back to community activism against apartheid.
With coffin-bearing marches on government officials, land occupations and events such as the Poor People’s World Cup that was held in protest during Fifa’s tournament, there are also actions more vital to the everyday.
Stealing basic rights
The AEC reconnects water and electricity for those who have been cut off because of arrears. It holds workshops to teach families how to spread the methods to access what is considered a basic right. It is, admittedly, becoming harder with the introduction of pre-paid electricity meters, but Cassiem says there is a way around those too—it’s more dangerous and includes having to scale electricity poles, but there is always a way around these things.
There is also very physical resistance. I am sitting in the four-roomed government home in Mitchell’s Plain of Siyaam Cassiem, Ashraf’s mother, with whom the 43-year-old activist lives, with his sister, Faranaaz, and her adult son.
Cassiem is shooting the breeze with Izaan Fredericks, a bra (brother) from the community who would prefer I didn’t use his real name. Fredericks is trying to kill time and keep his mind off the craving to smoke tik (methamphetamine)—from which, he says, he’s been clean for almost two weeks.
In walks Boeta Whitey, a retired caretaker, coming from a local primary school—where he used to work—bitching because he was unable to get a grandchild’s report card because the school fees had not been paid. From Boeta Whitey’s vivid Afrikaans description of his conversation with the school secretary, it sounds as though Franz Kafka might be sweating in his grave.
The conversation shifts to Boeta Whitey and his unpaid bills. Fredericks remembers warding off the municipal workers who had come to cut off Boeta Whitey’s water supply: “Sometimes you choose a knife and your most evil look, get a couple of the bigger guys around and just stand in front of the door and don’t let them in,” he says. Boeta Whitey laughs.
More seriously, Cassiem talks passionately about how community activism has facilitated social cohesion, roping in gangsters as sentinels to keep a lookout for the police when illegal connections were happening and keeping bored unemployed youths active, away from drugs and giving them some purpose—and hope.
“There were times when we would just all get together and sleep in and in front of the house to stop them from being evicted,” he says.
I join Cassiem on an errand while Fredericks mumbles something about visiting a nearby neighbour and wanders off with a promise to meet later. Later never arrives, Fredericks having never arrived at the neighbour’s house.
A state of turmoil
There is a listlessness to both Cassiem and how the movement is defining and articulating itself on the ground during the time I spent with him in Cape Town.
The movement appears to be in a state of turmoil: a press release had just gone out announcing a new executive leadership and accusing Cassiem of corruption.
Cassiem denies the accusations, saying this is part of an attempt by various academics and funders to “hijack the movement”.
“People want to control the AEC, but they don’t understand that it is uncontrollable — This hijacking feels kak, because I know these people and have struggled with them. It feels like a knife in the back, but you’re not dying,” says Cassiem.
While this sideshow unfolds, Cassiem says it’s “distracting from fighting the struggle; instead we’re fighting among ourselves”.
The AEC has also been using the law to fight against evictions, and for housing. But Cassiem believes that the “law still exists to protect evictions—it happens eventually”.
He is dismissive of Constitutional Court judgments such as in the Irene Grootboom and Joe Slovo cases—the latter involving the AEC—saying the “judgments coming out of the Con Court aim to show that the judges are listening to us, but that’s it”.
But the AEC does have a guerrilla approach to the law and how it can be manipulated. Its members rock up at local magistrates’ courts, check out the court roll for eviction cases and then—often to the surprise of those facing evictions—present themselves as legal counsel.
Cassiem says the aim is to “frustrate and prolong evictions and to prevent default judgments because people aren’t aware of their rights, not even in courts, or, worse still, [are] bullied by their lawyers into accepting an eviction”.
Passing a smoke
Cassiem is reflecting on the role of the law in his mother’s sitting room in Mitchell’s Plain. He exhales the smoke from his cigarette, leans over and offers her an entjie (a puff).
It is a moment that I have seen shared between mother and son on several occasions, and shared between people in Blikkies, in Mitchell’s Plain, in Bel Har and in Hout Bay hundreds of times. Loose cigarettes are cheaper when passed around.
That night the crescent moon hovers over Hout Bay’s Hangberg informal settlement. The shacks, perched high on the hill, shudder to some big-beat dub music.
A mere two months previously, in September, the community had been in violent conflict with the municipality after the City of Cape Town tore down shacks built along a fire break and attempted to evict residents. Petrol bombs and rubber bullets were exchanged with abandon. Arrests and injuries mounted and, before calm returned, it appeared as though Gaza had been brought to Hout Bay, say residents.
Yet, on a December Thursday night, through a side door that misleadingly appeared to be the entrance to a shack, more than 300 people were crammed into a large dancehall called the Red Lion.
Rastas were flaying the air with their dreadlocks, marijuana was being cleaned in vast quantities on tabloid newspapers and bottleneck pipes were being stuffed and blazed on the dance floor.
Almost every informal settlement in Cape Town has its own “Dub Session”, apparently, but Hangberg’s is especially cherished because of the expansive views from the informal settlement’s club over Hout Bay harbour. And the hard-as-nails beats.
Was this the brave new world?
I am reminded that there is nothing heroic, or new, about people getting on with their lives by what appears a Sonic the Hedgehog-lookalike rasta in that I-and-I Afrikaans patois laced with English so favoured in Cape Town: “I-man, just do what I-man just do,” he says.