Residents of defunct buildings are commanding national headlines and casting an embarrassing spotlight on Johannesburg's running battles with the poor
At first, I thought the photographer and I were lost, or the story was further inside the unassuming block of flats. Even more confusing, the tall, dark and stony-faced fellow hawking fruits and vegetables outside knew the man we were looking for, but was hesitant to usher us in.
The real 7 Saratoga Avenue maintains a facade of normality by day that is quickly shed when night falls. The place we were looking for is, in fact, a much uglier sibling tucked further away from the road, with a misnomer of an address for the convenience of those who walk the corridors of power.
The residents of this defunct carpet factory lived faceless lives for years, paying rent to bogus landlords like others of their ilk in Jo’burg’s inner city, but these days they are commanding national headlines and casting an embarrassing spotlight on Johannesburg’s running battles with the poor.
Those headlines have to do with the city’s appeal—which will be heard on February 18 in a landmark case—against a court ruling last year’s that found its housing policy to be constitutionally invalid.
The city is also appealing against an order to provide the occupiers of 7 Saratoga Avenue with temporary shelter or pay towards their rental. Meanwhile, the occupiers, represented by the Wits’ Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS), are cross appealing against the eviction order served on them.
Back at “7 Saratoga Avenue”, as it is referred to in court papers, nightfall comes with the constant flicker of the billboard on top of the Ponte building to the right and, to the left, soft patches of light from the windows of the neighbouring Agin Court and the beckoning crimson glow of Hillbrow’s red-light district. The factory complex is a giant dark shadow in a city of beaming lights.
Formerly known as Kernel Carpets, this industrial haunt consists of a large garage area, which has now been filled with shacks along its perimeter, and a double-storey building that has been subdivided into smaller rooms. There are a few additional brick buildings on either side that have also been turned into housing space. A stretch of sloping, weather-beaten concrete separates the two wings.
Whereas sunset seems to bring out the freaks everywhere else in this city of the depraved, here it ushers in a sudden blackness only heightened by the paraffin lamps voyeuristically peeping out of broken and patched up windows.
Stop the untidiness
The sudden loss of light quickens the daily trolley march towards the corner of Leyds and Banket streets, where a generous urban oasis (an open manhole) supplies residents with their daily rations of water.
This quotidian ritual is better executed under a blanket of darkness when one is less likely to be noticed by the Johannesburg Metro Police Department (JMPD), disturbed by the traffic or confronted by the adversarial taxi washers who hog this everflowing source like jealous spouses.
A week ago, Busisiwe Mdlolo, whose late father once worked this yard during the factory’s heyday, had her trolley confiscated by the JMPD, along with several 25-litre plastic drums she used to collect water. She watched in dismay as they spilt their contents down the street and waved her off empty-handed.
But repossesed trolleys rank low on the list of the indignities visited on Mdlolo and her neighbours over the past decade.
A native of Nkandla, Jacob Zuma’s home village in KwaZulu-Natal, Mdlolo moved into the ramshackle brick and concrete ensemble in 2002. Then, she shared a room with her father who had remained in the yard after the factory shut down in the 1990s.
“In the ensuing years, we paid rent to quite a few landlords, into various accounts,” she recalled. “Eventually, someone came to collect the cash by hand. That’s when we saw that it was all just crookery and started withholding payment.”
All the while, nobody bothered to maintain the property. Complaints to the Rental Housing Tribunal against Northwest Estate Agents and two other entities who independently claimed rent from them amounted to nothing.
Back then, the premises had electricity and a functioning tap. Today, there is a stagnant pool of water where the tap once stood. Above it, on a dark brick wall, fading, graffiti in large block letters reads: “Yekani ubunuku [Stop the untidiness]”. Ironically, it now stands as a memento to much simpler times—before rainwater had to be siphoned off rusty gutters and collected in repurposed refuse bins.
Evicting the undesirables
It was after Blue Moonlight Properties 39 bought the premises in 2005 (it still remains unclear from whom), that the heavy-handedness began.
In 2006, Blue Moonlight launched an application for the eviction of residents, opposed by residents on the grounds that the city first had to “discharge its constitutional obligation to provide them with temporary, alternative accommodation pending ultimate access to formal housing as part of the national housing programme”.
The occupiers then brought the city to the proceedings and sought an order compelling the city to fulfil its obligation. This seems to have frustrated the owners’ plans for the property considerably. Blue Moonlight Properties’ representatives declined to comment on the issue, citing the ongoing case. Questions sent to the department of housing were not answered at the time of going to press.
The residents are less inhibited.
As Dlozi “Mranger” Thwala put it, the compound became “the police’s playground” soon after that. He said unlawful raids and illegal eviction attempts coincided with the disconnection of electricity and water.
Mranger, dressed in a tucked-in white shirt and black cotton slacks, periodically picked up a metal iron from a blazing primus stove with a folded cloth and pressed his pants on an ironing board.
The only light in this upstairs room came from two paraffin lamps placed on a dressing table positioned near a wall, giving the air inside a slightly toxic tinge. Aside from framed family pictures on a bedside table, the only picture adorning the room was a square poster of a smiling Nelson Mandela, head encircled by a greenish shweshwe design.
Mranger said that when he googled “Saratoga Avenue” he was disappointed to find a report that quoted Tokyo Sexwale accusing them of hijacking the building.
“It’s clear that whoever briefed him fed him nonsense,” he said. “The article said that we had hijacked the building and the High Court judgment had ruled in favour of the hijackers. How can you hijack a building when the people that bought it found you living there? He has never even been here to assess the situation himself. You see the politicians that we have? We vote them into power, then when they get fat, they forget about us.”
Perhaps what influenced Mranger to be a more assertive leader was the illegal eviction the people of Saratoga Avenue almost suffered in 2007. This time, the police arrived in the company of the notorious Red Ants. As the Red Ants proceeded to break windows, kick down doors and tear down rows of shacks, the residents, realising that the matter was already before the court, called their legal representative, who rushed to the scene and demanded a court order, which the evictors failed to produce.
According to several accounts, the Red Ants scurried off, one even leaving his hard hat behind in his haste.
“I decided to put up a fight because I am not an animal,” Mranger said. “If someone treats you like an animal, you have to show them your humanity. We have fought many battles here with charlatans who wouldn’t show us their title deeds. We’ve even battled the owners, even though we couldn’t afford to buy the cops like they could.
“I will rest only once I know that these people have decent alternative accommodation. We want government to give us what we fought for.”
Place of darkness
In 1995, with her daughter Thembeka strapped to her back, Nelisiwe Chamane took the train to Protea Glen to register for an RDP house.
“Thembeka is 16 years old now,” said Chamane on the stoep opposite her room. “If you look at some townships [around Jo’burg], there are rows of newly occupied RDP houses. How some people got in before me, I can’t tell you.”
Chamane’s nickname for this abode, where she ekes out a living making beaded, Zulu-inspired ceremonial dress and accessories, is simply KwaMnyamandawo [place of darkness].
“You should see this yard in winter. It is dotted with braziers from people trying to keep warm.” The building could easily burn to the ground if a fire started, she said, as there would be no water to put out the flames.
Although the term kwaMnyamandawo is reductive and unassailably pessimistic, she utters it with perverse endearment. It is from this dark abyss that people beat the odds daily, raising children, sending them to school, sending money back home, hopping from job to job—basically doing whatever it takes.
Perhaps Themba Koketi, who functions as a spokesperson for this community, is the perfect embodiment of this place’s limited but compelling pulling power. A public servant based in Soweto, his diminutive frame and boyish manner disguise his brooding seriousness.
Koketi grew up in Vryheid in KwaZulu-Natal and arrived in Johannesburg in 2001 after matriculating. Growing up in a large, matriarchal family with five siblings and five cousins, he had plans to join the navy and was about to enlist when his grandmother begged him not to, citing the recurring nightmares she was having about him.
He tried various other jobs, but soon found himself at a dead end. Though still staying with his taxi-driver cousin, he decided to apply for financial aid at Wits University and studied psychology and sociology.
“During the holidays, I would stay here. I avoided going home because of the expectations they have of people living in Jo’burg,” he said.
“You are always expected to come back bearing gifts. I think they have never got their heads around the whole school thing.”
He got involved in committee meetings, at which residents locked heads with a succession of people claiming to represent the owners.
“I could see that we were being taken for a ride,” he says of the various rent collectors.
While he does have a measure of sympathy for Blue Moonlight Properties and its business aspirations, he said that in its haste to throw them out, it forgot one crucial fact: “Most of us here were raised in mud houses, where there was no electricity or running water anyway. We are used to living like this.”
Koketi spoke to us with his nine-month-old son balanced on his lap; his partner prepared dinner. It was a cramped room, with space for a bed, a small table with chairs and not much else. It was only later, after taking a closer look, that I realised that the room had been subdivided, with Koketi’s three teenage brothers living in the middle section and somebody else on the far end. After the interview, he told me that he is helping all three of them with their education.
Although others have found strength in numbers, there are many youngsters toughing it out alone in these harsh environs.
A double-edged sword
Mlungisi “MaKelloggs” Ntuli, an aspiring actor with a jocular demeanour and relaxed hair, was among those who were slapped around on the morning of the botched eviction.
Then a recent arrival from Jeppe Men’s Hostel, Ntuli had moved into the enclave with his brother so that he could focus on his “schoolwork” (as he referred to his budding acting career).
“As you know, they don’t take too kindly to books in the hostels,” he told me, seated in his dim shack with a newspaper on his lap.
“I had slept quite late that day, because I was busy reading a script until two or three that morning, and they arrived around five. So my movements were still a bit slow.”
For MaKelloggs, whose talents have taken him all over the country, but have yet to catapult him out of Saratoga, living here is a confusing, double-edged sword.
“I’m not ashamed of living here because I’m confident of my abilities,” he said.
“But if you bring friends here, they tend to think that this is a thug’s hideout or something, and they never come back.”
At least he can still walk to Troyeville, where he volunteers at a day-care centre as a speech and drama teacher or trek around town to auditions, while stretching out his groceries for as long as possible.
In a country where the poor are increasingly marginalised, the paranoia cuts both ways. For every heartfelt smile and joke shared, there were behind-the-back comments about us being self-serving and pretending to care.
What struck me as odd, though, was the general lack of enthusiasm about the outcome of this Friday’s Supreme Court of Appeals proceedings. But then, I suppose, in a community of about 80 people, it’s hard to get everyone interested in legal technicalities. Most people were more concerned about the probability of receiving an RDP house and where it would be situated.
“Most of the women here have applied for houses,” Mdlolo told me.
An air of overconfidence hung in the air, no doubt influenced by the CALS’s recent track record in housing-related matters.
Perhaps Koketi captured it best: “Whichever way the court rules, it will still be a victory for us because we are prepared to go all the way to the Constitutional Court.
“Similar cases preceding ours were won at the Constitutional Court. It has a good record of protecting human rights. The judges [presiding over the Occupiers of 51 Olivia Road, Berea Township, vs City of Johannesburg and 197 Main Street vs City of Johannesburg and others] went to San Jose [a condemned building in Hillbrow], so they based their judgment on research. They don’t just swivel in their chairs stroking their chins.”
Indeed, the frequent courtroom spankings meted out by judges on the city’s scarred areas are starting to take on a masochistic tint.
Morgan Courtenay, an attorney at CALS, put it differently: “We realise that such matters have huge financial implications for the city. It is our hope that it, through engagement with us and similar organisations, may forge an informed path.”
Kwanele Sosibo is the M&G’s Eugene Saldanha fellow.