/ 10 July 2009

A place called home

As the winter sun struggles to break through the heavily overcast Highveld sky, most of the unemployed squatters illegally occupying a caravan park in Krugersdorp on the West Rand emerge from their sleep.

It’s a freezing Friday morning. A few squatters creep out of their tents, caravans and Wendy houses. A group of male early risers nonchalantly share a morning cigarette, smoke clouding the space between their tanned faces. Dogs jostle playfully everywhere.

The camp’s children scamper along the wet, dirty passageways between the tents. Some queue patiently for morning maize porridge, politely served by a grim-faced black woman.

The camp is also home to a few black people, mostly maids and handy-men of the white squatters.

The main entrance of the camp is marked by a double-storey shack, a brown tarpaulin tent used as a church with a signboard reading ”Romeine 10:20”.

The irritating buzz of power generators and a few scruffy old Fords and Nissans are a reminder of the affluent past of some of the squatters. A brisk walk across the camp reinforces the impression. Women use washing machines for laundry; there are two treadmills and a spinner for exercising and a pool table.

On Friday Willie Theron (20), the local ”cinematographer”, hires out DVDs to entertain the residents. ”A movie or two, just to cheer us up,” he quips.

Earlier this year the Mogale City council called for the squatters to relocate to a site near Munsieville, a run-down black township north-west of Krugersdorp.

When they refused to move, the municipality filed an urgent court case. It was struck off the roll because of inadequate evidence.

The Coronation Park settlement has been around for at least eight years and is something of a transit camp. Economic refugees from across Gauteng and as far afield as North West drift in and out as other job and residential opportunities become available.

At its peak it held about 400 families, the squatters say; now it is home to about 100 poor whites.

When Irene Abbott (48), the resident community ”mother”, emerges from her caravan house, her leopard and tiger print blouse, navy-blue jeans and boots speak of a confident woman. ”They know I’m a cheeky bitch — I don’t take nonsense. But they also know I love them very much,” she says, adjusting her large black sunglasses.

Abbott, who has lived ”everywhere in Jo’burg”, cooks, prays and looks after the schoolchildren. In the morning she and her helpers prepare porridge for 40 kids and while they are at school she organises lunch for them.

”I give the parents food only on weekends. The donations we get aren’t enough, so we need to save as much as we can,” she says.

Abbott is upset about the municipality’s ”racist” plans to destroy the camp. ”Munsieville is a dump and I will not move there. The patch of land they want to give us is an insult — there’s no electricity or water and it’s in the middle of the bush,” she says.

When the municipality took the squatters to view the site, says Abbott, the black people already on some of the land there said they were going to ”kill us and rape our kids”.

”We’re afraid to move out of the park. Here it’s safe and we’re happy,” she says.

A cheerful Martin Vos (51), a former miner from Orkney, says: ”I had a great life before the mine started retrenching staff two years ago. I used to earn more than R24 000 a month and had everything I needed.

”To be honest, I’d like to get my lifestyle back but I doubt if that’s possible because I can’t work any more because of my health and age.”

Vos and his wife Trinnie had to sell everything they had after Vos was retrenched. ”We lived in a mine house and when I was retrenched we had to move out. We heard about the camp from a friend — the rest is history,” he says, chuckling, before disappearing into his elaborately decorated Wendy house.

”I don’t blame the government for my problems. I blame my health.” Vos suffered a stroke, which paralysed his left side, two years ago. ”My left wheel alignment is broken,” he says, laughing. ”In the mornings I can’t even hold a mug of coffee with my left hand.”

He is the camp’s most experienced carpenter and handyman and survives by doing menial jobs around Krugersdorp. His children, he says, are all grown-up and live in Cape Town.

”They know I lost my job but they don’t know where we are at the moment. But so long as we’re still here, my wife and I will make the best of it,” he says.

Most of the squatters have led better lives before hitting rock bottom, but some, like pensioner Lorraine van Vuuren (59), have only ever known poverty.

Two years ago Van Vuuren arrived at the camp with her belongings in a small bag. She had been evicted from her rented house in nearby Burgershoop for failing to pay her monthly R1 000 rent.

”I am a pensioner; where did they expect me to get that kind of money?” she asks.

Van Vuuren has depended on a government disability grant for many years.

”I have seen too much poverty in my life and coming to the camp has made me feel that I belong somewhere. I now know there are people I can rely on, even when things are terribly bad,” she says.

Her biggest fear is being dumped in the bush without water, lights and security. ”We all wish for a place where we can stay in peace. We’re pleading with the municipality to understand our situation.”

”Circumstances, circumstances,” says Ronel Barnard (37), explaining how her family ended up homeless in the park. ”The flat we stayed in before we came here wasn’t ours, it belonged to a friend from church.”

Barnard, whose family arrived early this year from Roodepoort, says things were going fine when their friend suddenly demanded monthly rent of R2 500.

”When my husband lost his job we lost everything and started moving around. We’d been staying in the flat for free and the church supported us.” Despite a desperate need for a job, Barnard wishes for a house for her family.

As two of her four children cling to her blue tracksuit, she says: ”I don’t mind if it’s an RDP house and I don’t care if it’s in a black township, so long it has electricity and running water and my children can be safe.”