The deep wrinkles on 85-year-old Elsie Visagie’s face resemble a map. She has travelled to all four quarters of the Northern Cape in search of a better life for her family. With her late husband and children, third-generation farm workers, she has worked on farms only to leave after being abused or evicted by the “baas”.
She now lives in a shack on the sandy pathways of Mlangeni, a tiny, seemingly forgotten township, about 60km from thriving Upington. Blind and frail, she is cared for by her 42-year-old daughter, Johanna Vorster.
But she is cheerful and hopeful. Just the other night she had a dream that the municipality had built them a proper house, Vorster said. “Ek kry net koud hier. Die huis is nog ’n bietjie swak. Maar miskien kom hulle nog.” (It’s just that I get cold here. The house is still in a bit of a bad condition. But maybe they will still come.)
Visagie lives with her son, his three children, her daughter and her two children in a three-room shack made from corrugated iron, cardboard and reeds from the banks of the nearby Orange River. The front room does not have a roof.
She lies curled up in pitch darkness, wearing dirty pink floral pyjamas. The photographers’ flash is the only illumination. She said: “No matter how the house looks, we live peacefully. It is extremely cold, but there is one thing – at least we have a roof over our heads.”
Residents said Mlangeni was established in 2004 but there had been no development since, apart from a huge floodlight in the middle of the settlement that they said had never been switched on.
Vorster said three water tanks had been placed in the settlement, but sometimes the water was contaminated, which made residents sick.
Mlangeni is about 40km from Die Eiland resort where the Northern Cape ANC hosted its provincial conference two weeks ago and at which fraud accused John Block was re-elected as provincial chairperson. Some delegates at the conference live in Mlangeni, which boasts an ANC Youth League branch. But, after two elections in a decade, there is still no running water, electricity or toilets.
Ouma Visagie, as the grandmother is known, is too frail to walk by herself and Vorster helps her to “the toilet” – a steel bucket that is emptied into bushes near their shack. All the residents do this and faeces is strewn over the sand among the thorn trees.
The family’s neighbour, Jannie Jordaan, said: “We live in an old South Africa. We are still hoping for the new one.”
A short walk down a sandy path from Visagie’s shack lives Mlangeni’s newest resident, Jacqueline. The two-month-old baby boy is swaddled in a dirty white blanket and lies on an old mattress while his mother, Rose Cloete (21), looks on.
As Jacqueline nods off, Cloete makes a fire outside the shack to boil water she collected from a tank. Nearby is a cage with chubby pigeons. Cloete and her partner, who works on a farm, breed them for the pot when there is nothing else to eat.
Cloete recalled April 9 when she had slight stomach pains during the day, but dismissed them. That night she woke up to painful contractions and told her partner and her mother-in-law, who was visiting: “The baby wants to come.” One neighbour brought a candle, another called an ambulance, but Jacqueline was born in the shack. The ambulance arrived three hours later.
Attempts to establish under which municipality Mlangeni falls were fruitless. A clerk at the Siyanda district municipality said the township was not on its database and the municipal manager, Deshi Ngxanga, was not available for comment. An official at the Pixley ka Seme district municipality said she had no idea where Mlangeni was and others at the Frances Baard and Kai !Garib district municipalities said it did not fall under their jurisdiction.
The MEC for co-operative governance and traditional affairs in the Northern Cape, Kenny Mmoiemang, said he did not know the answer “offhand” and his spokesperson, Neo Maneng, referred queries to the head of housing in the province, Andre Mthethe, who could not be reached for comment.
ANC provincial secretary Zamani Saul said the party was aware of the many farm evictions taking place, but he could not comment on the state of Mlangeni because he was not familiar with it. “I might not know that particular township, but I know the municipalities have strategies in place to deal with it [evictions] and to assist the residents,” Saul said.