Deep Read: Kicked to the curb

The crackdown in Marlboro began on the morning of August 2, when Johannesburg Metro Police Department officers, supported by officers from the South African Police Service, demolished 111 shacks on a vacant plot in Marlboro, known in the community as Lalla's.

With no notice given before the metro police began kicking in doors that Thursday morning, those residents who were at home at the time hurried to grab what they could before the area was cordoned off and their shacks destroyed.

When the M&G arrived at the settlement, the pavements across the road were strewn with the meagre possessions they had managed to remove before they were pushed back – a mattress, a battered dressing table, a plastic baby bath.

Groups of people, most of them women, waited for the police tape to come down so they could rescue their belongings from the rubble.

'I don't believe in anything now'
Dunyiswa Mtubu, a sleeping toddler strapped to her back, waited with her neighbours for the police tape to come down.

"They just came in, not telling us anything," she said.

"I don't know what to do. I lost everything. I don't believe in anything now," she said.

When the police finally left, people streamed back towards the debris-strewn land. Men hunted for corrugated iron sheets to use to rebuild, while women dug mattresses, crushed cooking implements and clothing out from underneath the rubble. A jet of water shot up through the ground where a tap had been ripped up.

Some onlookers reckoned the JMPD's action was a form of retaliation for an incident in June, when there was a shoot-out between police and some people living on the plot.

A heavy-set man in a red shirt stood in the middle of the road, shaking his head as the community picked through the rubble of Lalla's. He shook his head in disgust as a police truck passed. "You've killed us!" he shouted.

A blue-clad officer inside the vehicle shrugged. "There's nothing we can do," he said, barely making eye contact.

As the afternoon wore one, people returned from work and children arrived home from school to find their homes destroyed – many of them hadn't been warned what to expect.

A shell-shocked woman in a black skirt and bright red jersey stood forlorn in the middle of the rubble, clutching her handbag close to her body. Asked if she had lived in the settlement, the women waved a hand vaguely towards a corner of the plot. "Somewhere there," she said.

When a small wide-eyed boy in school uniform arrived, a woman – perhaps his mother –  handed him a baby girl bundled in a pink jacket and woollen cap and set him to watch over a small pile of reclaimed household goods.

Sandra van Rensburg, a coordinator with the Community Organisation Research Centre (Corc), watched the scene unfold.

"Whoever is here is going to lose a week to two weeks of work. Most of them are on temporary work, and who's going to understand when you say 'My shack's been demolished'?" she asks.

"This goes against everything the community here has been working towards," she said.

Corc has characterised the JMPD's operation as a "rogue mission" to clear Marlboro of all informal settlers.

Marlboro is situated on the edge of the sprawling township Alexandra, not far from wealthy Sandton. It used to be a commercial area, with warehouses and factories on every corner. Over the years, the buildings were abandoned and people looking for a cheap, central place to stay moved in.

Some of the shacks in Marlboro are recent developments, made of shiny corrugated iron and creamy prefabricated walls. Other, decades-old structures are made from a mish-mash of materials, and crammed together inside the walls of abandoned buildings.

The settlement is well organised. One community group, the Marlboro Warehouse Crisis Committee (MWCC) has partnered with NGOs like the Informal Settlement Network and the Federation of Urban Poor to further its goals of finding alternatives for local residents.

It has conducted surveys in the area to generate socioeconomic and demographic profile of the area, collaborated with architecture students from the University of Johannesburg to find innovative solutions to the community's housing problems, and had been developing a memorandum of understanding with government to find ways to formalise the housing situation.

But its progress was derailed by the evictions.

No recourse to authorities
There was no recourse to city authorities for the community.

"We actually don't know who to contact. We thought we'd ask these guys from Metro but they're unwilling to assist us," said community leader Thapelo Mogane.

Mogane said he'd tried to reach the local ward counsellors and disaster management but was unable to do so.

The community is unlikely to win any sympathy from the ward councillor.

"The bylaw enforcers are doing their work," said Lillian Kekana, councillor for Ward 109.

"I empathise with those people, I put myself in their boots … but at the same time, as government we really don't have land. We've got backlogs of thousands of people [in Alexandra] who've been waiting since 1996 for houses," she said.

For Kekana, there is only one solution for people who live in Marlboro's informal settlement. "If you want a house, you must apply," she said.

The ward 108 councillor, Deborah Francisco agreed. "If they want any assistance, they must approach the authorities," she said.

That night, as temperatures plummeted below zero, the residents huddled around fires in the street and kept watch over what belongings they had managed to save from the destruction.



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