Housing: Home is where the heart isn’t

On the night of July 4 the temperature dropped to five degrees. There was a biting cold but at the same time it seemed humid, as though it would rain. This was the first time Kagiso Monaheng would have to sleep out in the open with her two children, aged one and seven.

Monaheng was one of about 340 people illegally occupying flats in the Newtown Urban Village in Fordsburg, who were evicted by the Red Ants so that the new owners could move in. The building is now owned by the Johannesburg Housing Corporation (JHC), which paid R29.1million for it at a public auction in April 2011.

At 5am, she woke up to the singing of members of the Red Ants, who, armed with riot shields and batons, stormed all the flats in the complex. "I heard them [Red Ants] singing "phumani, phumani [get out]" and I knew that the rumour that we would be taken out today was true," said Monaheng outside the complex later that day.

She was told to leave her flat with her two children immediately. Monaheng said members of the Red Ants had moved her furniture outside the complex. She was homeless.

The Newtown Urban Village was meant for low-income earners. The rent is R800 for a single-room flat and R1500 for a two-bedroom unit. Some residents said they had applied for a government grant and had "bought" the flats as their reconstruction and development programme (RDP) houses.

In November last year the South Gauteng High Court ruled that all the occupants should vacate the building by January 15, as the "year-end was almost upon us, with all the conventional festive-making that is such a great feature of the South African social landscape …"

Results of mismanagement
The village – comprising two- and three-storey blocks of brick flats – is over the road from the Oriental Plaza. Developed in the late 1990s, it was financed by the Norwegian government and handed over to the Newtown Housing Co-operative to manage and own.

In subsequent years, the co-operative collapsed as a result of mismanagement, fraud and corruption. This resulted in the liquidation of the co-operative and the sale of the property on public auction.

Its new owner, the JHC, subsequently launched an application to evict the tenants so that the buildings could be renovated in time for the completion of a nearby mall.

"I don't mind the rest; all I am worried about are my children," said Monaheng, weeping as she picked up what was left of her broken furniture.

 "When the Red Ants were taking my things out, my child cried and asked: 'Mommy, mommy, why are they taking my bed? They are taking your clothes too. Mommy, stop them.' I could not explain but [had] to assure her that things would be fine," she said.

Later, she found her bed and her television had gone missing.

As night set in Monaheng and her two friends, Thembi and Winnie Zenzile, assembled themselves into a laager. They kept the cold at bay by warming themselves around a fire made from wood collected from the broken furniture.

Experiences in the city
I squeezed in next to them, settling in to share the night. The street was quiet. Monaheng had bundled up her two children under thick layers of blankets. One of them was sniffling.

To while away the time, we told one another tales of our experiences in the city. The discussion then moved on to politics. I asked whether they would vote for the ANC. "No ways," they bellowed. They said they had not received any help from the party during their eviction.

"The DA … No. We will vote for [Julius] Malema … What's his party again? But without a doubt Malema," said a deep-voiced man in isiZulu from the other side of the street.

By 3am, the fire had begun to die and the sniffle of the seven-year-old had become more pronounced.

I then decided to give up and go home and walked, shivering, to my car. I wondered whether I should have spent the remaining hours with them or let the children sleep in the car.

Seven days later, Monaheng was still on the street where I had left her. "I am still here. Where can I go? I don't have anywhere to go."

The Socioeconomic Rights Institute (Seri) in Johannesburg has been trying to fight evictions, without much success. Senior researcher Kate Tissington said this week that the Fordsburg evictions demonstrated the limitations of the legal system in the context of the city's gentrification and a lack of affordable rental accommodation for low-income families and individuals.

"While the judge found that the residents could afford accommodation elsewhere … the factual basis for the eviction was clearly wrong, as people are sleeping on the streets. It is unclear where the judge, the new owner and the municipality expected them to go – perhaps to an overcrowded room somewhere, a so-called bad building, or an informal settlement? The fact that before it was liquidated as a result of fraud and corruption, Newtown Urban Village was a government-subsidised housing scheme to assist people with affordable rental makes this eviction and the absence of government intervention all the more tragic," Tissington said.

The ward 60 councillor, the ANC's Nokuthula Xaba, said: "I should have been told about these evictions. As councillor I was never informed. I should have been made aware. All that I saw were people on the streets, just like everybody else."

The communications officer for the City of Johannesburg's housing department, Bubu Xuba, said the city's strategy for the regeneration of the inner city was yielding good results, as demonstrated by the private sector's increased investment in the central business district.

"When the private landlords reinvest in the inner city, they evict occupants of the buildings with the plan of refurbishing or converting them for other usages. This then leads to evictions, as witnessed in Newtown and other [places]."

She said that the city provides temporary emergency shelters for residents, such as the Lynatex building in Doornfontein, and offers affordable rentals (known as "public stock") in a number of municipal-owned properties.

"It is also important to note that people residing in the inner city are not exempt from applying for the housing subsidy and receiving an RDP house upon qualification," Xuba said.

She added that it was important to note that the rate of urbanisation, as reflected in Census 2011, has accelerated more rapidly than had been anticipated.

This, she said, has led to people in search of better economic conditions finding themselves in hijacked buildings or so-called "bad" buildings, leading to more evictions.

Manqoba Nxumalo is the Eugene Saldanha fellow in social justice journalism sponsored by CAF Southern Africa

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