Housing: Children who don’t see the sky

Twelve-year-old Elles Mthimkhulu was halfway through grade two at Fordsburg Primary School this year when she left school because her family lives in constant fear of being evicted from their flat in Johannesburg.

Elles, a shy child, lives with her mother, Sandra Mthimkhulu (39), and siblings – nine-year-old Henry, and three-year-old Rose – in the dilapidated Chung Hua Mansions on Jeppe Street.

Mthimkhulu says her children had started to develop "sores" in their mouths and she thought it would be better if they stayed with her –rather than go to school – so she could look after them.

The Mthimkhulu family – and about 500 other people – live in the 11-storey building. The building used to house half that number, but after an eviction from Milton Court in Pritchard Street, another 300 people moved in.

The once white concrete walls of Chung Hua Mansions are stained and the paint is peeling. There is no electricity.

There is a stench in the building, and the residents share one leaking tap on the top floor.

Alternative accommodation
Downstairs, taxis stream down the one-way street and hawkers and shopkeepers sell cellphones and fruit.

Mthimkhulu makes a living by selling loose cigarettes and sweets on a board outside her flat on the fifth floor.

Previously, the Mthimkhulus and about 200 others had been evicted by the owner of the building and had to spend a few months on the streets.

A full bench of the South Gauteng High Court declared the eviction illegal. The owner then launched a fresh application seeking a court order evicting the occupiers from the property and directing the City to provide alternative accommodation to the occupiers of the building.

However, while the building was empty, it was hijacked by men who claimed to be the owners. They wrecked the interior, destroying the concrete staircase, pulling out all the plumbing and breaking down the walls between the flats.

Meanwhile, earlier this year the South Gauteng High Court ruled that the City of Johannesburg must provide those living in Chung Hua with alternative accommodation.

Meaningfully engage
Judge Kathie Satchwell ordered the owner of the building and the city to "meaningfully engage" on moving the illegal tenants to Linatex House behind the Jeppe police station.

The three-storey Linatex House can accommodate about 160 people and is used by the city for emergency housing. While the negotiations are under way most of the people are still living at Chung Hua.

Because there are no longer any walls, tiny flats have been constructed with sheets of corrugated iron and cardboard. The stairs have been partially rebuilt with wood.

Residents place candles on the floor to light the corridors, but even at midday it is dark and visibility is limited.

There are no bathrooms or toilets and residents relieve themselves in buckets, which are emptied into the basement with other rubbish.

The Mthimkhulus occupy a room of about 4m2 by 2m2. This has been divided in half to separate the kitchen from the bedroom. Mthimkhulu fears for her children's safety and keeps them in the room.

"They are always inside. They are not allowed to go out. When I go to sell my wares outside I lock them in the room. They have been inside this room for four weeks now," she says.

She says the last time the children were allowed out of the flat – and saw the sky – was two or three weeks ago when they went to visit her mother in Soweto. She also occasionally allows them on to the balcony.

"They only get out here when we are going away from Johannesburg. They are not allowed to go to the other floors or even outside.

"If they want fresh air I open the balcony door. This is the only way that I can protect these children from being targets of crime and, worse still, rape," she says.

Mthimkhulu has a stoic personality and looks young for her age. She has bright eyes and beams a Colgate smile each time she speaks.

"This building is hazardous. Going through the makeshift staircase is probably the most dangerous. So I make sure that my children do not go out of the building. All I wish for is a house to take my children out of this place. Please find me anyone to help me. Anyone."

She says she fears constantly for Elles's safety.

"I always worry that one day she could be raped here. But I always leave her with a cellphone to call for help if I am away. I have established a relationship with a police officer. I tell my daughter to call him should anything happen," Mthimkhulu says.

She insists that her children will return to school.

"They will go to school next year. I do not want any school other than the one in Fordsburg. I also want my kids to mix with children of other races. I can tell you these kids are smart. Even though they are not at school, they can speak English."

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

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