Diabetic Tessa-Ann MacFarlane (49) had her right leg amputated below the knee. Her struggle is compounded by a swollen tummy and profuse sweating, all of which have left her unable to walk on her own. She’s sitting on the side of the bed, dressed in a pink nightdress that complements the blanket with which she’s covered herself.
Even though she’s in pain, she’s happy to talk. Her handbag is slung over a folded wheelchair beneath a window through which light floods the room. Not far from it is a, four-door wooden wardrobe with a tiny “I love my mum” sticker on it. A stack of folded blankets, to keep MacFarlane warm in winter, lies on the floor .
“I would really like to stay downstairs; it’s too difficult for me upstairs. When I have to go down, then I have to look for people to help me go down. I struggle with getting candles. I struggle with getting food,” she says, tears streaking her face.
MacFarlane shares the two-bedroom flat at the top of the three-storey building with her three sisters. The sisters are conflicted about swapping the family home, even though it will be for their sister’s benefit. They fear losing the precious memories the family share.
“[But] I feel like I’m too cramped up here in the flat. I need some oxygen. I need to get out. I can’t even go to church anymore because it’s too difficult.” MacFarlane pauses, catching her breath.
Back in the day, the 47-year-old Hillbrow Flats – the first to be built in Extension 8 in Eldorado Park – were the envy of all. The building was fenced with steel palisades. The colourful walls were attractive and kept freshly painted. The green grass was manicured, trees were planted strategically to create a tranquil environment for residents and everyone looked forward to their brighter future.
A housing survey complied by the Camissa Movement for Equality says that, when the ANC-led government came to power in 1994, there was only one formal brick house for every 43 black Africans. The urban backlog alone was estimated at about 1.3-million units. To meet the population growth, 130 000 houses had to be built every year.
Today, multiple generations of the same family live in overcrowded Eldorado Park homes and others squat in backyards. Residents say there has been little visible development in the area, even though there is plenty of vacant land.
Unemployed mother of three Wendeline Manuel (30) attests to the harsh realities of an uncertain future. “I don’t work and we are living in my mother’s two-bedroom flat. We are 18 people living in this house and my mother is the sole breadwinner.”
Manuel has been on the waiting list for a house for more than 10 years. The housing shortage has been discussed with the housing department but people hold no hope of getting answers.
“I think people sitting in Parliament and in government making decisions on behalf of us are not coming to the ground and saying: ‘Let’s play this ball and let’s play it together,’ ” says Manuel. “If this is a free country, why are we still struggling?”
Manuel points out that the flats were not designed for the purposes for which they are now being used. “I think in the apartheid era these flats were built for single people, the couples, the newlyweds only. It was for people that were starting off in life, for a certain lifespan. And now you get people staying here for almost two decades.”
Kids from the Hillbrow Flats play in a park the community created by raising funds among themselves and recycling unused poles. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)
Not far from Manuel’s flat lives soft-spoken Annelize Opperman. She has just woken up and is exhausted from her 12-hour shift earlier. Loud house music coming from the ground floor blasts through the walls.
The 40-year-old lives in a two-bedroom flat with her family. “We are 23 people in this house, with grandchildren. I have three kids,” she says.
Opperman says her R1 600 salary for working as a patrolling security guard at a nearby school does not cover the cost of feeding her children and family. She takes in ironing to supplement her income when she’s off duty.
A photo of one of her children graduating from preschool hangs proudly on the wall in the lounge, which is now converted into an extra bedroom. She politely adds: “I want to tell the government that I’m just asking for a house for me and my family.”
She becomes emotional when she talks about her children. “My dream for my kids is a healthy life and education. I want to teach them my way of life. I can’t do it in the house because we are too much.”
It’s a Saturday morning and the sun is out. Children have already started to play in the park the residents created using money they collected among themselves. Others are displaying their talents in a game of rugby, oblivious of the potentially harmful concrete surface.
At a distance, two women chat to each other while hanging laundry. “Doing the washing is fine, but we fight sometimes over the lines,” says Michelle Bougaar. “Because these are flats, not a house, others hang their clothes the whole day,” explaining that this is inconsiderate to the many others needing to perform the same task.
A meander through the flats leads me to one of the oldest residents in the building, 76-year-old Sophia Naomi, who is also known by her Muslim name of Safia Rehman. She is entertaining friends in her elegant flat. “I’m the first and I think I’m the last, too. I was the first in this place,” she says boldly.
She has fond memories of what the place used to be like. “You know, those years we were still young and it was beautiful. We were out and about. We could have walked up and down during the night. Now you can’t even go anywhere, especially us that are old. We don’t move around, we just sit here,” she says.
The most significant event during 60-year-old Majorie Waterboer’s time in Hillbrow Flats was witnessing her 12-year-old son being handcuffed, dragged forcefully from the flat and thrown into the back of a police van. He was accused of rape and spent three months at the juvenile prison. The case went on for four years and in the end he was found not guilty. Things have never been the same since.
“The way they handled my baby and the way they talked to me, as if I was a skroplap [floor rag],” she says in disbelief.
That was 13 years ago. But it was at that moment that Waterboer decided intervention in changing the residents’ and the police’s mindset was needed. Now, as a community worker, she wishes a recreation centre could be built for the youth to keep their minds busy. Her philosophy is that “an idle mind is a very ugly mind”.
“In Eldorado Park, there are a lot of good things and good people. It’s not all of the people that are bad,” she says.
Tessa-Ann MacFarlane, the diabetic amputee confined to her top-floor flat, died on May 5 2016, two weeks after being interviewed.
How the City of Johannesburg is addressing the backlog
The development of the Delft Scheme was implemented in Extensions 6 and 7 and consisted of 170 deed-of-sale properties and beneficiaries took occupation in early 1994.
A low-cost housing development was undertaken as a part of the premier’s Ntirhisano Community Outreach initiative, to redress the backlog in housing applications.
In line with this decision, the city’s housing department has directed a request to the Gauteng department of education, for the release of Stand 6459 Eldorado Park Extension 6, as well as a request to Johannesburg Property Company for Stand 9135 Eldorado Park Extension 4 and Stand 8112 Eldorado Park Extension 9. Housing plans have been prepared and are being finalised for the necessary approvals.
From July 2015 to October 31 2015, the city undertook a door-to-door verification project to trace all applicants registered on the demand database since 1996, and to establish a database that would be on hand to determine the need for development as well as for allocation purposes.
Flats in Eldorado Park are administered by two authorities, the Gauteng human settlements department, which is responsible for flats in Eldorado Park Proper (Hillbrow), Extension 1 and 3, and the City of Johannesburg housing department for Extensions 2, 4, 6 and 7. The city’s housing department in effect repairs and maintains units on an ongoing basis and when complaints are logged. – Nthatisi Modingoane, deputy director of media relations, City of Johannesburg