Twenty-three people live in a two-bedroom flat in Eldos

The blocks of flats in Eldorado Park Extension 8 stand in faded yellows and blues. The palisade fencing around the complex has all but disappeared. Groups of young men loiter on the paving at the bottom of a stairwell, the only way to access the six homes in the three-storey building.

Some fiercely debate the housing protest that has brought the township to a standstill this week. The smell of dagga lingers in the air.

The rusted stairway snaking up the building bustles with adults and children running up and down. Mothers peek their heads outside their doors to catch the commotion. Space, whether inside or out, is coveted.

A handwritten “14” marks the flat on the first landing of the building. The door leads into a kitchen where two women are furiously cleaning the two cupboards and stove. Another mops the white vinyl flooring, torn and turning up at the corners.

Three households, 23 people, share this two-bedroom flat. It has a lounge, kitchen and one toilet. The youngest inhabitant is three years old and the oldest 45.

The lounge has been converted into a third bedroom, and each room is a home to one family.

“This is 14.1, this is 14.2 and that’s 14.3,” Liezel Oliphant (18) explains with a laugh. She shares the biggest room in the house with her sister, Leonora, her two brothers, and their mother.

The “neighbours” are the Du Plessis and Opperman families. The family units are headed by three sisters, who each live in one room with their children and grandchildren.

Life in Eldos: Next door, Martin Ebrahams (69) is assisted by his son-in-law Mark Phillips. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Liezel and Leonora (16) sleep on the same bed. Above the bed is a framed crèche graduation photo, alongside two pictures of young boys.

Against the other wall is another bed for their mother and their other siblings. Above it is a small bookshelf and a wardrobe is next to it. The walls are yellowed with age and clothes are bunched up in a corner of the closet.

This cramped room is the most coveted in the flat and a fought-over commodity.

Liezel says regular arguments erupt between the three families: “We are three families in this house and this is the biggest room in this house. So we have an auntie on this side and an auntie on that side – they fight for this room. We fight literally for this room.”

“You have to fight for your side of the bed. Like I want to sleep on top and [Leonora] has to sleep under. There’s no privacy, there’s not even a door here,” she adds.

The sisters’ mother explains that, in the morning, the children have to stand in a queue to use the only bathroom. Her eldest son, usually the last to get ready, only leaves the house for school at 8am.

“It takes us girls long hours to get dressed, even during school, it takes you long hours. So now you come in and … you wake up, you have to wake up early before everyone so you can do whatever you want,” Liezel said.

Studying for school is a near impossible task for flat 14 residents. With little room to study or do homework during the day, Liezel and the other children are forced to find quiet corners in the middle of the night to get work done.

“The only time I got time to study was at night, studying late like 3am,” said Oliphant. “And now and then there’s no lights.”

The older residents in the building are hopeful they’ll receive the housing that was promised to them by the government, and some of the youths still believe they’ll get the promised housing as well.

“[I’ll get a house] by working hard for it, because it’s the only way we can do it,” says Leonora.

But others have become disillusioned. “I don’t know [if I’ll get a house],” says Liezel. “It’s just promises, promises.”

Life in Eldos: Liezel (18) and Leonora Oliphant (16) share a flat with 21 family members. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

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Caroline Vakil
Caroline Vakil is a journalist based in the United States
Govan Whittles

Govan Whittles is a general news and political multimedia journalist at the Mail & Guardian. Born in King William's Town in the Eastern Cape, he cut his teeth as a radio journalist at Primedia Broadcasting. He produced two documentaries and one short film for the Walter Sisulu University, and enjoys writing about grassroots issues, national politics, identity, heritage and hip-hop culture.

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