Vuyo Mabija is washing the windows of his one-roomed flat in Eaton Hall Hotel, a low-cost apartment complex in Pretoria’s central business district. “I wash these windows every morning,” says the 69-year-old. “That was how my mother raised me.”
After returning to South Africa from his years as a freedom fighter in exile, Mabija realised he had lost both his mother and the family home he was raised in. In 2016, after more than two decades of living on Pretoria’s streets, he was finally able to afford the one-roomed flat as a result of being granted a special pension.
The Military Veterans Act 18 of 2011 stipulates the benefits to which military veterans are entitled, including a pension, healthcare and housing. Under the Act, the minister has the responsibility — “subject to available resources and any regulation” — to ensure that the benefits are provided.
Following the Mail & Guardian’s report “Homeless freedom fighters battle for a place called ‘home’” (March 23) on the plight of homeless former freedom fighters, the South African National Military Veterans Association (Sanmva) came to the assistance of the three destitute former freedom fighters: Mabija, Zakhe Majozi and Moses Mboweni.
In the hope of trying to secure housing for the men, the association’s treasurer general, Raymond Fihla, accompanied the men to the department of military veterans. At a meeting with the department’s acting director general, Max Ozinsky, it was promised that temporary accommodation would be arranged for the three. The promise was not kept and the matter was instead referred back to social workers. Attempts by the M&G to get comment from Ozinsky failed because he was on leave.
The association then took it upon itself to pay for the temporary accommodation of Mboweni and Majozi.
Sunny, clean and sparse, Majozi’s room is a world away from the dark, stuffy two-roomed shack he shared with six or seven others before moving into Eaton Hall.
He smiles: “I can say that I am in a room now … a room. We also get two meals a day. It’s good. Better than when you are on the streets and no food. Much better.”
Although appreciative, Majozi adds: “It is good but I am not really happy here. I am an old man. I must stay with my family. I look forward to one day getting my house. And when I get it, the first thing I will do is meet my children and tell them there is now a place called home.”
When Mboweni arrives slightly later than the arranged time, he offers apologies, wiping sweat from his brow: “I was running, running.”
The 63-year-old had rushed not only to show us his new room — the first roof he has had over his head in more than two decades of living on the streets — but also because he had been told that his nephew, Freedom, would be present, eager to be reunited with his long-lost uncle.
After reading the M&G’s report, Freedom wanted to make contact with Mboweni, whom he had last seen “about two years ago or so”.
But freedom’s broad smile at being reunited with his uncle makes way for tears as he steps into the room Mboweni is so proud to be occupying. After retreating into the flat’s bathroom to cry, he says: “I feel very emotional and broken. Every child wants their parents living in a good state. But,” he says, pointing to the single room’s only notable furnishing, “even a prisoner doesn’t have this kind of bed. For the years they went into exile, this is all they have. This is it. [My uncle] doesn’t own a chicken; he doesn’t own a stone. He has nothing. All he has are his clothes. My heart bleeds when I see this. It bleeds.”
Spared from having to spend more nights sleeping on Pretoria’s cold streets, Mboweni smiles and says: “Even my health is starting to improve now. My bones used to be very sore from the cold. But now there is no pain. My bones are okay now.”
Aware that the rooms they now call home are only temporary solutions, Majozi and Mboweni are optimistic. According to Fihla, the department has agreed to meet the veterans’ association “later in this week” to find a more permanent housing solution for the three men.
Determined to carry out what he calls his “Plan B”, Mabija, however, is not depending on anyone.
“I am very grateful to Sanmva for helping to accommodate [Mboweni and Majozi] but, you know, time is moving on. For me, at this age, death is not far. At a certain point, I will go down. So I am going to sacrifice my everything to restore my dignity. I am going to get my house my own way. Even just an RDP house. Because time is moving fast; very fast. I need to restore my dignity.”
Stepping down from the chair he stands on every day to clean his windows, Mabija laughs as he says: “And when I have my house, I’ll have to employ someone to assist me with washing windows.
“Because,” he sighs, “a real house is not like this … this one room of mine.”
Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian