‘All that money that is going to be spent for one day … can be used to develop Sharpeville. This year, we don’t need a 21st March because we don’t have a reason why we should celebrate human rights,” says Mzwakhe Mcelu.
He is a community representative in Sharpeville and says residents feel disconnected from the annual celebration of Human Rights Day because the “obscene sums” of money squandered on celebrations could be used for the betterment of the historic township.
Quoting from the Constitution, Mcelu says they have the right to adequate housing, “but we have been waiting, even after democracy. Every year, these guys come and spend money; with their nice big cars, they come and dance and drink alcohol at Sharpeville. Then they … go back while we are still living like this.”
Mcelu says the residents of Soul City, a shack settlement, have no toilets or running water.
Residents, with the support of taxi associations, shut down the streets of key towns in the Vaal Triangle on Wednesday in protest.
“Our people, they are still living in hell here, like at Sharpeville hostel … So the community members say they are tired … Even the voting station is not going to work this year; we are going to close it down,” he says.
Heaps of rubbish lie along the bumpy gravel road leading to Phel-indaba Cemetery, where the 69 victims of the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960 are buried. A week before the commemoration, the cemetery is a sorry sight, with tall grass and weeds everywhere, except for one patch.
The crater-sized potholes in the roads force drivers to slow down, giving them time to take in the taverns, funeral parlours, salons and tuck shops along Seeiso Street, the main road leading to Dlomo Dam, one of the six places in Sharpeville the government declared as heritage sites in 2011.
A week before the celebration, for the first time in ages, litter has been collected, the grass has been cut and a few of the largest potholes in the main roads have been filled.
A project director of Mmollo Arts, McDonald Mabaso, says: “Our heritage sites are white elephants. They [the organisers] do nothing for the whole year … There is dirt everywhere. Even now, they only clean the main roads. If you go into the other parts, you will see.”
Mcelu, who has lived in Sharpeville his whole life, says they have been waiting for development, and they are also waiting for the title deeds of houses on municipal land.
Mcelu is the founder of the Vaal Metro Multi-Disability Academy. The buildings have been in use since 1979, first as a hostel for labourers working in industrial areas.
During the freedom struggle, playwright and actor Gamakhulu Diniso used the centre to hide activists. Now, the academy has a computer lab for people with disabilities and other residents. It boasts a gallery, theatre and gym, and offers boxing and karate classes. A vegetable garden provides food for a soup kitchen.
Mcelu says a hostel restoration programme in about 2012 was halted halfway. He says the government cites budget constraints when they ask for the hostel to be upgraded and also gives excuses for not issuing title deeds. As a result, there is scant trust in politicians.
“We have been here for so many years waiting for development, waiting for title deeds and we have been so patient,” he says.
The soles of his black and maroon shoes are clean.
“I was shot … Our parents didn’t work so we used to take guns and go and do some robberies … So I was shot,” he says, spinning his wheelchair around and pointing at a room with a painting of a man in a wheelchair on the wall.
“There are no tar roads. I am using a wheelchair, I am suffering … Look at my tyres. There [is] no access because there are no pavings. The infrastructure is bad because these buildings have existed for more than 60 years. They are the first buildings to be built in Sharpeville,” he says.
Others, such as Elizabeth Mokoena (56), do not think shutting down the township during Human Rights Day celebrations or withholding votes is worthwhile. She has been living in Sharpeville since 2002.
“It does not help us to say they must stop the celebrations. They help us. The celebrities come here and they can organise for people to be taken care of,” she says.
Mokoena has no toilet, no tap and no electricity, let alone title deeds. Sometimes she has to use her neighbours’ toilet at night. Her crumbling brown house nestles obstinately between a taxi association office and a petrol station. Her view of Dlomo Dam is interrupted by cars passing by on the main road.
A short walk from her house, a man who asked not to be named says he has been living in the burial ground for 12 years. There is no toilet. The space used to be a dump, but his home is now surrounded by purple morning glories and pink roses, green baby cacti and aloes.
He is aware that he is living on graves. More than one councillor has told him and others living there to move from the area, but he still plans to vote.
“You can’t complain if you don’t vote. I am hoping they will give me my own piece of land so I can build a home. I am too old to live in a place like this with my children,” he says.
On Thursday, politicians and dignitaries celebrated Human Rights Day in a large white tent at the other cemetery, honouring those who died 59 years ago — while Mcelu and his fellow residents continue to hope for access to water, sanitation, infrastructure, electricity and a better life.