A face of hope
for the displaced
in the city of gold

Start reading

By Vimbai Beritah Chinembiri, Mandlenkosi Chinula, Gracious Mulinga, Kawela M’ule and Lebogang Mokoena

Housing continues to be a challenge in the inner city of Johannesburg. Migrants from different parts of Africa and within South Africa have found themselves displaced and are living in otherwise uninhabitable places. Shereza Sibanda, a humanitarian activist, is championing the cause for better living conditions.

Don’t miss out, this is about your future »
Shereza Sibanda

Shereza Sibanda enters Booysen squatter camp as one who has come home to her children after a day at work. The air smells of the slimy and green water that forms the boundary on the right-hand side of the entrance. What had been bare ground next to a railway station is now home to an estimated 7000 shacks built on dysfunctional railway lines. Displaced by poor economics, contentious politics and a desire for better lives, a number of those who live here arrived in Johannesburg several years ago.

“Are you coming on Tuesday?’’ she asks two young women who are standing at the entrance of their home. Of course, they will be there, they say. Enough is enough, she says. “Don’t miss out, this is about your future.”

They have done this many times before, but this time around they have a different strategy they cannot pre-empt.

A man washes clothes in-front of remains of a burnt shack at Booysen Squatter Camp. Most fires in informal settlements spread quickly due to the proximity of the structures.

A middle-aged man passes by, carrying poles on his shoulders with which he aims to reconstruct one of the 40 shacks destroyed by a fire the previous week. Tents, wooden scraps, and roofing material replace bricks to shelter the families in this community.

Dodging bullets in the 1974 Soweto uprisings, threats in the civic space and accusations of a violent disposition due to several demonstrations against the city of Johannesburg sum up what Shereza is all about. Growing up in a shack where she lived with her family, she has first-hand experience of the poor standards of life in such a community. She is fired up to fight for better lives for inhabitants of the inner city up to this day.

Some of the people come out to greet her, Mom Shereza they call her. Shereza is a woman who dominates the space she is in, laughs hard and listens. Her energy does not seem to dissipate with each hour. She spent many years fighting for the rights of both documented and undocumented migrants in South Africa.

She has helped us and fought for us a lot. »
Godwin Eyugeaaghan

His wife left him shortly after they moved to Booysen squatter camp. Shereza has known him for about 5 years now. She has mobilized resources for court battles against eviction for many like him, cases they have won but have nothing to show for.

Godwin Eyugeaaghan, 55, a single parent and entrepreneur, could easily pass for one in his early 70s. His stark delight at the sight of Shereza is obvious. His gait, that of one who has seen and suffered a lot of the world's troubles, contrasts to his beaming face and wide smile showing white teeth. His workshop is not far from his shack. He dries fresh cows’ hides to make them edible and export them. He has not gone to the nearest local school to register his child and Shereza reproaches him while noting the name of the child on a piece of paper.

Shereza’s flame is so strong that not even a broken marriage, a blank paycheck for seven perennial years and an unyielding attitude from the local government could extinguish it. She continues to mobilize crowds for demonstrations against the lack of health care, education and accommodation for migrants.

“I like to call this place Africa, because it brings together people from different African countries,” she says of Booysen. She fights for and teaches ‘Africa’ to fight for her rights and demand proper housing from the government.

I like to call this place Africa. »

“No one wants to leave the place they call home, everyone is in Johannesburg to make a living, to ensure a better life for their families and maybe improve their quality of life, ” she adds. Shereza notes that some people may say that they are fine and comfortable, but the reality speaks for itself.

In order to represent the rights of the displaced people in the Inner City, Shereza founded the Inner City Resource Centre (ICRC), an organisation that functions as a mouthpiece for the disadvantaged.

Formerly a hall with no demarcations, MOTH building now has several improvised rooms inside, mainly constructed of chip and pressed wood. When the government moved the occupants of this building, they were promised to be relocated to government houses after six months, but it has been over six years now.

ICRC lobbies for better living standards by representing squatters at various levels and empowering them to stand up for their rights by organizing marches and trainings on the constitution and policy.

Several times, she has talked to Johannesburg City’s authorities on issues to do with documentation, sanitation, access to education and health facilities for people in areas such as Booysen Squatter Camp and Memorable Order of Tin Hats (MOTH) Building which houses families who were evicted from Dina Glassware Building in Carr Street.

At the entrance, a broken French door which Shereza says broke during a fire in 2016 balances against the wall, posing a great risk to children. It is dark inside the building. The passageway is narrow, and one can touch opposite doors of the improvised rooms without stretching one’s arms.

Some of the separations look like they would collapse if one leans against them. The ablution facilities are not sufficient for the number of people living here. However, to keep them clean, they are always locked to ensure that only tenants can use them. The basement has dense air, is darker and has puddles of water blocking the way to some of the rooms.

A resident of MOTH Building gazes in the direction of Mayor Herman Mashaba’s Council Chambers that can be seen from the balcony.

Mbambisa came to Johannesburg from East London after finding employment as a housekeeper. Just like Booysen Squatter Camp, the building she is in has not been spared from fires. They all had to temporarily move out of the building about two years ago after the building caught fire and some people lost their lives.

“We worry about our safety; the security is not tight enough. Young people hustle in the wrong way and end up placing everyone at risk,” she says. She also says the building once had a strict caretaker, but when he was fired for an unknown reason the security system was compromised.

On the cramped second floor, 60-year-old Nongazi Mbambisa’s ‘house’ faces the passageway. The pensioner occupies the space with her two grandchildren. One can barely open the door leading into Mbambisa’s room. It is large and has what appears to be a metal bunk bed also doubling as a shelf.

The balcony on the third floor directly faces Mayor Herman Mashaba’s Council Chambers that is 700 metres, only a 11 minutes’ walk away. There are puddles of water and a strong odour of a mixture of smoke and urine. Two children, who could be younger than five years old, sit on an old couch, apparently oblivious to the surroundings they are growing up in.

Her belongings are piled up on the left side of the room up to the roof. On the right is an exit sign and the entrance to this small space has been made a kitchen with two upright refrigerators visible. She probably cooks here rather than in the communal kitchen on the ground floor.

For now, Mbambisa will continue to wait for a government subsidised house. The houses were introduced in 1994 by the African National Congress (ANC) government as a means to improve and re-direct economic development under a socio-economic policy known as the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP). The policy intended to reduce the inequalities created by the apartheid government. While the programme is seen as largely successful, it has fallen short of dealing with housing challenges against population growth trends. According to the mid-year population estimates for 2018 by Statistics South Africa, approximately 25.4 % of South Africa’s 58 million people live in Gauteng.

Statistics South Africa’s 2016 Community Survey indicates that 9,7 percent of South Africans live in informal settlements. The Sustainable Development Goal 11 addresses the importance of managing urban spaces as well as ensuring the provision of proper housing for everyone. The accelerated growth of the population in capitals like Johannesburg requires more work to be put in to ensure the provision of good housing. The South African Financial and Fiscal Commission (FFC) Chairman, Bongani Khumalo, estimates that it would cost the government approximately R800 billion (approximately US$57 billion) to eradicate the housing backlog by 2020.

There exist general assumptions that challenges of housing are escalating in South African cities due to an increase in the number of immigrants from other neighbouring countries. However, MOTH Building, for instance, accommodates more South Africans than people from other Southern African countries. But people like Mbambisa do not care which nationalities occupy which space. She only cares for less overcrowding and proper sanitation.

Despite the tough conditions they have to endure, living in these shacks has not taken away hope from the hearts of many. With Shereza as their light, most people that live in Booysen and MOTH Building still find a reason to work hard and strive to make their Johannesburg dreams come true.

He believes his big break in the arts and media industry is just around the corner. He is a representative of the people in Booysen and is ready to mobilise people and join in the demonstrations next week.

Just like Peter, Sizwe Zondi came to Johannesburg from KwaZulu-Natal looking for the promises in the city of gold. He studied Television and Drama and today has a spaza shop, transports sand and often takes videos for events and is even working on a short film.

Makalo is happy but wants better, like many others here. When Shereza tells him that next week they are invading buildings, he listens intently and talks at length about fake promises made by the government to their community.

This threw him into the Booysen Squatter Camp where he took up recycling plastic bottles, a trade which has helped him get himself a car, among other valuables. He is proud of his water-proof shack and the little he earns has helped him find stronger and durable material to make his home safe.

Peter Makalo, originally from Lesotho, came to South Africa after being told of great opportunities in the construction industry by a friend. His dream of a better life took a sharp turn when he was not paid his dues after his first assignment.

Shereza Sibanda chats with Peter Makalo, a Booysen Squatter Camp resident who makes a living recycling plastic bottles.
Zondi shows the cameras he uses to produce videos that generate income to take care of his family.

People like Eyugeaaghan want to go back home when they are sure it’s safe. Zondi is close to finding the Joburg he came looking for, so he has decided there is every reason to wait here a little bit longer.  But Shereza feels the pain they have to endure deep down their hearts, and this is what pushes her to keep on fighting for them to get out of the misery of lack of proper housing.

And on Tuesday, Shereza will lead the people in picketing outside the buildings and cause havoc in central Johannesburg in a bid to make their voices heard once and for all. A victory for Shereza and these communities to meet demands of housing would mean good shelter, security, proper sanitation and freedom of privacy. These successes could enable them to realise their potential and be who they want to be.